CHAPTER 9.—WHILE ROME CONQUERS THE WORLD, GREECE CONQUERS ROME.
LIKE EVERYTHING ELSE in classical history, the foundation of Rome was traced back to the Trojan War. It seems that, while the victorious Greeks were finding their way home past the various cyclopes and sirens that stood in the way, the defeated Trojans were scattering to the four corners of the earth and founding every non-Greek nation that would later aspire to a civilized antiquity. One of those Trojans was Aeneas, who made it past Dido, Queen of Carthage (apparently a more formidable obstacle than all the mythical monsters of the Odyssey put together), to found a little Trojan colony in far-off Italy. And if you ask why he did so, instead of staying in Carthage where he could have had a prosperous kingdom and a beautiful queen, the answer you will receive is that he did it because it was his destiny. Unlike modern politicians, who generally discover their destinies only after the sordid details of their corruption and immorality have been made into a mass-market paperback book, Aeneas could count on friendly gods to explain his destiny to him with a helpful PowerPoint presentation. There is nothing more inconvenient than missing one’s destiny; and it is sincerely to be regretted that, owing to the laxness of the Olympian gods in recent centuries, many a destined founder of an empire is probably frittering away his life as a county commissioner somewhere in the trackless Midwest.
Aeneas succeeded in planting the little Trojan colony, but it was not his destiny to found the city of Rome himself, so he wisely stuck within the limits of what the gods had told him to do and left the rest to future generations.
In the fulness of time, Romulus and Remus, descendants of the great Aeneas, were born and, to set the standard of Roman child care for centuries to come, were immediately discarded as of no use to anybody. Fortunately for the future destiny of Rome, a friendly she-wolf mistook the infants for a curiously hairless pair of cubs and reared them as her own. Romulus grew up to found the city of Rome; Remus grew up to be murdered by his brother, which is just as well, since nobody wants to read the story of the Reman Empire.
When we call Rome a “city,” of course, we must admit that we are playing fast and loose with the term. At first Rome was nothing more than a crossroads with two farmhouses and a Circle K. Even after Rome grew to several streets of scraggly houses with its own Rite Aid, it was still such a no-account place that it could not produce its own kings: it had to import cut-rate kings from the Etruscans next door, who seem to have had more kings than they knew what to do with. In 509 B.C., however—at just about the time the Athenians were deciding that a war with Persia might be fun—the Romans threw out the last of their Etruscan kings and decided to do without kings altogether. The last king had made himself so unwelcome, in fact, that “king” was a bad word for most of the rest of Roman history. Kings were evil: they were the people who told you what to do, even if you didn’t want to do it, and Rome was better off without them.
But if Rome was not a kingdom, then what was it? The Greeks had a word for everything, but Latin was still a young language. The Romans had no idea what to call their new government. Whenever they had to talk about it, they scratched their heads and spoke of “the public…um…thing.” And so it was called for the rest of time, because the Romans never did come up with a name for it. Even into imperial times, the Romans continued to call their government the res publica or republica—the public thing.
There were, of course, the usual dire predictions that a state with no king could not survive without tearing itself apart. These predictions proved absolutely correct. The Roman public thing could never hold itself together, and the next five centuries present us with a spectacle of constant class struggle and civil war that would have meant the end of any other state.
What the naysayers did not predict was that the public thing turned out to be fabulously good at conquering other better-run governments. The Romans could not build a government to save their lives, but they could put together the best armies in the world. They had a special knack for starting fights and winning them. Soon what had been the little village of Rome was the greatest city in the Italian peninsula, grown fat on the spoils of its neighbors. Each conquest brought piles of gold into Rome, enough to keep even the dysfunctional public thing going for a while longer. And whenever it began to look as though the whole fabric of Roman society was about to unravel, there was always another fight to get into.
Soon the expanding Roman public thing had become one of the two great powers of the western Mediterranean, which of course meant that it was time to pick a fight with the other great power. That power was Carthage, the Phoenician New York in North Africa, which had been busy carving out its own empire and was not at all keen on having the Romans chip away at it.
The conflict with Carthage was so valuable to the survival of the public thing that the Romans managed to keep the fight going for more than a century. It helped that the Carthaginian generals were not always the brightest bulbs. Hannibal, for example, tried to bring elephants over the Alps to attack Rome, which is almost as foolish as… well, actually, there really isn’t anything stupider than trying to bring elephants over the Alps. Yet Hannibal was considered quite brainy among the Carthaginian elite.
Indeed, the Romans might have won much earlier if the conflict had not been so useful in the internal politics of Rome. Politicians in the Roman Senate, the legislative body of the public thing, discovered that they could get virtually any measure passed by adding “and Carthage must be destroyed” as a rider: “A zoning variance for the construction of public rest rooms on the Aventine shall be granted, and Carthage must be destroyed.” As long as Carthage remained the great bugbear in the Roman imagination, the public thing could be administered as poorly as its greediest administrators desired. This happy state of affairs might have gone on for many more centuries if the Romans had not got a bit overenthusiastic and actually destroyed Carthage.
