HistoryBits: Ancient Rome

HistoryBits: Rome

Bits and Pieces of History 


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Society


Society/Gladiators

Looking at the Coliseum, you might wonder whether popular amusements—whether Greek drama, Roman gladiatorial contests, or our own prime time tele-trash—reflect, rather than form, the moral and cultural temper of the times. Admittedly, it seems a chicken-or-the-egg sort of thing. On the one hand, one could say that entertainment, like any other industry, is a market-driven business that simply supplies what is demanded; on the other hand, what is demanded depends in large part on the appetites that are aroused by the cultural medium (and media) in which we are steeped. But might it also have something to do with fulfilling certain values (wisdom and human perfection, conquest and dominion, or just cozy sit-com family life) that we aspire to? Perhaps it then comes down to the fact that imagination—vividly stimulated–is the matrix that attracts the stuff of physical reality.

Society/Marriage

There’s a world of difference between religion and spirituality. Spirituality tends to be value-neutral, since a man’s spiritual justification for his actions is always well intentioned, however misguided (consider how many wars have been waged for God’s glory). Religion, however, serves the very practical purpose of drawing up the slate of values that holds society together and keeps everyone on the same page, so to speak, and marriage sanctifies those values with the blessing of God (though I’m not sure how any man can hope to speak for God). Sex and love, of course, are part and parcel of society’s paramount interests in the stability of marriage and family—small wonder that Rome and the Church had it at the top of its list!

Society/Medicine

Some things just never change. Doctors and drug companies today are held in the same dim esteem that their Roman forebears were… for pretty much the same reason: their cures were worse (and more fatal) than the disease. I’m inclined to believe (pun intended) that what you believe is what will cure you–whether herbal, African fetish, voodoo, acupuncture, the White Man’s medicine, or plain old placebo. One of the drawbacks of Roman medicine is that is offered little to excite the powers of the imagination and stimulate belief. Traditional Chinese medicine, on the other hand–with its arcana of jellied snow toad, powdered seahorse, pickled vipers, and the like—offers mind-boggling potential for healing by dint of sheer imagination, which is the prime prerequisite of faith healing. But I can’t imagine that ancient Roman pharmacology could offer the anything half as interesting (how can anyone commit to cabbage?!), and if it’s the healing power of the imagination that we’re trying to incite, how can cabbage compete with a pickled viper?

Society/Moral Decay

While I’m all in favor of innovation in social institutions (especially those that aren’t up to the flexibility demanded by changing times), history points up the perils of society casting aside its moral precepts (for better or worse) and winding up value-neutral—and unwilling to characterize behavior as good, bad, or indifferent–as a result. Innovation and experimentation may seem like a good idea at the time, but they run the risk of leaving people without values to fulfill. And without values, our sense of purpose goes out the window, leaving us unable to formulate and evaluate national policies that properly reflect what we stand for. Organized religion serves the purpose of forging those unifying values that keeps society on the same page, so to speak, and sanctifying them with divine blessing. When a society’s religion is thrown out the window, as were the Roman gods, and replaced with something new (like Christianity), it leaves society dangerously vulnerable to the incursion of other foreign values that piggyback themselves onto the imported religion, which ultimately weaken a society so that it is no longer willing to resist invasion.

Society/Pompeii

The eruption of Vesuvius turned Pompeii into a ghastly diorama for historians to contemplate, but it shouldn’t take a volcano to remind us that mankind enacts the drama of its existence only at the sufferance of Mother Nature. The glories of Mesopotamian civilization, for example, were ultimately laid low by the life-giving waters that had made it all possible, as over-irrigation led to deposits of salts which rendered the soil infertile; as farmland became desert, Mesopotamia’s cities were abandoned, and its civilization withered. Are we about to learn the same lesson in the American West?

Society/Public Baths

Perhaps the most salient feature of public sanitation in ancient Rome was the public baths. If cleanliness is godliness–or civilization, at least–I can’t help but wonder how the French ever imagined themselves to have built the world’s most exalted civilization by dousing themselves in perfume, instead of bathing. (I’m not a Francophobe, but with all this discussion of public baths, I couldn’t resist the irony.) The baths, by the way, weren’t all fun: the shrieks that could be heard for blocks around resulted not from steamy amours, but from the plucking of unwanted hair from armpits!

Society/Social and Economic Life

The evident prosperity of the empire masked some very serious fault lines that were growing beneath the surface. Despite the lively trade throughout the empire, a thriving and well-educated middle class of merchants that made a comfortable living from it, and the burgeoning wealth of the upper class, Rome was turning a blind eye to the fact that every economic empire is built upon an agricultural base. More and more small farmers were giving up and selling out for the sake of securing an assured livelihood of some kind on the large villas that engorged themselves on the lands that the small farmers were abandoning. In time, the villas would come to resemble fiefdoms and their subjects serfs (which in fact is what they became), In offering the dispossessed small farmer sanctuary from oppressive taxation, military conscription, and the mayhem of the decaying empire, the villas grew increasingly independent of central government authority and in time formed the basis of feudal societies that would characterize life in the Middle Ages. The concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands, the maldistribution of resources, and the destitution of the farmer in ancient Rome offered lessons that we here in America chose to ignore at our own peril during the Roaring Twenties, a time of booming prosperity that also disguised some things that would soon rear their ugly heads in the form of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression.

Society/Women

As any son of the Empire would happily explain, his having been born a man instead of a woman was no less a blessing than having been born a man and not an animal, or a Greek and not a barbarian! It wasn’t that long ago when all these high-minded notions of romantic love and the fairer sex meant absolutely nothing; when a young man asked about his upcoming marriage, he was frequently reprimanded by his father and told to mind his own business! Marriage was purely a tool of alliance with another family, and was negotiated with all the flinty-eyed obsession with the bottom line that the barter of a camel for a herd of goats commanded, and such matters as sexual morality, divorce, and child-bearing were viewed with a cold eye fixed on the bottom line. Roman law and custom was largely centered around the protection of property, and the “protection” that a father, and then a husband, exercised over a woman may well have served as the model for the sort of “protection” that was peddled by gangsters.

Society/Women/Prostitution

Small wonder that so many Roman women turned to prostitution. As any son of the Empire would happily explain, his having been born a man instead of a woman was no less a blessing than having been born a man and not an animal, or a Greek and not a barbarian! It wasn’t that long ago when all these high-minded notions of romantic love and the fairer sex meant absolutely nothing; when a young man asked about his upcoming marriage, he was frequently reprimanded by his father and told to mind his own business! Marriage was purely a tool of alliance with another family, and was negotiated with all the flinty-eyed obsession with the bottom line that the barter of a camel for a herd of goats commanded, and such matters as sexual morality, divorce, and child-bearing were viewed with a cold eye fixed on the bottom line. Roman law and custom was largely centered around the protection of property, and the “protection” that a father, and then a husband, exercised over a woman may well have served as the model for the sort of “protection” that was peddled by gangsters. Prostitution is something that I believe many people misunderstand as a profound moral failing on the part of the woman; rather, it is, I submit, a failure of family love that brings a woman to this tragic juncture.

