The Grandeur of Rome:
History and Myth with Playing Cards
Those objects most representative of a culture become invisible. They have nothing remarkable about them; people find nothing odd about them. They disappear because there is nothing to see. Our culture is distilled to its most pure state in such objects.
Take, for example, a deck of playing cards. Bicycle® is the most common brand in North America. The pack is instantly recognizable. They make a wide range of special decks; this is the most common – the blue “Rider Back”.
|Bicycle Playing Cards: |
Trusted Since 1885
The so-called face cards represent the members of a Royal House. In some decks the face cards of each suit are explicit representations of historical individuals. The Jack, Queen, and King are all worth ten points in most games but they are considered in a specific order – the King is higher than the Queen, who is higher than the Jack. They possess the same value but a different rank.
There are no Ones in a standard deck – everyone knows this. Instead, there are Aces. The odd thing about an Ace is both its value and rank are binary – it can be used as the highest ranking card or the lowest, worth either eleven or one. Unlike the other cards, that have an illustration of their rank or value on their face, the Ace has an ambiguous representation.
|"Unit" or "Unity"|
This is the Ace of Spades from Bicycle’s Ghost Deck, used primarily by magicians rather than gamblers. The 808 logo has no significance, except to distinguish the brand from a competitor who used a 606 logo. The central form and ink colour designates the suit, in this case a Spade, and the value is noted in the corner markings as “A”.
The word Ace is derived from the Latin root as, meaning either “unit” or “unity”. This is why the Ace has two possible values; it either designates an individual or a group. The individual is the lowest rank, with a value of one, while the group is given the value of eleven to demonstrate it is greater even than the King.
The other odd card in the deck is, of course, the Joker, this from the same Bicycle Ghost Deck. The Joker does not have a designated suit or value. Casinos throw the Jokers away. Most of the time we have no place for them. Jokers can assume the value of any other card in the deck. But, no matter what they represent, they remain Jokers. In the history of Rome, Gods are like Jokers. They are themselves and they are something else.
The reason for this cursory review of the standard deck of playing cards is this; the deck is organized in a way we understand so well we never even see the need to think about it. It is obviously symbolic of the ranks and values of society and, yet, the oddness of Aces and Jokers goes unnoticed. It is not a coincidence the Joker was first added to the standard deck in Germany - the heirs of the Holy Roman Empire.
The Ace is exactly what its name and nature suggest – it is either an individual or it is a group, either lowlier than a Deuce or higher than a King. The Joker is mystery, the Changeling, the God. It can be anything except itself and, no matter what form it takes, must always remain itself. Before Rome is founded, Herakles is a cattle-thief, and murderer, a God.
There is no better illustration of Ancient Rome's history and mythology than that contained in a deck of playing cards. To understand the interaction between the People and the City, you must understand the Ace. To understand the connection between the People and their history, you must understand the Joker.