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Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Ancient Rome And The Course Of Western Civilization - The Elite Privilege Of Cultural Legacy

Sam Mancuso’s family migrated to the US in 1903 from a small town in Southern Italy where they had lived for centuries. They had been peasant farmers in the Mezzogiorno and having managed to build a small savings, helped an older son to learn a trade and then move to Sorrento where he found employment.  There the Mancuso family, now numerous as more and more relatives came in from the farmlands to find employment.  Life was not easy for any of them – the promise of urban life is never as good or as opportune as it looks from the heat and unforgiving hard ground of their native place – and soon they thought of emigrating to the United States.  The first of them sailed on the Nord America to New York.

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New Haven was their final destination, a place which had become the the center of Sorrentino life in America.  Everyone who came to New Haven did so thanks to relatives who had arrived earlier.  Enrico Mancuso’s ocean passage was paid by his brother-in-law who had come in 1899, and because he had – thanks to his relatives – found employment as shoemaker.  By the time Enrico arrived in New Haven, Franco Mancuso owned his own shop.  The rest of the Mancuso story is typical of immigrant success in America. Thanks to enterprise, family support, ambition, and a little help from the Mafia, they prospered, and many years later in the first real assimilation of Italian immigrants. Sam went to Harvard, then K Street, and then to Federal Court.

The Mancusos were 100 percent Italian, the family was proud of saying.  Although they had come from the poorest region in Italy, and their DNA carried traces of Greece, Macedonia, and certainly Phoenicia, they were proud to be the descendants of Ancient Rome.  On a recent trip back to Italy Sam and his cousins visited Rome for the first time, and although they had already known of the extent, wealth, and influence of Ancient Rome, the ruins of the Coliseum, the Forum, the Baths of Caracalla, the Pantheon, and the Circus Maximus gave a dry, well-chronicled history of Caesar, Tacitus, and Livy new meaning. They were part of this Roman Empire that at its apogee had extended from England to Palestine, from the northern borders with Germany to well into the Sahara.   

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The Roman Empire expanded civilization and culture to areas of Europe still ruled by tribal chieftains and customs.  The Roman conquest of Britain in 43 AD signaled the end of English pre-history and ushered in a new, modern, civilized culture.  Far earlier in 222 BC Roman armies conquered Gaul and ruled for six centuries. Spain and its Carthaginian rulers were defeated by Rome in 206 BC.  In a relatively short time Roman hegemony had spread throughout Europe.

The Roman Empire is perhaps best remembered for its administration and management of conquered lands.  The Pax Romana, a period of almost 200 years from Augustus to Marcus Aurelius was a tribute to Rome’s unparalleled ability to govern pacified lands in a way which was mutually beneficial to both.  The Empire was both highly structured and hierarchal, but considerable autonomy was given to the Roman governors of conquered provinces.  During this period was a flowering of language, art, architecture, literature, and culture whose influences spread throughout the Empire. 

Christianity began in Roman-administered Palestine; and thanks to St Paul, it expanded quickly to both East and West.  The establishment of the Church, its consolidation, and preeminence was assured by the Roman Emperor Constantine who while himself not yet a Christian knew how politically important it was to accept and encourage this new community.  He was the one who finally put to rest doctrinal warfare at the Council of Nicaea, and after his death Christianity became the official religion of the Empire.

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In short, the ancient Romans were responsible for the spread of Christianity, the development and extension of a highly-sophisticated language, the spread of Greco-Roman art, philosophy, and culture; and the construction of infrastructure without which Europe would have lagged far behind the powerful cultures of India, China, and Persia. As a result of this impetus and the establishment of systems of administration, governance, law, engineering, Europe was able to develop quickly.  By the Middle Ages Florence was a major industrial and financial capital, Venice a center for Eastern trade, and the cities to the north gained in influence and reputation.

Cities outside Rome, like Paris, were slower to advance, but soon they became economic and cultural centers as well.  Economic growth produced the wealth which enabled further development and which financed the efflorescence of art, music, science, and literature.  The age of European royalty was impressive indeed, for without the patronage of kings and queens, the great art of the Middle Ages and Renaissance would not have emerged.

Roman influence diminished over the centuries, but was never forgotten.  The Romans brought Greek thought along with them; and the philosophies of Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates among others. Clear, unbroken lines of influence lead from ancient Greek and Hellenistic philosophers to Roman Philosophy, Early Islamic philosophy, Medieval Scholasticism, the European Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment. Philosophy was used to make sense out of the world outside a religious context. It dealt with a wide variety of subjects, including astronomy, mathematics, political philosophy, ethics, metaphysics, ontology, logic, biology, rhetoric and aesthetics.

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Jefferson and the Founding Fathers based the principles of the new American Republic on the Enlightenment; and therefore we, like all others of European origin, inheritors of the intellectual and philosophical traditions of the Ancient World.  While modern European cultures have contributed to this intellectual wealth – there was something indeed unique about the Scottish Enlightenment, French Revolutionary populism, and English civil law – all owe a debt to Rome and Greece.

