Rome and America: A Cautionary Tale

Until recently comparisons between the United
States and ancient Rome,
at least outside the classroom, have been mostly limited to conservative
Christians railing that the moral decay that destroyed Rome
will do the same to us.  No serious
historian of course believes that Roman power collapsed because of excessive
partying or a breakdown in family values, but is there any substance to the
increasingly frequent assertion that the Roman Empire
and America in
the post-Soviet world share an identity?
Does the expanding Pax Americana, enforced across the globe by military
might, recapitulate the Pax Romana of the Mediterranean two millennia ago?  Is the United
States truly the Rome
of the twenty-first century?

Well, yes
and no.  There are in fact very
compelling similarities between the two states, but there are also profound
differences, and to a great degree it depends upon precisely what is being
compared.  The answer is also complicated
by the fact that the history of post-regal Rome
falls into two very distinct parts: the Republic (c. 507-31 BC) and the Empire
(31 BC – fifth century AD).  Not only
does Rome’s political structure
change dramatically across this divide, from a constitutional oligarchy to a
frequently hereditary military dictatorship, but the nature of and motivations
behind her imperialism also evolve.  In
many ways there were actually two Roman Empires.

Most
Americans know Rome of the
Principate (the name given the Empire up to AD 235), the Rome
of emperors, Christians, Ben Hur and the Gladiator, but America
owes far more to the Republic, wherein lie the roots of our Constitution.  As educated gentlemen of the eighteenth
century, the Founding Fathers were steeped in classical history, and their
knowledge of the Roman Republic
and the Athenian democracy, together with their suspicion of the masses, led
them to the former as the better model for stable democratic government.  The Senate-centered government of the
Republic had after all functioned well for four centuries, accommodating
economic and social changes and taking Rome from a small power in central Italy
to mistress of the Mediterranean, while the fifth century democracy of Athens
had devolved into demagoguery and civil strife and brought about the collapse
of Athenian power in less than a century.
To be sure, our debt to the political traditions of England
is immense, but the Roman Republic
was never far from the minds of the framers of the Constitution.  Take a stroll through the Senate chamber in Washington:
on either side of the podium hangs a depiction of the fasces, the bundle
of rods and axes that symbolized Roman political authority (which must have
been at least a slight embarrassment when we were fighting fascistItaly).

The
constitution of the Roman Republic
was technically democratic, with ultimate power resting in two citizen
assemblies, but in practice the state was completely dominated by the Senate,
which for a variety of reasons was a more or less exclusive club of wealthy
landowners.  The Roman
Republic was governed by an open
but very slowly changing oligarchy of wealth, and it is difficult not to
characterize the government of the United States
in the same fashion.  The nature of that
wealth is of course very different, since unlike Rome we possess a
consumer-oriented capitalist economy, and a member of the American governing
class need not actually be a wealthy individual, though most are.  But given the immense cost of election to
federal office and the consequent influence of powerful economic interests,
wealth dominates our political system as surely as it did that of the Republic,
albeit less directly.

The Roman
character, at least in its idealized form, also influenced many of the Founding
Fathers, most notably Jefferson, who saw Cincinnatus as
the model citizen, the small freeholder who leaves his plow to defend his
country and then returns to his farm, rejecting any reward or glory, the
Minuteman of ancient Italy.  An almost overwhelming sense of duty or obligation,
forged through centuries of warfare, was the strongest element in the Roman
character, and completely unlike the Greeks, the Romans were the ultimate team
players, ready to sacrifice everything for the group.  The ruling elite, the Senatorial class, of
course competed for political power and advantage, but the real prize was dignitas,
a kind of prestige associated with serving the group, that is, Rome.  Dignitas was a real though non-legal
form of power, enhancing an individual’s political authority and influence in
the Senate and assemblies, but it was also an end in itself, the ultimate goal
of any Roman statesman until the decline of the Republic.

The citizen
armies of America recapitulate those of the Republic, and to some extent the
small farmers colonizing the expanding westward frontier and fighting the
native inhabitants reflect the spirit of Cincinnatus and the yeomanry that
formed the backbone of the Roman army into the second century BC.  But despite the vast tracts of land the
continent offered, the Cincinnatus model was ultimately incompatible with a
country on the threshold of industrial revolution, and America’s fighting
forces, even in periods of mass conscription, would increasingly be drawn from
the landless and the poor, as indeed were Rome’s during the late Republic and
Principate.  Further, while educated
colonials admired the patriotism and self-sacrifice of those “noble Romans”
they read about in Plutarch, their society placed far more emphasis on the
individual, a regard that the frontier experience apparently only
deepened.  Average Americans of the
twenty-first century may well be as inclined to the group as their Roman
counterparts, but unlike them we proclaim individualism a virtue and pay at
least lip service to the individual.

For all the
differences in the cultural and economic environment, however, the rise to
prominence of Rome and the United
States display striking similarities, at
least on the surface.  The Republic was
born out of the violent overthrow of the monarchy, and the early history of Rome
was filled with conflict, as the tiny city-state on the Tiber
River fought first for her life and
then for domination of the Italian peninsula, which by the middle of the third
century BC was controlled through a system of dependent alliances.  The allies were nominally independent states,
but Romanization of the peninsula and the grudging extension of the citizenship
(the allies finally revolted to get it) had created an essentially Roman Italy
by end of the first century BC.  Drawing
from the vast pool of Italian manpower, in the years from 264-188 BC the Romans
took on and defeated every major Mediterranean power, becoming the effective
mistress of the Mediterranean world.  At
this time Rome actually directly
ruled relatively little territory outside Italy
and Sicily, since the Senate
preferred to control areas through compliant client states rather than shoulder
the financial and military burden of immediate provincial rule.  The empire at this stage was hegemonic rather
than territorial, but in the sense that there was no longer any state that
could conceivably challenge her Rome
had become the sole superpower of the Middle
Sea.

During this
crucial period of expansion the major motive behind Rome’s
foreign policy was the question of Italian security, but by the second century
the desire for personal wealth and power had begun to seriously infect
Senatorial decision-making, resulting in a governing class increasingly
inclined towards furthering its own interests rather than those of the state.  This growing corruption of the Senatorial
class led to the Revolution, the century-long collapse of the Republic that
began in 133 BC when a Senate now interested chiefly in defending its power and
prerogatives resisted needed reform and soon employed state-sanctioned violence
to further its ends.  Political activity
became more and more extreme, foreign policy became little more than a
reflection of domestic politics, and ultimately the army was drawn into the
fray, leading to civil war and the rise of military dictators like Caesar and
Augustus, the first emperor.  Because of
the absence of any serious external threats, the empire and Roman power
survived this turmoil, but constitutional government did not.

Much of
this history has a hauntingly familiar ring to the American ear.  Our republic was born in the violent
rejection of a king, and constant low intensity conflict accompanied our
occupation of North America.  It is true of course that our conquest of
this continent was relatively peaceful when contrasted with the Roman capture
of Italy, and
until the emergence of nuclear weapons we did not, as did the Romans, face foes
who could seriously threaten our national existence.  Yet, for all the differences, especially in
intensity, violence is a shared theme in the forging and growth of both
nations, and an inclination to violence as a legitimate problem solving
mechanism seems embedded in our national character.  We may not permit gladiatorial contests or
proclaim war a good and ennobling activity, but in many areas of American
culture, from our tastes in entertainment to our love affair with guns, there
is almost a celebration of violence.
With their bloody spectacles and unabashed acceptance of martial glory
the Romans were perhaps just a bit more honest about it.

As they
expanded their authority over Italy
and out into the Mediterranean, the Romans developed the
notion that it was in fact their destiny to rule, that their national gods had
granted them this dominion in the days of the founder-hero Aeneas, centuries
before Rome even existed.  In similar fashion the American tide of
expansion, washing rapidly westward over Mexicans and Indians, was quickly seen
as a “manifest destiny,” granted us by our own national god.  In both instances success was seen as ample
evidence of the favor of heaven, and that material success and perceived divine
favor amplified an arrogance and sense of superiority already present in both
societies, though in the case of the Romans the racial element important to
white Protestant America was missing.  Less
pernicious perhaps than the race-connected attitude of Americans, Roman
arrogance was more equal opportunity, and contempt for other peoples was
essentially based on their not being Roman and thus the products of soft (e.g.,
Greeks) or barbarous (e.g., Gauls) societies.
During the Principate, when the imperial focus was more on the barbarian
lands of central and western Europe and Stoic ideas were affecting the ruling
elite, some idea of a civilizing mission emerged, but it never reached the
intensity of American paternalism towards the Indian tribes (and now the rest
of the planet) and was never government policy.

With the end
of the Revolution and the establishment of the autocracy or Principate the
nature of Roman imperialism changed.
While there would be the odd burst of aggressiveness, as under Trajan (AD
98-117), imperial policy became essentially defensive, guarding the frontiers
established under Augustus (27 BC – AD 14) and gradually transforming Rome’s
clients/allies into provinces directly ruled from Rome.  Until the empire began to come apart during
the Anarchy (AD 235-285) this policy was generally rational and based on
strategic interests, though domestic concerns sometimes intruded: Claudius’ (AD
41-54) invasion of Britain
in AD 43, for example, was mainly motivated by his need for a military
reputation.  And of course, since the
empire was governed by a generally hereditary autocracy, imperial affairs
occasionally suffered from interference by an incompetent (e.g., Commodus [AD 180-192])
or unbalanced (e.g., Caligula [AD 37-41]) head of state.  Further, though incredibly disciplined and
loyal to the state, at least until the Anarchy, the Roman military was not
always inclined to passively accept whatever loser might gain the imperial
purple, and on two occasions prior to the Anarchy – under Nero (AD 54-68) in AD
68 and again under Commodus in AD 193 – the army revolted and fought brief
civil wars, after which the troops returned to their camps and allegiance to
the state.  Actually, given the potential
political power of the legions, which were the ultimate basis of the autocracy,
it is amazing how quiet the army was over the two and a half centuries of
Principate.

