February 26, 2007

Don't Think of an Elephant

Here's a random historical tidbit: I've read the story about how Pompey, after his battlefield victories in Africa in 80 BC, asked the Roman dictator Sulla for permission to have a victory procession through the streets of Rome. Sulla relented, and Pompey decided to have his chariot pulled by elephants rather than the usual horses. Sadly, though, the elephants got stuck when they tried to wedge through one of the gates during the march, so Pompey had to unhitch them and wait for horses to show up. Bad luck, eh?

Now as I've always heard it, the story works as an allegory about how this ambitious young punk of a general was getting ahead of himself. That's how some of his contemporaries described the affair. But now Mary Beard, in a New York Review of Books essay, says that some historians think it was a sophisticated PR exercise. "The whole scene was, they have suggested, carefully stage-managed to demonstrate to the assembled spectators that Pompey had literally outgrown the traditional constraints imposed by the city and the norms of Roman political life." Now that would be clever. But would an audience really pick up on the message here? It seems like they'd just laugh at the stuck elephants and think the guy a buffoon. But maybe Romans were better at picking up on subtle hints. Dunno.
-- Brad Plumer 2:29 PM || ||