Thursday, August 23, 2007

America and Rome, Part II

If I didn't think I would write Part I of this post, I certainly didn't expect to find myself writing Part II. However, my blogfriend Judith Weingarten stopped by to comment. I began responding in that thread, but it was getting so long that I decided to make it a new post.

She writes, "OK, I know it's facile but one parallel with ancient Rome gives me nightmares: an over-mighty mercenary military. Think Septimius Severus, the 3rd century, and onwards."

What an image! GHW Bush counseling GW and Jeb Bush with his dying breath, "Keep the army happy and ignore the rest." My money's on GW as the Caracalla of that scenario, but I may be underestimating Jeb.

American military leaders might wish they held that kind of sway over the executive. Though I'll gladly defer to Judith's expertise, it seems to me that the Roman army and American military have less in common than some other analogous institutions.

Aside from the American military's diminished kingmaking ability (which was, unlike Rome, nearly always a function of the electorate's positive perceptions of military service...I could imagine MacArthur marching on Washington, but not Ike), I doubt the mindset of the American soldier very closely resembles that of a Roman legionary. U.S. rank and file soldiers aren't in it for the money, which is mediocre. If you're able to become a U.S. soldier, you are also able (if the economy is even somewhat vibrant) to find any number of other jobs that pay better and don't require such dramatic commitments of time and freedom.

If not money, then what? Adventure, respect, vocational cachet, and, even in these dark days, patriotism. Check out this new recruitment ad for the U.S. Marines:



And if you do join, by God, they'll make an epic Anglo-Saxon hero out of you:



How important were ideas like this to young men in the 3rd and 4th century empire? I don't know, but now I'll have to do some reading.

One similarity I'll grant is the manner in which the modern American army is becoming disproportionately composed of 1st and 2nd generation immigrants who see military service as one avenue to greater acceptance into American society. They are eagerly received by recruiters who have a tough time selling the volunteer military to a disinterested native populace that is preoccupied with its own entertainment (and is, at best, dimly aware of the ways that events on the world stage affect daily life). When the McDonald's-eating sons of America do enlist, they often can't handle basic training. The end result, says former soldier Brian Mockenhaupt, is that standards and soldiers are both getting softer.

In any case, I don't think the military is especially "over-mighty" or "mercenary" these days, at least, not when compared to the Romans or even to itself in the 1950s. As for the current administration, it didn't follow Septimius Severus's legendary advice: it has spent far more energy ensuring the loyalty of the corporate sector than that of the military. I guess it doesn't see David Petraeus as a threat to march on Washington. Eh, he wouldn't look good in purple, anyway.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

"Oldest known" Irish ringfort found

The Irish Examiner has an item about the discovery of a 20-acre ring fort in County Cork, Ireland:
Radiocarbon dating shows that the ringfort was constructed about 1200BC, confirming it as the oldest known prehistoric ringfort in Ireland, according to Prof William O’Brien of University College, Cork. This puts its importance on a par with prehistoric sites such as Dún Aengus on Inishmore and Mooghaun, Co Clare.
Hat tip to Archaeoblog.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Under new management

Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are the new owners of a French vineyard that supplied ancient Rome.

Château Val-joanis is located near the old Via Domitia, and the remains of the Roman villa are supposedly visible on "the lower part" of the property. I'm not sure whether that means "topographically lower" or "south."

Here's the modern winery on Google Maps. I can't see anything that's obviously the villa site, but the image resolution varies over the area. Maybe a more discerning eye can spot it.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The America and Rome post

