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Asymmetric Humour

Why is it okay for the weak to make fun of the strong but not the other way around? I’ve heard of the saying that it’s okay to punch up, but never to punch down, but why? What is it about our culture that allows the ugly to joke about the pretty, the fat to insult the thin, the poor to lampoon the rich? In other words, why is humour asymmetrical?

The simple answer is that if you’re in a position of status and power, ridicule isn’t necessarily mean-spirited. The edge is taken off because at the end of the day, you’re still on top and a few jokes aren’t going to change that.

Western European culture and its derivatives have had a strain of thought that assumes that everyone has equal worth. If one of your basic premises is the equality of all people, then when faced with the reality of inequality, those at the bottom would need to be taken up and those at the top brought down to bring the world into balance. Thus if you feel this way, you would find it vaguely disgusting when the strong prey upon the weak and vaguely pleasing when the weak get their comeuppance on the strong.

This is something that’s been going on since ancient times, though the strain of thought was never as dominant as it is today. Whether it’s stories of the ugly yet quick witted slave Aesop getting one over on a dull and oblivious master, whether it’s Christianity’ assertion that all people are equal in the eyes of God or the egalitarian Germanic traditions that gave us Common Law, it manifests itself over and over in our culture.

Maybe this assumption of equality is something that’s somehow innate in people, but I’d be inclined to think not. There are many examples of societies in history where floating the idea that all people are equal would have gotten you laughed out of the room.

For instance, the very first account of a peasant weeping when it wasn’t a subject of ridicule happened in the Gospels, when the Apostle Peter was overwhelmed with regret over having denied knowing Jesus three times. This may have something to do with the fact that writing was, up to this time, the near exclusive preserve of the ruling elite and their records are the ones that get preserved. Still, history is replete with examples of people who clearly did not believe in equality. Imagine the response you’d get from a medieval Mongol or an ancient Spartan if you asked them what they thought about the basic equality of all people.

If we were to see how a Spartan might treat a Helot slave or a Mongol one of his subjects, we would call that bullying today, even if they were not physically abusive. These people were strong and their victims were weak and as their cultures believed that might makes right, making fun of underlings was just part of the natural order of the world. Because we see equality as a basic ideal, such attitudes become distasteful.

In the modern world, we see this yearning for equality in the political correctness movement. Its aims, at their base, are to promote equality by couching touchy subjects in scrupulously neutral terms. Encouraging people to use less scornful or insulting language regarding anyone in a position of weakness puts people on more equal footing within public conversation.

A side effect is that it encourages the asymmetric humour I pointed out.

When a Chris Rock (to use a famous example) pokes fun at white America, he gets a free pass because he is doing so from a position of cultural weakness. As an African American, he is part of an underclass that is still struggling to achieve social parity with the dominant culture. Were a white comedian to make similar comments regarding black culture however, that comedian would be a pariah because they would be speaking from a position of cultural strength.

The same applies for women making fun of men or the poor making fun of the rich – the strong are fair game. After all, they’re strong.

They can handle it.

Thoughts on Nero

I have just finished re-listening to all 179 glorious episodes of Mike Duncan’s amazing The History of Rome Podcast (not all in a single sitting – I’m not that crazy) and not only did it once again capture my imagination, trying to put myself into the shoes of these ancient people, but it also got me thinking that perhaps someday people will look back on us in the same way we look back on Rome.

The thing about the history of the era, and a point that Mike Duncan was always at great pains to point out, was how lumpy the record was. There were some periods for which we have quite good information, varied written sources and a lot of physical evidence with which to piece together the events and the world people lived in back then. Other periods however, regardless of how transformative they might have been, have infuriatingly scanty evidence. For the reigns of some emperors, for instance, we have but a single source or one that was written much later based on previous sources.

The problem with this is one of bias. Writers back then, and especially history writers, rarely wrote with even the slightest pretense of neutrality. Biographies especially tended to have an agenda, their aim being to teach the reader moral lessons or push a particular political view rather than relate the facts as they actually happened. The tough, charismatic men who became emperors became paragons of manly virtue or depraved villains depending on whether the author approved of them or not. Powerful women in those shockingly misogynistic times were invariably portrayed as virtuous matrons or as oversexed, overbearing harpies.

It puts us in a weird spot in terms of how to treat some historical figures.

