History Friday – Pax Romana

(This was a post from 2006 originally on NCOBrief.com … about the end of empire-slash-hegemony, and the unforeseen results from that kind of event. So – if the Presidency of Obama, an event lauded high and low especially in Western Europe – eventually means the end of the American hegemony in various spheres – what then, replaces it? What happens when the US Navy no longer patrols certain ocean choke-points, and local piracy reigns supreme? Will another international power … step to the fore? What then, oh wolves?)

The stone ruins of Imperial Rome underlie Western Europe and the Mediterranean like the bones of a body, partially buried, yet here and there still visible and grandly manifest above ground, all but complete. From Leptis Magna in North Africa, to Hadrian’s Wall in the contentious border between Scotland and England proper, from Split in the Former Yugoslavia, to the 81 perfectly preserved arches of the ancient bridge over the Guadiana River, in Merida – that part of the empire called Hispania – and in thousands of lesser or greater remnants, the presence of Rome is everywhere and inescapable. The same sort of cast – concrete walls, faced with pebbles, or stone or tile, the same sort of curved roof-tiles, the same temples to Vesta, and Jupiter, to Claudius, Mars and Mithras; the same baths and fora, market-places, villas and apartment buildings, all tied together by a network of commerce and administration. Goods both luxury and otherwise, adventurous tourists, soldiers and civil administrators – the very blood of an empire, all moved along the veins and arteries of well-maintained roads and way-stations, of which the very beating heart was Rome itself. Carrying that image a little farther than absolutely necessary, I can visualize that heart as being a human, four-chambered one; of which two – the political/imperial establishment, and the flamboyantly military Rome of battles and conquest – have always rather overshadowed the other two in popular imagination. Commerce and civil administration just do not fire the blood and imagination – unless one is wonkishly fascinated by these things, and it would take a gifted writer to make them as interesting as imperial intrigues and soldiering adventures.

But close to the Palatine Hill, where the sprawling palace of the emperors looked out over the linked fora, law courts and temples in one direction, and the Circus Maximus in another – Trajan’s concrete and brick central market rambled over three or four levels, from the great hall of the Corn Exchange down to the open plaza of the meat market at the level of the forum below . Here was the embodiment of the great hearts’ economic chamber. Every sort of imaginable commodity moved from one end of the empire to another and from parts outside the Roman hegemony: corn from the Egyptian breadbasket, silk from faraway China, spices from India, African ivory and gold, olive oil, oranges and wine from the Mediterranean to everywhere else. And that trade was enabled by law and technology. Roman roads, waterworks, and civic infrastructure like harbors, lighthouses and bridges would in some cases, not be equaled or bettered until the 19th century. While emperors and soldiers came and went, sometimes with messy and protracted splatters of blood, the unspectacular and dull work of the empire went tirelessly on and on, little changing from day to day, decade to decade, until Rome itself seemed eternal, fixed forever, immutable like the stars in the sky.

Plain ordinary people plied their trades, lived in apartment houses, went to the baths and the games, ate fast food, read books, and splurged on some attractive luxury imported at great expense from across the empire, generation after generation. The water was hot, the pleasures of life varied, the laws were fairly consistently enforced, banditry, piracy and insecurity kept to a minimum; not perfectly, of course, but life for the main run of people all over the Empire was certainly closer to what we would call good, and much, much better than what it would be in the centuries after the empire crumbled in the West and around the Mediterranean – what had been called the Roman lake.

After the great Fall, the horizons contracted, drew in, cities in the west shriveled and the great Roman works and roads crumbled through lack of maintenance. Constantinople survived and carried on with many mutated Roman traditions until it fell to a new tribe of conquerors, but in the West, the children of empire lived among crumbling remnants, and forgot the trades and skills of their ancestors, skills that were no longer applicable or useful in the brute struggle for simple survival. Gone the baths, gone the centrally-heated villas, gone the trade, the artistry and the law, and the knowledge of how these great works were even constructed, save in a few tiny enclaves, and among a pitiful few.

The parallel between Rome and America has often been drawn often and by friends and critics alike, by those wishing to pay a compliment, or of late, otherwise. Rome fell, and the Pax Romana ended – so should America and the Pax Americana; an evil empire which has brought nothing but evil and destruction. Or so goes the current reasoning. Some of these, one gets the feeling, are drooling hungrily for the spoils that would result from the wreckage, free for the grabbing, but others – and these are the most galling – are the ones who benefit generously from the existence of the Pax Americana, whether they know it or not, or acknowledge it or not. Noam Chomsky, and Michael Moore come to mind, almost immediately, for the indecent haste with which they spring to denigrate the very state, the establishments, and the people who make it possible for them to live in considerable comfort and security.

