Essays on various subjects

Saturday, February 28, 2004

Why was Rome?

The study of Rome is essential to the American experiment. Why? Because the parallels are simply too great to ignore.

The development of Rome into an empire and what it allowed for and resulted in, was until the establishment of America, the most unique event in world history. Yes, there were other empires East and West before and after Rome's, but none equal the breadth, depth, and scope of civilization as Rome was able to create. As rich as China's accomplishments have been in art and technology, Rome's were greater since Rome didn't just invent, but assimilated and incorporated everything it touched whereas China tended toward isolation and xenophobia. It also suffered many interruptions and interregnums.

How did Rome become such a catholic civilization, though?

There was nothing in Rome's earliest history to predict its later emergence as the world power. (Sorry, to those who wish to assert that China or Persia were equals in power at the time. Rome destroyed Persia as soon as it could turn its attention to it on a large enough scale, and no Chinese army could ever have hoped to defeat the might of the Legions and good, Roman generalship.)

Rome was a Latin village among a group of a dozen or so in the Tiber area. They were easily conquored by the Etruscans, and ruled by their kings for a century or more until thrown out. Roman society and government was aristocratic in basis, but distinctions in lifestyles were not that great between classes. Romans ate surprisingly simple fare like porridge and some fruit for breakfast, and dressed similarly for daily tasks. Their institutions of government and culture weren't exceptionally different from that of their neighbors.

Historians have claimed that Rome became an empire by default, in that their determined defense of their city and interests led them to conquor others for the sake of survival. But this is inaccurate. The astonishing part of ancient history is that small groups in a relatively unpopulated world fought constantly with one another. Rome simply became better at it than others.

All cultures are not equal, and the circumstances which made Rome great were unique. But what were they? I'm not sure I know or can say, but I can tell some of the story.

We think of Rome (as well as Greece) as the first Western cultures, but in the early days of Italian city states, everyone was at war with everyone else. The situation was more byzantine than the most oriental of satrapies since alliances constantly shifted, treaties quickly made and betrayed. Rome was lucky simply to keep its head above water as all the cities grabbed at each other trying to pull themselves up while pushing others down.

In that mix, Rome was merely a local contender for domination with much ebbing and flowing until they were invaded and sacked by the Celts (who did it twice).

Why did the Celts invade Italy? Why did the Latins fight each other so much? What made people so warlike and aggressive then?

To say they had a different world view would be to drastically understate it. Put simply, say it was covetousness. People then had no qualms or scruples about coveting what their neighbors had, and taking it by force in order to glorify themselves, and increase their wealth. Like many Arabs or Muslims today, people had little or no empathy for anyone outside their tribe. Their lives were relatively short, life was generally hard, and fortune was always capricious. They also drank much wine which releases inhibitions and increases emotionality.

And they adored GOLD. It is difficult to convey the overwhelming lust that those peoples had for gold. No one could convince them that gold didn't buy happiness. (We still love it. Over 90% of all the gold ever mined is still in circulation or deposited in vaults.)

Many later invaders of Italy saw a settled and domesticated land which they sought to possess for themselves. The Celts, though, saw it simply as a place for raiding for plunder rather like land pirates. The Latins saw each others' towns and lands as a source of both plunder and free land for their own expansion.

Until the Celts invaded, warfare was Greek in style with phalanxes of armored men with round shields and long spears. It had been an unbeatable formula against all other kinds of fighting, and only heavy infantry of that type could withstand or defeat such in battle.

The Celts, though, rather easily defeated the Romans and others. They broke through their lines with their wild attacks and scattered the small armies by shattering their discipline, creating panic and disorder. The weakness of the phalanx was that if the line was breached by the enemy, or the push against it was strong enough to quail the ranks behind the first few lines, then the battle was immediately lost. The fleeing army was then cut down from behind as they were laden with armor and had little time to cast away shield and bronze to escape the rout.

The Roman response to their defeats by the Celts was to recreate their way of war and battle. They changed their shield, their armor, their weapons, their formations, and learned generalship. After that, the Roman army remained essentially static in their equipment and strategy for centuries to come. And they were unbeatable when well led, and very hard to beat even when poorly led.

It were these innovations more than anything which led to Rome's greatness. That and their committment to survival and dominance. Romans simply abhored defeat. They shaped their government and institutions into a means to insure efficiency and success at war. (They had no trouble acknowledging that war as a human constant was a given.) Although aristocratic in ruling, they saw a value in giving the ordinary people a share of government, and the spoils of war. They professionalized their army, and their reliance on engineering to improve their infrastructure was single minded. No one did what they did on such a scale before - paved roads, seaports, aqueducts, barracks, camps, garrisons, quartermastering, civic projects, and civil law -- it boggles the mind when you reckon the enormous scope of Roman civil and practical engineering.

The Romans were immensely brutal. Genocide was common to them, yet, they brought conquored peoples into their governance who grew loyal and "roman". They were able to establish a rule of law that was universal (despite what we read of the caprices of the emperors, the rapacity of provincial governors, and the decadence of wealthy merchants). Rome was orderly, and maintained order (regardless how violently they did so). And they did this for about eight hundred years in the West.