Take Nero, for example. We know for instance that he died by committing suicide, friendless and abandoned by the people and Senate of Rome. That much makes a lot of sense and there’s little reason to dispute it. We also know that after his popularity took a sharp nosedive following the Great Fire of Rome, vicious (most likely untrue) rumours spread of his having started the fire deliberately. To take the heat off himself, so to speak, he blamed a widely disliked minority group for starting the blaze. These were the early Christians, weird impious atheists (yes, really – they were called this for denying the existence of the traditional Roman gods) whose secretive get-togethers apparently culminating in the eathing of human flesh and the drinking of blood. This started the first officially sanctioned persecution of Christians, which killed a number of prominent Christian leaders, including (traditionally) the Apostle Peter, who counted among Jesus’ original disciples.

That this treatment of the man who would later come to be seen as the first Bishop of Rome (i.e. the first Pope) came at his hands, it’s little wonder that Christian sources at the time came to portray Nero as being nothing short of the Antichrist. In fact, there’s reason to believe that the author of the book of Apocalypse/Revelations was referring to Nero and his persecution when writing down his visions of the Beast from the Sea. Nero’s name can even be equated to the infamous Number of the Beast, 666, in Jewish numerology. It is surely no coincidence that the Great Whore of Babylon was said to sit upon seven hills.

Suffice it to say that if you wanted an unbiased view of the man known to history as Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, you would not look to Christian sources.

Another source we have is Tacitus, a gifted historian who wrote his account of the reign of Nero decades after the fact. Having lived not only through Nero’s reign but also that of the hated Domitian, he seems to have been trying to condemn rulers whose paranoia culminated in widespread and arbitrary political executions. What he wrote about Nero’s reign seems to be mostly within the realm of the plausible, barring a few colourful anecdotes regarding incest with his mother and playing the lyre while Rome burned.

If you ignore these dramatic flourishes, the story that emerges is one of a pampered princeling who came to the throne at too young an age. As emperor, he was first an irresponsible layabout who allowed his mother and close advisors to call the shots as he played music and wrote poetry, but became a capricious despot as he broke free of their shackles and lived a life of depraved excess, spending recklessly, appointing favourites to important positions over men of merit and arbitrarily having people executed, either for their money or because they had been accused by someone in his inner circle. He seemed determined to alienate everyone and undermine his own reign at every turn. By the time the Great Fire of Rome happened, it was little wonder people were ready to believe that he’d had it lit deliberately.

Then we have his contemporary Suetonius, who seemingly cannot wait to relay to us all the salacious details of Nero’s depravity. No story is too shocking, no rumour too outrageous for Suetonius, who gives us a picture of a man gone insane with power and whose sexual habits make him out as no less than a monster. I won’t repeat the stories here, but sexual murders, castrations and public humiliations all feature in Suetonius, who spins a tale that disgusts as much as it fascinates. He seems to conflate the perversion of the emperor with the decadence and rot he sees in Roman society. In condemning Nero, he condemns the world and times he lives in, yearning for a simpler time when men were virtuous, tough and good, thinking nothing of themselves and given wholly over to public duty and manly pursuits.

Put together, these accounts give us an image of a cruelty and depth of sadistic evil that is practically inhuman. If you take everything said about the man at face value, you could almost believe Nero really was the Antichrist.

But is this an accurate picture?

Probably not.

One thing you have to remember when you’re reading ancient sources is that to accuse your enemies of sexual deviance was a tried and true rhetorical tactic. Roman senators openly accused one another of being perverts all the time. Accusing someone of sexual misdeeds called other parts of their character into question, because it seems that in the popular imagination, people were either righteous or they were morally defective, wholly good or wholly rotten. Somebody born with a disability or disfigurement was seen as having being punished by the gods for one crime or other, and conversely, someone who was handsome or lucky was smiled upon by the gods. Someone with abnormal sexual appetites had to have something else wrong with them. It was just common sense.

It therefore wasn’t enough to simply call your political enemies liars, frauds, scoundrels and thieves, you needed to accuse them of partaking in sexually abhorrent acts to give your accusations some punch. You needed to besmirch their good name among society and not leave any room for sympathy. In the cut-throat world of Roman law and politics you couldn’t just accuse your opponents, you needed to destroy them.

In fact, the tactic is so common, it even shows up in the Bible. In one of Paul’s letters to Greek-speaking Christians, Paul accuses his correspondents of having been sexual perverts before having converted. He does it, not because he necessarily believes that all the Christians in that city had partaken in the acts he described, but because he wanted to shame his readers into contrition, to recognise that by Jewish standards, the worldview they had once lived by was considered evil and to contrast that with the clean lives he was asking of them. Basically, he was saying “You’re not as good as you think you are” using a common rhetorical tactic of his day.

