Benevolent Oppressor: The Emperor of Rome

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One of my pet peeves are histories that make sweeping judgments of a nation or group of people. Hagiography is not history and yet it so easily masquerades as such these days with a generation raised by Zinn’s ilk. There are bad guys and there are good guys and this is a narrative about how the oppressed overcome the oppressors.

Not only is such an approach a recipe for terrible history, it’s boring. Wouldn’t you much rather hear a story about colonials and natives fighting it out, the future unknown and both sides fearful of defeat as they grasp and claw and bash and shoot each other? That’s some Grade A Drama there. Plus it’s true.

But we live in an era of identity-politics, that great crusher of nuance, irony, and fun.

Needless to say, it’s always a treat to read real history and come across lines like the one below:

[I]t is important to remind ourselves that Rome was far from the only aggressive, imperialistic state in the ancient world. We should no more idealise the provincials or the peoples outside the empire than we should the Romans. It is important to consider the frequency of warfare in each region before the Romans arrived to judge whether or not the situation improved or became worse. Empire are unfashionable, while much about Roman society is alien and unpleasant to modern eyes, but dislike for Rome must not translate into automatic sympathy with others, nor must it compel us to deny that the Romans achieved anything worthwhile. As misleading is the tendency to focus so heavily on Roman imperialism, Roman warfare or Roman Grand Strategy, so that all other participants are reduced to an entirely passive role. There were plenty of other peoples, states and leaders in this world with aims, ambitions and fears of their own. (Goldsworthy 17, emphasis mine)

A problem with the oppressor-oppressed matrix is that it assumes categorical goodness and passivity of the loser. “You know, man,” they say, “I was just sitting here and that Roman guy came along and bopped me on the head. I wasn’t hurting anybody, just minding my business.” Granted, that did happen from time to time, but remember, war can only happen if you got two or more parties rearing for a fight. Poland could have laid down its arms in 1939. Russia could have done the same in 1812. And Rome could have surrendered to Hannibal. But they didn’t and so chose war because they believed it was worth fighting.

But here we must be careful to avoid the automatic sympathy for the defeated. Even poor little Poland was plotting on how to get rid of the Jews before Hitler’s invasion. Furthermore, given the chance, any oppressed group would willingly stick the knife in their oppressor and become the new tyrants. Of course, they may deny it, but when you’re operating in a binary, how can it be different? And when considering the avalanche of the past, what magic trick do you have to avoid the mortal passions that lead to tyranny in a dog-eat-dog world?

The genius of the oppressor-oppressed game is that playing on our empathy for the weak, Leftists jujitsu themselves onto the moral high ground where they then cast their barbs at those labeled “oppressors.” The rule of the idealistic rule of the Left will not be any more benevolent than that of the hated, white, cis-gender patriarchy.

But back to the ultimate patriarchy: the emperor of Rome.

The thing about empire is that in order for it to work properly you need to have the right combination of sticks and carrots. Disobey, we crucify you. Obey, and you reap the riches of being part of the empire. Additionally, it should not be forgotten that many a power willingly joined the empire or put themselves under Rome’s leadership as a matter of security and prosperity. As it turns out, for centuries people thought Rome was a pretty good deal. We shouldn’t judge them too harshly for cashing in on the empire. There is a reason historians talk about the Roman Empire as the Pax Romana


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