The Spectator May 24 2008
Peter Jones on the simplicity of the Graeco-Roman world and the contract between past and present
In South Shields there is a Roman funerary monument dedicated to thirty-year old Rêgîna (‘Queenie’). It is dated around AD 200, at the height of the Roman occupation of Britain. It tells us that she was originally a slave from St Albans, freed by and married to one Barates - from Palmyra in Syria. What on earth was Barates doing in South Shields, for pity’s sake, over four thousand miles from home, in the frozen north of England? Why, doing business with the Roman army, of course, in the global world of the Roman empire.
So there is nothing new about a global world. We were living in one two thousand years ago. As Lionel Casson says:
‘The Roman man in the street ate bread baked with wheat grown in North Africa or Egypt, and fish that had been caught and dried near Gibraltar. He cooked with north African oil in pots and pans of copper mined in Spain, ate off dishes fired in French kilns, drank wine from Spain or France … The Roman of wealth dressed in garments of wool from Miletus or linen from Egypt; his wife wore silks from China, adorned herself with diamonds and pearls from India, and made up with cosmetics from South Arabia … He lived in a house whose walls were covered with coloured marble veneer quarried in Asia Minor; his furniture was of Indian ebony or teak inlaid with African ivory…’
Even more striking is how uncomplicated this global world was. Romans governed their provinces with a small bureaucracy co-operating with the local hierarchy to run the place as usual. Rome demanded its annual tax take, and the right to station legions there if needed, but apart from that they imposed no monetary system, no education system, no rules and regulations, and except in a limited number of cases, no laws either (so the Archbishop of Canterbury was right: legal systems can happily exist alongside each other). But their arrival opened up the massive economic network that was the Roman empire.
The contrast with our much-loved EU is stark, and one has to wonder why. There is a simple answer, relevant to all modern life: the ability, thanks to mathematics on the one hand (surely the central discipline of our age) and modern data-gathering, surveillance techniques, communications-systems and computers on the other, to be complex. The motives for complexity are laudable – vital, indeed, in scientific and medical research - but put those systems in the hands of policy wonks and just see what happens. /Sî monumentum requîris, circumspice/, starting with Brussels and the Treasury under Brown. In other words, because we have the /means/ to be complex, it does not follow that we should /be /complex. The Roman empire lasted 700 years without complexity.
At almost every point these ancient societies provide us with a parallel universe that can shine a stimulating light on the priorities and practices of our own. To stay with the issue of complexity, consider our legal system. The Romans were proud of their original legal code consisting of X tables, but even then they found they needed to boost them almost immediately by 20% to XII tables. The historian Livy comments that these were the tiny fountain-head of all public and private law /nunc quoque, in hôc immênsô aliârum super aliâs aceruâtârum lêgum cumulô /‘now as well, in this immeasurable of-others-upon-others-piled-up-laws accumulation’, the weight, length, word-order and alliteration of the phrase mirroring the tangled mountain of the law in Livy’s day. The later historian Tacitus traces the history of this monstrous growth (which Julius Caesar had tried to trim back), adding with his usual pithy brilliance /corruptissimâ rêpûblicâ, plûrimae lêgês/ ‘when the state was at its most corrupt, laws were most numerous’. Any comment, Mr Straw?
Greek philosophy is a splendid example of how not to do it, and a very instructive one too. Greek philosophers proceeded from hypotheses, which they never tested. But if the hypothesis is rubbish, rubbish will be the conclusions you draw from it, however logically deduced. For example, they opined that the basic constituents of the world were earth, air, fire and water (even the great Aristotle crazily opined it, so that closed the matter). Ancient natural scientists and doctors based their theories on that hypothesis for some two thousand years, with catastrophic results.
But are we any better? Modern schooling is based on the hypothesis that it is best controlled top-down by government, in schools, in every aspect from curriculum to examinations, for children between the ages of 5 and 18. Is it? The results strongly suggest it isn’t. I should guess that half of all school pupils would be better served by a different hypothesis.
And so one can go on. While our MPs struggle to prevent us from finding out what claims they make for ‘expenses’ and in whose interests, Athenian democracy two and half thousand years ago had a simple reporting system in place for allowing the people in Assembly (i.e. not political chums) to keep regular checks on all official expenditure. They once found the great Pericles annually claiming the gigantic sum of ten talents for ‘expenses’. They turned a blind eye because they believed him when he said he was using it to buy off their great rival Sparta. But the point is that the people /knew/. It was their decision to approve or not.
When Plato argues that students wishing to enter higher education should be selected on one criterion, and one only - passion for the subject; when Cicero says that ‘our ancestors wrote laws whose sole aim was the stability and interests of the state…and all laws should be interpreted in the light of that aim…’ so that one is justified in passing over the /letter/ of the law if that aim is compromised; when Seneca says of dying ‘as it is with a play, so it is with life – what matters is not how long it lasts but how good the acting is…so make sure you round it off with a good ending’ - we can begin to get an inkling of what Edmund Burke was proposing when he said ‘Society is a contract … a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.’ Our contract with the past is, surely, to use it.
Peter Jones’s Vote for Caesar, which considers Graeco-Roman solutions to modern problems, is published by Orion, £9.99.