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Roman virtues and vices… and ours

Yesterday I chanced upon a short interview on some children’s TV type show called T4, with the actor James Purefoy. ‘Purefoy’ is, I now finally know, pronounced ‘pure-foy’, rather than “pure-i-foy”, which I have often wondered about.

Anyway, James Pure-foy is playing Mark Anthony in the hit TV series, Rome, and one of the things he said struck me as really rather illuminating. He said that the difference between us and the Romans was that they regarded weakness as a vice and what we would call cruelty as a virtue.

To many readers here this will seem a banal and obvious observation, but I have never heard it put quite like that, or if I ever have I was not paying attention. Perhaps the clarity of this observation can be attributed to the fact that although the actors in this series are British, the producers are Americans. Americans do love to nail down in a few words what a show is all about. (Until Purefoy went on to say this, I did not even know that Rome was an American production rather than British.)

This cruelty-is-a-virtue meme pulls together lots of different things about the Romans that have never previously made proper sense to me. Basically, why were they such total and utter bastards, and at the very same time so amazingly smug about how virtuous they were? Did they like torturing each other, and even being tortured? Answer: no. But they did believe in it. They were not indifferent to pain. They believed in pain. They believed in inflicting it, and believed that being able to endure it was one of the highest virtues. A lot falls into place once you (by which I mean I) get that.

Given the kind of world that the Romans inhabited, you can see how such beliefs would answer the Darwinian necessities of that time. But perhaps because the Roman political system had such a modern feel to it, the ancientness of their ethical beliefs seems somehow jarring. But yes, the Romans spent a lot of their time ? in particular a lot of their education ? actively trying to be more cruel than their natural inclinations inclined them to be. (See also: Sparta.) I think this distinction goes a long way to explaining how Christianity fitted in to Roman civilisation, and in particular the kind of difference it made. You can agree about that, even if, like me, you regard Christian theological claims as crackpottery.

I think that this cruelty-as-virtue idea throws into particular relief the particular kinds of blunders that we now make. The basic Roman blunder, it seems to me, and judged by our standards rather than theirs, was that they were just too damn destructive. They killed too many people, shut down too many worthwhile rival civilisations, slaughtered too many of the extras in their version of Hollywood entertainment. Whether you explain the collapse of Rome by its destructiveness, or by the weakness of Christianity, like Gibbon, I do not see how all that destruction could possibly have helped.

The virtue we aspire to is kindness, and in everyday life this usually works pretty well. But the vices of our civilisation are mostly also related to that aspiration, it seems to me, and now more than ever before. Even as Christian theology is now laughed to scorn, by me among many thousands, Christian ethics are triumphant in our civilisation as never before. But the underside of kindness is weakness, meekness, sentimentality, thoughtlessness ? niceness as a substitute for competence and for thinking it through. Instead of thoughtful and because of that all the more hideously destructive brutality ? the Roman vice ? we indulge in impulsive and frivolous orgies of unthinking niceness.

This, if you think about it, is the running argument we have here at Samizdata with the zeitgeist of our time.

Some of our more vocal commenters think that our world is ruled by sinister power grabbers, who know exactly what they are doing. I think, in contrast, that we are ruled by sentimentalities which vaguely indicate what would be nice, but a not nearly sufficient idea of how actually to contrive such niceness. The power grabbers are merely the insects that thrive in the resulting chaos, rather than the instigators of the chaos itself.

To put the point in terms of a prominent British political personality, Tony Blair is and has for some time been our Prime Minister because, and unlike his Conservative predecessors, he is thought to be, in a word, nice. If he is now losing his grip, this is because the ideas he has tried to follow do not by their nature provide him with grip, rather than because he is some kind of secret Mark Anthony in our midst.

I actually suspect that, just as there is lots of surreptitious nastiness in our world, there was in ancient Rome, on the quiet, lots of surreptitious niceness going on. To oil the wheels, so to speak. The equivalent in Roman times of Peter Mandelson, screaming down a telephone threatening to chop your balls off and eat them at the latest posh restaurant du jour, was a Roman politician looking both ways down the street to make sure no one saw him at it, and then smiling at you and doing you a nice little favour. Niceness was, I suspect, a Roman fact but also a Roman secret. (How else could Christianity have ever caught on?) And then our nice Roman fixer would be back to the Senate to make blood-curdling speeches about the need to suppress with the utmost brutality whatever little challenge Rome faced that week.

I said above that “we” aspire to the virtue of kindness. Maybe that is a rather European view. Americans may be wondering quite where they fit into this dichotomy. In particular, they may be noting that it is precisely in the Christian bits of the USA that the semi-Roman virtue of cruel-to-be-kind foreign policy precision is still aspired to, and in the non- or anti-Christian bits of the USA where the kind of incompetent niceness I have been complaining about is most popular. Maybe Christianity has its own built-in safeguards against Christian and especially post-Christian feeblemindedness and sentimentality.

One of the shrewder things that the actor and (sometimes) wit Peter Ustinov used to say (he said everything he had to say many times over) was that the Americans were like Romans, and that he, the Brit, felt very Greek in their company. (I suspect he meant, in particular, Athenian.) Ustinov also used to say how impressed he was at the crispness with which Americans would sum up the central themes of the movies which they produced and directed, and which he acted in.

