Monday, April 30, 2007

10: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Abridged)

Meanwhile, Back in Rome, the emperor Claudius, much to everyone's surprise, was making a respectable go of the job and presiding with relative sanity. He put his stamp on his reign by finishing the job Julius Caesar started and invading Britain. 
He didn't stay long personally since the natives were just a bunch of hooligans who liked painting their faces, grunting and hitting each other (yes, I know)- and the weather was crap too. But he left a few thousand soldiers and colonists behind in an attempt to introduce civilisation, which by now meant plumbing, central heating, pizza and better swords as well as slavery and philosophy. Indeed the better swords pretty much made the philosophy redundant, since when you're top dog you don't tend to worry too much about abstract considerations - in fact if you worry too much about abstract considerations instead of about practical things like swords and plumbing you tend not to get to be top dog in the first place which is why Greece became a province of Rome and not vice versa, and also why I'm writing 'vice versa' instead of whatever it is in Greek, and also why I don't know what it is in Greek anyway.
In the following few hundred years Rome had its ups and downs... Claudius was succeeded by another raving egomaniac, Nero, who was too busy amusing himself to keep order and consequently allowed havoc to reign across his empire, culminating in the city itself getting burnt down - though it's widely believed he did this himself so he could build himself a Nero Theme Park. Either way, in a tradition that goes all the way to the twentieth century, he blamed the mess on an unpopular religious minority who just wanted to be left alone, and had many of them distastefully disposed of. Since violent movies hadn't been invented, the peasants had to make do with the real thing - with lions instead of special effects and Christians as extras. This kept the peasants in check by keeping them from getting too bored.
After a string of short-lived emperors things stabilised for a while until the time of the famously wise and philosophical Marcus Aurelius... sadly though his celebrated wisdom seems to have been of no interest to his adopted son Commodus, under whose aegis things went downhill again, and after couple of hundred years had degenerated to such an extent that the administration abandoned Rome to the invading tribes and moved en masse to Constantinople, named after the then-emperor Constantine.
The problem with being emperor, by this point, was that you basically had to consistently please two sets of people with conflicting interests, either of whom would swiftly do you in if they weren't happy with you. One lot was the general public, who wanted you to spend the Imperial Budget on better roads, civil amenities, and entertainment, and the other was the Praetorian Guard - the Emperor's personal security service - who wanted in all spent on them. It was so impossible to please both that hardly a single emperor from Marcus Aurelius to Constantine died of natural causes.    
Constantine, incidentally, was the Emperor who decided that Christianity was now the official religion of the empire. The persecuted minority had become the establishment - a bit like Steven Spielberg.

No comments: