Echoes of the Roman Empire

The more you read about the history and politics of Rome, the more you realize that America follows the Roman example far more closely than just architecture and Latin terminology; even the word “senate” roughly translates from Latin to “council of elders” — an apt description of the generation gap between those with political power and everyone else (though to both the Greeks and the Romans, this was not a bad thing; age signified experience after all).

Read some of the descriptions of Rome’s political system by historians like Adrian Goldsworthy and Richard Miles with today’s America in mind.

The Romans valued military service above all else. It was seen as both a noble obligation of citizenship and as a way to drum up glory and thus political support. Over time, Roman politicians began to stress their personal military service — or at least their support of the military — to get elected. Political factions increasingly supported military conquests as a way to get popular approval, distract the masses with the glory of triumph, or to prove they’ve got the chops to govern.

Ironically, this deification of the military — for which the U.S. is unique among established democracies — would contribute to Rome’s downfall, as one general or soldier after another would seize power against venal politicians by capitalizing on their popularity following a victory or distinguished war record (only to of course become venal politicians themselves).

Roman high office was notoriously and openly cliquish. Only the same handful of wealthy, intermarried families had a shot at power. The Romans believed that merit and achievement passed on from generation to generation, prompting politicians to emphasize the accomplishment or one past or distant relative or another (which was easy to do since they all intermarried and could thus point to -someone- to do the trick). This had the obvious effect of creating political dynasties that made it very hard for so called “new men” to enter into politics, or at least the highest offices. Eventually, when the republic and later the empire crumbled under the weight of incompetent and corrupt politicians, these new men — now emphasizing their nonpolitical nature and success in business or the military — capitalized on the public’s disgust with established politicians, only to become part of the problem in the end.

Politics in Rome was highly personal, given the aforementioned dominance of families. Politicians openly curried favor with certain families for support, and both sides expected something in return. For this reason, Rome did not have political parties per se; there was little in the way of established policy or consistently ideology, as politicians just went with whatever would advance their interests or those of their allies or clients. Alliances shifted constantly; everyone invoked public service and the need to serve the public, but it was an open secret that politics was just a means to an end of power, wealth, and glory. Again, none of this was unusual; the Romans openly tried to work within this system to their own ends.

During emergencies, most commonly war, the Romans suspended politics as usual and appointed a “temporary” solution in the form of the “dictatorship”, a Latin term the describes a single individual’s ability to take control — i.e. “dictate” — policy for the good of the republic. Though the office typically lasted just six months, the famous case of Julius Cesar, who was alleged to have sought permanent dictator status, shows the age-old problem of balancing liberty and security.

Even Roman culture mirrored our own: The Romans stressed the material wealth, prosperity, and relative freedom that came with becoming a Roman citizen. They advertised to citizens and foreigners alike the sophisticated baths, restaurants (possibly a Roman invention), and other amenities unique to Roman life. They even developed a sophisticated credit system, not unlike today’s credit cards, to allow average people to ostensibly benefit.

Comparing America to the Roman Republic and Empire is a cliche among political scientists — but clearly for good reason I think.

The Arab Queen Who Took on the Roman Empire

I’ve recently become fascinated with the ancient historical figure of Zenobia, a third century Arab queen who is the only woman to almost rule the Roman Empire.

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An idealized portrayal titled Queen Zenobia’s Last Look upon Palmyra, by Herbert Gustave Schmalz (1888)

Zenobia came to power as regent to her ten year old son, who inherited the throne of Palmyra, an ancient Mesopotamian city that was one of the wealthiest and most powerful in the ancient world. (You may recall it was targeted by ISIS for destruction, which led to literally millennia of history being lost.)

By the time it came under Roman control in the first century, Palmyra was already a prosperous and cosmopolitan city, mostly Arab but with large minorities of Greeks, Armeans, and other ethnic groups. Multiple languages were spoken, a variety of faiths were tolerated, and there was even a Greco-Roman style senate that ran various civil affairs. Its incredible wealth and beauty—including cutting edge urban planning and numerous monuments and public works—earned it the moniker “pearl of the desert”. Situated at the crossroads between the Roman Mediterranean and the Western Asia, its caravans went across Europe, Africa, and even the Silk Road, making it a huge asset to Rome—and allowing its rulers uniquely significant autonomy under Roman imperial rule.

In fact, by the time Zenobia became the de facto queen of Palmyra in 267, the desert city-state had essentially become an allied power rather than a province; not only did it bring commercial goods and revenue, but it offered protection against unruly Arab tribes and eastern rivals, most of all the old nemesis, the Persians. Hence when the Roman Empire began to unravel during its “Crisis of the Third Century”, Zenobia apparently saw an opportunity for her people to attain well deserved greatness.

The Palmyrene Empire she founded spanned most of the Roman east, from central Turkey into western Iraq and down to Egypt (then one of the richest provinces of Rome). While she declared both herself and her son as emperors of all of Rome, she was never able to extend her rule past these territories, though her conquest of Egypt and managing to keep the Persian at bay (who had detected Roman weakness) had been impressive enough. Zenobia was definitely a product of her city: She spoke four languages, received a comprehensive education, and was steeped in the latest philosophy and science. Her reign was characterized by a policy of religious tolerance and intellectualism. While she worshipped a pantheon of Semitic gods, she was familiar with other faiths and cultures, and accommodated all religious groups, from the small but controversial cult known as Christianity, to the Jews who had long been in conflict with Rome. She invited scientists, philosophers, and other thinkers from all over the known world to her royal court, seeking to turn Palmyra into the next Athens.

