The New Rome

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In a recent post here on LRC, the estimable John Laughland revealed the cynical carpet-bagging being practiced by the Imperial proconsuls upon the would-be members of the Nato alliance.

As Laughland explained, the democratically elected leader of Belarus was absent at its Prague conference because:

u2018… as a genuinely popular politician who has preserved his country from the worst ravages which economic reform has inflicted on its neighbours, Lukashenko is not given to taking orders. In this respect, he is unlike any of the other senior former communist officials currently hobnobbing in Prague. The west’s friends in eastern Europe today have their hands firmly on the commanding heights of political control in their countries, just as in many cases they personally did under communist dictatorship.’

u2018The west prefers such people because the demands it makes on post-communist countries are so unpopular. All eastern European states are required to sell off their national economic assets to foreigners, and close down their agriculture by accepting the dumping of subsidised EU food imports. This creates massive social disruption and unemployment. In addition, they must spend at least 2% of their GDP on defence, preferably on arms made in the US.’

Rather than being shocked, we should best, perhaps, chalk this cynical exploitation up as another triumph for the crazed NeoCon classicists clustered around the White House — Donald Kagan, Victor Davis Hanson, and their ilk (is that other academic Strangelove, Edward Luttwak, still alive?).

The basic strategical imperative of Rome was to placate the unproductive and feckless mob at home, a necessity St. Jerome later pithily summed up as u2018Fex urbis, lex orbis’ — the Excrement of the City is the Law of the World.

Rome did this — in a fashion all too familiar to us today — via the dole and the Circus, that ancient equivalent of daytime TV and u2018reality’ show entertainment, staged in the Coliseum.

To achieve this, it was always prone to ‘pay’ its bills via inflation. Further, it secured an ever greater share (though ultimately a smaller pot) of the economic resources within the Empire by promoting a growing concentration of wealth in the hands of the large-scale rackrent oligarchs and financiers, at the expense of the small—medium entrepreneur/farming class, soon reduced to peonage via the double whammy of swingeing taxes and usurious lending, from which the elite were largely sheltered (usually through corruption).

Of course, this combination meant that the parasitical classes clustered around the throne progressively eroded the productive foundations of the Empire, and so its output consequently embarked upon what was to be a terminal decline. To compensate for this, assets increasingly had to be acquired by leeching them from the new colonies, or by expropriating them from client states just outside the limes.

Once conquered, the local nomenklatura were suborned — look at the fabulous Fishbourne Palace in Sussex, built as a kind of corporate HQ for Cogidumnus, who was even worse than an Atrebates version of Hamid Kharzai, since he may well have been instrumental in inciting the Roman invasion in the first place, as a way of recovering lands lost to that great Celtic hero of liberty, Caratacus.

As Tacitus put it: ‘Certain states were handed over to king Cogidumnus — he has remained continuously loyal to our own times — according to the old and long-received principle of Roman policy, which employs kings as tools of enslavement.’

Next, came the 1st Century Haliburtons and Dressers, who went in to build forts and roads — no doubt on lucrative, cost-plus defence contracts — which may have boosted peaceful communication, but usually served other, less benign purposes of speeding the deployment of Roman troops in case of insurrection.

Of course, the newly subjugated could also look forward to receiving the two-edged gifts of the supposedly higher graces of the Roman way of life to placate the people, much as today’s emerging nations can expect to find the likes of GE Capital and Citigroup flooding in through the WTO-enforced Open Door to overwhelm local businesses and institutions with their paper money tidal wave, financing instant access to the narcotic delights of that Western consumerism so effectively sold as the mark of Utopia on TV, in film, and over the radio airwaves.

Tacitus had words for this, too, unrelieved in their scorn and cynicism:

u2018For, to accustom to rest and repose through the charms of luxury a population scattered and barbarous and therefore inclined to war, Agricola gave private encouragement and public aid to the building of temples, courts of justice and dwelling-houses, praising the energetic, and reproving the indolent. Thus an honourable rivalry took the place of compulsion. He likewise provided a liberal education for the sons of the chiefs, and showed such a preference for the natural powers of the Britons over the industry of the Gauls that they who lately disdained the tongue of Rome now coveted its eloquence. Hence, too, a liking sprang up for our style of dress, and the “toga” became fashionable. Step by step they were led to things which dispose to vice, the lounge, the bath, the elegant banquet. All this in their ignorance, they called civilization, when it was but a part of their servitude.’

