As the rule of law collapses around us in the West with anonymous accusers behind curtains, the suppression of evidence, political stunt trials and rapacious lawyers, Leonardo Palma examines the Roman Lex, the basis of our civilisation.
A couple of years ago, I was working on my senior thesis at King’s College London. I should have been back in Rome for Easter, but my plans had to be cancelled. London was empty and sad, so I decided to accept the invitation of a friend in Edinburgh at that time. I took a coach and went up to Scotland. Since we are both Catholics, we went to mass on Sunday were invited to lunch by the local Church. I spent some time speaking with the priest, sharing our thoughts about the papacy and its current difficulties.
He suggested that we should visit Hadrian’s Wall to understand the struggle of something so strong, yet so fragile. Ever since I studied classics in school years ago, I had wished to see the Wall. The day after we crossed the border and in a few hours were climbing over the Hadrian’s Wall. There was a cold sun outside, touching with soft light those acres of silence in the middle of the English countryside.
The path reminded me of some McCullin’s photographs I have seen at Tate, but this time there was no snowscape enveloping the ruins, just green fields and farms brutally cut in a half by the vestiges of that solid old stone that once was the limes (frontier) of the Empire. Rome on one side, the barbarians, the pars altera mundi (the other part of the world), on the other.
Walking among those living ruins you become aware that you are standing where Hadrian once stood, breathing the same air, staring at a mystery hidden beyond that furrow in the ground. ‘My ideal’, recalls Hadrian in Marguerite Yourcenar’s masterpiece, ‘was contained within the word beauty, so difficult to define despite all the evidence of our senses. I felt responsible for sustaining and increasing the beauty of the world’. What was that beauty? What was so important to be worth fighting for, worth shedding blood for, worth dying for?
One and a half thousand miles south of the wall we meet Polybius the Greek who first saw Rome as a slave, subsequently living there for seventeen years as a free man, teaching the young heirs of patrician families. Being a Greek, he believed in the anakuklosis, the recursive occurring of time and events: Birth, Raising, Fall. How was possible that the Roman Republic and its empire had not faded away after all those centuries? He then realised that, perhaps, the Romans had succeeded where his fellow Greeks had failed: they had built the perfect form of the State, the miktè politéia (mixed-State). The latter would allow Rome to last long, if not forever. Rome, said Polybius, rather than coming to an end, endlessly postpones her demise.
Rome was an idea rather than a geographical entity. Machiavelli in his Discourses on Livy, remarked that we should not confuse the Republican empire with the Empire of the Caesars after 31BC. Indeed, the Emperor Augustus did not want to extend the borders of the empire (coercendi intra terminus imperii), he was not looking for further expansion and beyond some skirmishes on the borders or internal revolts, and with the sole exception of Trajan, all the Emperors that succeeded him followed his intuition. The Empire after the end of the Republic was not a territorial concept, rather a metaphysical manifestation of the Caesars’ imperium magnum et infinitum (great and infinite power). While the Republic established the control over space, the Caesars proclaimed the dominion over time.
Augustus saw the role of the emperor as the guarantor of the concordia ordinum (harmony of social order), anticipating the Romans eagerness for stability and order after more than a decade of civil unrest and wars. Virgil gave him the mythology to do so, building the ideological premises of the principatus through poetry; he innovated old moral codes around some words such as fati (destiny), consensus (harmony), and, above all, around the idea of an imperium sine fine (Empire without an end). It is incredible that people so pragmatic as the Romans built their own ideology on feelings.
To Virgil, the greatest Empire of history was born in defeat, and its founding father was the quintessential representation of failure and suffering. Aeneas is a defeated man who watched his homeland burning to the ground, forced to obey to Gods’ will and to sacrifice everything on the altar of a divine providence that understands life only as an officium (duty). Because of duty, Aeneas abandons his beloved Dido and the latter takes her life in what is, perhaps, as Boris Johnson wrote, ‘the best book, of the best poem, of the best poets’. Further, while in the Iliad the war is oftentimes a choice in search of glory, for Aeneas war is just an unwanted necessity. In the astonishingly beauty of Virgil’s poetry, we find the apologetic image that Augustus wanted for Rome, the moral reasons for its own providential being: Rome does not want to be founded on violence but beyond it. Praising other people attributes and cultures, Virgil draws a universal duty:
Others will forge breathing bronzes more smoothly/ (I believe it at any rate), and draw forth living features from marble/ They will plead law-suits better and trace the movements/ Of the sky with a rod and describe the rising stars./ You, O Roman, govern the nations with your power- remember this!/ These will be your arts – to impose the ways of peace/ To show mercy to the conquered and to subdue the proud.
Aen. VI, 847-853
Rome was to govern the nations with its power, imposing the ways of peace by showing mercy to the defeated while subduing the arrogant – …parcere victis et debellare superbos. It was to perpetuate its hegemony halting the time, preserving the pax deorum (benevolence from Gods) and defending the mos maiorum (way of the ancestors), with the past as a model. Rome would respect the past to preserve the future.
