Excerpt from www.arewerome.com
The Eagle in the Mirror
Urbs antiqua fuit. . . . Urbs antiqua ruit.
There once was an ancient city. . . . The ancient city fell.
—Virgil, The Aeneid
Imagine the scene: a summer day, late in the third century A.D., somewhere beyond Italy in the provinces of the Roman Empire, perhaps on the way to a city like Sirmium, south of the Danube, in what is now Serbia, where several roads converge—good Roman roads of iron slag and paving stone. The Roman road system is immense—more than 370 separate highways stretching some 53,000 miles all told, about the length of the U.S. interstate system. In these difficult final centuries of the imperium a Roman emperor travels constantly, and his progress makes for quite a spectacle. “The peasants raced to report what they had seen to the villages,” a contemporary remembers. “Fires were lit on the altars, incense thrown on, libations poured, victims slain.”
The emperor here is perhaps Diocletian, a man of the hinterland, from Dalmatia, and wherever the emperor resides, so resides the imperial government, although Rome itself will long retain its symbolic character—will long be referred to as “the city” even by people five hundred miles away. Who is this Diocletian? No friend of the Christians; he is a “traditional Roman values” man, and his persecutions are intense. But he has restored Rome’s stability, at great cost, and in his travels he projects Rome’s power. Before the emperor’s arrival, advance men known as mensores would have been sent ahead to requisition supplies and arrange for security. If you have business with the imperial court, perhaps bearing a petition from your beleaguered city or a plea from your patrician family, and make your way toward the emperor’s encampment, you will encounter other supplicants like yourself. Some of them may have been following the emperor for weeks or months. You will also encounter a defensive ring a few miles outside your destination, and find the roads dense with military traffic; and as you draw closer, the character of the armed forces will change, from auxiliaries to legionaries to the imperial bodyguard, a force known as the protectores. The imperial eagle flutters on their standards.
At last, in the center, you find the comitatus itself, the sprawling apparatus, several thousand strong, that encompasses not only the emperor’s household and its personnel—the eunuchs and secretaries, the slaves of every variety (the emperor may own 20,000 of them)—but also the ministries of government, the lawyers, the diplomats, the adjutants, the messengers, the interpreters, the intellectuals. And of course you also find the necessities of life and the luxuries, the rich food and drink. Gone is the simple camp fare of Trajan’s day, the bacon, cheese, and vinegar. A letter survives describing the table laid for just one Roman dignitary (and four companions) visiting Egypt—“ten white-head fowl, five domestic geese, fifty fowl; of game-birds, fifty geese, two hundred birds, one hundred pigeons”; multiply accordingly for the emperor and his household. And the ruler himself: How does he spend his time? Receiving petitions? Perhaps he remembers the famous story of one of his predecessors, Hadrian, who put off a pleading woman with the words “I do not have the leisure,” only to receive the reply “Then stop being emperor!” (Hadrian made time for the woman.) Consulting with his generals? Repairs to the Danube forts are an urgent necessity, given how many of the German tribes cross over every winter when the river freezes. Dictating letters and decrees? Maybe writing something in his own hand? An earlier emperor, Marcus Aurelius, composed part of his Meditations while on a military campaign along the northern frontier; Book One ends with the notation that it was written “among the Quadi,” the people he was fighting. Whoever the emperor may be, clustered around the august presence is the imperial government in microcosm, with its endless trunks full of documents; the wagons carrying the treasury and perhaps the mint itself; the blacksmiths and parchment makers; the musicians, courtesans, diviners, and buffoons; the people known as praegustatores, who taste the emperor’s food before he himself does; the people known as nomenclatores, whose job it is to call out the names of the emperor’s visitors, and who have given us the word nomenklatura, for the core group of bureaucrats and toadies who function within any nimbus of great power. All in all the comitatus is, in its way, the cluster of people who in our own time would be encompassed by the Washington e-mail designation “eop.gov.”
