Wednesday, May 13, 2009
The Glory and Oppression that was Rome
'Eagle in the Snow' by Wallace Breem is a book about the fall of Rome that has become a classic of its kind. It describes the gradual decay of the Empire in the West through the eyes of Maximus. It is a book that should be required reading in World History classes in every school.
The Roman Empire commonly is compared to the United States and its global sphere of influence. It was when I was in Tunisia, standing on the stones of old Carthage, that I truly became aware of the global nature of Roman influence. Rome in North Africa has endured in archaeological terms far better than Rome in the lands of the Northern people. There was less strife between the Roman overseers and the native populations than the terrible, grim wars of survival between the Germanic tribes and the hated Empire.
The Romans created marvels of modern engineering in the form of the aquaducts, roads and public baths throughout the Empire. There was tremendous corruption, however, as well as the fundamental philosophical question of whether or not one nation has the right to impose its will upon another. One cannot argue even that the Romans were superior morally, philosophically or ethically to the people they subjugated, nor was the 'Pax Romana' achieved without constant bloodshed. Sometimes the people of the Empire fought for nothing more than the hunger of warring leaders for power. The latter days of the Empire in particular are characterised by multiple self-styled Emperors who fought one another throughout the known world.
There was a time in the Empire when all religions were tolerated but once Constantine proclaimed Christianity to be the 'official religion', older religions suffered persecutions.
The Romans were hated most in Northern Europe, not in Africa. Despite the brutal total destruction of Carthage, for the most part, North Africa adopted the Roman ways that it admired and ignored the rest. Roman architecture and achievements either were incorporated into native civilisations ultimately or were abandoned to the desert.
In Northern Europe, however, proximity to the capital as well as the threat of the Huns from the East contributed to the savage endless wars between so-called 'Barbarians' and the Empire. Furthermore, there was a very profound religious cause for emnity. The Forests, considered sacred by native tribes, were destroyed by an Empire that perceived them only as a source of lumber for building projects. This point often is lost in history lessons. Even before Christian kings like Charlemagne waged deliberate religious war against the old gods, the Empire had committed sacrilege in the eyes of the native populations of Northern Europe by cutting down sacred groves.
Apart from the need for lumber, the Forests represented another danger to the armed forces of the Empire. They were a natural sanctuary for enemies who fought more as individuals than in organised units, who were adept at what now is termed 'guerilla warfare'. Romans built straight roads, not so much for trade as for the progress of marching soldiers and the cover provided by forests to native resistance forces was a threat to the Empire.
The Roman Empire linked the world through trade as well similar to the way the U.S. created multi-national corporations that now hold significant political as well as economic power to determine the destiny of other nations and people. The effects of Roman imperialism have lasted 2000 years, for better or worse, as long as some of its architectural wonders. Are monuments worth the price paid in the destruction of native cultures and native aspirations? Certainly the petty power struggles of rival leaders were not worth the blood of a single individual, whether Roman volunteer or foreign conscript. Trade is lauded as unreservedly positive in contemporary Western propaganda. The ability to determine whether or not a product even should EXIST as well as the locations where it is created and the prices by which it can be or cannot be acquired are considered to belong to the leaders of trade by right. Propaganda rules our perception of products. One need only look at the Opium Trade for proof of that. There is nothing intrinsically evil about the Poppy. The motivations for controlling or prohibiting the growth of the Poppy throughout the world are not noble. They are greed, a desire for total control and the need to manipulate both nations and people. Pharmaceutical companies are powerful multi-national corporations whose own interests are paramount in their considerations. More clandestine perhaps but equally influential politically is the way that political organisations such as the CIA rely upon the continuing illegality or tight control of various pharmaceutical substances to line their pockets and pay for their illicit operations throughout the globe. U.S. support of many a dictator and many unsavoury governments has been subsidised by cocaine.
Is it any wonder that the U.S. is despised by the so-called 'Third World'? Like the Roman Empire in its latter days, the U.S. meddles in every one else's affairs and actually believes it has the right to do so. It promotes a belief system wherein U.S. values and 'civilisation' are judged superior, infecting its people with missionary zeal to force submission upon the entire world in the name of 'democracy' and 'social progress'.
There is one final point to be made about the Roman Empire and its parallel to the United States at the start of the 21st century. The Roman Empire thrived on war, in a sense, because the War Machine had to be fed regularly. Soldiers were the foundation of the Empire and they required training as well as provisions. In a state of peace, the Military Machine faced the usual threats of being considered superfluous and diminished. In the same way, the United States owes much of its admittedly false 'Prosperity' to the Military Machine and those who run it. The unjustifiable invasions of Iraq were necessary for the maintenance of this Monster.
When the Soviet Union no longer could be held up as a threat to encourage national support of the Military, the 'War on Terror' was created.
I stray from the point of this post, however, which simply was intended to recommend 'Eagle in the Snow' to any one who has not read it. If you like historical fiction, it is a book that inspired many of the best contemporary writers in the genre. Moreover, it is one of those books with universal relevance. You need not be obsessed with ancient Rome in order to enjoy it.