Society/Census

Whenever a ruler has employed an arm of the government to inventory and shake down the common citizenry for political purposes–whether with the Roman census or Nixon’s IRS–it’s a sure sign that paranoia has replaced popular confidence. The paramount role of Homeland Security in the Bush administration gives you a good idea of where we may be headed.

Society/Education

For the up-and-coming young son of the Empire, only such tools as might be employed in the pursuit of wealth and power—such as law and rhetoric—would do as subjects of study. The object of the exercise was to inculcate the manly and moral virtues of obedience to the state and reverence for the Roman deities, and to secure his own place in the pantheon through silver-tongued powers of persuasion and a crafty command of the law. Law, politics, and wealth formed the same objects of aspiration that hold sway in the latter-day Rome of the United States. Will the outcome inevitably be the same for any empire founded on such virtues of self-aggrandizement?

Society/Lead Poisoning

With every age, there’s an opiate for the masses and a pet poison for the upper crust. In our times, while Joe settles for his Six-Pack, sensitive souls dote on fine wine, and for those who live life in the fast lane, it’s cocaine and designer drugs. The pet poisons of ancient times were no less efficacious, and I find it ironic that for Rome, the burden of empire was leaden indeed.

Society/Mass Impoverishment

Rome’s constant wars conscripted farmers into service far away from home, and opened the door to wolves who bribed or coerced their way into possession of the lands left behind by the farmer-soldier. Friends in high places, such as the Senate, helped this process along, and in time, farmers found themselves forced to hire themselves out to the villas as laborers; patron-and-client became master-and-beggar, and as the rabble grew, the state institutionalized the new relationship with bread-and-circuses and make-work on public projects—none of which was any sort of satisfactory substitute for honest work on one’s own land. The poverty that resulted in the Roman Empire from the dispossession of the small farmer from the land proves once again that no society, however, affluent and powerful, can afford to ignore the health of its farmers. The base of the economic pyramid for any diversified economy is its agriculture, and when it erodes, it imperils everything further up the food chain—whether merchant middle class or hi-tech wiz-bang.

Society/Monuments/Modern Comparisons

During the height of the Egyptian, Greek, and Roman empires, there was a surge of technological advancement—to wit, the civil engineering and monuments that have endured for millennia–that parallels that of present day America. It reminds us that time is no straight-line phenomenon, and that the future is owned by historians.

Society/Slavery

The most salient feature of Roman society and its economy was serfdom and slavery—though not necessarily of the sort that cruelly bent men and women to the whip on behalf of plantation agriculture. The master-slave relationships that developed were on a more intimate scale that caused many slaves to become prized as skilled craftsmen, assistants, and companions. Outlanders might becomes slaves as war booty, while Romans were most often enslaved for indebtedness and tax delinquency, and banished to the copper and silver mines in the spirit of true punishment (personally, I find the Roman model of debt-slavery benign in comparison with the seven years of disgrace that American society imposes on the uncreditworthy!). The evident prosperity of the empire masked some very serious fault lines that were growing beneath the surface. Despite the lively trade throughout the empire, a thriving and well-educated middle class of merchants that made a comfortable living from it, and the burgeoning wealth of the upper class, Rome was turning a blind eye to the fact that every economic empire is built upon an agricultural base. More and more small farmers were giving up and selling out for the sake of securing an assured livelihood of some kind on the large villas that engorged themselves on the lands that the small farmers were abandoning. In time, the villas would come to resemble fiefdoms and their subjects serfs (which in fact is what they became), In offering the dispossessed small farmer sanctuary from oppressive taxation, military conscription, and the mayhem of the decaying empire, the villas grew increasingly independent of central government authority and in time formed the basis of feudal societies that would characterize life in the Middle Ages. The concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands, the maldistribution of resources, and the destitution of the farmer in ancient Rome offered lessons that we here in America chose to ignore at our own peril during the Roaring Twenties, a time of booming prosperity that also disguised some things that would soon rear their ugly heads in the form of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression.

Society/Gracchi Reforms

The evident prosperity of the empire that formed the background of the Gracchi Brothers’ reforms masked some very serious fault lines that were growing beneath the surface. Despite the lively trade throughout the empire, a thriving and well-educated middle class of merchants that made a comfortable living from it, and the burgeoning wealth of the upper class, Rome was turning a blind eye to the fact that every economic empire is built upon an agricultural base. More and more small farmers were giving up and selling out for the sake of securing an assured livelihood of some kind on the large villas that engorged themselves on the lands that the small farmers were abandoning. In time, the villas would come to resemble fiefdoms and their subject serfs (which in fact is what they became), In offering the dispossessed small farmer sanctuary from oppressive taxation, military conscription, and the mayhem of the decaying empire, the villas grew increasingly independent of central government authority and in time formed the basis of feudal societies that would characterize life in the Middle Ages. The concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands, the maldistribution of resources, and the destitution of the farmer in ancient Rome offered lessons that we here in America chose to ignore at our own peril during the Roaring Twenties, a time of booming prosperity that also disguised some things that would soon rear their ugly heads in the form of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression.

Culture

Culture/Architecture

The imprimatur of Rome’s empire was implicit in its architecture: in its sweeping designs of vaults and arches that enabled grander and sturdier structures to be built; in its roadways that tied together distant provinces and moved armies with unprecedented dispatch; in its aqueducts that nurtured cities on a scale never before possible. Whether they exalt God in the form of mosques and cathedrals, or a commercial ethos as did the World Trade Center, our buildings, infrastructure, and monuments embody the vision and pre-eminent values of a society and give them a presence, immediacy, and utility that other mediums cannot convey.

Culture/Drama/Comedy

The best humor is often developed at the expense of the most pompous and overblown of society’s mannerisms and characteristics. For Roman comedy to have become so preoccupied with making light of the father sheds a bit of insight into the tyrannical role of the paterfamilias in Roman families. Humor is a safety valve, and when something starts to hurt, we find ourselves crying from laughing as much as we do from hurting.

Culture/Drama/Platus

The best humor is often developed at the expense of the most pompous and overblown of society’s mannerisms and characteristics, much as the success of Platus’ plays with Roman audiences lay with their satire of the very imperial “virtues” of drunkenness, gluttony, and womanizing. Humor is a safety valve, and when something starts to hurt, we find ourselves crying from laughing as much as we do from hurting.

Culture/History/Livy

Livy could be forgiven for taking a more human—and perhaps less objective—view of history; with human nature, the more things change, the more they stay the same. That’s why we study history: the reason that history repeats itself is that human nature is so consistent, and we keep making the same mistakes and incurring the same lessons over and over again. Livy understood that in order for history to be of any use to us as a roadmap around the mistakes of the past, it should ideally have something to do with people and how they lived history, rather than just the chronological record.

Culture/History/Marcellinus

Herodotus could be forgiven for taking creative liberties with history; with human nature, the more things change, the more they stay the same. That’s why we study history: the reason that history repeats itself is that human nature is so consistent, and we keep making the same mistakes and incurring the same lessons over and over again. Marcellinus, however, understood that in order for history to be of any use to us as a roadmap around the mistakes of the past, the record needed to be accurate, rather than imaginary, and should ideally have something to do with people and how they lived history, rather than just the chronological record.