Rome
could in fact occasionally indulge in bad government and even civil war without
serious risk of losing the empire because she was something of a superpower in
the Mediterranean-European world.  During
the Principate Rome faced only two real threats on her frontiers: the Germanic
barbarians beyond the Rhine-Danube frontier and the Parthian Empire (and its
successor after AD 226, the Sassanid Persian Empire), centered in Iraq.  Neither could come even close to challenging
Roman power, and both were no more than a nuisance, easily repulsed when they
took advantage of a lunatic emperor or a civil war to violate the imperial frontiers.  Further securing the empire was the fact that
until the Anarchy Rome did not overly need to concern itself with the revolt of
subject peoples.  With the exception of Judea
once Roman rule was established, it was generally accepted within a generation
or so, as the provincials realized the value of the Roman peace and other
benefits of the empire.  The Jews were
the exception because their monotheism and divine promise of a national state
prevented them from being easily assimilated into the Greco-Roman, polytheist
culture of the empire, as were the other provincials.

The Roman government did not consciously export its
culture, but Latin and Greco-Roman ideas nevertheless spread among the urban
populations of the empire, and the townsfolk at least came to think of
themselves as Romans, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds.  And as Roman culture and Romans streamed out
into the provinces, provincial influences and provincials flowed back to Rome.  The emperors Trajan and Hadrian (AD 117-138),
for example, were ultimately Iberian in their bloodlines, the thoroughly
Romanized products of the Spanish provinces.
In a very real sense the Roman Empire was a
multicultural melting pot, and in AD 212 the emperor Caracalla granted the
Roman citizenship to virtually every free male in the empire.  He did it for economic reasons and the
citizenship was by then politically meaningless, but the fact remains that a
Briton whose ancestors had painted themselves blue and killed invading legionaries
now possessed the same legal status as an Italian who could trace his roots
back to the birth of the Republic.  This
cosmopolitanism was one of the greatest triumphs of theRoman Empire.

It is tempting to compare the post-Soviet United
States to Rome
of the Principate.  Both enjoy the status
of a superpower, hassled but not seriously militarily challenged by their
neighbors (at least in the conventional sense – nuclear weapons have changed
the rules); one might even compare the Parthian Empire to Russia and China and
the lower intensity threat of the barbarian tribes to terrorists.  As Latin and Roman culture seeped out into
the empire, so also is English and American culture spreading about the globe,
and as provincials gradually appreciated the benefits of the Pax Romana,
so, we confidently expect, will the rest of humanity appreciate those of the Pax
Americana
.  And like Rome,
America is so powerful,
possesses such a loyal military and has such an excellent bureaucratic
structure that it can periodically suffer an incompetent head of state without
losing the ball game.

Despite these points of contact, however,
twenty-first century America
is more aptly compared to Rome of
the Republic, especially its last century and a half of existence.  The empire was then primarily hegemonic,
relying, as do we, on clients and allies as the preferred mechanism for
exerting influence.  Further, for all
that American Presidents, especially a recent one, might occasionally remind us
of less attractive Roman emperors, the constitutional government of the
Republic is far more akin to our own than is the military based dictatorship of
the Principate.  The Senate-centered
oligarchy of wealth that dominated the Republic in fact has a great deal in
common with our own national political oligarchy, whose members are utterly
dependent upon and typically beholden to those interests that possess the
financial resources necessary to get elected.
Even more to the point, as Roman foreign policy became little more than
an extension of domestic affairs during the Revolution, so also is American
foreign policy, especially with the end of the Cold War and most especially in
the case of Israel, increasingly a reflection of domestic politics and personal
interests rather than of strategic concerns and the national interest.

The growing political ambition and self-centered
attitude of the Roman ruling elite led in the first century BC to civil war and
the emergence of autocratic government, but while our own governing class is no
less venal and preoccupied with retaining power, our republic seems unlikely to
collapse in the near future.  Unlike the
Romans we have a written constitution that is very difficult to circumvent in
any serious ways, and our military has traditionally held a strong aversion to
political involvement, at least as soldiers, if not as lobbyists.  The Constitution also provides for a
government of three independent branches, each in theory independent and able
to check the others from any abuse of power, while the Roman Senate had a four
hundred year tradition of completely dominating every aspect of the national
government, which fact led to an almost overnight collapse of political
stability when that authority was challenged during the Revolution.  Finally, the American people have the
constitutionally guaranteed power to change the entire governing elite ever few
years, whereas our Roman counterparts could not touch their Senate, whose
members held their positions for life.

On the other hand, because of the power of
incumbency and the passivity, growing ignorance and lack of interest of many
Americans, our elected national leaders (excepting the President and Vice
President) enjoy potentially unlimited terms of office and constitute almost as
much a permanent political oligarchy as did the Roman Senatorial class.  And that oligarchy, the American Congress,
has recently demonstrated a disturbing willingness to take measures of dubious
constitutionality and grant very broad war making authority to a single
individual, the President.  Americans
citizens, moreover, have demonstrated an equally disturbing willingness and
quickness to surrender civil liberties in the face of vaguely defined threats
and in return for security measures of questionable value and
effectiveness.  Every politician worth
his salt, be it Gaius Julius Caesar or George W. Bush, recognizes the domestic
political capital that can be squeezed from national security issues, even if,
as in the case of the Gauls and now Iraq, the threats need to some degree be
manufactured.  The American President may
not, like Caesar, be seeking a loyal military following, but he certainly knows
as well as the Roman dictator that war is a wonderful distraction from domestic
ills and that cheap gasoline, like cheap grain in the dying Republic, will keep
and buy political support.

