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What is Rome for?

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Last night Hugh and I were talking, amongst other things, about hierarchies and their impact on individual’s autonomy or sovereignty as he calls it. And, predictably, how the internet has changed what has been long accepted as the balance of power between the individual and institutions. These things never far from my mind, a few thoughts struck me as I watched a couple of episodes of the series Rome.

  • Vorenus, the prefect of 13th legion runs into Pompey Magnus who is fleeing with his family to Egypt. He decides to let him go after Pompey begs for mercy for his wife and children. Upon return to the camp, he explains to Caesar that he didn’t feel the need to apprehend Pompey as he was abandoned, weak and dirty and bring him to punishment. Caesar gets angry and says “Remember I am the only one who dispenses mercy around here“.
  • Pompey Magnus is treacherously assassinated by a Roman soldier who serves an Egyptian master as he moors on the Egyptian beach and his head offered to Caesar as a welcoming gift. To the Egyptian’s shock, Caesar is appalled and storms out in anger at their barbarism and Pompey undignified death. (Talk about cultural clash.) When they protest: But he was your enemy? He angrily replies: He was a consul of Rome!
  • Vorenus is instructed by Caesar to find and free Cleopatra. He takes the opportunity to apologise for his ‘lapse of judgement’ regarding capturing Pompey. He says, if only I did my duty
  • Rome

    These are examples of how power, rules and resulting hierarchies create environments where individuals have no real autonomy by default. In the first one, Vorenus has his ability to make moral decisions (i.e. based on what he considers right and wrong) denied to him. In the second, Caesar’s outrage at the death of his enemy is not about Pompey but about the disrespect to the office that lent this particular wretch significance above other human beings.

    The third is about duty. Duty is important, often deeply embedded in people to follow a particular rule that usually makes sense on some level – either evolutionary or social. It is however designed to protect the system, rarely the individual. I am not attacking the sense of duty that comes from individuals themselves but the kind of duty often invoked to subdue them, namely duty to follow orders. Without autonomy, that kind of ‘virtue’ is just another tool in the tyrant’s toolbox. It took a collectivist horror for the European societies to realise that it is morally inadmissible even for the armed forces to follow orders, abrogating humanity.

    Hierarchical systems and institutions take over people and hollow out anything that is individual to replace it with their own trinkets – position, status, power, money, influence, resources. People are defined by what position they hold, by the family they are born into, by people with greater power than them and finally, if they are lucky, by their decisions. Such systems with centralised or unchecked power attract people who wield it enthusiastically and ruthlessly. Using that power, in exchange for perpetuating the system, they shape others to its rules. Nasty things become possible in the name of the system… It’s one of the ways power corrupts.

    Institutions and systems go through life cycles, often imploding by themselves or getting overthrown by new, more eager ones. If they survive it is by striking a precarious balance, by giving people just enough freedom to prevent rebellion. Judging from history, it doesn’t seem that much is needed. Fortunately, there are always individuals who push for more autonomy and so the struggle continues.

    Top down hierarchies are mechanisms for implementing centralised power. Their rules are a shorthand for the power structure and a substitute for knowledge of how things work, understanding of consequences of people’s actions and impact of their decisions. How many times have you heard – well, if I let you do this, then everyone would want to do that and where would that lead? This is an admission of suppressed individuality. It is disguised as respect for others, when it fact it is merely ‘respect’ for the ways things are within the system.

    When people exercise their autonomy more freely they start seeing consequences of their actions and/or indifference to them. In centralised power systems, you cannot have an action without the system being involved. The action has to be assessed and judged to see if it follows or breaks the existing rules. And an appropriate action as mandated by those rules is then taken.

    In a distributed environment that is not possible. Or desirable. A network is such an environment. What is so wonderful about the internet, amongst other things, is that it is demonstrating how a greater autonomy, freedom and fewer restrictions on individuals lead to a more connected and increasingly social place. The old collectivist chestnut that with greater emphasis on the individual comes atomisation of society is just that. It certainly does not stand comparison with the explosion of connectivity, innovation and creativity fuelled by individuals having access to technology and tools that were until recently in the domain of businesses and governments.

    And for the likes of me Chris Locke’s memorable outburst from 1995 still reverberates:

    And I sit here and some of what I’m hearing is how to work in the system. Well I say fuck the system — it’s dead it’s stupid it’s non-responsive it’s counter productive it’s fucking socially evil and if we put any more of our goddamn time into propping up these dead-ass morons we deserve what we fucking get…. We’re not going to work in
    the system because THE SYSTEM DOES NOT WANT US.

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    3 Responses to “What is Rome for?”

    1. Michael Wagner
      on Aug 23rd, 2007
      @ 3:15 am

      I wonder if Vorenus’ lapse in judgment arose from the fact that he had recently found himself outside the system, shipwrecked and left to his own devices?

      Summoning individual ingenuity he and his companion and survived and made it safely back to “civilization”.

      Maybe he was suffering from some sort of “freedom hangover” when he showed mercy to Pompey Magnus.

      What a great post. Thanks for enlarging the conversation!

      Keep creating…it freaks “authority figures” out,

    2. Adriana
      on Aug 23rd, 2007
      @ 10:56 am

      Michael, ‘freedom hangover’ makes sense! I guess the internet is making us all drunk on freedom and I am waiting for the impact of our freedom hangovers on business…

    3. Kristine
      on Aug 28th, 2007
      @ 17:06 pm

      Apologies for commenting slightly off topic. I read your Furl feed item headlined absolute power corrupts, and thought of a better take on that sentiment, but found no place to comment on Furl. I don’t know if you have come across this before, but Frank Herbert, in his Dune-series, says something like ‘absolute power attracts absolutely corrupt people’, which I think is a brilliant take on it. And, albeit off topic: power, corruption and ancient Rome all sound quite synonymous to my ears…

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