If Civilization is Worth Doing, it’s Worth Doing Badly

Historian Arnold Toynbee takes the long view–the very long view, on the fall of Rome.  We think of Rome as a grand empire, but Toynbee reminds us both in his book Hellenism, and in Hannibal’s Legacy, that Rome originally organized itself very much like other Greek city-states.  The early Roman Republic was essentially a polis.  As they grew in size, the political dynamics changed until little to nothing remained of its more democratic past.  But if we think of Rome as a “Republic” first and foremost, we should place the decline of Rome somewhere in the transition between the 3rd-2nd cenutry B.C. at the absolute latest.*

Toynbee takes this approach because he sees civilizations operating in a spiritual sense.  He focuses on the beliefs, the internal coherence, the relationships between different groups in society, and so on.  He has long sections in volumes five and six of his multi-volume A Study of History on the “schism in the soul” present in declining civilizations, which might strike one with a more materialist bent as rather absurd.

Niall Ferguson takes a different approach, and I believe that I see common themes in his books, Civilization, Colossus, and Empire.  Ferguson sees civilization running on various physical platforms, such as the quality of roads, a good sewer system, and a good way of gathering and using tax revenue.**  He eschewed the idea of slow, steady decline–or at least one that we could observe in any meaningful way.  For him, the system works until suddenly it doesn’t, and no one can really predict when it will stop working. This explains why no one saw the collapse of the Soviet Union coming, or various stock-market crashes.  The collapses, when they come, will therefore come out of the blue suddenly.

Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Socieities is a short, dense, book about a difficult subject. Tainter does a good job with his argument, which I admit even I though I disagree with some of his basic premises.

His argument boils down to a few key points:

  • Major civilizations tend to experience an early period of rapid growth through the ‘low hanging fruit’ of available territory, resources, etc.
  • This growth inevitably leads to specialization, stratification, and complexity which initially serves growth–though this “low-hanging fruit” won’t last forever.
  • The civilization plateau’s and the structure established to help it grow becomes an inextricable  part of society just at the moment that it is no longer really needed.
  • When the ‘low hanging fruit’ disappears, further expansion (be it territorial, trade-oriented) becomes less and less profitable, and eventually starts to work against the civilization.
  • Finally, the complex structure gets too unwieldy, a ball and chain, as the state has to spend more and more to get less and less. But now we depend on the structure.   It has become too big to fail, but like a house of cards, easy to knock over.

Tainter supports his theory well from civilizations across time, and uses very obvious info, like territory, and some other more unusual information, like crop yields, colonial administrations, and so on. No doubt there are many lessons for economists here.

But, while his book is valuable, it has big holes.

In his quest for absolute objectivity, he rejects all value-judgment theories of collapse. If you can’t measure it, it’s not useful. We can never be sure exactly a civilization really believes, and even if we could, it is not an objective field of study, so has nothing to contribute to the study of collapse. After a brief summary of  the work of people like Gibbon, Toynbee, Spengler, and others he dismisses them with a wave of his hand. But as C.S. Lewis once pointed out, very few people are actually German economists. Any study of history must involve people, which will involve more than graphs on paper.

This over-emphasizing of economics shows up in what is actually a thought-provoking idea. What happens after collapse, he argues, may actually be beneficial to society, because it removes a great deal of inefficiency that the old system labored under. Collapse, might be the cleansing forest fires of history, events to almost welcome.

This sounds good on paper, but no actual human being who lived through collapses would have agreed with him. Imagine living in Western Europe ca. 550 AD and thinking, “Boy, I sure am glad for the fall of Rome. Of course, our ramshackle village could be overrun, destroyed, and our people pillaged who knows when by some Goth, Ostrogoth, Visigoth, Vandal, Hun, or some other kind of Goth I have forgotten about. But I’ll take that any day over the economic inefficiency of the late Roman Empire.”

To augment Chesterton’s oft-quoted phrase (If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly,” “If civilization is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.”

Dave

 

*I love and admire Toynbee for many reasons.  But in some places he puts the decline of Rome at 431 B.C. (!), the same year as the outbreak of the Pelopponesian War in Greece.  He does this mostly because he sees much more similarity than difference between Greece and Rome.  One can make that argument, and he does so decently in his Recollections, but to carry it so far as to say that Rome began declining when Athens hit the wall goes way too far.

**In some ways the difference between Toynbee and Ferguson boils down, as (almost) always, to the differences between Plato and Aristotle.  Both are great–I prefer Toynbee and Plato.

Epilogue

I almost always find Toynbee stimulating, and I include some of his collected thoughts on the fall of Rome . . .

It is indeed, one of the tragic ironies that the idealists that arise within the ruling class should tread the same path of social migration as the wastrels.  The Graachi worked far greater havoc through a nobility [in the late Republic] to which someone like Commodus could never aspire. Commodus did far less damage by his own social truancy [i.e., pretending to be Hercules, fighting in the arena, etc.], by engaging in a vulgarity that represents a spiritual malaise, to which the Graachi would never fall.  

By their ‘downward migration’ towards the plebs, the Graachi incurred the wrath of their fellows, who punished them severely for abandoning their class privilege.  Commodus is uneventfully swallowed by the slough in which he delighted to wallow, whereas the Graachi released a kind of demonic energy into the masses of Rome.

*********

Seneca writes ca. A.D. 60 concerning the social function of the Emperor in one of his treatises. . .

 

“He is the bond that holds the Commonwealth together, he is the breath of life is breathed by his subjects, who in themselves would be nothing but a burden and a prey if they were left to their own devices through the removal of a presence which is the soul of the Empire.

 

Their king is safe?  One mind informs them all;

Lost?  They break faith straightway.

*********

If this calamity, written about by Vergil in his Georgics (IV, 212-13), which he imagines overtaking the bees, would overtake us, the people would be safe so long as it does not snap the reins, or–if they refuse to be bridled again.  Should this happen–then the texture of this mighty empire would be rent and its present tidiness would fly apart into a hundred shreds. Rome will cease to rule the moment they cease to render obedience.”

