Oikophobia in Roman Antiquity

A direct continuation of the previous post.


The Romans destroy Carthage and turn the Mediterranean into mare nostrum, "our sea", in 146 BC. (Painting by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo)

Continuing from the previous post, let us look at the next great Western people of culture, the Romans. In the beginning, as among the Greeks and any other major grouping, the people is only naively aware of its own strength, but, unlike the Greeks who were more isolated, both from non-Greeks and even from each other, the Romans quickly enter into contact with the Other. In the rise of their Republic, surrounded everywhere by other nations, with whom they soon come into conflict and shifting alliances, they quickly gain a sense of their own superior strength. It was especially the successful resistance against Pyrrhus’ invasion of the Italian peninsula and, even more so, Rome’s defeat of Carthage in the First and Second Punic Wars that contributed to strong Roman decadence, because these were the first conflicts in which major Mediterranean powers, as opposed to mere Italic tribes, had been overcome.

Important in this context was also the first military contacts with the Greeks, during the Second Punic War, when the Romans stopped Philip V of Macedon from coming to the Carthaginians’ aid and, subsequently, defeated him with the help of some allied Greek cities (First and Second Macedonian Wars). This is another major turning point in the Romans’ middling in the affairs of other Mediterranean peoples, and marks the time when Greek culture begins to influence the Roman elite, though Roman middling, in fairness, was during the Republic not caused by expansionist ambitions as much as by the desire to enjoy peaceful borders, as evidenced by the Romans’ repeatedly pulling out of Greece after each victory but being forced by renewed war-making to reenter it; the Romans finally had enough after the Third and Fourth Macedonian Wars and decided to hold Greece. At this stage, the Romans are well aware of their own military superiority and thereby – a common leap people like to make – of their cultural superiority. For a long time there simply is no Roman literature – that is, literature written in the Latin language – and the whole concept of literature is practically imported from Greece (the first extant Latin work we have is by Livius Andronicus, a Greek slave who translated Greek works into Latin for his Roman masters), but once it takes hold, although the superior Greek influence will always remain, such as through the Roman adoption of the dactylic hexameter and through further Latin adaptations of Greek works, most notably by Plautus and Terence, Roman literature comes into its own and begins to glorify its own civilization, such as through Gnaeus Naevius’ epic poem on the First Punic War and Ennius’ Annals on Roman history. The paradigmatic example of the strongly decadent Roman at this time is the pompous drivel of a Cato the Elder, who magnifies the greatness of Roman culture as vindicated by her victories. He believes, in his On Agriculture, that there is no greater joy than, on a Roman farm, walking over a Roman field, under a decidedly Roman sun, with a fistful of Roman manure in his strong and Roman hand, all while muttering incoherently about those effeminate, artistic, and quite obviously queer Greeks.

Cato the Elder, highly insecure arch-patriot

There is admittedly a certain satirical and charming pugnaciousness among Roman writers early on, against their own ruling classes, which is largely absent from the earliest Greek literature, but this was facilitated by the fact that the Republican Romans (as opposed to the very earliest, Monarchical ones) were no longer a strictly discrete people, but rather composed of various tribes with different languages falling, at one time or another, within the Roman orbit (Naevius, for instance, may have been Campanian, while Ennius was Calabrian). But the general trend in the Roman consciousness is perfectly expected: Rome is great, other cultures less so. As the cultural influence of Greece makes itself felt, there is a natural reaction of strong decadence, not only by Cato, but even by a later and worldlier Roman writer like Cicero, who, for example, is at pains to explain to his Roman readership, in his Tusculan Disputations, why Rome has superseded Greece even in philosophy, to say nothing of other disciplines.

As the peak of Roman power comes and goes, a stage of weak decadence – oikophobia – naturally sets in, as it had done among the Athenians and Greeks in general, and as it will continue to do in future societies. As the Romans rise from a primitive tribe to a cultured and worldly people, the major force of the Mediterranean, they begin to look more objectively at themselves, and gentlemen like Varro and, later, Horace and Quintilian, with their works on Latin grammar and Roman religion, poetry, and rhetoric, in a scientific vein, corresponding to the same stage of development as that occupied by such men as Plato and Aristotle in Greece, are at the forefront of the Roman civilization that is now looking itself in the mirror. But this is but a preparatory stage, and it is only with the attainment of enough wealth and power to afford a large and largely permanent leisure class that oikophobia begins to set in, and this is always true of societies; it is one of the reasons why oikophobia cannot exist in any significant measure early on in a society and is a result only of that society’s success. This will always remain the internal contradiction of oikophobia, namely that it rejects that success to which it owes its existence. A great example of the Roman oikophobe is Seneca, who anticipates the regret regarding Rome’s depravities that every civilization comes to feel once it has exhausted itself. There is the foreboding in his work of a grand equalizer, that all is equal, no group better than any other, that, by implicit extension, Rome has no right to call herself the better of others. His emphasis on mercy and generosity, though of a piece with his Stoicism and although he amply compensated for it by writing some of the bloodiest and most gruesome drama of all antiquity, happens at a point in cultural development when enough blood has been spilled and people no longer have the energy to strive for power. That is to say, although mercy and generosity may of themselves be good things, they are always indicative of the natural decline of a people. This is where someone like Nietzsche goes wrong: if something is indicative of the decline of a people, that thing, he believes, must necessarily be bad and rejected. But we can in fact be even more Greek and embrace their attitude that there is no such thing as perfection, that we always have to live in a negative state by sacrificing something for the sake of something else. (It is also true, however, that oikophobic generosity is usually cruelty and a desire for dominance masquerading as kindness.)