Twenty-first century America
is certainly not ancient Rome, even
Rome of the Republic: for all the
imperial points of contact the economic, political and technological
differences are simply too great.  Yet,
while the ultimate fate of the Roman Empire should not
overly concern us, being the result of internal conditions that are utterly
alien to this society  – at least for the
foreseeable future – the fate of the Republic may well be instructive.  The Senatorial government functioned in many
ways similar to ours, and after a long run of success an increasingly
self-interested governing elite, more concerned with its own prerogatives than
the national interest, resisted needed reform and found itself less and less
able to deal with the country’s problems or even to maintain political and
social stability.  And in the end that
instability called forth the perhaps inevitable recourse to autocratic
government, and Roman liberty was traded away for security and the trappings of
imperial glory.  At least the Romans got
that: because of economic problems Americans have little security and imperial
glory went out with theBritish Empire.

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Stuff from Way Back #2: P. Claudius Pulcher and the Chickens

In 264 BC the Romans occupied the strategic city of Messanaon Sicily,
triggering the First Punic War, the longest of their titanic struggles with Carthage.  This was Rome’s first venture outside the recently conquered Italian
peninsula, and it presented her with a prospect certainly daunting to a society
that lacked any naval tradition whatsoever: she now confronted the owner of the
largest and most skilled navy in the westernMediterranean.

By 261 BC the Senate realized it could not finally settle
affairs in Sicily without challenging Carthaginian control of the
sea.  Drawing upon Italian timber
resources and the shipbuilding skills of the Greek cities in the southern
peninsula, the Romans constructed within a year a fleet of perhaps 160
warships, most of them the new heavier quinqueremes.  Crews were meanwhile trained, and new
boarding tactics and equipment, more suitable to the less experienced Italian
sailors, were developed.  The Roman plan
was to negate the Carthaginian edge in maneuvering and ramming by using their
grappling and boarding techniques to turn the engagements into “land”
battles.

The plan worked.
In the first major naval encounter, the battle of Mylae in 260 BC, C.
Duilius handily defeated a Punic fleet of over a hundred, capturing or sinking
almost half the enemy ships.  In fact,
during the next five years the Romans won four more victories at sea, only to
suffer major losses to storms in 255 BC and 253 BC.  Boarding techniques could not compensate for
lack of skill when confronting the weather.

This was the situation when P. Claudius Pulcher, one of
the two consuls for 249 BC, took command of the Roman fleet blockading the fortress
of Lilybaeum on the west coast of the island.
Claudius immediately decided to improve the blockade by attempting to
surprise and destroy the smaller Carthaginian squadron stationed a short
distance to the north at Drepana.  The
consul was a headstrong man, perhaps thinking of the political rewards to be
gained from a decisive naval victory, but the plan made sense, particularly in
light of the reinforcements already sailing to join the fleet at Drepana.

But Claudius’ staff apparently appreciated the limits of
his naval skill, and unable to talk him out of the operation they informed him
at the last minute that the omens were negative.  The sacred chickens with the fleet would not
eat, a bad sign.  Claudius promptly
responded by having them thrown overboard, remarking “If they will not
eat, let them drink.”  He then
sailed north to Drepana, where he was soundly defeated by the Punic admiral
Adherbal, losing almost a hundred of his 120 vessels inRome’s single serious naval defeat of the war.

It is just possible that the story of the chickens is
apocryphal, invented later to account for Claudius’ disaster by attributing it
to an angry heaven.  But then again it
may well be true, in which case the message to all commanders is clear: ignore
the sacred chickens at your risk.

The Terrorist Nuisance

Sending more troops to Afghanistan
was madness.  Punishing the Taliban was
righteous, but in a fit of seeming ignorance and democratic hubris we
determined to erect not just a stable national government, but a democratic
one.  Any understanding of the history of
Afghanistan reveals
foreign nation building in that country to be an exercise in wasted lives and
treasure.

Afghanistan
is even less of a nation state than Iraq,
being essentially a collection of tribal areas, most notably Pushtunistan, and constitutes
a “country” by virtue only of the frontiers drawn by the surrounding
nations.  In the last two hundred years Kabul
has rarely ruled all Afghanistan
for very long and has only done so under a strong authoritarian leader who
could press alliances on tribal leaders.
Even then political stability was typically a thin veneer, ready to
collapse from infighting in the capital or challenges from the periphery.  And corruption and cronyism has for centuries
been a way of life for government officials at every level.

The Afghans are a hospitable people, but wary of foreigners, especially foreign soldiers, and the constant possibility of death from the air has only strengthened that wariness.  There may be a sort of crude democracy in the
villages, but the country has virtually no experience of democracy, and the
election and escapades of the Karzai government hardly inspire optimism.  And here we are in a seemingly endless and
very real war that seems to have less and less to do with terrorism.

