If we're going to have an Empire, can't we at least do cool stuff with it?

Touring Rome last week was exhausting. And yes, my feet ache – but the truth is it was tremendous mentally taxing. Comprehending the feats of engineering, art, and philosophy wrapped up in the thousands of years of Roman history was too much for my dark, tiny brain. The sheer imagination involved to consider the Roman Empire was overwhelming – especially given my miserable lack of knowledge around all things Roman. The breadth and depth of my Roman history is derived from a single book I read six months ago as part of my continuing education program under the auspices of Joe Costello. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a great book – but not enough to really get inside the Ruins of Rome.

I was especially overwhelmed by our visit to the Roman Forum and surrounding ruins. Over and over again we were presented with these shards of history that seemed incredible, suggesting that despite a couple thousand years of “progress” the scale of the Roman Empire is completely comparable to the American Empire (and it is an Empire). The Pantheon was the largest dome made by humans until the Superdome was built in New Orleans. The Roman Empire had more roads than the United States until 1984. The Coliseum laid out a basic stadium design still used to this day. Walking around the ruins, the place still smelled of blood and power. At one point, while considering what little I know of the long history of the ground I was standing on, I turned around to find people leaving flowers on the tomb of Julius Caesar.

And through it all is some great thread of tragedy. For all of the magnificence of Roman accomplishment, it went from grand Republic (the seal of Rome on every cop car still carries that symbol of ancient pride – SPQR, “The Senate and People of Rome”) to fetishistic Empire. Tom Holland writes in Rubicon that

Kings had been ruling in Rome for more than two hundred years, ever since the city’s foundation, but Tarquin, the seventh in line, would also be the last. With his explusion, the monarchy itself was overthrown, and, in its place, a free republic proclaimed. From then on, the title of “king” would be regarded by the Roman people with an almost pathological hatred, to be shrunk from and shuddered at whenever mentioned. Liberty had been the watchword of the coup against Tarquin, and liberty, the liberty of a city that had no master, was now consecrated as the birthright and measure of every citizen. To preserve it from the ambitions of future would-be tyrants, the founders of the Republic settled upon a remarkable formula. Carefully, they divided the powers of the exiled Tarquin between two magistrates, both elected, neither permitted to serve for longer than a year. These were the consuls, and their presence at the head of their fellow citizens, the one guarding against the ambitions of the other, was a stirring expression of the Republic’s guiding principle – that never again should one man be permitted to rule supreme in Rome.

In one of my earlier posts from Rome I marveled at Marcus Agrippa’s inscription on the Pantheon, and Costello was quick to point out in an email that Agrippa held significant responsibility for helping Augustus bring Rome from Republic to Empire through the Consulship.

Overwhelmed by all the history and all the politics, I decided to delve into the latest issue of Wired Magazine on the flight back. It’s an issue devoted to exploration – sea, space, etc. But it was the ocean exploration stuff that really excited me. A couple years ago I remember reading some article somewhere about sea exploration and it really got me going: high-risk, tech-centric, expensive, profit-less (money-wise), and ultimately kind of poetic. Of course, I don’t have any of the requisite skills – no biology, not much math, never been diving, not an engineer. But an item from the article by Robert Ballard – “The British Empire is said to have had more dedicated exploration ships in the late 18th century than the entire world has today…” raised my hackles. At some level, that just seems like a crime.

After reading Chalmers Johnson’s “Sorrows of Empire” (another Costello recommendation), it’s not hard to leap to the conclusion that compared to the Roman Empire and the British Empire, the U.S. of A. Empire spends a disproportionate, disturbingly large amount of its resources in pursuit of better weapons. Consequently, some of the grander pursuits of science might get neglected these days. The Wired issue is guest edited by James Cameron, who pens a strong call to exploration, and reading it I felt like he was on to something – that we’ve lost a sense of wonder, a sense of wonder that lends itself towards a delight in exploration. In the introduction, he opens by saying “Thankfully, I’m sensing a resurgence of the collective will. We stand on the edge of a glorious new age of exploration.”

A couple months ago Silbo introduced me to the stats page of LiveJournal. I was stunned at the number of people creating their own blogs who were under the age of 19 – that is, the bulk of them. It occurred to me that a byproduct of a generation of bloggers might be a new spirit of innovation, a sort of do-it-yourself attitude that might re-invigorate the culture. It’s certainly evident in little ways, like Ready-Made magazine and the entrepreneurial spirit of the tech industry. And maybe this spirit of innovation, coupled with the “resurgence of the collective will” Cameron writes about (and we experienced on the Dean campaign) will come together to give the broader culture a real spirit of empowerment (perhaps not unlike the Roman engineers and inventors, whom our tour guide extolled in glowing terms) that can fire up a new age of exploration and take us to new places – beyond empire.

One Response to “If we're going to have an Empire, can't we at least do cool stuff with it?”

  1. anne Says:

    “And maybe this spirit of innovation, coupled with the ‘resurgence of the collective will’… will come together to give the braoder culture a real spirit of empowerment… that can fire up a new age of exploration and take us to new places, beyond empire.”

    Relentless, your hopefulness! I’m glad that the vacation gave you such ideas and steam.

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