Reading Virgil on the New York Stock Exchange Floor

Lower Manhattan, New York City
7a.m. I rest in front of George Washington’s statue at Federal Hall at 26 Wall Street. I sit with my camera bag waiting for the light to move so I can get a good exterior shot of the New York Stock Exchange across the street. I am on assignment this morning recording a segment on the Exchange’s trading floor.

Washington’s statue tells me that he took the Nation’s first Presidential oath of office here on the balcony, the last day of April, 1789. The Stock Market across the street was formally started in May a few years later.

Washington began his inaugural address with a cautious note: “AMONG the vicissitudes incident to life no event could have filled me with greater anxieties than that of which the notification was transmitted by your order….” He was a reluctant leader. He had a distaste for monarchs and dictators. He had resigned as Commander in Chief six years before when, victorious in war, everyone expected him to seize power. But that was Caesar’s story, not Washington’s. He walked away, went home to Martha and Mount Vernon. He wanted a nation ruled by law, not by men so vulnerable to the siren call of power.

George Washington looks out at the New York Stock Exchange

George Washington looks out at the New York Stock Exchange from his eternal perch at Federal Hall

On that spring morning, on the warming balcony on Wall Street, no one expected him to speak, there was no inaugural address precedent. He launched anyway. He wanted the assembled to understand “the weighty and untried cares before me.” He spoke of the “present crisis” and the vulnerabilities of a dawning nation. Washington wanted a strong central government because he wanted many to share power not just one. He believed in the republic ruled by many not the empire ruled by the few, the wealthy, despite being one of the wealthy himself.

I wait for the sun and watch license plates go by that read “The Empire State.”

We’ve long called New York the empire state but lately we seem to be asking of what does this empire consist and whom does it benefit?

The New York Post’s headline reads “Sachs of Sh*t.”

In my camera bag I have a copy of Virgil’s Georgics. He wrote the Georgics between the death of the Roman Republic and the birth of Roman Empire. He stood and watched the transition. He watched as Cicero—perhaps the greatest mind the world had ever known and the Senate leader—push back against Marc Anthony and get beheaded for it, his hands severed and nailed to the Rostra of the Forum Romanum, on which the stock exchange building is modeled with large Corinthian columns and imposing classical demeanor.

I pass through security and am ushered to the board room and then to the trading floor so I scope out a location. The trading floor is hushed and deserted. Trading won’t begin for another 90 minutes. My host leaves me alone and returns to her desk. It’s eerily quiet, the floor is wooden and feels like an old gym floor. I walk among the posts looking at blank screens and wait for the floor to fill with traders.

The most famous line of the Georgics is “Labor omnia vicit / improbus” which reads something like “shameful (or dishonest) work conquered all.” The Georgics beg the question of labor that is appropriate and honorable, both to the household and the people. Nowadays we misquote Virgil, change the tense (vicit to vincit), slap it on a motivational poster to read “hard work conquers all” or just “work conquers all.”

It is the state motto of Oklahoma.

Oklahoma State motto

For Virgil, the phrase is something more tender and more vulnerable. It’s a warning, or at least that’s my sense, not unlike the one Washington delivered not far from here that spring day so many years ago.

Virgil writes of plows beaten into swords, of men dishonoring the plow, of leaving the land enamored of empire. He writes of an “impious generation,” of men becoming “strange pale simulacra of human beings.” Ghosts. He writes these lines as Octavian is defeating Anthony; the same spring Octavian begins using the name “Augustus” (the “revered,” “the venerable,” the “majestic” — some translate it as “divine”). Augustus, the “imperator” (the power), and from that word we get emperor and empire.

The trading floor starts humming with traders. They laugh and joke loudly, yelling across the floor at each other in greeting and in jest. There’s two volumes here: silent and a kind of mind-obliterating cacophony.

9a.m. Screens light up. Everything and everyone buzzes. There are so many screens they cast a pale light across the floor. The opening bell approaches. I have to lean in hard to hear the person standing next to me. I see a coterie of people move to the bell platform. My camera is rolling to capture the flow of movement that sweeps the floor at the sound of the bell. Network crews hit their lights and prep for their morning segments.

You can’t help but feel your heartbeat in your temples. I’m startled when the bell goes off. It thunders from above. As it rolls out I can’t shake Virgil’s closing lines to the first Georgic:

It’s as when from the starting line at the track
The chariots break loose. Lap after lap,
Around and around, and the driver pulls on the reins
And it’s no use, and the chariot rushes on,
All out of control…