Culture/History/Tacitus

Tacitus could be forgiven for taking a more human—and perhaps less objective—view of history; with human nature, the more things change, the more they stay the same. That’s why we study history: the reason that history repeats itself is that human nature is so consistent, and we keep making the same mistakes and incurring the same lessons over and over again. Tacitus understood that in order for history to be of any use to us as a roadmap around the mistakes of the past, it should ideally have something to do with people and how they lived history, rather than just the chronological record.

Culture/Travel

The sinews of Rome’s empire were in its infrastructure: in its roadways that tied together distant provinces and moved armies with unprecedented dispatch; in its ports that facilitated the trade that made Rome wealthy and therefore powerful; and in its aqueducts that nurtured cities on a scale never before possible. Whether they exalt God in the form of mosques and cathedrals, or a commercial ethos as did the World Trade Center, our buildings, infrastructure, and monuments embody the vision and pre-eminent values of a society and give them a presence, immediacy, and utility that other mediums cannot convey.

Culture/Literature/Horace

That the poetry of Horace evidenced the same preoccupation with structure, order, and harmony as the Roman Empire itself reminds us that literature reflects not only the tastes, but also the values of its time. Poetry in particular allows you to experience for yourself those most keenly felt sentiments that shaped the mindset of an era. For this, words don’t always suffice–there being things that, if explained to us, we cannot truly understand. But with a bit of rhyme, perhaps we can.

Culture/Literature/Ovid

Poor Ovid… exiled to the desolate shores of the Black Sea for his indiscretions. But not even banishment to the Back of Beyond was sufficient to prevent Ovid’s contemplations from thriving–in much the same way that Christianity and democracy did in spite of (or because of) persecution and banishment.

Cultural/Art and Engineering

Much like New York and LA, Rome was a Mecca for the arts and sciences. The measure of government support for the arts is one of the most telling of indicators of a society’s strength, since the creative liberties that probe the limits of artistic license are possible only in a society that is strong enough to regard them as healthy, rather than as a threat to an insecure and imperiled social order.

Culture/Greek Influence

The Romans’ devotion to cultivating the patrician skills of governance, law, and rhetoric seem to have highlighted their perceived inferiority vis-à-vis the Greeks, who they regarded as their masters in culture, imagination, and worldliness. Although Romans borrowed heavily from the artistic and intellectual tradition of the Greeks, they were more concerned with the imperial skills of law and rhetoric than with building high-minded aesthetic standards. Still, much of Roman literature rivaled its Greek counterpart in literary and scientific expression, and the Roman legacy of historical works is unexampled. The mystery religions of the Hellenistic world gratified the Roman expectation that the gods would grant protection for the community and survival for the individual in return for ceremonial worship and due respect, and the myriad gods of the Roman pantheon—many of whom, such as Jupiter, Apollo, Venus, Neptune, and Mars, were modeled on Greek forebears–were the glue of empire; the public ceremonies dedicated to their worship were more an exercise in patriotism than supplication. The Hellenistic cult of Stoicism suited the Roman ethic of service to the state and community admirably–though much as the Romans admired the Stoic renunciation of wealth and power, few were inclined to emulate it. Rome’s burden of empire and its millstone of ambition weighed too heavily to allow its spirit to ascend to the sublime realms once staked out by the Greeks.

Culture/Hellenistic Influence

The mystery religions of the Hellenistic world gratified the Roman expectation that the gods would grant protection for the community and survival for the individual in return for ceremonial worship and due respect, and the myriad gods of the Roman pantheon—many of whom, such as Jupiter, Apollo, Venus, Neptune, and Mars, were modeled on Greek forebears–were the glue of empire; the public ceremonies dedicated to their worship were more an exercise in patriotism than supplication. The Hellenistic cult of Stoicism suited the Roman ethic of service to the state and community admirably–though much as the Romans admired the Stoic renunciation of wealth and power, few were inclined to emulate it. Rome’s burden of empire and its millstone of ambition weighed too heavily to allow its spirit to ascend to the sublime realms once staked out by the Greeks.

Culture/Cicero

Cicero–Rome’s greatest orator–understood the power of rhetoric and the difference between deaf and dumb… knowing that without persuasion, good ideas were just so many words that fell on deaf ears–but that with persuasion, even bad ideas can sound good to the dumbest of ears.

Culture/Mosaics

Lovely as they were, Byzantine mosaics were seldom signed off on, since the artist that composed them was always regarded as the property of his patron–whichever emperor that might be. But there was a higher authority yet to answer to, since this was a time when art, like the Gothic cathedral, was consecrated to God. We’ll never know who made them.

Religion

Religion

Organized religion serves the purpose of forging those unifying values that keeps society on the same page, so to speak, and sanctifying them with divine blessing. When a society’s religion is thrown out the window, as were the Roman gods, and replaced with something new (like Christianity), it leaves society dangerously vulnerable to the incursion of other foreign values that piggyback themselves onto the imported religion, which ultimately weaken a society so that it is no longer willing to resist invasion.

Religion

The mystery religions of the Hellenistic world gratified the Roman expectation that the gods would grant protection for the community and survival for the individual in return for ceremonial worship and due respect, and the myriad gods of the Roman pantheon—many of whom, such as Jupiter, Apollo, Venus, Neptune, and Mars, were modeled on Greek forebears–were the glue of empire; the public ceremonies dedicated to their worship were more an exercise in patriotism than supplication. Organized religion serves the purpose of forging those unifying values that keeps society on the same page, so to speak, and sanctifying them with divine blessing. When a society’s religion is thrown out the window, as were the Roman gods, and replaced with something new (like Christianity), it leaves society dangerously vulnerable to the incursion of other foreign values that piggyback themselves onto the imported religion, which ultimately weaken a society so that it is no longer willing to resist invasion.

Religion/Christianity

There’s a world of difference between religion and spirituality. Spirituality tends to be value-neutral, since a man’s spiritual justification for his actions is always well intentioned, however misguided (consider how many wars have been waged for God’s glory). Religion, however, serves the very practical purpose of drawing up the slate of values that holds society together and keeps everyone on the same page, so to speak, and sanctifying those values with the blessing of God (though I’m not sure how any man can hope to speak for God). When early Christianity upended all the old gods and idols of Rome, the Empire was left spiritually eviscerated, and it was all downhill from there. When a society’s religion is thrown out the window and replaced with something new (like Christianity), it leaves society dangerously vulnerable to the incursion of other foreign values that piggyback themselves onto the imported religion, which ultimately weaken a society so that it is no longer willing to resist being overwhelmed by the outside world.

