Why do men think about the Roman Empire?

By Jerry Li

The Roman Empire, quite unaccountably, has become a trend on social media. Many are astonished to find that the fascination with the Romans linger still. Seems quite puzzling at surface value, almost like an overstaying boyhood fixation. The latest relevations appear to lift the subject from the depths of reddit and enthusiastic reenactors to the everyday thinking of the everyday man. But it is all so castles-in-the-air. At a time when empires are not exactly popular and Latin driven from the classroom and the altar, what right has the Roman to exercise their thraldom over the modern man?

Of course, there is nothing decidedly new. Ever since Constantinople retook and had to relinquish Rome, ever since Alaric held that traumatising rave and Odoacer toppled what remained of the Western Empire, since then and ever before, when the eternal city could still be supposed to be eternal, the nostalgia had already kicked in. When the empire kicked about, people looked back to its peak of power or of virtue, and when it stood no more, it was simply too hard to resist the temptation of hoist a banner recalling the summit. The Roman eagle was revived again and again. From Charlemagne to Napoleon and Mussolini, the symbolism lives on, and why do we, today, expect it to linger no more.

What right has the Roman to exercise their thraldom over the modern man?

But, are we not past it? That is to say, would it not be a harsh indictment on our civilisation if we had not gone past being mesmerised by the sound of gleaming legionaries marching as one? Would it not be cruel to sneer at the shallow graves of fallen millions and heap praises on their conquerors? Would it not be perverse, to praise unbridled and despot powers of emperors, who rise in bloodshed, rule in fear and very probably perish in the same? These are all quite basic facts about the Roman Empire that should, in theory, be repellent to the 21st century. Indeed, while what remains of the British Empire is daily lampooned by the decolonisation movement, the most prolific imperialists and colonisers just would not be driven our fancies. Indeed, the very model of ‘new imperialism’ pales into insignificance in relation to wholesale conquests and subjection of societes that the Romans did so systematically and with so little remorse for so many centuries. Entire peoples were wiped out of existence, ancient cities perished in flames, thousands upon thousands of slaves in chains herded in an agonising procession to the seat of power.

Yet this somewhat horrific litany appeals to certain undying instincts that are still among us. These actions would be taken to the Hague, or at the very least comment editors of Fleet Street for very eloquent invectives. But the underlying manifestion of power would still tickle the minds of many. Whisper it quietly, lest the pearl-clutchers would hear, who among us have not imagined themselves at the head of a conquering legion pursuing scattered barbarians—and yes, dehumanised for their role in this sketch—looking past the fastnesses of the Rhine and anticipating cheers of the Triumph. To have famous and beautiful ancient cities bend their knees, to enforce a culture and political orthodoxy over most of the known world, and indeed to have one’s name engraved on stone or vellum to last however many centuries as a testament to one’s own power and achievement: these, we are compelled by an old ghost named Glory to concede, are tempting to at least some tissues of most masculine minds. Video games of conquest have always been popular, that is not to say a tendency to massacre and enslave in actuality has become pervasive. Rather, as modern society drifts further from the historical legacy of the Roman Empire, it is freer now than ever to haunt us as a disembodied idea.

This somewhat horrific litany appeals to certain undying instincts that are still among us.

Note that I cited very few historical particularities. Modern imaginations of the Roman Empire are based on the work of historians and creators who meticulously studied the earthly evidence left us by the Romans in writing or in relics, yet institutional cords that connect the modern day to the direct legacy of Rome—or even an orthodox interpretation—have been loosed. The Churches in East and West are institutional heirs which have a claim to descend from the Empire. They have given up association with the earthly empire. The classical corpus has traditionally been the gatekeeper of interpretation and imagination, but as class boundaries in education break down, that no longer holds true. Likewise, the political dream died with the Tsars and Mussolini in the literal sense, and American democracy, with its Senate and neoclassical architecture and symbolism, is so mired in its own troubles that though wistful parallels could be drawn, variously to Late Republic or Late Empire, it no longer captures the ideal.

It symbolises the height of human achievement and endeavour.

The Roman catalogue is now scattered. Decentralised like the rest of information, one no longer needs to be systematically taught Latin at public schools to themselves attempt to grasp the Roman Empire in all its glory and gore. Everything is translated, digested, fragmented and absorbed with relish. In the bountiful wilderness of knowledge, men happily totter about and hunt and gather attractive ideas that, long ago, had been sown by literature derived from the Roman Empire.

The Roman Empire—maps, legions, bustle of the Colosseum, roads, sewers and aqueducts, whatever it may mean to the modern man— is an abstraction. It symbolises the height of human achievement and endeavour. Its shrine is the adolescent worship of power and glory in its naked, proud and bloodstained form. We are not the dauntless white marble triumphators flanking the entrance. But we bring offerings to the shrine to celebrate the part of us that very much likes to be. Like the Roman once, who worked a boring office job, who had brought his offerings and prayers to the Temple of Jupiter or Mars. It is a sort of rebellion, perhaps.

Image credit: Philippe Briet via Wikimedia Commons

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