Wednesday, March 6, 2013

We're the (other) Romans

 the View from the Podium

Today's View from the Podium looks at the United States in 2013 and finds some startling similarities with a different empire from long ago.  You may already be familiar with comparisons between the U.S. and Rome --how we're both republics (or were), how they liked live sports as much as we do (minus the cruelty-to-animals-and-Christians aspect of it for us), or how we have a kick-ass army (10-1-2) and so did they (35-14-0).  While all that might be true, I believe that the empire we have the most in common with isn't the Italian Romans --it's the Greek Romans.  Hear me out.

Emperor Justinian and pals

The Greek Romans, a.k.a. the Byzantines, survived the collapse of the West and the fall of Rome in 476 a.d. quite well, thank you, and were in business for the next thousand years, give or take a few.  The United States, while it can't claim quite so many aged, grey hairs, has been around a respectable amount of time, if you're willing to count back to our humble beginnings at Jamestown.  As for our survival skills, we survived the Civil War, a war that saw battle fatalities that were greater than entire Byzantine wars.

Battle of Antietam: tons of people died.

The Byzantines practiced slavery (as did the entire ancient world), just like the United States did, until that little Civil War thing (see above).  The Byzantines, like their Roman cousins, loved sporting events and, if given the chance, would probably be hard-core NASCAR fans.  Their racetrack was called the Hippodrome and the vehicles were slightly slower than today's NASCAR racers (horse-drawn chariots), but the thrill, wrecks, colorful personalities and spectator tail-gating were all the same.  If anything, Byzantine fans were way more bad-ass than even the most die-hard Green Bay Packers cheese-head.  

Yup, even bigger-ass than this guy

The year was 532 CE; the place was Constantinople (not yet Istanbul).  The crowd was in a pissy mood because two hooligan fans' death sentences had been commuted to imprisonment (their tail-gate buddies wanted them to go totally free).  That, and the Byzantine citizens were suffering under a crushing load of taxes in order to support Emperor Justinian's attempt to reconstitute the Roman Empire by invading Italy, Spain, France, etc.  The race fans, usually divided into factions or demes, all started chanting, "Nika!  Nika!" in unison (Greek for "Victory!") and pelted Justinian's royal box with rocks, trash and the occasional Greek equivalent of Coors Lite bottles.  The riot spilled out of the Hippodrome and soon swept the entire city.  Emperor Justinian was just about to do the sensible thing (bugger-out and save his royal ass, of course!), but was stopped by his wife, the incredibly beautiful and ballsy Theodora,who told him, 

Really rockin' that mosaic-look,
Empress T!

"My opinion then is that the present time, above all others, is inopportune for flight, even though it bring safety … for one who has been an emperor it is unendurable to be a fugitive. May I never be separated from this purple, and may I not live that day on which those who meet me shall not address me as mistress. If, now, it is your wish to save yourself, O Emperor, there is no difficulty. For we have much money, and there is the sea, here the boats. However consider whether it will not come about after you have been saved that you would gladly exchange that safety for death. For as for myself, I approve a certain ancient saying that royalty is a good burial-shroud.

Empress T was certainly cut from the same cloth as Barbara Bush!

The United States is feared and respected the world over for our scary arsenal of ultimate weapons like nuclear ICBM's, Predator Drones with Hell-fire missiles, smart bombs and stealth fighters.  The Byzantines had, for their day, the ultimate weapon: Greek Fire.  Even today, nobody is too sure just what the hell this stuff was, but it was some kind of petroleum-based flame-thrower mounted on the bows of Byzantine ships. This, plus a big-ass chain across the harbor, kept enemies from attacking by sea; the highest, thickest castle walls of the Middle Ages kept Constantinople safe from the land side.

Why don't the Turks in the burning boat look more terrified?

Both the Byzantines and the United States had a professional diplomatic corps (which the Byzantines invented); both countries used foreign "aid" and/or bribery to further their foreign policy objectives; both also had superb spying networks inside and outside their borders.  Lastly, both the Byzantines and the U.S. made use of "enhanced interrogation tactics" when dealing with people who really just plain pissed them off.  Most everyone has heard of "water-boarding" --it featured prominently in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.  As for the Byzantines, they had a thing for gouging people's eyes out.

No, that isn't the first lasik surgery!

In one of their wars with the Bulgarians, Emperor Basil II took roughly 8,000 Bulgarian captives, divided them into groups of 100 and blinded 99 of them, leaving 1 soldier in each group with only one eye so he could lead his blinded comrades home.  The Bulgar Khan, Samuel, dropped dead of a heart attack on seeing his returned, blinded soldiers!

Today, the term, "Byzantine" is used to describe things (usually rules and regulations) that are confusing, secretive, arbitrary or unnecessarily complicated.  Back in the day,however, they were the bad-ass half of the Roman Empire that the barbarians couldn't beat down.  They preserved the classical heritage of the west and, for 800 years, kept Western Europe from being overrun by first Arabs, then Turks, then tourists (ok, maybe a FEW tourists snuck in :-P)  And if the USA is Nova Roma, I think we're the other Romans --the Greek Byzantine Romans.

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