Religion/Christianity/Appeal

Whatever served the purpose of keeping law and order within such a diverse and far-flung empire as Rome’s could be expected to appeal to the Romans. Christianity’s view of natural law as a product of a God-ordained order that had been put into effect with the creation of Adam served that purpose admirably. Ironically, Christianity also proved to be the undoing of the Western Roman Empire. In a sense, the Emperor Constantine was agent of this undoing. Until Christianity came along, the key to Rome’s control of the provinces lay in the uniform worship of the same Roman gods throughout the empire. Thanks to Constantine’s vision (or hallucination) at the Milvian Bridge, he embraced Christianity as the official creed of the Roman Empire, and when he removed the seat of the Empire to Constantinople and took the state religion with him, it left Rome without the unifying spiritual values it needed to either maintain control of the provinces the spiritual fortitude needed to fend off external threats. The same thing happened here in Hawaii when the missionaries induced the Queen of Hawaii to upend all the old gods and idols and replace them with Christianity—her subjects were left spiritually eviscerated, and it was all downhill from there. Organized religion serves the purpose of forging those unifying values that keeps society on the same page, so to speak, and sanctifying them with divine blessing. When a society’s religion is thrown out the window, as were the Roman gods, and replaced with something new (like Christianity), it leaves society dangerously vulnerable to the incursion of other foreign values that piggyback themselves onto the imported religion, which ultimately weaken a society so that it is no longer willing to resist invasion. The Roman Empire did not end with the fall of Rome in 476 A.D. While the Catholic Church, as one heir to Rome, went on to provide the spiritual framework for much of Western civilization, the Byzantine Empire endured for another thousand years and gave rise to the Eastern Orthodox Church that fostered the spiritual and cultural legacy of Russia and much of Eastern Europe. Under Constantine, the founder of the Eastern Roman Empire’s capital of Constantinople, Christianity flourished as never before.

Religion/Christianity/Arian Controversy

I suspect that Constantine’s concern with the Arian controversy had more to do with power than points of spiritual doctrine. When Constantine removed the seat of the Empire to Constantinople and took the state religion with him, it left Rome without the unifying spiritual values it needed to either maintain control of the provinces the spiritual fortitude needed to fend off external threats. The same thing happened here in Hawaii when the missionaries induced the Queen of Hawaii to upend all the old gods and idols and replace them with Christianity—her subjects were left spiritually eviscerated, and it was all downhill from there. Organized religion serves the purpose of forging those unifying values that keeps society on the same page, so to speak, and sanctifying them with divine blessing. In this case, Christianity was different from all the other cults and mystery religions in its universality: everyone was welcome. Amidst the general gloom and hopelessness that besieged the ordinary mortal, it held out the promise of a better life to love. To be a Christian was to be part of a community of kindred souls to assist and be assisted by, and its appeal to idealism rose above the usual mundane clamor for wealth and power. One could be forgiven for wondering how values such as these might serve the purposes of statecraft, but Constantine evidently recognized that the organization of the Christian church lent itself admirably to linkage with the state and the wishes of its governors.

Religion/Christianity/Edict of Milan

Never underestimate the power of persecution. The Edict of Milan merely formalized a fait accompli: Christianity thrived on persecution, and the decline of the pagan Roman Empire was never in doubt from the moment they threw the first Christians to the lions. In much the same fashion, the persecution of popular Christianity (as Martin Luther would espouse it) would ensure the dethronement of the Pope of Rome in northern Europe, and the foundation of a new empire of apostasy in the New World.

Religion/Christianity/Spread

Christianity thrived on persecution. But thanks to Constantine’s vision (or hallucination) at the Milvian Bridge, he embraced Christianity as the official creed of the Roman Empire, and under his successor Theodosius it was increasingly used it as a tool for defining orthodoxy and building empire. When Constantine removed the seat of the Empire to Constantinople and took the state religion with him, it left Rome without the unifying spiritual values it needed to either maintain control of the provinces the spiritual fortitude needed to fend off external threats. The same thing happened here in Hawaii when the missionaries induced the Queen of Hawaii to upend all the old gods and idols and replace them with Christianity—her subjects were left spiritually eviscerated, and it was all downhill from there. Organized religion serves the purpose of forging those unifying values that keeps society on the same page, so to speak, and sanctifying them with divine blessing. In this case, Christianity was different from all the other cults and mystery religions in its universality: everyone was welcome. Amidst the general gloom and hopelessness that besieged the ordinary mortal, it held out the promise of a better life to love. To be a Christian was to be part of a community of kindred souls to assist and be assisted by, and its appeal to idealism rose above the usual mundane clamor for wealth and power. One could be forgiven for wondering how values such as these might serve the purposes of statecraft, but Constantine evidently recognized that the organization of the Christian church lent itself admirably to linkage with the state and the wishes of its governors.

Religion/Constantine

Thanks to Constantine’s vision (or hallucination) at the Milvian Bridge, he embraced Christianity as the official creed of the Roman Empire, and when he removed the seat of the Empire to Constantinople and took the state religion with him, it left Rome without the unifying spiritual values it needed to either maintain control of the provinces the spiritual fortitude needed to fend off external threats. The same thing happened here in Hawaii when the missionaries induced the Queen of Hawaii to upend all the old gods and idols and replace them with Christianity—her subjects were left spiritually eviscerated, and it was all downhill from there. Organized religion serves the purpose of forging those unifying values that keeps society on the same page, so to speak, and sanctifying them with divine blessing. When a society’s religion is thrown out the window, as were the Roman gods, and replaced with something new (like Christianity), it leaves society dangerously vulnerable to the incursion of other foreign values that piggyback themselves onto the imported religion, which ultimately weaken a society so that it is no longer willing to resist invasion.

Religion/Council of Nicaea

Under Constantine, the founder of the Eastern Roman Empire’s capital of Constantinople, Christianity flourished so vigorously that the emperor took it upon himself to step in as supreme arbiter of both earthly and churchly matters. The Council of Nicaea marked the beginning of this sort of thing. Perhaps Constantine had learned something when he removed the seat of the Empire to Constantinople and took the state religion with him, and left Rome without the unifying spiritual values it needed to either maintain control of the provinces the spiritual fortitude needed to fend off external threats. The same thing happened here in Hawaii when the missionaries induced the Queen of Hawaii to upend all the old gods and idols and replace them with Christianity—her subjects were left spiritually eviscerated, and it was all downhill from there. Organized religion serves the purpose of forging those unifying values that keeps society on the same page, so to speak, and sanctifying them with divine blessing. When a society’s religion is thrown out the window, as were the Roman gods, and replaced with something new (like Christianity), it leaves society dangerously vulnerable to the incursion of other foreign values that piggyback themselves onto the imported religion, which ultimately weaken a society so that it is no longer willing to resist invasion.

Religion/Mithraism

I imagine that the emphasis that mystery cults placed on achieving an altered state through trances and ritual and such was the desire of their participants to communicate and have a dialogue with the gods that the Greeks had placed at such an inaccessible remove atop Mount Olympus. That’s what personalized the mystery cults and offered the hope of succor and everlasting life to the otherwise hopelessly insignificant mortal. Yet, with Mithraism, the greatest appeal may have resided in its exclusivity—not much different from that of Masons and Elks or, for that matter, country clubs and elite colleges. That, in turn, is what made Christianity so appealing: everyone was welcome. Amidst the general gloom and hopelessness that besieged the ordinary mortal, it held out the promise of a better life to love (yes, even for the likes of me and thee!). To be a Christian was to be part of a community of kindred souls to assist and be assisted by, and its appeal to idealism rose above the usual mundane clamor for wealth and power.

