Friday, April 27, 2007

Rome or Something Else

The other day I read a really interesting article. Al-Qaeda wants to blow stuff up in England, and they conceive of it as an attempt "to shake the Roman throne." I cleverly wonder: wouldn't they be better blowing stuff up in Italy?

On the back of your standard U.S. one dollar bill, you will find a pyramid with an eye on top of it, and two Latin phrases: Annuit Coeptis and Novus Ordo Seclorum.



The second phrase is easily translated, and means "new world order." That phrase makes me uncomfortable, and I'll return to it in subsequent posts to explain.

The first phrase--Annuit Coeptis--is much more difficult to translate and much more difficult to understand. It means something like this: someone or something approves what has begun.

It is no secret that the founders of America looked to Rome as their model, and these phrases make explicit reference to the Roman vision. See the Federalist Papers for numerous examples; Federalist #6, or #41, etc. The Rome that inspired Madison and Hamilton was the Roman Republic (which turned into the Roman Empire) that lasted from roughly 500 BC until roughly 400 AD.

To be sure, Rome gave the world much: running water and sanitation, the concept of political and religious freedom (even if slavery persisted, the abstract ideal had been imagined), advanced learning, philosophy, mathematics, poetry, almost-modern architecture, and war. Rome also invented the idea and widespread practice of popular entertainment--they had the Colosseum; we have Wrigley Field. The Romans may not have invented trade, but they were the first to unleash the incredible powers of the market in ways that would not be unrecognizable to most industrial nations.

And now to some more specific history, and ultimately toward the question that has really been of interest to me in recent weeks:

In the year 415, Rome was undergoing a kind of dizzy spell that might be comparable to the feeling we get after walking too much for too long under the summer sun. Geographically, the empire had spread to cover most of Northern Africa, most of the Middle East, and almost all of Europe. Rome was constantly defending itself from external threats, which meant that their guard was down "back at home." For hundreds of years Romans had been drifting away from their pagan gods. Markets and education seemed to be meeting people's needs. Now, either watch Carl Sagan's description of the events or read the paragraph underneath the video:

The story goes: there was a genius professor working at the Great Library of Alexandria--a woman named Hypatia. She was a neo-Platonist interested in mathematics and literature and science; she drove her own chariot and commanded respect from the Roman citizens. Then one day, as she was headed home after a long day of instructing pupils, she was attacked by an angry mob and beaten to death with shards of broken pottery.

Who would do such a thing? -- well, that answer, at least superficially, is easy: a radical Christian mob, led by "St." Cyril. The same mob is sometimes blamed for burning down the Great Library. At the end of that YouTube video, Carl Sagan suggests that they were driven by fear, ignorance, and the lust for power. I wonder...

But after asking who, the real question must be asked: why would St. Cyril and his gang do such a thing? Short of reading deeply in Roman history, the wikipedia page seems to be the best place to start to answer this question... click here.

Back to the founding fathers of America, whose keywords were liberty and freedom. Those ideals have been largely realized in the 225+ years since America declared independence. When President Bush justifies his position on war with Iraq, one of his favorite phrases goes, "these people kill because they hate freedom." If that settles the question for you, read no further. But if you find yourself wondering, as I have many times in the years since 9/11, "Why would anyone hate freedom?" -- then please, inquire with me.

Why would anyone hate freedom? Why would anyone hate Rome? Who would burn the library of Alexandria (i.e., "the internet") or blow up a "Trade Center?" In the year 415, the year Hypatia was murdered for spreading knowledge, the answer was: radical Christians. Today, the answer seems to be the slightly more generic, Terrorists.

My preliminary remarks on all of this: Rome fell because it forgot one thing--it provided its citizens with more material wealth than any civilization had ever done before Rome, but somehow, in its abundance, its citizens were not content... how else to explain the rise of Christianity? The dead pagan gods, it seemed, could not be replaced by aqueducts and baths and marketplaces and the spirit of democracy.

One more time to my central question: how does a segment of the Roman citizenry become so radicalized and so alienated that they would be willing to kill one of the empire's most honored scholars? What followed, of course, was the onset of the "Dark Age." For one thousand years, Europe was slowly but thoroughly Christianized, and the markets, the libraries, the women with chariots were forgotten.

I believe that we are living in parallel times. So, Q-majin? It is 415 A.D. and you are a Roman citizen. You have cable television and running water and a car that gets you to work and back. Gasoline is getting expensive, but it's affordable. Once a year, if you're lucky, you get five days off and can afford to travel a little bit. And, if you're lucky, you will probably be able to get your children a relatively good education, though it will be nothing like the education that Alexander the Great had on the lap of Aristotle.

In the immortal words of Jim Croce, "Which way are you going--which side will you be on?" And, more seriously: is there a way to sympathize with Cyril's ends without sanctioning his violent means?

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