Calling the
fight against international terrorism the “war” on terror was a major mistake.   In many
ways this does a disservice to our country and further confuses the meaning of
“war,” a term already abused by the “war on poverty” and the “war on drugs,”
two singular failures on the part of our government.  This is not to say that the military should
not be involved when necessary (such as dealing with the Taliban), but that the
struggle should be considered an operation against a criminal enterprise,
albeit on a large scale.  This is after
all not a war declared by Congress and thus like the Korean and Vietnamese
conflicts is more appropriately called a “police action.”

Terrorists
are certainly a threat to Americans, but they are not a direct threat to America.  Like the Germanic tribes during the height of
the Roman Empire they are a nuisance, and terrorist
organizations threaten the security of our country no more than a band of
Dacians marauding across the Danube threatened the
existence of the Empire.  They can
certainly destroy people and property, but they cannot in any way seriously
injure the country, as could China
or Russia or
our mismanagement of our economy.  Even
the casualties of the 9/11 attack, which simply could not happen again,
represent a relatively slow month on our nation’s highways, and while
terrorists with a nuclear weapon could devastate a city and perhaps slaughter
millions, they could not come as close to destroying the country as an
unregulated financial industry could.

Declaring,
at least unofficially, a war against terrorists can only enhance their status,
suggesting they have a position akin to that of a legitimate state, and creates
substantial problems with domestic and international law regarding the legal
position of captives.  The government can
argue, as it has, that because they are not the uniformed soldiers of an
established state, prisoners in this war are not protected by the Geneva
Conventions and other international covenants of which we are signatories, but
because this is considered a “war” and not an anti-criminal operation, neither
are they subject to the jurisdiction of American courts.  This results in prisoners of war in this
struggle being in a legal limbo, declared to be “enemy combatants” rather than
POWs yet like POWs being held for the duration of the conflict, which unlike a
declared war may have no end.

Most
pernicious, waging a “war” against terror allows the government, especially the
executive branch, to claim wartime powers, endangering civil liberties and he
freedom of the press.  Governments,
whatever their nature, constantly seek to expand their power, and a threat to
national security has traditionally provided a justification for such an
expansion, which in the case of the United States inevitably means a conflict
with our Constitution.  Proclaiming
terrorists a “threat to national security” and the struggle against them a
“war” allows the President to take up the mantle of Lincoln and Roosevelt and
claim emergency powers seemingly at odds with the Constitution.  Such claims are always dangerous to a free
society, but the Civil War and World War II, unlike the fight against
terrorism, were a threat to our nation.

Declaring a
“war” against terror has also facilitated an overly simplistic approach to
the problem.  The fact is that not all
terrorists are alike and many terrorist organizations have nothing to do with
the United States.  Chechens are fighting Russia
and Kashmiris fighting India
for independence, Palestinians are seeking to rid themselves of the Israelis
and Hezbollah guards south Lebanon.  Unlike Al Qaeda these particular terrorists
attack Americans only when the United States
interferes in their local areas of interest, as when Hezbollah attacked the
Marine barracks in Beirut.  Al Qaeda, once focused on the Saudi royal
family and Saddam Hussein, has declared a jihad against the United
States and directly attacked America
and other western states.  Lumping all
these groups together is counterproductive and blurs our focus in the struggle
against our real enemies, Al Qaeda and other Islamicist groups dedicated to the
destruction of the West.

Meanwhile,
the United States, ostensibly fighting against all terrorists and declaring
that anyone who harbors them is a terrorist, has backed itself into a
hypocritical corner.  We are providing a
haven for anti-Castro elements, who might legitimately be described as
terrorists, and we supported secular Somali warlords, who are as terrorist in
their tactics as the Islamicists they oppose.
Such of course undermines the already reeling moral credibility ofAmerica.

Like crime
in our country terrorism is a nuisance, though a more serious one, since
without even acting the terrorists cause us injury by enabling the government
to use fear to expand its power and threaten our civil liberties in the
interest of “national security.”
Fighting a “war” on terror also obscures the causes behind anti-American
terrorism and tends to smother diplomacy and other approaches to the problem,
favoring endless violence over more permanent solutions.  Killing terrorists is necessary, but getting
serious about the Palestinian problem and communicating with Iran,
which has the most pro-Western population in the Middle East,
would provide more lasting results in the struggle.

Unfortunately,
we appear to have a penchant for violence as an immediate solution to our
problems.  One need only compare the
Pentagon budget to that of the State Department.

 

 

Stuff from Way Back #1: Happy New Year, Q. Fulvius Nobilior

Ever wonder why the year
begins on January 1?  Probably not.  But consider: why should we begin our year in
the middle of the winter, rather than in the spring, when the seasonal year begins?  In fact, in antiquity states typically began
their calendar years in the spring or in the fall with the harvest.  Well, it’s the Romans.

Part of Rome’s booty in the Second Punic War (218-201 BC) was the
Mediterranean coast of Spain, formerly territory of the now defunct Carthaginian
empire.  The Romans of course had no
intention of allowing this area to go free, but neither were they yet moved to
any campaign of conquest in the Iberian
peninsula.  Italian capital and manpower were exhausted
by  the Hannibalic War,  and the first half of the second century was
filled with major conflicts in the Greek east.
The result was that the Roman conquest of Spain was haphazard and slow, driven by the desire to exploit
the natural resources and to protect the coastal communities from the natives
of the interior.

