In the scope of human understanding, mythology will never be replaced. So it goes in the vast annals of human achievement that we remember our figureheads first and foremost not merely by their dry statistics, their dates and accomplishments… rather we remember anecdotes, tall tales, legends – myths. This connects us to our subject on a meta-narrative that a mathematical equation never can.
I should like to tell you a story that struck me. For many reasons. Can I say for sure the tale is true? How can I? How can I prove anything outside of my tangible sphere of influence? It is all a matter of faith, and trust that you have not been lied to. The subject of my story is the Emperor Vespasian. Vespasian was one of the Good Emperors that followed in the controversial wake of the Emperor Augustus, the man against whom all future Caesars and later Augustii would be measured.
I should like to think our story begins in the long hours of the afternoon. The Civilians had returned to their homes to prepare for dinner, leaving the cobblestone roads in relative silence. Perhaps a gentle breeze murmured through the alleyways. The sky might as well have been blue, crystalline, with powdered clouds spattered across the firmament like so many fading thoughts. Muddled echoes would find their way out from the windows and the doors of tenaments and villas, but be met with silence in the Forum.
Overlooking the scene we can imagine we should find Vespasian, standing on the Imperial balcony of his palace, overlooking the great paths of the Via Romanum. He would have stood quietly, contemplatively, as he listened to the appellations of his honoured guest. Being noted as a shrewd Emperor, Vespasian composed himself quietly, taking in the counsel and the firm pitch of his guest.
The minutes were long, that Vespasian entertained the explanations and enticements of his guest. But in the end, the speech rolled itself up into a blur. And who was Vespasian’s honoured guest? An Architect of note. Was he provincial or urban? Vespasian couldn’t quite recall, as he furrowed his brow, trying to keep all the details straight. The Architect had sought his audience to sell him on patents. He had devised blueprints for marvellous technology, he assured His Highness, that would forever revolutionise the Roman labour pool. In fact, these devices would eliminate the need for manual labours in some fields altogether. Oh, the device would expedite the tedious building process, and, rest assured, save countless probable lives – after the glitches were worked out, of course.
Vespasian listened, speaking not a word until the Architect’s great enthusiasm drained into an estuary of concern, and finally suspicion. He went from confident boasting, to detailed pitching, to excited conniving. Eventually the spaces between his sentences punctuated the growing silence. Finally the Architect stammered, “do you understand what I’m offering?”
Vespasian smirked. He then straightened his wry smile into a deadpan and whirled around, “you ask me if I understand?” Vespasian forced, firmly, but without aggression. The Architect shrunk into his triclinium. “I…” Vespasian turned back toward the ledge of his balcony. “Come, stand with me, Architect,” he implored. The Architect, now clearly shaken, knew also that only a fool would delay an Emperor. He stood with Vespasian.
“Roman hands built this city,” Vespasian said, “Roman minds.” He lowered his voice, “I thank you for your genius, your patriotism and your service. You will be paid well for your time, I assure you, but your device will never see implementation so long as I, or any of my associates, shall live.”
“But… why??” the Architect burst, flinching immediately at his outburst.
Unphased, Vespasian took a deep breath, he motioned with an unclenched wave of his hand, sweeping across the horizon. “This Empire is the work of human hands. A human endeavour. The hands of man shaped it, and this Empire puts food in the hands that built her. If I were to rob my Citizens of work, what then should they do? Were then would they go? What then could they do? There is a balance in every human endeavour. Progress for the sake of progress is no progress at all, for it ignores the human element.”
Vespasian continued to speak, raising his voice firmly and gently at every hint of opposition from the Architect. “There is a Peace in Rome, which comes about from maintaining certain traditions. The Patricians have their work, the Plebeians have theirs. If I ignore the work of the Plebeians to feed the Patricians, they will turn to violence. And who could blame them? I would have robbed them of their livelihood, their traditions.” Vespasian shook his head, “I will not replace the Roman worker with your machines. You will speak of this no more.”
One wonders what the Architect did next, after he stood in stunned silence until Vespasian called for his dismissal. One wonders also how farsighted Vespasian was in this decision, for we live now in a time where the citizens of another ageing Empire wonder why it was their overlords decided to replace them first with indentured servants from exotic lands, and then with cold and unfeeling machines. Perhaps Rome, like this latterday Empire, would have celebrated progress for the sake of progress, blindly championing their own eventual displacement and extermination at the hands of their own excess. How many years did Vespasian add to the Thousand Year Empire? How much borrowed time could we steal if only we today learned from the examples of far-seeing men, as opposed to following the lemming to the gleeful shrieks of the Tarpeian Rock as we throw ourselves to the doom of the delighted consumer?
I know that I should like to know, perhaps we can begin asking these questions of our peers, for history provides a safe medium to discuss. So far, we foolish moderners think, removed from the daily affairs we are forced to engage in. Perhaps if again enough people began to ask and think and do and be, than again we can presume to imagine a world in which the Bronze Man becomes Silver or Gold, and the Philosopher King can rise again from the ashes to claim his Republic.