A foretaste of the fulfillment of the prophecy that Seneca made to the Emperor Nero was inflicted on the Roman world in A.D. 68-69 as an immediate result of Nero’s tyranny; but the first time round this calamity acted as a stimulus, for after the chaos Rome got Vespasian as emperor and relative calm.  Though Domitian (d. A.D. 96) tried his utmost to revive the chaos by claiming deity for himself, the tide was turned by a series of beneficial philosopher emperors who succeeded one another from Nerva (A.D. 96) through Marcus Aurelius (d. A.D. 180).

It was only after Marcus that the new “time of troubles” set in, and even then foolishness of Commodus managed to right itself after the civil wars of Severus, who repeated Vespasian’s work, though with a rougher and less skilled hand.  It was only after the death of Alexander Severus (A.D. 235) that the storm broke with shattering and uncontrollable violence.

*********

And finally, some of his thoughts on the drawn out length of Roman decline:

In the downward course of a civilization there is truth in the saying of the philosopher Heraclitus: “War is the father of all things.”  The sinister concentration of the resources of a civilization upon the business of fratricidal warfare may generate a military prowess that will place their neighbors at their mercy, may create a military technique that may grant them a far reaching technical mastery over the merely “Material World.”   

Since it is common to reckon success primarily by power and wealth, the opening chapters in the decline of a civilization will be hailed as times of blessing and growth, and this misconception can persist even for centuries.  Sooner or later, however, disillusionment is bound to follow, for a society that is hopelessly divided against itself is almost certain to try and double down on military might, for that is what seemed to work initially.

For example, we see the money-power and man-power won for Greek society by Alexander the Great, and these same vast resources used to intensify the civil wars between Alexander’s successors.  This same power swept into Roman hands through the meteoric rise in Rome’s land and wealth ca. 241-146 B.C. was just as quickly spent in the various civil wars that wracked Rome before the rise of Augustus and the Pax Romana.  For Spain, the treasure gained in the new world and the free labor of the essentially enslaved native populations was the food for their wars in Europe during the late 16th and early 17th centuries–the same wars that brought them into second-rate power status in Europe.

Thus the increasing command over the environment gained is apt to bestow upon a society a disintegration that puts a greater driving power into the suicidally demented society’s chosen work of self-destruction; and that story turns out to be a simple illustration of the theme that, “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).  And again, the empires of industrialized Europe in the late 19th century gained the material resources to nearly destroy European civilization in our great Western civil war of 1914-18.

[Toynbee goes on to argue at length that Augustan synthesis bought Rome time, and brought Rome increased prosperity, nevertheless, it was an “Indian Summer” that lasted about 175 years that did nothing to fix Rome’s basic issues or  prevent the coming winter.]

 

 

 

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9th Grade: The Window of Roman Architecture

Greetings to all,

I am a believer in the revealing power of architecture in a civilization.  There are many ways to get insight into the past, but I think that architecture is one of the best, for it puts a civilization’s creative power on display, and it involves much more than the work of one individual.  One of themes I wanted to stress with this was a shift in emphasis in how Rome built its buildings, and what this revealed about them as a civilization.  Arches, for example, were a great innovation used in aqueducts to bring water into cities.

The design of cities pushed people toward the center, which was in keeping with Rome’s Republic (literally a ‘public thing’).

But as time went by, arches are used to build monuments to emperors, and whatever talent they possessed went to make things like the Emperor Hadrian’s villa:

Here below is the general outline of the whole of Hadrian’s villa:

And again, another so-called “good emperor” of Rome (Marcus Aurelius) put his focus on the building of private monuments, like this personal “arch” monument below (contrasted with the public use of the arch for water above)

And another personal monument column to add to that. . .

If Rome was committed to understanding the changes in their culture, perhaps they may have been used for good, but Rome would not do this, and preferred to live in the past.  Their innovations (never a strong point) dried up, and whatever was new in Rome was simply borrowed from the Greeks (as the statue in Hadrian’s villa indicates).  Rome had grown stale and petrified, but would they see this?  As we noted, this would not be likely, for another thing the architecture reveals is whereas in the past their energies were directed to the public sphere, now most of what they did centered around the emperor.

A bored and uncreative people will  tend to think bigger is better all the time.  The Romans were no exception. Like an addict, it takes more and more over time to get the same response.  As the activity’s reward decreases, more effort only gives diminishing returns.  As we began our discussion of the games, we saw  how an old Etruscan funeral rite grew into an unregulated black market trade, to ‘opening act’ for the chariot races, eventually growing to a hideous and repulsive spectacle on a grand scale before tens of thousands.  How did this happen, and what does it say about Rome?

We need to see not only the moral dimension of this problem, but the political one as well.  The Games served to enhance the prestige of the emperor and keep people amused and distracted, in a sense, from the reality around them.  One may recall the Wizard of Oz’s line not to look behind the curtain.  The whole system of Empire had degenerated essentially into a military dictatorship by Vespasian’s time.  No emperor could ill afford a populace too rowdy or too thoughtful.  The Games helped buy them off.
Casinos, for example, want you to lose money, but not all of your money.  After all, they want you to leave happy so you will come back.  When you start to lose too much, often times an employee will appear suddenly, encourage you to stop, and offer you a coupon for a free steak dinner at their award winning restaurant. Their goal of course, is that you think, “Hey, that casino is really great for giving me this free dinner,” instead of, “I just lost X amount of money at that casino.”  I think the Games worked much in the same way.
Certain emperors, of course, may have felt more of a need to establish their legitimacy than others.  Claudius, for example, was a big proponent of the games, and he was the ‘runt’ of the Julio-Claudian line, and Caligula’s uncle.  Vespasian built the Colosseum specifically for the games, and he came to power after a year of civil war.
There are other means of cementing your power, notably, buying your friends.  This dynamic was not, I think, the main reason for the debasement of Roman currency, but it surely did not help.  I passed this chart out to the students showing the general decline of currency value, with some being more responsible than others.  Those emperors that rose to power after a change in dynasty often did so after civil war (marked with an *), and would have extra need to buy the loyalty of key people, and especially, key army legions (though to be fair, Nerva does not fit this pattern).

