Alternatives to being Roman

Jun 17


Mike Scantlebury

Mike Scantlebury

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We're here and the Romans aren't. That's a good thing, right? Well, only if you believe that they deserved to get overtaken by the juggernaut of history and we have something special that means we'll survive longer than they did. A thousand years? We've have to have something very special to be that good. Well, how do we compare? Let's see.


We look down on the Romans. Oh sure,Alternatives to being Roman Articles they set up the largest Empire that Europe has ever known, and their city state lasted for over 800 years, which is about four times the length of time that the United States of America has been in existence. But, on the other hand, they collapsed. They went. They were there once, and now they're gone. Well, that's life. But is there anything we can learn from the Roman Empire?

Perhaps the most interesting thing is to look at the later Empire, when it was the proudest time to say, 'I am a Roman'. At that time, when the Legions were marching up their (straight) roads and nations all around the Mediterranean paid homage to Rome, the citizens of that city had it easy. They didn't have to work. Their leaders had assessed their needs and provided it. 'Bread and circuses', that was the formula. Every day the soldiers went down to the market and handed out a bread ration to the mob. Every Roman citizen was entitled to an allotment, which was provided by the state. Later, feeling in need of distraction and amusement, they could take themselves along to the Circus, where there were chariot races and skinning a few Christians for their entertainment. What a life. It sounds soul-less and depressing, looking back on it, but don't knock it. It went on that way for hundreds of years. Of course, it led to the eventual collapse of the system, but hey, everyone enjoyed it while it lasted.

Today is different, or is it? Some right-wing commentators have drawn the parallel with Roman times and our present Welfare State in England, where people are paid even if they don't work. It's the dole, a handout from the authorities no matter how little you contribute. Something familiar about that, something Roman? But it isn't everyone. No, most people in England are workers, unemployment has never been lower, and those that toil, do so lots. The working week is long and tiring for those with jobs. Overtime is expected and office workers often take work home. So there's no handout for them, right? No, but it's still the 'bread' part of the combination. Those labourers, whether in factory or office, are slaving away to meet the needs of the structure, (there were slaves in Roman times, after all, doing most of the work), and they are pressed to keep going by the need to pay bills, things like the mortgage, utilities, and their expensive distractions - opera, wine bars and restaurants, the theatre, fundraisers and so on.

Meanwhile, the 'circus' is still with us too. Literally, we have 'Gladiators' on television, plus all the reality shows for gratuitous innuendo and violent disagreement, and plenty of flesh for titillation and stimulation. We also have outright porn, and if you can't find it on cable, it's always there on your computer, just get a fast broadband connection. Of course, it's not being provided directly by the state, there's no Emperor commanding it to happen, but all that proves is that we've got a bit more sophisticated now. The state has set up a system, which provides the economic needs of life and is generally self-sustaining, (apart from the occasional Enron). In that sense, it's far more efficient than the Roman entertainments; as long as young Western kids are queuing up to be 'rich and famous', there will be always be plenty to watch, for the voyeurs and thrill seekers.

Ultimately, Rome declined and the Empire vanished. I've seen a recent book that list a total of 13 reasons why that happened. Most of them boiled down to this: at one time, people, citizens, groups, were prepared to support the city and work along with its aims and aspirations. People were proud to be part of the great endeavour. In later years, people started arguing amongst themselves and groups turned against each other. At that stage everyone was fighting each other and continually putting their own selfish needs over the needs of the many. Each citizen was out for what they could get, and as long as they were happy, they didn't care about the system, the state, or its long-term survival. Selfishness, greed, self-centredness and narrow thinking were the ingredients that saw off the Romans. If any of that sounds familiar, then stop for a moment. If the battle of the housing market feels like selfishness; if the race to get top wages and dividends seems a little bit divisive; if the obsession with television and popular music appears like a distraction from real life; then welcome to the real world. You've seen the symptoms. The interesting question is whether Western society is developing the disease that proved fatal to the Romans, or whether we can take charge and survive. History, after all, will be our judge. The Romans, like us, faced continuous challenges. In the early days they were strong enough to cope. Later, they got fat and flabby, and the new temptations and threats proved too strong. Is that the same for us? Maybe. Maybe history does repeat itself. Maybe, at the end of the day, we'll see a great truth: we are Romans, we're all Romans now.

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