Peter Ustinov as Nero in Quo Vadis (1951)
My Latin is not what it once was and it was never much. All I can remember is classic phrases like Caesar ad sum jam forti, Brutus et erat; Semper ubi, sub ubi; and Illegitimi non carborundum. So lately I have been making amends for schoolboy sloth by reading a few of the classics. I have just finished (in translation) and highly recommend The Annals of Imperial Rome, by Tacitus, which chronicles the years of Tiberius, Claudius, Caligula and Nero. Tacitus would have made a good op-ed writer on the New York Times, with his sardonic, slightly sanctimonious analysis of palace politics.
Whoa! Excuse me: just where is all this going? Is this relevant to anything at all or is it just self-indulgent bloviation?
Well, sort of. Be patient. Let me press on.
It was a bit dismaying to read how determined the Emperors were to pass on their power and prerogatives to their children — but how little they did to produce them. Augustus had no sons and adopted Tiberius, his step-son by his third wife. Tiberius was succeeded by an adopted grand-nephew, Caligula, and the odious Caligula by his uncle, Claudius.
Claudius’ only son died in his teens and so he was succeeded by the perverse and capricious Nero, the adopted son of his fourth wife. Nero’s first wife was barren so he divorced and murdered her, then married Poppaea. Her first child died and Nero kicked her to death when she was pregnant with the second. And so on.
As the Romans would have said, contortum est, it’s complicated.
Is it drawing too long a bow if I see a parallel in the couplings of our own era?
Recently I read about services provided by EggBanxx, a new company in Manhattan which freezes eggs for socially infertile single women. The cost is open-ended, depending on how many eggs they want to store and how much pain they are willing to endure. It could be as much as US$40,000.
“I don’t have a significant other . . . but I hope to one day and have kids,” one woman told the New York Post. “I want to take my fertility into my own hands, rather than put pressure on the person I have my next relationship with. I don’t want to be in the position when I’m in my late 30s and panicking because I haven’t found the right man and I’d compromise and take anyone off the street!”
Or as EggBanxx’s marketing director described her own egg-freezing experience, “The pressure is off, and I feel so empowered. I can now concentrate on my career and becoming who I want to be before having children!”
Reading between the lines, you can feel the pain of the company’s over-achieving clients, who are mostly in their early or mid-30s and desperate to bring at least one child into the world before their biological clock stops ticking. Behind them may be two or three relationships; ahead is loneliness.
They are so desperate, in fact, that they fall into to hands of sharks like EggBanxx. Lord Robert Winston, a British IVF pioneer, argues that egg freezing is “a confidence trick” used by avaricious IVF clinics to exploit the fears of desperate women. “Women are spending vast amount of money on this treatment but the success rates simply aren’t there. In fact less than 10% of the women who do it end up getting pregnant,” he says.
Like the emperors of Rome, the yuppies of Manhattan are Masters of the Universe, the envy of 99.99% of the world. They have the independence to shape their own destiny. They have all the autonomy money can buy.
But as Tacitus wrote, Multos qui conflictari adversis videantur, beatos; ac plerosque, quanquam magnas per opes, miserrimos: “We may see many struggling against adversity who yet are happy; and more, although abounding in wealth, who are most wretched.”
Independence and autonomy are the building blocks of contemporary morality. Just do it. Think Different. Don’t Forget to be Awesome. Follow Your Dreams. But just as they brought little joy to the emperors, their wives and their children, they fail us as well. There must be something which governs romance, sexuality, fertility and children which is higher than self-affirmation.
2014 marks 2,000 years since the death of Augustus. You would think that two millennia of technological, educational and social progress would have raised the level of our relationships as well as our standard of living. It seems not.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.