The Spanish possessions were organized into two provinces
in 197, and poor Roman administration led in that same year to the first
serious insurrection, the crushing of which triggered the First Celtiberian War
(181-179).  Relative peace then lasted
until the outbreak of the Lusitanian War (154-138), during which occurred also
the Second Celtiberian War (153-151) and the Third Celtiberian (or Numantine)
War (143-133).  Three quarters of a
century of cruel and bloody counterinsurgency warfare were necessary to pacify
the peninsula, and the job was not actually completed until the reign of
Augustus at the end of the first century, after which the Spanish provinces
became the most peaceful and Romanized in the empire.

When in late 154 a number of Celtiberian tribes, encouraged
by the Lusitanians, revolted, Rome appointed Q. Fulvius Nobilior commander of four legions
about to be sent to quell the
revolt.  Nobilior had just been
elected consul, one of the two annual magistrates who were the executive heads
of the Roman state.  The consulship, like
the subordinate praetorship, conferred upon its holder imperium, the
superior form of official power, one facet of which was the all-important power
to command troops.  The consuls (and to a
lesser degree the praetors) were thus Rome’s generals.

The consuls and most of the other important magistrates
began their terms of office on 15  March,
thus placing the beginning of the Roman civil year at roughly the vernal equinox
(21  March) and the beginning of the
seasonal year.  The Senate was anxious to
get Nobilior to Spain as early as possible in order to extend his campaigning season, but
until he actually took office some three months hence the consul-elect had no
authority to command troops.  Preeminently
pragmatic, the Romans solved the problem and avoided any constitutional crisis by
simply moving the beginning of the civil year, and thus Nobilior’s term, to 1
January.

When the new year began had
never been of much importance in the generally sloppy and conflicting calendars
of the ancient Mediterranean, and the Romans, seeing no compelling reason to
move the beginning of the civil year back again, left it on 1 January.  This day was thus enshrined as the beginning
of the year in the Julian calendar, which was passed on to Europe and
much of the rest of the world.  Because
of the Roman Senate and an obscure Iberian war, the vast majority of the human
race celebrates New Year’s in the middle of the winter.

The Nature of the University

 

Easy read summary for administrators and legislators 

            The University is a free marketplace of ideas, not a technical-vocational institute, social action agency or sports facility.  It’s faculty and students; all else is support.

 

 

 

 

Warding off pressures from the
outside community, especially political interests, to alter its practices has
always been a fact of life for the American university, which has mounted a generally
successful guard against such threats to its independence.  Now, however, the very nature of the
university is being challenged, as the proponents of new social trends have
allied themselves with sympathetic and often powerful elements within the university
itself.  The traditional understanding of
the university as an independent forum for the free examination of ideas is
being attacked in favor of a concept of the university as an agency for direct
social action, its prime concern no longer the search for truth, but immediate
social utility.

 

The university has long been seen as
an “ivory tower,” isolated not from reality, but from the constantly
changing political, social and economic winds of the outside world, from the
forces that constantly attempt to interfere with its central mission of seeking
the truth.  Its service to society has
been indirect: the discovery of truth and the creation of educated citizens,
who might then directly serve society’s interests.  In contrast, the new university is to serve
society directly, participating immediately and directly in the social and
economic developments deemed important by society and producing individuals to
fill specific community needs.
Curriculum is to be determined by social utility rather than
intellectual curiosity, and if need be, truth must take a back seat to that
utility.

 

In accordance with its traditional
mission the university has struggled, not always successfully, to remain
apolitical and independent of the surrounding society, which inevitably seeks
to impose its current vision of things.
Whether that vision revolves around Catholic theology, Nazi ideology,
anticommunism or multiculturalism is quite irrelevant; the university must be
free to chase ideas down whatever currently unpopular or offensive road they
might lead.  Nothing justifies the
abridgement of this independence, and if the university is a state supported
institution, the taxpayers and government must understand that claiming and
exercising any right to interfere is immediately harmful to the university’s
mission.  Apart from managing the
institution, the primary responsibility of a university administration is to
protect it from such outside interference, a task that most administrators are
not performing very well.

 

Current trendy visions of higher
education seek to turn this all on its head and render the university more,
rather than less, dependent on outside forces.
Such can not fail to politicize the university and limit its tradition
of free inquiry, making it increasingly a voice of the people or more likely,
government, rather than the voice of the truth.
This is pernicious enough, but such a dependent relationship can only
grow worse, as outside powers send in more tendrils, further undermining
institutional autonomy.  And a decade
down the line those outside interests may no longer seem as benign or
progressive, as the momentary concerns of a democratic society continually
change.

 

Free expression, that most delicate
and dangerous of basic rights, is central to the university, as it indeed is to
a free society in general.  But while
limits on free speech will certainly injure society, they will with equal
certainty kill the university.  It simply
can not survive strictures placed on the free examination and discussion of
ideas.  Regardless of what society wishes
at the moment, the individual on campus must be free to speak his mind, subject
only to the single prohibition of not creating an immediate physical danger.

