Friday, May 1, 2009

Of Brains, Cars, Romans, and Phoenicians

Today’s headline in the Detroit Free Press was A NEW LEASE ON LIFE—a curious way of marking the fact that Chrysler has fallen into bankruptcy.

Almost instantly my brain presented an association that immediately made sense, but not quite in a lineal and therefore obvious way.

I remembered a rather impressive scene that Gibbon described—but it might have been Mommsen. It’s the account of an event during the second Punic War when Hannibal, in an attempt to relieve pressure on his forces elsewhere, moved on the city of Rome itself. According to this account, the Romans arrayed a large force in front of the city in splendid formation, standards lifted high, sunlight reflecting from shining armor, shields, etc. The Romans also engaged in what we’d call psychological warfare today. They managed to leak word to Hannibal’s forces that a large piece of land the Carthaginian army was then occupying had just changed hands in Rome, and at a very decent price… Stiff upper lip! In your face! We shall overcome!

To be sure, Rome was a formidable obstacle Hannibal couldn’t have taken in any case except, perhaps, at catastrophic cost. So far as I know, the only people ever to overrun Rome were some early Celts (take note John); but even they failed to take the last fortified tower. And being barbarians, they didn’t know what to do with the city and moved out again. Hannibal, in any case, was merely engaging in scare tactics, trying to move public opinion, hoping, perhaps, to produce hysteria he could exploit. The stand-off continued until Hannibal finally marched off to the south, “no shot having been fired,” as it were.

Why this image as a mental echo of the day’s headline? Because deep down I reacted to the headline with a feeling: I wanted a more dignified, a more elevated, and less servile and crawling sort of response to the grim news of fate that had reached Motown yesterday. And my brain immediately and obligingly fetched from my memory the nearest available and most vivid example of a dignified public response to a major threat: Rome marshalling its spirits in response to Hannibal who, by that time, had savaged Spain, marched north, through Gaul, crossed the Alps, beaten Rome in two stiff battles (as I recall) and now stood before the gates. The real state of mind inside the walls of Rome was actually fear and trembling—but those in charge rallied and made a great show. And that’s how I really wanted Detroit to take the news. With dignity. But that response was still a coil of feeling inside me. It hadn’t unpacked its meaning yet when picture was already there.

Chrysler almost went bankrupt thirty years ago. The government and the leadership of Leo Iacocca (a Ford guy) saved the company then. Next a German automaker (Daimler) made a stab at it. Then venture capitalists thought they’d pretend to love the cars in order to grasp Chrysler’s financial organ. Now it is the government again, and an Italian firm (Fiat) who are the saviors. Look. This is just a corporate entity. Let’s help Chrysler’s labor element find new ways of making a living. But enough of the dance macabre. A new lease on life? A better iron lung? — As you can see, my brain obligingly serves up images as my inner vision surveys this scene of mayhem.

* * *

A note or two for the younger reader. Edward Gibbon wrote The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Theodor Mommsen was a German scholar, Nobel Prize winner, and one of the best-known historians of Rome. He wrote History of Rome, which covers the period from the origins of the city to the time of Caesar in three volumes. The fourth, about the imperial period, never got done. — The wars of Rome with Carthage were called the Punic wars because the Carthaginians were supposedly Phoenicians, and the Romans referred to them as Punici; hence Punic. The Phoenicians were traders originating in what is now Lebanon. They colonized an area across the Mediterranean which is now Tunis. That’s where Carthage was. But the name Phoenician had followed them to Africa. Hannibal’s stand before Rome took place in 211 B.C.: one long time that that one image has lasted to inform a modern man about the loss of a relatively minor battle in the War of Cars.

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