Saturday, February 26, 2011

So just how far have we progressed?

Thursday, I ended my post with the example of Caesar’s wife. This morning, after a night of simmering and fretting over the not-distant-enough collapse of Western civilization (God, I would love to be Chicken Little rather than Cassandra!), I started thinking of the conditions that obtained in 59 BC, when Julius Caesar, having finished a frustrating and not entirely successful consulship trying to work around his obstructive junior consul Marcus Bibulus—people would end up joking about events taking place “in the consulship of Julius and Caesar”—rode off to Gaul and his destiny.

The day he left, the Roman Republic had only fifteen years to live.

In the year 59 BC:

  • Rome had a military presence in several different countries, and ruled several others where it didn’t. Wherever the eagles were—and often where the eagles weren’t—Roman commercial interests were. Rome’s economy was so heavily tied into foreign countries that disturbance at the furthest end of the nascent empire meant panic in Rome.
  • Rome’s far-flung expansion of power included a series of disturbances in the Near and Middle East, including a couple of hostile regimes in what is now northern Turkey, Numidia and the Persian Empire, plus struggles for political power in Judea and dynastic strife in Egypt.
  • In Rome itself, a massive political power shift had occurred over the last fifty years, moving more power out of the hands of the constitutional legislators—the Senate—into a small handful of tribunes who could only be blocked by one of their own, but who could block action by any other political body through their vetoes. This meant that the two major political blocs, the Optimates and the Populares, had to compete for control through ownership of individual tribunes.
  • Because of the complicated, multi-tiered structure of Roman government, neither the Optimates nor the Populares could depend on tribunes alone. They also had to have a complicated patronage system of traded favors with other senators, foreign leaders and commercial interests, as well as means of motivating different sections of the Plebs in their favor. When one of the commercial interests, the tax collectors (publicani), was unable to make good on the tax amounts they had contracted for, Caesar had to slash the contracts to one-third of the original amounts in order to restore confidence in the Populares … which amounted to a government subsidy.
  • To keep the poor under control, the Roman government had to subsidize massive quantities of grain. However, there was no public education system; illiteracy was rampant, and only the richest had the leisure to pursue education in philosophy, history or engineering.
  • With no publicly funded health system, wealth and access to physicians were directly correlated.
  • Over the last fifty years, many rural farming families had been driven off their lands and into the ranks of the working city poor, even into slavery, by wealthy people through latifundia farming.
  • Since the conquest of Greece and the absorption of eastern Mediterranean kingdoms, many Roman celebrities made a fad out of Eastern religions; sexual license began to be openly celebrated, especially in the poems of Catullus. In the years before Caesar’s consulship, a series of religious scandals rocked the city, especially concerning the Vestal Virgins and the wife of the pontifex maximus (Caesar himself).
 So where is the United States 2,050 years later?
  • The United States has a military presence in many countries, as well as exercising legal jurisdictions over several island countries. Wherever the Stars and Stripes have been carried by soldiers and sailors—and even in a few places where they haven’t—there are uniquely American commercial interests. America is so heavily tied into the world economy that a disturbance in a remote corner of the globe can cause a panic on Wall Street.
  • America’s far-flung expansion of power is tied to a series of disturbances in the Near and Middle East, including hostile regimes in Iran and Libya, power struggles in the Holy Land and dynastic turmoil in Egypt.
  • A massive power shift has occurred over the last sixty years, moving more political power away from Congress and into the hands of the Supreme Court, who can defeat any other political body but who can only be effectively blocked by enough of their own members. This fact has led both Conservatives and Liberals to try to own SCOTUS through the appointment process.
  • But because SCOTUS doesn’t own all political power (yet), both Conservatives and Liberals depend for power on a complicated patronage system of traded favors with each other, foreign leaders and commercial interests. When one such bloc appeared on the verge of failing, the federal government bailed them out with public moneys.
  • To keep the poor under control, the government regularly subsidizes food, rent and other forms of assistance. There is public education, but it has run into numerous problems that has reduced its effectiveness; as the costs of post-secondary education spirals out of control, students must either have their education funded by third parties or take out massive long-term loans.
  • Healthcare is radically available, but its costs must be partially subsidized by either employers or the government, and can still become a crushing burden on the poor and middle classes.
  • Over the last fifty years, many independent farmers have been driven off their lands and into the working classes by the increasing costs of farming, which can only be afforded by large conglomerates.
  • Due to American overseas activities, many Eastern religious ideas have been made available for American celebrities to adopt as fads. Sexual license is rampant; homosexuality is celebrated in popular culture, especially in the songs of Lady GaGa. A series of sexual scandals have rocked the single largest faith community, a couple of which have attempted to implicate the Pontiff.
Have we really progressed at all? Or is all this technology just window dressing?


