Why Study Ancient Greece Or Rome? The Significance Of Antiquity & The Collapse Of Empire

From the birth of Rome to Augustus’ final counterinsurgency program known as the Pax Romana, Rome had been at continuous war for over five hundred years.  The architecture of such a foreign policy was a maxim Augustus bequeathed to his successors:  ‘Keep the Empire within its bounds.”  The near eight-hundred year conquest was over, and the pioneer work of advancing against constantly opposing physical forces cannot go on forever.  In pursuing the admiration of its rivals Rome had both accomplished marvels and built a framework for a new world.  The West would not see such an accomplishment until the Atlantic Alliance under Truman.  Yet within such a victory lay a mightier task that burdened Rome; and it is this very task that this essay seeks to recover and quarry; for Rome miserably failed to keep pace intellectually and spiritually with the enormous material advance given her from her conquests.  She was unable to anticipate, plan or build the construction which the new framework demanded.  A vision and an understanding not needed before were now imperatively called for.

Hint:  The Church gloriously succeeded where Rome failed.

Can we divine the starting point of the impending demise of Empires in antiquity?

For ancient Greece, the final breakdown arrived with the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War.  The idol that stood as a stumbling-block in the way of a solution to a social problem was the idolization of the City State arrogated by the Athenians.  Such arrogation began with the social, political problem engendered by the Solonian economic revolution; here Greek’s replaced subsistence farming with specialized cash crop farming that both violently increased social relations and dramatically increased the population of resident enslaved alien migrants.  The slaughter of Greeks immortalized in the Peloponnesian conflict cannot be resolved by augmenting Solon and his policies, the problem here is fatal.  Toynbee goes to great lengths to demonstrate how intractable political, social problems are symptomatic of spiritual realities.  Both the Greeks and Romans did not have sufficient theological systems to solicit an appropriate response to the twin enormities of Solon.  The chief outward sign of a dramatic increase in the material scale of Greek life hindered the resolve of all participants.  Socially, politically the cause of the failure was an inability on the part of all concerned to get over the idolization of a institution arrogated by the Athenians.  In a society which had swollen to the dimensions that crippled Greece without first having resolved the spiritual problem of creating law and order between states into which political and social life is resolved rendered the fatal demise of Greece.

The Roman response to the challenge that had defeated Periclean Athens was the construction of law and order as Pax Romana, from a pagan theologic premise of Cosmopolis.  The structural principal of the Roman State was incompatible with idolization.  Dual citizenship divided the citizens allegiance between his local parochial city state of birth and a wider polity which Rome created.  This is the Roman Cosmopolis.  It should be known that this creative compromise was made possible in communities where an idolized Greek city state model never acquired a strangle hold over its citizenry.

Nevertheless, Roman foreign policy and its advances embodied by Augustus only purchased a reprieve; for the Roman Cosmopolis exposed the same fatal weakness that destroyed Greece.

Man cannot construct a meaning, dress it in idealist garb and hope to resolve social and political conflicts.   The construction of moral precedents known as law either resolves or exposes the fatal dilemma of humanness:  competing claims of finite freedom require a resolution not found within freedom itself.  (This is dramatically studied in the topic known of the ‘Specificity of Christian Ethics.’)

Both Augustus and Caesar remained the only great constructive statesmen Rome ever produced.  No other men were able to go forward with the march of events and meet new conditions with new provisions.  All unanimously turned to quarry an archaic repose.  All that men were able to do when confronted with new difficulties was to look to the past.  And Roman morality, its cultic rites mired the statesman in an exposed fatal rift.  Until a better more constructive vision of the human person arrived in Christianity, the Roman polity and its pagan Cosmopolitanism were doomed to fail.

The management of the Roman Cosmopolis was applied cultic ritual.  The mythic heritage of Rome ultimately became a burden its in archaic incantations, severing any traction as response to political or social problems.  Ultimately, as problems metastasized, the burden of maintaining such a crippling heritage tied the Statesman to failure.  The old virtues were completely inadequate in addressing a spiritual problem.  Augustus could not see that the abilities of a pioneer or conqueror, which had made Empire, could not meet the conditions of disguised intractable problems.  To overcome nature or nations calls for one set of qualities; to use that victory as a basis for a better state of affairs calls for another.  When statesmen turn from extending their possessions to making wise use of them, audacity, self-reliance, endurance are not sufficient to gain traction on spiritual realities.  Individualism, whether of road-builder in the wilderness or of the self-determined general in the field, must give way.  It is suited only to the wilderness and the battlefield.  The Pax Romana, its cultural victories had been won through concerted effort.  The beliefs that grounded such an effort were insufficient to master its fruits.  What was required was not self-preservation but intellectual and spiritual insight, for wisdom and disinterestedness.  In a sentence, what was required for success was a better competing vision of the meaning of humanness.

Our mechanical, industrial and quanta world is an age in which our material advances can analogously be studied and quarried through either a Roman or Greek lens.  It is worth our while to perceive, to study the final reasons; cultural, spiritual as they are, for the demise of Greco-Roman Empire.

The final reason for both Greece and Rome’s defeat was spiritual.  Neither possessed a sufficient view of the human person; a grasp of the limits of finite freedom; neither understood humanness and the cultural, the moral architecture that provides a view to quarry an ecumenical outlook.  Neither Empire could rise to meet its challenges.

Simply put, material development outstripped human development.  Antiquity closed with the arrival of grace, the forgiveness of sin and a view that God governs the affairs of men!

About William Holland

Systematic Theologian/International Relations
This entry was posted in Conservatism, Eric Voegelin, Ethics, Hans Urs von Balthasar, International Relations, Morality, Near East, Perils Of Specialization, Politics, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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