Despair and Exaltation in Ancient Rome

The phenomena of Roman gladiators has gotten lots of attention over the years, and that’s no surprise.  One way of quickly getting a sense of an ancient people is to seek what details stand out and makes them look odd, impressive, or otherwise shocking to modern eyes.  The gladiatorial games, like human sacrifices for the Aztecs, Egyptian tombs, or medieval cathedrals all fit the bill.

We usually see the gladiatorial contests as evidence of Rome’s decline.  Rome got wealthy, Rome got bored and decadent, and so it needed the bread and circuses to maintain order in a tumultuous political climate. “How sad,” some say, “and how dramatic a change from Rome’s hard and flinty past!  But, when a big empire goes south, it will go south on a grand and terrible scale.”

So the story goes.  But, what if, like Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum, we had it contrariwise?  What if the Rome of the gladiatorial games is simply the Rome that always was, and money and power just gave them more opportunities to expand their sense of themselves?  Such are the implications of Carlin Barton’s eye-opening The Sorrows of the Ancient Romans: The Gladiator and the Monster.  Barton wants to show us that our modern categories of thought and experience will not work for Rome.  We cannot say, “Well, we like football so we’re just like the Romans.”  This shallow method will not cut it for Barton.  She asks us to go deeper and to notice the Romans on their own terms, and gives us plenty of food for thought to reconsider the meaning of Rome, and what it means that Rome was a “religious” society.

Barton examines the gladiatorial games, one of the more sensational aspects of Rome’s past.  The title focuses on the concept of “sorrow,” but Barton tries to examine the games through a lens of the tension between asceticism, discipline, glory, indulgence, and exaltation.  We might think of the Romans as orderly people who lived in the middle of the road.  If true, Barton suggests that they could do so only by holding opposites in constant tension.

For an example we have the Roman triumph.  Anyone familiar with Roman lore and tradition knows that Rome itself, not a particular individual, occupies the heroic position.  They wove their fear of too much individualism into their laws and customs.  The valued communal fraternity so much that one of their laws states that,

If any person has sung or composed against another person a song such as was causing slander or insult…. he shall be clubbed to death,+

and they valued order and gravitas to the extent that they banned excessive mourning at funerals.

But at the same time they gave massive official “Triumphs” to certain generals on occasion, where the whole city came out to shower the victor with praise.  But as the victor processed, his soldiers could–and perhaps should?–sing bawdy or insulting songs about their general in direct violation of law, while a slave rode with him as well to remind him of his mortality.*

Barton tries to explore this at least seeming tension through the lens of the so-called “circuses” of Rome, which Barton writes were a, “Powerful opera of emotions in which the gladiator was the star.”

Most people, most of the time, imagine themselves doing good more often than not, and suppose that others will naturally share the assumptions they make about themselves.  The same holds true for countries and perhaps especially for imperial powers, who tell themselves that they come with blessings for all, and get a shock when they find themselves not always as appreciated as they feel they deserve.**  So too with gladiators and the games, the Romans saw themselves as benefactors.  Barton pushes back on the modern notion that they served as mere entertainment for a swelling populace that needed distracted.

The Romans saw themselves as giving gladiators a chance to redeem their low-estate, even to become something more than a mere man–an act of generosity.  The crowd attends to cooperate and encourage this transformation, not so much to gratify idle curiosity but rather to partake in a kind of religious apotheosis.  To begin, the military oath had a great deal of similarity to the gladiatorial oath. Seneca wrote,

You have enlisted under oath.  If any man say that this is a soft or easy form of soldiering they will only wish to mock you.  But be not deceived: the words of this most honorable of compacts are the very same as those of the most foulest [i.e., the gladiator’s oath]: to be burned, to be bound, to be slain by the sword.  You must die erect and invincible. What difference will it make if you gain a few more days or years? We are born into a world in which no quarter is given.

Thus, Barton comments, the gladiator became a kind of soldier/philosopher, one who lives between life and death, understands both, and can mock at both.  This in turn gave him license to become a new man.   If the emperor claimed his life, one might see it as akin to a god claiming his own.  His death, then, was not necessarily a cause for sorrow.

This gives us a new image of the crowd’s role at the games.  The crowd does not so much cheer for life, or death, but for a communal religious right.  Seneca again comments,

I judge you wretched because you have never been wretched yourself.  You have passed through life without an adversary. No one will know what you are capable of, not even you yourself will know.  And so there are men of their own accord [i.e. gladiators] come forward to challenge reluctant misfortune, and sought an opportunity to blazon forth their worth when it was about to pass into obscurity.  Great men glory in adversity, as do brave men in battle. 

The injuries inflicted by the powerful must be borne, not just patiently, but with a glad countenance.  At the table of a king every meal is a delight. So must they drink, so must they respond, so must the laugh at the funerals of their loved ones.

To glory in suffering is to become glorious.  So even in death, the gladiator wins.  He shows his exalted status by despising life.  As one commented on D. Junius Brutus: “He behaved so basely that he deserved to live.”  The crowd could occasionally assume risk as well, flocking to rickety theaters that could collapse or catch fire at any time.  They cheer on the gladiator toward his glorious suffering just as they–albeit in a more limited fashion–participate in that same suffering, that same embrace and defiance of death.