I see that John Milius was involved in the creation of Rome. I have always felt that there was something particularly Roman about that man. Milius is also the living embodiment of the notion that, faced with the choice between a politically correct miss and a politically incorrect hit, Hollywood always goes with the money, but that is another story.

56 comments to Roman virtues and vices… and ours

  • Kierkegaard

    Here is a review I wrote midway through the ‘Rome’ TV series about its historical accuracy: http://hybernaut.com/whats-livy

    As you will see, a reader corrected my historical inaccuracy as well, spotting that the two characters of Vorenus and Pullo were taken from Caesar’s ‘Conquest of Gaul’. I mention my review because in it I attempt to address some of the same issues that you have raised in this commentary. There is no doubt that ancient Rome was a very different civilization than our own (I recommend Anthony Blond for a brief tour of its culture); yet it faced many of the same issues, both socially and politically, that the United Kingdom faced in the 19th Century and which the United States faces now.

    So I feel–as you do–that comparisons are extremely constructive. One of the themes that I have addressed in several essays is that the path to empire is always accompanied by civil war. This was true of Rome long before Caesar. It is my fear that we in the West are drifting like sleepwalkers toward that condition now, and it should be pointed out that the convulsions of Rome’s civil wars involved most of the rest of the ‘civilized world’.

  • Larry Anderson

    “Americans were like Romans, and that he, the Brit, felt very Greek in their company. (I suspect he meant, in particular, Athenian.) ”

    Heh.. Only in the last century I think.. Prior to that, England was rather more Spartan, than Athenian..

  • Mike James

    I’ve liked most things John Milius has had a hand in–“Apocalypse Now”, “Platoon”, “Flight of the Intruder”, “The Rough Riders” (on television), and now “Rome”.

    Hmm, that should be, “Wome”.

    /Michael Palin as Pilate in “Life Of Brian”.

  • Larry Anderson

    /Michael Palin as Pilate in “Life Of Brian”.

    That’s “Bwian”….

  • Mike

    Conscience is but a word that cowards use,
    Devised at first to keep the strong in awe:
    Our strong arms be our conscience, swords our law!

    Shakespeare, Richard III

  • Brock

    That’s why chivalry is a better aspiration than unadulterated “turn the other cheek” kindness. The chivalrous are kind to the chivalrous, and ‘get medieval’ on the un-chivalrous.

    Americans are big talkers about the Golden Rule, but we play Tit-for-Tat, and we play it hard. For too long too many of us lived beyond the protection of ‘the law’, so we know the best strategies for enforcing socially acceptable behavior.

  • D Anghelone

    BBC/HBO co-production.

  • Bernie

    My image of many Christian deans and vicars is they are inappropriately enthusiastic and bumbling incompetents but good hearted. TB might try to convey something similar but he is coldly calculating and utterly phoney.

  • Chris Harper

    Oh dear, so much about this posting I would like to dispute. I certainly would contest the influence of Christianity in bringing down the Empire; don’t forget, the last Emperor of the Romans was not deposed until 1453.

    However, the central point.

    It was not that cruelty was a virtue, but rather that compassion was not. More, compassion was an emotion to be despised.

    The Romans were not particularily cruel in their day to day dealings with one another or the subject societies, Roman rule was not onerous and nor was their law unfair, but but ‘strength’ was admired and mercy was simply not one of their strong points.

  • Verity

    Bernie – snake-like even. Those cold reptilian eyes, sometimes slightly crossed as an extra barrier: Keep Out.

    And that funny thing he does with his hand – I realise snakes don’t have hands, but lizards do have forefeet. He holds out his hand sideways, palm towards himself, and his thumb standing straight up, like the lock on a gate, and pretends that it is illustrating some point he is making. He says, “Look!” But what it means is, “I am hiding something and I do not want you to get beyond this barrier.”

    Sleazy Tone.

  • mike

    I love the way this article is written – the image of Romans secretly trying to be nice, lest they be caught and publicly shamed for doing so is both funny and compelling!

    “They believed in pain. They believed in inflicting it, and believed that being able to endure it was one of the highest virtues. A lot falls into place once you (by which I mean I) get that…”

    “But the underside of kindness is weakness, meekness, sentimentality, thoughtlessness – niceness as a substitute for competence and for thinking it through…”

    “Americans may be wondering quite where they fit into this dichotomy.”

    It strikes me that the Americans are on the same – weak & meek – side of the dichotomy as Europeans (for example we are all, more or less, humanitarians) it is just that there is a difference in scale; Europeans are generally more weak & meek than Americans.

    I hesititate to make the following point – wondering what reaction it may provoke – but it is interestingly relevant. The manner in which the Allies concluded WW2 with the firebombing of Germany and the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was far more severe in its effects (though perhaps not in the cruelty or otherwise of intentions) than was the invasion of Iraq – with all its’ attendant fuss about casualties both military and civilian and use of precision weaponry. Yet the aftermath of WW2 wrought fundamental psychological and cultural changes to both Germany and Japan, but doesn’t seem to have done so in Iraq. The point I’d draw from this is that perhaps the Romans believed in cruelty because of massive supposed utilitarian effectiveness in addition to any spiritual repression of sentimentality and weakness that cruel acts required.

    “It was not that cruelty was a virtue, but rather that compassion was not…Roman rule was not onerous and nor was their law unfair, but but ‘strength’ was admired..”

    Perhaps, to be somewhat pedantic, the Roman virtue was strength whilst cruelty – both acts of cruelty and their endurance – were judged to be the most effective means of fostering and testing such strength.

