Here Comes the Roman Empire

Among the amusing videos offered by Tik-Tok is one that is definitely out of character: the Roman Empire. What’s it doing in this lighthearted crowd? Puzzled women are asking men how often they think about the long-gone empire because apparently they do. The answers are startling – maybe once a month, said some. Once a week, replied others, .and more than a few admitted they thought about it every day. That’s a lot of Rome.

The Last Senate of Julius Caesar by Raffaele Giannetti

They didn’t explain their reasons, but we can surmise. Rome stood for strength, cohesion and a near unbeatable army. Today in the U.S. that’s lacking. Since the turn of the century, we have engaged in a number of wars without winning any of them. Rome sets a better example. Let’s think about it.

More American macho, scoff women who note their gender had a much subordinate role in the vaunted empire. But there were significant exceptions, especially in times of crisis. Honoria, sister of Emperor Valentinian, was infuriated at being sent into exile for an indiscrete love affair.  In retaliation she sent a message offering herself to Attila,  indomitable leader of the invading Huns. With the promise of a top-level bride to be, he demanded half the empire and almost got it until he was defeated in the famous battle of Chalons

Still, empire was mainly a man’s business, and manliness was expected and prized. A Roman was tested by adversity which was never lacking in an empire under continual threat by outside forces accurately described as barbarians. Character and courage were the traits needed to make their mark and promote the interests of Rome. When these lapsed in later years, the empire was destined to fall, according to many historians. Herein lie character lessons for an inquiring man today.

Yet there was more. The great 18th century British historian Edward Gibbon wrote in the opening pages of his multi-volume “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: “If a man were called to fix the period of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would without hesitation name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian (AD 96) to the accession of Commodus (AD 180). The vast extent of the Roman Empire was governed under the guidance of virtue and wisdom. The armies were restrained by the firm but gentle hand of four successive emperors whose character and authority commanded involuntary respect.”

The Romans fought hard to gain their empire and governed well to maintain it. Harsh when necessary to keep control, they left localities alone to govern themselves with their own values and gods. It was an instruction in self-government that assured an era of peace that the region had not known before or has known since.

Barbarian sack of Rome

This was exemplified by Julius Caesar who in his famed memoirs showed that aside from personal glory, he fought not to destroy neighboring Gaul but to bring it into the Roman Empire. No visionary or ideologue while a great general, he respected and didn’t hate the enemy he fought and was always negotiating while fighting. Come let’s all be Romans together, he said, and Gaul agreed.

This empire had a long run as empires go but eventually succumbed to barbarian pressures with emperors and armies that could no longer cope. But if we’re going to think about Rome, why not think big? What if it had managed to stave off the invaders and continued to exist through subsequent centuries? There would be no dark ages since arts and letters continued to flourish under Roman rule. No need for a Renaissance to revive them. Brilliant, creative European nations would develop under a watchful Rome able to prevent them from trying to destroy one another, culminating in two apocalyptic world wars whose savagery would have appalled even the barbarians who sacked Rome, while admiring it. Rome is gone, but understandably and thankfully, not its memory. See Tik-Tok

Can We Be Stoics Today?

In the early years of the first century of our era a popular playwright and politician named Seneca lectured and wrote about a philosophy called stoicism. Here in one of his many letters to a young friend he sums it up: “The only safe harbor in this life’s tossing, troubled sea is to refuse to be bothered about what the future will bring, squaring the breast to take without skulking or flinching whatever fortune hurls at us.”

The Death of Seneca, Luca Giordano (1632-1706)

This outlook is not only life fulfilling, he assured readers and listeners, but the road to happiness. He wrote at a time of political upheaval as Rome changed uneasily from republic to empire at the cost of many lives and social disorder. Thus, he chose as an example of stoicism the champion of the republic Marcus Cato who, confronted with two warring parties for control of the empire, stood his ground against both and fought to the last at the cost of his life. Content with empire, Seneca nevertheless paid tribute to the man who more than any other symbolized the esteemed republic.

On the Grecian sides there was famed philosopher Socrates, who spent his life under various wars and was eventually sentenced to death for poisoning the young with his opinions. He was appropriately executed by poison. Seneca writes that this brutal end had “so little effect this on Socrates’ spirit that it did not even affect the expression on his face. To the very last no one ever saw Socrates in any particular mood of gaiety or depression. Through all the ups and downs of fortune his was a level temperament.” If this was the behavior of a man in extreme stress, stoicism can support those in far less trouble.

Seneca’s stoicism was sorely tested by his times. A popular figure in Rome, he aroused the envy of the violent emperor Caligula, who sentenced him to death, then had second thoughts. The following emperor, the more subdued Claudius, considered execution but decided on an eight-year exile to the island of Corsica, where Seneca wrote some of his plays depicting the horrors of excess passion. Then suddenly came a change in fortune. Agrippina, the ambitious mother of the newly installed emperor, sixteen-year-old Nero, chose Seneca to be his tutor. In that post he failed to tame unruly Nero, who eventually killed his mother along with innumerable others. At the same time, aided by a military commander, Burrus, Seneca skillfully captained the ship of state through perilous times, enacting various legal and fiscal reforms. The later great emperor Trajan commented that Seneca’s five years in charge were among the finest in Roman history.

This abruptly changed when Nero went on a murderous rampage after learning of a plot to overthrow him in which Seneca was involved. Massive executions followed with Seneca drawing the blood from his veins to end his life. Some of the plotters had wanted to elevate him to emperor with the overthrow of hated Nero. Considering the centrality of Rome, that could have effected a change in world history – a dedicated stoic in command of events.

Nero and Seneca, Eduardo Barrón (1904)

Today’s passions are also intense, though hardly matching the lethality of ancient Rome, at least not yet. One full scale war is under way between Russia and Ukraine, amply supplied by the U.S. Others are threatened, with smaller wars taking place in Syria, Somalia and elsewhere. Stoicism would suggest damping down the passions that lead to these wars as well as staying in self-control as they continue. Stoics are not pacifists, but they want to act rationally, not emotionally. Passions undo us, says Seneca. A good life can be maintained by not giving into emotion. Stoicism to the rescue.