Here’s an audio version of this post
On the surface, science fiction and historical fiction may seem like very different genres, but to me they’re two sides of one coin. The nature of that coin? What it means to be human, and how we live in the world. It was a sci-fi writer, Brian Aldiss, who is responsible for one of my favourite quotes, which says in essence, that civilization can be measured by the distance we place between ourselves and our excrement. I like this quote because it’s a pithy recognition of why we think civilization is a good idea, and the benefits we gain from it.
I’ve been thinking about civilization a lot lately, as I read historical fiction based in ancient Rome, in preparation for an upcoming trip. Rome didn’t necessarily meet Aldiss’s standard for all its citizens, but did achieve many other hallmarks of civilization, stratification, specialization, and infrastructure for starters. But I have trouble defining civilization merely anthropologically. I think of the word more colloquially, as in, verses barbarism. Centralization of power does have advantages; Rome could transport food from one part of the empire to another during famine, but all of its achievements happened on the backs of slaves, acquired through conquest of people who just wanted to be left alone.
Slavery has a very long history, and figured in virtually all ancient civilizations. Before the industrial revolution, human labour was the thing without which a complex civilization couldn’t exist. My 21st century ethics and empathy notwithstanding, this practicality seemed most often to lead to enslavement: the subjection of the will of another to one’s own purpose.
It’s been said that one result of the industrial revolution is the dehumanizing of workers: of people, the turning of humans into cogs in a great machine. It seems to me that the coming of machines may have had a converse effect. By taking over work that is dehumanizing, perhaps machines made space for humans to be valued for ourselves rather than as instruments.
But beyond the institution of slavery, Rome really took things to a unique level of cruelty and blood lust with public spectacles glorifying violent death, and lots of it. Reading Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy, which draws heavily from the culture of the Roman Empire, left me with one enduring philosophical question. How does the dichotomy of “Us and them” propagate? I’d thought about this before, and come to the conclusion that the key to the cruelty and heartlessness of the past lay in the absence of antibiotics.
Let me explain. In any ancient civilization, even the wealthiest and most well protected citizen could suffer horribly and die from any number of infectious ailments. The nearness of suffering and death to all people allowed for a callousness or indifference to the suffering of people one didn’t know. In Collins’s Capital however, the same disconnect exists between the privileged and the oppressed as had existed in ancient Rome, despite the Capital citizens’ access to sophisticated medicines and mass media. Why then do Capital citizens seem generally indifferent to violent death, and see it as entertainment? Extrapolating from this, what keeps us in the 21st century from widespread blood sports? The idea of a Roman style games with slaughter and mortal combat is intolerable, so far at least. Why? What’s the difference between us and them?
The achievements of ancient Roman infrastructure were possible because of slave labour. At the height of the empire, the average life expectancy of a slave in Rome was 17 years old. People were seen as expendable in a way that I, as a 21st century woman in a developed country find impossible to understand. As a tourist in Rome one is expected to be overwhelmed with awe at the accomplishments of the ancient Roman Empire, but what I keep thinking about so far is the ghastly underbelly of its creation.