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012_ Interview: an unwritten constitution

24 November, 2020 - 6 min read

012_ Interview: an unwritten constitution

Thank you for letting this episode of _bandwidth: coast to coast invade your cerebellum.

I spend more time than most, reading and pondering the Romans. In my college years, I focused more on the republic, particularly the connection the founding fathers had with that ancient Republic.

But for the most part, my studies centered around the tragedy of the Republic, famously marked by the stabbing of Julius Cesar and the immortal words, “et tu brute?”

Cesar, came up at a time when ambition was the currency for glory. The force of the civilization was so grand, one had to create their immortality, as even the resulting civil wars didn’t shake it’s hold.

Cesar, ever the ambitious Roman, constantly pulled his losses and wins, again and again in a rolling game of double or nothing.

He created alliances with other self interested Romans to advance their collective interests, played into their own vanity in the case of Pompey the Great, or greed in Crassus the Rich. Or manufacturing a genocide of the Galic people to become a legend.

All done with a skillful mind playing all levels of Roman culture, society writ large; military, low ranking public, rich and political elite.

To be quite honest, I took for granted how this type of individual could emerge from such a time and place. I glazed over how Cesar could have landed himself in such a situation, as to take the helm of the civilization who made the Mediterranean sea a Roman lake.

Following this conversation, I won’t be taking for granted the culture in which someone existed, in a means of who and how they became.

By the time Rome’s republic crescendo-ed and became the empire, the symphony of the Republic had already transformed a band of misfits in Central Italy, into a cosmopolitan civilization in control all of the peninsula, North Africa, Greece, and stood as the most important presence in all lands they bordered.

How was it, that a civilization of subsistence farmers living on small plots of land, with a part-time conscripted military and a democracy in an age of blunt edges and monarchs, became a dominant force?

Furthermore, what wisdom does this ancient world, run off the sinew of sapiens and steeds, have for our world of electrons and silicone?

In 1787, a conspiracy of American’s met in a Philadelphia State house to create a new government. Skipping over a lot of important events and analysis, a group of men walked out with a document framing a new state for the geography. “A republic, if we can keep it.”

Here’s something I’ve been thinking about pretty consistently since this episode, how much of that document was not enumerated from the quill of James Madison, but within the daily lives, raising of children, ethical standards, praise and shame of those within the territory?

In other words, how much of the constitution was unwritten by the culture within?

For ancient Rome, the very fabric of their Republic, carried on inside the life of the family, and how that reverberated up into the state.

Or quoting my guest, “In Rome, family history and honor mattered more to the functioning of the state, than in most other places in the ancient world.”

For a Roman born during the Republic, they would have grown up praising their direct ancestors and the feats they achieved for the glory and defense of the family or Rome.

If they were a male, they would have been raised to live a life as a farmer, with many of their daily tasks translating directly to war, then again those tasks learned in war translating to public service.

This type of culture created quite the breeding ground for exceptional innovation in daily life and conquest. It tied families to one another, the land they lived on and the community it was all within.

Legions of soldiers drawn from farming communities, meant those fighting had intimate ties to what they were fighting to defend, or later fighting to enrich with glory and coin.

These legions thought of their allegiances as to their family, community, then Rome. When I read that in my guest’s book, it reminded me of “Unit, Core, God Country.” from A Few Good Men.

Soldiers consisting of citizens, instead of dominions or mercenaries as was typical then, created push back on what they were willing to fight for, but also increased the number of people willing to fight when necessary.

Corruption and nepotism existed, of. course., but looking left and right at the time, Romans gained leadership from capability and timing, not from lineage. The republic was able to survive and thrive because it created an ability for exceptional individuals to rise and defeat the situation at hand.

Even when that individual is Gaius Julius Caesar and the situation is an opportunity to transform the very republic into an entirely different entity. Or his later nephew Octavian, the opportunity to cast the change in cement.

Roman life, death, memory and value, along with all those petty little bureaucratic means of government, existed first and most importantly, within the daily lives of people, how they choose to spend their time and what they choose to value. Not, through the force of those petty bureaucratic means.

The average Roman in the Republic, would be intimately tied to the land they lived on, not only from the worship of their ancestry, but the very way they lived their lives.

Here’s something to take away, how different would our present moment be, if our citizenry was tied more tied to the land we lived on?

Would we better understand and be able to articulate the effects of a changing air chemistry, or the increased difficulties in managing invasive species or loss of what’s spent eons evolving to become better and better able to live in this very spot?

How would this tie to the land change the urgency in our politicians and what policies they would promote?

Perhaps, a lot more has to do with an unwritten constitution of the United States, and how that’s changed over time as we’ve changed along with it.

I agreed with the honorable Feliepe Fernandez-Armesto in episode 008 of the series, when he proposed a bet with me, that in 200 years, there’s likely not to be an author more studied for those interested in Rome than Gibbon and his Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Well, I made it before knowing my guest today and I think I’m going to take him up on it. After having read his work and spoken with him, my guest very well could best Gibbon, if not in the breadth of the Civilization, in depth and perspective.

Now, without any more of my thoughts preceding the main event, here’s my interview with the author of the gripping and illuminating book Killing for the Republic, which I really cannot recommend enough, and associate professor at the King’s College, Steele Brand.

Enjoy!

-J.R.

This was an excerpt from the intro essay to _bandwidth: coast to coast

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