January 14, 2016

"What’s Rome like? It’s a kind of place that, when they want something, they just go and grab it!"

Empire to Empire: Mary Beard’s Rome

The English classicist and historian, Mary Beard, has become a T.V. star and a bestselling author. SPQR, her new capsule history of the Roman empire, remains hard to find on bookstore and library shelves weeks after its release.


That has a lot to do with Beard’s rising profile — the New Yorker‘s Rebecca Mead named her “the troll hunter” for taking on critics of her frazzled onscreen look. But are we also wrestling with something like an imperial anxiety? Americans, and Brits, still remember that famous final fall, and wondering whether or not we’re doing as the Romans did.

Since Edward Gibbon, people have wondered what drove the demise of the glorious Roman empire, but Beard wants us to ponder the unlikelihood of its rise. Rome began as a humble backwater in the Italian hills, self-mythologized as a haven for outsiders and asylum-seekers, founded by the Trojan exile Aeneas or maybe by the murderous twin, Romulus, raised by a she-wolf.

It wasn’t at all obvious that Rome would become the hub of the ancient universe. It’s a place where a raucous democracy sprang up, then withered. Massive inequality of wealth is written all over the ruins of the city. Its histories are full of stabbings, corrupt bargains, usurpations, and rapes. And yet, in Beard’s long view, Rome’s essential openness — to the enslaved, to the poor, to the conquered outsider — gave it the military, economic and social strength required both for world takeover and for the pax Romana to follow.


Mary Beard’s short course is in our heads. With Chris Hedges, the political critic with an interest in antiquity, and Kathleen Coleman, one of the vivid minds in the Harvard classics department, we’re wondering where we stand now in the endless parade of fragile empires, and what kind of lessons we can draw from a far-off history that still feels close at hand.

Guest List
Mary Beard
award-winning historian and presenter, and author of SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome.
Chris Hedges
war correspondent, author of War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning and Days of Destruction, Days of Revoltpolitical critic and activist, and one-time student of classics during a Nieman fellowship at Harvard
Kathleen Coleman
Harvard classicist, archaeologist, and expert on Roman popular culture, poetry, and punishment — and one of Hedges's former professors.

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  • Cambridge Forecast


    1. Think of the beginning of Paul Kennedy’s famous book from the mid-eighties, “Rise and Fall
    of the Great Powers”: “Rome fell. Scarsdale will fall.”

    2. Paul Wolfowitz, key neocon behind the Iraq War commencing in of 2003 was ideologically prompted not only by Straussian thought but specifically by Livy on Rome and Machiavelli
    on Livy’s “Discourses.” What Wolfowitz wanted is not Pax Romana II (Pax Americana) but “mayhemization” of the Arab and Muslim world, what one now sees. Wolfowitz wants to continue this disintegrative and exclusionary project as he advises Jeb Bush and hopes to manipulate Bush as president into a world of permanent war.

    3. A teacher shows the class a bust of the Roman Emperor Vespasian and the class gasps to see how much Vespasian looks like Lyndon Johnson. The teacher than uses the facial
    comparison as a lead-in to a comparison of Roman and American policies.
    A potential difficulty arises. In Cowell’s classic book, “Cicero and the Roman Republic,”
    the author gives you a detailed account of material differences between Rome and us, the distance in things between then and now:
    “Many of the commonest articles now used in vast quantities every day were of course
    unknown to the Romans. Among them are potatoes, sugar, tea, coffee, beer,
    tobacco, and soap.”
    (Pelican Books, paperback, page 90, 1956 edition)

    Below the level of cars and planes and lasers and telephones and electricity, the
    quotidian material differences are vast when you cpmare Roman dailynlife and our own..

    This might be said to limit comparability unless you assume that deep historical rhythms exist
    that are invariant to these differences in material culture.

    Richard Melson

    • AlanMacDonald

      Yes, Richard, several follow-up points, but I’ll limit them to a few, as you have, at first:

      1. Yes, Kennedy’s fabulously revealing Rise and Fall (of the nation-state empires) is instructive of the evolution of Empires’ use of what I call ‘big tools’; myth, mystery, tribalism, religion, nationalism, technology, economics, ideology, et al. to shape shift over history.

      Kennedy notes the shift from the preceding ‘church/religion centric’ empire to the ‘nation-state centric’ model of empire between 1500 and 2000 in the title of his book.