It is a curious principle of Roman history that most of Rome’s conquests were unintentional collateral damage. Rome intentionally went after Carthage; but, when the dust had settled, she discovered that she had accidentally become mistress of Spain and Greece as well. Rome had not really intended to absorb most of the civilized world: it just sort of happened, and now the public thing, which had proved itself utterly incapable of governing a moderately prosperous city-state in the Italian hills, was stuck with the task of administering the greatest empire in the world. Naturally, it made a big fat mess of the whole thing.
Meanwhile, the city of Rome itself, now the biggest and most prosperous in the Mediterranean if not the entire world, was paralyzed by the sort of political disagreements that always end with somebody’s head on a stick. The Roman politics of those days had a bracing vigor to which future ages would look back with nostalgia. “Remember the glorious days of the public thing,” future Romans would say to each other, “when the Forum was always gaily festooned with severed heads, and gangs of roving thugs fought each other in the streets every night? Ah, those were the good old days.”
Now, while all this conquest and chaos was going on, a strange thing was happening to Roman culture. The Roman upper classes, who had once looked on “culture” as the sort of thing effete intellectual snobs liked to talk about, were falling under the spell of Greece. The Greeks might not have been able to resist the unstoppable force of the Roman legions, but they still kept their old unshakable conviction that Greeks were better than other people, and their curious knack for passing that conviction on to the other people. When the Roman upper classes were not beheading members of the rival political party, they were busy sucking up all the Greek literature and art they could get their hands on. They judged their own efforts by how closely they met the Greek standard; indeed, a Roman who had any ambition of making an impression on the intellectual world would write in Greek. Latin was for hicks. One might have been forgiven for supposing that Greece had conquered Rome instead of the other way around.
Thus Rome had become both the most sophisticated city in the world and the most violent. It was only a matter of time before she produced a man who, in his refined and sophisticated violence, was the perfect image of his city.
Julius Caesar began his political career as one of those compromise candidates who are drafted into a high position less because of their talent than because all the talented people have made too many enemies. The real political powers in Rome decided to stick him in front of an army, even though he had never held any significant command, on the theory that he was unlikely to do any real damage if he was given a relatively easy assignment well away from the real theater of war, which was in the distant east.
But Caesar was a man whose fertile imagination never lacked an excuse for a fight. If a war was not provided for him, he could provide it himself. Expecting him to hold the frontier against the Gauls with passable competence, the Roman Senate was soon informed that he had conquered all three parts of Gaul, and Britain as well, which was a place so far away that most Romans probably regarded it as mythological.
This was not at all what the powers in Rome had had in mind. They had quite enough heroes to deal with already. The last thing they needed was a really competent general messing about with their plans. So the Senate sent Caesar a pink slip.
It was, however, more difficult than the senators had anticipated to fire the most popular general the public thing had ever produced, especially when he was headed straight for Rome with the same invincible army that had flattened western Europe. The Senate therefore drew a line at the river Rubicon. “Do not cross this line,” the senators said, “or we shall be very cross.”
Caesar sat down by the river to think it over. “Alea jacta est,” he said at last: “The die is cast.” But just then some of his most trusted officers appeared and persuaded him that Rome could be his if he would stop playing Monopoly and continue the march.
Once Caesar had taken Rome, the Senate assured him that it had just been kidding about the pink slip and offered him the position of dictator for life. From here Caesar went from success to success. He made an alliance with Cleopatra of Egypt that was so friendly it produced a son, and he published his memoirs of the wars, setting a standard of dull competence in Latin prose that is still held up to yawning schoolchildren as the acme of style today.
The one thing the conservative party in Roman politics could never forgive him for was that Caesar seemed to be bringing stability to the public thing. It had been far too long since there was bloodshed in the streets of Rome. Instead, for the first time in history, the public thing was simply doing its job of keeping the people safe to go about their business unmolested. Was all this competence and prosperity any way to run a government? No, Caesar must go; and so the men who considered themselves most attached to the rule of law in Rome decided to murder Caesar. “Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more,” as the conspirator Brutus famously put it. “Though actually, if it comes to that, I didn’t really like Caesar very much.”
The murder of Caesar was even more effective than the conspirators had dared hope in bringing back the glories of the old public thing. Soon blood was flowing not only in the streets of Rome, but from one end of the Mediterranean to the other, as rival gangs of thugs surrounded themselves with some of the largest armies the world had ever seen. Even now the strange luck of the Romans did not fail them; part of the collateral damage of this gigantic civil war was Egypt, which somehow sort of accidentally ended up subject to Rome.
Finally, when the dust had settled and everybody was good and tired, the gang that had followed Caesar’s adopted son Octavian found itself sitting on top of the heap. By promising to restore the dignity of the public thing, Octavian won over the Senate, which gratefully gave him the title Augustus.
Now, at last, there was peace throughout the Roman world. The only difference from the old days of the public thing was that now there was one more line at the top of the org chart, a line that was definitely not labeled “king,” because Rome was governed by a public thing that most certainly had nothing to do with kings, but a line that nevertheless made all the difference. The Senate continued to govern the public thing exactly as before, but now there was an Augustus to tell the Senate what to do, relieving the senators of the burdensome responsibility of thinking, which history had shown was not the thing they were best at.
And everything would have been just peachy from there on, except that, just as Augustus was settling in for a long and prosperous era of peace, something was happening in the backward province of Judea that would ultimately ruin everything.