Friday, August 06, 2004

“Pertinax”: Arnold’s Next Starring Role?

Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his role as governor of California, recently hosted a premier for the California Performance Review (CPR). This thrilling work plots out several years of reforms aimed at curing the state’s budget crisis, combining the best of the sci-fi and slasher genres. Critics call it “radical,” “sweeping,” and “drastic,” crediting Arnold for “making history again.” Although it is too early to be sure whether the CPR will pan out financially, the governor already deserves an Oscar for bold originality.

He probably won’t dwell on that success, however. A savvy player like Arnold thinks several steps ahead. This time, he might also do well to look back—way back--as he ponders his next move. Governor Schartenegger can find both inspiration and a warning in the tragic story of Publius Helvius Pertinax, who ruled the Roman Empire for eighty-seven glorious days in the year 193.

Surprisingly, screenwriters appear not to have mined this true-life tale of intrigue, bravery, and heartbreak. Astonishingly, advocates of limited government seem largely ignorant of Pertinax, whom they should rightly include in their pantheon of heroes. Happily, Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire lyrically relates the tale. (Admittedly, though, some accounts treat Pertinax less reverentially.)

Commodus, the emperor who immediately preceded Pertinax, no doubt ranked among ancient Rome’s most cruel and despotic leaders. The assassination of Commodus, however welcome, left public affairs in shambles. A desperate Senate pleaded for the august Pertinax, a retired general, Roman prefect, and senator, to come to his country’s aid. He reluctantly but dutifully agreed to don the Imperial purple. “To heal, as far as it was possible, the wounds inflicted by the hand of tyranny, was the pleasing, but melancholy, task of Pertinax,” explains Gibbon.

Pertinax immediately embarked on a vigorous campaign of reform. His policies, as Gibbon recounts, would impress any friend of freedom:
Pertinax had the generous firmness to remit all the oppressive taxes invented by Commodus, and to cancel all the unjust claims of the treasury; declaring, in a decree of the senate, "that he was better satisfied to administer a poor republic with innocence, than to acquire riches by the ways of tyranny and dishonour." Economy and industry he considered as the pure and genuine sources of wealth; and from them he soon derived a copious supply for the public necessities. . . . He removed the oppressive restrictions which had been laid upon commerce, and granted all the uncultivated lands in Italy and the provinces to those who would improve them; with an exemption from tribute, during the term of ten years.
The innocent zeal of Pertinax proved his undoing, however. “His honest indiscretion united against him the servile crowd, who found their private benefit in the public disorders, and who preferred the favour of a tyrant to the inexorable equality of the laws,” explains Gibbon. The Praetorian Guard, in particular, chafed under the newly resurrected rule of law. Twice they conspired to force aside Pertinax and place one of their lapdogs in the throne. Twice they failed.

Gibbon’s account of the Praetorian Guard’s final assault, and of Pertinax’s noble last stand, merits quoting at-length:
These disappointments served only to irritate the rage of the Praetorian guards. . . . Two or three hundred of the most desperate soldiers marched at noon-day, with arms in their hands and fury in their looks, towards the Imperial palace. The gates were thrown open by their companions upon guard; and by the domestics of the old court, who had already formed a secret Conspiracy against the life of the too virtuous emperor. On the news of their approach, Pertinax, disdaining either flight or concealment, advanced to meet his assassins, and recalled to their minds his own innocence, and the sanctity of their recent oath. For a few moments they stood in silent suspense, ashamed of their atrocious design, and awed by the venerable aspect and majestic firmness of their sovereign, till at length the despair of pardon reviving their fury, a barbarian of the country of Tongres levelled the first blow against Pertinax, who was instantly dispatched with a multitude of wounds. His head separated from his body, and placed on a lance, was carried in triumph to the Praetorian camp, in the sight of a mournful and indignant people, who lamented the unworthy fate of that excellent prince, and the transient blessings of a reign, the memory of which could serve only to aggravate their approaching misfortunes.
Emperor Pertinax offers Arnold Schwartenegger the sort of movie role that he might relish playing, a role that pits a single man of courage and integrity against a snake’s nest of brutes, cowards and rogues. But Governor Schwartenegger surely does not want to relive—and die—the short reign of Pertinax. He might thus regard it as a cautionary political history. The moral of Gibbon’s tribute to Pertinax: Where you cannot force reform on a corrupt regime, you must take care to buy the peace from its minions.

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