Religion/St. Stephen

One might not think that the right to keep the company of icons is worth forfeiting one’s life for. But in a way, this particular controversy that cost St. Stephen his life anticipated the bitter religious warfare that would take hundreds of thousands of lives in the 16th century, as the Reformation raged against such churchly excesses as the venality of its priests and their extravagant ritual. Everything means something, and while nominally the bone of contention might seem of little account, the principle it signifies might well be of life-or-death import—especially when magnified beneath the lens of man’s relationship with God.

Religion/Vestal Virgins

The Romans invested the spirit of the domestic virtues in Vesta, patron goddess of the hearth, and consigned a coterie of adoring females to tend her sacred fires, bake the sacred loaves, and ensure that the requisite ceremonies were dutifully discharged. Now, in our headlong rush to get ahead of ourselves, have we finally come full circle? For all our modernity and sophistication, are we finally coming to appreciate that the management of a family and household is an endeavor that requires no less critical and comprehensive a skill-set than the management of a Fortune 500 enterprise? Perhaps we should cook up our own cult: if not Vesta, how about Martha Stewart?

Religion/Women Converts

Mary Magdalene and Margaret of Cortona may have borrowed a page from the Confessions of St. Augustine, in which he implored: “Dear God, let me be good… but not just yet.”

Power

Power/Military

The harsh discipline that was needed to keep the troops in line suggests that military service was not the most sought after calling for a young Roman. Eventually, Rome let the Republic slip from its grasp when it could no longer afford its wars, and began letting generals like Marius and Sulla form mercenary armies that they rewarded with the spoils of conquest. It calls to mind the present practice of the U.S. government in hiring mercenaries (“security contractors”) to help fight its war in Iraq (much like how we hired entire armies of Koreans, Filipinos, and Thais to fight our war in Vietnam). Oil, anyone?

Power/Rape of Lucretia

The rape of Lucretia was precisely the sort of straw that breaks the camel’s back and brings on a sea change in social attitudes. In this case, the pall of oppression that Romans experienced under the King of Rome dissipated with the realization—brought on by Lucretia’s rape–that honor, which matters most, was incompatible with royal privilege… thereby hastening the onset of the Republic.

Power/Rise

In the course of their conflicts with the Latins and the Samnites and such, the Romans learned how to assure that yesterday’s enemies became today’s friends and allies. Knowing that humiliation and enslavement were counterproductive, they encouraged subject peoples to join with Rome, offering them Rome’s military protection, the prospect of a diminished tax burden in the bargain, and a measure of self-government to preserve appearances. What’s more, Rome offered the Greek and Italian upper crust of its newly conquered peoples the heady inducement of full citizenship that would confer protection for their most deeply cherished interests and a path for the fulfillment of political ambition. Small wonder that they scrambled to take Roman wives, learn the Latin language, and embrace the letter and spirit of Roman law. The Romans understood early on that the building of an empire always requires the cultural assimilation of the conqueror by the conquered. Otherwise, conquest will always catch up to an empire, and imperial overstretch becomes inevitable. Conquered peoples do not readily accept subjugation and an empire founded on the resentment of its subjects is one that is built on a very shaky foundation. The spoils of empire are never sufficient to offset the expense of safeguarding and administering the empire, unless that empire provides for all its subjects in a way that enables them to become prosperous and self-supporting. Anything less results in an operating deficit that will inevitably prove ruinous, while the attendant dissatisfaction of the empire’s subjects attracts predators who sense weakness and blood… leading to yet more expense in defending the empire, and so on down the rabbit hole.

Power/Assimilation

This was a crafty old trick of the Romans, and they did this with not only the heads of the assimilated tribes, but also with the plebeians. When the plebeians were seduced by giving them membership in the patrician Senate, they soon forget their solemn obligation to their fellow commoners and set about becoming censors and consuls themselves and signing onto the whole Patrician Program. As enduring a concept as democracy has proved to be, it failed in this case to endure the acid test of money, power, and privilege. The Romans understood early on that the building of an empire always requires the cultural assimilation of the conquered by the conqueror. Otherwise, conquest will always catch up to an empire, and imperial overstretch becomes inevitable. Conquered peoples do not readily accept subjugation and an empire founded on the resentment of its subjects is one that is built on a very shaky foundation. The spoils of empire are never sufficient to offset the expense of safeguarding and administering the empire, unless that empire provides for all its subjects in a way that enables them to become prosperous and self-supporting. Anything less results in an operating deficit that will inevitably prove ruinous, while the attendant dissatisfaction of the empire’s subjects attracts predators who sense weakness and blood… leading to yet more expense in defending the empire, and so on down the rabbit hole.

Power/Augustus

When you can’t give someone a raise, you can always give him a new title. Knowing that his fellow citizens would resent raising his office to anything that smacked of sole authority, Octavian contented himself with the title of princeps—“first citizen”. This accorded well with his strategy of retaining the form while changing the substance. And while his fellow Romans went along with the ruse, Octavian went about altering the reality behind the ruse—engorging the senate with loyal supporters, and giving them busywork (and title, no doubt) to gratify their own petty delusions to grandeur… while making all the real decisions himself, knowing that his friendly senators would go along with things. Ultimately, Octavian discarded such pretensions to modesty in favor of as title that his grateful senate conferred on him that said it all: Augustus Caesar, Maximum Main Macaw!

Power/Augustus/Reforms

Augustus worked wonders, even without the benefit of spin doctors and sound-bites. He hornswoggled them like a pro: pretending to work with the Senate while fobbing it off with busywork and stuffing it with cronies; assuaging the popular apprehension over the military by cutting the army’s size in half while retaining all the key posts for himself; fobbing off the urban riffraff with bread and circuses and make-work jobs in public works. But the hypocrisy of his personal conduct tripped up his efforts to set a good example for public morality, and his pretensions to the ceremonial booshwah of high priesthood proved transparent to those who sought some measure of substance in their relationship with the gods. In playing to the popular preoccupation with form over substance, Augustus’ future as a modern-day politician in America (perhaps governor of California) or a televangelist would have been assured.

Power/Marcus Aurelius

We often wonder what it must be like to have a philosopher as king. Marcus Aurelius presented a case in point which, while reassuring to men, would seem to have offended the gods; the floods of the Tiber and the famine and plague that wracked his reign portended an ominous outlook for Rome. But the greatest threat to the Empire lay not with such whims of divine agency, but with Marcus Aurelius’ appointment as successor of his son Commodus–a cruel and capricious ogre whose predations gave the lie to the virtuous legacy of the philosopher-king.

Power/Barbarian Invasions

The highest civilizations often prove to be the easiest prey to the barbarian hordes. Witness the downfall of not just Rome, but of Egypt, the Minoans, the middle dynasties of China, or Islam. But the triumph of the barbarian—absent the enduring graces of civilization–is typically brief, and the barbarian then disappears… by being absorbed and transformed by the civilization he has conquered. Just as the barbarian Manzhous became China’s Qing dynasty (and the most diligent imitators and guardians of classic Chinese culture), the barbarians of Europe were largely absorbed by Roman civilization, and the Mongols embraced the Islamic civilization they nearly destroyed and became its most ardent proponents… seeing to it that the empire of Islam soon reached its greatest extent ever. The barbarian often infuses a dying civilization with new blood and the martial vigor that it had neglected in the process of becoming so civilized, and becomes its most ardent defender and propagator, but only if the patient survives the surgery (as Egypt and Rome did not).

