Friday 14 November 2008

The Romans of Tiberius

I can't remember who it was, but someone famous was once asked if they could live in any historical era, what would it be, and where.

They said, Rome. During the early part of the reign of Tiberius.

His view was, that the Roman people of that particular period in time were the happiest people who had ever lived.

And I've always held that thought.

Tiberius wasn't such a bad Emperor, as Emperors go. He was a fairly down to earth kind of guy and a good administrator. A simple soldier in many ways. He wasn't much into the flatteries of sycophants. He even made the senate promise they would resist the temptation to deify him after his death and name September after him. After all, logic dictated they would.

The Rome of Tiberius was a time when Rome was largely at peace. Rome had no major enemies. The Empire expanded relatively easily, getting richer by the day. The arts flourished, culture flourished, the plebs were happy. The wealth just kept rolling in.

Nobody really lamented the Republic. Gone were the old civil strifes and dissensions. Most Romans undoubtedly felt that being ruled by an emperor was- good. They'd never had it so good.
In fact, NOBODY had ever had it so good.

And that was true. What they believed was true.
No one in human history before them, had had life so good. No city had ever been so well built, its citizens so well catered for. No city had ever enjoyed such opulent wealth.
PEOPLE had never lived such easy lives.

And it hadn't yet gone wrong.
That was the point. It hadn't yet got tainted.

The Romans partied. Why shouldn't they?
And vice was still- innocent.

Caligula and Nero were yet to come.
Rome had not faced its shocks yet.

That innocence of a people, that belief that things could only ever get better, is something I don't think any human beings have ever enjoyed since. I don't think a people since have ever had a chance to FEEL so innocently about their new found luxury, to really party it up as the Romans then did. Their orgies were the first orgies, and they must have thought 'We can. We'll do it because we can'.

Morale. I guess that's the point. The morale of the Rome of Tiberius must have been a pleasure just to bask in.

And it makes me reflect about the effects of history on culture as a whole. After all, we all live together. And we accept that events in the life of an individual effect his individual psyche. Is it not therefore true that major events can affect the collective psyche?

And sometimes I wonder if our society isn't in some way suffering a major Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. That it can't quite heal itself from.


Time was it only affected a few.

But not in the twentieth century.

I wonder if the strain of a century where the entire global population was somehow involved either in actual live war, or the continual threat of Armageddon hasn't left the world as a whole in a state of shellshock. The Somme, Ypres, The Blitz, Stalingrad, Hiroshima, then four decades of everyone knowing that the world could literally end tomorrow.

And we saw the horrors of Auschwitz. And the Gulag. And Cambodia.

Non stop. Non stop killing and destruction in our midst. Was this a century where people grew up with hope for the future?

We went through six years where no one in the globe cannot have failed to notice there was a war to the death raging. And surely that had an effect on every human being alive. Surely those alive passed on that resonance to those after them?

Collectively, isn't it an emotionally scarred humanity that entered the twenty first century?

A humanity that had no real faith in itself any more. Because it had spent so long living in the shadow of the horrors it was capable of.

And I wonder just how much this lies at the root of so many of society's ills. The fact the society as a whole is still traumatised. Traumatised by what we've done to eachother of late.
I wonder if human morale has ever been much lower than it is today.

I like to think Obama has raised that, and yes, it's a good thing, but he's really only one step forward to counteract the two steps back the finance crisis has put world morale in.

We don't have faith in our future. We don't have faith in ourselves. We hate our species.

I like to think that a moment will come in the future, when the capitalist cycle truly has gone, when the sort of future I dream of comes to pass, where humanity is enjoying a state of living GLOBALLY in a way it has never had it before. And peace reigns globally for the first time ever.
And, freed of the archaic and obsolete moral codes of the past, mankind once again gets to feel like the Romans of Tiberius.

It won't last for ever of course. That brief period of abandoned exuberance will go stale one day as new moral codes get thrashed out to fit the new era. Things will go wrong somewhere.

But to have that morale. That things are better than they've ever been and they're STILL going to get better.

I'd like to think my children could live to see such a time.


Anonymous said...

Rome would have been far better off if Drusus or Germanicus had succeeded Augustus.

The reluctant Tiberius had a great start but gave way to the vilest corruption, delegating too much to the evil Sejanus, and then had to install Caligula as his heir to ensure a successor worse than him.

Anonymous said...

Great post, that's the sort of stuff I enjoy reading here. And I have had it said before - that we as a people really are probably suffering from a collective post traumatic stress, esp after 9th of Sep 2001

Anonymous said...

Tiberius - interesting. I'd always thought it was during the age of the Antonines that the Romans were happiest, given that so little history occurred during that era (other than Marcus Aurelius finally securing the northern borders), and given that history is little more than a baleful recitation of wars and misery. Gibbon certainly waxes poetic about those two emperors.

Ah, Rome!

Anonymous said...

Rome had so many bad emperors that it is lucky it lasted so long. It is easier to count the good ones. Tiberius wasn't as bad as those who followed Titus (Nero and Caligula, honorable mention). Didn't they get murdered every few months so that there was no steady regime until about 5 years? Then there were the latter losers after the Eastern Empire got smart and left. I need my Gibbons nearby, but offhand I think Augustus was good and Julius C, if he really counts, Marcus Aurelius, Titus--a son of a bitch, but he kept the empire together, Vespusian (sp)--ditto on Titus, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, and some other guy who tried to make Rome go pagan after Constantine--don't remember his name and there was civil war, but I have a soft spot for any guy trying to overthrow one institutionalized religion for another. Constantine is everyone's hero, but thanks to him, Christianity is a mess--did good things in the East, fought some good wars, but I don't think he should be remembered well.

