Roman history is always being rewritten, and always has been; in some ways we know more about ancient Rome than the Romans themselves did. Roman history, in other words, is a work in progress. This book is my contribution to that bigger project; it offers my version of why it matters... This is a book about how Rome grew and sustained its position for so long, not about how it declined and fell, if indeed it ever did [in the sense that Gibbon imagined].
Does Beard mean to say that the Roman Empire continues to exist... somehow? Perhaps she thinks of it as having carried on through the Holy Roman Empire, which finally received its coup de grace from Napoleon in 1806. I’ll know exactly what Beard’s point is before I finish her book, but meanwhile...
There is a good argument for the continuing existence of the Roman Empire, right up to today.
The Roman Empire still is a world power – not as a geo-political power (whether or not you tack on the Holy Roman Empire, it is finished, kaput, beyond resuscitation), but as a social, cultural, ethical power. Our minds and our sensibilities, mine and yours too, if you feel that you’re a native of somewhere east of Suez, are colonies of the Roman Empire.
We look at the world through the eyes of a First Century Roman. We size up what we experience according to Augustinian values. Our ethos is Roman. We judge the actions of others, and our own, according to Roman standards. The dramas of our lives (and the dramas of our novels and our TV series) are based on the dualities that troubled the Romans: the good of the individual vs. the good of the community, virtue vs. duty, tradition vs. freedom, austerity vs. hedonism, substance vs. style.
We tend to think of these things as part of the human condition, but they are not. They are specific to us, albeit a very large “us,” and a swelling one.
I’ve read enough middle-brow anthropology to know that there are cultures based on other traditions, cultures which, for example, are not conflicted between the individual’s welfare and the welfare of others. In Imperial China, loyalty was the standard for a making an ethical decision, not justice, or more simply, fairness, which is ours. Our sense of honor – what is due to us and from us; our sense of duty – what its limits are; our sense of individual rights; our ethics and morals: they may be different from Rome’s, but only in degree; they have developed and changed with time (one might argue that they have progressed), but they are based on the basic Roman value of justice for individuals, under law, and fairness, in behavior not covered by law.
Justice and fairness are so ingrained in us that we think of them as universal values. They are on their way to becoming universal values, thanks to what appears to be the coming hegemony of Western culture, but they are not innate human values. Correct behavior, before the Romans, was not predicated on justice and fairness – not even in Athens, where the Roman ethos probably had its roots.
The “justice” touted by Plato for his ideal republic has very little resemblance to our “justice.” Here is a summary of part of Book IV of The Republic (from The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy):
With the founding of the just city completed, Socrates proceeds to discuss justice (427d). He claims that the city they have founded is completely good and virtuous and thus it is wise, courageous, moderate, and just (427e). Justice will be what remains once they find the other three virtues in it, namely wisdom, courage, and moderation (428a). The wisdom of the just city is found in its rulers and it is the type of knowledge that allows them to rule the city well (428b-d). The courage of the just city is found in its military and it is correct and lawful belief about what to fear and what not to fear (429a-430b). The city’s moderation or self-discipline is its unanimity in following the just city’s structure in terms of who should rule and who should be ruled (430d-432a). The city’s justice consists in each class performing its proper function (433a-b).
Basically, it seems as if the Greek idea of justice is not derived from fair and equal treatment of all (as ours is), but from “just” actions, which are defined as “moderate” – one might almost say, “seemly” – whether on the part of the rulers or the ruled.
Exodus’ an eye for an eye describes a legal remedy, but the justice and fairness we assume are implied in it do not infuse the Old Testament. If an Old Testament king puts out a subject’s eye, an equivalent “eye” of the king’s is not required. When Henry VIII wanted to behead a wife, or Hitler to murder all the Jews, or the CIA to torture suspected terrorists, a legal justification, no matter how absurd or spurious, was deemed necessary. Non-Western tyrants have not felt any necessity for a legal finding before committing an outrage.
Most of the world’s nations who are not fully engaged in Western culture make a show of adhering to the Roman ideal of justice, but only in order to mollify the military and economic hegemony of the West. The Potemkin trials of Muslim Brotherhood members in Egypt, of anti-Putin demonstrators in Russia, of corrupt officials in China, are pure theater – and amateur theater, at that.
While the entity of the Roman Empire is gone, its political dynamics have continued to shape Western governments, from monarchies that claimed a Divine Right to today’s socialist democracies of Scandinavia. Demagogic dictatorships, messy republics, bureaucratic technocracies, the cancer of oligarchy – we name them, we define them, we describe them, we compare them, we judge them according to the relationship of the ruler to the ruled. This is quintessentially Roman.
The Romans developed their politics – as they did most abstract concepts – from the Greeks. The granting of political power to the demos, populo, the people, was translated to Rome from Athens. In the two-party system of the Roman Republic, the people became a formal, accepted political faction; the aristocratic faction was the other. Imperial Rome, unlike imperia of other times and in other parts of the world, regarded the people as a force to be reckoned with, to be cajoled, entertained, enticed, placated. Western governments have maintained this respect, wariness, fear, of the people – to the bemusement and/or amusement of non-Western governments.
Recently, I read an article in the latest New York Review of Books, “How to Understand Isis,” in which Malise Ruthven explains the pre-Arab Spring historic stability of Islamic Mediterranean states by pointing to a 14th century Arab historian, Ibn Khaldun, “whose theories of dynastic change and cyclical renewal and especially his concept of ‘asabiyya, variously translated as ‘clannism,’ ‘group feeling,’ or—in [Albert] Hourani’s definition—‘a corporate spirit oriented towards obtaining and keeping power,’ provided a prism through which contemporary systems of governance could be viewed.”
In Imperial China, in the Ottoman Empire and the Maghreb, in some village at the far end of the Amazon, no overall, innate power is ascribed to ruled, as it was in Rome and as it is in our culture. In the governments of other cultures, the relationship of the ruler to the ruled is of minor importance: it may be a considered effect of government policy, but it is never a considered cause.
Rulers in the west are never totally surprised by popular uprisings. From Spartacus, through the Peasant Revolts of the 14th and 15th centuries, through the 18th century revolutions, the possibility of popular revolt always has been regarded as latent. If there were popular revolts in other cultures, they would have been unimaginable to the ruling class, before the fact. Any interior threats imagined or perceived by the Emperor in Peking or the Caliph in Constantinople were from other members of the ruling class, or power-hungry military officers, not the people.
As far as I can tell – and I might be wrong – popular revolts against native rulers in non-Western cultures (I’m not including revolts against foreign occupation, such as the Maccabee Revolt or the Indian Mutiny) always are inspired by Roman values. The Taiping Rebellion of 1864 was an outgrowth of the revelation, by Christian missionaries, of the Sermon on the Mount. A German philosopher, imbued with the Roman concept of justice and the Roman assumption that the ruled were a source of political power, inspired the Russian Revolution against an autocracy which had been weakened by its own adoption of Roman values. The demonstrators of Tahrir Square had been educated in Roman values through the internet, which one might call the Roman Empire’s ultimate weapon.