The Third Way, 34: The Allure of Rome, Part 13 – Back to the Future

                By 1650, it was quite clear that the shattered unity of Christendom was irreparable.  Humpty-Dumpty had fallen and all the Kings’, Emperors’, and Popes’ horses and men could not put him together again.  Surely at this juncture the hankering for Roman-type hegemony would fade into the dim pages of history?  There was now neither an Empire nor a Roman Church to unify the squabbling peoples of the West.

            Besides, a new way forward towards wisdom and understanding, one that was freeing the West from the shackles of religion which had cost millions of lives over more than a century of fraternal war, was awakening hope of a better, saner, and more balanced and rational future.  Everyone needed to break from theological fanaticism and dogmatic condemnation and anathemas.  It was even beginning to be safe to voice such ideas in some places.  The dawning of tolerance and toleration of differences within society was edging over the horizon in a few lands, such as England, the Netherlands, some minor German States (until 1806, Germany was a crazy geo-political jigsaw puzzle of over 300 sovereignties), and Switzerland.  Incidentally, these areas all happened to be Protestant.  If you were a dissenter in a Catholic land, best to keep your head down and your mouth shut, for the Inquisition was lurking and would continue to do so until the revolution in France (1789-99) broke the Church’s secular power once and for all.

This new way was Science, the path of Reason, rational discourse and discovery.[i]  Its early proponents and practitioners had to proceed cautiously, especially if they happened to be Roman Catholic and carried on their research in a Catholic state.  Everyone knows the story of Galileo (although few really know it, but rather a much mutilated version of it).  Incidentally, the real story of the relationship of religion (mainly Christianity) and science is also much mangled and has been caricaturized in stereotypical revisionist textbook accounts more like fable than the historical reality.  (Fake news anyone?)  We cannot really deal with this issue here today, but it would be worth a visit of some length in the future.

            For the increasingly militant proponents of the new knowledge, there were models to admire and emulate and to study ardently in the new curricula being gradually established in the universities.  National Academies were being created to reward research and grant recognition to the best and brightest.  The best-known example of this was England’s Royal Society, whose declared purpose was the promotion of new science, the scientific method, and discovery of all kinds based on rational pursuit of empirical knowledge.  England’s lead was imitated and followed widely and with success in France, the Netherlands, and Prussia, a new, rising power in Germany.

            Aristotle once more came forward, along with a host of other ancient Greek thinkers and philosophers who had dabbled in science (Pythagoras, Hiero, Ptolemy, etc.), and even the Romans, those most practical of ancient people and the master engineers of History.  Cicero, Juvenal, and Lucretius were much admired Roman rationalists.

            What was most admired among these ancient authorities was the ability to think independently, setting aside religious issues and questions.  After all, paganism was so varied that insisting that one set of gods and practices supersedes all others was a completely pointless exercise.  Those eminently sensible Romans simply said, “Believe in whatever gods you choose, or none at all.  Just observe the public ceremonies and acknowledge the ‘divinity’ of the Emperor for appearance’s sake.”

            Thus, we turn once more to the Greeks and Romans, as did many Enlightenment thinkers.  How should we pursue truth?  Well, let’s see how those admirable ancient sages did so.  Let’s discuss their thoughts and proposals.  Let’s study their literary output in depth.  Let’s really understand how language can be used and developed as a tool to express nuance—no better exemplars than Ciceronian Latin and Attic Greek.

            Let us do as Aristotle did, or Euclid, or Pythagoras, or many others, analysing nature and all sorts of subjects with insatiable curiosity and relentless application of observation and classification. 

Another subject needing elucidation in the light of science: what kind of government is most admirable and effective?  Two principal models stood out: Athens and Rome.  By far the most effective in all history was Rome.  But by far the most elegant and admirable in principle was Athens.   Regrettably, tumultuous Athens also proved the fragility (folly?) of democracy, whereas Rome had demonstrated five hundred years of continuity and two hundred years of rock-solid stability and relative tolerance, Christians aside, during the Pax Romana, (27 BCE -180 CE).  This was the doing of a series of “Enlightened Despots” (especially those beginning in 98 CE with Trajan and ending with the death of Marcus Aurelius, the remarkable ‘Philosopher-King’, in 181 CE), so that seemed to be a tenable option.

            Edward Gibbon’s monumental The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a remarkable best-seller by late 18th C standards, was translated into every major European language.  It was the Enlightenment’s paean to the glory of ancient Roma.  It was a manifesto against the debilitating and nefarious effects of Christianity on the greatest civilization of all time (at least as Gibbon portrayed it).  By inference, it was the negative eulogy of a dying faith, at least as the Enlightenment philosophes conceived the upcoming eclipse of Christianity in favour of rational Deism, the updated version of that most venerable ancient philosophy, Stoicism. 

Gibbon’s verdict was that, like moles and termites eating the foundations of a magnificent edifice, Christianity had sapped the Empire’s moral and martial spirit and its general morale, destroyed the central vision and unity of a truly transnational, tolerant state, and betrayed all that was noble in the ancient world.  In its place, it gave Europe a millennium of Dark Ages (rather than Paradise on earth), religious bigotry, and factionalism.  It was time for the West to free itself from these chains of suppression, ignorance, superstition, and fanaticism.

