Petr Beckmann - The Roman Pest


Ave Caesar, morituri te salutant!

(Hail Caesar, we who are about to die salute you)

Führer befiehl, wir folgen! (Fuhrer, command us, we shall follow)


While the quest for knowledge was storming ahead at the University of Alexandria, the ominous clouds of the coming Roman Empire were already gathering. Whilst Alexandria had become the world capital of thinkers, Rome was rapidly becoming the capital of thugs.

Rome was not the first state of organized gangsterdom, nor was it the last; but it was the only one that managed to bamboozle posterity into an almost universal admiration. Few rational men admire the Huns, the Nazis or the Soviets; but for centuries, schoolboys have been expected to read Julius Caesar's militaristic drivel ("We inflicted heavy losses upon the enemy, our own casualties being very light") and Cato's revolting incitements to war. They have been led to believe that the Romans had attained an advanced level in the sciences, the arts, law, architecture, engineering and everything else.

It is my opinion that the alleged Roman achievements are largely a myth; and I feel it is time for this myth to be debunked a little. What the Romans excelled in was bullying, bludgeoning, butchering and blood baths. Like the Soviet Empire, the Roman Empire enslaved peoples whose cultural level was far above their own. They not only ruthlessly vandalized their countries, but they also looted them, stealing their art treasures, abducting their scientists and copying their technical know-how, which the Romans' barren society was rarely able to improve on. No wonder, then, that Rome was filled with great works of art. But the light of culture which Rome is supposed to have emanated was a borrowed light: borrowed from the Greeks and the other peoples that the Roman militarists had enslaved.

There is, of course, Roman Law. They scored some points here, a layman must assume. Yet the ethical substance of our law comes from Jewish Law, the Old Testament; as for the ramifications, the law in English speaking countries is based on the Common Law of the Anglo-Normans. Trial by jury, for example, was an Englishman's safeguard against tyranny, an institution for which he was, and perhaps still is, envied by the people of continental Europe, whose legal codes are based on Roman Law. Even today, this provides for trial by jury only in important criminal cases. Roman Law never had such vigorous safeguards against tyranny as, for example, the Athenian constitution had in the device of ostracism (in a meeting in which not less than 6,000 votes were cast, the man with the highest number of votes was exiled from Athens for 10 years). So I would suspect that what the Romans mainly supplied to our modern lawyers in abundant quantities are the phrases with which they impress their clients and themselves: Praesumptio innocentiae sounds so much more distinguished than "innocent until proven guilty," and a maxim like Ubi non accusator, ibi non judex shows profound learning and real style. Freely translated, it means "where there is no patrol car, there is no speed limit."

Then there is Roman engineering: the Roman roads, aqueducts, the Colosseum. Warfare, alas, has always been beneficial to engineering. Yet there are unmistakable trends in the engineering of the gangster states. In a healthy society, engineering design gets smarter and smarter; in gangster states, it gets bigger and bigger. In World War II, the democracies produced radar and split the atom; German basic research was far behind in these fields and devoted its efforts to projects like lenses so big they could burn Britain, and bells so big that their sound would be lethal. (The lenses never got off the drawing board, and the bells, by the end of the war, would kill mice in a bath tub.) Roman engineering, too, was void of all subtlety. Roman roads ran absolutely straight; when they came to a mountain, they ran over the top of the mountain as pigheadedly as one of Stalin's frontal assaults. Greek soldiers used to adapt their camps to the terrain; but the Roman army, at the end of a days' march, would invariably set up exactly the same camp, no matter whether in the Alps or in Egypt. If the terrain did not correspond to the one and only model decreed by the military bureaucracy, so much the worse for the terrain; it was dug up until it fitted into the Roman Empire. The Roman aqueducts were bigger than those that had been used centuries earlier in the ancient world; but they were administered with extremely poor knowledge of hydraulics. Long after Heron of Alexandria (1st century A.D.) had designed water clocks, water turbines and two-cylinder water pumps, and had written works on these subjects, the Romans were still describing the performance of their aqueducts in terms of the quinaria, a measure of the cross-section of the flow, as if the volume of the flow did not also depend on its velocity. The same unit was used in charging users of large pipes tapping the aqueduct; the Roman engineers failed to realize that doubling the cross-section would more than double the flow of water. Heron could never have blundered like this.

