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From One Storm to Another: A Roman View on Hurricane Sandy and the Presidential Election

11/05/2012 11:20 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Cynthia Nixon, Sex and the City's Miranda, spoke recently in Ybor City, Fla., to stump for President Obama: "We [New Yorkers] were in the eye of the storm this week. But here you're the eye of the political storm."

Her choice of metaphor, from the actual highs seas generated by Hurricane Sandy, to the sturm und drang of the last days of the presidential campaign, will already have occurred to many as Sandy has turned our thoughts to the weather and its impact.

Sandy caught us at a particularly apt moment. A week before the election, it was clear even before landfall that this storm could make or break either of the candidates. The hurricane and its aftermath has already affected the run-up to the polls, from the logistics of recovery to the sudden bromance between President Obama and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

But although Sandy's timing was a coincidence of atmospheric pressure and seasonal changes, the conjunction of weather and politics, and in particular storms, is deeply embedded in culture. Storms are a motif with a long history, and one with especially political overtones.

The Romans, to take only one example, were especially sensitive to the implications of the weather, and indeed, any natural phenomena that seemed to go awry. All such deviations, including meteorological ones, were understood as signifying a breach in the peace of the gods, the happy condition whereby the gods and the Roman state existed in harmony.

Even relatively common weather could provoke a serious reaction. Romans memorialized sites struck by lightning and staged elaborate rituals and processions in response. Magistrates had the authority to dismiss any political business if they felt a raindrop or heard a clap of thunder, a privilege they were more than happy to abuse as conditions suited.

Such a sensitivity to meteorology as an index of divine will seems to many -- but not all -- of us mere superstition. Such it may well have been, but storms in particular were a source of morbid fascination for the Romans, so much so that they even imagined their very origin to have been threatened by such a deluge.

Vergil's Aeneid, an epic poem about the mythological foundation of Rome, opens with what we now know to be a "Frankenstorm." A divinely roused union of easterly, westerly, and southerly gales threatens to drown the hero Aeneas and Rome's future along with him. When the god Neptune stills the winds and seas to set Aeneas, and Rome's destiny, on course once again, the poet compares Neptune to a great statesman calming an angry and rebellious mob in the work's only simile drawn from political life.

The association of storm imagery and political turmoil we see in Vergil has a long afterlife, and it's easy to see why it required a god (or, later on, a king), to soothe such terrible tempers: anger, confusion, helplessness, and random violence all evoke for us the stormy climate of a system gone hopelessly off the tracks.

When Neptune stops the storm, the sun comes out and the sea calms, but the story of Rome and of Aeneas is only just beginning. The first order of business is to survey the damage and look ahead, and that's exactly what happens -- to Aeneas then, and to us now. That the clean-up from Sandy happens at the very end of an electoral campaign only heightens the aptness of Cynthia Nixon's familiar metaphor.

When it comes to talking about natural disasters, however, our language is still largely practical and literal. Faced with loss of life and widescale destruction, it's only to be expected that we speak in terms of meteorological cause and physical effect, of financial cost and pragmatic solutions. Perfectly understandable, and yet we should also take a moment to accommodate more speculative and figurative perspectives. Whether in their political lives or their literature, the Romans' attitude to the elements registered the close connection between the state of the natural world and the condition of their community.

It's easy to dismiss the beliefs of past cultures as superstition or even fiction, but what Roman political practice, Vergil's Aeneid, and we, too, have in common is the sense that the natural world provides obligatory moments for reflection, when we're compelled to see things from the perspective of one's past, one's neighbors, or one's gods.

Sandy may make getting to the polls difficult for some, derail the hopes of one candidate or the other, or center public debate on the necessity for, and potential failure of, government intervention in times of national crisis. But beyond such pragmatic concerns, it's also an opportunity to embrace the history of political storms -- metaphors aren't just for campaign speeches and headline writers, they're for all seasons and for all times.