      2. Yes, Wolfowitz, Perle, Robert Kagan, et al. and PNAC had further driven America toward Empire, but the more recent metastasis of the cancer of this now Disguised Global Capitalist Empire nominally HQed in, and merely ‘posing’ as our former country grew from Thomas Barnett’s 2004 Naval War College strategy and book, “The Pentagon’s New Map”, which more accurately should have been titled, “The Global Empire’s New Map” — which is a virtual PNAC II on steroids — but which is seldom mentioned, critiqued, or appreciated for its destructive effect because it is less visible / better disguised.

      3. By far, the greatest change in Empire’s evolution, nature, and structure of its cancerous effect in the post-nation-state world of the 21st century is its ‘Disguise’ as a faux-democracy in taking over, controlling, ‘capturing’, and now almost fully “Occupying” the “U.S. state apparatus” (of both it’s hard and soft super-powers), and this critically important idea of ‘disguising’ the Empire — which neither Rome, Spain, Britain, Russia, Japan, or any other Empires did — was first attempted by the Nazi Empire only in the ‘captured’ and “Occupied” country of France in 1940-44, and which the OSS (precursor to the CIA) “learned on Hitler’s dime” and advanced from its beta-test version in only one captured country with only one single party Vichy (phony) government as the Rel 1.0 version into vastly more effective Rel 2.0 …. versions right here in the Fatherland / Homeland HQ and metropole of this first Global Capitalist Empire, which has metastasized beyond an ‘American Empire’ per se, and into a truly Disguised Global Capitalist Empire with this most powerful ‘big tool’ any Empire has ever found in the economic ideology of a religion of world-ending excess in Capitalism.

      We are not faced with a purely ‘American Empire’ but with a Disguised Global Capitalist Empire of highly integrated (but well hidden) six-sectors; financial, corporate, militarist, media/propaganda, extra-legal, and most dangerously dual-party Vichy-political facade of the neocon ‘R’ Vichy and smoother lying neoliberal-con ‘D’ Vichy parties all composing the same first and last “truly Global Empire” — which only a few dozen public intellectuals and academic experts in ‘Empire studies’, like; Hardt, Negri, Parenti, Chomsky, Zinn, Chalmers Johnson, Berman, Robinson, Escobar, Street, Wood, Hedges, Harvey, Wolin, et al. understand and document:

      “The U.S. state is a key point of condensation for pressures from dominant groups around the world to resolve problems of global capitalism and to secure the legitimacy of the system overall. In this regard, “U.S.” imperialism refers to the use by transnational elites of the U.S. state apparatus to continue to attempt to expand, defend, and stabilize the global capitalist system. We are witness less to a “U.S.” imperialism per se than to a global capitalist imperialism. We face an EMPIRE OF GLOBAL CAPITAL, headquartered, for evident historical reasons, in Washington.”
      [Caps substituted for italics in the original]

      Robinson, William 2014 “Global Capitalism and the Crisis of Humanity” Cambridge University Press

      As Zygmunt Bauman hauntingly puts it, “In the case of an ailing social order, the absence of an adequate diagnosis…is a crucial, perhaps decisive, part of the disease.”13

      Berman, Morris 2011 “Dark Ages America; The Final Phase of Empire”

      • Potter

        Get rid of “disguised” and even “empire” (the historical notion of which which constrains) and keep “global capitalist” (activity. maybe a lot of it). We have something new and we have new realities. As well, we have, in incorporating the globe, all sorts of other forces to consider ( not the least of which is terrorism, tribal wars and uprisings). We are too close to this to understand it– or so I feel. But I am loathe to label this Empire, certainly not the US Empire.

        • AlanMacDonald

          Potter, yes, “we have something new to consider” in the way of a globe of “other forces” as you rightly say.

          “Global capitalism”, as you suggest, is fine with me, since it certainly implies a good deal of “force”. I only suggested that the term Empire would seem to be useful as a catylist for broad popular action, since it birthed our first ( and only successful ) Revolution.

          Regarding your caution in currently calling our disease “U.S. Empire”, I fully agree with you, Potter — as the current force of this ‘control system’ (to use terminology different than empire), seems to have expanded beyond merely the U.S. (as was consolidated during the last half of the 20th century) and is now shared by an ethereal, detached, and transnational ruling-elite on a basis that seems fully independent of any nation, ethnicity, race, or loyalty other than a commonly shared focus and culture of wealth-brotherhood in global capital.

          • Potter

            I agree Alan. I forgot to mention( although I did in my first and it was mentioned in the program), climate change is a formidable force. Then consider (or see) it’s attendant migration of peoples ( including from wars) and changes in the character of the Earth itself: political boundaries and resources ( especially water needs).