They and others perhaps have become so accustomed to the way things are that they have no appreciation for it. They display not the slightest inkling of how fragile civilization as we know it can really be – or how ugly and basic human existence can be where there are no laws, no security anywhere to be found. Most illogically, they call for the end of the Pax, and the destruction of the Republic as if it would have no immediate personal effect upon them – as if they would go on living in secure comfort and luxury regardless. Come what may, there would always be well-paid lecture appearances and trips to Cannes and London, and a private jet to fly them there, and a well-appointed villa to come home to, afterwards. They are able to cheerfully call for chaos and embrace revolution, and sleep that night on fine cotton sheets, in perfect central-heated comfort, no matter what.

When I am in a bad mood these days, I sourly contemplate the world that might come about if the Pax Americana just melted away, not in any sort of big-bang, spectacular way, but in more of a whimper, say caused by some kind of world-wide epidemic. Supposed we had to draw into our own borders, turn inward and focus on ordinary survival, and our own internal affairs, much as we did in the early 19th century (aside from the war of 1812, and the Barbary Pirates excursion). That would be a good thing in the eyes of many; I can imagine the editorial staff of the Guardian in ecstatic rejoicing, and they would not be alone. No more McDonalds! Yay! No more stupid Yank politicians! Double yay! The prospect might make even Michael Moore sit down and shut up, but probably not for long. But stay a moment, and think of what kind of world would be left, in the wake of an event powerful enough to smash the Pax Americana. No more American Navy patrolling those choke-points in the sea lanes, for instance. No disaster response from half a world away …
I’ve never been much of a fan of post-apocalypse survivor tales, but I’ve been haunted for years by George Stewarts’s Earth Abides, and then an odd-ball Brit-import TV show that ran on public TV when we were in Utah that postulated the same scenario; a virulent, fast-moving epidemic which wipes out all but 5 percent of human life. The chills came from small details; the slow dying of electrical power. Radio, television, telephones – all falling silent, one by one. The cities are charnel houses, there are no doctors left. The survivors scrounge gasoline for a while and live on what canned goods they can scavenge, but eventually have to buckle down and plant crops, learn to harness horses and cut wood to burn, and use only hand-tools, and live in isolation, camping among the ruins, as if the twentieth century had never been.

When archeologists excavated the ruins of a Roman villa in England, years ago, one of the things they found were remnants of campfires. A hunting party had sheltered there in the abandoned rooms, building a nice warm fire on a fine mosaic floor, little knowing that the villa had once boasted central heating, and skilled craftsmen had pecked out little pieces of tile to make intricate pictures on the floor, but this is what happens when civilization retreats and an empire dies. Hastening that day is not a good thing, not a wise thing, and not a well-considered thing – especially if you are somehow deluded into believing that that you will never be the one to camp out in the ruins left by your ancestors, starving, sick and cold.

On the other hand, though, I like to think of Noam Chomsky laboring away in a truck garden, raising his own food. Especially if it is hot, and there is a load of horse manure to be well dug in.

12 thoughts on “History Friday – Pax Romana”

  1. The Romans were great engineers. By 400 AD, there was a working steam engine. It was used to open temple doors. There were functioning water closets and interior running water in Pompeii. The next functioning indoor water closet would be seen at the Great Exhibition of 1851, 1500 years later. Roman aqueducts still function, and many that do not were destroyed by enemies to cut off water during sieges.

    Romans used many lead pipes to bring water indoors and that is one theory of the decline but ceramic pipes were also used. There is a public toilet in Ephesus with a central atrium which was alleged to be used for musicians who entertained those using the facility.

    Their usual building material was brick and their structures have been very durable.

  2. Oh you haven’t said the half of it. As far as the archaeologists can tell, the standard of life of the Romanno-Britons after the fall of the Empire was substantially lower than that enjoyed by their ancestors before the Roman Conquest.

  3. I saw a fascinating documentary on Pompei recently on Netflix. Archeologists recently unearthed a treasure trove of information – like finding an undisturbed Pharaoh’s tomb at Luxor –

    It was a “basement” below what was the local store at the time – really more of a small shopping center.

    They described life in Pompei – the life of a slave was not fixed – the store owner was probably a former slave – and because of his inventory – despite a warning a week prior to the eruption – he stayed at his store –

    When the eruption came about 50 people hid in this basement undisturbed by the falling ash – they were asphyxiated by the gas.

    They learned that the disease syphilis most likely was in the Roman Empire – not brought back by Columbus – and Pompei was really a seaside resort – where the Roman rich had villas – think of a Roman Malibu.

