The Human Condition:

The Old Roman Way – September 21, 2014

Roman arm with sword

I am a child of western civilization—and proud of it. I contrast this attitude with the current trend toward multiculturalism, which appears to state that all cultures and beliefs are equally valid, can only be understood by their native adherents, and cannot be judged by outsiders. To which I say, “Poppycock!”1

The cultural tradition which I follow may have had its first glimmerings in Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and in Egypt along the Nile. That’s where we humans first got the basic notion of settling down to farm the rich alluvial soil of the river valley, rather than hunt and gather, or follow herds of cows and goats from summer to winter pastures. With settlements came a common language, writing for the priestly elite, and the idea of regulated authority and kingship. But the western tradition didn’t really get under way until the Greeks.

The Greeks apparently started as invaders. Their origins are shrouded in pre-classical myth. Some accounts say the Danaoi and Achaeans of The Iliad are associated with the “sea peoples” from elsewhere in Europe who raided the Aegean region of the Mediterranean and settled to found local kingdoms. Others credit the Dorian invasion, with people coming down from the north, perhaps from the Balkans or from beyond the Black Sea. Still others think the Greek “invasions” were actually a cultural uprising in place. Whichever tale is true, the lands of Greece and western Turkey were a place of turmoil during the time that Egypt and Mesopotamia enjoyed relatively stable civilizations.

The philosophical and political world view which the Greeks developed in classical times was unique: they blended myth and storytelling with abstract mathematics and geometry and placed great value on inquiry, analysis, and appeals to logic rather than to authority. They were the first to consider the rights and obligations of the individual in relation to the state and its rulers.2 They developed a form of government—democracy, or “the strength of the people”—which they may not always have practiced consistently but which was practiced nowhere else.

The Romans, who acknowledged their debt to Greece,3 apparently started as brigands making a camp on seven hills along the Tiber River. They were so poor and so ruthless that they had to raid their neighbors to find wives. To the tradition of literature, mathematics, and democracy which the Greek colonists had brought to Sicily and southern Italy, the Romans added a genius for law, military organization, and engineering. The Romans took the hypothetical and gracious imaginings of the Greeks and turned them into the functional realities of a state and army that conquered their known world, as well as systematic knowledge for building bridges, roads, ports, and waterworks which supported their imperial administration, and many of which still stand today.

For all their philosophical and political sophistication, the Greeks still got their water from local wells and rivers, bathed in a bucket, and voided their wastes in a latrine that some slave eventually had to backfill. The Romans used their engineering skills to bring sweet spring water down from the hills, across miles of open ground and intervening river valleys, and distribute it in public fountains, heat it in public baths, and use it to flush the wastes from public lavatories into closed sewers. Because of its access to fresh water, the city of Rome at its height could accommodate a million people, and many capitals in its provinces offered a level of health and cleanliness that Athens and Sparta in their prime could not match.

I admire the old Romans. They were professionals who knew their business when it came to founding a city, conquering an empire, and then running it in a practical way.4 They were remarkably free of fuzzy notions, too. To them, a civilized person, someone worth knowing and respecting, was someone who obeyed the law, spoke Latin, and bathed regularly. In country after country, tribe after tribe, if you adopted the Roman laws, learned the language, and followed proper hygiene, you could become a citizen of the empire, and your children might rise in the economy and government and eventually sit in the Senate at Rome.

Yes the Romans had slaves, but the institution was not based on racial or ethnic prejudice. Someone who lost a battle against Rome could be killed outright or sold into slavery, along with members of his family. But slaves had rights, could own property, could buy their freedom, and upon being freed could become citizens. It wasn’t good to be a slave by any means, but it was better to be a Roman slave than a slave, or even a common peasant, in many other cultures of the time.

The Romans brought their kind of civilization to the barbaric tribes of Spain, France, German, the Netherlands, and Britain. It didn’t always stick, but the memory was there, and after the Western Empire fell, barbaric local kings like Charlemagne tried to rekindle the Roman glory. In this they were helped by Christian missionaries who carried Latin and modified Roman values across Europe and into places Rome never invaded, like Ireland and Scandinavia.

I believe it was the Roman taste for the practicalities of engineering, combined with the Greek taste for hypothetical inquiry, that set the western tradition along the path of scientific discovery and invention. We developed technologies like the wheeled plow to tame the thick roots of European forests, masonry construction to build forts and strong points against invaders, the stirrup and heavy cavalry to do a bit of invading ourselves, and ship construction to conquer the seas and oceans and eventually explore the world. When this mechanically fertile mindset encountered Chinese inventions like block printing and gunpowder, we knew just how to improve them and use them to build a dominant civilization.