  • mike

    I’ve really got to start using preview.

  • guy herbert

    I’d like to take issue with the point about destructiveness. I don’t think this is uniquely Roman. Live and let live is not the dominant tradition of humanity. You need to be very secure in your own way of life to adopt it, and most people aren’t.

    Conquerors don’t tolerate, or they wouldn’t be conquerors. But the metric of intolerance changes. The Romans were highly superstitious, gloried in violence, and had fierce social divisions, but their tolerance of religious, sexual and racial difference was pretty broad by modern western standards–or more to the point they didn’t use the same categories that most people today think are “natural” for those subjects.

    I’d note there is a big danger in generalising about a complex civilisation over 1000 years, but to point out differences from modern societies may not be quite so dangerous.

  • The Wobbly Guy

    Niceness is a vice, but the smart fellow encourages his fellows to be nice while concealing his own dagger under his clothes at all times. The better to stab others in the back and advance his own position.

    Or at least, that was how it was a few centuries ago. Then Machiavelli brought it all out in the open, and suddenly the smart folks realized it didn’t pay to be nice anymore, and so we’re back to the Roman age of brutal and cruel honesty for those in the know.

    However, the Christian virtue of kindness still holds amongst the vast majority of people, the better for them to remain sheep. Problem is, it’s not an effective way to survive when there is somebody out there plotting the demise of your world.

    I don’t think the Romans fell because of their cruelty. Sure enough, it was an important factor, but more important was that the Republic was eventually replaced by an Empire, and there was no check on the corruption that infected the Empire. If not for their strength, they would not have endured so long either.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Brian, I have not seen the series – I may rent it out on DVD if it comes out – but one observation seems to be missing from your post, though not deliberately: the rule of law. The Roman Republic and even, later, the Empire, was a rule-based thing. The importance of that cannot be overstated. The idea of citizenship, of having the protection of law, is something the Romans believed in – with the exception of slaves, of course.

    The issue about lacking compassion may also explain some of the indulgence of slavery and hence created a huge blind spot. The Romans did not understand what the classical liberals did, namely, that it is in our self interest to treat humans decently rather than as just means to our own happiness.

  • mike

    …”Then Machiavelli brought it all out in the open, and suddenly the smart folks realized it didn’t pay to be nice anymore, and so we’re back to the Roman age of brutal and cruel honesty for those in the know.”

    And so to Nixon…

    “Any nation that decides the only way to achieve peace is through peaceful means is a nation that will soon be a piece of another nation.”

  • Larry: Only in the last century I think.. Prior to that, England was rather more Spartan, than Athenian

    I disagree. In the 19th century, England was basically an Athenian-type culture not a Spartan one. That is to say it was basically run by the merchnat classes, and money-making was more valued than military virtues or conquest for its own sake.

  • Chris Harper

    I have to agree with Phil, there was nothing Spartan about England.

    Sparta is nigh on unique in Human history. The Zulus under Chaka were a little similar, and maybe the Incas, but nothing else springs to mind.

    However, these analogies are somewhat pointless. The English were English, not Athenian. The main similarities between the two, as opposed to Sparta, was that both were sophisticated, rounded and highly creative societies, rather than single minded and obsessed.

  • Captain Coma

    Norman Mailer put it succinctly in – I think – Cannibals and Christians: for pagans pride is a virtue and for Christians a sin. That’s partly why the men of Rome’s warrior culture, tolerant of many religions of the early period CE, were outraged by them (Roman matrons less so, and among whom the Christians proselytised).

  • pjnasser

    “the rule of law. The Roman Republic and even, later, the Empire, was a rule-based thing. The importance of that cannot be overstated. The idea of citizenship, of having the protection of law, is something the Romans believed in – with the exception of slaves, of course.”

    The importance of the law cannot be overstated. We are the grateful (?) inheritors of the primacy of Roman law. Remember that until the fall of the republic, no-one in Roman was considered above legal proceedings. If they boasted about it, they were right to because it was unique.
    As a culture they goaded their citizens into ambitions of glory, but at the same time coralled the scope of those ambitions by means of the law and tradition. Rome is perhaps the greatest exemplar of the division of powers before the United States.

  • Chris Harper

    “no-one in Roman was considered above legal proceedings”

    Not so, even under the Republic. The Tribunes of the People were immune from legal action for the term of their period in office, although this was usually only for a maximum of one year. Although after their term was up they were fair game, and could often be crippled in the courts by their enemies. Roman Republican politics was openly vicious in a way only a democracy could achieve.

    To demonstrate the dangers of anyone being granted special legal privilege, this is how Augustus and his successors came to be above the law. As part of the “appointment” those sycophants in the Senate formally granted the new Emperor Tribunical privileges for life.

  • Chris Harper

    “Rome is perhaps the greatest exemplar of the division of powers before the United States.”

    In fact, the United States Constitution was clearly, expressly and openly modelled on the Roman one.

    The men who drew up the American constitution were educated to a standard which we can only fantasise about with politicians today.

  • Chris Goodman

    Socrates and Jesus (or at least their followers – neither left any writings) effected a moral revolution in the West.

    Socrates asserted that we should consider our soul. Jesus declared that we should prepare for the Kingdom of God.

    Enlightenment thinkers advocated a secularised version of Platonism and Christianity i.e. by comprehending its laws we can more effectively impose our purposes on the universe.

