Thursday, February 16, 2006

Rome as an idea

More thoughts from Boris Johnson.

He tells a story of Romulus that I didn't know. After the founding (21st of April, 753BC, probably at last orders), Romulus put out word that Rome was a place of asylum for anybody that wished it. So of course he got criminals, slaves, exiles and refugees. The point is that the Roman would not be defined by blood and lineage, or even by geography. It was an idea.

Which is exactly how Bernard-Henri Lévy described the United States. (From a previous post)

America gives the French right "nightmares," as the country is based on "a social contract. America proves that people can gather at a given moment and decide to form a nation, even if they come from different places."
This became particularly important quite a few centuries after Romulus. The basic glue of the empire was citizenship. Not only was it desirable for the benefits it gave, but it was (eventually) available to all. The fact that the Romans were constitutionally and psychologically able to offer citizenship to all and sundry is an extraordinary and telling fact. You may have been defeated in battle, but you didn't have to live the rest of your life with mud up your nose. There was a way out and up.

For the central power, this is a great boon. It means you are able to take in raw talent from so many more sources, especially when the home-grown variety becomes weedy. So you get Seneca, Lucan, Martial, Hadrian (one of the truly great emperors), Diocletian and Septimus Severus, an African (like St Augustan) from Libya, who became first a general and then an emperor (and who died in York).

This country, too, continues to profit from the talent of the 'fringes'. Just look at the writers in English from India, Africa and the Caribbean, not to mention the medical and scientific imports. The complexity and breadth of successful empires gives talent a far greater stage on which to strut, to the benefit of both the imperial power and its (ex-)colonies.

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