Seneca (also known as Seneca the Younger), decadent oikophobe

In the decadence of the late Roman Empire, of which so much is talked all the time, there is an overlap of weak and strong decadence. The historians Tacitus and Suetonius paint bleak pictures of Rome (as opposed to the earlier, wonderfully boisterous historian Sallust), and Tacitus’ ethnographic work Germania in many respects sets the northern Germanic tribes above the Romans of his day. Such an effort sets Tacitus himself apart from his countrymen, since it signals his ability to recognize superior virtue, an ability supposedly lacking in those contemporaries of his to whom the Germanic peoples are being compared. This, indeed, will be an ever-recurring theme of the oikophobe: by disparaging his own kind, he sets himself, ideologically if in no other way, with those who are greater than that kind, and thereby saves himself from the ruinous state of his own civilization. The price of his own culture’s nobility is one he gladly pays for the purpose of stuffing his own pockets with honor and greatness, and he does so by holding up his own people’s mistakes and vices for all to see. The matter is, of course, very similar in the United States (and in the West in general) today.

The culturally more primitive Germanic tribes attack Roman legionaries and are praised for their virtues by Roman oikophobes.

The gradual expansion of citizenship in the Roman Republic and subsequently Empire increased the number of fighting men and also led them to fight more resolutely, since they felt that now, as equal citizens, they had a personal stake in the welfare of the state. But this also, of course, led to the expansion of notions of equality and freedom, and the more people feel free and empowered, the more they will consider themselves more important than the state itself, and more special interest groups will be created that will eventually lead to internecine conflict and to the fragmentation of the state. So we can consider the very same process to be both good and bad; the same process that leads to the rise will also lead to the fall. This is why the latter is just as inevitable as the former. It is no wonder that, eventually, as everyone came to partake in the state, they started to feel that the state owed something to them rather then they to the state, and this state of affairs, in Rome, marks a point at which legionaries become more loyal to their commanding officers than to the Senate in Rome. There are several milestones in this development: perhaps the first is the patricians’ granting of the plebeians’ demand to elect tribunes, after the plebeians threatened to secede in the early 5th century BC; others are the subsequent granting of legislative rather than just veto power to the tribunes of the plebs and the Plebeian Council; the opening of the consulship to plebeians; the banning of interest on loans so as to relieve the plebeians of overwhelming debt; the Lex Hortensia in 287 BC that made the laws passed by the plebeians universally binding; the expansion of citizenship to the tribes that had rebelled in the Social War in the early 1st century BC (like, much later, in 212 AD, Caracalla’s granting of Roman citizenship to all freeborn men of the entire Empire); Clodius’ free grain dole for the populace during the waning days of the Republic (and, later, especially Domitian’s conspicuous largesse to propitiate the people). These events, even if for different reasons and in different contexts, all took place along a progressive continuum, even though there were occasional pullbacks, such as the streamlining of the citizenship during Claudius’ reign. Even if some of these measures occurred for the sake of preserving unity, such as to stop the plebeians from seceding, or to placate the allies after the Social War, those equalizing measures themselves assured that, in the long run, the trajectory that would lead to natural fragmentation in the end proceeded apace. The same pattern had taken place in Athens, too. The crushing victory at Salamis, won by poor and simple oarsmen rather than by comparatively wealthy, landed hoplites, led the poor to demand more rights. This is why Plato in the Republic views Salamis in a negative light, arguing that it led to a more assertive citizenry of individuals who believed more in themselves than in the community. (Similarly, young Americans during the Vietnam war would argue that if they can be asked to die for their country, they should be allowed to vote as well, which is part of why the voting age would be lowered from 21 to 18.)

There was also an increasing culture of dependency, similar to that in Periclean Athens when large numbers of citizens were on the government dole in one capacity or other, which fragmented the citizenry by making them more loyal to the particular politician that would promise them largesse than to the state itself, a pattern which repeats itself incessantly from antiquity to the present day (the United States is as striking an example as any). As the Empire wore on, a consul or other military officer could often rely on his simple legionaries to be more loyal to himself than to the sitting emperor, not to mention the idea of Rome as a whole. And so while the lower classes went to war with each other, the leisure class dragged the Roman name into the dirt, all while enjoying the fruits that those lower classes had purchased with their own blood. To return to the Greek, tragic view of the world, a notion to which there is always reason to return, it is possible to view an individual step in the democratizing process as good and just while at the same time recognizing that it contributed to the lengthy but inevitable process of civilizational decline. Converting the Republic to an Empire was, in a manner of speaking, a reset button that rolled back the democratizing process and allowed the nation to survive for another several centuries. Nonetheless, the same trajectory of democratization and egalitarianism – and thereby ultimately fragmentation – not only repeats itself but is carried over from the Republic (such as in the parallel example of citizenship expansion after the Social War of the Republic and the Edict of Caracalla during the Empire). A famous historian like Edward Gibbon, who argues that Rome’s decline began with the reign of Commodus, therefore states the truth only from a rather narrow point of view: Things took a clear turn for the worse during Commodus’ time in power, yes, but if we wish to grasp civilizational processes in general, we must understand – and this is true of every culture from ancient times to the present – that the decline really begins well before the peak of power has even been reached.

We can draw several important lessons for political philosophy, which can then be applied to our own time and place, in order to understand better our own American history and social process. One such lesson is, as I have explained, that the rise and fall of a people are caused by the very same development. Another, which is related to the first, is that the decline begins while the rise is still occurring, which often makes it difficult to spot the decline as it happens, because we do, for a while, continue to see progress and power all around us. If we did spot the decline, we would, perhaps, be a bit more careful with some of our wishes and actions. In the next post, the last in this historical series, I will look at the United States in the same way that I have just looked at Greece and Rome.