    Nietzsche drew out the nihilistic implications of the Enlightenment and sought to reverse the Platonic/Christian moral revolution. The consequences were horrible.

    P.S. As for ‘Wobbly Guy’ Saint Socrates pray for his soul; he knows not what he says (and he comes from Singapore).

  • Julian Taylor

    I see that the series was filmed in its entirety in ‘Cinema City’ (Cinecittà Studios) just outside Rome. Unlike earlier productions filmed there (Ben Hur, Quo Vadis etc.) the series apparently took over the entire complex, comprising:

    – 22 sound stages
    – 280 production offices/dressing rooms and 21 makeup areas
    – 82 prop stores, warehouses and workshops
    – a massive outdoor tank
    – a 25 acre (10 ha) backlot and a 2,000 acre (810 ha) ranch just outside Rome.

    Even with all those facilities and massive scenes the production still came in at well under its $100m budget.

  • mike

    “Nietzsche drew out the nihilistic implications of the Enlightenment and sought to reverse the Platonic/Christian moral revolution. The consequences were horrible.”

    He, quite obviously, never did effect a ‘reversal’. As has been pointed out, Christian morality is still with us today and perhaps more strongly than ever – to the point at which the virtue of ‘kindness’ is so unquestioned that its’ complementary characteristic, weakness, has become all-pervasive.

    If, by consequences, you refer to the events of the early 20th Century, then it ought to be said that these cannot seriously be attributed to poor old Nietzsche.

  • Jason

    “Darwinian necessities of that time.”

    Not wishing to sound pedantic, but it is centrally relevant to the matter at hand – Spencerian, not Darwinian.

  • Chris Goodman

    Nietzsche is quite explicit about seeking to reverse the moral revolution that took place at the end of the ancient world.

    Has he – or more broadly his claim that we ought to reject morality as inauthentic – been influential in the last hundred years?

    Do you know anything about Twentieth Century history?

  • Paul Marks

    Whether a Roman’s morality was based on tradition and the old religion, or on such philosophy of the follows of Aristotle, or the Stoics, or the Epicurians or (mostly rather later) the neo Platonists, they did admire cruelty.

    Even under the Empire cruel Emperors tended condemed as soon as they were safely dead – and just Emperors were praised.

    Under the Republic certainly dreadful things were done (such as the destruction of Carthage and of Corinth), but they were attacked in the writing of history almost at once (and not just because destroying Carthage robbed Rome of somewhere to compare itself against).

    And the supporters of such actions did not say “destroying and killing is fun, let us do it”, they said things like “Carthage is a danger to Rome it must be destroyed” (and look how long it took Cato the elder to convice people of that – and how, even then, how complex ways of self justication were worked out to put Carthage in the position of using violence against people the Romans had promised protection to).

    We also have done terrible things: We have (in living memery) destoyed whole cities and killed hundreds of thousands of civilians in nations (such as Germany and Japan) that were in no longer in an position to invade us.

    And the killing of hundreds of thousands of civilians was quite deliberate (a policy of terror) it was not a question of accidential killing (which actually was, mostly, the case in the Vietnam war).

    And the men who burnt whole cities in World War II (knowing that they were targeting civilians – not the military) were not monsters. They were ordinary decent men, whose ideas on good and evil were the same as ours.

    The Romans did this sort of thing more often than us – but it is a mistake to say they were proud of it.

    “He made a desert and called it peace” is not Tacitus praising a Roman commander in Britain.

    People went to see humans fight to the death in the games – but even now we have enough writings left to us to see how the mob (rich as well as poor) were despised by many (including Emperors) for their cruelity.

    And nobody (as far as we know) wrote that it was noble to go to the games and enjoy the bloodshed. The Christians finally banned the games – but no pagan philosopher (as far as we know) ever defended them. And followers of the old religions despised what had been done to an old Etruscian rite.

    Even on slavery (the great difference between ourselves and the Classical World) the Romans admitted that slavery was against “natural law” – but they argued it was part of the law “of all nations”. Basically “everyone does it, so why should not we do it?”

    The same mental stress as Aristotle, who after carefully making arguments for slavery (against classical writers that we have no longer have to read), freed his slaves in his will.

    When a Roman freed a slave that freedman became a citizen with the right to vote for the officers of the Republic (and remember the Senate was overwhelmingly made up of people who owed their place in it to having been elected to a high office and having served their term).

    A man was a “natural slave” one minute and a citizen the next. Of course intelligent Romans knew the idea was rather odd – but they were not prepared to make the vast economic sacrifices needed to end it. (Pliny the Elder wrote about how the island Ceylon did not have slavery – although this may have been a fantasy on his part).

    Thomas Jefferson, George Mason, James Madison (and so on) knew that slavery was wrong. Unlike the Romans (the vast majority of whose writings are lost) there is large amounts of written evidence that they knew slavery was wrong.

    Which of them freed all his slaves? Which of them was prepared to become dirt poor (to suffer humiliation and early death – not death in battle, but the slow death of the gutter) in order that other men be free?

    Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson (and the rest) knew that wars of conquest were wrong and knew that Indians were human beings (we have their writings on these points) – which of them opposed sending the United States army into what is now Ohio on wars of conquest?

    Nor is it just Americans. Every major power (including Britian) has done such things.

    It is not a question of having a “different morality”, it is a question of doing bad things.

