Saturday, July 02, 2005

Of Carthaginian Cobblers and Anonymous Departures

The great Carthaginian general Hannibal is known for giving ancient Rome a hard time during his 63 years among the living. He was all the rage during the 2nd Punic War, with the elephants and the cunning strategy and all that. I'm oddly appreciative of anyone who managed to piss-off Rome, probably because the Roman Empire reminds me of the American Empire. Although I have to admit that I admire the Roman Patriarchs for their incredible decadence, Christian killing, orgies and bacchanalia; and don't get me started on the vomitoriums. Now THAT'S a culture! America doesn't have the good sense to at least be interesting. Our empire embraces all of the violence, but none of the sex, that comes with the role of "World's Biggest Asshole."

But I digress. About 35 years after the end of the 2nd Punic War, Carthage finally fell to the Romans. With spectacular cruelty (and a sense of theatre) Rome murdered 450,000 citizens of Carthage, razed the city, and then sowed salt into the soil so nothing would grow there again. Needless to say, Hannibal REALLY honked-off Rome.

As I was reading a book about all this late last night, I couldn't help but wonder about a few things. The very first thing I thought about was the cost of the book, which I bought several years ago for a university class. The price sticker says $60, which is obscene. Really. But my natural inclination to identify with a bunch of losers got me thinking about the half million people who were murdered by the Romans, essentially for dramatic effect. I imagine Roman soldiers eating, vomiting, fucking, and then getting drunk before riding off to stick sharp metal into people. And how creative they were at killing! Nailing people to wood, propping them up, and then leaving them to suffer is an astoundingly fiendish "zinger." There's no retort to that.

But back to Carthage. Imagine the untold stories and unspeakable suffering that became a mere footnote to history. Beyond an estimate of the number of people killed, does anyone care about what they went through? Of course not...we have enough tragedies and genocide that was actually captured on film to care about the distant past. But I'm sure that the few people who escaped the annihilation of Carthage thought something like, "Holy crap, certainly no one will ever forget that." But to empathize you have to look beyond the numbers and approach things on a human level. Sometimes the best way to get at a truth is through fiction. Consider Hammi the Cobbler, a citizen of Carthage. I made him up, but it puts a human face on the whole affair. And ignore that there weren't any cobblers back then.

Hammi isn't a fighter, but he does his best to keep Rome out of Carthage, which isn't much. He fancies himself more of an aesthete. People frequently tell him that he is kind and makes the most comfortable sandals around. Naturally, I'm fond of Hammi. But I have the good sense not to get to attached to him. Why? Because Roman soldiers will soon break in, set him on fire, nail him to a cow and fling him a quarter mile away via catapult. They'll probably go find him and do it again just for good measure. Then eat him.

But nobody will remember Hammi, who is a mere statistic. So what is different about me? Nothing...except I will probably die of a heart attack or get hit by a bus. Mercifully, I most likely won't be nailed to, or fired out of, anything. Although I can't be sure. I call this an "anonymous departure," and it is the fate of all but a very small number of people. But ultimately it is the fate of every single one of us. At any moment, a chunk of rock and ice could sail into us and after that it won't matter that you won the spelling bee in 4th grade; permanent record my ass.

It's wise not to dwell on this, as it doesn't contribute to the creation of a sunny disposition. People who happily whistle as they stroll down the street almost certainly aren't nihilists. Then again, knowing that none of this matters makes it far easier to a way. Some "its" are impossible to endure, regardless of lofty spiritual and/or philosophical notions. I'm only a pacifist, perhaps, because I've never known hunger.

As an atheist and a nihilist, I've reached the point in my life where the existence of god strikes me as a very scary notion. Most religions have judgment and the possibility of neverending agony as part of their sales pitch. If it comes down to having to choose between an anonymous departure and fearing the undying attention of a very unpredictable, all-powerful god, I'd rather travel with Hammi.

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