Power/Byzantine Empire

The Roman Empire did not end with the fall of Rome in 476 A.D. While the Catholic Church, as one heir to Rome, went on to provide the spiritual framework for much of Western civilization, the Byzantine Empire endured for another thousand years and gave rise to the Eastern Orthodox Church that fostered the spiritual and cultural legacy of Russia and much of Eastern Europe. Under Constantine, the founder of the Eastern Roman Empire’s capital of Constantinople, Christianity flourished as never before. But as always happens with empires, Constantinople was itself overrun in 1453 by the Ottomans, who endured until World War I—that great collision among the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and Western colonial empires once again re-ordered the world and set the stage for another cycle of imperial over-reach and cataclysm.

Power/Caligula

The bad apples of Caligula and Nero were followed by the bumper crop of the Five Good Emperors–and by more than a few good years before the Empire ultimately soured and went south. It’s not surprising that arbitrary brutishness and depravity reared its ugly head from time to time in the long lineup of Roman rulers, given that republican government—along with the modest restraint that it had once exercised on such excesses–had disappeared with Julius Caesar. We need a Caligula or a Nixon now and then to keep us honest, and to remind us that we’ve lost our way and need to regain the straight and narrow of decency and democracy.

Power/Celts

The Romans understood early on that the building of an empire always requires the cultural assimilation of the conqueror by the conquered, and the fact that the Celts never went along with Rome’s program of assimilation would spell ultimate defeat for the Roman occupation of the British Isles. Conquered peoples do not readily accept subjugation and an empire founded on the resentment of its subjects is one that is built on a very shaky foundation. The spoils of empire are never sufficient to offset the expense of safeguarding and administering the empire, unless that empire provides for all its subjects in a way that enables them to become prosperous and self-supporting. Anything less results in an operating deficit that will inevitably prove ruinous, while the attendant dissatisfaction of the empire’s subjects attracts predators who sense weakness and blood… leading to yet more expense in defending the empire, and so on down the rabbit hole.

Power/Cleopatra

The women that have made history have customarily exerted their influence from behind the throne, knowing better than to let themselves get caught up the complications (such as war) of the male ego. Cleopatra, the exception to the rule, would be bitten by the same serpent that, from the earliest days of Eden, had insinuated itself into the power equation that governs the relationship between the sexes.

Power/Decline

The Romans understood early on that the building of an empire always requires the cultural assimilation of the conqueror by the conquered—that’s why state religion (Christianity or otherwise) was so important. Otherwise, conquest will always catch up to an empire, and imperial overstretch becomes inevitable. Conquered peoples do not readily accept subjugation and an empire founded on the resentment of its subjects is one that is built on a very shaky foundation. The spoils of empire are never sufficient to offset the expense of safeguarding and administering the empire, unless that empire provides for all its subjects in a way that enables them to become prosperous and self-supporting. Anything less results in an operating deficit that will inevitably prove ruinous, while the attendant dissatisfaction of the empire’s subjects attracts predators who sense weakness and blood… leading to yet more expense in defending the empire, and so on down the rabbit hole.

Power/Decline

Conquest will always catch up to an empire, and imperial overstretch becomes inevitable. Conquered peoples do not readily accept subjugation and an empire founded on the resentment of its subjects is one that is built on a very shaky foundation. The spoils of empire are never sufficient to offset the expense of safeguarding and administering the empire, unless that empire provides for all its subjects in a way that enables them to become prosperous and self-supporting. Anything less results in an operating deficit that will inevitably prove ruinous, while the attendant dissatisfaction of the empire’s subjects attracts predators who sense weakness and blood… leading to yet more expense in defending the empire, and so on down the rabbit hole.

Power/Decline, Rise of Eastern Empire

The Pax Romana represented to the people of Rome a stability that had never been realized in its history. War will always bring doubts in the form of soaring prices for resources and poor consumer confidence. Having defeated the Carthaginians in the Punic Wars, the Romans no longer had a formidable enemy, and trade was prosperous. During this period, Augustus restored the senate and all the republican virtues, and cities retained their autonomy while Augustus kept an eye on things overall. But Pax Romana proved too much to bear: the burdens of incessant warfare and onerous taxation under a series of disastrous leaders all made for the timeless recipe of imperial overstretch. Smelling blood, the barbarians came, and with them, the demise of the Empire. The Roman Empire did not end with the fall of Rome in 476 A.D. While the Catholic Church, as one heir to Rome, went on to provide the spiritual framework for much of Western civilization, the Byzantine Empire endured for another thousand years and gave rise to the Eastern Orthodox Church that fostered the spiritual and cultural legacy of Russia and much of Eastern Europe. Under Constantine, the founder of the Eastern Roman Empire’s capital of Constantinople, Christianity flourished as never before. But as always happens with empires, Constantinople was itself overrun in 1453 by the Ottomans, who endured until World War I—that great collision among the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and Western colonial empires once again re-ordered the world and set the stage for another cycle of imperial over-reach and cataclysm.

Power/Diocletian

Diocletian’s political math—in dividing up provinces, civil and military jurisdictions, and the army into border troops, a civil militia, and a palace guard, and ultimately the imperial apparatus itself—may have seemed prudent when applied to the business of governing an empire as large and unwieldy as Rome’s. Nonetheless, in the absence of a system of carefully contrived checks and balances such as we enjoy in a democracy, power is not something that lends itself to a committee approach, and predictably, Diocletian’s tetrarchy came to grief on the shoals of ambition, as the burden of empire devolved to the shoulders of Constantine… who betook himself and his empire to Constantinople and left Rome to rot.

Power/Espionage

The use of the frumentarii for tax collection calls to mind Nixon’s use of the IRS to persecute his political enemies. The proliferation of spooks today in the highest levels of government bodes ill, especially given Mr. Bush’s predisposition toward abrogating civil liberties in the name of his war on terror.

Power/Heraclius

The Roman Empire did not end with the fall of Rome in 476 A.D. While the Catholic Church, as one heir to Rome, went on to provide the spiritual framework for much of Western civilization, the Byzantine Empire endured for another thousand years and gave rise to the Eastern Orthodox Church that fostered the spiritual and cultural legacy of Russia and much of Eastern Europe. Under Constantine, the founder of the Eastern Roman Empire’s capital of Constantinople, Christianity flourished as never before, and it was under Heraclius that the Great Divide between Islam and Christianity began to take its fateful shape. The Ottoman siege of Constantinople in 1453 was the seminal event that turned the capital of Christendom into the HQ of a resurgent Islam that would not stop surging until it was finally turned back at the gates of Vienna in 1683. The incursion of Islam into the territorial, cultural, and psychic heart of Western civilization repaid the calamitous forays of the Crusades into Islam’s front yard, and left the balance sheet pretty much in limbo until, in the wake of World War I and the demise of the Ottoman Empire, the lines in the sand were drawn by the British and French to create new nations of “Bedouins with flags”–followed soon thereafter by the creation of what the Arabs have come to regard as the West’s very own Frankenstein monster: Israel. Having thus (in the Arab view) piled insult upon historic injury, the balance sheet was once again thrown into disarray with the events of September 11, and then further deranged with the invasion and occupation of Iraq. So we go, and after some 1,400 years of beating each other up, the West and Islam—with so much to learn from each other–seem further than ever from any hope of reconciliation.