    The Romans may well have done these things more than us (although they argued that the Carthaginians and so on would have done it to them if they could).

    Christianity did not introduce a new morality, it helped people (sometimes helped people – for Chrisitans did many wicked things then and now), act in a way they already knew to be right.

    That was why it spread (before Constantine put the strength of the State behind it), people knew that it sometimes helped some people resist evil (in themselves) and do good.

    The basic meaning of “good” and “evil” did NOT change.

    Evil may not be the “default mode” of human beings, but its temptation is always there. It takes vast amounts of tradition and habit (backed by moral reasoning certainly, but not in most people most of the time – at least not in the top of their minds) to prevent people doing the most terrible things.

    The advise to reject tradition and all other forms of internal repression (advise often given in history) is terrible adivse. If men do not bind themselves with inner chains then they may do things that are to horrible to write about here. Men have sort help from many things in their struggle against the dark side of their instincts.

    Many years of civilization can be wiped away in a day if people are put in certain situations (and their inner defences fail).

    Some men resist the temptation of evil with philosophy, some with religion. Other men (who may know lots about philosophy and/or be very religious) may fall into evil.

    And people can resist evil sometimes and fall into it at other times.

    We are not different creatures to the Romans. We may fall into evil less than did, but danger is there – for all of us.

  • Paul Marks

    Endless mispellings in the above – “sort” for “sought” and so on.

    When will I learn not to just “bang out and send”?

  • steph

    “In fact, the United States Constitution was clearly, expressly and openly modelled on the Roman one.”

    “The men who drew up the American constitution were educated to a standard which we can only fantasise about with politicians today.”

    Yes and No. It was more based on the British Constitution, but there are also things that are more like the roman.

  • Larry Anderson

    You may all be right about pre-20th Century Britain being more Athenian than Spartan.. It is a tortured metaphor at best. But it is clear from history that military adventurism was part and parcel of the Empire until, as Rowan Atkinson aptly put it, “…2 million heavily armed Germans hove into view” in 1914.

    Then again, Athens DID undertake some colonial expansion, though not to lasting effect.

  • The Wobbly Guy

    Chris-Your line of progression from religion to the Enlightenment secularists is highly dubious. Also, the christian cardinal virtues are ‘nice’, but not essential in the modern world. Look at the seven sins, just for starters.

    Nietzsche was right when he observed: God is dead. Few people truly believe anymore in the afterlife, or at least to the same extent as in the past, willing to forsake everything for a chance at heaven; only the suicide bombers of Islam cleave that tightly to their beliefs, evidenced by their willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice.

    Also, Nietzsche was not the first to overturn traditional morality, only the most reviled of the twentieth century. The first humanists of the Renaissance, fed up with the Catholic Church, were probably the first to ponder if a morality separate from religion was possible. Nietzsche proposed a new morality, based on humanity’s needs and humanity’s goals, rather than centered around a higher power. Unfortunately, his own recommended morality was quite monstrous.

    That didn’t mean he hadn’t the right idea that the old ways just couldn’t hack it anymore. Traditional, religious morality hah been supplanted, and Nietzsche wasn’t the only factor, only the most renowned to make the observation. After Machiavelli, Martin Luther, Hobbes, JS Mill, and Adam Smith, what has been defined as ‘good’ has been clearly and definitely divorced from any religious aspect.

    According to Machiavelli, you can be either a devout Christian, and thus a fool, or be a false Christian, and be a successful hypocrite. Because a truly devout Christian is exactly what Brian described: Kind and weak. They go hand in hand. You cannot arm yourself with a gun and claim to be a kind and gentle soul when somebody is trying to take your money or your life. If you do so, you’re a liar and a hypocrite. But the truly devout Christian, believing in the afterlife, an existence after death, will meekly accept his/her fate. On this point, I disagree somewhat with mike, and with Brian as well.

    Christian morality has won, in a way, but only because they have been watered down sufficiently for most people to pay lip service to the precepts of kindness, when they are not truly so. Is that a real victory, or just an illusion of one? We proclaim our donations to the tsunami victims at the top of our lungs. Nations engage in fierce bidding wars to prove who could provide more aid.

    Is that really Christian charity? Or is it only pride and so much dick-waving? Is it really altruistic? Impulsive? Frivolous? Or is there a purpose behind it?

    In my country, there was a scandal concerning one of the local charities, which was run as a private charity organisation. Very slick, very professional in their fund-raising. But what struck me after the whole thing was that in effect we were not giving our dollars for nothing; the product they were selling was making oneself feel good about helping others.

    At the end of it all, it’s all about us. Let’s not pretend otherwise.

  • Paul Marks

    Athens not only undertook colonil expansion – it turned on its allies.

    The Delian League Treasuary was moved from Delos to Athens and the allies taxes to provide building projects and welfare money at home.

    The famous temple of Athenia was built with money stolen from the allies against oaths sworn in the name of this very Goddess (amongst other deities).

    Pericles (who has be prasied for more than two thousand years as the great democratic statesman) was the man responsible.

    It was he who denied “half Athenians” (people of one citizen and one alien parent) the right to vote – in order to flatter the mob of “pure citizens” and undermine his foes (some of whom had married nonAthenians).

    This is mistake that the Romans did not make.

    It was Pericles who used the money of the allies to pay voters a bounty in Athens.