            What we need and have failed at so far is an effective world governing body. There is much to be said about that, what it’s goals should be and how it should act. I think we are so far away from that, alas.

  • Potter

    Roman history is endlessly instructive and fascinating. I can’t get enough. The Romans were remarkable. The scholars Mary Beard and Kathleen Coleman were wonderful.

    We were in Rome a few years ago; went through the Forum, the Colosseum and then to the Circus Maximus, plus the museums. Totally awesome. There are so many sides to Roman history and what to learn from, or try to apply. But we are in a new world here. We are not the Romans. Too much to say about that.

    Chris Hedges always has good points to make but he leaves me depressed. (I do listen to Noam Chomsky drone on as well– also depressing but I go after it!!) I am with Chris in the end- perhaps the cock-eyed optimist but the optimist never-the-less. We humans are resourceful. And some of us are good people too.

    Climate change once again emerges as the issue, which it is. Too late to wake up and stop it never mind reverse it, but we are a resourceful people and we are born, all of us, or most of us, or practically all of us, with the will to live, to love and hand this world to our kids as best we can.

    If we are Empire, we are not the Roman Empire. But I agree powers rise and fall. Let us be gracious about it.

    Thank you!

  • Pete Crangle

    Thank you Chris and guests.

    The echo of ancient Rome is instructive in grappling with our current situation.

    If the universe can be seen in a drop of water, an empire can be observed in a glass of it pulled from one of its taps. The lack of potable water in Flint, MI is especially predictive when contemplating ourselves, and the echo of Rome. This is an example of industrial contamination, due to infrastructural degradation. It demonstrates a weakness that can visit an empire that is no longer tending to its needs. Infrastructural collapse preconditions a loss in the ability to maintain vitality. A functional government, indeed a competently managed empire, acts in the best interests of its plebeian citizenry, and fulfills its custodial duties. The strength and robustness of any nation, be they empire or not, is measured by the standards of life among its lowest, and least powerful.

    We are witnessing the neoliberal bifurcation of the world. It is occurring not only beyond U.S. borders, but within it as well. It is the hubris of cleaving humanity into partitions: the relevant and the irrelevant. Flint, MI has been irrelevant for some time now. What this demonstrates, when seen as an accretion of assaults upon those who do not warrant care, is an empire in distress. We don’t need to hang out in Davos, Switzerland to understand this.

    Thus, we observe yet another indication that the U.S. empire is tottering. And as our empire totters, it’s elite imperium experience the paradox of holding control whilst losing it. The relinquishment of power and control are brutal affairs. We’ve not hit the bend in the curve for a corrective, or a partial, if not total collapse. A collapse of the sort underway is a trajectory of decline, not a free-fall. This is in process.

    I do not look to elections for the foreseeable future to correct this problem. The appetites and demands of empire are deeply entrenched. The demands are expressed by violence, at home and abroad. No candidate is willing are able to dial down the militarized appetites of perpetual war for perpetual profit. Which ensures control over the terrain where the U.S. empire dominates: the global market. Without addressing the lawless and reckless behavior of our government, one should not expect structural correctives. Most changes will be cosmetic, at best.

    Policies among our two parties share more continuity than difference. The financialization of our society has become its raison d’etre. It is an empire, politically controlled by two parties with a single paymaster. The strategic imperatives found across the globe have been handled with a basic, core philosophical outlook. For decades the U.S. has dithered with the middle and near east as both plaything, and energy source. It hasn’t mattered who has been holding the reigns of power. What is becoming relevant and obvious, is the terror and incompetence that an empire exports beyond its natural borders, it will visit upon itself.

    Empire relies upon pacification. The state security and surveillance apparatus is in place to take necessary measures to secure the imperium’s continued domination. We have been witnessing it, prime time, which is now all of the time. Wars abroad, covered by a cadre cheer-leading journalists. Citizen’s gunned down wholesale, by a hostile security force, in our streets, to the tune of 3.1 per day last year. De facto citizen journalists record these events, finding a brutal repetition expressed.

    In addition to the continued reliance of a praetorian guard, there has been, and will continue to be, specialized weaponry deployed, where human interaction will to be minimized. Drone technology is but one example of where this shift will be present. With these new technologies, target selection and decision making capacity will continue to be pushed further and further into the source of destruction. I would expect mission definition and overriding, veto control to reside in human actors, but much of the actual deployment of violence will be pushed into specialized, automated weaponry.