Instead of counting sheep to sleep, I should count Roman emperors--first the West than the East. Then I will start counting popes.

Anonymous said...

Lad Litter- That view is certainly the one put across by Suetonius and perpetuated by Robert Graves in I Claudius.

But we mustn't forget, Graves was the translotor of Suetonius for Penguin Classics and Suetonius was a kind of gossip columnist historian whose main aim was to demonstrate how bad the Emperots prior to the 'good emperors' were.

I don't actually think Tiberius chose Caligula just to make himself look good by comparison.

Caligula had a lot of apparent merits prior to his accesion. He certainly had Charisma.

Tiberius is often under rated, I think by modern history, familiar as it is with Suetonius and Graves. The Middle Ages regarded him highly- medieval mystery plays generally portray him as angry that Pilate had killed Christ, for example.

Kate- I think possibly 9-11 tapped into our apocalyptic fears. They sem only to ever lie just under the surface.

It strikes me especially looking at Germany. I still think Germany lives in a shadow, and of course Austria too. Imagine having a whole history that kind of leads up to you rejecting your entire past?

It can't be good for the psyche of a culture. I can't believe its just coincidence that when something truly wierd or sick hits the headlines, it tends to be from that part of the world.

Martian- One could argue that all empires go through a number of different peaks, rather like waves- that there is a true peak period, followed by a delayed zenith which hides the fact the decline has already begun.

For example, I don't think the British Empire of 1900 any longer had the drive it had had at the Great Exhibition of 1851, when it truly was the powerhouse of the globe. But in wealth and territorial extent, it was at its greatest.

Likewise I think the Antonine Empire was probably Rome at aits wealthiest and most prosperous, but it was still a chastened Rome and one which already had within it the seeds of its own decline.

Enemy of the Republic- The third century sees a thick and fast succession of emperors, none of them much good and few very memorable. Heliogabulus the Horrible is perhaps the most amusing- far worse than Nero really. He had a macabre sense of humour- he'd feed his guests food from ivory and of course, they'd eat it anyway so as not to offend. Anmd if they got drunk, he'd send the lions in. And he was drawn by a chariot pulled by nude women. He was 21, I think, at his death.

Julian the apostate is the guy you're thinking of.

I think constantine deserves remembering well, because of his astute realisation that the only way to save the Empire was to accept Rome was done for- that civilisation could only be saved by building a new capital free from the dieing city and the past.

By building Constantinople, he changed the realpolitik of the Empire and allowed a New Roman Empire to carry on by merging the best of the decaying Empire with the values of the new Christian Imperium.
I often think the Byzantine Empire is a much neglected topic of history.

I'm not sure I could count Roman Emperors- Eastern ones from Justinian onwards, yes. Popes, well there were a lot of them. And it can get confusing with all the anti-popes and the errors in numbering, etc. With Popes I can usually say ROUGHLY when each one reigned if you give me his name, but I wouldn't want to attempt to list them in succesion. There's 262 of them, I doubt I'd get too far :)

And that doesn't count anti-popes.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I'm a bit Graves-Suetonius centric I'm afraid, CBI. Dilletante, me?

If only the lost Annals of Tacitus would turn up in some attic.

Your knowledge and insight are superb.

Anonymous said...

But that we could share a pint and debate this, Crushed.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you there, Crushed. Certainly the British Empire was at its height in direct correlation with its maritime supremacy, which corresponds to that same general time period (albeit a bit later, perhaps).

Here's a thought that I know you will find familiar: at the height of their power, the Romans ruled a world at least as big as what Americans rule now -- without electricity, Internet, or artificial light.

How far, indeed, has civilization grown?

Anonymous said...

Lad Litter- Tacitus is generally quite reliable, in my opinion. But yes, it's a shame we don't have the Caligula years.

I think I just look at the realities of Rome under Tiberius. Yes, he certainly succumbed to dotage a bit, but he came down on Sejanus like a ton of bricks when he went too far.

I think I tend to judge any culture on its literary/scientific output. And the height of Roman culture does seem to be about this point.

I'm not sure what moral lessons we can draw from this period, but it seems to me that humanity kind of found a perfect balance at that point- but balances are of their nature delicate. And time doesn't stand still.

But Rome still represents, to me, the earliest attempt to establish a truly comprehensive systematic way of living. Rome was the first culture to actually get down to trying to work out what was the best way for people to live and how to do it. A very practical culture, in some ways, if at the same time curiously ignorant in their superstitions.

Martian- I quite enjoy that actually, a good intellectual chat over a pint.

It's interesting your points ind of link with eachother...

It is a little known fact that the British Foreign Office was thoroughly pissed off by the Berlin Conference and the plans to actually carve Africa up. As it stood, Britain controlled the African trade without having to spend too much money on it. The concept of 'Invisible Empire'. And it was true, of course.

Actually carving africa up meant Britain spent more, but actually had less sway.

The British empire at the height of its ACTUAL power, controlled a lot more of global affairs than the map suggested. By 1900 it LOOKED bigger, but its power was on the wane.

Take South America. Up till the Spanish American war, the Monroe Doctrine meant diddly squat. Go south of Panama, and you might theoretically be looking at a load of unstable banana republics, but in practice, South America was a solely British trade preserve.

Even in the 1930s it was debatable ground- witness the Gran Chaco war- essentially between British Petroleum and Standard Oil.

Same with the US today. The only places it doesn't ACTUALLY determine the economy of, it declares to be pariah states.

One could argue that the US of today is equivalent to that portion of Italy that the senate ruled, the rest of the world is the wide Empire across the Rubicon.