Power/Five Good Emperors

The Five Good Emperors appreciated the benefits of a cozy relationship with the Senate. As Caesar learned (the hard way), an emperor could hardly afford, in an oligarchy such as Rome, to cross the vested interests of the fat cats–smugly flicking their tails in the Senate–without risking some rather serious repercussions. The implications are no less fraught in America, where there never has been, and may never be, an election that cannot be bought.

Power/Flavians

The political revulsion brought on by Nero’s excesses and Rome’s recent plague of civil war occasioned a spasm of good government under Vespasian. Predictably, though, his sons proved unable to resist the siren song of autocracy, taking the proverbial two steps back in the heels of their father’s three steps forward.

Power/Government

The U.S. legislature reflects the same strengths and shortcomings of the Roman senate and of democracy everywhere. Both employ a balance among the different branches of government to ensure that power is not abused. The wild card then, as now, lay with the military. Caesar was able to assume dictatorial powers because of his control of the military–which may shed some light on George Bush’s preoccupation with military affairs, and which should serve as a cautionary tale to modern Americans.

Power/Hadrian’s Wall

This much we know about walls: if your empire depends on your wall, you may have no less reason to wonder what it is that you’re walling in as what it is that you’re walling out. While Hadrian’s Wall demarcated the Empire and its civilization from the Dark Side and the ever-menacing barbarian, the forces of social and political decay from within the Empire inevitably proved the greater threat.

Power/Judea

Things were bound to go badly for Pontius Pilate… or any governor of the fractious province of Judea, for that matter. The oppressive presence of the Roman Empire and its pagan ethos rankled–and invited rebellion from–the Jews and their orthodoxy of the One True God. The Romans understood early on that the building of an empire always requires the cultural assimilation of the conqueror by the conquered—that’s why the official state religion–with its pantheon of deities and endless calendar of commemorative celebrations–was so important in securing popular allegiance. Conquered peoples do not readily accept subjugation and an empire founded on the resentment of its subjects is one that is built on a very shaky foundation. It’s no surprise, then, that Judea was such a hard case to sway into the fold of empire, and it’s a lesson that we Americans, in our occupation of Iraq, would have done well to heed.

Power/Julio-Claudian Dynasty

What a bunch! The consequences of royal in-breeding are patently obvious with Agrippina, Nero, Caligula, Claudius and the rest of the Julio-Claudians, and I suspect they could go a ways toward explaining both the antics of the British Royal Family and—some would say–the progressive “cognitive diminishment” of the Bush political dynasty. 🙂

Power/Justinian

Messalina must surely rank with Lucrezia Borgia among Western civilization’s most prodigious sluts. But would we expect anything less from the Julio-Claudians—the extended First Family of Rome that gave us Agrippina, Nero, Caligula, and Claudius? The consequences of royal in-breeding are patently obvious with this bunch, and I suspect they could go a ways toward explaining both the antics of the British Royal Family and—some would say–the progressive “cognitive diminishment” of the Bush political dynasty. 🙂

Power/Messalina

We have Justinian and his fellow Romans to thank for the inspiration for many of the laws that have held sway in America from the earliest days of our republic. For all their common inspiration, our own Constitution could very well have been the thirteenth of Rome’s Twelve Tables. The Truth is forever in flux, and changes with the times. If any one document were left to stand by itself, it would not stand the test of time; hence the provision for a Judiciary that is independent from the Executive and Legislative branches allows the Supreme Court to interpret the statutory Truth in light of the times. All of this accords with the particular genius that we Americans (and the Romans) have of making abstraction conform to the practical exigencies of life as we live it.

Power/Nero

The bad apples of Caligula and Nero were followed by the bumper crop of the Five Good Emperors–and by more than a few good years before the Empire ultimately soured and went south. It’s not surprising that arbitrary brutishness and depravity reared its ugly head from time to time in the long lineup of Roman rulers, given that republican government—along with the modest restraint that it had once exercised on such excesses–had disappeared with Julius Caesar. We need a Nero or a Nixon (or a W, for that matter) now and then to keep us honest, and to remind us that we’ve lost our way and need to regain the straight and narrow of decency and democracy.

Power/Pax Romana

The Pax Romana represented to the people of Rome a stability that had never been realized in its history. War will always bring doubts in the form of soaring prices for resources and poor consumer confidence. Having defeated the Carthaginians in the Punic Wars, the Romans no longer had a formidable enemy, and trade was prosperous. During this period, Augustus restored the senate and all the republican virtues, and cities retained their autonomy while Augustus kept an eye on things overall. But Pax Romana proved too much to bear: the burdens of incessant warfare and onerous taxation under a series of disastrous leaders all made for the timeless recipe of imperial overstretch. Smelling blood, the barbarians came, and with them, the demise of the Empire.

Power/Pax Romana

What people anywhere have ever been left alone for so long (250 years!) to show the world what could be done with such an unprecedented stretch of peace and quiet! Without war to spend the money on, literature, the arts, and public building flourished at the behest of subsidies from the state. The Pax Romana represented to the people of Rome a stability that had never been realized in its history. War will always bring doubts in the form of soaring prices for resources and poor consumer confidence. Having defeated the Carthaginians in the Punic Wars, the Romans no longer had a formidable enemy, and trade was prosperous. During this period, Augustus restored the senate and all the republican virtues, and cities retained their autonomy while Augustus kept an eye on things overall. Trade flourished as well, unencumbered by the usual constraints of tariffs and plunder, and everyone under the Roman sun subscribed to a common standard of law and order as defined by an overriding authority rather than local whimsy. Even provincial governors were left to govern as they saw best in accordance with local conditions, protected all the while by Roman garrisons. In all that it did NOT accomplish by way of conquest and the grandeur of empire building, Pax Romana demonstrated how dramatically the benefits of simply leaving people to live their lives as they wish. But Pax Romana proved too much to bear: the burdens of incessant warfare and onerous taxation under a series of disastrous leaders all made for the timeless recipe of imperial overstretch. Smelling blood, the barbarians came, and with them, the demise of the Empire.

Power/Pompey

Pompey paid with his life for getting mixed up in the treacherous currents that swept the generals into power where republican forces once held sway. Power is a dangerous business, all the more so when the military gets mixed up in it.

Power/Praetorian Guard

Whenever a ruler has embraced the palace guard–whether the Praetorian Guards or Hitler’s SS–for political purposes, it’s a sure sign that paranoia has replaced popular confidence. The paramount role of Homeland Security in the Bush administration gives you a good idea of where we’re headed.

Power/Sulla

It disturbs me to see the U.S. government hiring mercenaries (“security contractors”) to help fight its war in Iraq (much like how we hired entire armies of Koreans, Filipinos, and Thais to fight our war in Vietnam), since this reminds me of how Rome let the Republic slip from its grasp when it could no longer afford its wars, and began letting generals like Marius and Sulla form mercenary armies that they rewarded with the spoils of conquest. Oil, anyone?