    Remote killing will escalate. Human factors will be reduced. It is cost effective. It embraces a death ethos. Errors difficult to assess. Machines will do our bidding and exonerate us from moral and ethical responsibility. This is a logical extravagance of a culture that no longer develops a warrior class it shares common experience. Instead, it sees its military and security institutions as extermination and pest control exercises. The modalities of pacification that an empire uses beyond its borders, will return to be used for pacification within its borders. Ferguson, MO is but one of the reminders of the militarization of domestic security.

    Empires that totter, tend to rule by means that are draconian reductions, preying upon its weakest. Our empire has developed a super panopticon. We observe, a carceral state filled beyond any semblance of civilized capacity, and with it, cheap labor for the neoliberal market place, through the captives of its fetters. We live with a surveillance and archival system that monitors our communications, in our homes, our workplaces, and our internal organs of government. It is operating with fewer and fewer constraints. As is the market, which is the paymaster, and has become an anonymous quasi-tyrannical force. Were it not for whistle-blowers, we would know even less about the creeping intrusions, and the casting off of internal constraints.

    Empire’s can find themselves, embracing a single, strong willed leader. A messianic redeemer. Donald Trump has seized upon malaise and anxiety, whether through accident or by some instinctual ability. He is the archetypal strong man, the omnipotent fixer for the aggrieved. Neither he, nor his followers need a glass of Flint, MI water to understand this.

    The correctives that his followers seek, will be nothing less than a cleansing which serve as moral renewal. A cleansing that will be codified into laws and writs. It is a likely outcome of a Trump presidency, with a supine congress and judiciary, at his command. Our organs of government will be made ever more pliable, not only by the potential of a strong man ruler, but by trade agreements that have been ratified, and those that are on the table. I speak of TPP, TISA, and TTIP. These agreements will be accompanied by a loss of jurisdictional power by each branch of government, at levels of federal, state, and local. The way has been paved for a noxious state, using draconian means, by previous trade agreements, as well as, the legislative activities codified in The PATRIOT Act, FISA, NDAA, etc. Or worse, ignoring them completely. A strongman ruler would fulfill the full potential of these legal actions, and a whim to ignore them for expediency.

    What is underway within the GOP, and our right-wing population in general, is a retribution for wrongs and slights, real and imagined. It is a perfect example of bread and circuses. These people who have found mutual attachment with Trump, who have been fed a steady rhetorical diet of disillusionment and self-victimization, who have replaced reality with spectacle, these people have largely been exploited by conservative forces, and ignored or scourged by a liberal, corporate establishment. Who they are, and where they live, have been turned into wastelands.

    Industrial wastelands litter the U.S. geographical landscape. You needn’t go to urban hellholes to find them, though they exist there abundantly. Whole counties within the Appalachian mountain range have been decimated by industrial energy extraction and refinement. Mountain top removal a chilling example of the results of a neoliberal ethos which condemns populations to massive, collateral damage. A wasteland is exactly what Flint, MI has been turned into; it’s roots going back many decades, before there was a water crisis. Gentrification, poverty, under-employment, and unemployment have reduced it for some time. Globalization and outsourcing part of the equation. Capital investment will always move with an alacrity that a labor population cannot. Capital investment finds willing political enablers to do its bidding, and various sinks and troughs to pour itself into across the globe.

    The people of Flint, MI have been squeezed, and then ignored; the present media attention not withstanding. As have many who have found mutual attachment with Donald Trump. Trump supporters have wounds that run deep, as is the depth of their retreat from a brutal political-economy. A political-economy that has misdirected their focus to blame the weak and marginal for their troubles. Trump’s audience is more than willing to accept this explanation, and the promise of greatness at the vanquishment of their scapegoat. To ridicule this dynamic, is simply to perpetrate the wound, and invite a freight of trouble. This. This is not to be trifled with. We’re looking at collective, core belief systems put into energized, malevolent action. This. This is extremely dangerous terrain. It begs for cleansing and renewal. The outcome of the GOP primary will probably not change the dynamic that is underway. It will remain implacable in the face of demographic shifts. I expect the demographic shift will likely make it more recalcitrant. This dynamic is a natural response to those forces which squeeze the middle-to-lower classes, and then successfully misdirect its focus as to the cause of its suffering to the weak and the marginal of our society.

    The way out of the conundrum is to find a means of reintegration, and a hitting of the do-over button for participatory democracy. How to accomplish this is beyond my pay-grade and abilities. But, looking at this from a long term analysis, I see no political entity addressing this or able to offer the means of reintegrating ourselves into a cooperating whole. There is a large segment of the population that is convinced that self-governance is an evil device that has been perpetrated upon it. It sees it with intense distrust.