    The Romans only introduced free bread long after they destroyed Carthage (when they not only dominated Italy but dominated the entire Med).

    It was foolish in the extreme to plunder the allies when they were still powerful enough to avenge such insults.

    Of course Sparta was worse than Athens (and I see no connection between Sparta and Britian – apart from in a few Public Schools in the 19th century where certain sexual and other abuses almost became a system). But angry people do not always make careful judgements.

    Some of the very cities that had allied with Athens against Persia allied with Sparta against Athens.

    This was not inevitable – it was caused by the vote buying policy of Pericles.

    Neither America or Britian has had the habit of plundering allies – especially when those allies may be needed in the future.

    Some lessions of history may be learnt – and the Romans may have been the first to learn them.

    Side with us and you have the protection of Roman law (for all its abuses a protection worth having), indeed you may even be Roman citizens one day, if you wish to be. Side with our enemies and we will destroy you.

    A harsh policy (not supported in moral terms by anyone – a matter of state, to be regretted).

    But a lot more sensible than “side with us and we will betray and plunder you”.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Forgive me if this sounds patronising, but what an excellent thread. Let’s have more like this.

  • @Paul Marks, who posted today at 1815:

    Your evidence, logic and passion rise clearly above the misspellings etc.

    Best regards

  • Harry Powell

    As a means of understanding the pre-Christian classical world I can recommend Bernard Williams’s superlative Shame and Necessity. Williams studies the moral universe of Greek Tragedy, which I would suggest is broadly that of the pagan world as a whole, and demonstrates that far from cruelty being it’s chief moral characteristic it is best summed up in three concepts. Firstly the absence of universal brotherhood (a Christian innovation) and with that a lack of universal moral laws, so moral agency is something which belongs to humans and not to slaves or barbarians. Secondly the prevalence of shame over guilt. And perhaps most baffling of all the moral culpability one has for involuntary actions, for example Antigone could not but bury her brothers as Creon could not but destroy her for it, both would stand condemned for acting otherwise.

  • Chris Goodman

    Wobbly Guy

    The notion that Enlightenment thinkers relied more upon Christian assumptions than they cared to admit is pretty standard [see the classic set of lectures ‘The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century Philosophers’ delivered at Yale by Carl L. Becker [the L by the way stands for Lotus!] – although Leftists often get uncomfortable when their convictions are exposed as a secular religion [a religion minus the belief in original sin because Leftists now take ourselves to be God].

    As for the ‘dispensability’ of the Christian virtues in the modern world maybe we should remind ourselves of the list:

    The Four Cardinal Virtues


    The Three Theological Virtues


    Which one do you personally find most dispensable?

    It is true that the Western moral tradition was heavily sold on the notion of punishment for your sins after your death. Life after death however is not the same as religion [life after death is not an important part of Judaism for example] and nor does morality collapse if nobody believes in life after death [the good can be loved simply because it is good – after all if somebody put a gun to your child’s head and said “I either kill this one or you – your choice” instead of saying “Kill them my wife and I can soon produce another one” you might very well say, shoot me instead, despite the fact that you have no belief in any after life. Why? Because you feel something that transcends self-interest.]

    If you think that this is an outlandish example, you forget that there are men and women in Afghanistan and Iraq making a similar decision as we speak (although admittedly none from Singapore) i.e. giving up their lives for something they believe in – namely the good.

    God by the way has been conceived in very different ways over the years. When most people say they do not believe in God, what they usually mean is that they do not believe in this or that conception of God. Nietzsche of course means it in a more profound sense i.e. there is no good or bad or truth or falsity.

    You are right when you point out that just because you believe in God it does not follow that you will do what is good; you may be wrong. The object of your devotion may be the devil. Indeed the devil may be an object of devotion for you precisely because it is the devil [the technical name for this is moral inversion].

    By the way you seem to have got Christianity confused with Buddhism. Jesus was not a pacifist.

  • mike

    “Nietzsche of course means it in a more profound sense i.e. there is no good or bad or truth or falsity.”

    Having actually read Nietzsche I must say this is just wrong. Truth and its’ associated virtues, sincerity and accuracy were basic to Nietzsche’s philosophical interests and essential to his ethics of ‘self-overcoming’. But should you doubt my word; I’m afraid you’ll find my view shared by none other than the lateBernard Williams’.

  • mike

    Try that again shall we?

    “Nietzsche of course means it in a more profound sense i.e. there is no good or bad or truth or falsity.”

    Having actually read Nietzsche I must say this is just wrong. Truth and its’ associated virtues, sincerity and accuracy were basic to Nietzsche’s philosophical interests and essential to his ethics of ‘self-overcoming’. But should you doubt my word; I’m afraid you’ll find my view shared by none other than the late Bernard Williams.

  • mike

    OK, try a different link…

  • Chris Goodman

    If you to read Nietzsche on truth click on this link


    The key paragraph:

    ‘What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms — in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.’

  • Julian Morrison

    Christianity tamed Rome? Looks to me more like the other way around. Christianity may praise “nice” but it rarely puts it into practice – their sects that do, eg: Quakers, are well out of the mainstream and always have been.

  • Chris Goodman

    If you want to read Nietzsche on truth click on this link:


  • Sue

    For the Romans, pity was a dangerous and destructive emotion. In the Aeneid, the Trojans (fictional antecedents of the Romans) are destroyed because they feel sorry for the lying, treacherous Greek soldier Sinon. It’s not that the Romans made cruelty into a virtue, it’s that they made coldness into a virtue.

