These days, it’s an almost irresistible temptation to believe that when the present incumbent finally rides his mountain bike off into the sunset in January, the world will be a better place merely by the fact of his absence. Amid the sinister twilight of the Bush years, such hopes are understandable. Looking at the blazing bodies of their comrades, used as torches to brighten up Nero’s royal banquets, the early Christians must certainly have rejoiced when he passed, little knowing that not so far over the horizon loomed Domitian and other emperors eager to add uplifting chapters to the Book of Martyrs.
Is it conceivable that Obama or Clinton or McCain could be as bad or worse than Bush?
Out in the desert some 200 miles east of Syria’s Mediterranean coastline, the old oasis city of Palmyra looks at a glance like Las Vegas’s future–a couple of thousand years after the water finally ran out, and all that’s been excavated are some columns and broken statues from Caesars Palace, maybe the campanile from the Venetian Hotel and the sphinx in front of the Luxor Hotel south down Las Vegas Boulevard.
Early in the second century opportunity knocked for the Palmyrenes and they seized their chance. A shift in the political situation suddenly made Palmyra the safest route between Rome and Parthia for the desert caravans carrying textiles, spices and oils along the old Silk Road from China. The Emperor Trajan finished off Petra as an independent trade entrepôt, and that made him “good” in the eyes of Palmyrenes, just as he became very “bad” in the eyes of the merchants of Petra.
For nearly 300 years the good times rolled as Palmyra taxed the trade shipments. There’s a carved stele from 134 ad recording Palmyra’s specific excise duties on the silk, dyes, perfumes, ivory, precious stones, jade, slaves, prostitutes and gold coming through. Palmyra flourished. Stone for the new tetrapylon on Main Street? Let’s ship pink granite columns in from Aswan! Cemeteries? Stow the clan in a big tower that everyone can see on the way into town. The super-rich gladly ponied up the hefty fee for mummification. Palmyra’s special contribution to column design seems to have been a projecting ledge about halfway up where the tycoon paying for the column could put a nice bust of himself. Many of the statues were pre-carved on an island in the Sea of Marmara, shipped across the desert on ox carts like everything else and then chiseled into final resemblance on site. Bountiful were the animal sacrifices in the Temple of Bel, a vast complex personally rehabbed at staggering expense by Palmyra’s precursor to Donald Trump, Male Agrippa, who also footed the bill for a visit by the Emperor Hadrian.