  4. There is a lot of controversy about the origin of syphilis. There is a similar disease called “yaws” that is caused by the treponema and is known in Africa. The argument is whether yaws and syphilis are the same disease. Yaws has far smaller consequences. It is also transmitted by children playing naked together, not by sex.

    World Health Stat Q. 1992;45(2-3):228-37.

    The endemic treponematoses: not yet eradicated.

    Meheus A, Antal GM.

    Sexually Transmitted Diseases, World Health Organization, Geneva.

    The endemic treponematoses which comprise yaws, endemic syphilis (bejel) and
    pinta constitute a group of potentially disabling and disfiguring infections
    which primarily afflict children in tropical and subtropical areas. Foci where
    these diseases are now endemic have a patchy distribution and are typically
    confined to underprivileged communities living in remote rural areas, with little
    or no access to health services and removed from the mainstream of socioeconomic

    I can’t find any current speculation about syphilis before Columbus. Certainly it was a terrible disease when it appeared in Europe after Columbus.

  5. That is interesting Mike – As I recall the claim of syphilis in the Roman empire was more speculative based on some evidence of the skeletal remains

  6. Our geography and geo-political situation are very different. Our relationship to the rest of the world is we are a Sea power with a powerful land army.

    And nuclear weapons.

    We are so very different. Rome was in a tough neighborhood from inception. They organized for conquest. We organized to conquer *The Frontier* and we’ve been necrotic and schizo since it closed. Our future is up [space] or to be an increasingly nasty global slumlord. We’re already pretty nasty on the economic side, and lawlessness follows our money. The Greed of our elites knows no bounds at home or respects any border abroad.

    Also Rome organized to conquer territory. Progressvism – which first conquered America in 1865, then conquered the world in 1945 – is organized to conquer SOULS. For they are the Puritans, now utterly mad as they have become holier than Jesus.

    We lost the last 12 years because our war objective was “protecting” the people in population-centric warfare, for we were fighting a Prog war.

    And the true objective of Progressivism is war for the soul, to establish the [atheist] Kingdom of God on earth.

    We have no other abiding interest now in the rest of the world other than more plunder for our rootless, stateless elites and more souls to conquer at the swordpoint of economics backed by confused legions told their fighting for “democracy”. They should first re-establish it here.

    The world won’t go to Hell. But it can if it wants. It doesn’t affect us. The most elementary actual security protections would stop and prevent anymore 9/11s, quite invisibly to the now groped and set upon citizens.

    But we would have to have a government that doesn’t hate the majority of the country and the very soul of it, and that’s exactly the government we’ve got.

    So learn: GOD HATES YOU.

    For that is indeed our relationship with the United States Government.

  7. People like Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, the nitwit multimillionaire rock star who declaims profit as a dirty word, they are parasites, sucking and existing on the blood of a civilization whose source and metabolism they cannot comprehend.

    You see the lack of understanding everywhere. The idea that money cannot run out, we can just print more! The idea that dams are bad things. When you ask those people where they expect to get their drinking water, how they intend to replace the megawatts of electrical power, it’s clear they haven’t even considered the questions. Academics teaching hatred of a civilization that supports their entire life and those around them. Insanity all around me. I feel like I’m living in The Great Unraveling.

    There’s an interesting recreation of a modern post apocalyptic society in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun. After years of having their supply lines pounded by the USAF and the USN, the Japanese Army in China runs out of supplies and collapses, leaving their Western prisoners to fend for themselves in the Chinese countryside, amidst an almost totally destroyed civilization. Pretty sobering stuff.


  8. Those dams create 55 million acres of otherwise arid farmland. An acre of irrigated land is twice as productive on average as dry farming. With a third of American farm output exported, a failure of our irrigation systems would leave a lot of the world’s foreigners hungry and maybe some of us too.

    Don’t forget the importance of fertilizer either. It take a lot of energy (natural gas mainly) to make the stuff.

  9. The Roman empire never fell. It lives on in the west past 476ad, the date some say it fell. Rome still remains. The people still speak local forms of Latin to which they’ve added new words and grammar. Their laws are based on Roman law filled with Lartin phrases. Many buildings use Roman arches and columns. Every big city has a coloseum. And marriage is 1 man, 1 woman and several lovers.

    Many leaders have tried to recreate the Roman empire over the last 1600 years and fought unending wars to do so. The most recent rebirth of the Roman Empire is the European Union which has nearly the same boundaries as the original.

    The Roman roads are still there. They were neglected largely because they were built by Roman Imperatori to move troops from place to place. People who lived near the roads pried up the stones to build houses because they preferred the freedoms and low taxes that come when armies are absent. But they kept Roman customs because (to use a Roman word) it made them feel civilized.

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