Oracular Politics

One of the finest things about ancient Roman public life, Cicero tells us at the outset of De Domo Sua, is that Religion and the State are controlled by the same persons. The Roman Senate is a one-stop shop. So when he wants something – in this case, to get his property back, after the government took it, and had it consecrated to a god – he knows where to go.

The same authority can have it de-consecrated, as well as materially restored to its former owner. They can also have the statue of Liberty removed from the location where Ciceros house had stood. Yesterday it was holy, but today it might be just an inconvenient pile of stone.

Now, in the political conflict between Cicero and Clodius, I will take no part. Clodius was a rogue, but perhaps Cicero had it coming. The circumstances in which he lost his house have not been an issue for me since I was a schoolboy. Nor, after 2,070-something years, do I think it really matters.

What interests me, today, is the basic structure of pagan Roman politics. In my childhood, it was remote: something to be studied in a “purely academic” way. For that matter, the pagan gods did not impact my life, except as literary allusions. But my disinterest, or non-interest, has become rather dated.

Ancient Rome has become very relevant to our times and to our foreseeable future. For once again we are living in a pagan society; in a society we could not conceive of when I was a child only half a century ago. It is a society in which government has absolute power, as much in the spiritual as in the material realm. And as we know from history, thats “bad news for Jews,” – as well as for Christians.

That the Roman Empire, which succeeded the Republic, collapsed, and Christendom was built over its ruined foundations, we all know too well. Such is the reach of anachronism that we find great difficulty in understanding ancient history – not only because of attitudes that seem unlike ours, but because were over-informed about where it all led, and how it all ended.

To read Cicero, and other Roman greats, we must suppress this knowledge. We must try to imagine Rome in all her power. At the time of which I’m speaking, she has centuries ahead of her. She has also a teeming population who take all kinds of things for granted, as we have taken (for instance) American power for granted.

The question for the government of this august power is not what can they do, but what do they want to do. The world will accommodate them when they make up their mind; as the world has, until quite recently, been accommodating American power. (Of course, America was a “hyperpower” only briefly; Rome was a hyperpower for a long time.)

          Marcus Tullius Cicero

Within that Roman State and its metropolis, the people may be an occasional problem. But they are a manageable problem. Bread and circuses will buy them off.  Pompey’s management of the corn supply comes into the background of my present reading, along with the use of free corn, like food stamps, to keep a potentially rebellious population obedient and following orders.

All this actually tells us much about same-sex marriage. The battle against it was lost within a decade of the whole idea being raised, up here in Canada. From Canadian experience, I can often know what is going to happen in the United States. Since 2005 Ive known attempts to resist the redefinition of marriage in the USA were hopeless. Polls, including referenda in several dozen states, had nothing to do with it. Once the political class has decided what it wants, the bread and circuses can be provided.

The old definition of marriage – perfectly understood even by the people who did not perfectly practice it – was a product of the Christian civilization that America took in, along with her settlers from old Europe. Its precepts were usually unspoken, because it was seldom necessary to speak them. Until quite recently, the idea of consecrating a “marriage” between two men, or two women, was unthinkable.

But the State, which never established a Church, became one. By slow increments over time, accelerating to quick ones over the last generation, Christianity was marginalized. It is now a “private religion” on a par with Islam, Buddhism, Astrology, and Wicca. It is tolerated, as the Romans tolerated all marginal religious cults – up to the point where the followers refuse to honor the State’s gods.

The official religion of the government of the United States – which goes generally under the name “secular humanism” – is replete with idols. They are not rendered in statuary in the Roman style, but mostly in words, for abstract conceptions. Each enunciated “human right” is, for all practical purposes, an Official State God, requiring formal acknowledgement and worship by all, including those with “private religions.”

To refuse this worship is to challenge the authority and serenity of the State. To withhold worship of a god, on the grounds that it was not worshipped yesterday, is no defense. As Cicero noted, that State has the ability to create new gods at will, to consecrate and de-consecrate at its pleasure.

And the people are happy with this. Apart from a small, and shrinking body of practicing Christians, and practitioners of other “private religions” – rednecks of various kinds, if you will – the people have always gone along, once clearly instructed. God knows (and I mean that literally) that when Christianity prevailed, many people simply went along. We cannot see into people’s hearts, but we can see the outward signs of social conformity.

The State is in the process of decreeing that homosexual alliances may be consecrated. For a god has ruled that this must be so, and the State is the interpreter of the oracles.

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: davidwarrenonline.com.