(A snippit at Sarah Hoyt’s place reminded me of this post, from 2006 at my original milblog.
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 and 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 the 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 very 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.
But 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, and 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.