Or so it occurred to me one summer morning not long ago as my plane touched down in the rain at Shannon Airport, in the Republic of Ireland. The domain name “eop” stands for “Executive Office of the President”—that is, the White House and its extensions—and as it happened, the president of the United States had arrived in Ireland shortly before I did, for an eighteen-hour official visit. His two Air Force One jumbo jets were parked on the shiny tarmac, nose to nose. The presidential eagle, a descendant of Rome’s, glared from within the presidential seal, painted prominently near the front door of each fuselage. A defensive perimeter of concertina wire surrounded the two aircraft. Surface-to-air missiles backed it up. The perimeter was manned by American forces in battle fatigues, flown in for the occasion—just one element of the president’s U.S. security detail, a thousand strong. Other security personnel peered down from the rooftops of hangars and terminals, automatic weapons at the ready. Ringing the airport was a cordon of Scorpion tanks supplied by the Irish Republic. A traveling president, too, brings with him a government in microcosm. Air Force One can carry much of the presidential comitatus—cabinet members and courtiers and cooks, speech doctors and spin doctors. Provisioning has not been overlooked: the plane can serve meals for 2,000 people, the supplies bought anonymously at American supermarkets by undercover agents, the updated version of those praegustatores. And if there’s a medical emergency? An onboard operating room is stocked with blood of the president’s type; his personal physician is at hand. From the plane’s command center a president can launch and wage a nuclear war, or any other kind, for that matter. The forward compartment is what passes for a throne room, containing the president’s leather armchair and his wraparound oak desk and his telephone with its twenty-eight encrypted lines.
Off in the mist would be the Air Force cargo planes, which had brought helicopters, a dozen Secret Service SUVs, and the official presidential limousine (plus the official decoy limousine), its windows three inches thick and its doors so heavy with armor that gas-powered pistons must be used to help open them. Four U.S. naval vessels plied the Shannon River estuary nearby. Outside the airport the roads were jammed with Irish soldiers and police officers—6,000 in all, slightly more than an entire Roman legion—and on even the tiniest boreens security personnel with communications piglet tails trailing from their ears would emerge from hiding places in the bracken if a passing car, like mine, so much as slowed to avoid some sheep.
Had this president of the United States, George W. Bush, been of a mind to compose his own Meditations on this visit, he could legitimately say that he wrote them “among the Alemanni, the Franci, the Celtae,” because he was here with the Germans, the French, the Irish, and a number of other tribes for a summit meeting with members of the European Union—a meeting, in other words, with the leaders of allied or subsidiary nations. Ireland, though not technically an American ally, often functions as a client state, and has allowed the United States to route hundreds of transport planes through Shannon Airport, bearing American troops bound for duty in Iraq and Muslim captives bound for interrogation in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. “You are aware of your role as a tributary,” a senior British minister has written of his encounters with American officials on occasions like this one (where he was present). “You come as a subordinate bearing goodwill and hoping to depart with a blessing on your endeavors.”
The Empire That Won’t Go Away
President and emperor, America and Rome—the comparison is by now so familiar, so natural, that you just can’t help yourself: it comes to mind unbidden, in the reflexive way that the behavior of chimps reminds you of the behavior of people. Is it really ourselves we see? Everyone gets it whenever a comparison of Rome and America is drawn—for instance, in offhand references to welfare and televised sports as “bread and circuses,” or to illegal immigrants as “barbarian hordes.” We all understand what’s meant by the thumbs-down sign—pollice verso, as the Romans would have said—and know the gladiatorial context from which it came. It’s almost compulsory to speak of political pollsters as latter-day versions of Rome’s oracles, the augurs and haruspices, who sought clues to national destiny by studying the flight of birds and the entrails of slaughtered sheep. When a reference is made to an “imperial presidency,” or to the president’s aides as a “Praetorian Guard,” or to the deployment abroad of “American legions,” no one quizzically raises an eyebrow and wonders what you could possibly be talking about. To American eyes, Rome is the eagle in the mirror…