 

To limit expression, as proponents
of the new university would do, on the grounds of offensiveness, psychological
injury, perceived or real damage to society or simply unpopularity is to kill
free speech.  That the perpetrators may
have the goal of improving society is irrelevant; whatever the motives, free
speech is still dead, which inevitably paves the way for those whose motives
are manifestly unattractive.  It is a
tiny step from prohibiting offensive expression to prohibiting politically
unacceptable expression, from banning criticism of a group to banning criticism
of the government.

 

Also vital to the university is
humanism, the assertion that human beings have a dignity and worth quite apart
from heaven, that they are free to shape their destiny and that the primary
purpose of society is to serve man rather than god.  And part and parcel of humanism is another
curious idea discovered by the Greeks: that of the individual.  This is the notion, in theory fundamental to
our society, that the individual has a value apart from the group and
consequently ought to be judged according to his individual characteristics
rather than those of the group.

 

Defending the individual and
resisting the group judgments that are fundamental to tribalism and social
oppression is an unending struggle and is being bitterly fought on the American
university campus.  The individual,
whether student or faculty, is the basic unit of the university, the single
mind that examines and debates ideas, and the group must suppress that
individual in order to create a common voice for itself.  As history amply demonstrates, subordination
of the individual to the group inevitably generates falsehoods, smothers new or
different ideas and generally injures the pursuit of truth that is the prime
directive of the university.  Mr. Spock
notwithstanding, in the context of the university the needs of the one far
outweigh the needs of the many,

 

The university is a collection of
individuals, not groups, and each is free to sing his own song, regardless of
whether any harmonies result.  It is by
definition a contentious place, and a university where “consensus”
reigns, even concerning the nature and mission of the university itself, is one
that has to some degree failed.  And a university
that requires universal agreement with any idea has become its own
antithesis.  The university must defend
the examination of all ideas, even those that threaten it, or the free
marketplace of knowledge will become a company store.

 

Insofar as the university
constitutes a forum for the examination of any idea it is democratic, but the
institution itself is not a democracy.
It posits a basic inequality between the two groups that constitute it,
faculty and students. and on the basis of that inequality assigns authority to
the faculty.  Students are free (and in
fact should be encouraged) to challenge any idea propounded by the faculty and
even challenge the competency of the professor, but they are nevertheless subordinate.  Students or faculty may organize themselves
as democratic entities, but the classroom can only be an autocracy, albeit one
in which the individual is free to demonstrate that the emperor has no clothes.

 

The university is not so much a
thing or a place as a concept, that of the free exchange of ideas.  The campus, with its classrooms, libraries
and laboratories, is not the university, but simply a support structure.  The staff – presidents, provosts,
secretaries, librarians, custodians, etc. – are not the university, but only
its attendants, convenient for its functioning.
Insofar as the university is a physical entity at all, it is the students
and faculty, and all others serve the single purpose of facilitating the
dialogue between these two groups.  When
Peter Abelard, fired from the 12th century University
of Paris, lectured students on his
own in an open field across the Seine, he and they constituted
a kind of minimalist university.

 

Unfortunately, for most Americans,
especially politicians and businessmen, the university is simply an
institution, another business in which society invests resources in the
expectation of a product.  The university
does create a sort of product – education – but understanding it as just
another business leads inevitably to the demand for the immediate utility that
is at odds with its essential nature.  If
we serve the university with our tuition, taxes and gifts, the argument goes,
then the university ought to serve us by training new workers, creating jobs
and contributing to the economic and social well-being of the community.  The inevitable result: the university becomes
more of a technical-vocation institute and less of a university.

 

The university does of course serve
society and provide a return, but in an indirect and long-term way, by
examining ideas and by producing educated citizens.  Whether those ideas or that education has any
immediate or obvious utility to society is unimportant.  To demand otherwise may create a socially
useful institution, but one that is no longer a university.

 

Though most generally a free
marketplace of ideas, the specifically recognized purpose of the university is
education.  Exactly what
“education” means is of course a matter of intense debate, since the
term can reasonably cover everything from forced political indoctrination to
training a physicist to learning to survive on the streets of America’s
cities.  Most would agree that the first
and last of these are not proper parts of a university education, but they have
appeared in the form of sensitivity training and various outreach
programs.  Graduate schools and the
training of professionals in the arts and sciences are certainly a facet of the
university education, but the prime focus must be the undergraduate student.

 

The traditional core function of the
university is providing the undergraduate student with a liberal  education, that is, a general education that presents
the individual with a basic understanding of the universe, of the human
experience and of himself.  It will also
provide the intellectual tools for further exploration and the satisfaction of
the basic urge that ultimately lies behind the university and in fact the very
discovery of rationalism: curiosity.  It
is not too much to say that the university is a monument to curiosity, the
drive to question and figure out why, all to the dismay of the ignorant, the
complacent and the defenders if the established order.

 

Thus has the university helped to
create and then to serve the free and progressive society.  It is our great misfortune that this
understanding of its nature is fading away.

The Content of a Liberal Education

Easy read summary for administrators and legislators.

The content of a liberal education is that which teaches you to think.

