Mohammad Al-Ubaydli’s blog

A few Roman terms

Posted in History, People / organisations, Politics by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on February 11, 2007

A charming aspect of the book “Imperium” is how the author teach Roman customs and words in the middle of an exciting narrative. A few of my favourites:

  • nomenclator, a person who walked closely behind a politician, telling him the name of the people they were meeting, so that the politician could greet them correctly.
  • pedarii, back bencher senators who we not allowed to speak, but instead spoke with their feet.
  • a whole team of players was involved in bribing voters to vote for particular politicians without getting caught
    • the interpretes were few and knew the identity of the buyer.
    • a sequester would hold the cash of the bribe and make it available for inspection.
    • a divisor would distribute the money after the election.

One more thing: the book is written with Tiro as the narrator. Tiro was Cicero’s most trusted slave, valuable because he invented shorthand. He also invented the ampersand. Because of his shorthand he was able to record all of Cicero’s speeches and these are available to us today. The real author of the book, Robert Harris, made heave use of the Harvard University Press Loeb Classical Library edition and an online version is also available.

“Imperium” and rule of law

Posted in Books, History, People / organisations, Politics, Society by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on February 11, 2007

I have just finished reading “Imperium: A novel of ancient Rome“, and what a magnificent yarn it is too. It is the beautifully told story of Cicero and his life as a politician in Rome.

One aspect I had not expected to find is the Roman empire as an early Western democracy – not the just the colonialism and thievery parts, but also the voting and rule of law ones. The last one I found intriguing. All around Cicero are violent men stealing from others and using the proceeds to bribe their way around the courts of Rome. But there are laws against their wrongdoings – they are criminals – and Cicero uses his skills as a lawyer and politician to bring them to justice.

I can see why Hamilton read Cicero’s speeches.

But America’s founding fathers also learnt from the true founding fathers of rule of law: Iraqis, or at least, their ancestors the Babylonians. Hammurabi, the sixth king of Babylon, wrote a set of laws and posted them in a public place. The code of Hammurabi is one of the earliest examples of the idea of presumption of innocence.

As the picture shows, Hammurabi is one of the 23 lawgivers depicted in marble bas-reliefs in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives in the United States Capitol. An image of Hammurabi receiving the Code of Hammurabi from the Babylonian sun god is also depicted on the frieze on the south wall of the U.S. Supreme Court building.

It has been a long journey for rule of law to be established. As late as 1644, England’s Samuel Rutherford was convicted of writing “Lex, Rex“. “Law is king” was judged unacceptable in the day when king was law (rex lex). Today, too much of the world, including non-Iraqi Arab countries, maintains rex lex methods. In other parts of the world, like Putin’s Russia, the trick is to have to enough laws for everyone to be guilty of something all of the time, and then for the king (or “president”) to decide who to prosecute.

And yet, the world slowly gets better at this. To learn how one masterly statesman used the law to bring justice and good government in the face of the unjust and the evil, read “Imperium”.