With this in place we can view the decadence of the Romans in new light.  Gladiators lived beyond normal life, so they could indulge themselves freely, embracing the extremes of life and death.  St. Augustine commented that the life of the gladiator involved licenstious cruelty, an excess of indulgence in everything.  And yet at the same time, they functioned as Rome’s ascetics, able to abandon their very lives to the people of Rome.  Their lives do not belong to them and in so doing their lives can belong to all. They simultaneously embraced both extremes, the demi-gods of Rome who lived beyond the lot of mortals.

This is why the crowd could cheer even the losers in combat, for in their death they display their superiority to death, unblinking, and unafraid.  It was only when the combatants shrank from death that crowd turned on them, and then with stern vengeance.  Showing fear of death made them normal once again, and once they became “normal” they turned the games into something shameful and cruel, rather than something “exalted.”  A gladiator’s fear of death ended the crowd’s participation in the ritual and suddenly transformed the event to a mere butchery.  Who wants to see that?

This is why Rome embraced fleshly decadence as a kind of asceticism.  In Rome one must learn to endure all things and keep going.  A Roman can embrace everything and maintain his dignity.  He can die, and he can eat, vomit it all up, and eat some more.  He can endure death and every form of excess life throws at him and “triumph.”  It is hard to say whether the banquets and excess of late-Republican Rome derived from gladiator culture or vice-versa, but I suspect the former.  J.E. Lendon at the University of Virginia seems to suggest in his Soldiers and Ghosts that the Romans had an extraordinary ability to do almost anything to avoid shame.  That ability could include

  • A strong aversion to any kind of trickery in warfare.  The only honorable way to fight was to march straight into the enemy and smash them in the mouth.
  • A strong aversion to a fear of death and ready acceptance of suicide as superior to even small personal or political failures among the political elite, and
  • As Barton points out, a refusal to accept any limits not just on pains^ but even on the pleasures that one could endure, such as eating six meat pies, spewing it out, and still look forward to eating the seventh.  The man who lost the ability to desire had lost something of himself.

One might see the how these practices could stray into some rather bizarre sexual realms.  Clearly gladiators enjoyed status as sexual objects, and Barton is hardly the first to discuss this.  But she did, if it be possible, help me understand Caligula, at least indirectly.  Of course no one can possibly excuse Caligula via “understanding!”  But in Caligula we see the same kind of excess of cruelty, physical and sexual indulgence, along with religious ecstasy as we see in gladiators.  Caligula claimed a kind of deity for himself.  Perhaps this was insanity, but perhaps he was simply following the gladiator ethic of testing himself, pushing himself, to extremes of vice and religious glorification, courting disaster but not shirking from the challenge.

Maybe.

I found Barton’s book in turns fascinating and perplexing.  I don’t know what it means for understanding the breadth of Rome’s existence from start to finish.  In the preface to his history, Livy wrote that, “Of late wealth has brought us avarice, and abundant pleasures, yearning–amidst both excess and the desire to perish and destroy all things.”  It is a familiar trope of ancient historians, but that has no particular bearing on the accuracy of his interpretation.  Still, I tend to see what happened with gladiators not as a weird appendage of the late-Republic/Empire, but as an integral part of Rome that lay under the surface initially, and grew in prominence over time.

For example, the Romans established the office of aedile very early in their history in the 5th century B.C.  Most aspects of how they functioned look very Roman in our usual sense of the word, as they maintained buildings, streets, laws, etc.  But, they also had charge of public entertainments or other public events, such as large funerals.  Aedlies were expected to fund these out of their own pocket, and many could easily go bankrupt during their time in office.

But the Romans saw the role of aedile as a crucial stepping stone to higher office, where the opportunities for glory and riches increased.  Caesar risked everything and beggared himself to win the election of pontiff, then used the office for fabulous gain.  This pattern was established long before him, however, this yo-yo between poverty and wealth, despair and exaltation.

It seems fitting to give the last word here to an important critic of all of this mess, St. Cyprian of Carthage, who wrote,

Man is killed for the pleasure of man, and to be able to kill is a skill, an employment, an art.  He undergoes discipline in order to kill, and when he does kill, it is a glory. What is this, I ask you, of what nature is it, where those offer themselves to wild beasts, whom no one has condemned, in the prime of life, of comely appearance, in costly garments?  While alive they adorn themselves for voluntary death and miserable as they are, they even glory in their sufferings

Dave

+It seems particularly Roman to me that their wouldn’t say, “shall be executed,” but rather the more stark, “shall be clubbed to death.”

*Some might say that these exceptions have much in common with medieval carnivals or days of “misrule.”  I disagree, and I assume Barton would as well.  The medieval carnival temporarily suspended normal reality to a) reset/refresh the existing order, and b) demonstrate the reality of a world beyond our own.  The Romans seemed to live in perpetual earthly tension within one plane of existence.

**I do not mean for this to serve as an all-encompassing statement on the question of how empires do or do not benefit those under their control.  The question is complicated and perhaps no one good general answer exists.  All I mean to assert here is that imperial powers assume that they are helping and not hurting.

^If we look at the 2nd Punic War, one can imagine almost any civilization surrendering in 216 B.C. after Cannae.  Poylbius points out the political structure of Rome as one of the keys to their ultimate victory and ability to persevere.  Certainly that helped.  I think the real key, however, was Rome’s culture/religion that told them to suffer–to embrace suffering.  This should tell us that:

  • Indeed, what we saw with gladiators was present earlier in Rome’s history (in a more noble form).
  • Culture and religion trump politics.  One can see a parallel in W.W. II where Germany inflicted unimaginable losses against the Soviets in the first few months their attacks.  Any rational man would assume a surrender would be forthcoming.  Yet, somehow, the Soviets kept going and eventually destroyed the Nazi’s.  The Soviets and the Romans had very different political systems, but both drew from religions that taught them how to suffer–albeit in different ways for different reasons (in the case of the Soviets it was Orthodox Christianity, which made a significant unofficial comeback during the war).