Without this heritage of valuing individual worth and a learned ability to explore, adapt, and combine ideas and technologies, the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries would never have gotten under way. The collaborative exploration of physics, chemistry, and biology as underlying principles of reality—rather than merely abstract ideas of interest only to scholars and aristocrats—and their communication through the printed word gave us the modern world.

Consider the world invented by western civilization as compared to the rest of the cultures that have grown up outside its influence. The modern world does not simply domesticate animals like cows, goats, pigs, and dogs. Through biotechnology, we now domesticate parts of animals and plants and their underlying proteins for medicines, research materials, industrial processes, and raw foodstuffs. We don’t simply cut wood in the forest, tan leather, or mine metals from the earth, but instead we now process these natural resources chemically to make synthetic materials like plastics, glass, exotic alloys, and polymers such as humankind has never seen before. We don’t just trade one set of goods for another or for gold, but we invent the economics of future-oriented finance, offer investors compound interest and shares of stock, and trade on the time value of money. We don’t just write words in ink on parchment or paper, but use the underlying physics of electricity and electromagnetic waves to carry messages across the world and out into space.

Other cultures have had their moments. The ancient Chinese were clever inventors and diligent scholars, the Mayans became remarkable mathematicians, and the Incas were amazing workers in stone and earth. But the cultures that have joined the western tradition not only learned, but learned how to learn, to concatenate knowledge, to blend disciplines, and to advance science across the entire frontier of the human unknown.

And like the old Romans, we who follow this tradition are not bound by fuzzy notions of race and culture. If a person will adapt to western culture and adopt a liberal, scientific, democratic viewpoint, he or she is welcome to join the club. If you obey the law, speak the language, and follow good hygiene, you become one of us.

This came home to me most forcefully one day as I was walking across the campus of Bayer Corporation’s Berkeley Biotechnology Center. I saw three people coming toward me on the sidewalk: an African-American, a woman of Chinese extraction, and a young man I knew to be a native of Pakistan. They were talking animatedly together, and I wondered to myself what people from such diverse backgrounds could be discussing. As they drew nearer, I overheard their conversation, and of course they were talking about bioreactor contamination and how to protect against it. The language of science, in this case biotechnology, was the bridge to a superculture that exceeded their individual racial or ethnic origins.5

The old Romans, ruthless as they often were, inspired this modern life by trying to bring a common culture, outlook, law, and sense of purpose to the world they knew. Most other cultures had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the Roman empire. And the Roman way took better hold in the barbarian west of Europe than it did among the older Asian civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean. But still, if those Roman brigands had never left their seven hills, we would not have the world we know to day.

And for that I give a piece of my heart to the emperor and his legions.

1. First, I hold it as an article of faith that humans are one species with a common biology, brain structure, inherent mental capacity, and drive toward personal relationships and the roots of culture. A writer’s business is to cast a hypothetical net of desires, intentions, ideas, and values to capture the human mind. If people were really unintelligible to one another, or could only be understood by members of their own narrow group, then I would be out of a job.
       Second, because we are one species and share a long history in the hunter-gatherer and nomadic herder stages of development, I believe that root culture has many common elements worked out over millennia by human societies. While different cultures may have singular etiquettes about where you point the sole of your foot or when it’s appropriate to belch, any socialized person will recognize and condemn acts of robbery, slavery, genocide, and other forms of taking unfair advantage. A society may sometimes condone these evils in the name of some greater good, but wise heads and sensitive hearts will still perceive their wrongness. As human bodies and brains are the products of evolution, so human qualities of morality and justice, as well as the accumulation of knowledge and advance of technology, are subject to evolutionary forces. Humans tend to become more civilized over time, and savagery becomes less tolerable.

2. The whole story of The Iliad hinges on the struggle between King Agamemnon and his vassal lord Achilles. And the story introduces the first “common man” in western literature: Thersites, a lowly soldier who in Book II dared to speak his mind during a council of aristocrats and kings.

3. One of Rome’s founding tales—there is another, about two brothers raised by a she-wolf—is in The Aeneid, which traces the path of the defeated Trojan Aeneas, who fled Ilium and settled with his shipmates and followers in Italy.

4. Sometimes too practical. The Roman practice of decimation—lining up a group of rebels or army deserters and bludgeoning to death every tenth man—was calculatedly vicious. A later and fortuitous blending of Roman and Christian values enabled those of us who inherited western civilization to live without such bloodshed. We have become softer, wiser, and more adherent to advanced legal precepts.

5. You can see this same effect in any scientific enterprise or on any university campus. Science and discovery have become a culture all their own.