Progress On Next Book

Say what you will about the Romans, but they sure knew how to party.
The Romans were but one empire in a history action-packed with them, but the aesthetic, intellectual and even political legacy of the Roman Empire endures.
Empires are quite unpopular these days (or more correctly, some empires are). But here’s a fun fact: every human being alive today is alive because one of their ancestors were part of a tribe that conquered neighbours, took their stuff, raped their women, massacred substantial portions of their men and children, and enslaved the rest. That kind of political philosophy was the rule, not the exception, the world over.
It’s what the human animal used to do. The Mayans and the Aztecs did it, the Zulu did it, the Celts did it, the Han did it, the Ottomans did it, the English did it… and every tiny little tribe you can name did it too, more, or less, successfully.
Empire isn’t child’s play… it hurts and displaces and imposes and enforces and supresses. The very word Palestine is a Roman invention, designed to disconnect a territory with its ancient inhabitants. And it is also true that empires bring ‘good things’ at their terrible cost. Roads, baths, pretty sculptures in country gardens. Systems of government. All kinds of shiny gadgets.
Consider Gengis Khan – one of the Empire drivers that tends to be treated quite kindly by the modern media. 8% of men in Central Asia today, descend from the Khan, that’s about 0.5% of the total human population. From one guy. Now, the usually very puritan and champion of all things underdog rag, the Guardian, calls him a ‘superstud’ in one article. Nature magazine cites his ‘genetic legacy’, the Smithsonian marvels at his ‘genetic prowess’ and other culturally important critics gloss over the truth of a legacy like that.
Quick vote… how much do you think the Great Khan cared about concepts like ‘consent’? Considering that he did kill off 11% of the entire earth’s population in his conquests, I’d guess not that much at all.
But that’s empire for you – and that is humanity. No kid gloves in history. No giving safe spaces to victims voices, either. You were top dog or you were fair game for tens of thousands of years, everywhere on the face of the planet.
But the Romans – for all the very terrible things that went along with them – did something a little differently from the rest. You pay your taxes, and Rome pretty much let you run your own show. A kind of federalist imperialism that extorted subject peoples for money but did not just wipe them out unless they converted to the one true culture, religion or race. In many ways, the Romans were a pretty benign empire, as far as things went. The Jews got it bad, but then, they pretty much always do, no matter who is doing the conquering.
The Romans had a civilizing influence on much of the world, a world that was wild, untamed, and pretty much barbaric when they got there.
It’s nice to think of the Celts, for example, as a bunch of hippies humming Enya tunes while they healed their pet cats with crystals – but down on planet actual reality the subject peoples are never as innocent, pure and pacifist as cartoons would like to portray them. They were pretty vicious things. Every tribe was. Every human was. To arrive at where we are today was neither easy, nor inevitable.
Human culture produces socialized adults. There was a time there was no socialization process – or not one that resulted in creating ‘voters’ or ‘consumers’. More like ‘fodder’ and ‘fanatics’, back then. The mankind of prehistory looked a lot like troops of chimps, and they behaved accordingly. Only, the chimps, who I think were around – couldn’t match us for sheer ferocity.
Now, all this as a way of saying, I’m very glad that for some people, at least, empire is no longer a valid pursuit. I’m glad that some of the empires ended the universal practice of slavery. I’m glad for the institutions and tech and shiny gadgets and hot nude statues that some of them added to my world. And pretty paintings and yummy food traditions. But I’m glad that the idea of shameless, unapologetic, unrestrained conquest is no longer the way humanity runs its affairs – at least not at the moment. Touch wood. So far. Erm…
And I would have fought the Romans as much as the next flatfooted, backward, wild tribal thing next to me, had I been there. (Honestly, I might have sold out quickly, too. I like creature comforts and adore Roman art).
But walking around today, liberated from the politics and the ethnic chauvinism of it all… I like little reminders of the bad old days. A Roman sculpture or a ruin. Reminds me how very unlikely GOOD we all have it, all things considered.