Monday, December 28, 2015

Why Rome endured while we might fall

Rome lasted for over 700 years as a republic and then republican empire. It then became a true empire under Octavian /Caesar Augustus which lasted another 4 centuries in the west and in truncated form another 12 to 15 in the east. The Pax Romana lasted roughly 5 centuries.  In those years the threat to Roman rule never really came from anyone but other Romans. The  question is why?  How could one small group of wildly bigoted and superstitious knuckleheads hold sway for so long?

Why did the Pax persist? 

There are deterministic 'explanations':  the Roman Empire coincided with a climate optimum warmer than today which (contrary to today's 'scientific' claims) led to prosperity and population growth. Because of the structure of the Med, after Carthage was destroyed (I have the T shirt updated for Texas:  Dallas delenda Est - and oh my God it certainly must) there were no viable rivals due to the structure of Greek Culture and the somnolence of the Egyptians.  But these ultimately fail to answer the question:  yes I know the weather was good back then, but why Rome?  Yes many city states were quarrelsome and selfish but why not Rome?  Yes, many empires became satiated and somnolent like the Egyptians but the Parthians didn't so why not them? 

I submit that there are two primary reasons that Rome persisted for so long. The first is that their elites believed in themselves and their project far more and for far longer than anyone else did. This intense belief, even faith in the Roman way permeated the entire society, down through the plebs and even the servile.

And uniquely for back then, they believed that their role was a  universal civilizing one rather than a particular one - which leads me to my second reason: Rome had a genius for making outsiders into Roman insiders.  Wherever Rome went it implemented its distinctive package of institutions and cultural artifacts, elevating the local elites culturally and legally to become Romans. In doing so, newly conquered peoples were in due time turned into pacified provinces of the Roman Imperium. That the eastern half of the empire spoke Greek really didn't matter:  it was still Roman rule with the same norms. And the same pride and cultural "autorictus" that both overawed and rewarded other elites. And the outcome? Prosperity, peace and hegemony unrivaled in its scope and length until the modern era.

I'm reminded of this because I've been reading a biography of Julius Caesar, specifically Life of a Colossus by Adrian Goldsworthy - a true classical scholar, I recommend anything by him, possibly including his grocery list. In it he describes how the Romans built their national and cultural pride via education:

This thinking is no longer acceptable in the west. Indeed the British Empire succumbed not when it ran out of resources (after all they had built their empire when they were far poorer) but when its elites stopped believing that Great Britain was Great.  They abandoned their civilizing mission and instead turned inward to socialism and comfort - they stopped believing, stopped dreaming. Fortunately for the world, the Pax Britannica was saved by an America that still believed in itself, extending a general peace and prosperity for another 60 or so years.  It is now failing - not because America lacks the resources or the technology to continue to lead and dominate the globe but because its ruling elites now largely believe the opposite of what the Roman (or previous generations of British and American) elites believed. Western elites now hold that we are only special in our special wrongness: our unique environmental destructiveness - in spite of living in the cleanest countries in the world, our uniquely evil racism and sexism - despite being the most egalitarian polities in world history,  our unique warmongering - despite building the Pax  into the most peaceful era in the world history.

And just like the Western Roman Empire in the 400s, the West is seeing massive waves of immigration from other cultures who want the comfort, wealth and safety produced by the west but to one degree or another are rejecting the culture that produced it.  And why shouldn't they?  The people with all the power and money in the west often don't believe in their own culture's superiority - indeed they teach the immigrants that their own cultures are superior and not to abandon them. This is a bit odd given that the the very act of immigration testifies to an opposite belief in some important respects.  But of course our elites also don't believe in the validity of people' choices nor their judgement, whether or not immigrant.

“Hey-hey, ho-ho, Western culture’s got to go.
– Slogan from 1988 Stanford University protest led by Jesse Jackson. 
Leaders in America and Europe don’t want to confront Islamic fundamentalism, or other nasty manifestations of post-Western thinking, because they increasingly no longer believe in our own core values. At the same time, devoted to the climate issue, they are squandering our new energy revolution by attempting to “decarbonize,” essentially leaving the field and the financial windfall to our friends in Riyadh, Moscow, Tehran and Raqqa.
In other words many of our leaders use our very success to define our depravity:  are we rich? that's only because we have 'exploited' the environment and others and therefore we need to 'repent'.  But the fact that tens of millions of others are coming to our shores doesn't indicate their need for what we have, instead it gives us the opportunity to abase ourselves and submit to their higher wisdom which oddly enough wasn't sufficient to keep them at home much less attract any of us.
So our elites interpret catastrophic violence and failures of governance in places like Syria and Iraq as evidence of Western failures rather than as a collapse in Islamic and Arab culture.  They then demand that we import large numbers of people who have been raised in and are part of these failed nations' and cultures without reflecting upon why they are fleeing to us in the first place.  Nor do we reflect upon  the paradox that by refusing to assert the superiority of our culture and values by requiring their adoption, we end up importing the same pathogens that are tearing the middle east and central Asia apart.

It seems a religious madness has gotten hold of our educated and wealthy elites so that they cannot see our strengths or others' deadly, contagious weaknesses. Which is a terrifying portent for the future.

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