The takeaway from all of this is that Nero probably was an irresponsible, spendthrift, drunken, debauched and cruel ruler, but it was probably not as bad as advertised. Did he engage in a systematic persecution of an innocent minority and subject many innocent people to horrific and painful deaths? Yes. Did he rape a vestal virgin, seduce his own mother, marry a boy he tried to castrate and kick his pregnant wife to death? Probably not.

Just remember – Tacitus, Suetonius and Christian sources just really, really hated the guy. It makes me wonder what people will be saying about hated figures like Adolf Hitler 2000 years from now.

Categories: History, Society

A World without Saul

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A while ago, I was part of a conversation on one of my favourite speculative topics – time travel. The question asked was, if you had access to a time machine, what would you do with it?

One respondent, presumably an ardent atheist, responded that he would go back in time and kill Saul of Tarsus.

For those of you who don’t know, Saul of Tarsus is otherwise known as St Paul, and he was a critical figure in the development and spread of early Christianity. He was central in taking the beliefs of a small pocket of Jesus followers centred on Jerusalem to the greater Graeco-Roman world. The history of the Roman Empire, and indeed of the world, would be extremely different were it not for his actions.

Now, the sentiment being expressed is a common one, especially on the Internet. There are a lot of people out there who genuinely feel that many of the world’s problems can be traced back to dogmatic religious belief in general and Christianity in particular. This is especially true of the New Atheists, the most famous of whom include Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. There are echoes of Enlightenment-era thinkers in their words and they are strident, unrelenting and unabashed in their criticism of religion and elevation of reason, science and skepticism as the ideal basis of any worldview.

As for why atheists tend to be so vocal on the Internet, I can only speculate. My guess is that many of the more pugnacious atheists are so because they grew up or live in a religious environment or surrounded by believers. Some natural reactions to ubiquitous attitudes that are contrary to one’s own are anger or withdrawal, sometimes both. So, people withdraw to the Internet and vent their rage online.

It certainly doesn’t help that a common belief among religious people is that because an atheist does not draw their morality from an ultimate authority, that they are therefore lacking in a moral centre.

To this young man (I am guessing his age and gender), I told him that I doubted very much that he would like the result.

Northern and Eastern Germany and Scandinavia would still be mainly rural backwaters filled with rapey, bearded, violent raiders. England would likely be the same. Eastern Europe would have no real cities and the rest of Europe and the Levant would cower in fear of Hunnic/Slavic/Mongol/Turkic/Avar horsemen from the Steppe.

Mediterranean civilisation, if it weren’t overrun by invading barbarian hordes, would be much the same as it is now in terms of social mores… only with slightly looser attitudes on things like slavery, which lost favour in Europe very slowly, first with a distaste for the idea of Christians being slaves of non-Christians, then for Christians being slaves at all and finally for slavery entirely. The process took nearly two millennia.

You have to remember that Christianity, by the time it became the religion of the Empire, had essentially absorbed Graeco-Roman morality almost in its entirety and appended some conservative ideas governing sexuality and a few ideals surrounding charity, suffering and pacifism. None of Christianity’s moral attitudes were entirely alien to Graeco-Roman culture, but Christianity did do a lot to standardise them across the board.

Of Graeco-Roman attitudes adopted by early Christianity, one of the more interesting ones is the attitude toward women. The restrictions on a woman’s role in the church by the author of the Timothy letters (attributed to Paul but likely a 2nd century author), for instance, were the result of one Christian community’s attempt at fitting in to the greater Graeco-Roman society around them.

They tried to do this by combatting some of the competing attitudes prevalent in Christian communities at the time, exemplified in popular writings such as the Acts of Paul and Thecla, which included the notion that a woman could do significant things and was in many ways the equal to any man. The idea that a woman could do more than simply get married and pump out babies was so radical that a common pagan criticism of early Christianity was that it was anti-family-values.

Bear in mind that this dissenting attitude would not be endorsed by many modern feminists. It held that chastity was the greatest virtue and that complete and utter submission to God was the ideal life. It did, however, provide a vision for a woman to have a far greater role in controlling her own life and in her faith.

People seem to misunderstand (and mischaracterise) just how Greek early Christianity was after Paul. From its Platonic conceptions on the nature of God, the immortality of the soul (hotly contested in Jewish circles but not questioned in Christianity), the afterlife, the organisation of its hierarchy, to the morals its adherents lived by and the analytical and argumentative nature of its theological scholarship, it all derived from or was guided by existing Greek philosophical tradition. Far from being an alien implant that swept away or poisoned existing Graeco-Roman culture, it was existing Graeco-Roman culture that happened to import and then digest a bunch of Jewish/Eastern ideas.