However close China comes to such achievement, it was never able to maintain the integrity of any one dynasty for very long. But Rome endured.

Some say that history has become accelerated. What occurs in a century now compresses the actions and upheavals of a millennium or so, a number suggest. I don't know how to quantify such concepts. There seems to be some truth in the idea that our societies suffer change more rapidly; after all, the last century saw more technological innovation in any few decades than the whole of life previously. Yet, can we measure our world or culture by addition of techniques?

Take American football as a popular spectacle. It began as a rather mild college sport in the late 1800's, became very popular nationally in the 20's and 30's when professional leagues began so as to capitalize on the frenzy (and were neither particularly violent though certainly rough). Then it was in the 50's with the advent of television that the NFL began to create the excitement that college football once had. The sport also began to become increasingly violent as a collision sport.

Now, in 2004, football increases in audience around the world, has become primarily spectacle and collision (gladiatoral), and may be entering a long peak. This roughly corresponds with the advent of the original gladiator games and their development in Rome. From the time prior to Julius Caesar when the games began to their peak with the later emperors of the 1st century, we have over hundred years.

So the development from a provincial entertainment to a world spectacle is very similar between the Roman games and our own popular ones. We also tend to forget that America is some 400 years past its founding colonies. We aren't as young as some think. We are advised to consider that time, and the ebb and flow of social changes, are not any different now than they were for the ancients.

What made Rome great were two things - desire of wealth, and hunger for security. All people share those wants, but Rome did one thing better than anyone else: their culture rewarded discipline and subordination rather than violence and capriciousness. They, more than anyone, created the West.

Thursday, February 19, 2004

Why the artists hate you

Conservatives have a problem with artists, just as most artists have a problem with conservatives. For example, there is a provision in Bush's new Medicare program (the prescription drug boondoggle) which attempts to allow individuals to create their own sort of 401K plan for medical care. Catastrophic health care would be insured for them, but ordinary medical care would be covered by their own tax free savings.

This sounds like a good idea. It gives people control over their medical care, their selection of doctors, treatment, testing, and so forth. Working people can manage this like they do their retirement funds. Everyone wins.

Except artists.

Artists have long, and sadly accepted the general proposition that they cannot pursue their vocation in art and expect to be liquid or create much equity. No, starving artist is not a misnomer or stereotype. People only get to become great at an art by doing it full time. But doing so means that they most likely scrape to get by. The trade off is that they get to do work they absolutely love instead of working on the assembly line or salt mines.

But artists are generally very liberal because they can't afford decent housing, private education for their children, medical expenses, or retirement funds. They tend not to be religious anymore, so they can't ask their community for help, so they turn to government. They generally do not receive the approval of their fathers if their dads are traditionally masculine types, and receiving the approval of dads who are wimpy is no better. In both cases they feel marginalized and inadequate. Anger at the father leads to much atheism, rebelliosness, and animosity to tradition.

Artists don't really care about the poor except that it helps them to make an argument for their own needs. You don't see Barbra Streisand or Steven Speilberg offering to create a huge endowment fund for starving actors out of their vast wealth, do you? No, they want ordinary people to pay for starving actors' and artists' needs. The very few artists who reap mega fortunes don't care a whit about their struggling peers, and won't dent their own fortunes for the sake of their own kind, but are more than ready to raise a working man's taxes a large percentage.

Conservatives, though, think that everyone should carry their own weight. But artists simply can't. It's no good saying the market should decide; that some fall by the wayside because they aren't good enough or self-promoting enough - well, then we will lose incredibly fine works of skill and beauty, for my experience (not with my own work) in observing a great many superb artists is that regardless of the quality of their work, they hardly get by because work of the highest quality is simply not valued by enough.

It is as if you have a market of 1000 people who can appreciate quality and will buy it, but you have 50 artists producing 5000 pieces of good work. It can't all be bought, so what do we tell the artists? They're hiring down at the union hall? We can always use more truck drivers? Why not just shoot them?

The conservative vision of every man under his own fig tree simply doesn't work when it comes to people who are willing to starve and suffer for the sake of developing their craft, and desire for mastery of creative work. Nor is it easy enough to say - tough luck, hard world.

In fact, for most people, life isn't that tough or hard because they are more easily satisfied in their vocation. Most people don't find their lives and work drudgery in America. Surprising to me is that most people like their jobs, whereas I hated working full time at any job that wasn't creative. No matter how decent the people, the working conditions, and useful the work - I hated having to devote my life to making a buck. I would become miserable, depressed, suicidal if I thought that the rest of my life was going to be doing such work all the day, every day.

I would have rather starved. And I did on many occasions, and live in conditions people would marvel at, wondering how I could stand it. As long as I was free to work at what I loved, I could stand a lot.

As long as we have a large, educated, creative, but under-employed class of artists in America, there will be a huge propaganda machine directed with energy and hostility at conservative values, traditional Good, and natural law.

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