Sunday, August 15, 2010

14th August 2010

Romans were always sensitive to the controllability of any territory that abutted their empire. What on earth would they have made of Afghanistan? Let alone its army?

Rex sociusque et amicus, ‘king, ally and friend’ was the honorific term applied to the ruler of people on the edge of their empire who agreed to come on board. The relationship was a delicate quid pro quo: Rome ensured that their new best friend remained securely in power, as long as he had a grip on his people, remained loyal to Rome and jumped when asked. The push-pull between Rome and the Parthian empire over Armenia offers a good example, both sides keen to have ‘their man’ in charge and make it look as if they were in control—for propaganda purposes if for nothing else—but without actually threatening the peace.

Economics came strongly into it. The point is that Roman soldiers living on the borders needed supplying, and it did not matter much where supplies came from. Further, such exchange helped to cement relationships on both sides. So networks of highly-respected ‘friends’ were in place even across what looks like the natural barrier of the Rhine-Danube. Another advantage was maintaining military strength. There was a good living to be made in the Roman army, and Romans knew the fighting worth of other armies, especially if they were German. But there was no point in playing these games if the stability of such kingdoms could not be relied upon or it had nothing to offer. It was then a matter of cutting losses (Scotland is a good example) or moving in full time.

President Karzai barely controls Kabul, let alone the country. An ‘economy’ hardly exists. And even if the West could bring prosperity to such a poor region, what would that guarantee? As for training up an army in a congenitally unstable region in the hope that it will remain on ‘our’ side when we are gone, Romans would have thought us deranged. Had they wanted a local army, they would have drafted Afghans, Gurhka-style, into the British army and sent them for training far away (as they often did to captives). As it is, we are merely creating mercenaries for hire by anyone who will want them.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

7th August 2010

So we are all going to have to work longer, and everyone is thrilled? The ancients would have thought us barking.

The 7thC BC Greek farmer-poet Hesiod laid down the marker when he lamented that he lived in the age of iron, when men ‘will never cease from toil and misery by day and night’. The reason is that, in the pre-industrial ancient world, there were, effectively, no such things as ‘jobs’. Virtually everyone, bar the rich, lived off the soil. So ‘work’ was not a matter of choice. If you did not work, you died, though an epitaph highlighted the benefits: sweet repose, no fear of starvation, permanent, rent-free accommodation—so never in debt! Popular morality rammed home the point. Aesop contrasted the ant who worked to prepare for the winter with the grasshopper who sang the summer away and paid the price.

Further, if you did work for a wage, you would be working for others. That implied you could not stand on your own two feet. You were dependent on someone else, i.e. no longer free. It was as if you were the lowest of the low—a slave. In other words, you were not regarded as a free man, freely and proudly selling your labour: you were in fact selling your person. Better to see yourself as a noble, hard-working, self-sufficient farmer—an image Romans keenly polished—than that.

A Roman word for ‘work’ makes the point with a terrible precision: negotium (cf. negotiate), from nego ‘I deny’ and otium ‘leisure’. Far from being dignified or positive, work was a denial of everything man longed for—leisure to enjoy himself as he chose. That was a privilege reserved only for the wealthy, the most enviable of all consequences of being rich. The Greek for leisure is *scholĂȘ/*/, origin of our ‘school’ and ‘scholarship’. Only the well-healed could afford the time off to indulge in such luxuries. By the same token, the man who did not have to work but put himself out of behalf of the community was greatly to be praised. Celebrations of the Great and Good regularly highlight their industria and diligentia—a pleasing paradox.

‘The dignity of labour’: dancing to someone else’s tune. What slave-driver thought up that con-trick?

Sunday, August 1, 2010

31st July 2010

The French may legislate to ban the all-enveloping burka/niqab worn by some Muslim women, but Claudius, Roman emperor AD 41-54, would no more have banned them than he did trouser-wearing Frenchman.

In AD 48, Gallic chieftains who had long-standing treaties with Rome and were of citizen status decided they wanted the right to enter the Roman Senate. Fierce debate ensued. Some Romans opposed it. They argued that there were enough properly bred Romans to fill the Senate, and enough non-Romans had been admitted anyway. The Gauls who came in would be descendants of people traditionally hostile to Rome, who had fought Julius Caesar and earlier still (390 BC) even sacked the city. Let them be citizens, but they must not cheapen Rome’s high office.

Claudius was having none of this and addressed the senate on the matter (The official record of the original speech survives on a bronze tablet put on display at the time in Lyons; Tacitus’ version elaborates on its main points). Claudius argues that he wants men of excellence in the Senate wherever they come from, and reminds his listeners that Romulus welcomed in enemies wholesale the day after defeating them. The fatal weakness of Sparta and Athens, he goes on, was to refuse conquered subjects any citizen rights. As for past battles, he points out, Rome has lost to many tribes who were now fully integrated, and the loyalty of Gallic peoples is now unquestioned. They have assimilated Roman customs and culture and married into Roman families. Let them spend their wealth here rather than keep it to themselves! All ancient institutions, he concludes, change over time. Innovations become the norm, and so will this one.

The Senate approved the speech, and the Gauls were granted the new right. The key point here is that the Gauls were already assimilated to Roman ways: they had given up their breeches (bracae) and were fully togaed up. Under those circumstances, there was no reason not to admit them. In that light, the minister Damien Green was right to reject the French approach. If Muslim women refuse assimilation to our ways, their children and grandchildren who wish to remain here and succeed will pay the price. In the tolerant British way, let our culture and tradition do their silent work.