This became truer as time went on and Christianity became unmoored from its Jewish roots. When Graeco-Roman Gentiles became the majority of Jesus followers, it was all over. Graeco-Roman Christians depicted God in mosaic and statuary artwork, ate pork, failed to circumcise their sons and generally kept their own ways almost from the beginning.

Even setting aside all that, you have the various crises that beset Europe in the 4th, 5th, 7th and 9th centuries (invasions and plagues, mostly) and the state’s inability to respond to them effectively, and you have the entire thing breaking apart or being absorbed by foreign powers without some pan-European organisation holding it all together, which is what the Medieval Church provided. Indeed, for a long time, with the breakdown of civil administration in Western Europe, the withering of the educational system and the advent of an illiterate warrior nobility, the Medieval Church was the only institution that had anyone who knew how to hold a pen in some areas, let alone how to do sums, build in stone or preserve history.

Without Christianity, there would likely be no Islam either, which would mean that there would be no sudden papyrus shortage in the 7th century (due to the Roman Empire’s loss of Egypt to the armies of Islam) that precipitated a lot of the knowledge loss and paper-reuse in Medieval Europe (people would scrape existing words off a page to reuse the paper). But then again, that’s counterbalanced by the fact that papyrus eventually rots and parchment doesn’t if you look after it properly. The great library in Constantinople had huge issues with thousand-year-old manuscripts rotting away before they could be preserved. With so many books and copying having to be done by hand, it was inevitable.

The bottom line, however, is that without Christianity and especially the Medieval Church, Western Europe would have eventually been overrun and broken up by barbarians and the whole region would have splintered into regional powers with no real commonalities or transmission of ideas or technology between them at all. There would be whole swaths of the continent today where the whole society wouldn’t even know how to read, let alone know what the Romans did or who Aristotle was.

The upshot to all this is that you’ve got a world where European civilisation, mostly centred around the Mediterranean, has a half-remembered, glorious past but where anything too far inland in the north is barbarian land where ruined cities and forts stand in silent testimony to what could have been. In this scenario, China is the world’s leading power and the scientific revolution may never have happened.

With Paul out of the picture, Christianity remains a tiny splinter group within Judaism and may have in fact died with the sack of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Without Christianity, what hope could there have been for a pan-European common identity or a pan-European common language after the collapse of the Western Empire? In the chaos that followed, what other forces could have spread ideas as far afield as Dublin, Oslo, Palermo and Constantinople?

I would argue none.

Defining the West

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This is one of those nebulous concepts that doesn’t really have a good definition and it changes a great deal depending on who you’re talking to. When people talk about “The West”, “Western Civilisation” or “Western Countries” everyone has an idea in their head of what they mean, but how it’s understood is hardly ever made explicit.

There are several ways you can define The West – geographically, culturally, politically, historically and racially, just to name a few. In this post I will examine the history of the term “Western Civilisation” and show that it really just refers to whatever people are pointing at.

The West, as we know it (so to speak) probably has its earliest beginnings as a concept during the semi-mythical days of the Trojan War. This happened some time after the Achaeans (think of them as proto-Greeks) started to build their empire.

Their civilisation owed a lot to the Minoan and Egyptian civilisations that came before them and at this time, they were living in what, to the advanced societies in Crete, Africa and Mesopotamia, was a wild backwater. They were great warriors, proud and strong, but had little to contribute to the knowledge that civilisation had amassed. They were importers rather than exporters of knowledge. Still, their star was on the rise.

To their east, on the coast of what is now Turkey, lay the rich and powerful city of Troy, a city that over the years fell in and out of the Hittite Empire that controlled most of the area. They were the biggest rivals that the ascendant Achaeans had to deal with, controlling the lucrative trade between the Achaean homeland and the rich civilisations to the east.

The Achaeans and the Trojans weren’t alien societies at the time of the Trojan war, not by any means. Thanks to trade, they had much if the same technology, they traded, intermarried and even spoke related languages. Under any other circumstances, they might have been friends.

But it was not to be. The Trojans had something the Achaeans wanted and war was, quite frankly, inevitable. Whether it started over a bit of bride stealing or for some other, less romantic excuse, it was always going to come to conflict and Troy, as we know, lost.

Regardless of the truth of what happened, the Trojan war became legendary among the Achaeans and all their literal and cultural descendants, to the point where later Greeks and Romans would date the start of world history (at least in the West) to this one event. Later Greeks could all claim kinship thanks to their (mostly) common language, their common gods and their ancestor’s common participation in this war.