The architecture of the thugs also differs from that of normal societies. It can often be recognized by the megalomaniac style of their public buildings and facilities. The Moscow subway is a faithful copy of the London Underground, except that its stations and corridors are filled with statues of homo sovieticus, a fictitious species that stands (or sits on a tractor), chin up, chest out, belly in, heroically gazing into the distance with a look of grim determination. The Romans had similar tastes. Their public latrines were lavishly decorated with mosaics and marbles. When a particularly elaborately decorated structure at Puteoli was dug up by archaeologists in the last century, they thought at first that they had discovered a temple; but it turned out to be a public latrine.

The architecture of the Colosseum and other places of Roman entertainment are difficult to judge without recalling what purpose they served. It was here that gladiators fought to the death; that prisoners of war, convicts and Christians were devoured by as many as 5,000 wild beasts at a time; and that victims were crucified or burned alive for the entertainment of Roman civilization. When the Romans screamed for ever more blood, artificial lakes were dug and naval battles of as many as 19,000 gladiators were staged until the water turned red with blood. The only Roman emperors who did not throw Christians to the lions were the Christian emperors: They threw pagans to the lions with the same gusto and for the same crime - having a different religion.

The apology that the Romans "knew no better at the time" is quite invalid. Like the Nazis, the Romans were not primitive savages, but sophisticated killers, and they certainly knew better from the people they had enslaved. The Greeks vehemently (but unsuccessfully) resisted the introduction of gladiatorism into their country by the Roman overlords; what they must have felt can perhaps be appreciated by the Czechs who, in 1968, watched the Soviet cut-throats amusing themselves by riddling the Czech Museum with machine gun fire. The Ptolemies in Alexandria also went in for pageantry to entertain the people, but they did this without bloodshed and with a sense of humor; one of the magnificent parades staged by Ptolemy II displayed the animals of the king's private zoo, as well as a 180 foot long gilded phallus.

The Romans' contribution to science was mostly limited to butchering antiquity's greatest mathematician, burning the Library of Alexandria, and slowly stifling the sciences that flourished in the colonies of their Empire. The Naturalis Historia by Gaius Plinius Secundus (23-73 A.D.) is an encyclopaedic compilation which is generally regarded as the most significant scientific work to have come out of Rome; and it demonstrates the Romans' abysmal ignorance of science when compared to the scientific achievements of their contemporaries at Alexandria, even a century after the Romans had sacked it. For example, Pliny tells us that in India there is a species of men without mouths who subsist by smelling flowers.

The Roman contribution to mathematics was little more than nothing at all. There is, for example, Posidonius (135-51 B.C.), friend and teacher of Cicero and Pompey, who, using a method similar to that of Erastosthenes, calculated the circumference of the earth with high accuracy. But if one digs a little deeper, Posidonius' original name is found to be Poseidonios; he was a Syrian who studied in Athens and settled at Rhodes, whence he was sent, in 86 B.C., to Rome as an envoy. Poseidonios was therefore as Roman as Euler was Russian. (Euler was a Swiss who lived some years in Russia; in Soviet textbooks, he is often referred to as "our great Russian mathematician Eyler.") Poseidonios' value for Pi must have been accurate to (the equivalent of) several decimal places, for the value he obtained for the circumference of the earth was three centuries later adopted by the great Alexandrian astronomer Ptolemy (no relation to the Alexandrian kings), and this was the value used by Christopher Columbus on his voyage to the New World.

But whatever the value of Pi used by Poseidonios, it was high above Roman heads. The Roman architect and military engineer Pollio Vitruvius, in De Architecture (about 15 B.C.) used the value Pi = 31/8, the same value the Babylonians had used at least 2,000 years earlier.

It is, of course, a simple matter to pick out the bad things in anything that is a priori to be run down; to tell the truth but not the whole truth is the basic trick of any propaganda service that has risen above outright lying. Was there, then, nothing good about ancient Rome? Of course there was; it is an ill wind that blows nobody any good. But in a brief background that is getting too far away from Pi already, I am not concerned with the somebodies to whom Rome may have blown some good; I am only saying that the wind that blew from Rome was an ill wind.

Yet most historians extol the achievements of Rome, and it is only fair to hear some of their reasons. For example:

"Whatever Rome's weaknesses as ruler of empire may have been, it cannot be denied that her conquest of the Western World contributed a great deal to subsequent civilization. It accustomed the Western races to the idea of a world-state, and by pax romana (Roman peace) it demonstrated the benefits of a long absence of war, even if the price was the loss of political independence by most of the races of the world."

