[Lit&Lang] Wonderings_Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs and 1984
This is an old idea that I conceived about, at least, a year ago… while I was studying “Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs”. Why now? I was planning to write posts on some of my lingering past “wonderings”—those that I never had the outlet to express until this blog. But it’s also because I want to do a compilation of comments I had while reading Zamyatin’s We, and this concept appears again. (What concept? You will just have to read on!)
It was sculpted around 300 CE. If we want to get super art history, it’s a sculpture in the round.
It was carved out of porphyry, a purple stone known for its durability and preciousness. (The fact that it had to be imported from Egypt probably added to that preciousness.)
The history and the context this piece was created is super important. “Tetrarchy”, the administrative institution that divided the Roman Empire into four sections, was imposed by Emperor Diocletian. (Word is trying to make me use active voice… well fuck you Word. I love passive voice. It adds “suspension” and unnecessary difficulty.) The period before Diocletian came into power was a period of chaos—there was a constant replacement of emperors through assassination and coup d’etat. It was basically military power that brought you the emperor’s seat. (Isn’t it appropriate that the emperors during this time were called “barrack/soldier emperors”?) Nevertheless, the coup became so frequent to the point that many emperors did not last a year.
When the government is in such a ruin, one can imagine how daily life for the citizens fell to a ruin as well—all the kind of public projects, administration… it was this imposition of tetrarchy that put this high-level chaos into a tamable extent.
(Just as a note—dividing the empire into little sections is not a new practice. Think of, uh… Assyrians? My world history is a bit rusty X.X I will update this once I can read my notes again back home.)
So—what was the tetrarchy itself? It divided the empire into four regions, and was ruled by two Augusti (senior emperors) and two Caesars (junior emperor). (Of course, there was a kind of “main” emperor and the division of regions not so concrete. More like “influence” rather than “mini-states”.)
And as the name of the piece says, “Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs” is a representation of the tetrarchs. No kind of individuality is carved—they look identical, except for the beard on the Augusti. The style in itself is simpler and bulkier—the intricate drapery and delicate details that were once present in earlier Roman Empire time (such as “Augustus Prima Porta”) are now gone. Combine the bulkiness with figures hugging each other (more specifically, two pairs of one Augustus and one Caesar) and the lack of outstretched limbs—you get a sense of unity, weightiness, and thus stability. It’s the kind of weightiness that would root the sculpture on spot. After a night of turbulent wind and storm, you would see the sculpture glistening from the rain as the sun rises—without a single chip.
Augustus Prima Porta From: http://www.the-art-minute.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/Augustus-of-Primaporta.jpg Sculpted around early 1st century AD—that’s two centuries before our main piece!
The last part was quite art history-ish. But just to add… the usage of porphyry doesn’t only immortalize the sculpture itself. In a tentative, weaker way, one could say that the durability of porphyry was meant to hope the durability of tetrarchy. But politics and propaganda art doesn’t work that way, eh? No, the sculpture is trying to say that the tetrarchy will be solid, immortal, and unified as ever. It was meant to be a hope to the citizens, I would imagine.
The fact that no kind of individuality is portrayed and the usage of porphyry say a lot. Remember what I said about barrack emperors? These ambitious individuals who were too weak and fallible to secure their positions? Diocletian… he got rid of the individuality. He chose stability. He could have been greedy and kept all the power to himself—but no, he understood that one individual has limits. One simply cannot handle too much power—one collapses within, or someone else tries to usurp it. Power is only great (and infinite? closer to infinity!) and immortal and stable when it’s collective. Thus there can be no individual—there can be no ego.
Philosophy about power makes me heady. It began with meeting The Grand Inquisitor and continued, in my fascination, pursuing Machiavelli’s The Prince and Hobbes Leviathan on my own. (I fucking love Hobbes, by the way.) But you know what makes all this better?
Orwell said the same thing. It’s not that I fangirl Orwell… but it’s about that a book published about 1600 years later of “Portrait of the Four Tetrachs” said the same thing. In chapter 3 of Part 3, when O’Brien is “reintegrating” dear Winston… he says this:
“The first thing you must realize is that power is collective. The individual only has power in so far as he ceases to be an individual. You know the Party slogan: “Freedom is Slavery”. Has it ever occurred to you that it is reversible? Slavery is freedom. Alone—free—the human being is always defeated. It must be so, because every human being is doomed to die, which is the greatest of all failures. But if he can make complete, utter submission, if he can escape from his identity, if he can merge himself in the Party so that he IS the Party, then he is all-powerful and immortal.”
Oh, how beautiful it is! That this idea of power… which I wholeheartedly agree, has been agreed over a span of hundreds of years… the implications! What makes this more exquisite is that the context this “philosophy” was expressed is completely different. One was an attempt at saving the empire, and the other the backbone of a fictional dystopia. But does it matter? No, because power is power.
Because power is power.
(That repetition was intentional.)
Imagine my delight when We says the same thing.
(I suppose it shouldn’t be that surprising, when We was the precedent of 1984.)
“You see yourself as part of an immense, powerful, single thing.” – pg 34
“Forget that you’re a gram and feel yourself a millionth part of a ton.” – pg 111
Do you see my delight? From Penguin Classics edition of We translated by Clarence Brown.
p.s. It’s not worthy enough to be a separate journal yet… but thinking about these kind of things, writing about these kind of things… it’s so beautiful. It makes me so heady and so filled. It’s something that makes me stand right up (in an unconscious jerking kind of way) and pace, while I clutch, with both hands, the space between my collarbones and breast to calm down the excitement that tingles through my fingers. It makes me so happy—so content. It lasts longer than buying new lingerie and tea and stuff like that, though I still won’t abandon the materialistic pleasure!
p.s.s. I’ve been to Venice in 2015 Summer. I loved getting to see all the sculptures/architectures/paintings that I’ve learnt, but going to see this one? A bit more like pilgrimage, yes. I was utterly unhappy when people were constantly interrupting my picture with this sculpture.