Tuesday, 3 June 2014

The Long View

Two thousand years ago a child was born in the Roman Empire who would change history. From a young age he displayed sharpness of thought and an ability to see beyond what most saw, and when he grew to manhood crowds would flock to hear him speak. By the time he was thirty he had changed the world irrevocably and made many enemies in the process, but his followers believed he would put an end to war. It was said that his dominion would have no end, and he was hailed during his lifetime as the Son of God. His name was Gaius Octavius, or Octavian, but he's better known in our time by the title he took later in life: Caesar Augustus.

Perhaps that wasn't the name you thought of first, but if so it's not a coincidence. A great deal of what Jesus of Nazareth said and did was a methodical inversion of the man who had ruled the world for more than forty years and finally died when Jesus was a teenager. Jesus' biographers played up this aspect of his message considerably, which is why Luke's version of the Christmas story begins with "During the reign of Caesar Augustus..." For those who wish to follow Jesus' teachings as well as for those who want to understand his legacy historically, it's important to understand the power of Rome, because Jesus' words and deeds demonstrated to his followers a dramatic counterexample to that power. And the man who symbolized Roman power more than any other in Jesus' day was Octavian.

The Rome that Octavian and Jesus knew had already undergone drastic changes since its founding in 753 BCE. After throwing off the oppressive rule of foreign kings, the leading men of the young city-state had crafted a system of governance designed to prevent any one man from gaining too much power. The wealthy elites made up a governing body called the senatus or Senate, and elected two of their number each year to the top position of consul. All men who owned land, however little, were required to serve in the army and defend the city. The system worked rather well, and was referred to as the res publica, 'the public matter' or 'the concern of all', from which we get our English word 'republic'.

The Republic defended itself vigorously from hostile neighbouring states and began to conquer some of them and incorporate them into its own economy. It was considered proper for men of the senatorial class to balance their political career with both administrative and military commands, and this fuelled the drive for Roman military victories and expansion of the Republic's holdings. By the beginning of the third century BCE Rome dominated the Italian peninsula and was waging costly naval wars against the mighty North African city of Carthage; by the middle of the second century BCE Carthage was a Roman colony and Greece and Spain were falling to Roman legions.

By the first century BCE relentless growth had changed Roman society dramatically, as slaves and plunder poured in and Roman colonists poured out. As in all growth economies, a handful of men benefited far more than the rest. These were the wealthy senators, who were investing in huge plantations planted with cash crops and tilled by armies of slaves. Unemployment became a big problem as small-scale farmers were priced out of the market, and soon enough the problem was temporarily solved by allowing the landless poor to join the ever-expanding army.

All this was tending toward a society ever more deeply rooted in military and economic violence. The people's loyalty leaned more and more toward charismatic generals, who could feed them and give them work, and away from the state, which seemed to have deserted them. In 88 BCE one such general saw his chance and marched on Rome itself, launching more than fifty years of civil war as other ambitious politicians threw their luck in with the swords of the legions instead of the votes of the senate. The Republic had fallen victim to its own success.

Octavian grew up during this dangerous period, and his great-uncle Julius Caesar was one of those charismatic generals. He was eighteen when Caesar's assassination on the Ides of March led to the revelation that the older man's will had named Octavian as his adoptive son and heir. Octavian took this in stride and proceeded to fight with force and guile against the various factions vying for power in the war-torn Republic. After more than a decade of campaigning in the field and in the halls of power he defeated the last remaining forces of Marc Antony and Cleopatra in 31 BCE and assumed supreme command. He annexed Egypt as his personal property and made the legions swear oaths of loyalty to him alone, promising to pension them out of his own pocket. Officially he was the first among senators, restorer of the ancient Republic, but effectively he was king of the known world. He was thirty-two years old.

Over the next forty-five years he would transform the Roman political system to reflect its new status as an empire. No longer would an elite group rule, but instead a military dictator descended from Venus, goddess of peace, and sanctioned by Jupiter, god of firm rule amid chaos. He took up the title 'Augustus', meaning 'the Revered One', and his image was added to the pantheon of gods and goddesses worshiped in temples across the empire. Those whose polytheistic attitudes permitted it gratefully offered sacrifices to him as their saviour from the horrors of war.

By this point you may well be wondering why a blog about nature has suddenly veered into giving history lessons. To this I would reply that nature's chief concern is with growth and change, and that's the story of Rome in a nutshell. As I've mentioned before, human societies are never static; when we take the long view we see that they grow and change like the living beings that make them up, as surely as everything else in nature's great drama. Even at the height of Rome's power it was well understood that civilization and nature were inextricable components of one living, breathing world. The poet Virgil, who prospered under Augustus' patronage, wrote of a coming golden age in which 

                        ....the uncultivated earth will pour out 
    her first little gifts, straggling ivy and cyclamen everywhere, 
    and the bean flower with the smiling acanthus. 
    The goats will come home themselves, their udders swollen 
    with milk, and the cattle will have no fear of fierce lions: 
    your cradle itself will pour out delightful flowers, 
    and the snakes will die, and deceitful poisonous herbs 
    will wither; Assyrian spice plants will spring up everywhere. 
     (Virgil's Fourth Eclogue, lines 18-25, poetryintranslation.com)

And all this because of "the child who's born...under whom the first race of iron shall end, and a golden race rise up throughout the world" (lines 8-9). Romans of Augustus' time, as well as those born in the following two centuries of almost unbroken stability within the empire, often interpreted these lines as an homage to the young emperor; those born in the Middle Ages, after the decline of Roman power, read it as a prophecy of the birth of Christ.

Thus the legacy of Jesus, who had died an early death in the most painful and humiliating of ways, outstripped that of the long-lived ruler as the centuries passed. Jesus' teachings had birthed a vibrant cultural undercurrent in the Roman world whose dynamism was in direct proportion to the tension between it and the dominant, Roman way of being. That's why the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the empire three centuries after Jesus' time makes for such a strange and interesting story- but it will take me from my purpose if I start into it now.

Augustus' reign took Rome near to the height of its power, but he was a ruler who kept the long view in mind. After conquering several new provinces he decided that continual growth would make the empire ungovernable. He set its boundaries at the Sahara Desert in the south, the Atlantic Ocean in the west, the Rhine and Danube rivers in the north, with the wild Germanic forest beyond, and the smaller Parthian empire in the east, with a few client kingdoms like Judaea and Armenia as a buffer zone in between. The moment he did so he unwittingly laid a trap into which his successors would spend the next four hundred years walking deeper and deeper, until its tightening jaws finally shattered the once-mighty Roman Empire.

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