“The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.” And we all know that America is Rome. Late Rome.
But which late Rome? The late Republic? Or the late Empire? Do we deserve an Augustus? Or are we just waiting for our Alaric?
Tonight I thought we’d hear from one of the leading experts on the subject. That’s right—let’s give a big hand to Aurelius Prudentius Clemens (no relation to Sam). Courtesy of our capable medium, Sister M. Clement Eagan, C.C.V.I. (Incarnate Word College, San Antonio, TX, 1965), we’ll speak with Prudentius live and in blank verse—from the very special year 403.
Prudentius? Can you hear me? We know you’re very concerned about Symmachus’ controversial new proposal to restore the Altar of Victory, which many feel would be a big step backward for the Roman world. Can you share some perspectives on the role of conflict and migration in Rome’s historical leadership of the international community?
I see what moves you in these instances Of ancient gallantry: you say the world On land and sea was conquered, you retrace The thousands of triumphant victories And heavy spoils borne through the midst of Rome. Would you, O Roman, have me tell the cause Of your success and of the high renown That has impressed your yoke upon the world?
God willed to join the peoples and the realms Of different languages and hostile cults Under the same empire and make all men Accept the bonds of one harmonious rule, So that religion might unite all hearts; For there can be no union worthy of Christ Unless one spirit reigns throughout the earth. Concord alone knows God, alone it pays Due homage to the Father: harmony Among men wins His blessings for the world, Discord drives Him away, war saddens Him, Peace pleases Him, good will possesses Him. In all lands bounded by the western sea And brightened by Aurora’s shining dawn, Bellona was inflaming all mankind And arming savage hands for mortal wounds.
To curb this madness, God has everywhere Taught nations to accept the selfsame laws And Romans to become—all by the Rhine And Danube washed, by Tagus’ golden flood, The great Ebro and Hesperia’s horned stream, The Ganges and warm Nile with seven mouths, He bound them by a common law and name And brought them into bonds of brotherhood. In all the world they live as citizens Within their native city’s sheltering walls, United round the same ancestral hearth. Tribes far apart and sundered by the sea Are brought together through appeals and trials In common courts, through their commerce and trades In crowded marts, through intermarriage With those of other climes; for many bloods Are intermingled in a single race.
Thanks, Prudentius! As we know, tolerance has always been a core Roman value. Or has it? As I think Symmachus and many other conservatives would argue, Rome became mistress of the world through the valor of her arms and the virtue of her unsullied blood.
Of course, that was before the waters of the Orontes emptied themselves into the Tiber, rejuvenating our Empire with vibrant diversity and cheap chalupas. But doesn’t it seem a little risky to abandon the last symbols of this ancient military tradition?
If I may take the part of Rome, the words I speak now in her name befit her more. Since she disdains to mourn her banished gods, To say the aegis fought for her in war And that she faints beneath the weight of years, She hails her princes in a joyful voice: ’I greet you, famous leaders, noble sons Of an unconquered emperor under whom I shed old age and saw my silver hair Turn gold again: time blights all mortal things, But length of days has given me new life, And I have learned to have no fear of death. At last my years are shown due reverence; I merit the name of mistress of the world, When now an olive spray my helmet crowns, And verdant garlands veil my grim sword-belt, While, armed, I worship God without bloodshed.
Dark Jupiter led me on to crime, alas, And I profaned my sword, inured to war, With holy blood of martyrs slain by me. Nero, inspired by him, his mother killed, Then drank the Apostles’ blood, soiled my fair name With blood of saints and marked me with his crimes… Your reign alone has cleansed me of this guilt. My life is holy now, once impious Through Jove, I must confess. What cruelty Did he not teach, what good did he demand? Alarmed at seeing praise of Christ take root, He burned with wrath and stained the world with blood.
Some dare to blame us for disastrous wars, Since we have spurned the altars of the gods, And say that Hannibal was driven back By Mars and Jupiter from the Colline Gate, That from the Capitol Senones fled Because the gods fought on the rock above! Let those who harp upon our past defeats And ancient woes note that in your regime I suffer no such ills. No savage foe Knocks at my gates, no strange barbarian Roams through my captured streets and carries off My youth in bondage far beyond the Alps.
Thanks, Prudentius. You’re confident, then, about the military situation on the Gothic frontier. We’ve had some issues there, of course, but Stilicho does seem to have matters well in hand. And I must say, it’s a remarkable testament to Rome’s Christian tolerance that for the first time in her long history she’s chosen a magister militum who’s openly proud of his Vandal heritage.
But what about economics and climate change? Symmachus claims that we’ve seen an unprecedented string of droughts and famines since Rome abandoned her old gods. These are unproven allegations, of course. Still, how do you react?
Does the dry bed drink up the stream midway, Or sudden crevice swallow up the flood And keep the tide from covering furrowed lands And spreading over Egypt’s arid plains, Softening the clods with penetrating surge, So that the corn may wave on ample fields And clothe them thickly with the heavy ears? See whether African farmers cease to load Their ships with grain and send their stacks of wheat To Tiber’s mouth to feed the multitude, Or Leontinian tillers of the soil Stop launching grain cargoes from Lilybaeum, Or fleets that bring Sardinian stores to burst The granaries of Rome no longer sail. Do Carthaginian yeomen heap their boards With woodland pears, Sicilians feed on roots, Sardinians furnish acorns from their oaks And stony cornels form the food of Rome?
Who now comes hungry to the circus shows? What mill is silent on Janiculum? What great provisions every province brings, What harvests from the earth’s rich bosoms flow Is shown by bread you give your people, Rome, Which feeds the sloth of such great multitudes.
Wow! Well, frankly, I may be biased, but I think that’s a pretty eloquent testament to Rome’s financial strength, and ought to come as a big relief to some of our audience who may have been misled by conspiracy theories that “the EBT cards will run out.” How does a card run out? It’s a card, people, not a bag of gold solidi.
And that’s about all the time we have today. For more context, see Peter Frost.