 

 

9th Grade: Bad Roman Fathers

Greetings,

This week we looked at the aftermath of Nero’s suicide in 68 A.D.  Having no heirs, Nero did not establish any process for a succession.  Three generals, Galba, Otho, and Vitellius ended up holding power alternately before the last, Vespasian, remained standing and took up Imperium himself and stability returned.

The Civil Wars did not last long and probably did not impact the common people very much, but this “Year of 3 Emperors,” portended ill for Rome.

  • It showed that in the absence of any family successor, power could simply go to the strongest
  • The system Augustus established at least maintained a fictional role for the Senate.  Some emperors (like Claudius) used the Senate to a moderate degree.  Now however, the Senate lost all role in who governed Rome.  The mask was off the pig.  Power belonged to the army, not to any of the pre-existing public institutions.

Vespasian looks like a solid sort, and he ruled well by most standards.  He eliminated a massive debt (largely through raising taxes).  He had no obvious vices to bring himself or Rome down.  He began the project that turned the land that housed Nero’s ridiculous private palace into a large public building for all people, known then as the Flavian Amphitheater (after his family name), known to us as the Colosseum.

One of the main functions of this intricately engineered building was to house the gladiator contests, that by Vespasian’s time, became more and central to Rome’s way of life.  What began as a holdover from old Etruscan funeral rite ca. 600 B.C. then became ad hoc neighborhood entertainment by 50 B.C., and finally turned into a horrendous spectacle where criminals (and Christians) were tortured and killed for amusement by 100 A.D.  When we realize that Rome financed much of the construction from looting the Temple in Jerusalem, and that thousands of Jewish slaves built it, we see that even when Rome tried to go “good” it brought about a terrible evil.  We discussed how this could happen. . .

1. Among other things, the Romans demonstrated what happens to addicts.  More and more is needed as the ‘drug’ gives less and less back, but it becomes so much a part of you that stopping is near impossible, at least humanly speaking.  Along those lines we discussed how in Scripture sin is described as a ‘power,’ a kind of black hole like vortex.  We delude ourselves when we think that we can easily jump back and forth between sinning and not sinning.  Quicksand doesn’t work that way.

2. The games satisfied Rome’s need for glory and courage.  Rome believed that they were still Rome, but very few citizens fought anymore.  Cicero, among others, thought the games served the purpose of ‘toughening’ the citizens. The Pax Romana created a breathing space for Rome that they could have used to transform themselves to some degree.  However, the very foundation of the Augustus’s principate system was built on the idea that Rome had not changed.  The games allowed the Romans to imagine that they were just like their ancestors, tough and able to deal with violence.

3. The games were also related to Rome’s broken political system.  Like the Wizard of Oz, Rome’s emperors could ill afford the citizens a look behind the curtain.  The games proved a marvelous distraction for the populace.  Also, since all power became centralized with the emperor, he needed to appear all powerful.  The bigger the spectacle, the better it tended to reflect on the emperor.

But the political problem had broader foundations than this.  With the rise of wealthy landowners gobbling up the small farms, thousands ended up flocking to the cities to find work, especially Rome.  What could be done with these people? Ultimately. . .

4. The games also show Rome’s continual band-aid approach to its problems.  They were not good at making hard choices about who they were at this point in their history.  The games distracted people and bought the short term favor of the lower classes, but it produced nothing for their society.  Whole armies of soldiers, slaves, and animals perished, countless money was spent, merely to enhance the image of the emperor and entertain the people.   But no creative or productive activity flowed from the games.  It was all ‘sunk costs.’

5. The Romans viewed the games as a means of displaying their power, in at least two ways.  First, it meant that Romans could say something to the effect of, “Look at what we can make people do for us!”  Perhaps this was more subconsciously believed than stated.  But the variety of people and the different fighting styles they employed did serve as a visual reminder of the scope of their power.

Had Rome been more productive or creative economically, this population influx might have led to a economic revolution of sorts for Rome, if we imagine the mid-late 19th century Industrial Revolution on a smaller, less technical scale.  However, being economically creative can’t just happen when you want it to.  It takes a foundation in education and attitude that Rome did not have.

Thus, the games reveal not only Rome’s moral bankruptcy, but its political and economic stagnation.

7. Finally, the games reflect Rome’s social and cultural climate “gone bad.”

When thinking of how the empire functioned we cannot lose hold of the context of Rome’s past Republican history.  Rome’s revolution in 508 B.C. created some measure of what we would call democracy, but it mainly gave the aristocracy/patricians more direct control over policy.  Americans view aristocracy as a dirty word, but Rome’s Republic functioned very well for many centuries.  One reason for this is that Rome’s aristocracy usually considered themselves patrons and acted as “patrons of Rome” without being overly “patronizing.”  The “patrons” sought to look after the lower classes, to provide for them, give them gifts, and sometimes be the stern father figure.  In fact, the patrons of Rome came from the “patrician” class, i.e. the “fathers.”

Good Roman fathers have many roles.  They lead worship.  They provide law.  They provide continuance of the family line.  Sometimes, too, they give gifts.  “Here’s 20 bucks, go have a good time at the movies with your friends,” and so on.  Emperors served as Rome’s ultimate patrons.  The Civil Wars of 133-31 B.C. decimated Rome’s aristocracy and left the Senate impotent.  Thus, whereas before Rome had many “fathers,” now for the most part, they have just one, the Emperor.

We understand Roman reaction to their emperors better if we view it through this lens.

  • Augustus cast the perfect balance between stern, reliable Roman father upholding the morals of Rome, with a sprinkling of gifts (of money, bread, etc.) and indulgence.
  • Tiberius was a great manager of money, but viewed as a miser.  He never threw a party, never gave gifts, etc.  He had no “heart.”
  • Caligula was a disaster — completely unreliable, giving no family stability
  • Claudius didn’t look the part, which was a drawback.  He had some problems with women — also a drawback.  But in the main he followed Augustus’ model.
  • Nero was the dad in perpetual mid-life crisis, who spent your inheritance and that of his brothers. He steals from other families when that runs dry.  He quits his job to become a very unsuccessful opera-singer and provides no leadership, no example, for his children.