It was kind of a big deal.

What did this mean for the concept of East and West? It mightn’t have meant a lot at the time the war was fought, but later poets, writers and thinkers would make a lot of Troy and its people being Eastern, exotic and different. Its king, Priam, would be painted as an autocratic potentate similar to those of the Mesopotamian cities instead of what he probably was.

In these stories, regardless of what the Achaeans and Trojans may have had in common, the Trojans were made into Easterners and to be Eastern meant to be an other.

The later invasions of Greece by the Persians and all the famous battles that took place during that time, Marathon, Thermopylae et al only confirmed this in the minds of the Achaeans, and later, the Greeks. We are the West, they thought. We are different.

Alexander the Great muddied the waters a little by spreading Greek culture into the East, including into what are now Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Egypt. In some places, this helenisation may have been superficial or tentative at best, as it was in Egypt and Judea, but it did blur the line enough that, for instance, in later Roman times and right up until the Islamic invasions in the Middle Ages, Anatolia (modern day Turkey) had a very definite Greek character. Despite these places being situated on the Asian continent like Troy, did this make them part of the West?

The next stage shoots forward to the Roman Empire, after the emperor Augustus took the reins of power. From this point until more than six centuries later. The eastern-most Mediterranean became Roman territory, although since the lingua franca remained Attic Greek, the process of helenisation continued apace. Rome and Persia to the East had a more-or-less stable border, somewhere to the east of Syria/Lebanon/Israel, with Armenia in the north providing a buffer state.

The fall of the Western Roman Empire, though unfortunate from the point of view of the Roman emperor over in Constantinople, was hardly a blip in terms of how East and West were viewed. In Italy, Spain, Gaul and North Africa, people were now ruled by barbarian kings, but they still thought of themselves as Romans. In fact, some of these barbarian kings even kept up a pretense of ruling in the Roman emperor’s name, with coinage used in these areas bearing said emperor’s image.

Over the previous five or six centuries, Greek and Roman culture fused together into one great whole. Yes, on one end of the Mediterranean, this culture was expressed in Latin and on the other in Greek, but the links between them were deep and abiding, so much so that you had Greek-speaking emperors in Constantinople ruling over a domain that at various times didn’t actually include Rome.

None of this stopped them from thinking of themselves as Roman.

To be Roman came to mean to be civilised, to be Christian, to be of the West, to be of Europe. It was a state of mind, a culture and you could be Roman without having ever set foot in Italy. Just because your rulers happened to be barbarians didn’t change this ingrained assumption.

The Islamic invasions and the genesis of what we now think of as the Arab world changed all that, however. Where previous conquerors would come in, change a few things before being subsumed in the culture of the conquered peoples, the armies of Islam were different, acted differently. Far from being business as usual with a change of management, they remade society in the conquered territories from the ground up.

New cities sprang up where none had been before, surrounding the barracks of the conquerors. The residents of the conquered lands, in former Parthian territories as much as in Roman, they were ignored and their home cities allowed to wither in favour of the new towns. Cairo and Baghdad taking over from Alexandria and Ctesiphon respectively.

The big difference, however, was the shift in the centre of gravity, from Rome and Constantinople to Damascus, from Latin or Greek to Arabic, from Christianity to Islam. Egypt, Syria, Israel, Lebanon, Egypt and North Africa, the richest parts of the Roman Empire, all fell away and in many ways ceased to be a part of the West, as they had been for so long. Their transformation was so complete that nowadays, nobody ever thinks of (say) Lybia as being part of the West.

Meanwhile, much further west, the Franks, having become as romanised as was possible without becoming Gauls themselves, had made it their mission to do for Christianity in Germany what the armies of the Caliph were doing in the Middle East, Africa and Spain – spread their faith by the sword.

The christianisation of what is now Germany, and later, of Poland, Scandinavia and Anglo-Saxon Britain spread Graeco-Roman culture (via Christianity), and, in a myriad of ways, the West as a concept, northward. With the loss of the south and east Mediterranean parts of their world, a dark age had come to the West, and rebuilding would mean a shift in focus from Constantinople to the north, one that continues to this day.

The West was no longer synonymous with being Roman, but with being Christian.

The Crusades were an attempt to restore what had been lost all those centuries before. Initially, the crusaders even had some successes in lands their ancestors might have felt at home in, but at this point, the transformation was complete and they would never be anything but foreigners in a foreign land. The dream of a restored Christendom was over and no amount of military adventure would ever bring it back.