The Favorites of the Emperor Honorius. John William Waterhouse, 1883
I decided some time ago that I wasn't going to write a post like this one, but the "U.S. as Rome" meme, which had recently begun to fade, has been given fresh legs by the imprimatur of David Walker, the Comptroller General of the United States. Here's an excerpt from Walker's speech at an August 7 meeting of the Federal Midwest Human Resources Council and the Chicago Federal Executive Board:
There are striking similarities between America’s current situation and that of another great power from the past: Rome. The Roman Empire lasted 1,000 years, but only about half that time as a republic. The Roman Republic fell for many reasons, but three reasons are worth remembering: declining moral values and political civility at home, an overconfident and overextended military in foreign lands, and fiscal irresponsibility by the central government. Sound familiar?
I got tired of the steady stream of "U.S. as Rome" comparisons months ago, not only because the blogosphere seems to produce several new ones each day, but also because most of them—even a few of those written by apparent professionals—read like comparison-and-contrast essays for a high school English class. Some mangle basic facts of the history of the United States, ancient Rome, or both. Most distastefully, a disturbing number are noticeably steeped in schadenfreude. Unlike Walker or Cullen Murphy, they don't offer analyses on the shared problems and strengths of two states separated by two thousand years of history, but are instead rhetorical cudgels wielded against America's alleged self-image. The Romans got what was coming to them, and so will America, or so goes the thinking.

Terry Jones (of Monty Python fame), who has reinvented himself as a popular historian, has been a celebrity standard-bearer for this phenomenon with his various television programs about ancient Rome and its neighbors. Tony Keen observed last summer that Jones seemed at least as concerned with allegory as documentary:
Jones has an agenda, of course, one some right-wing commentators predicted early on, and which emerges most strongly in the programme on the 'barbarians' of the east. That agenda is the equation of ancient Rome with the modern United States. So, the Roman occupation of north-west Europe is a 'war on the Celts', and he talks of how the Romans came a cropper in the Middle East, just as the Americans are now doing (Jones doesn't say this out loud - he doesn't have to). (Here, Jones has his cake and eats it - the Parthians beat the Romans because their values were utterly different from Rome's, whilst the Sassanians prevailed through being exactly the same as the Romans, only more so.) As it happens, I tend to agree with Jones' opinion of the foreign policy of the Bush administration. But this simplistic equation helps us understand neither Rome nor America.
Ah, yes. George W. Bush. America was such a swell old superpower until he came along in 2001 and mucked it up with his darned unilateralism. If only we could have that America back. But then, here's Eddie Izzard, performing in San Francisco in 1998:



I don't mean to suggest that it's somehow invalid to compare the U.S. and Rome. Cullen Murphy, who appeared on Book TV last month in support of his newest book, Are We Rome?, correctly pointed out that even if the U.S. didn't enjoy the world's catbird seat, it would still invite these comparisons with everything from the design of its capitol's public buildings to the name of its governing assembly. The architects of the nation borrowed heavily from Republican Rome. The enshrined ideal of Rome, or, more precisely, what Rome could have been in more Enlightened hands, was as powerful a lure for them as it was for ten centuries of Europeans before them. America was designed to be, among other things, a revised Rome.

Also, David Walker is right. The problems he cites don't all have parallels with late Rome, but that doesn't make them any less daunting. The U.S. is spending lots of money it doesn't have. A huge segment of the population is heading into retirement with the expectation of a plush government pension. The military is overextended. The infrastructure is badly in need of repairs and modernization.

Like Walker, I'm confident that these problems are surmountable. But if this is a terminal decline, its Western spectators shouldn't look on with any degree of satisfaction. Here's Britain's Bryan Ward-Perkins, writing about the "kinder, gentler" fall of Rome that has pervaded late Roman historiography for the last generation:
My worries about the new Late Antiquity, however, go deeper...there is a real danger for the present day in a vision of that explicitly sets out to eliminate all crisis and all decline. The end of the Roman West witnessed horrors and dislocation of a kind I sincerely hope never to have to live through; and it destroyed a complex civilization, throwing the inhabitants of the West back to a standard of living typical of prehistoric times. Romans before the fall were as certain as we are today that their world would continue forever substantially unchanged. They were wrong. We would be wise not to repeat their complacency.
He's not just addressing America, but all of Western (and Westward-looking) civilization. If, in the coming decades, the loci of geopolitical and economic clout begin to shift in the way many observers believe, I suspect the world will miss the so-called American Empire when it's gone. And it's then that the U.S. and ancient Rome will display their strongest parallel: as idealized symbols of golden ages past.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Maximus the Confessor


Seventh century Byzantine theologian Maximus the Confessor is the subject of today's featured article on Wikipedia.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Hadrian colossus, redux

Last week's discovery of a huge Hadrian statue in Turkey has filtered down to the mainstream news outlets. Here is National Geographic's take, and here's the Beeb.

