A Warning from a Culture of Death
I could not help but be awestruck by the titanic Roman Colosseum. A brooding stone hulk, it dominates the Roman horizon. It is a wonder even today, almost two thousand years after its construction. A visitor would do well to pause here, at this vast, dead ruin, and consider the end of societies.
We hear much said today about ethics. A class in ethics training is required at the United States Naval Academy. Captains of industry and State Governors are removed for questionable ethics. American civil servants must sign ethics statements. Yet, the fabric of our nation continues to unravel. Why? Such thoughts crossed my mind as I looked out over the Colosseum’s broken chambers, which once held fierce animals and their human victims. How did Rome, which once civilized the earth, come to such an end? That whole society, represented by this giant edifice, is gone. I wondered why.
The Roman society which spread throughout the world idealized character. They valued and practiced virtues known even then as peculiar to Rome.
In an essay written about 98 BC, a Palestinian Jew honored Roman virtues:
“Romans were brave, loyal to their allies, forthright, and without deception. Roman justice was clear and swift. Yet with all this, none of them wore purple or put on a crown as a display of grandeur. They made themselves a Senate house … deliberating on all that concerned the people and their well being … and there was no envy or jealousy among them.”
Thus a foreigner described republican Rome.
It was a coherent society. Each citizen was honor-bound to do his duties of public service and civil defense. Each tried to behave in the Roman character: to strive for the ideal of the pragmatic, fair and well-balanced citizen. Cincinnatus, a farmer, was called to join his fellow citizens as a soldier to defend Rome from invasion. He left his plow, served and returned, his duty done. The American Minutemen of our Revolutionary War used him as their model of the citizen-soldier. Paul of Tarsus, a Roman citizen, demanded his right to Roman justice in preference to the arbitrariness of other lands. There was no need to teach a Roman duty, honor and country, for such ethical concepts were his everyday life. It was when these common beliefs failed, that Rome did too.
Two Roman legions were annihilated to a man by barbarians in distant, trackless Teutoberg Forest, in what is now Germany. With this disaster, a germ of trouble began. Truths, which inspired Romans to act beyond the call of duty itself, began to fade. Service to the country was no longer considered necessary for pampered, wealthy Roman youth. Rather, the army came to consist of hired foreigners, who worked for pay, not the service of Rome. Virtues which once bound society together became laughable to cynical politicians and profane writers. Even the Republic disappeared and decadent emperors appeared. Virtue was no longer pursued. In its place was substituted the pursuit of pleasure.
The Colosseum was built to satisfy demands for ever more bizarre entertainments. When blood spectacles of gladiators and mass combat no longer thrilled, beasts devouring humans did. Soon, decadent, jaded Romans demanded more. Women were raped by animals. Young slaves were drowned in an artificial lake. Performers were murdered by surprise as they acted. Even whole populations of defenseless Christians and Jews were massacred by perverse methods of crucifixion to amuse Rome. Romans could no longer be shocked.
Salvian, a wise observer, mourned the death of the old ways as he said of his countrymen:
“… something still remained to them of the their property, but nothing of their character. They reclined at feasts, forgetful of their honor, forgetting justice, forgetting their faith and the name they bore. If my human frailty permitted, I should wish to shout beyond my strength, to make my voice ring through the whole world:
Be ashamed, ye Roman people everywhere, be ashamed of the lives you lead. Let no one think or persuade himself otherwise – it is our vicious lives alone that have conquered us.”
The Colosseum, that vast memorial to folly, stands forever so that what brought Rome down can never be hidden. It proves that a good society survives only by seeking a higher ethic.
Where once Rome was a model of virtue that the world admired, it had become a culture of death. In the quiet of the great Colosseum, I could imagine the whisper of Fate warning us today. I believe we must listen to history.
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