At this point in our story, most of the Spanish peninsula had also fallen under Muslim rule, with the Moors creating the medieval principality of Al-Andalus. The same process of arabisation that took place elsewhere was taking place here, with a local Spanish population steadily adopting Arabic language, script, dress, customs and, of course, Islam. Here though, northern Spanish Christian kingdoms pushed inexorably south, into Moorish territory, a little more each generation.

It would, all told, take eight hundred years to fully expel the Moors from Spain. The land they left behind, however, was much changed. Not just Roman, not Vandal, not Moorish or even Northern Spanish, but a fusion of them all. Spain had been Moorish land for as long as it had ever been Roman, and its new masters dealt with the aftermath as conquerors, not liberators.

On the other end of the Mediterranean, the Ottoman Empire, successor state to the caliphates, was making incredible inroads into the Balkans, now the heart of the Eastern Roman Empire. Anatolia was in Turkish hands, where it would remain to this day, and most of Greece was under Ottoman control.

Was Greece still part of the West? Were the Balkans? Politically, certainly not. Culturally, you could make an argument about the general populace, though this gets murkier as time goes on. At this point, the last bastion and refuge of the West as it had been was the New Rome, the jewel in the crown, Constantinople.

Much weakened and surrounded on all sides, it alone had survived of the once mighty Roman Empire. Then, in 1453, the unthinkable happened and, following a barrage by a mighty cannon, the Theodosian walls fell and the city was taken by storm. What were left of the city’s treasures that hadn’t been carried off by refugees, by the Venetians two centuries before or destroyed by war, were now Ottoman treasures. Constantinople was gone forever and from its ashes rose Istanbul.

At the moment all this was going on, a two year old boy from Genoa in Northern Italy would have been running around, getting into trouble, blissfully unaware that anything unusual or momentous was going on 1600 km (~1000 mi) away. This boy of course, would one day travel much further afield than that, and in doing so, change the world forever. We know that boy today by the name of Christopher Columbus.

At the time of Columbus’ voyage, the Western European powers, unable to make any headway against the Ottomans, or against each other, had but one avenue for expansion: trade. This of course, meant exploration by sea.

The Conquista and the colonisation of the Americas by the Western European powers of the time is a big topic and I’ll only glance over it here. Suffice it to say, however, that the transformation that took place in the Americas was as effective as those perpetrated by Alexander the Great, by Charlemagne or by Mohammed. Long established societies were turned upside down and foreign languages and cultures were transplanted wholesale onto the conquered people by colonists.

In the Americas, Western Civilisation found fertile ground. Today, European-derived cultures and languages dominate the two continents. The people of the Americas speak to one another in Spanish, in English, in Portuguese and in French. What is left of native languages and culture are remnants in place names, customs and loan words and native speakers of Mayan languages, Nahuatl languages, Quecha, Navajo and a host of others are but a tiny minority.

Today, many wouldn’t consider the countries south of the US/Mexico border to be Western at all, perhaps due to a conflation of “Western” with developed, prosperous or majority ethnically-European, but these places are as Western as Spain and Portugal, Britain or France. In their history, their governmental forms, in their cultures, in their languages, their religion and their customs, they at the end of the great thread that stretches all the way back to Achaea and the Trojan war.

Elsewhere, this same process met with mixed results, either as a result of not enough time passing for these changes to take effect, because the colonists were too few in number to make a dent or because said colonists refused to mix with the locals. India, Indonesia, the Philippines and all of colonial Africa fall into this category. In spite of being the subjects of takeover and colonisation, they managed to retain their own character. Other places, such as Australia and New Zealand, were almost completely westernised, with nobody questioning their status as such today.

Even in Europe, countries that fall into the orbit of Russia tend not to be included in the mental map of the West. Poland, for instance, despite neighbouring with Germany, appears to be neglected in this reckoning. What about Albania, Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia and Montenegro? These countries lie between Italy and Greece, which should qualify them as Western as either, but as the state they broke away from, Yugoslavia, was both communist during the Cold War and independent of the USSR, they seem to represent the lacy fringe of the Iron Curtain and “don’t count”.

Today, when we think of the “West”, we think of Western Europe, the UK and most of the former British Empire, notably excluding India, Zimbabwe and South Africa. Not included are Latin America, most of Eastern Europe (excluding Greece) and former colonial subjects of the Western powers in Africa and Asia or the Caribbean. Is this accurate? Is this fair? Does it even make sense?

I would argue not.

What if the Roman Empire Never Fell?

