Sunday 16 October 2011

Why do people think the Romans were boring and cruel?


Since the decline of 'classics' at the heart of Western elite culture, there has emerged the casual conviction that the Romans were dull and depraved: their dullness enlivened only by their depravity.

By contrast, for the preceding thousand-plus years, the Romans (more exactly the Greco-Romans extending from ancient Athens up to the Greek-Roman Empire of Byzantium) had been regarded as the summit of world civilization.

Why the shift?


The answer is that modern culture became blind to religion.

The Romans were among the most devoutly religious societies ever - mostly pagan, then later Christian.

The Roman life was focused on religion, it provided the meaning and purpose for existence; the supposedly unimaginative Romans took their religions with extreme seriousness: everything else had to take second place - when the auguries were bad, then there was nothing so important that it could not, should not, be deferred.


This reality is obscured by the fact that, as pagans for most of their existence, the Roman religion was naturally fluid and variable both geographically and temporally - probably only a monotheistic religion can be unified and universal over many generations (and then only relatively so).


Yet, to modern eyes religion is (of course) merely ignorant superstition, and this applies particularly to devout and sincere paganism; so we simply disregard it from our understanding of the Romans: edit it out.

What is left after religious conviction has been subtracted from the Romans is merely I Claudius: a corrupt and boring Empire alleviated only by decadence and sadism.

This is itself absurd, since the Roman Empire was less cruel and more interesting than much of recorded history. Only its cruelties were regulated - hence obvious to moderns; and its main interest was one that moderns disbelieve.


Subtract the religion from any highly religious society, and what is left-over may not be very interesting; but that is not-at-all how things were typically perceived by people at the time.

The Romans saw their world through religious eyes, and so did the dark- and middle-ages; but moderns see the world through eyes blinkered by hedonic, secular Leftism.

Wearing such blinkers, the object of desire is a dynamic society of perpetual progress, located in 'the future' where the modern imagination dwells: hoped-for yet ever-receding.



dearieme said...

It's racism - the Romans had too many dull, white characteristics: practical stuff e.g aquaducts, roads, hot baths, domes, law code, et bloody cetera.

Anonymous said...

When one's only tool is a hammer then every problem or issue begins to look like a nail.

What you write here may have some validity in so far as the modern world is adamantly anti-religious. But if you step back, you might find that denigrating the Romans is only part of a larger project to denigrate the West as a whole and to minimize its (spectacular) contributions to the world.

Several books have been published in recent years to loud acclaim that develop the thesis that there was nothing special about the West. Absolutely nothing. Ever. They explain any advance made by the West as sheer luck, or, as in the case of the ancient Greeks, that they borrowed all of their ideas.

The books by those who refute this denigrate-the-West school are quickly shunted off to the margins of obscurity. A recent book that takes on these “revisionists” is by Ricardo Duchesne; his book is entitled The Uniqueness of Western Civilization

I provide here two excerpts from fairly early on in his book that lists some (but not all) of the main culprits of the denigrate-the-West school:

Defenders of Armesto will surely argue that he does give the West its
due when it enters onto the world stage in the 16th century – in such
section headings as “The Renaissance ‘Discovery of the World’”(621),“The Rise of Western Science”(625), “The West’s Productivity Leap”(690), “The Enlightenment in Europe”(747), “Western Dominance in the Nineteenth Century”(842),and “Western Science Ascendant”(918). But even in these sections Armesto’s singular goal is to instill the idea that the West was a perennially backward civilization that only emerged in the 19th century thanks to the benevolent influences of Asia.


Armesto’s text was released fresh in the hills of a string of works published after the mid-1990s all dedicated to the dismantling of the
“Eurocentric” consensus on the “rise of the West.” The most influential
of these works included Jack Goody’s The East in the West(1996); Bin Wong’s China Transformed: Historical Change and the Limits of European Experience (1997); A. G. Frank’s Re-Orient: Economy in the Asian Age (1998), James Blaut’s Eight Eurocentric Historians(2000); Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the
Making of the Modern World Economy (2000), John Hobson’s The Eastern Origins of Western Civilization (2004), and Jack Goldstone’s extended essay, “Efflorescences and Economic Growth in World History: Rethinking the ‘Rise of the West’ and the Industrial Revolution”(2002). These works were exclusively directed against the idea that Europe possessed any cultural attributes that could be contrasted to the world’s cultures. In the next three chapters I will evaluate the merits of this new orthodoxy and the relevance of the old Eurocentric model.

Bruce Charlton said...

Anon- what you say is true enough - but even so, a secular perspective still misses probably the core feature of these past Western civilizations: that which would have been most obvious to the people of the time.

I think it is increasingly obvious that there never would have been these secular achievements without serious religiousness, which was necessary but not sufficient to major human accomplishment.

Secular achievements are not at the centre of human life - they are a by-product of certain types of devout religiousity; not an end in themselves.

As soon as they became an end in themselves, secular achievements (peace, prosperity, comfort and in general the ability to shape the world to humans wishes) began to disappear and become replaced by ever-more-dishonest pretence of achievements.