But, alongside this u2018Hearts & Minds’ approach, tribute was continually being drained away, for, as we have seen, the dubious benefits of Pax Romana hid the reality that Rome itself was bankrupt. Moreover, the restive local warrior class soon found itself gainfully employed — willing or no — in the Imperial forces on some far-flung frontier, helping extend and maintain the yoke upon the necks of some other u2018barbarians’, so allowing Rome to concentrate its own resources on manning its elite ‘Special Forces’ in the legions proper.

As long as this was done with a modicum of subtlety — using MasterCards, not M-16s, we might say today — Roman dominance might meet with little objection, as the credulous mass of the natives:

u2018…themselves bear cheerfully the conscription, the taxes, and the other burdens imposed on them by the Empire, if there be no oppression. Of this they are impatient; they are reduced to subjection, not as yet to slavery’

Here and there, however, the inevitable arrogance of the conquerors meant the mask slipped, most notably in the case of the warrior queen Boudicca — whom we must now, no doubt, think of merely as a u2018terrorist’, fanatically fighting an u2018asymmetrical war’ against an Imperium whose reign she must have held in irrational hatred for its values alone. To do so, of course, we must ignore the fact that its agents had displaced her people from their ancestral lands — despite treaties to the contrary — had scourged her and had violated her daughters.

u2018All we get by patience (said her counsellors), is that heavier demands are exacted from us, as from men who will readily submit. A single king once ruled us; now two are set over us; a legate to tyrannise over our lives, a procurator to tyrannise over our property. Their quarrels and their harmony are alike ruinous to their subjects. The centurions of the one, the slaves of the other, combine violence with insult. Nothing is now safe from their avarice, nothing from their lust. In war it is the strong who plunders; now, it is for the most part by cowards and poltroons that our homes are rifled, our children torn from us, the conscription enforced, as though it were for our country alone that we could not die.’

Is Nato, then, as an agent of forced globalization, acting in so surprising a manner in, to use Laughland’s words u2018exacting cash’? After all, Latin America has been pillaged, Asia entangled, the Caspian fortified. Africa is the project for the coming decades (especially the West Oil Coast, Angola and the Congo Basin), so that presumably moves Eastern Europe right to the head of the list

Does this sow the seeds of more resistance? Surely — the more it becomes recognised.

As Caratacus himself put it, when brought in chains before the Emperor after his final defeat seven long years, and several intervening victories, after Roman troops first waded ashore in AD43 (No word whether he was hooded and shackled to the floor of a Roman Army transport barge, along the way):

‘Had my moderation in prosperity been equal to my noble birth and fortune, I should have entered this city as your friend rather than as your captive; and you would not have disdained to receive, under a treaty of peace, a king descended from illustrious ancestors and ruling many nations. My present lot is as glorious to you as it is degrading to myself. I had men and horses, arms and wealth. What wonder if I parted with them reluctantly?’

‘If you Romans choose to lord it over the world, does it follow that the world is to accept slavery?’

He was lucky. Rome in his day was not totally populated by Ashcrofts, Cheneys, or Blairs, and the Romans, admiring his spunk, spared him from death, instead allowing him and his family a life of comfortable exile.

Cassius Dio records his most telling comment, made in bitter wonderment, before he dropped from the pages of history

u2018Caratacus, a barbarian chieftain who was captured and brought to Rome and later pardoned by Claudius, wandered about the city after his liberation; and after beholding its splendour and its magnitude he exclaimed: "And can you, then, who have got such possessions and so many of them, covet our poor tents?"’

To which the answers are, No, and, Yes, respectively: the latter because Rome’s wealth — like America’s and Britain’s today — was a mirage which could only be maintained on the very income extracted at the point of a sword from the hard-working dwellers of Caratacus’ poor tents.

Sean Corrigan [send him mail] writes from London on the financial markets, and edits the daily Capital Letter and the Website Capital Insight. He is co-manager of the Bermuda-based Edelweiss Fund.

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