Then, as now

Rome history via podcast

I’ve lately been listening to the History of Rome podcast, 179 episodes by Mike Duncan covering everything from before the monarchy through the founding of the republic to the fall of the empire in the 5th century. I was at first interested mainly in the 40 years before and after the Goths’ sack of Rome in A.D. 410, and Duncan did such a good job that I started listening from the beginning.

Part of me thinks that giving that much attention to stories about what’s thought to have happened that long ago is a waste of time and a distraction from my being present in the here and now. Of course, listening to Roman history rather brings it into my here and now so maybe that works itself out. The question is whether I want to spend my here and now immersed in thoughts about human machinations and violence more than 2,000 years ago.

The human behavior fascinates me. Everything is discussed from the Roman point of view, more or less, so the Roman army winning a battle is a success and their losing one a failure even though the win meant that everybody for miles around had to flee for their lives or that, as with the Roman victory at Corinth and countless other places, all the men would be slaughtered and the women and children sold into slavery. Go, Rome!

Then, as now, power meant goons—people willing to commit violence on command—and more goons meant more power. You could have political power that didn’t involve the immediate threat of armed violence, but not for long.

The Romans sound barbaric in some ways—the capricious executions and entertaining torture, for instance—and merely primitive in others, say, their faith in politicians as a force for good. I appreciate the players’ relative honesty about desiring fame, wealth and power.

As one might expect, there seems to have been a certain amount of hooey bandied about around improving the lives of common people and achieving universal peace, blah, blah, blah, and now and then to keep them from taking over for themselves—which wouldn’t have lasted long anyway before the most unscrupulous rose to the top—a big shot would do something generous for the masses, maybe not tax them into poverty or not kill them and their family and confiscate their property. Then, as now, most people weren’t used to much and were easily satisfied or deceived, whichever was most expedient for the men in charge, and the people in charge were nearly always men then, as now.