Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Roman Empire versus the United States – Part I

I firmly believe that history doesn't repeat itself. There are certain constants, because the human nature is fairly constant, and various coincidences, but no cycles or patterns. Therefore, the list below is just a collection of constants and coincidences, mixed together with a few things that were inherited naturally by contemporary civilizations from the ancients. I am perfectly aware that the things I list here can be found in many other countries, I just compared the Roman Empire to the United States for the fun of it.

The Founding Legend

Aeneas left behind the burning city of Troy, faced a bunch of maritime problems and found his way to Italy, where he founded a little village, and, more importantly, brought his family to safety. Romulus and Remus, legendary founders of Rome, would be born into this family. This was Rome's way of claiming direct heritage from a great, but decaying civilization.

Same as Mayflower left the once great British Empire to sail for new horizons. Survivors reached a relative safety, but that was the price to be paid for freedom (in a similar way, had he stayed in Troy, Aeneas would have been either killed or turned into a slave by the conquerors).

Throw some girls in the mix (Dido and Pocahontas, I'd say I just made Virgil twist in his grave), a bunch of not so cooperative locals, who see the light eventually (the Sabines and the native American Indians) and add more semi-mythical characters to your liking. (Start with Davy Crocket. He was cool.)

Of course, the Mayflower is real. Probably so was Aeneas in the beginning. America is slowly turning its origins into mythology: the Thanksgiving celebration, the larger than life founding fathers, the Western movies, the emphasis on a rather minor, anecdotal incident like the Boston tea party – these sketch out images destined to stir emotions, not to transmit facts. Well, granted, every country needs a decent founding legend. America is just creating its own as we speak.

The Army

Size matters. The biggest army in the world also means the biggest military budget, both Rome and Washington would discover, but hey, that's life. Having citizens rise up in arms to defend their homeland is good, but a professional army is even better.

There was another neat little trick the Romans discovered, and Americans are following, or re-discovering, today: having the biggest army doesn't mean it's a good idea to use it. Sure, it may seem like a huge waste to maintain it just for the show, but it's actually more expensive to put it to use in conflict. Conflicts, however, can be avoided if your opponent knows yours is much bigger than his. Army, I mean.

Here's where the propaganda comes in. The legionaries were presented as the ultimate fighting machines. Foreign rulers were invited to visit Rome's military camps and be amazed by their perfect organization and discipline. Parades were held regularly, and the veterans got so much respect, even the emperor would rise to meet them. Guess the company that owned the copyright for the G.I. Julius action figure made it big.

The Youth and Beauty Cult

Here's the thing: the classical European civilizations, Greek and Roman, had a real admiration for the perfection of the human body. This is why they made all those statues of naked people. Then, the perspective shifted. Christian Europe considered beauty a temptation, a sign of vanity and associated it with sin. Nakedness was out anyway – that's why they smashed the genitalia off the statues of naked people (seriously, why didn't they just put some clothes on them?) The beauty cult made a timid comeback only in the 19th century, but finally achieved its full potential after the television kicked in.

Romans were ambivalent towards youth. On one hand, they had strict rules that prevented young people from taking more responsibility than they could handle and from embarking themselves in adventurous enterprises. On the other hand, they enjoyed nothing more than watching those rules smashed to pieces.

In theory, you had to be at least 40 to get the highest positions in the state (and given the shorter life expectancy of the time, that was old). In practice, Romans cheered with great enthusiasm every time they got themselves a very young emperor. The result? Well, just like today. Children and adolescents who grow up in the spotlight cave in to the media pressure and end up in a hotel toilet, with a syringe in their vein. The young emperors I mentioned, that Romans loved so much in the beginning? Caligula, Nero, Commodus.

One more thing. This obsession with beauty had its consequences in politics, then just like today. Politicians of the time went to great lengths to present themselves as good-looking, with a nice wife on their arm and a set of perfect children. Fortunately for them, statues and portraits minted on coins didn't add ten pounds. This was never again in issue in the world's politics until television came into play.

The Infrastructure Issue

A big territory poses big issues. If you have a rebellion on your hands at your empire's borders, you don't want to wait six months to find out about it. The Romans are still famous for their impressive, and impeccable, roads – some of which are still in use in Europe today. The Roman postal system was the fastest Europe would know until the 19th century.

Likewise, America is famous for its system of roads and obsession with cars. And for its railroad system, which conquered the West. And for its electronic infrastructure, which turned the Internet into an English-language business before the rest of the world caught on. Networks. Where would empires be without them?

The Citizenship Issue

Romans had a very simple way of dividing humans: first, women and slaves aside. For the rest, there were just two categories: citizens and barbarians. Actually, there was a state of limbo, barbarians within the empire, but that was transient, they would either become citizens in due time, or stay barbarians, riot and be duly put to death.

A bunch of civil wars started, not because the rebels wanted the break free from Rome, but because they wanted to get in – meaning, to obtain the citizenship. Greencard, anyone?

Being a Roman citizen was... you know those movies, where, in the middle of an international conflict, the character suddenly starts weaving around his US passport like a magical shield, and yelling “I'm an American citizen”? Yeah, that's just how being a Roman citizen was.

Rome had its own 9/11 moment when a king named Mithridates of Pontus had a sudden fit and decided to throw the Romans out, but killing all the Roman citizens on his territory. Some say that 80,000 men, women and children were put to death. Rome was stunned. There was a general outcry that the Senate had to do something to protect the citizens living abroad, but they were so shocked, that the reaction was not nearly as tough as you would have expected. In fact, Mithridates survived a long time after his genocide – sure, he lost his territories almost immediately, but remained an important power player in the area. This could have something to do with the fact that Rome was torn apart by internal, political conflicts at the time – at such as strong opponent from outside made good grounds for political campaigns. Several generals claimed glorious and definitive victories over Mithridates – usually, just in time to serve them in the next electoral campaign. As I said in the beginning, any similarities to what's going on today are just coincidental.

To be continued...
(Currently I have about 20 points written down, so I estimate there will be four or five parts for this. Bear with me until I'm done.) 

Go to: 
The Roman Empire versus the United States – Part II
The Roman Empire versus the United States – Part III
The Roman Empire versus the United States – Part IV