Monday, September 3, 2012


In ancient Rome, "imperium" was power of command, or authority.  One had power to take certain action, or certain things and people were subject to one's authority.  "Imperator" was a military title, eventually applied to the military autocrat who came to have authority over all, the Emperor, albeit he was, sometimes, not very military.  The Emperor also came to be called Augustus, after of course Augustus Caesar, and Caesar became a title as well in the later Empire, as a kind of second in command to the Augustus.  Caesar as a title was passed on after the Empire fell, thus the German Kaiser and the Russian Czar.  I wonder why Augustus was not.

I have in mind the great wars of empire, not only those of Rome but those of other would be holders of imperium.  In the West, of course, Rome and Great Britain were notable for their imperial wars, but we can't forget Spain, and even France.  Germany I do not include because it was never seriously a colonial power, and it seems to me colonies or provinces are characteristic of empires and most of all of imperial wars.  The United States took on imperium, at least when it took on the Philippines if not before that.

These wars have a certain fascination for me, because I consider that these empires left their children spread across the world.  Some died naturally, some did not.  Just why they decided to be soldiers of an imperium is a mystery to me.  More of a mystery is why I find this fascinating.

There is a kind of romance involved in it, I think, at least for those of us looking back upon it.  Also a kind of irony tinged by romance by virtue of the great defeats sustained by empires throughout history--at Islawanda for the British for example, or Little Bighorn for the Americans, Adrianople for the Romans.  But what was involved in it for the Europeans and their descendants who (again in the West) decided to overrun much of the world?  I do not refer to the politicians or the merchants, but rather of the soldiers of empire.

I don't think it was merely for the hope of great wealth, though no doubt the pursuit of wealth was a factor in many of their decisions.  Was it the urge to be part of a great "civilizing" influence?  The desire to take up the "white man's burden" to use Kipling's now infamous phrase?  Was there simply nothing else to do, if one was not the eldest son of the nobility, than to distinguish oneself in battle--battle being necessarily to be found among those being conquered?

Death in pursuit of empire; death in the service of empire, imperium.  Is there something felt to be inherently noble in this?  Perhaps this is one of the great legacies of Rome.  The British in their imperial years seemed to deliberately model themselves on Rome.

Now we bring our soldiers of empire home when they die for imperium, but there must be graves spread across the world where soldiers of empire fell and are buried.  All in the exercise of power and authority.  However, it seems, for what is always called something else.  Now it is for democracy, or nation building, or something of the sort.

This characteristic of the exercise of imperium is not a great legacy of Rome.  The Romans had no pretensions when it came to the exercise of power and authority, though they believed their exercise of it was entirely proper; unquestionably appropriate.  So Virgil wrote of humbling the proud and ruling the nations in peace as peculiarly Roman traits.  But the Romans sought to rule and benefit from the ruled without apologies and for no other purpose but to rule and benefit from the ruled.  Those benefits which accrued to the conquered people were mere byproducts of the exercise of imperium.  Pretensions were the modus operandi of other, later powers.  The Christian empires claimed to wield imperium for the good of others.

So, perhaps the soldiers of the Christian empires bought into this idea, for all the good it did them, or does them now.  Does this render them more or less honorable?

No comments:

Post a Comment