Roman fathers had to show that they identified with their children’s interests.  The Roman Games were one big party, given as a gift.  Of course because Rome’s political system meant that they had just one father, the party had to be huge to cover the whole population.  The expense, the expectation, and the length of the games (by the 2nd century the games might last 4-5 months) all grew as each emperor tried to establish his credentials as a proper Roman father.*

All of this is bound to catch up with them at some point.  This week we will take a look at Rome’s decline through the lens of economics and architecture, and begin to find our way towards the coming of Constantine.

 *We want dads to provide the party for his teenage children, but not really to join in the party.  That would be weird and off-putting, most “un-fatherly” conduct.  Hence, the Romans did not like it when Emperor Commodus “joined the party” by participating personally in the gladiatorial games.

9th Grade: Fiddling with Flames

Greetings,

This week we looked at Emperors Claudius and Nero and the problems he caused Rome.

Claudius had his good points.  He was intelligent and hard working.  Some of his legislative and judicial reforms improved things in Rome.  His bust tells us that he was a “normal” guy, and he did not demonstrate any of the insanely cruel tendencies of Caligula.

But generally he is known for three things:

1. The conquest of Britain

What Julius Caesar began in the most tentative way, Claudius finished.  Ostensibly, Rome did this because Gaul may have been receiving aid from across the channel.  To me at least, however, this conquest served no real purpose for Rome accept to continue to delude itself that it was still strong as ever.  Some conquests could potentially make geographical sense even if based on shaky moral grounds.  It’s hard to see how the conquest of Britain fits into any category except that of  Claudius’s ego.  But it may simply been a way to solidify his legitimacy as emperor.  In other words, Claudius (a scholar, a man with a speech impediment and slightly deformed shoulder — not things Romans would have valued) may have thought that some kind of conquest was necessary to prove himself as a Roman leader.

Claudius may have further justified the action as ‘for the good of Rome,’ because if his regime faltered civil war might result, and Rome as a whole would suffer.  If we accept this line of reasoning we see how Rome’s system of government may have worked against the chances of Rome’s success.

We talked of how empire expansion can in some ways, resemble acquisitions done by companies.  I I listened months ago to an interview with the CEO of Ebay, who mentioned that the company’s mission was to “connect buyers and sellers.”  Previously Ebay bought Skype, and then under his tenure, sold it off again.  I asked the students if they had ever used Skype to call a business or seller, or if they had ever received a business call on Skype.  No one had, and this was Ebay’s CEO main point.  However neat Skype may be, it did not fit within their company mission.  Dumping even a “neat” product made their company healthier.

So too, territorial acquisitions have to make some sense, have to fit within the “mission” of the conqueror for it to have any hope of benefitting them (I realize that for the moment, I am not directly considering the moral issue of conquest).  I can’t see how Britain’s conquest could possibly fit within Rome’ s interests, though one student suggested that it fit perfectly well — Rome only cared about being bigger than before.

2. The expansion of the civil service

Claudius can be admired for having a soft spot for recently freed slaves who showed intelligence.  But, being clever, he used them to expand his own power.  The civil service was in many ways necessary, but it was also a tool to bypass whatever vestiges remained of Republican government in the Senate and other elected officers.  The Senate did little to object.  Some have commented that our own predilection for appointing ‘Czars’ (“Education Czar,” “Drug Czar,” over the last 20-25 years for the war on drugs, the economy, trade, etc. does the same thing, putting more and more in the hands of the executive branch.

3. His taste in women

For all his intelligence, Claudius had a blind spot when it came to women.  His first wife was named Urganulilla (enough said there), who may have murdered his sister.  Some suggest he divorced his second wife for emotional abuse.  His third wife had numerous affairs and probably involved herself in a plot to overthrow him.  Grudgingly, he executed her for treason.  His fourth wife probably instigated his death via poisoned mushrooms.  Well, no one’s perfect!

Claudius seemed to have a thing for women stronger in personality than him, and maybe was a glutton for punishment.  Perhaps a connection exists between his taste in women and his love for the gladitorial games, which he frequented.

Nero’s reign, like that of Caligula and other bad emperors, raises a question: Can anyone be, in historian Will Durant’s words, “both omnipotent and sane?”  Nero was not on the scale of say, Caligula, but clearly he distanced himself from reality.

He had a passion for the arts.  He spent much of his time devoted to singing.  He held concerts, where attendance was unofficially mandatory for Rome’s political class.  The Roman historian Seutonius writes that some  feigned death or heart attack in hopes of being carried out of these concerts early.  No doubt many volunteers rushed to the scene to “help” if they could.  Nero appears not to have noticed.

Nero’s passion surely must have struck the Romans as bizarre.  Imagine a campaign ad for a president that showed him, not shaking hands or looking smart at a desk, but taking lessons in how to sing an opera aria.

Nero attended the Greek Olympics in AD 68, giving many concerts to “wild applause.”  Nero also entered the chariot race, but alas, his chariot broke during the competition and he did not finish.  Nevertheless the Greeks awarded Nero first prize, and gave him their most distinguished award for excellence in competition.  Any normal person should have seen right through this, but Nero appears to have missed what the Greeks were trying to accomplish.  He proclaimed that the Greeks recognized “true greatness” and in appreciation removed Greece from the list of provinces that paid annual tributes to Rome.

Whatever their faults, no one ever said the Greeks were idiots.