  • mike

    That link/quote is supposed to conclude your argument is it?

    In some ways it’s a real pity that Nietzsche’s style is so often hyperbolic, because it prevents a certain kind of reader from bothering to read further once he has read something unpalatable.

    But now to debunk your case. The quote and link you give is to a section in which Nietzsche is discussing truth qua belief, and particularly religous belief and dogmatic clingings to old theories in the sciences. His concern is to show the human errors often required for something to be believed to be true long after the case for such belief has collapsed.

    That is quite a different matter from truth as the cardinal value upon which all other thinking depends.

    Peculiar to a continental philosopher, Nietzsche was often full of (albeit somewhat patronising) praise for the English scientists of his day. In the concluding crescendo to Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche insists that…

    “The bold attempt, prolonged mistrust, the cruel No, satiety, the cutting into the living – how seldom do these come together! But from such seed is – truth raised.”

  • mike

    Oh and he figured out freeky Frankenstein-style engieering way before his time – how else could he have been able to grow a dead cat as a moustache? Clearly, a man to be held in awe.

  • Eric Sivula

    One little nit to pick, Mr. Marks: For the entire period of the Republic and much of the Empire, anyone not a slave was not automatically a citizen. A freeman was just that, a free man. He was not the property of anyone, but that did not make him a citizen.

    Until one of the later emperors made all free persons in the Empire citizens to expand the tax rolls, citizenship of Rome had to be earned, at least the first generation. Most often this citizenship came from service in the military; for example most of the men in the auxilia, the light infantry screens which fought besides the legions, were noncitizens born in Roman territories outside of Italy.

    Otherwise, Mr. Marks, your posts were most insightful and thought provoking.

    More than cruelty, I think the sentiment fo Rome was coldblooded practicality. They could be cruel, but were rarely cruel for its own sake. Look at the legend of the taking of the Sabien women. Or the practice of decimation for units which deserted. Both of those cruel acts were believed to serve a purpose by the Romans; either the survival of the Roman people, or the punishment and hardening of weak military units. But at the same time, that practicality led to a culture willing to make use of compentent men, regardless of their background. By the fall of the empire, Spaniards, Syrians, Africans, all kinds of ethnically non-Roman men had ruled as Emperor.

  • Chris Goodman

    It is entirely reasonable to assert that Nietzsche is inconsistent [a harsher description would be he contradicts himself] but if you were to assert that Nietzsche does not [in his ‘hyperbolic’ style as you accurately put it] attack those who claim to have discovered truths, then you would be a very unreliable source of truth about Nietzsche.

    In addition to the ‘problem of a certain kind of reader’ who ‘does not bother to read further once he has read something unpalatable’ there is ‘the problem of a certain kind of reader’ who fails to comprehend what he has read.

  • mike

    “…but if you were to assert that Nietzsche does not [in his ‘hyperbolic’ style as you accurately put it] attack those who claim to have discovered truths, then you would be a very unreliable source of truth about Nietzsche.”

    Indeed I would. Yet to attack someone who claims to have discovered truth may be entirely proper (depending on what is meant by ‘attack’). Popper, to take just one example, was noted for his ‘enthusiasm’ in criticising the doctrines of others because he felt he had strong arguments as to their falsehood or otherwise inadequacy.

    There is a point to elaborate though… Nietzsche was interested in our mistakes, our errors of reasoning and belief and their significance. The Marxist belief in the inevitable collapse of capitalism and rise of communism for example may have been mistaken – yet its’ significance in terms of what people who professed to hold this belief actually did, is nothing short of horrific. Thus, we see a lot of Nietzsche’s interest driven by the question of how belief in this or that doctrine takes hold. He looks for his answers in the behavioural habits, faults of reasoning and weaknesses of character that innoculate one to criticism and its’ effects. The chap in his own words…

    “In favor of criticism. — Now something that you formerly loved as a truth or probability strikes you as an error: you shed it and fancy that this represents a victory for your reason. But perhaps this error was as necessary for you then, when you were still a different person—you are always a different person—, as are all your present “truths,” being a skin, as it were, that concealed and covered a great deal that you were not permitted to see. What killed that opinion for you was your new life and not your reason: you no longer need it, and now it collapses and unreason crawls out of it into the light like a worm. When we criticize something, this is no arbitrary and impersonal event,—it is, at least very often, evidence of vital energies in us that are growing and shedding a skin. We negate and must negate because something in us wants to live and affirm, something that we perhaps do not know or see as yet! —This is said in favor of criticism.”

    The point is not that all truth claims (such as in science) are like this – merely that very many of them (such as commonly held opinions) are.

  • Verity

    Shows of strength work. This is why we need to publically display our overwhelming ability to wipe out bullying Islamic terrorism. Disarming ourselves in response to whining “grievances” is beyond lunacy.

  • mike

    Damn straight!

  • Paul Marks

    The last book on the Roman Republic I read was the late Peter Brunt’s book of essays “The Decline of the Roman Republic”.

    He certanly claimed that a freedman could vote for all the offices of the Republic that any Plebian could (he pointed to this as a contrast with so many Greek cities).

    In the late Empire all sorts of distictions started to be made in law between different sorts of citizen (the diffences between the “humble” and the “honourable” are very different from old distictions between Plebs and Pats).

