Greetings to all,
It’s always exciting to begin a new year, and I have enjoyed the students and our interactions. I trust that we will have a great year together.
We begin the year resuming the story of Rome in 44 B.C., after the death of Julius Caesar. I am aware that for new students, it is not easy to pick up the story in the middle. We have reviewed the context of Caesar’s assassination, but I would urge all students (and parents if you wish) to read this and this — both will hopefully help provide some additional insight into the background from Rome’s transition from Republic to Empire. I would also suggest a review the Five Elements of Civilization that formed the backbone of the 8th Grade Ancient History class. If anyone wishes to review that (especially new students), look here.
To get new students up to speed, we went quickly through the first two of Rome’s three stages. The first stage was the monarchy phase (753-508 B.C.), the second the Republic (508-44 B.C.). Whatever their differences, both phases showed forth Rome’s main characteristics:
- An emphasis on tradition. Rome looked back to the past for guidance, not forward to the future. They valued stability over change.
- Rome began as an agrarian oriented society, which usually goes hand-in-hand with tradition oriented societies. Though Rome began to develop a wealthy merchant class around 100 B.C., the ruling elite always thought of themselves as farmers.
- In the Republic phase, they shared and divided power amongst different people and institutions, though usually monopolized by the nobility. They feared that a concentration of power, especially in executive offices, would bring about a tyrannical government.
We spent this week reviewing the decline of the Roman Republic, setting the stage for our look at the Roman Empire and Augustus next week. I wanted to with a few main themes:
1. Don’t Pretend
We reviewed the basics of the structure of the Republic, and how this helped form Rome’s identity, along with their self-image. In Rome’s eyes, they were, and had always been, a nation of self reliant farmers. But Rome changed over time, and because of Rome’s strong (at least stated) belief in tradition, Rome never felt the need to change. When they did change, they usually pretended that they were, in fact, not changing at all.
Next week we will discuss how potentially dangerous this attitude can be. For example, a couple years ago during the summer I got a minor shoulder injury at the beach. Thinking myself to be 24 instead of the 38 I was at the time, after a few days I used the muscles much too soon and tweaked it all over again. I need to realize that things take longer to heal at 38 than they did at 24, however sad a realization this might be! This is all the more true for me at 41. If I were to continue to pretend to be 24 the damage and bodily dysfunction would grow worse. Imagine if a whole civilization did this, and what consequences would be in store for people that did so.
As the Republic collapsed, the distance between Rome’s self-image and reality grew wider and wider. Will Augustus help solve the problem, or will he exacerbate it?
2. The Power and Vulnerability of Tradition
Most of us have probably experienced the positive power of tradition. It provides structure, and sometimes comfort to our lives. Many families have holiday traditions that add depth and meaning to the occasion. Tradition seems to have a magical power of sorts — we do something because that’s what we do, and it works. In this way, tradition can be stronger than law. It has a power all its own.
But the spell of tradition can be easily broken. There is nothing, for example, to stop you from violating tradition. Once you stop, the genie cannot be put back in the bottle. Tradition’s power can be broken in a moment, whereas law takes much longer to whittle away. Rome prided itself on being guided by the past, of “not departing from the ways of their fathers.” Yet a century of civil war eroded most, if not all of those “old ways.”
Did they perceive this truth? Can a tradition oriented society make necessary adaptations? It’s safe to say that nearly every civilization would likely collapse after so much inner conflict and turmoil. Rome will survive under Augustus, but they will pay a steep price to do so, as we shall see.
Next week we will look at some of the dilemmas facing Augustus as he ruled Rome, and see how the dynamic of ‘pretending’ likely pushed him into the disastrous Battle of Tuetonborg Forest. We will also ask the question, “Should you ever trade liberty for security?”