Simple, is it not? It appears we missed the benefits of pax germanica through Winston Churchill and similar warmongers, but all is not lost yet: We still have the chance of pax sovietica.


Before Rome became a corrupt empire, it was a corrupt republic.

Across the Mediterranean, in what today is Tunisia, another city, Carthage, had risen and its dominions were expanding along the African coast and into Spain. That provoked Rome's jealousy, and Carthage was defeated in two Punic Wars; but each time she rose again, and in the Third Punic War, after the Carthaginians had withstood a siege against hopeless odds with almost no resources, the Romans captured the city, massacred its population and destroyed the city (146 B.C.)

There had been no rational reason for the Punic Wars. In particular, the Third Punic War was fomented by a group of paranoic hawks in the Roman senate who felt threatened by Carthage's revival. They were led by the pious superpatriot Marcus Porcius Cato (the Elder), who had distinguished himself in the Second Punic War (218-201 B.C.) and who held a number of high offices in the Roman republic, in the course of which he bloodily crushed an insurrection in Spain, raised the rents of the tax-farmers and adjusted the prices of slaves. He vigorously opposed any kind of innovation or reform, strove to stem the tide of Greek refinement, and advocated a return to the strict social life of earlier days; in an age when slaves were branded, flogged and crucified, he was known for the cruelty with which he treated his slaves. No matter what was being discussed in the senate, his speeches would always end with the words Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam (For the rest, I hold that Carthage must be destroyed), a sentence that has been copied in innumerable variations by people to whom vicious bigots like Cato were presented as examples of the noble Roman spirit. For example, Maria Theresa, empress of Austria (1717-1780), was given the following advice in a note by her personal physician: Ceterum censeo clitorem Vostris Sanctissimae Majestatis ante coitum excitandam esse.

Such is the background of the Punic Wars, which lead us back to the story of Pi. During the Second Punic War, the Romans sent an expeditionary force under Claudius Marcellus to Sicily in 214 B.C. For one thing, the king of Syracuse had renewed his alliance with Carthage; for another, the Romans specialized in winning easy victories over small foes.

But this time it was not so easy. Roman brute force, assaulting the city of Syracuse by land and sea, ran into scientific engineering; the engineering that is not bigger, but smarter. The Syracusans had been taught the secret of the lever and of the multiple pulley, and they put it to use in their artillery and marine defenses. The Roman land forces reeled back under the storm of catapult balls, catapult darts, sling bullets and crossbow bolts. The attack by sea fared no better. Syracusan grapnels were lowered from cranes above the cliffs until they caught the bows of Roman ships, which were then hoisted by multiple pulleys until the ships hung vertically and the proud warriors of mighty Rome tumbled into the sea; Roman devices to scale the walls of the city from the ships were battered to pieces by boulders suspended from cranes that swung out over the city walls as the Roman fleet approached. What was then left of the crippled Roman fleet withdrew, and Marcellus hatched a new plan. Under cover of darkness, the Romans sneaked by land to the walls of Syracuse, thinking that the defenders' catapults could not be used at close quarters. But here they ran into more devilish machines. Plutarch reports that "the wall shot out arrows at all points," and that "countless evils were poured upon them from an unseen source" even after they had fled and tried to regroup. Once more the haughty Roman warriors withdrew to lick their wounds, and Marcellus ranted against this foe "who uses our ships like cups to ladle water from the sea... and outdoes all the hundred-handed monsters of fable in hurling so many missiles against us all at once." In the end the invincible Roman legions became so filled with fear that they would run as soon as they saw a piece of rope or wood projecting over the wall. Marcellus had to settle for a siege that was to last the better part of three years.

But, as Bernard Shaw said, God is on the side of the big batallions; and the city finally fell to the Roman cut-throats (212 B.C.), who sacked, plundered and looted it by all the rules of Roman civilization. Inside the city was the 75-year old thinker who had grasped the secret of the lever, the pulley and the principle of mechanical advantage. Plutarch tells us that "it chanced that he was alone, examining a diagram closely; and having fixed both his mind and his eyes on the object of his inquiry, he perceived neither the inroad of the Romans nor the taking of the city. Suddenly a soldier came up to him and bade him follow to Marcellus, but he would not go until he had finished the problem and worked it out to the proof."

"Do not touch my circles!" said the thinker to the thug. Thereupon the thug became enraged, drew his sword and slew the thinker.

The name of the thug is forgotten.

The name of the thinker was Archimedes.


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