Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

the Roman world and ours, continued

To pick up where I left off last time:

Imagine that you are a historian in the far future: say, a hundred thousand years from now. Isn't it perfectly possible that from that vantage point the rise of the United States as a global power might be seen primarily as a development in the history of the Roman Empire? To you, future historian, events from the great influence of Addison’s Cato upon the American Revolution to the Marshall Plan (paciere subiectis, debellare superbos) to the palpable Caesarism of Trump are not best understood as analogies to Roman history but as stages within it — as the history of the British Empire (Pax Brittanica) had been before us: Romanitas merely extended a bit in time and space. We know that various nations and empires have seen themselves as successors to Rome: Constantinople as the Second Rome, Moscow as the Third, the just-mentioned Pax Brittanica and even the Pax Americana that followed it. In such a case, to know little or nothing about the history of Rome is to be rendered helpless to understand — truly to understand — our own moment.

A possible chapter title from a far-future history textbook: “The Beginnings of the Roman Empire: 31 B.C.E. to 5000 C.E.”

Self-centered person that I am, I find myself thinking about all this in relation to what I’ve been calling the technological history of modernity. And Cochrane’s argument — along with that of Larry Siedentop, which I mentioned in my previous post on this subject — pushes me further in that direction than I’d ever be likely to go on my own.

In the Preface to his book, Cochrane makes the summary comment that “the history of Graeco-Roman Christianity” is largely the history of a critique: a critique of the idea, implicit in certain classical notions of the commonwealth but made explicit by Caesar Augustus, “that it was possible to attain a goal of permanent security, peace and freedom through political action, especially through submission to the ‘virtue and fortune’ of a political leader.” Another way to put this (and Cochrane explores some of these implications) is to say that classical political theory is devoted to seeing the polis, and later the patria and later still the imperium, as the means by which certain philosophical problems of human experience and action are to be solved. The political theory of the Greco-Roman world, on this account, is doing the same thing that the Stoics and Epicureans were doing in their own ways: developing a set of techniques by which human suffering might be alleviated, human anxieties quelled, and human flourishing promoted. That political theory is therefore best understood as closely related to what Foucault called “technologies of the self” and to what Martha Nussbaum has described as the essentially therapeutic character of Hellenistic ethics. The political structures of the Roman Empire — including literal structures like aquaducts and roads, and organizational ones like the cursus publicus, should therefore be seen as pointing ultimately towards a healing not only of the state but of the persons who comprise it. (Here again Siedentop’s history of the legal notions of personhood, and the relations of persons to families and communities, is vital.)

And if all this is right, then the technological history of modernity may be said to begin not with the invention of the printing press but in the ancient world — which in a very real sense, according to the logic of “great time,” we may be said to inhabit still.


  • This idea that we are still living in the Roman era seems to me to have been the common one until the Enlightenment -- and even (ever more feebly) into the 20th century. The ancients were still the giants on whose shoulders we stood; we not only were still inhabiting the forms of Roman social and intellectual life, but were inhabiting them inadequately. The whole movement to dislodge classical languages from the center of education (and then Western Civ in translation as its substitute) might be seen as a conscious secession from Rome.

  • Poe wrote: "To the glory that was Greece / and the grandeur that was Rome."

    Eric Havelock responded:
    “If Greece and Rome were for Poe a kind of house with familiar rooms that he liked to live in, if they still have some present reality for ourselves, this state of affairs is grounded in one technological fact. The civilization created by the Greeks and Romans was the first on the earth's surface which was founded upon the activity of the common reader; the first to be equipped with the means of adequate expression in the inscribed word; the first to be able to place the inscribed word in general circulation; the first, in short, to become literate in the full meaning of that term, and to transmit its literacy to us.”
    I add:
    Is there a better candidate for "great time" analysis than the alphabet? Could we think about the alphabet as part of an *ongoing* THA? (In the language of ABC books:"A" is for "Antiquity.) Not only Havelock, Innis, and the other Toronto Schoolmen, but also folks like Paul Saenger and dear Illich encourage us to start with the technology of the alphabet (and the other scriptive inventions it mothers) and then move to the history of thought and social policy. String these folks together, and the history of philosophy looks a lot like the fallout from changing presentations of the alphabet. Has any technology bequeathed by Rome so thoroughly penetrated Western culture (or is it global culture?)?

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