    Also we get things like hereditory occupations (some families claimed rights to certain priesthoods in Republican Rome – but that was about it), crushing taxation and finally (under Dioclecian – misspelt) the peasantry being tied to the soil (for tax purposes). Along with price control and various persecutions.

    None of this was the Christians fault – although the Christian Emperors (like Constantine) were just as bad.

    When one looks at the Empire (right from Augustus with his book burnings and his ban on the private ownership and training in arms) the question that strikes me is not “why did Rome fall”, but “why did the collapse take centuries” (I suspect that the uselessness of the barbarians had something to do with it – even after Andranople in 378 the Gothic commander [really chief] still said that he “kept peace with walls”, because he was too ignorant to understand how to deal with them).

    Still (to turn back to Rome) even today some scholars are still pretending that the Romans (and classical civilization generally) did not have this or that bit of technology (even when the stuff is actually found – as both mechcanical gearing and optical lenses have been) – because they can not accept that such things can be lost over centuries of tyranny and then centuries of chaos.

    It is a comfort blanket “we can not lose what we have now, because a society can not lose technology”.

    Oh yes it can.

    However, I agree with Brian that our rulers (and population) are still struggling to be nice – which means if that there ideas totally fail they may change their ideas or just get out of the way.

    Let us hope they do not fall into the temptation to be totally unnice – that the public is never convinced of the need to “take harsh measures in this desperate situation”.

    Only if that happens is our civilization really in trouble.

    A policy that fails without “harsh measures” will cause vastly more damage with such measures – and precedents will have been set.

    Once men set out on a path of abuse they quickly slip into worse and worse crimes (especially if they start thinking that a “crime” is a violation of the regs set out on bit of paper from a legislature or executive, once men think that law and crime are matters of obeying the commands of the state danger is upon us).

  • Ted Seay

    Mike: I see your Bent Dick (112905_0158) and raise you a Titus:

    ‘Twas her two sons that murder’d Bassianus;
    They cut thy sister’s tongue and ravish’d her
    And cut her hands and trimm’d her as thou saw’st.

    O detestable villain! call’st thou that trimming?

    Why, she was wash’d and cut and trimm’d, and ’twas
    Trim sport for them that had the doing of it.

    O barbarous, beastly villains, like thyself!

    A Brit on Romans v Goths…endlessly entertaining.

  • Paul Marks

    I should have pointed out (oh dear I am now going to have to deal with people whose names I can not spell) that the Emperor Carracala (the man who built the nice baths in Rome that Penn State station in New York was inspired by – before the modern Vandals destroyed it) spread citizenship to the last non Romans in the Empire (nothing to do with slaves or freedmen – a matter of subject peoples).

    It has been claimed (right from Cassius Dio) that this was a scheme to get them to pay the inheritance tax – whist still paying noncitzen tribute.

    Alexander Severus (a later Emperor) reduced the “noncitizen” tribute but did not end it – and taxes went higher and higher after him.

    Of course citizens had been taxed (even in Italia) since the days of Augustus – and every other Emperor pushed the taxes higher.

    They ended up (according to various estimates) at about half total output (roughly what they are in most Western nations now) before the system fell apart.

    Some Emperors reduced taxes (I wrote an article about an Eastern Emperor who did this on this site) but most pushed them up.

    After the plague and invasions of the 6th and 7th centuries the Eastern Empire largley gave up serfdom and crushing taxes (although taxes remained high). People who settled troubled lands (which were most lands by then) gave military service in return for tenure of the land (much as in western Europe) although there was also the regular standing army (very good right up to the time of Basil II in the 11th century) which western Europe did not have.

    After the great battle of 1070 against the Turks Manzikert – or something) the Eastern Empire could no longer be considered a great power (after the time of Bazil the military noblity had lost stuggles against the civilian administrators and such things as the Byzantine heavy cavalry had been largely been abolished).

    But it limped on (in varrious forms) till the 15th century. Many of the things that we think of a product of western Europe in the middle ages (such as very heavy cavalry with great shields and armoured horses) are East Roman – develped by them and the Persians (although both may have picked up the idea from the from certain distant tribes).

    Some may have been shoved into Britain whilst the Western Empire still existed (indeed I have heard of claims for periods of time going right back to the time of Marcus Aurelius) – hence the legends of Aurtorus (or however it is spelt) and his knights.

    The difference between the Byzantine cavalry and the later heavy cavalry of the West was that the Byzantines (before everything went wrong in the 11th century) faught as a disciplined force in coordination with the other sections of the army. The Westerners (much of the time) tended to fight in a less organized way – a bit like their barbarian ancestors.

  • Old Billie

    In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius has plenty of good things to say about humility, compassion, charity, leniency, and kindness. According to the Stoics, whose philosophy he followed, there is a universal brotherhood of man; and within it, kindness, tolerance, and forgiveness are necessary virtues:

    ‘My mother set me an example of piety and generosity, avoidance of all uncharitableness — not in actions only, but in thought as well — and a simplicity of life quite unlike the usual habits of the rich…’

    Of course, his philosophy may be closer to that of the Christians than to traditional Stoicism. Moreover, his time as Emperor was more or less a disaster for Rome, so perhaps his sensitive and virtuous approach is not the best way to run an empire, after all.

  • Stupid Fangirl

    I think everyone’s missed the point that James Purefoy is ridiculously handsome and smart.