The Third Way, 22: The Allure of Rome, Part 3

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“… no matter the vigilance of any ethnarchy, it cannot withstand the siren song of the larger society that encompasses it.”

Thomas Cahill, The Desire of the Everlasting Hills, the World before and after Jesus.  The Hinges of History, Volume III, (Doubleday, 1999), Kindle Edition, Location 480.

During more than five centuries, for many millions who never saw the imperial metropolis, Rome was the siren singing the song that bewitched (or oppressed) a quarter of the world’s population.  More than 1500 years later, the song still echoes around the world.  Its lyrics were sung in Latin and Greek.  These two imperial languages have infiltrated every significant society in our world via English, French, or the other languages of the European colonizers.  The vocabularies of the Western tongues are replete with Latin and Greek derived words and terms, sometimes imported unaltered: sine que non, pro tempe, ad lib., extempore, rigor mortis, et cetera (etc.), halitosis, archetype, pantheon, -etc., etc., etc.  Modern medicine developed first in Greek, and was absorbed by Latin.  It has retained much of the original vocabulary in anatomy, diagnosis, etc

The well-known and respected historian of Western Civilization, Thomas Cahill (The Hinges of History is his multi-volume magnum opus for the layman and well worth reading), quoted above, also points out that a language is not solely and simply a means of verbal communication:

“Languages bring values with them, and one cannot learn a language without making one’s own things the civilization that developed the language considers important …. the Greeks had their own powerful words and phrases which, once learned, gave the speaker a specifically Greek outlook …. Similarly, common English words and phrases adopted nowadays throughout the world give even simple people, living in cultures bound by non-Western myths, access to such values as progress, democracy, technology, and capitalism, even if one should see these values through the eyes of inflexible traditionalists: as contempt for traditions of authority and discipline and love of chaos and of self at the expense of the common good).”

(Cahill, ibid., Location 306)

Languages are imbued with the worldviews of those who developed them, encapsulating the common factors underlying the culture and society whose principle tools of communication they are.  As such, they are spiritual vehicles; they carry the soul, the ethos (a Greek word we have simply imported) of a people, a tribe, a clan, a nation.  The West drank so deeply at the Greco-Roman well for so long that the European civilization that succeeded Rome is still steeped in a Greco-Roman worldview. 

There have assuredly been other major influences as well—the Judeo-Christian and Germanic contributions being most significant.  But when these three cultural tributaries of the Western Amazon merged over time during the Middle Ages (in itself, a loaded ideological term entirely dependent on the idealization of the Greco-Roman “Golden Age”), unquestionably the one which ended up “winning” the merger was the Greco-Roman stream. 

Part of Rome’s genius was adoption and adaptation—the ability to absorb and assimilate all comers, repurposing them to serve Rome’s dominant vision as the great civilizer of the world, the great unifier giving everyone equal access to the same gods and guiding principles.  The Emperor was the supreme symbol, the creator and maintainer of this unity—the “Saviour of mankind”, the “Son of God” (Jupiter, Zeus, Amon-Ra, Baal, whichever high deity was relevant to the people in question).  Every subject and citizen of the Empire owed their final allegiance to the Emperor as the incarnation of Rome’s “genius”, or “Spirit-Guide”.  

If we change the vocabulary and eliminate the divinities, this has a very modern sound and feel to it.  Louis XIV declared to the French in the 1670s, “L’état, c’est moi. (I am the state.)”  In the early years of the 19th Century Napoleon declared that he was the embodiment of all the true values of the New Revolutionary France—liberty, equality, brotherhood–with himself as the God-appointed guardian of France and its people (and, via France, Europe, which he had been divinely commissioned to liberate).  Hitler said, “I am Germany, and Germany is I,” and he said repeatedly that “Providence” had led and guided him to fulfill his ‘sacred mission’ to purify the Master Race first, and then the world.  Stalin and Mao made closely parallel declarations regarding Russia (the Soviet Union) and China  as the lights of the emerging socialist utopia. They engineered even more horrendous slaughters of their subject peoples than Hitler did of most of the peoples of Europe combined. 

Until early modern times, European monarchs claimed “the divine right of Kings” as the basis of their rule.  God and the state were joined at the hip, and to challenge the anointed order was to engage in treason, lèse-majesté, and perhaps even heresy or blasphemy.  (In many Islamic countries, blasphemy is still a crime and punishable by death, and blasphemy is considered anything that puts into question Muhammad’s word or character, as well as anything raising an issue with Allah’s revelation in the Quran.)

The spirits of Rome did not simply vanish when Odoacer the Ostrogoth said there was no longer a Western Roman Emperor in 476 CE.  The spiritual principalities and authorities that stood behind Rome had already been presciently transferring and insinuating themselves into what would emerge as the Empire’s real successor. This was no longer a temporal empire held up by military might, intimidation, and coercion.  Rather, it was the newly rising spiritual power it chose to migrate to—the Catholic Church.  This was a much more subtle but perhaps effective method of entrenching itself in the hearts and minds of humanity—especially those of the West.  Reintroduction into the cruder methods of temporal sovereignty could come later.

Cultures and societies cannot “live by bread alone.”  They have a soul.  The Bible speaks of these powers and influences as actual spiritual entities—“the Prince of Persia” which opposed the angel sent to answer Daniel’s prayer, for example (Daniel 10:13).  The Apostle Paul speaks of “rulers, authorities, principalities, powers, spiritual forces of wickedness in heavenly realms,” operating behind the facade of visible powers (Ephesians 6:12 is one reference to this).  When Jesus spoke with Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, he told him, “You would have no power over me if it had not been given to you from above.”

