Then and Now

Column by Paul Hein.

Exclusive to STR

I enjoy historical fiction. It is an easy and pleasant way to become familiar with important events in history, without the tedium of a history text’s display of names, dates, etc., in a style guaranteed to generate boredom. Perhaps this is why I enjoyed the TV series “The Tudors.”

Once, after watching an episode of that series, I chanced upon a similar sort of program, “Rome,” and watched an episode of it. I was struck by the relative ease with which a character from Octavian’s Rome could be transplanted to Henry VIII’s England. Clothing styles and materials would be different, but otherwise the transition would be painless. Despite over 15 centuries of “progress,” the Tudors had no plumbing, no running water, no transportation save horses, no communication save by hand-written message carried by messenger, and no light save candlelight. The Roman of Caesar’s day would have felt at home in Henry’s England.

The two empires also had in common endless intrigues, treachery, political matchmaking and war. The importance of the latter may be shown in the fact that what material progress that was achieved in 15 centuries lay in the field of warfare: the Tudors had gunpowder, and guns and cannon with which to use it. First things first!

How would an ancient Roman, or a medieval Englishman, feel in 21st Century America? Undoubtedly there would be amazement at the material changes. Such simple things are lights which go on at the touch of a switch, or heating, or cooling, all provided automatically by machinery, would seem miraculous. Automobiles and airplanes would boggle the minds of our visitors. But once their amazement at these changes had quieted, and our material world accepted, what then?

If our visitors were from the upper classes, they would probably seek to associate themselves with government, where they would feel right at home, despite the gulf of centuries. Power and influence today work the same way that they did 2,000 or 500 years ago. We no longer have kings or emperors, but we have rulers, regardless of the titles, if any, given them. And we have those who rule from behind the scenes, anonymously. Again, our friends from the past would be familiar with that. It would seem natural to them that the right of the rulers to rule originated with the rulers themselves: In other words, dissent from the rulers was simply unacceptable, and valid dissent impossible. In the days when men were religious, the rulers simply asserted that their rule was from God, and to question it, or--heaven forbid!--disobey it, was the very essence of moral wickedness. Ultimately, the ruler’s word was law because he said it was, and he could enforce it, if necessary, by the use of force of one kind or another. Threats usually sufficed, but were usually unnecessary; the people LIKED being ruled. And the purpose of it all? Stripped of all the pompous blather about the welfare of the people, it was simple: live well, enjoy the trappings of wealth, and the heady narcotic of power. All hail the Emperor! Long live the King! Ruffles and flourishes!

But what if our visitors from the past were from the lower classes? Ah, in that case, there would be--no difference at all! Like their aristocratic countrymen, they would accept that the right of the rulers to rule was not to be questioned, and their commands were to be obeyed. They would accept any punishment for disloyalty as fitting and proper, and put their heads on the block obediently, if it came to that. They regarded as perfectly normal and natural that the work of their hands belonged to the rulers, who graciously allowed them to keep some of it. (They couldn’t produce anything if they were starving, but even to entertain such a thought--that they lived to produce for others--could be dangerous). When called upon, they would leave their families and risk their lives in the military adventures of their masters, which they came, somehow, to regard as a sort of privilege. They regarded where they lived as “my country,” although nothing about it was theirs, which, oddly enough, they realized--the King/Emperor, after all, owned everything-- even while believing it a noble death to die for it.

Suppose it were the other way around: you and I transported back to medieval England, or Imperial Rome. Would we find it different? I’ll say! Candles! No plumbing, no hot and cold running water, no heat, no AC! Well, we could get used to it. Millions were living in the same circumstances; we could do it, too. And once we had acclimated, it wouldn’t seem so different. Of course, the grotesque (to us) pomp and puffery of the rulers would amuse us, but we’d realize that without daily TV appearances and countless newspaper and magazine articles, the rulers of those days had to make the most of their ventures among their subjects, who always needed to be reminded that the rulers were, well, the rulers, and the rest of us existed to be ruled. And we would accept that, wouldn’t we?

Don’t we accept it now?

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