Sunday, September 26, 2010


There is the power we're all familiar with — power over. But there is another kind of power — power from within.

On this date in 46 BCE, Julius Caesar dedicated a temple to the Goddess Venus, his patron and purported ancestress, for her role in his victory at the Battle of Pharsalus. It was at Pharsalus, against all odds, that Caesar defeated his rival Pompey and established a dynasty that ultimately turned the Roman Republic into an Empire. The scene of Caesar citing his divine origins as he peaked in popular acclaim makes a fine backdrop to our discussion of the ancient Roman private virtue of Auctoritas (Authority).  

Auctoritas can be translated a number of ways. “Authority” to modern ears may sound simply like law enforcement, but the Romans had other words for this: potestas (power through coercion, such as police enforcement) and imperium (power backed by military force). Auctoritas had more of the sense of “moral authority.” As a personal virtue, Auctoritas meant “clout,” “influence,” or even “charisma.”

The 20th century political theorist Hannah Arendt wrote at length about the meaning of the term from the Roman perspective, emphasizing that Auctoritas, which shares a root with the English word “author,” comes from the Latin verb augeō ("to augment"). The person with Auctoritas transmits/augments power handed down from original founders--such as of a nation or religion. When an American politician cites our “Founding Fathers” as justification for or against certain public policies, for example, s/he is attempting to show Auctoritas. When Pope Innocent III attempted to decide which contender should be crowned king of Germany back in the 12th century, he did so on the grounds of Auctoritas--that he represented a religious power that superseded earthly rule.

It’s a tasty bit of mind taffy for me to suggest that a virtue esteemed by the most patriarchal of our Western forebears may be best explained by a feminist activist and Reclaiming Witch, Starhawk. Consider the full scope of her remark excerpted above:  

My spirituality has always been linked to my feminism. Feminism is about challenging unequal power structures. So, it also means challenging inequalities in race, class, sexual preference. What we need to be doing is not just changing who holds power, but changing the way we conceive of power. There is the power we're all familiar with — power over. But there is another kind of power — power from within. For a woman, it is the power to be fertile either in terms of having babies or writing books or dancing or baking bread or being a great organizer. It is the kind of power that doesn't depend on depriving someone else.

This sense of “power from within”--especially as coupled with the idea of power derived from one’s creative energy, from one’s role as an originator--I think this actually captures what the Romans meant by the moral authority of Auctoritas. And it makes me consider how, in conflicts with others, I resort to brute power plays when, by taking a breath and tapping into some awareness of Divine creative energy, I might find a way to meet in the middle and collaborate. Could manifesting my own calm, calm another? Could unleashing my own humor dispel an uncomfortable tension?

And so we return to our tableau, with the paterfamilias of the Julio-Claudian dynasty kneeling down and venerating (quite literally) that most feminine of goddesses, Venus Genetrix. And so, Auctoritas bows... to Love.  

May we see the gates of Auctoritas, and perhaps make a home there.

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