Pondering Everyday Life and Ancient Rome

By now you have likely heard of a trending question in social media: women and girls are encouraged to ask the men in their lives how often they think of ancient Rome, with the expectation that they will be surprised to find that the answer is “frequently” or even “daily.”

Speaking for myself, I have never kept tabs on how often I think of particular subjects, or of exactly which subjects I think of during a given day. I doubt if many people do.

Certainly daily, or at least, almost daily, we all think of our work, our friends, our family, our heritage in some way. I hope, too, that daily, we think of our country, our relationship with God, and what our own personal eventual legacy will be.

How often do we think of entertainment – the books, television shows, movies, plays, and sports that frivolously occupy our time – or maybe not so frivolously?

And then there’s the totally mundane. We drive on roads, we walk on concrete sidewalks. We study and use mathematics. Our houses and civic buildings have indoor plumbing connected to a citywide water and sewer system, which we use whether we think about it or not. Our towns have fire brigades; our attorneys write and keep our “last will and testament” for us.

And one or two times per year, sometimes more often than that, we have elections.

How many of these things don’t have something to do with Rome?

Whoever came up with this “trending question” must not know much about the roots of Western Civilization.

Now, I can only speak for myself. I’m a trade compliance trainer, a Roman Catholic, a writer, and occasionally, when the right show comes along, a community theatre actor. Ancient Rome is therefore woven into most aspects of my life in some way.

When I give webinars or personal appearances concerning the Incoterms and the business of International commerce, I begin with examples from Rome and Carthage. When I present classes concerning the United States Export Controls, those also involve Ancient Rome, and I use Archimedes of Syracuse as one of the anecdotes to illustrate these issues to my audience.

As a Roman Catholic, the relationship with the Rome of today is obvious, but the relationship with Ancient Rome is even more so, because while Christianity was born in the Holy Land, it was the Roman Empire’s adoption of Christianity in the 4th century that finally enabled it to spread as a world religion. Even though our services switched to the vernacular in the 1960s, Catholic services usually still involve some Latin prayers or hymns. And our churches are not copies of the temples of Israel or Greece; many if not most Christian churches owe their architectural roots to aspects of Roman design such as the cross layout.

This architectural issue extends far beyond your church. If you enter or pass by a bank or government building, or if you pay attention to our state and federal politics at all, you can’t help but notice the similarities to the buildings of the Roman Forum. Even modern buildings that have no real need for lintels and pillars, or huge doors and massive domes, have them anyway, if only as decorative imitations, as a silent but unmistakable hat tip to the originator of the organized seat of government, the Eternal City of Rome.

As Americans, we are committed to the rule of law, written law, published law, as opposed to the whim of elites, the caprice of kings and dukes. This tradition goes back 2500 years in Western Civilization, to the Twelve Tables of Ancient Rome, in the early days of the Roman Republic, soon after the ejection of the Etruscan kings. The concept of a written legal code, literally published in bronze in the center of town, is bound up with the very concept of a representative republic.

And how did our Founding Fathers design our republic? First from state to state, and then at the federal level, our Founders looked to England, setting their sights on taking what was good of the Parliamentary system and improving upon it, just as the English had been working for centuries to improve upon the template left for them by Ancient Rome. Just as Rome had a Council of the Plebs and an aristocratic Senate, so too did England have their Houses of Commons and of Lords. And so too would we have a popularly elected House of Representatives and a somehow more tradition-bound Senate of hopefully elder statesmen.

Whether we drive to work or walk on the sidewalk, we are using concrete our Roman forbears perfected. The networks of roads we call an urban grid system or a national highway system – even the materials they’re made of – owe their origins to the city planners and roadbuilders of Ancient Rome. We don’t do things exactly as they did, but our current roadmaking methods are direct heirs of the Roman approach: compacted sand or dry earth on the bottom, a layer of crushed rock above that, gravel in cement mortar above that, a smoother top coat of concrete above that. Some of the materials have changed, but the basic discovery that such a cross-section of different layers would be most efficient for a long-lasting roadbed dates to the Rome of the 4th century B.C.