It is a common enough refrain, especially among those who would look at out modern world and decry that our progress is not enough, that were it not for the fall of the Empire (and the coming of the Dark Ages), we would have full colonies on Mars by now. Certainly, the loss of much metallurgical, engineering, building, historical and agricultural expertise following the fall of the Western Roman Empire was drastic and impacted on the inhabitants of Western Europe in a negative way and the lack of political unity created war-torn, unstable conditions that would be unimaginable today.

With that said, let us examine what the consequences would be of a resurgent Roman Empire, one that maintained its control over Western Europe and held it together, much as Eastern Asia has been held together by China for nearly four millennia.

The main issue I want to address would be technological and scientific. While it would be incorrect to call what the Greeks and Romans did science, they made a number of breakthroughs, mathematically and engineering-wise that would later form the basis of the scientific revolution of the Renaissance.  There are those that would argue that the potential material progress that 1500 years of uninterrupted development would bring you would be astounding. Enough to put us in outer space a thousand years ago, surely, and certainly further than where we are now.

But is that really true?

The trouble with all this is that we can’t just run the clock back, tweak a few things and let it go again to see the results. Not only would that violate a lot of ethical precepts, it is also currently impossible. What we can do, however, is to look at an analogous civilisation that encompassed the same scope in power, wealth and influence as Rome but did survive into the Modern Age – China.

Imperial China and Imperial Rome were more or less contemporaneous, even if China itself is a good deal older. You could make the argument that Rome at its foundation was a continuation of earlier Greek and Latin society, even if Roman ethnic identity was, relatively speaking, new. At any rate, the unification of Italy under Rome and the unification of China under the Qin dynasty happened more or less at around the same time and their periods of greatest territorial expansion also occurred on similar timeframes.

What then, did over two millennia of cultural continuity and (relative) stability do for the Chinese? Well, it made them the richest, most powerful, most technologically and culturally accomplished state in world history, right up until the Renaissance. That’s an extra thousand years’ worth of uninterrupted progress the Chinese had over the Romans.

During those thousand years, Chinese inventors had birthed into the world gunpowder, the printing press, paper currency and compasses, among a slew of other technologies and areas of knowledge that are much more mundane, yet crucial to the building, mining and pottery industries. Even the principles of mechanical clockwork were known to Chinese scholars and craftsmen.

What had pointedly not happened, however, was an industrial revolution. Things instead stayed more-or-less stable, with occasional hiccups and forays into these areas at the behest of various emperors.  Unfortunately, any golden ages of learning and progress to be had came and went at the whim of the man sitting atop the throne.  If a particular emperor was interested in exploration and learning, much progress was made under his patronage.  If his successor wasn’t so much inclined to scholarly pursuits, well, things stagnated.

The big change to this pattern and the reason we all grow up expecting change and progress to be an inevitable part of everyday life is because we were born a few centuries after the Industrial Revolution.  Once technology was taken out of the hands of the hereditary members of guilds and cloistered scholars and put into the hands of the mercantile classes, competition and a cash economy led to an explosion in technological innovation that has continued unabated to this day.

When wondering why this happened (or didn’t happen) we need to examine a myriad of facets, too numerous to get into fully without writing a whole book on the subject, each interacting in various ways. A major aspect was the mobility of the workforce.  By killing off much of the population and causing labour shortages, the Black Death in the 14th century had revolutionised European labour relations such that serfdom as it had existed was dead. Thanks to the haphazard forms of medieval government, bargaining was able to take place at a more or less local level. Arguments with your local landlord or baron would go thusly:

“I want more pay.”

“Well, you can’t have it.”

“Fine.  I’ll just go over to the neighbouring landlord. He’s offering me more money and better rights. Good luck finding someone to plow that field for you!”

Because each lord was then in competition with each other for the few workers who were still alive and Western European central authority was generally weak, there wasn’t all that much that could be done other than for each lord to relent and allow the peasants more freedom.  Various kingdoms even passed laws to restrict the movement of peasants off the land with varying degrees of success.  In Western Europe, as each king was less a sovereign and more just the nominal leader of a gaggle of squabbling minor warlords, little could be done to stem the tide.

Workers now had more rights, could come and go as they pleased and had the option of changing jobs and seeking higher wages for the first time in nearly a thousand years. This was crucial to the industrial revolution because it allowed people the legal freedom to move to the cities to find work en masse when industrialisation happened.  When the population recovered, these legal freedoms remained in place and the workforce surplus could then be funneled into the burgeoning industrial sector, which then ramped up the engine of technological progress at an exponential rate.