It is surprising, then, that Western Civilization has come under scrutiny if not attack.  Historical revisionism has focused only on the conquered, colonized, exploited, and oppressed.  There is something inherently wrong, say these revisionists, about the accumulation of wealth and power and the non-democratic rule of the landed aristocracy and nobility.  The conquest and colonization of Europe by the Roman, of Africa and Asia by the British, or of the Middle East and Eastern Europe by the Ottomans is somehow inherently immoral.  Genghis Khan and his Mongol and Turkic armies who established perhaps the world’s largest and richest empires are thought only of their barbarity, their methods, and their absolute dominance.

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Yet empires by their very nature are wealthy, powerful, and influential and are the result of deliberate, consequential actions to increase territory, acquire new wealth, and to gain a measure of peace and security in order to develop their civil society and culture.  There can be no moral judgment of history, only a recording of it.  The beneficial consequences of empire, whether Roman, British, Persian, Ottoman or Mauryan far outweigh the negative.

It is the nature of individuals and societies to be aggressive, territorial, self-interested, and self-protective because human nature has not changed since the Pleistocene and the emergence of Homo Sapiens. Such aggressive, self-interested competitiveness has been the moving force behind empire, civilization, and cultural advance.

There is a tendency in this post-modern age of diversity and inclusivity to dismiss the periods and events of history that do not suit current political philosophy.  European civilization and the Greco-Roman empire that enabled it are irrelevant to the new character of society.  Rome has little or nothing to do with the American slave or his descendants, nor of Sub-Saharan Africa.  There is nothing in Tacitus, Aristotle, or Pythagoras of any consequence to the new configurations of sexual identity.

The Sun King, Versailles, Darius, Alexander, or Napoleon have nothing whatsoever to do with economic and racial inequality, the fragile environment, or technology.  To look at the ancient world and to the civilizations of Europe that spread wealth, culture, science, and administration is to pay obeisance to elitism, privilege, opportunism, and inconscient territorialism.  The new reality has nothing to do with the old.

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There are many, despite the progressive juggernaut, who unashamedly value their European heritage.  For them the inclusive free-for-all of today is tantamount to disregard for the principles of the Enlightenment and the Founding Fathers and a dismantling of the socio-political-cultural-philosophical system which has been at the heart of successful human civilizations for millennia. 

There of course is room for both.  There is nothing more derivative of Enlightenment logic and French revolutionary justice than civil rights or efforts to create a more egalitarian society.  Yet if these important cultural underpinnings are disregarded and only a willy-nilly clamor for an end to racism, privilege, elitism, and the concentration of wealth and power, little will result.  Weaker civilizations have either been conquered, unwillingly assimilated, or neglected and forgotten.  We are on the verge of cultural disarray.

As much as Americans dismiss Vladimir Putin for his autocratic, anti-democratic rule and hope to marginalize him, he is nonplussed.   Rather than trying to expunge the remnants of the Russian Empire left standing at the end of Communism, he wants to restore it – or at least restore its principle values of ethnic and social unity if not homogeneity, the primacy of religion, and the absolute place of social order.  He has no misgivings about the greatness of Imperial Russia, and no hesitancy to invoke it.  He rightly sees no incongruence between the principles of Empire and the practicalities of modern life. 

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Xi Jinping, the President of China is no different, unashamed to invoke the greatness of China’s dynastic history and its socio-cultural and political leadership.  China is the current best example of a country proud of its imperial past, unashamed of its elite rule, and respectful of its legacy, and determined to maintain its influence as China modernizes.

India’s Prime Minister Modi has been similarly unapologetic about his conviction that traditional Hinduism is central to Indian culture, for it provides the moral authority for civil life.  He is never hesitant to cite the ancient Hindu civilizations of the past – the Guptas, the Mauryas, and the Cholas.
Only in America do we have a pernicious desire to not only to forget the past but to expunge it from history.  The only reality is today’s reality, progressive reformers insist.  However, those with a wider historical perspective can only remember the Khmer Rouge dictator Pol Pot who said, as he was forcibly removing all citizens to rural concentration camps, ‘This is the Year Zero’.

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It is not Year Zero nor can it ever be.  We are products of history and it is only the most myopic and ideologically bound who refuse to acknowledge it.  The culture of America is Western, Greco-Roman, Christian, and European; and of that we should be proud not dismissive or critical.  Most of us, like the Mancusos, are descendants of European immigrants and thus inheritors and beneficiaries of Western civilization.  Our ancestors built the Parthenon, the Coliseum, the Palais de Versailles, Oxford and Cambridge, and the Hermitage.  They are responsible for who we are.  They created us.

The culture of inclusivity aims to negate the past, to throw all into one cauldron, and to pretend that cultural heritage does not exist.  Those Americans who are the inheritors of Western civilization are not now socially privileged, but they are the descendants of privilege – members by association of a cultural historical elite which to recognize and of which to be proud.

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