Our story continues the day after Flavius' meeting with Emperor Debitus Subitus.
It is but a few minutes after dawn but Calculus, the Treasury official, has already arrived at the Palatine Hill villa. He has barely slept during the night. Impatiently waiting for the emperor in one of the antechambers, he is cursing and mumbling under his breath and a series of nasty scowls animates his face.
Though somewhat surprised by his early arrival, the servants don't pay him much attention. Disagreeable behavior is common for the old, latinized Greek and after being searched for hidden weapons he is left alone. He rejects an offer of sweet wine and bread to break his fast while he waits and that is surprising, for he is notoriously stingy. He frequently avails himself of the plebes' daily bread dole, even though as a public official he draws an ample salary and lives alone.
The emperor is still fast asleep. Last evening's banquet was a smashing success - in his own estimation, anyway. He had ordered the banqueting couches to be arranged in a circle at the triclinium maius* and Flavius' magnificent amphitheater model placed at the center. Every time he caught a member of the Athenian delegation glancing at it he pestered him mercilessly.
"This is going to be the greatest architectural achievement in all of the Empire, eh Theodotus?"
"And it's practical, too, don't you think Aristobulus? Not at all like the Parthenon - after all, yours is just a temple. Where's the profit in that, I ask you? Now, we Romans possess a commercial mind, above all!"
"A wonder for the ages ready to rise before your very own eyes, Dionysus! Behold a modern three-way nuptial between art, commerce and Roman martial virtue. Ictinus and Callicrates**? Pshaw!"
Eventually it got so tedious that all guests just stared at the ceiling, but the emperor didn't notice. By then he was completely drunk with the fine wine the Athenians had brought as a last-minute gift. Perhaps they were warned by the Scythians about the plonk served at the palace these days, because one of them was earlier seen at the market making hurried arrangements to buy several amphorae of an excellent red from Chios.
At least they didn't have to suffer two indignities at once. Ostentatious Roman blather plus piss to drink would have been too much, even for Stoics.
Admittedly, the entertainment got much better later at night, particularly after Debitus passed out and shut up. Say what you may about the Romans, they still knew how to throw an orgy, so the Athenians were at least well compensated for having to suffer the Caesar's indignities. In fact, they got more of their own back with the Roman matrons, who were quite partial to Greeks and always looked forward to their visits.
In the event, the emperor did not rise from his bed until well past noon. Looking up from his breakfast table (just honeyed water and bread this morning), Debitus saw through bleary eyes his approaching advisor and scoffed.
"Calculus, you look like you sucked lemons for breakfast again. What ill wind brings you to my presence so early? Does the Treasury have to start selling eggs from the sacred Capitoline geese to make a few coppers?"
Calculus was so incensed that he did not even bother with the obligatory obeisance - a protocol infraction that should have earned him a severe caning, at least - and immediately let out with a rant. It was boiling inside his head ever since Flavius had left the Treasury yesterday afternoon, so what came out was mostly steam.
"Debitus Maximus Messopotamicus, have you gone mad? What is this crook Flavius telling me? We are to borrow immense sums to build a..a.. theater and then constantly hold games? Turn Rome into a hurly-burly of gladiators, jesters and wild animals? How shall I keep my accounts in order? With what income am I supposed to balance the interest expense from the mountain of debt?"
His arms thrust out in animation, Calculus continued his tirade.
"This arena - which that snake Flavius calls an asset - will cost us a fortune to build and maintain. And for what use? To have gladiators and beasts slaughter and maul each other inside it daily. Another fortune going up in smoke - and I mean it literally, for the funeral pyres will be lit all the time. A bunch of assets depreciating inside another depreciating asset, Hermes help me."
"Flavius even suggested that we feed heretics to the animals: a win-win-win situation, he called it. A show for the people, dinner for the animals and good riddance to the troublemakers. I can see the sense in this versus crucifying - but as for the rest.. nuts! Debitus Subitus, I can't agree to this parody of proper national accounting and I shall take no part in it."
The emperor at first watched Calculus with amusement, but eventually he had to draw a line. For his impropriety this fool should be chained inside a sack with a couple of wild cats and tossed in the Tiber, but he still had his uses. Proper-looking accounts were still necessary for maintaining the empire's image.
"Listen, you stupid old Greek goat!" boomed Debitus. "My uncle Claudius may have appreciated your talents and installed you as head cicer*** counter down at the Treasury - but I am not my uncle. He may have believed that "right makes might", but let me tell you: the times, they are a-changing. In today's Rome "might makes right", so what I say, goes - understand?"
