What the Romans Did Not Know

Charles Van Doren’s History Of Knowledge has always struck me as one of the most profound and least appreciated grand histories.  I first read it in 1993 or 1994. With its emphasis on the state of knowledge, Van Doren’s book offers a useful paradigm for the level of development of each Great Power. Here are a few lines about Rome that stuck with me over the years:

The Romans always possessed a fierce respect for and love of law.  …Everywhere that Rome conquered they took their law with them and gave it to the peoples they ruled. (p. 67)

Rome in the latter days of empire… An emperor would be chosen by a gang and would rule only so long as he pleased the assassins. (85)

The ancient empire … was thus crippled at its heart by a political disease which no one knew how to cure. (85)

One response to “What the Romans Did Not Know

  1. Daniel Brickley

    Much is made of the “Fall of Rome” or “The Decline of the Roman Empire,” as well as their “gift” of law to the less enlightened.
    But the Roman character of both Rome and its empire changed over period of nearly 700 years. “Political disease” is a catchy term, and one cannot dismiss entirely the corruption of the government itself (and of Roman law) even before Augustus. But the decline and fall of the Roman empire was, to a greater extent, the decline and fall of the ancient world while under the care of “Doctor Roman Empire.” For years, of course, the empire was a success and the ancient world was united, pacified, tutored, and governed with resulting prosperity for many people.
    But slave economies (much later: serfdom of citizens themselves fallen into poverty), class systems, widespread illiteracy, contempt for technological “toys” and artisans, lack of innovation and productivity growth, privatization of public tasks like tax collection were also perpetuated. Too, Italy’s early slavery-induced poverty and Rome’s ruling class required, from the beginning, forced donations from the provinces – lousy economics.
    Furthermore the military upon which Romans and the empire depended – the always significant and glorified leagions, in later years composed of “foreigners” – became excessively powerful and demanding of pay raises even when economy and tax collections could not provide the necessary public wealth. Hence those emperors chosen by gangs.
    What’s more, the Roman Republic was, for all practical purposes, an oligarchy of the wealthy. One could buy access, of course. The Republic’s failures led to monarchy, also a “natural” for corruption.
    The oversimplification of “the fall of Rome,” for untold decades, seems to ignore the fact that over 700 years “times change,” domestically and abroad. Why, it could be said that by the fourth and fifth centuries the government wasn’t even “Roman.” For as the ancient world slowly became less productive, it also became unprotectable and ungovernable. I haven’t even mentioned the northern barbarians and the middle eastern kingdoms; neither have I introduced Christianity as a potent cause of change nor the dividing of the empire into eastern and western segments.
    This less than perfect account by an elderly retired history teacher seeks only to call attention to the complexity of the ancient world and to the seven centuries or so during which the Roman Empire existed – why, it even existed farther east after that “Fall of Rome” which is usually set at 476 A.D.(you can tell how old I am by that A.D.) My dusty set of Gibbon’s account runs to five volumes.
    All that shouldn’t suggest, however, that I doubt our own political system is “crippled at its heart by a political disease.” Call the illness what you wish, but it’s “one dollar, one vote,” perhaps, as Lawrence Lessig suggests. Certainly, somewhat like the old Roman Republic before, during, and after empire acquisition, we are now governed, disenfranchised, impoverished, gerrymandered, dumbed down, marginalized, and too often ignored by self-satisfied and self-righteous, military glorifying, market worshipping, intellectually straitjacketed politicians of an upper class supported by corporate wealth and assisting in its increase, as well as driven by the love of money that’s the root of we all know what. A government one can buy his or her way into.
    Plutocracy, yes. Kakistocracy fits. But “Peinekratocracy,” too, I call it: government by those hungry for power. And that term might have described not only the Roman Republic but also the later imperial Roman governments (about which Van Doren must have provided more than a few catchy expressions).
    And I haven’t even mentioned our country’s corporate totalitarian culture, a kind of necessary – that is, soothing, diverting, and imprisoning – foundation for the plunder sanctioned by too many perennially purchased politicians.
    We aren’t the Roman Empire, but we certainly could learn some things from its long and complex history. Our founders knew quite a bit about it, but we seem to be familiar only with the surface of the ancient world, courtesy of Professor Hollywood, and with a few simplified explanations concerning that distant past. Too bad.

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