I find something almost childlike about Nero’s utter lack of self-awareness.  But as we have said in previous updates, distancing oneself from reality to such a degree, combined with great power, would inevitably lead to disaster.  Nero’s self-delusion manifested itself in other ways.  He may have murdered his mother to obtain the divorce and remarriage he sought.  He may have had a hand in the great fire of 64 AD that burned much of Rome.  Nero had always talked of redesigning Rome on more aesthetic lines, and now with much of the city destroyed he could (Christians became a convenient scapegoat).  He almost certainly did not really “fiddle while Rome burned,” but the story points to a truth about his character.

When he died by suicide, he is reported to have lamented, “What a great artist dies with me!” delusional to the bitter end.  Few of us will always like the limits imposed on us by law, custom, circumstance, and conscience, but maybe these are some of the things God uses to keep us from being enslaved to our own self, and trapped in our own view of reality.

The aftermath of Nero’s death removed all traces of what remained of the Republic.  While under Augustus, the Senate at least served as a rubber stamp, now the position of emperor simply went to the general who could control Rome.

The Romans were glad enough to get rid of Nero, but eliminating him meant the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty and a power vacuum that needed filled.  Rome burned in A.D. 64, but Rome itself played with fire with a political system bound to rupture at some point.

Blessings,

Dave

Invictus Diplomacy

Historians are people too, and they need jobs just like everyone else.  One way some seek to perpetuate their role in society is by coming up with new and different perspectives on the past.  I am all for reexamining things and keeping them fresh, but . . .  recently I have noticed a few attempts to redeem Rome’s most notorious Emperors, Nero and Caligula, and I wonder if this carries things a bit too far.*  Still, despite my concerns that this represents something “weird for the sake of being weird,” we must contend, for example, with the fact that Nero had a great deal of popularity with the masses in general.  We need not assume that Tacitus and Suetonius deliberately lied and distorted things to wonder if they failed to give us the full picture.

Aloys Winterling recently published a well-received biography of Caligula.  Some reviews got my ire up with the word “rehabilitation,” but upon further examination, Winterling seeks to condemn Caligula in a different way, and not “rehabilitate” him.  Winterling allows us to understand Rome and his reign in a different light.  Traditionally most assume that Caligula’s actions had their roots in some type of madness, and this allows for us to excuse them in some ways, obscuring Caligula’s true motives.**

The Augustan synthesis fixed the bleeding in Rome after a century of intermittent civil war, but at a price of the straightforward approach Rome prided itself on.  Augustus may have “pretended” not to want power and the Senate likely “pretended” to rule.  But in the end, Augustus had the power and the senate didn’t. Augustus performed an intricate kibuki dance of sorts that allowed everyone to assume, if they wished, that Rome was still Rome, after all.

Caligula wanted to end this charade, Winterling argues, by carrying its logic as far it went.  He deliberately sought to expose the hypocrisy involved amongst Roman elite.  So, he made his horse a senator and consul as a deliberate insult, as a joke, not because he was “crazy.”  Nero had a thing for the stage and part of me wonders if we might not see Caligula’s time in power as something akin to Andy Kauffman as Emperor, where all masks come off because all masks are on, and things are funny because they are . . . not really that funny.  His goal seemed to be make people feel uncomfortable, something slightly akin to an act of social ‘violence,’^ which of course would presage the very real violence that characterized Caligula’s reign.

In attempting to strip off masks by putting on masks–such as “pretending” to be a god (though he might really have believed it?  Anything is possible). Many other examples exist of this.  When Caligula fell ill one Senator prayed for his recovery and, in an act of great ‘devotion,’ pledged his life for the health of the emperor.  When he recovered, Caligula made him go through with his pledge and end his life. No more masks, no more empty words. Caligula sought to break everything down and rule by himself with no need for social niceties.  One might think of Caligula’s reign as a 3 1/2 year stage act of a much more evil version of Andy Kauffman.

Diplomacy (and most aspects ofpolitics, I suppose) involves masks, and wearing such things must get tiresome.  One has to say things indirectly, if at all.  One says things with posture, and what one eats.  The job grants one high status and honor, yet it often requires a self-effacing temperment that often will not mesh with such requirements.  To say what one wants, to be an authentic man, such is the dream of every romantic.  It is this same romantic who no doubt envisions that his bracing personality is just what the world has been waiting for.

Liuprand of Cremona came from northern Italy as an ambassador for Emperor Otto in the middle of the 10th century A.D.  Otto sent him to Constantinople in hopes of arranging a royal marriage.  Liuprand’s life as a churchman gave him an excellent education, and he had a reputation as a fine speaker.  He seemed the best possible candidate to navigate the highly developed and occasionally strange world of Byzantium.

Liuprand wrote Otto an account of all of his exploits, and what makes his work so enjoyable is that he thinks he’s doing a great job.  He’s “telling it like it is,” not giving the Byzantines an inch!  He fights a valiant war of words on behalf of his emperor, of whom he seems to forget . . . wants a marriage into the Byzantine royal family.

One exchange, involving precedence and the tension between eastern and western churches, got a bit testy.  The Byzantines speak first (Liuprand writes in the first person) . . .

“But he will do that,” said Basil, the head of the imperial bedchamber, “when he makes Rome and the Roman church obedient to his nod.”

Then I said, “A certain fellow, having suffered much harm from another, approached God and said, “Lord, avenge me of my enemy!” God answered him, “I will do it, on the day on which I will give each according to his deeds.”

But to this Basil relpied, “How late!” [this exchange weaves together quotes from Ps. 61:13, Lk 18:3].

Then they all left the disputation shaking with laughter . . .

Liuprand walks away angry, but doesn’t seem to recognize the light-hearted touch from the Byzantines throughout this conversation, obvious in their laughter over his theological “zinger.”

In another instance, Liuprand grows incensed at the “masks” of the Byzantines, as they honored the emperor’s father, with the traditional song, “God grant you many years,” often sung in Orthodox churches even today.  We enter his narrative moments after he has been chastised by the emperor for finding their food too dainty and smelly.