Much of our math and science we owe to Archimedes of Syracuse. We know how to write history because of Caesar, Livy, Tacitus and Suetonius. We know how to write poetry because of Virgil, Ovid, and Horace. We may not know their names, but their work was the bedrock of thousands of years’ worth of written word that has followed them.

We could go on, but it’s not all positive. There are other legacies from Ancient Rome that are far less desirable.

In studies of ancient Rome, we encounter megalomaniacs, deranged heads of state, both during the Republic and in the Empire that followed. We encounter the time-honored concept of bread-and-circuses, a method of political leadership that distracts and placates the public with welfare and entertainment, so they don’t rise up to protest poor leadership.

In ancient Rome we see politicians using their positions of power to defeat their rivals, to put neighbors out of business or to confiscate their property. We see politicians twisting the tax code to reward some and punish others. We see politicians lining their pockets with bribes. So much that we do today is a throwback to the Eternal City, two millennia ago; perhaps, one hopes, if we study and learn their lessons, we won’t repeat their errors and suffer their end.

Deranged rulers like Nero and Caligula wasted massive resources and put the nation in debt; a lesson for modern times. The depravity of orgies and the brutality of violent games showed the moral degradation of the popular culture; we are seeing a recurrence of such evils here as well.

The Empire eventually reached a point at which it owed so many retired soldiers a pension that it had to keep conquering new countries just in order to give these retiring soldiers some land to farm. Similarly, today America is bankrupting itself trying to find a way to meet the commitments it made ten, twenty, thirty years ago to soldiers and police, firemen and teachers, bus drivers and bureaucrats. Everything old is new again.

But perhaps most severe, most terrifying, is the question of what followed Rome’s precipitous fall. \

All over Europe, cities had aqueducts providing running water; then when Rome fell, so too did the ability to repair such systems when things went south. In Britain, the cities had abandoned their law enforcement and their armies because they were under the protection of Rome; then when the legions were recalled home, the British had to relearn how to protect themselves.

For hundreds of years, people built roads and settlements; for hundreds of years to follow, people couldn’t even keep up the ones they had, let alone build new ones, or improve upon the old technology.

People forgot how to make concrete, how to construct an arch, how to operate a water screw. Once Rome fell, it took a long time for people to relearn the basic skills of modernity.

Those of us who think of Rome sometimes – whether weekly, daily, or hourly – think of it because we see so many parallels in our world today.

We think of Rome because we owe Rome so much, and because we’ve improved on so many of the failings of Ancient Rome. But we also think of Rome because we see so many of the same errors being made again and again – the same corruption, the same deviancy, the same replacement of a work ethic with a slacker culture.

Our noble Framers, in drafting the Constitution, knew that what they were writing would be temporary. They knew our nation would someday fall, as every other government had, eventually, throughout history. It is unavoidable. But our Framers hoped that if they designed it right, it might last longer than most.

The United States of America have an expiration date; this is undeniable. All nations fall someday.

But if we do the right thing, most of the time, we hold out hope that we can last longer than most. There’s no reason for us to collapse at just 250 years of age.

So this is what we ponder, those of us who think seriously of Rome.

Are we Rome? Will we last longer than they did, or will we collapse even sooner? Is there anything we can do to postpone that fall?

And the biggest question for each of us, above all others: Not just, “Is there anything that we can do,” but… “Is there anything that I can do?”

Copyright 2023 John F. Di Leo

John F. Di Leo is a Chicagoland-based international transportation professional and consultant.  A onetime Milwaukee County Republican Party chairman, he has been writing a regular column for Illinois Review since 2009.  His book on vote fraud (The Tales of Little Pavel) and his political satires on the current administration (Evening Soup with Basement Joe, Volumes I and II) are available on Amazon.

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