            Other Enlightenment rationalist writers and thinkers (e.g. Diderot, D’Alembert, Voltaire) offered many other commentaries based on similar ideas.  They were great communicators and savvy manipulators of the mass media of the age, particularly print in an age of rapidly increasing literacy.  They invented newspapers and popular magazines, pamphlets and broadsheets, and that massive compendium of new learning, the Encyclopedia.  They founded coffee houses, salons, and new clubs to carry their torch and spread their gospel.  The overall tone of these learned works and places was (often not-so) subtly anti-Church and anti-Christian, although rarely overtly anti-Christ.  Once more, all this is far beyond what we can discuss at length here.

            One general effect was to resurrect the legacy of Rome and its Empire, to brush it off and reburnish it, once more making  its “Golden Age” (minus the infection of Christianity) a symbol and ideal which could be admired and even, perhaps, in the right circumstances, partially restored.[ii]

            Let us therefore see some of what we retain from the Romans in our history, besides a lot of interesting scenarios for nifty books, TV series, and spectacular films (The Robe, Ben-Hur, Gladiator, etc.).  Well, we have Latin, to begin with!  One of the Latin synonyms for ‘Emperor’ is Caesar (simply the retention of Julius Caesar’s name as a title).  The Germans and Austrians adapted it as ‘Kaiser’, while the Russians turned it to ‘Czar/Tsar’.  Via Napoleonic France, most of Europe’s legal codes are based on Rome’s massive law traditions as systematized under Justinian (Emperor of the East, 527-565 CE).  Via the Church, administrative and civil service models were to be found in the later empire’s methods, particularly as developed from the time of Diocletian (Emperor 284-305 CE) to Theodosius I (the Great, 379-395 CE).  For more than a millennium the Roman model of education (Trivium and Quadrivium) formed the pattern of western education right to the university level (once more via the Church).

            Imitation and emulation are the greatest forms of flattery and honour.  For 1500+ years Western governments, governors, and magistrates have continually resorted to the Roman model in practice and symbolism.  National, institutional, heraldic, and educational mottos have rarely used any language but Latin.  After the fall of the West (476 CE), for centuries the successor barbarian kings pretended allegiance to the Emperor in Constantinople in order to legitimize their rule in the eyes of the former Imperial subjects who formed the mass of the conquered population. 

The barbarian kings relied heavily on the resident Roman educated class to carry on a semblance of orderly rule, then on the Roman Catholic clergy.[iii]  They rather crudely tried to emulate Roman military organization, which had so long defeated them.  The Holy Roman Emperors used the eagle as their power symbol.  Remnants of Roman engineering prowess aided in construction and siege warfare.  These antiquities remained subjects of study then as they remain now.

            Imitators and claimants to the title and prestige of “Imperator” (Latin for Emperor) have remained part of European history, culture, and society since Charlemagne earned the title of “Emperor of the West and Holy Roman Emperor” in 800 CE.  Perhaps the most ardent and successful modern admirer and aspirant to this distinction was Napoleon Bonaparte, self-styled “Emperor of the French” (1804-1814, 1815). He deliberately avoided the phrases “Emperor of France” or “Emperor of the West” to show that his rule was based on the will of the people and his own efforts. 

Like Charlemagne, he was invested by the Pope (1804 CE), although he took the crown from the Pope and placed it on his own head.  Napoleon’s imperial legions used eagles as their martial emblems, like the Roman legions.  His Marshals carried batons with eagle-heads as their authority symbols.  Before being Emperor, Napoleon used the titles “Consul, First Consul, Consul for Life.”  Like Constantine, he made a strategic alliance (the 1802 Concordat) with the (Roman) Catholic Church to unify his people and cement his rule.  As mentioned above, his legal code, the “Code Napoléon”, which is still the foundation of French law and that of much of Europe via the expansion of French domination during Napoleon’s meteoric career, was inspired by and modeled on Justinian’s great code.

The United States has its share of Greco-Roman emulation and symbology, from its sloganry to its eagle, and much else.  Tsarist Russia used the two-headed eagle (facing east and west), an adaptation of Byzantium’s (East Rome’s) imperial symbol.  And the Kaiser’s Germany sported an imperial eagle on its very flag, while Nazi Germany stylized this for itself and had it emblazoned on military uniforms and symbols of power all over Europe.

The legend and mystique of Rome is still much with us, both “late and soon”.  As the West sleepwalks its way into abandoning and losing its heritage, the ghosts of the Caesars and the Eagles haunt us still.

Where does all this leave us in our spiritual meandering and searching for some sense of meaning and contact with the true, the just, and the beautiful? Perhaps there is another echo whispering, one of a resurrected Lord meeting Peter on the Via Appia as he headed into a Rome the Apostle had just fled, and Peter asking, “Quo vadis, Domine?”

Of that, more next time.


[i]  The capitalization of Science and Religion here is deliberate, as, for the “new thinkers” of what became known to us as “the Enlightenment”, they rapidly assumed the status of dogma.  Faith and belief are part of human nature and even our genetic makeup, so simply removing ‘Religion’ from one’s primary worldview does not obviate the need to believe and serve some kind of ultimate truth and reality.

[ii]  It is interesting to see how long this effect has lasted.  As recently as 2003, when the EU was adopting a constitution, its preamble pointedly ignored and virtually outright denied any debt to Christianity in the making of Europe as a society and transnational culture while extolling the great debt owed to the ancient glories of the Greco-Romans.  Revisionist History à outrance!

[iii]  In the year 212 CE, all free residents of the Empire were granted Roman citizenship, thus eliminating all local allegiances and national distinctions.  So a resident of Gaul became a Roman, as did an Egyptian, a Greek, a Syrian, a Macedonian, a Briton, a German, or a Spaniard.

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