Cory Booker’s Commodus Moment

This is the closest I’ll get to an ‘I am Spartacus’ moment.” Thus spake U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who “violated (a) rule knowingly” in an attempt to obstruct the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh.

Or, if we want to be more realistic in understanding what he did, he turned his party’s futile gestures of obstructing the Kavanaugh nomination, to his own political benefit.

In the end, it hasn’t turned out well for him. But let’s take a moment, before the faux “rulebreaking” episode fades, to ponder his “Spartacus” reference.

Spartacus was a slave gladiator. His arena wasn’t an air-conditioned legislature; his shackles weren’t constitutional limitations on government power, or the ethics rules of the United States Senate. His training program did not include Stanford, either at the undergraduate or graduate level. For the amusement of the elites in his day and of the vulgar Roman mob, Spartacus frequently had to kill fellow slaves or accept death for himself. After leading a revolt of fellow slaves, he did choose death in a “last stand” against the vengeful legions.

Hollywood’s version of his story was an inspiring tale of a battle for freedom, and the “Spartacus moment” to which Booker believes he can appeal, presumably, refers to the famous scene in which fellow slaves try to preserve their leader by claiming, one after the other, to be Spartacus. Thus, a “Spartacus moment” would not be any old act of defiance, but specifically, taking the hit for someone else more important than yourself to the resistance, so as to preserve his anonymity. It is precisely the opposite of grandstanding for the sake of increasing one’s own name recognition.

Bit of a metaphor fail, there, Cory.

A member of one of the most highly privileged elite clubs in our society, pretending to break a rule which he’d surely be able to break with impunity in any case, is not engaging in a “Spartacus moment.”

However, there may be a reference from classical history which is a better fit for this occasion.

The Roman Emperor Commodus, reimagined as the cinematic villain in Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator,” had his “wannabe-Spartacus” moments. This ultimate representative of the privileged elite had a fine education indeed, and even a quasi-divine status. Sometimes, though, he shed his godhood for the purpose of taking to the sands of the arena; his day’s version of slumming it with the locals. He tried to acquire for himself the glamorous image of the desperate slaves whose reputations were won in genuine fights for survival—but the Roman public were not fools and understood that he faced no real danger.

They also resented the fact that he paid  himself vast sums (a million bronze coins per appearance) from the public treasury, for his mock exploits.

Of course, since the Romans no longer had a republic at that point, they couldn’t do anything about Commodus. Their fake gladiator had to be endured.

On the other hand, next election, we can do something about our wannabe-gladiators cum Commodus—that is, if we’ve still got a republic. Let’s find out.

Photo Credit: Scott Free Productions/Empire & Revolution

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