April 11, 2012

The good old days

El Cabrero is musing these days about Edward Gibbon's massive Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which I just finished after a prolonged assault. As I mentioned last time, he was inspired to undertake that gargantuan project while visiting Rome on a grand tour of Italy and looking at ancient ruins.

His sense of lost glory also included the idea that, for a little while any way, a large segment of European humanity had it pretty good. These days many people are rightly skeptical of the benefits of empire and are more attuned to the sufferings of its victims--the case of Judea comes to mind. And when we think of Roman emperors, we may often think of whack jobs like Caligula and Nero. But he believed that there was a stretch in the 2nd century AD (or CE if you prefer), when living under Rome meant a certain degree of peace and fairly good government, at least by the standards of what came before and what was to follow after the collapse.

"In the second century of the Christian era, the Empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilised portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valour. The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury. The image of a free constitution was preserved with decent reverence: the Roman senate appeared to possess the sovereign authority, and devolved on the emperors all the executive powers of government. During a happy period (A.D. 98-180) of more than fourscore years, the public administration was conducted by the virtue and abilities of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the two Antonines. It is the design of this, and of the two succeeding chapters, to describe the prosperous condition of their empire; and afterwards, from the death of Marcus Antoninus, to deduce the most important circumstances of its decline and fall; a revolution which will ever be remembered, and is still felt by the nations of the earth." 

For a while, several "good" emperors not only ruled fairly well but managed to pick successors not based on kinship but on merit. Ironically, that string was broken by none other than the famous Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, whose Meditations can still be read with profit today. Instead of picking a good successor--or even better, coming up with a lasting procedure for selecting one--he chose his worthless son Commodus, as viewers of the movie Gladiator will no doubt remember. This, in his view seemed to set up a whole range of bad consequences that would play out in the years and centuries to come.

It's hard to walk away from Gibbon without thinking about how much misery could have been avoided if they had just come up with something on the order of a constitution.

TAXING ISSUES. Here's an op ed by a friend of mine on the need for tax justice.

AND WHILE WE'RE AT IT, here's one by another friend of mine on the US Supreme Court and the future of health care reform.

KOCHED UP. Here's another look at some well known right wing "philanthropists."


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