Monday, 2 April 2012

Woe To The Vanquished!

When the Romans extended their kingdom into Europe and later into the Levant and North Africa, they did not expand into a vacuum. In these areas existed complex, sophisticated societies with roads, trade, coinage, language, and cultures easily their match in terms of civilizing values - in truth, many exceeded the militaristic, patriarchal, plutocracy of Rome.

When the legions had finished their work nearly half a millennia later, filling coffers with Celtic riches, slaves and trade purloined from Punic cities, and the spoils of the ancient Near Eastern lands of the Levant, Persia and great Egypt - the Mediterranean world had been rendered into a Latin desert. Subservient to and dependent on Rome with its centralized industry and governance, culturally embedded in the victors' systematic re-writing of local and Roman history to reflect Rome's aggressive imperial triumph, it stood indeed transformed.

In admittedly oversimplified terms, it was the uprooting of a wide variety of native systems for the sake of a dominant monoculture. So long as the efficient distribution network of the empire could be maintained, the desolation made by Rome could be kept fertile. But this was in many ways an artificial and alien system compared to the more indigenous ones which it had replaced. Once this collapsed, shaken to its base and forced to retract by the influx of Germanic warriors crossing over into the empire in the West, and the Arab explosion in the East, those formerly independent regions were left in perilous condition.

And it was not the gradual return of Romanesque civilization after the dark period of early medievalism and late antiquity, but the slow re-efflorecence of native, localized cultures who had long been suppressed, which saw the transformation of these lands from a wilderness into pockets of production again. Of course, by now, the greatest damage was irreversible: the wholesale destruction of narrative by Roman and even earlier, Greek writers. So while the descendants of the Caesars would no longer be the rulers of these lands, the ideological stamp of Rome would be harder to shake.

Any progress, any organizing tendency would henceforth be seen as a return to Roman values, despite or even in the face of, evidence that local tribes and local customs were in truth in ascendence. These would be endlessly reinterpreted through the greatest lasting victory of Rome: that civilization itself in the West and along its margins, was Roman.

So we reach a point today where the rise and fall of modern "empires" must be couched in terms of their relationship with and emulation of Rome and its enemies. And despite the clearer picture which has emerged of a historical European and Mediterranean world that was far more complex, vibrant, and indeed often more civilized by the standards we hold now, before the hegemony of Rome.

But if that is the lasting victory of the Romans, it is made no less glorious by its entirely fictional nature. We see the same trend with its self-proclaimed successors. And live in a present where the most powerful legacy of the imperial age of the modern West now that its commercial, political and military influence is in decline, is its continued domination of global narrative. A narrative in which human rights, progress, enlightenment, freedom, and indeed, civilization itself, is seen through a Western framing.

Like the Romans, the West has perhaps lost the battle of empires, but won the more important struggle of narrative. Only time will show if it is capable of matching its glorious predecessor. Africa and Asia struggle even now to position their current successes within a framework of both their deep history and their more immediate past as dictated by the West. They wisely seek to reassert their independence and restore their fuller histories in the bargain.

Will the future look back to localized resurgence as a return to "Western values" or title as Westernization what has been throughout the 19th and 20th centuries a far more vibrant and global synthesis of traditions and cultures? It may be hoped that others will be more perceptive, and learn from the victory of the Romans and the collective failure of Europe and its Mediterranean littoral. For if the history of the Roman Empire is to be a guidepost, the answer will be an affirmative, at least for those of us still living the shadows of Rome.

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