Power/Theodora

Justinian’s affection for Theodora (in spite of her dubious background) was one of the great love stories of all time, which gives us pause to realize that there was a place for monkey business in the corridors of power long before Bill and Monica showed up on the scene.

Power/Caesar

What Caesar accomplished most of all was the transition or Rome from republic to empire, and the tradition of generals such as himself, Pompey, Mark Antony, and Augustus imposing themselves on representative government would in turn help form the tradition of Rome’s imposing itself on the rest of the known world. Caesar provides us with a good example of the role of the individual in making history, and I submit that the one element that sums it up best is vision–the one indispensable element of leadership that defines the role of the individual in history. Because greatness requires charisma, inspiration, and genius (often evil), it cannot flourish without vision. Perhaps because of the countless compromises—large and small–that are implicit in group-think, vision cannot be a product of a committee—any more than a committee can paint, sculpt, compose, or write a masterpiece; it is for the individual that to articulate the vision that forms the unifying theme that is embraced and lent force by popular support.

Power/Dominance of Italy

In the course of their conflicts with the Latins and the Samnites and such, the Romans learned how to assure that yesterday’s enemies became today’s friends and allies. Knowing that humiliation and enslavement were counterproductive, they encouraged subject peoples to join with Rome, offering them Rome’s military protection, the prospect of a diminished tax burden in the bargain, and a measure of self-government to preserve appearances. What’s more, Rome offered the Greek and Italian upper crust of its newly conquered peoples the heady inducement of full citizenship that would confer protection for their most deeply cherished interests and a path for the fulfillment of political ambition. Small wonder that they scrambled to take Roman wives, learn the Latin language, and embrace the letter and spirit of Roman law. The Romans understood early on that the building of an empire always requires the cultural assimilation of the conqueror by the conquered. Otherwise, conquest will always catch up to an empire, and imperial overstretch becomes inevitable. Conquered peoples do not readily accept subjugation and an empire founded on the resentment of its subjects is one that is built on a very shaky foundation. The spoils of empire are never sufficient to offset the expense of safeguarding and administering the empire, unless that empire provides for all its subjects in a way that enables them to become prosperous and self-supporting. Anything less results in an operating deficit that will inevitably prove ruinous, while the attendant dissatisfaction of the empire’s subjects attracts predators who sense weakness and blood… leading to yet more expense in defending the empire, and so on down the rabbit hole.

Power/Dominance of Near East

The Pax Romana represented to the people of Rome a stability that had never been realized in its history. War will always bring doubts in the form of soaring prices for resources and poor consumer confidence. Having defeated the Carthaginians in the Punic Wars, the Romans no longer had a formidable enemy, and trade was prosperous. During this period, Augustus restored the senate and all the republican virtues, and cities retained their autonomy while Augustus kept an eye on things overall. But Pax Romana proved too much to bear: the burdens of incessant warfare and onerous taxation under a series of disastrous leaders all made for the timeless recipe of imperial overstretch. Smelling blood, the barbarians came, and with them, the demise of the Empire.

Power/Government

The democratic instincts of the Roman Republic were well intentioned in constituting the government in such a way as to give theoretically greater weight to the General Assembly of the plebeian Great Unwashed over the patrician Upper Crust. The Roman fear of permanent dictatorship was reflected as well in the veto power that each of the two consuls had over the other, and seemed to anticipate the recurring dictatorships that would plague the Empire. But as well intentioned as the concept was, the reality of human nature soon reared its ugly head, as the General Assembly became a rubber stamp to the power of the Senate. The plebeians murmured darkly of revolt, but were assuaged with the passage of the Hortensian Law that supposedly restored plebeian equality. And when the plebeians were seduced by giving them membership in the patrician Senate, they soon forget their solemn obligation to their fellow commoners and set about becoming censors and consuls themselves and signing onto the whole Patrician Program. As enduring a concept as democracy has proved to be, it failed in this case—as it would in countless others–to endure the acid test of money, power, and privilege. There is more than mere sarcasm in the words of Winston Churchill, when he described democracy as “the worst possible system of government—except for all the others

Power/Plebeian Class Struggle

The democratic instincts of the Roman Republic were well intentioned in constituting the government in such a way as to give theoretically greater weight to the General Assembly of the plebeian Great Unwashed over the patrician Upper Crust. The Roman fear of permanent dictatorship was reflected as well in the veto power that each of the two consuls had over the other, and seemed to anticipate the recurring dictatorships that would plague the Empire. But as well intentioned as the concept was, the reality of human nature soon reared its ugly head, as the General Assembly became a rubber stamp to the power of the Senate. The plebeians murmured darkly of revolt, but were assuaged with the passage of the Hortensian Law that supposedly restored plebeian equality. And when the plebeians were seduced by giving them membership in the patrician Senate, they soon forget their solemn obligation to their fellow commoners and set about becoming censors and consuls themselves and signing onto the whole Patrician Program. As enduring a concept as democracy has proved to be, it failed in this case to endure the acid test of money, power, and privilege.

Power/War/Punic Wars

Rome’s experience with Carthage proved once again that the biggest problem of running an empire lies not in acquiring it, but keeping it. Hannibal’s brilliant trans-Alpine, pachyderm-mounted offensive, by virtue of its sheer audacity, won the day, but it could not win the war. Any offensive strung out, as this one was, along thousands of miles, is bound to invite a counter-offensive aimed at its weakest link. When Rome responded to Hannibal’s invasion by striking at Carthage, Hannibal had little choice but to hasten back to its defense. The effort was in vain, and Carthage was forced to relinquish is far-flung holdings in North Africa and Spain to Rome, which went on to emulate the follies of empires everywhere.

Power/Law/Twelve Tables

For all their common inspiration, our own Constitution could very well have been the thirteenth of Rome’s Twelve Tables. The Truth is forever in flux, and changes with the times. If any one document were left to stand by itself, it would not stand the test of time; hence the provision for a Judiciary that is independent from the Executive and Legislative branches allows the Supreme Court to interpret the statutory Truth in light of the times. All of this accords with the particular genius that we Americans (and the Romans) have of making abstraction conform to the practical exigencies of life as we live it.

Economy


Economy/Inflation

Notwithstanding his currency edict, Diocletian was made to realize that money is only good as long as confidence holds that it can redeemed for something of consistent value; when the confidence gives way some day and the psychology changes, Katie bar the door. What’s more, price controls don’t work: merchants that are constrained from selling goods at a profit will simply not sell them… and the shortages that result are bound to bid up prices for the fewer goods that are available, making the cure more destructive than the disease.  Will America be made to learn the lessons of Rome? Knowing that there’s not enough euros, yen, or gold to serve as a replacement reserve currency for the dollar, we continue to behave like a junkie paying for his habit with checks that he knows will never be cashed. As the dollar continues to slide, what will our creditors be able to redeem their dollars for? Or shall they just use them as wallpaper?

Economy/Taxes

Politics and the coin of the realm make for strange bedfellows, whether with the for-profit tax collection of the Roman era, the present-day pork barreling, or with Nixon’s scheme to use the IRS to harass his enemies with tax audits. Nothing is so corrosive to the integrity of government as money, and Rome’s profligacy with the corn dole and bread-and-circuses proved a sure indicator of the political health of the empire.


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