Roman power was brutal by our standards but nonetheless they grappled issues of civil liberty, urban living, integration, religion, women, and popular representation leaving us in consequence an undisputed legacy. Unlike the Greeks, Rome was never so hypocritical as to claim to be a democracy; they preferred liberty under the law (Ius Romanorum). The idea of libertas (freedom) underpinned a form of popular power in Rome (the conjunction of the popular element with the aristocratic one, the Senatus Popolusque Romanus) that was in any case imbued with cold-hearted realism about the goodness of the electoral process. And that’s why they discussed at length the limits of political liberty, about how far should the freedom of the individual be suspended in the interest, for example, of homeland security. A powerful question in times of war on terrorism, pandemic, mass surveillance, and populism.
Acting according to the law was not bounded to the city of Rome but extended to all its provinces around the world. Since the Roman Legions conquered new territories, people were sentenced to death no more by the arbitrariness or the whims of few, but under the law of Rome.
If we look for the most durable legacy of Rome, it is the law. The freedom for the Romans was freedom under the law and of the individual in the face of the State. When St. Paul, who at that time was known as Saulo, was arrested for preaching Christianity and brought to the courtyard to be beaten with clubs, (fustigated) he asked the centurion if he would actually be tortured. ‘I am a Roman citizen’, he shouted angrily. When the centurion asked him how much it cost to him becoming one, he replied, ‘I was born one’. Jesus, on the other hand, was not a Roman citizen and had no protection in the face of the State. St Paul was a citizen with recognized rights and duties like millions of others in the Mediterranean.
St Paul’s fault, like that of his fellow worshippers, was not for being a Christian but for failing to recognize the authority of the Caesars. Citizenship did not come for free. People were citizens of Rome not simply for geographical reasons but because they accepted living under its law, recognising the auctoritas (legitimate power of command) of the emperor, and were eager to be Romanized. Most of them gave Roman names to their children. What made possible the multinational nature of Rome was that it was a universal Empire standing on the traditions encapsulated within the Ius. (those rights he was entitled to under the law by virtue of his citizenship) These two elements, Romanisation and universalism, made possible a true multinational and integrated society. When some of the above-mentioned factors were lacking, as in the case of the Jews or the Christians, Rome reacted with ferocious brutality. After the Bar Kokhba Revolt in 132-136 AD, Hadrian gave orders for Jerusalem to be destroyed, renamed Aelia Capitolina, and prohibited the Jews to live in there.
‘There was once a dream that was Rome’, said Marcus Aurelius, ‘You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish… it was so fragile’. Before the dominion over space, Rome wished to be the dominion over time. The imperial cult was nothing less than an act of faith in the eternity of Rome. There were no two cities like in St Augustin, the ideological midwife of the Dark Age, rather a cosmic city in which the fatum, the destiny of Rome, is accomplished thanks to an immanent providential will. ‘A land governed by Gods cannot die’. Rome overcame the inevitable decay of human things because, according to the Romans, it became a logos, ie a rational and immanent principle of history greater than the single emperors.
So, Rome survived Caligula, Nero, Diocletian, Commodus, and other bad emperors because of its bureaucracy, its governors, its legions, its generals, its senators, were stronger than the whims of a single man, no matter how powerful he was. They were stronger because the idea of Rome was stronger, because no one ever questioned the survival of the Empire since that would mean questioning the course of history. Even Tacitus, who like Lucan in his Pharsalia was an acrimonious critic of the imperium with a nostalgia for the republican idea of libertas, accepted the tragic inevitability of the Empire.
Even the Hun Odoacer who arrived in 476 AD and deposed Romulus Augustus failed to drive the eagles from Rome. The Eastern Empire survived until 1453 AD and its inhabitants kept describing themselves as Romans, while in the West the translatio imperii (transfer of rule) allowed Christians to claim the city of Rome as the corner-stone of their Catholic universalism, as well as the right to crown Charlemagne as Emperor of a Sacred Roman Empire in 800 AD. Overcoming its Abrahamic origin, Christianity fused with the Greek logos, then the Roman ius, fertilising its civilisation and making it prosperous. The eagles stayed in Rome to protect eternity through the Catholic Church and the throne of Peter, but at some point, migrated beyond the Atlantic. If you enter the Capitol in Washington D.C. and look at oculus of the dome, you will see a fresco painted by Constantino Brumidi entitled The Apotheosis of George Washington. The founding father of the United States of America was deified like a Roman Emperor.
After a few hours hiking on the Hadrian’s Wall path under that cold sun, I descended towards the archaeological site to rest a little. There’s a small red-brick wall under an old oak, with an iron eagle of the Legions standing above. Someone has carved a rusted plaque with golden letters.
It says, ‘In memory of the soldiers who served Rome on the frontier, at Vindolanda AD 800-400.’
Leonardo Palma graduated in Classics from Lyceum Dante Alighieri and read Diplomatic History at University of Roma Tre and King’s College London (War Studies).