Critically though, this did not happen everywhere.  In China and even in what remained of the Roman Empire, a strong central authority was able to act as a stabilising force against the winds of change brought on by the Black Death and thus, the workforce remained much as it had – tied to the industries of its forbears. In Imperial Rome, just as in Medieval Europe, a man was required by law to undertake the same occupation as his father had.  This started out as an attempt by the emperor to maintain the status quo as much as possible, to make taxation simpler for his bureaucracy to assess, to protect vital industries in key provinces and to ensure that the army always had recruits.

Essentially, the continued reign of the Caesars would have meant that the industrial revolution could never have taken place.  Areas within the Empire rendered empty by plagues would be repopulated by imperial edict and, as had been imperial policy during Late Antiquity, people from outside the borders of the Empire would be invited to settle in the regions suffering the most.  What little bargaining power an English peasant farmer could glean after an outbreak of the Black Death would then be offset by the forced relocation of thousands of Norweigan, German or Swedish immigrants brought in to the local county on the orders of the man who wore the purple.

Without the conditions that allowed the Industrial Revolution to happen, Western Europe would today be part of a sprawling empire built on the backs of a vast population of peasants ruled by a small cabal of wealthy aristocratic landowners and their imperial masters.  Yes, the cities would be grander than those in pre-industrial China or Medieval Europe, having aqueducts, sewers, and indoor plumbing in most homes, but the level of development would be far behind what it is today, perhaps something akin to 17th century Europe.  The fastest mode of transportation would be a horse and the time it took to send a message from one end of the Empire to the other would be counted in weeks, not milliseconds.  Guns, cannon and the printing press would still be around, introduced to the Empire after long delay from their Chinese roots and a rudimentary form of science might be extant, but without mass industrialisation, iPhones and rocket ships would be absent from the scene.

The Americas and Australia may have remained uncolonised by Europeans and developed in isolation or they may have been contacted instead by Arab or Chinese adventurers.  Instead of churches at the centre of every Latin American town, there might have been mosques instead as part of a Pan-American Caliphate.  Or, if first contact with Eurasia had been limited only to trade with China, the Aztec Empire may have gained horses or modern weaponry and in so doing change the geopolitical landscape of the Americas forever.  An imperial equivalent to Hernan Cortes or Francisco Pizarro would then be chased back to his ships by thousands of horsemen wielding the latest in Chinese-made guns and supported by Chinese-derived cannon.  Australia may still be majority Aboriginal or it could have become a Chinese or Arab colony.  Africa might be very different, with many areas throughout the interior of the continent retaining their traditional character and with a variety of majority Muslim nations to the north and west, though some of these may have been re-christianised by later emperors.

The English language would not exist, replaced instead with a highly modified derivative of Vulgar Latin.  It would probably be similar in many ways to modern Italian, though with different regional accents, and its speakers would call it, without caveats or qualifiers, Latin.  However, as is the case with Middle English and Old English, modern speakers would only be able to understand the words of Virgil and Cicero with considerable difficulty and perhaps some training.

Protestantism would likely not exist either, in its place a near-universal adherence to the State Church of the Roman Empire (the split between Roman Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity having never taken place) with pockets of Arianism, Nestorianism or some other offshoot in different places at the margins of the Empire.  The State Church would, of course, be subject to the authority of the Emperor and it would be he who would likely have the final say on matters of faith, having retained in his own person the title of Pontifex Maximus, so there would be no Pope.  Society at large would probably still be very religious and the Middle East, especially Jerusalem, would be a bone of contention between Rome and whatever Muslim empire ruled the region.

The rise of Islam could probably not be stopped by the Roman Empire, even with its western half intact, though its hold on places like Spain, and much of North Africa, would have been a lot less secure with a united Western Empire as an adversary, so Morocco and Libya might today be majority Christian nations and Spain would have far less interesting architecture.  The Eastern Empire may have held on to Constantinople and Turkey as we know it today may not exist (or exist, but in a completely different place), in its place the easternmost extent of the Roman Empire that speaks either our hypothetical Modern Vulgar Latin or some form of Modern Greek.  The Balkans and Eastern Europe both would have a much more Greek character even than today.

In the end, it is my belief that the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution that followed were unique events in human history that were far from inevitable.  The first birthed Science into the world as a field of study separate to things like philosophy, mathematics or rhetoric and the second accelerated the change that might have come of it.  I very much doubt that having an emperor still sitting on the throne in Rome, Ravenna, Milan or Constantinople could have brought it about.  Certainly, having an emperor sitting on the throne in China all that time did not.