Judaism and Christianity are not alone in suggesting the presence of spiritual powers behind and within governments, societies, and regimes.  We scientific, sceptical moderns are now averse to using this kind of “woo-woo” language, but the reality of mysterious collective psyches and group dynamics remains.  The great psychiatrist Carl Jung postulated “unconscious collective [viz. hereditary] memory” to explain it.  Sensitive, attentive people frequently pick up such “vibes”.  We talk of “school spirit, team spirit, national/army/corporate morale” (a fancy word to describe the same essential dynamic at a group level).  Many people (including this writer) have personally experienced the phenomenon of sensing “the spirit in a place/person/home/group”—describing it as “positive, joyful, happy, peaceful, tense, explosive, angry, dark, etc.”  Migraines aside, people who see auras often diagnose these operative spirits with uncanny accuracy.

Rome bequeathed its operant, dominant spirits to the West: its sense of “divine mission” to civilize and bring equality and ‘liberation’ (subjugation to its superior system) to the ‘barbarians’, the lust for power, for control, for wealth, for cultural hegemony.  We see all of this abundantly displayed in the history of the West both in the actions and programmes of its governments and its long- and one-time most dominant cultural, social, and spiritual institution, the Roman Catholic Church.  Neither has it been absent from the Protestant and Orthodox branches of Christianity.

That is not to say that other imperialisms have not done likewise at different times in other locations—China and the Islamic Caliphates for example—or seek to do so today .  But the modern/post-modern era has been characterized by the rise to dominance of Rome’s successor civilization, that of the West.  Even if the West now defines itself as secular and Post-Christian, it is demonstrably neo-Roman.  In fact, it is now more Romanesque (Roman-like) than at any time since 476 CE. 

The parallels to the late Empire are uncanny, our cynical, blasé, jaded spirit and dependency on greater and greater displays of wealth poured out to entertain, divert, and amuse our increasingly disillusioned populace, for example.  Our art and cultural refinements and tastes are more and more dystopian and apocalyptic and less and less subtle and ‘refined’, just as the cultural producers and products of the third to fifth centuries CE of Rome had become mere tawdry imitators and imitations of the greats of the past. 

Like the late Roman regime of those last centuries, our governments tax heavily and almost crushingly in order to finance the increasing demands of a less resilient and more demanding populace.  As in those days, debt piles up with no end or prospect of ever repaying in sight, and the balance of payments slides ever more into the negative in favour external suppliers of the special luxury products which have become ‘necessities’ while we become less and less able or willingly to provide for our own real necessities.  Our money is more and more devalued and less and less based on the real economy.  The military sucks up huge outlays in order to protect a fading hegemony and keep the ‘barbarians’ outside the frontiers, while multitudes on the outside clamour to move in and get a piece of the lucrative and much easier to access pie which they see on the inside.  (The late Empire’s greatest cry of terror was, “The Goths are coming!”)

Like the later Emperors, our rulers have no solutions or even a clue as to how to manage an increasingly desperate global outlook.  Governments are made and unmade by the unscrupulous manipulation of popular will by elites seeking to gain some advantage over their rivals.  Back then, changes were made by coup and assassination of one faction against another.  Today, a degraded and increasingly discredited and highly manipulated ‘democratic process’ is the main instrument, although cruder methods are not entirely out of the question. 

In any case, during the late Empire, it was Rome’s ponderously ubiquitous and heavy-handed bureaucracy and judiciary which really ran things.  The ruling cadres were more and more oblivious to the real needs and cries of the mass of the population who watched the old foundations which once gave stability to life and dreams of fair opportunity for all sliding into impotency.  For Rome, credible moral leadership had all but vanished, and it was anything goes in the theatres and arenas—even the most outrageous displays were not only tolerated but lauded as great cultural examples and performances.  The most outstanding charioteers, athletes, and gladiators fascinated and enthralled the diversion-seeking populace.

Do we not recognize ourselves in this mirror?  Subtract our glitzy technology and the trappings of our wobbling democracy, and we are staring at a society that acts and smells and, on the inside, looks like our twin.  (If it looks like duck …) Just a tad upside down here and there.  Our elites mock Christianity and religion in general as outmoded superstition that has afflicted our consciences with false guilt while trumpeting the real guilt of religious genocide, of which, as the enlightened, the elites are not guilty.

Jesus once excoriated the Pharisees of his day for outwardly extolling the prophets while whitewashing their tombs–thus unconsciously demonstrating that they actually approved their murders by their own ancestors. Today’s secular rights legalists often “whitewash” or conveniently forget the misdeeds of their own logical ancestors–Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, and, yes, even Mussolini and Hitler. Religion (Christianity above all) can now be discarded, or at least ignored because only the superstitious, unwashed masses insist on hanging on to some of its vestigial appurtenances.  The ancient elites up to the late Fourth Century CE also mocked the bothersome pretentions of Christian activists as outrageous and a drain on the empire’s moral, social, and military strength.

Sooner or later, the spirits (authorities, powers, principalities) that overshadow and characterize a place, a people, a group, a corporation, a union, a political party, and even a nation will flagrantly manifest themselves.  Jesus used to say, “Let those who have eyes see; those who have ears, let them hear!”  The ancient is now the modern—Rome reprise.

TO BE CONTINUED