March 5, 2024

Lessons of two millennia


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 (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 analysis of palace politics.

Whoa! Excuse me: just where is all this going? Will we get bioethics or just bloviation?

Well, sort of. 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. 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?

Below we report on services provided by EggBanxx, a new company in Manhattan which freezes eggs for socially infertile single women. Reading between the lines, you can feel the pain of its 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. The statistics say that most of them will fail.

Like the emperors of Rome, the yuppies of Manhattan have nearly all the autonomy they like. Autonomy is the cement of most contemporary bioethical frameworks. But just as it brought little joy to the emperors, it fails us as well. There must be something more to ethics.

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 romantic relationships as well as our standard of living. It seems not.

* Sorry, I wrote Domitian originally, instead of Tiberius. 

Michael Cook
What can Tacitus teach us about bioethics?
egg freezing
Roman Empire