  1. Consider factors:
    Human nature, e.g. Original Sin, is still present in our lives; People are still influenced toward actual vices and sins by the World, the Flesh and the Devil.
    Life Expectancy (after birth) in Ancient Rome has been estimated at age 30. Today, in the USA & Western Europe, male life expectancy at birth is above 75; and female life expectancy is near age 80. Technology has made life (materially) better and easier for residents of the First (developed) world. Absent modern transport and GM foods, in no way could six billion people on this planet be fed. Materially, much has happened. As possibilities for good have increased, so possibilities for evil (e.g. Nazi and Communist millions of deaths) have also grown.
    Again, powerful people in the Third millenium are subject to similar temptations as 2,100 years ago: Principal motivators in our material society are desires for Power, for Wealth and for Pleasure. These are the same as were noted by the author of Ecclesiastes.
    Lord, have mercy on your people.

  2. I think the worst problem is how we have degenerated in our society with regards to morals. What is tolerated today would not have been tolerated in our grandparents generation, we have not progressed there except to license: abortion, euthanasia, same sex marriage, drugs, violence, the "me" generation I think that is what will collapse our society. And yet there are still a lot of very good people around. Who knows what will happen in the future. The Holy Spirit is still at work in the world

  3. I think a more appropriate analogy may be The Bysantine Empire that was epitomized by corruption and perversion while being a paper tiger. Heresy abounded and flourished their with few if any competent leaders. At least rome had some relatively ethical leaders and had a system that produced Constantine.

  4. Anthony, I just found your blog via New Advent. What a great post! As a career Latin teacher at every level from middle school through undergraduate, I appreciate your analysis of the situation. I will have to share some of this with my 2nd year students, who are finishing their study of Caesar right now.

    You seem more than passingly acquainted with the Classical world. Did Classics figure into your past somewhere?

  5. @ Magister: Oh, how I wish! (LOL) I've read Suetonius, Caesar and Catullus, as well as Sophocles' Oedipus cycle, the Iliad and the Odyssy. At one point, I was very heavily into the fall of the Republic and the rise of Octavian. You really can't start and end with Caesar; at minimum, you have to go back to the Gracchi, Gaius Marius and Sulla and forward to the death of Caesarion. But it would be a daring act of chutzpah to call myself a classicist.

    This is definitely one area in which public school education does a disservice in teaching history: Instead of getting us to read the primary sources, we get the information selectively filtered and (usually) bent to a specific, politically-correct story. English lit in high school generally pretends that story-telling only began with Beowulf, and didn't even start to get interesting until Dickens.

    Thanks for the compliment; I hope I can continue to provide excellent content. Gratia Dei tecum.

  6. The points which are given here in the favor of the Rome are equally follow them and this is very true such that Roman Republic had only fifteen years to live.


Anyone can leave a comment. Keep it clean; keep it polite! (As a rule, I automatically delete comments that use non-Roman alphabets,i.e. Greek, Chinese, Cyrillic, etc.) WARNING: If you include more than one link in your comment, it's likely the comment will end up in my spam folder!