All the hubbub inspired Tony Keen to reflect upon our modern perceptions of Hadrian.

Update: Yet more coverage at The Independent.

Set of HBO's Rome destroyed by fire

An overnight fire at Rome's Cinecitta Studios has destroyed the sets of the recently-completed HBO/BBC television series, "Rome." The older areas of the studio, where "Ben Hur" was filmed, were undamaged.

On a mostly unrelated note, the show's storyline ended in 30 BC, but it wasn't until AD 6 that Augustus got around to establishing a fire brigade...

Update: The original link to the Times story has vanished, but here's ABC News to the rescue. Also, a clarification on the supposed destruction of the "Rome" sets:
The main set of "Rome," which includes a mock Roman forum, wasn't destroyed, but other parts were heavily damaged, said HBO spokeswoman Mara Mikialian.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Nomads, then and now

Today's New York Times has a piece by Ilan Greenberg (accessible without registration via the IHT) on how the ancient social order of nomadic societies in central Asia weighs upon their present political realities:
Scientists are discovering that nomadic cultures are flexible, switching between transient and more sedentary ways of life, and assimilating and inventing new ideas and technologies. Nomads created durable political cultures that still influence the way those countries interact with outsiders or negotiate internal power struggles.
While reading this, I was reminded of Mark Whittow's observations about the Eurasian steppe peoples in his 1996 book, The Making of Byzantium. While noting that "the potential of steppe nomad states was enormous," Whittow writes that social underpinnings based on small tribes and familial connections didn't do much for the stability of those states:
The closer to its roots a nomadic society was, the more likely it was to be politically unstable. A major setback or crisis and the nomad empire could dissolve into its fragmentary, stateless past. If the states of the settled world could surmount the initial crisis of a nomad attack, their institutions were much more likely to endure in the long term. On the other hand, if a nomad state developed away from this structure, and became closer in form to a sedentary state, it might well become more stable but only at the price of losing the characteristics that made it militarily formidable in the first place.
I think it's reasonable to say that many parts of central Asia have had their share of "major setbacks" and "crises" over the last few decades, with fragmentation and statelessness the result in, say, Afghanistan. I leave it to others to speculate on whether the "flexibility" described by Greenberg is better at creating "durable political cultures" than the more permanent-sounding transformation described by Whittow. Greenburg's article implies that it may not be possible for a nomadic culture to fully transform into what we think of as a "state":
Countries like Iraq and Afghanistan may take on the trappings of modern, Western nation-states, with parliaments, justice departments and other governmental agencies, researchers say. But politics are still driven by the customs and institutions of nomadism, in which political disputes were settled at the level of family, clan and tribe.
Aha! So that's why Pope Leo simply asked Attila to go away. He knew nation-building would have been a tall order.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Giant Hadrian statue found in Turkey

Via rogueclassicism, this astonishing find from Turkey: fragments from a 5-meter statue of the emperor Hadrian. As the RC notes, there's no English coverage yet, but here is a brief item in French. Pardon my rough, paraphrased translation:
A team of archaeologists from the KUL has discovered fragments of an exceptional statue of the Roman Emperor Hadrian during an excavation in Sagalassos, Turkey, reports the VRT (Belgian state TV).

Part of a leg was found with sandals, which indicate that the wearer is an emperor. Part of a thigh and a nearly intact, 70 cm head were also found. The complete statue would have measured 4-5 meters in height. It appears to date to the second century. According to professor Marc Waelkens, who leads the team, it is one of the most beautiful representations of the Emperor Hadrian.
For comparison, here's a bust of Hadrian from the Capitoline Museum in Rome.

Update: Archaeology Magazine now has an online feature on the find.

Update #2: Link provided to the Sagalassos dig.