While her empire barely lasted three years before it was subdued by Rome—her ultimate fate remaining unknown—Zenobia left a lasting legacy.

The Augustan History, a fourth-century Roman collection of biographies of emperors and usurpers lamented that “all shame is exhausted, for in the weakened state of the [Roman] commonwealth. . . a foreigner, Zenobia by name . . . proceeded to cast about her shoulders the imperial mantle [and ruled] longer than could be endured from one of the female sex.” She is also a point of pride to the people of Syria (where the Palmyrene kingdom was located) and remains a role model to women across the Arab world and beyond. Even Edward Gibbon, the famous seminal historian of the Roman world, remarked that few women in history were as influential as her.

How Cicero’s Political Campaign is Still Relevant Today

What does it say about the nature of human political life that analyses and advice dating from the first century B.C.E. is still applicable today? Stripped of its cultural and historical context, the Commentariolum Petitionis, or “Little Handbook on Electioneering”, which was ostensibly written to the great Roman orator and statesman Cicero by his younger brother, Quintus, can just as well describe contemporary American politics.

For example, it starts by outlining the importance of connections and patronage networks — especially among the wealthy and elites of society — for political advancement. Continue reading

Did the Ancient Romans Have Designated Vomit Rooms?

There is a common misconception that the Ancient Romans created rooms called vomitoria for the sole purpose of vomiting food, which they would do regularly as part of a decadent binge and purge cycle.

In actuality, such a gluttonous practice was never common in Rome, and although vomitoria did exist, they were not used for actual vomiting. Rather, the vomitorium was an entranceway through which crowds entered and exited a stadium.

Behold the decadent vomitorium.

The world vomitorium comes from the Latin verb vomitum, which means “to spew forth” — thus a vomitorium was designed to rapidly spew forth a large number of people. Given the loose application of the word, and the widespread stereotype of Rome as a center of moral decay and debauchery, it’s an understand misconception

Random History Fact: Welfare

One of the first comprehensive welfare programs in history was introduced by Muslim Caliph Abu Bakr (Muhammad’s senior companion and father-in-law) of the Rashidun Caliphate (632 to 634), who established an annual guaranteed income to each man, woman, and child. Special taxes were also used to provide assistance to the poor, elderly, orphans, widows, and those with disabilities. The government further decreed that food must be stored up and supplied for all citizens in the event of an emergency. 

Emperor Augustus (27 BC to 14 AD), the founder of the Roman Empire, established the “congiaria” for citizens who could not afford to buy food, while Emperor Trajan (98 to 117) further enlarged the program. 

The Song Dynasty of China (960 to 1279) supported an extensive and sophisticated social welfare program that included the establishment of retirement homes, public clinics, and cemeteries for the poor.

If you think we’re morally depraved more than ever…

…then read some of this graffiti excavated from the ruins of Pompeii:

  • Weep, you girls. My penis has given you up. Now it penetrates men’s behinds. Goodbye, wondrous femininity!
  • Restituta, take off your tunic, please, and show us your hairy privates.
  • I screwed the barmaid.
  • Apollinaris, the doctor of the emperor Titus, defecated well here.
  • I screwed a lot of girls here.
  • Sollemnes, you screw well!

You can read more amusing examples here. Needless to say, even a history buff like me finds it difficult to remember that, in many ways, we humans haven’t changed all that much. Our ancestors thought and behaved very much like we do.

We forget how the average person went about their everyday lives in the ancient world. We focus on the great characters and events of history – on the epic stories, on the glory and might of civilizations, etc – but neglect the humble, mundane, and very familiar qualities of the typical commoner.

There’s a lesson to be learned even from this crass and humorous display. I think it’s captured very well by Cord Jefferson of the The Nation:

Do a simple Google search for “America’s moral decline” and you’ll encounter thousands upon thousands of shrill rants from people convinced that our “sex-crazed” society is rapidly decaying. For decades now, the professional right has made a big business out of pretending that TV, the rise of gay culture, rap music, and dozens of other things have contributed to the fall of a once greatly moral world, all the while seeming to forget that Thomas Jefferson is known to have taken sexual advantage of his slaves and Benjamin Franklin is believed by some to have been part of a drunken orgy club.

It may make you feel nice to pretend that the societies that gave rise to the modern world were ones of pure honor and decency, but that’s not reality.The world isn’t on a moral decline, because there was never a time when the world was particularly morally superior. If we can glean anything from the Pompeiian graffiti, it’s that even citizens of history’s most immaculate and important civilizations liked their sex and poop jokes. And that fact is as humbling as any magnificent and ancient temple.

While it may be sad to think that we haven’t changed much as a species, I think in many ways it’s a good thing. We’ve come a long way, and while we still struggle to meet a higher standard of social justice and morality, we can put our present failings in perspective: we’re nowhere near as bad as we’ve always been. Progress may be a slow and often stagnating path, but we’re certainly not in any serious decline.