"No, don't answer. In fact, one more word out of your foul mouth and I will have my guard chop you into so many pieces that you will prove Democritus' theory^. Better yet, I will feed you to my zoo lions. Then you will discover what dinner and a show at Caesar's Palace really means. So, shut up and listen carefully."
After long years as a public servant, Calculus had survived enough imperial eruptions to know that silent discretion was always the better part of valour - and he had clearly overdone his rant today. So he quickly bowed and kept still as the emperor continued in a somewhat less threatening tone.
"I have decided to proceed with Flavius' plan. You will go back to the Treasury and do what you must to balance your books. I don't give a rat's ass if they are proper, just so long as they look proper. This is my Imperial decision and it is final: alea jacta est^^, as the Divine Julius used to say."
"Now get out of my sight and leave me in peace. The Athenian's wine is getting it's revenge on me." Debitus rested his head inside his cupped hands and moaned "Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes.@"
Calculus left and did as he was told.
Now, for the sake of historical completeness, a bit more on him before the story continues.
After three more years at the Treasury, during which he presided over one of the most sweeping overhauls of national accounting, he was given a modest pension and an honorary title by the Senate. Henceforth he was to be known as Calculus Creativus.
With his savings he was able to purchase Tiberius' old villa in Rhodes and he retired there in considerable style. This surprised everyone because, though real estate prices were quite weak by then, such villas were by no means cheap and his pension was not exactly princely. When it came to rewarding others with their own money, the Romans were incredible cheapskates. No, everyone realized that the money had to have come from elsewhere.
Suspecting foul play, the Senate ordered an audit of Imperial accounts, but could find nothing. The cunning Greek's accounts certainly looked proper. Under questioning he resolutely repeated that he always followed orders. He was eventually left alone.
Calculus lived to see the Flavian Amphitheater built and hailed as the Colosseum, though he never set a foot in it since he never returned from Rhodes. When asked if this wasn't the height of Rome's glory, he shook his head sadly and replied that no, this was the height of Rome's folly. He died quietly in his sleep, aged 104.
End of Part II
*triclinium maius: formal dining room.
** Ictinus and Callicrates: architects of the Parthenon, 5th century BC.
*** cicer: bean
^Democritus was the father of atomic theory.
^^alea jacta est: the die is cast.
@Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes: beware Greeks bearing gifts.
Speaking of creative accounting; the Fed has sold $230B of its $260B stash of T-Bills to sterilize its TAF loans, what happens when they run out? Do you and Mish begin to re-assess the-Fed-will-never-print scenario? If not, do you envision a cascade of bank failures as the Fed is constrained from making further loans?ReplyDelete
Oh I forgot,ReplyDelete
We had an expression when I worked for Big 8, "that's CRAP". Crap? A Creatively revised accounting principle. You don't know how right you are.ReplyDelete
Love this story and great follow-up. BTW, history does repeat as the US Empire is set to crash and burn, this year.ReplyDelete
I recommend part III take place at Calculus' retirement party. Introduce us to those who report to him. Perhaps examine their slow transition from the fiscal ideals espoused by Calculus to accepting corruption as normal.ReplyDelete
I suppose their cynicism would be hastened as they witness Calculus put on his golden parachute and they rationalize small discretions.
Perhaps the one groomed to replace Calculus could be Bureaucraticus?
"Ostentatious Roman blather plus piss to drink would have been too much, even for Stoics."ReplyDelete
I like big butts.ReplyDelete
"Speaking of creative accounting; the Fed has sold $230B of its $260B stash of T-Bills to sterilize its TAF loans, what happens when they run out?"
The Fed will not run out. Laws will be changed to replenish the Fed ad infinitum. The Executive and Legislative will be told by their masters that resistance will cause meltdown.
This scenario will continue till the Visigoths take control and turn the screws to the compliant peasants. Then cometh the savior of the people--the new Social Democrat.
The precarious dependence upon provincial grains; the collapse of the slave supply and the latifundia; the deterioration of transport and the perils of trade; the loss of provincial markets to provincial competition; the inability of Italian industry to export the equivalent of Italian imports, and the consequent drain of precious metals to the East; the "destructive war between rich and poor; the rising cost of armies, doles, public works, an expanding bureaucracy, and parasitic court; the depreciation of the currency; the discouragement of ability, and absorption of investment capital, by confiscatory taxation; the emigration of capital and labor, the strait jacket of serfdom placed upon agriculture, and of caste forced upon industry: all these conspired to sap the material bases of Italian life, until at last the power of Rome was a political ghost surviving its economic death."ReplyDelete
THE STORY OF CIVILIZATION, VOL. 3
Great story, many thanks.
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