Matters Inaugurational

A compendium of items relating — more or less — to the big events last week … now that they’ve had time to ‘sink in’. We being with a bit from the Register-Herald, which actually was about the inauguration of the governor of West Virginia, but had some nice ClassCon:

Noting the term “inauguration” is derived from the Latin word “augur,” meaning “omen,” Manchin said ancient Romans installed leaders and awaited for the right omens before plunging ahead.

Of course, I suspect I wasn’t the only Classicist who thought it interesting that Obama and the Chief Justice repeated the taking of the oath of office when it was ‘stumbled’ over at the actual ceremony — in ancient times, such stumbling would have required the repeating of the entire ritual. Then there was this piece in the Times of London, by Natalie Haynes (dubbed a Classicist and standup comedian) who decided that Barack Obama was Titus:

Then I dusted the bookshelves and realised – Barack Obama is the modern incarnation of the Emperor Titus, who ruled the Roman Empire from AD79-81, before death cut his reign tragically short. This is Suetonius: “Titus had such winning ways – perhaps inborn, perhaps cultivated subsequently, or conferred on him by fortune – that he became an object of universal love and adoration.”

That could have been written about Obama pretty much any time in the past year. Perhaps it was because Titus didn’t have time to go mad, like Caligula, or weird, like Tiberius, but he was probably the most adored emperor in Roman history. Then I realised that almost all leading politicians are reworked emperors. You just have to match them up.

Unfortunately, when she matches them all up (she goes through the Julio-Claudians), the explanation doesn’t quite match up (she matches the other emperors to other folks, not necessarily U.S. politicians). If we extend her analogy, we can expect the new president to, er, not complete his term and be succeed by JB who, no doubt, even now is sitting in his closet poking flies with a needle. One of the comments in the Times suggests Hadrian as a better parallel. The German IndyMedia, meanwhile, seemed to try to be making a link to Septimius Severus, concluding a piece on the new president thusly:

Mumia Abu-Jamal sagte in einer Grußbotschaft an die Rosa-Luxemburg Konferenz 2009: “Im Jahr 193 vor unserer Zeitrechnung bestieg ein Afrikaner den römischen Thron: Imperator Septimius Severus weitete Roms Macht aus und stärkte das Imperium. Sein Sohn folgte ihm auf den Thron und übertraf ihn noch an Grausamkeit und Unmenschlichkeit. Diese Herrscher brachten keinen Wechsel, sie sorgten für Kontinuität. Wird das heutige Imperium einen anderen Weg einschlagen?”

There was an interesting anticipatory piece in the Washington Post about the ‘ancient’ qualities of Obama’s oratory which looked more at cadence and rhythm rather than figures (he does have a fondness for tricola, anaphora, and repetition, no?). An excerpt:

This is poetry.

WE are the ONES we’ve been WAITing for.

It’s ancient English metrics: WE are the CHANGE that we SEEK, a chant of dactyls, DA-da-da, DA-da-da, as in Longfellow’s “THIS is the FORest primEVal.”

Rock it, Obama.

This stuff works. Franklin Roosevelt used iambs (da-DA, da-DA) that could have been lifted from Shakespeare (“To BE or NOT to BE”) at the opening of his 1933 inaugural address: “The ONly THING we HAVE to FEAR is FEAR itSELF.” (Though the crowd that day ignored the line — later, newspapers made it the motto of the New Deal.)

Martin Luther King: “I HAVE a DREAM that ONE day DOWN in ALaBAMa . . . ”

Analysts of Obama’s oratory cite the influence of African American preaching tradition, but the influence is older, rooted like a mangrove in the swamp of the nervous system.

“It’s about the tune, not the lyrics, with Obama,” says Philip Collins, who wrote speeches for Tony Blair, the former British prime minister. In a BBC report, Collins cites “the way he slides down some words and hits others — the intonation, the emphasis, the pauses and the silences.”

Winston Churchill rocked it in a chant of anapests (da-da-DA): “We shall FIGHT on the BEACHes . . . we shall FIGHT in the FIELDS . . . we shall FIGHT in the HILLS . . . we shall NEVer surRENDer.”

He knew about the ancient Greeks controlling and defending against the power of oratory by codifying it with labels you heard once in college and forgot: asyndeton, litotes, epistrophe. For instance, here Churchill is using the technique of anaphora, repeating phrases at the beginning of clauses. Note, too, that in defense of England he uses nothing but Old English words except for “surrender,” which comes from the French.

Finally, we mention an interesting reviewish/Obama’s influences sort of piece in the IHT had an interesting bit of ClassCon:

For Obama, whose improbable life story many voters regard as the embodiment of the American Dream, identity and the relationship between the personal and the public remain crucial issues. Indeed, “Dreams From My Father,” written before he entered politics, was both a searching bildungsroman and an autobiographical quest to understand his roots – a quest in which he cast himself as both a Telemachus in search of his father and an Odysseus in search of a home.

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