    Thus, it appears to me that a dark chapter has been opened, and we find ourselves in its midst. It will require more than elected leadership to repair. History is not a repetition, but an echo. And the search for a strongman, with a dictatorial impulse has become imperative among a growing fraction of the U.S. population. That is a natural outcome of a belligerent empire, that has feed exceptionalism to its populace, and has been lawless and reckless in its exploits, both at home and abroad. In other words, in one way or another, with measures large and small, we live in the possibility that we will bring the temple down upon our collective heads.

    What Trump’s candidacy indicates, is that there is a loud request for a magical fix, and this fix will involve crushing the marginalized blameless; people like the citizens of Flint, MI. This is how empire’s totter. People will find other means to cope, survive, and revive a need to flourish. Barbarism is one, of many possible, natural responses. History is instructive. We would be wise to contemplate its lessons. This is where we have been delivered. This is what can be seen in a simple, glass of toxic water.

    • AlanMacDonald

      Pete, an excellent and extensive analysis to be sure.

      Your statement, “The modalities of pacification that an empire uses beyond its borders, will return to be used for pacification within its borders” surely comports with Arendt’s, “Empire abroad entails tyranny at home”.

      Liberty, democracy, equality, and justice
      Violent (dual-party Vichy disguised)


      • Pete Crangle

        Alan, Thank you for the response, here and throughout the thread. Arendt’s words were internalized for me long ago. Appreciate the reminder. Best regards…Pete

      • Floyd C. Wilkes

        Interesting to observe that South Dakota (in this time of Standing Rock opposing the DAPL) will be the first state authorized for the domestic use of armed drones.

        • AlanMacDonald

          Floyd, I was not aware of that — and thanks much for bringing it to my and other commenters’ attention.

          WOW, If this violent drone assassination of peaceful Native American demonstrators follows on the heels of the ‘tip of the Empire’s spear” — or rather ‘tips of the Empire’s 9mm slugs’ in the backs of powerless and persecuted young Black Americans (which God help won’t occur) —- then the second half of Arendt’s warning will be seen as clearly moving from the Nazi Empire of the mid 20th century to the First fully ‘Disguised’, truly ‘Global’, and ‘Capitalist’ fueled EMPIRE which is only nominally HQed in, and merely ‘poses’ as, America.

        • Pete Crangle

          This goes back to 2015: North Dakota Legalizes Armed Police Drones

          Arendt would not be surprised by this. This is a natural outcome to a condition that weds itself to industrial and high-technology applications of surveillance and lethality. Tools that augment human capacity end up naturally within the means of violent control. Expect things to escalate. Unfortunately.

        • Pete Crangle

          BTW, thank you for bringing this up. I meant to update my comment with some of this information, but it went into the amnesia bucket. I, like many others, have been following the DAPL developments quite closely. Following that story is how I first learned of the drone legislation.

          A Trump administration is likely to be somewhat more draconian than previous administrations. But who knows? Trump likes to wheel and deal, and maybe he’ll see these situations as opportunities to apply his much bragged about skill-set … or, he could simply allow states and federal law enforcement to untether themselves from any restraint.

    • Potter

      I like the word “reverberate”, history reverberates, bounces off, vibrates. Pete, I can agree with much of what you say but this is overall too dark for me. Not that I am not concerned or in denial.

      I like this:

      What is underway within the GOP, and our right-wing population in general, is a retribution for wrongs and slights, real and imagined. It is a perfect example of bread and circuses. These people who have found mutual attachment with Trump, who have been fed a steady rhetorical diet of disillusionment and self-victimization, who have replaced reality with spectacle, these people have largely been exploited by conservative forces, and ignored or scourged by a liberal, corporate establishment.

      It was interesting that the football game was used in this OS discussion but I immediately thought of the obvious: the crowds gathering and cheering for our Presidential candidates, culminating these last few days with Sarah Palin endorsing Donald Trump. This trend, as you indicate, and it is worrisome, started awhile ago-maybe even before McCain picked her to be one heartbeat away and with the rise of the “Tea Party”. What about that “spoiler” guy from Texas awhile ago that wanted to “get under the hood”? Or Ralph Nader?

      Thank goodness for divided government, even grid-locked government. There is a difference, somewhat, between the parties and what could happen here from one election.

  • Cathryne

    Dear ROS-team,

    please consider including references to other podcasts, when such are available to learn more about a topic that you (can) mention only briefly. Joseph Tainter for example can be heard discussing the collapse of societies at http://omegataupodcast.net/2015/10/184-societal-complexity-and-collapse/

    A useful too for finding such references is audiosear.ch.

    Kind regards and many thanks for your podcast 🙂