[The Emperor] did not permit me a reply to his words, but instead ordered me back to the table.  Then his father entered and sat down, a man, it seemed, born 150 years before.  In their praises, or rather, their venting, the Greeks sang out, asking God  to multiply his years.

From this we can discern just how ignorant and greedy the Greeks are, and how enamored they are of their own glory.  They wish upon an old man, indeed–a walking corpse–what they certainly know nature will not allow, and the walking corpse wishes that which he knows will never happen, which he knows God will not do, and would not even be good for him if He did do it, but bad.

Liuprand is just the man to set them straight, if only they would listen!  How greedy the Greeks are, indeed!

As one might surmise, Liuprand failed to secure a royal bride for Otto. He has no capability to see his role in this disaster, or perhaps thinks it just as well.  How awful, he must have thought, to think of his leige Otto allying himself with these fish-eating onion lovers. Early during his visit he had been allowed to purchase some costly robes (though LIuprand seemed to despise all he saw and met, he did like their robes), but now the Emperor asked for them back.

When this was done, they took from me five very precious purple robes, judging that you [that is, Otto] and all the Italians, Saxons, Franks, Bavarians, Swabians, indeed all the nations, are unworthy to go about decked in cloth of that quality.  But how unsuitable and how insulting it is that soft, effeminate, long-sleeved, tiara wearing, hooded, lying, unsexed, idle people strut about in purple, while heroes, that is, strong men, who know war, full of faith and charity, in submission to God, full of virtues, do not!  What an insult, if that is not!” [he does add, we should note, that they reimbursed him for the price of the robes].

Thus ended his hilariously inept diplomatic career.

I know that many noble and worthy souls love the poem “Invictus,” by William Ernst Henley, but I have never liked a thing about it. The bald pagan statements in the poem always seemed to me a bit ridiculous and silly coming from the pen of a Victorian Brit.  I won’t argue the point too strongly, but I think we can at least say this, that when diplomats and politicians in sticky situations attempt to be “captains of their souls” and give nothing to no man, they become at best failures, at worst, a horrible wreck of humanity.  The final irony may be that such scrupulously confident people often end up the butt of jokes.

Dave

*Most academics, especially in the humanities, tend to lean left politically.  I wonder then, if we should be encouraged or worried that a variety of them seem to be trying to redeem, or perhaps lean towards “explaining away,” autocratic emperors.

**We should not call Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, etc., “mad” unless we do wish to excuse them in some way.

^For any who might not know, Tony Clifton is Andy Kaufmann.  I am one of those who (his Might Mouse routine aside), do not find him all that funny.  In my defense, reading the entire Great Gatsby on stage as his ‘act’ might be audacious (he actually did this at least once), but is it funny?  You might laugh at hearing about it, but would you pay to see it?

 

9th Grade: Pride and Insanity

Greetings,

This week we continued our look at the early Roman emperors.  After the death of Augustus came the reign of Emperor Tiberius.

There is  good evidence that suggests that Tiberius never wanted to be emperor at all.  Duty bound, he did not shrink from service.  In many key ways, Tiberius was a good emperor (generally just, sound money manager, no foolish military adventures), but his introverted personality distanced him from the population and the ruling elite.  His bust shows him at least at a young age to be a decent, unassuming man.  As time went on, he grew more bitter, more distant.

His time in power raises a few questions:

As the Republic faded and Augustus’s system took over, was it possible for the emperor to be a simple civil servant?  Did the principate system of Augustus require a more dynamic kind of leadership than Tiberius could muster?   I recently heard an interview with an actor who had senators John McCain and Diane Feinstein guest-star on the sitcom he is a part of.  He mentioned how naturally acting came to the politicians.  It initially surprised him at first, but then he thought that in fact, politicians play a role all the time.

Some decry this situation, while others accept it passively.  But we should wonder if our system of government and our society do not almost require our leaders to be at least part image.  They need to represent something abstract beyond themselves in order to appeal to a broad enough cross-section of people to get elected.

Tiberius’s reaction to his unpopularity exacerbated the problem.   Tiberius took his unpopularity personally.  He grew distant and sullen.  The distance eventually became physical as well as social, as he withdrew from Rome and ruled from the island of Capri.  His isolation forced him to trust a select few.  When one of them named Sejanus betrayed him, Tiberius went off the rails.  Now no one was trustworthy, and many were arrested on flimsy treason charges.  Once he could take refuge in the good work he did for Rome, but now he spent much of his time trying to find “traitors.”  Whereas before people may have grudgingly respected him without liking him, now he had the hatred of most of the political class in Rome.

So strong was their dislike of Tiberius, the Romans rejoiced at his murder in favor of Emperor Gaius, known to us and his contemporaries as Caligula.  With Caligula, the pendulum swung in the opposite direction. Here was a man of some charm, but almost no real care for the actual demands of office.

Unlike Tiberius, he actually had a sense of humor — but this often had a cruel edge to it even when expressed in its most benign forms.  Growing as the mascot of the army in Germany, the son of the beloved but murdered General Germanicus, Caligula never had any check on his whims.  In normal society he would have been an annoying brat.  Unfortunately for Rome, his birth and connections made him emperor of the most powerful empire in the western world.

As his reign progressed, he grew more and proud and insane with power.

Caligula may never have been “normal,” but he wasn’t always insane (however unnerving this most famous bust of him might be, with that smirk and those distant eyes).  We call those insane who cannot cope with reality, and pride and delusions of omnipotence certainly distance us from reality.  This distance can lead to paranoia and erratic behavior, perhaps out of fear.  A paranoid and erratic emperor would spell disaster for Rome’s political class.

Can a person make oneself insane through their actions?  We can consider Daniel 4 and the story of Nebuchadnezzar, where his pride led to his insanity.  The same might be said of Caligula.

Next week, we examine the reign of Claudius and Nero.

Blessings,

Dave Mathwin