Sunday, 16 October 2011

Why do people think the Romans were boring and cruel?

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Since the decline of 'classics' at the heart of Western elite culture, there has emerged the casual conviction that the Romans were dull and depraved: their dullness enlivened only by their depravity.

By contrast, for the preceding thousand-plus years, the Romans (more exactly the Greco-Romans extending from ancient Athens up to the Greek-Roman Empire of Byzantium) had been regarded as the summit of world civilization.

Why the shift?

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The answer is that modern culture became blind to religion.

The Romans were among the most devoutly religious societies ever - mostly pagan, then later Christian.

The Roman life was focused on religion, it provided the meaning and purpose for existence; the supposedly unimaginative Romans took their religions with extreme seriousness: everything else had to take second place - when the auguries were bad, then there was nothing so important that it could not, should not, be deferred.

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This reality is obscured by the fact that, as pagans for most of their existence, the Roman religion was naturally fluid and variable both geographically and temporally - probably only a monotheistic religion can be unified and universal over many generations (and then only relatively so).

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Yet, to modern eyes religion is (of course) merely ignorant superstition, and this applies particularly to devout and sincere paganism; so we simply disregard it from our understanding of the Romans: edit it out.

What is left after religious conviction has been subtracted from the Romans is merely I Claudius: a corrupt and boring Empire alleviated only by decadence and sadism.

This is itself absurd, since the Roman Empire was less cruel and more interesting than much of recorded history. Only its cruelties were regulated - hence obvious to moderns; and its main interest was one that moderns disbelieve.

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Subtract the religion from any highly religious society, and what is left-over may not be very interesting; but that is not-at-all how things were typically perceived by people at the time.

The Romans saw their world through religious eyes, and so did the dark- and middle-ages; but moderns see the world through eyes blinkered by hedonic, secular Leftism.

Wearing such blinkers, the object of desire is a dynamic society of perpetual progress, located in 'the future' where the modern imagination dwells: hoped-for yet ever-receding.

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