Monday, September 03, 2007

Romans (again)

I can't even remember at the moment by what twisted path I got to this page, but it got on my wick immediately. It's called Roman Empire: The Paradox of Power, and it's one of those 5-pagers in the BBC History site.

I shouldn't really get so upset with it; it is after all 'defending' the Romans, or at least our interest in them. Against whom? Against the high-minded righteous who look at Rome (thinking of the US) and say, How can you admire a society based on slavery, militarism and imperial power? The word 'fascist' is bound to come up, plus 'class oppression', 'subjugation of women' and 'economic exploitation'. So after many dinner parties in Highbury, some BBC producer, who despite his present self actually enjoyed classics, asked poor Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill to write an "inoffensive" reply.

We are left with a paradox. The Roman Empire set up and spread many of the structures on which the civilisation of modern Europe depends; and through history it provided a continuous model to imitate. Yet many of the values on which it depended are the antithesis of contemporary value-systems. It retains its hold on our imaginations now, not because it was admirable, but because despite all its failings, it held together such diverse landscape for so long.

But is this not childish? How many cultures in the history of the world have had our values? It is we who are the exception. In their brutality, lack of regard for the individual, Rome was like everyone else. What they did to others, others would certainly have done to them, had they been able. That is not the point. What's important is what makes them different to everyone else. We, as a culture, have refreshed ourselves at the Roman well so often, and there is always enough for us, that the 'accusations' directed against them should be given the credit they deserve, that of school-yard name-calling.

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