 

 

 

            The foundation idea of a liberal
education goes back to the medieval university, which was in turn heavily
influenced by classical notions about the educated man.  The content of that education will of course
no longer do, since the early university existed in an intellectual environment
dominated by Christian theology and an uncritical acceptance of classical ideas
(at least those that did not conflict with the Church).  Both held the university in the confining
grip of truth based on unquestioned and unquestionable authority, that of the
ancients and that of the true faith.  In
addition to limiting academic freedom this fact of late medieval life created a
basic curriculum that overemphasized some subjects, such as theology, and
neglected others, such as the natural sciences.
Fortunately, the decline of the Church and the rise of modern science,
which broke the spell of the ancients, ultimately undermined the idea of
authority-based truth, and the curriculum of the modern university has expanded
into every conceivable area.

A modern liberal education has two
essential components.  The first of these
is the clutch of intellectual skills necessary for any intelligent interaction
with the world and the acquisition of further knowledge.  The most basic of these tools, the ability to
read and write, to calculate and to solve simple problems, are acquired in the
process of primary education, though the sad state of American public education
can no longer guarantee this.  A liberal
education should build on these skills and develop further the individual’s
ability to read analytically and critically and write clearly and
persuasively.  It should train him how to
examine and approach logically any sort of problem or situation and how to
argue and defend a proposition, whether in speech or in writing.  In a word, a liberal education ought to teach
one to think.  If the university did
nothing more than this, its existence would be more than justified.

The individual who can think,
analyze and communicate is equipped to continue learning on his own, but a
proper liberal education will also provide a second component: a broad basis of
general knowledge that will give the student a leg up, as it were, in his
further education.  The emphasis here is
on the broad and general, the acquisition of the information and ideas
necessary for a basic understanding of how the world, both natural and human,
works.  From this one can easily proceed
to a deeper understanding of any specific aspect of the nature of things.

A liberal education thus requires a
grounding in both the sciences and the humanities.  In the case of the sciences, the goal is not
a detailed knowledge of any particular science, but rather an understanding of
what the various sciences deal with, the important questions to which they seek
answers and the general principles upon which they operate.  More important than an expertise in any
specific scientific field is a thorough understanding of science itself,
what it is and what it is not and how it functions.  Such an understanding of science and the
fundamental principles behind our universe will allow the educated individual
to recognize and counter the pseudo-science, fantasy and general irrationality
that constantly threaten to overwhelm the human race.

A similar goal is sought in the
humanities, that is, a broad understanding of the human condition in all its
aspects.  Such an understanding requires
some exposure to and basic familiarity with history, religion, philosophy, the
political and social sciences and the arts.
Again, the point is not to acquire knowledge in depth, but rather to
gain a general understanding of these fields, particularly as tools for
understanding the individual and society and making reasoned judgments about
them.

Especially important in this regard
are history and literature, both of which provide direct access to the human
experience and thus contribute immediately to an understanding of
ourselves.  Engaging in these disciplines
will not only reveal the tremendous variety found in human society, but in
doing so will also illuminate the general human condition.  To study the Greeks or Zulus or Chinese is
simply to study ourselves from another perspective; to read the literature of Russia
or India or Brazil
is to see ourselves through different cultural eyes.

For
the American university student study of the history and literature of western
civilization ought to be the starting point for this examination of human
culture.  This western tradition
comprises the values, perspectives and methodologies that have shaped our own
society and thus has the most direct relevance to an understanding of
ourselves, who are products of that society, regardless of superficial ethnic
differences.  It is necessary to
comprehend the forces that shaped one’s own point of view before examining that
of others.  And for good or for ill
western culture and its ideas have had and will continue to have a dramatic
impact on the rest of humanity, making a study of the west a vital component of
the liberal education of every individual, irrespective of his cultural
origins.

A broad understanding of ourselves
and the world about us and the ability to think analytically and communicate
clearly, these are the goals of a liberal education.  While not filling any specific workplace
niches, a general education of this sort possesses a social utility far more
important than that of any professional training.  Common sense and the evidence of history
demonstrate that the greater the portion of the citizenry that is generally
educated, the better the society is able to solve its problems, employ its
resources and improve its material and intellectual circumstances.  Such is especially the case in a democratic
state, which regularly asks its citizens to render political judgments, and it
was the discoverers of urban-centered democracy, the Greeks, who first realized
that a general education was a basis for civic virtue, that a general education
was in fact a political education.

In the modern world of course
political education has increasingly come to mean simply political
indoctrination, which has rarely, if ever, been a benefit to any society.  A proper political education instead consists
of a general understanding of society and history and the intellectual tools to
employ that understanding in shaping the political environment.  Such is obviously not popular with
governments and politicians of any stripe, since a liberally educated society
is the most resistant to political oppression, the least likely to be taken in
by appeals to emotion rather than reason.
Democracy in particular rises and falls with the education of its
electorate, and the ignorant voter is an easy target for demagoguery and
sloganeering, for the fear mongers and feel-good politicians.  Recent American history amply demonstrates
the serious danger posed by an uneducated electorate.

A final note about a liberal
education: it is work.  While learning
can be generally interesting and often fun, it still requires discipline and
effort.  Learning demands mental
exercise, memorization and practice.
Interaction and dialogue are a vital part of education, but at its root
learning is a solitary occupation of reading, writing and most important,
thinking.