"Sed fortuna, quae plurimum potest cum in reliquis rebus tum praecipue in bello, parvis momentis magnas rerum commutationes efficit; ut tum accidit."

C. Iulius Caesar - Commentarii de Bello Civili Bk III.68

Saturday, February 18, 2006

The power of fear

The debate has commenced again over two related issues, the Constitution and potential threats to the Religio Romana.

Those in favour of the retaining a rigid Constitution that occupies a position of superiority in the hierarchy of legal authorities claim that fire walling Nova Roma with this document is necessary in order to preserve the Religio and the principal organs of the state, such as the Senate.

Those that believe, myself among them, that the Constitution should not be legally dominant contend that it fails to deliver the requisite protection claimed by its supporters, and instead is often both the catalyst and focus of intractable problems and serious discord.

The Constitution was an understandable effort at the creation of Nova Roma to provide a substitute for an established and powerful mos maiorum. It was seen as necessary to enshrine in a legal document sufficient constraints that would serve as legal, rather than socio-political, brakes against any efforts to disestablish the Religio or tamper with the basic organs of a Roman republic.

That effort, however laudable, not only laid the seeds for the seemingly endless examples of the failure of the Constitution to live up to its inherent purpose, but also has created the very discord that it sought to protect against.

The Constitution establishes itself as the supreme legal authority, with the exception of a dictator or in more limited scope the Senate acting under the authority of a Senatus consultum ultimum. It does not allow for anyone to interpret it and thus what is written has to be applied literally, and not bent to the shape that those influential enough to ignore logic and reason demand. Because the wording is often muddled and the underlying concepts poorly thought through, the result of any application of those sections is a precursor to a fractious debate.

The Constitution is an utterly inappropriate medium to capture the social and political mores of republican Rome. In large part these were unwritten conventions, the application of which would inevitably be driven by the prevailing political and military dictates of the day. There would be occasions when the Senate no doubt was comfortable with ignoring the established mos maiorum.

Only a fraction of the debates and issues have survived the passage of history, and not all would have been classed as momentous or critical. Consequently it is logical to assume that there may well have been occasions when the Senate conveniently forgot about the mos maiorum, for the sake of expediency.

Trying to circumvent the Constitution is, if one is to be intellectually honest, virtually impossible where it is clear and unequivocal, and thus trying to represent it as an alternative to the mos maiorum is conversely fundamentally dishonest. Now of course one could argue that it is as possible to change the Constitution as it was the mos maiorum. Certainly the similarities at a very high level of analysis are apparent. Both enshrine the prevailing “sacred cows” of the day and both can be changed, albeit with difficulty. There is a fundamental difference between the two however that concerns the rationale for creating and preserving both.

The mos maiorum was generally speaking the accepted limitations or usage of law, power, economics, in fact all aspects that affected the life of a Roman, in particular those at the more influential end of the social spectrum. The mos maiorum probably had more significance and importance to a resident of the Palatine, than an insula dweller in the Subura. It was a collection of customs that had proved acceptable to those in power, and to those who on occasions had harnessed the latent power of Rome’s masses.

Some aspects of the mos maiorum seem eminently sensible; others can only be explained rationally by reference to the self-interests of a powerful, yet small, elite. It comprised the most fundamental with the most specific and narrow of concepts, some of which dated back to the birth of the res publica. Other parts were the consequences of more recent struggles. It was a veritable bazaar of rules, jumbled, muddled and thoroughly Roman, the end product of years of trial and error, compromise and practicality. It included principles so basic to the Roman character that one could not imagine a republic without them.

By contrast the Nova Roman constitution is meant to serve at least four functions. Firstly it is meant to serve as the bylaws of Nova Roma Inc., the US corporate entity that underpins the day-to-day activities of Nova Roma the Republic. This can be dealt with by stating that the laws of Nova Roma form the bylaws of the corporation. Secondly, it is meant to be the protective shield that ensures the survival of the Religio Publica specifically and the Religio in an encompassing sense. Thirdly, it provides the framework for the government of Nova Roma and fourthly it guarantees certain rights to the citizen body.

These are fundamental core concepts inscribed in the e-waves of the Internet. The social attitudes of the day as reflected in the political or administrative life of Nova Roma are not present, for these would prove to be difficult to distil into a comprehensive and by nature necessarily limited document.

For example there is a currently a determined effort in the Censor’s office of Cn. Equitius Marinus to improve the quality of names granted to new citizens and to gently encourage existing ones with names that flout Roman naming conventions to change them. Much of these efforts have been reduced to the form of laws, in order that we all gain clarity of understanding and in order, no doubt, to add a permanency to the process.

In Nova Roma this may be necessary, but in Ancient Rome it was the natural order, not a law. People then did not need a law to govern their choices when naming their children, social custom governed them. The laws in Nova Roma speak to the processes, while the mos maiorum would have spoken to the higher-level facts, not the minutiae of administration within the Censor’s office. The Constitution, and indeed any law, compels compliance, whereas the mos maiorum inspired it. It was an unwritten code devised and enforced by the social elite and complied with by people who were proud to be Roman. Many would have considered it untenable to flout the directives of the greatest in the land, quite simply un-Roman.

The power of the mos maiorum lay in this appeal to the patriotism of all Romans, and in a class delineated society, the desire to fit in and to climb the social ladder. Attempting to tamper with the mos maiorum would have led to, at the very least, political suicide and sometimes, as the brothers Gracchi discovered, physical death. The Romans would have scoffed at the need to enshrine certain basics, such as the structure of government, in a law. During the glory days of the Republic the fact that there should always be a Senate was so widely and completely accepted that a law would have been redundant.

The critics of abolishing the constitution will claim that as we in Nova Roma are years from this form of compliance it is absolutely necessary to create, maintain and protect a Constitution. This however precludes the evident result that what is included in that document will never substitute for the mos maiorum, due in no small part to the limitations of the law.

Law requires a precision of language that would render the translation of the mos maiorum into a shadow of itself. Since it was unwritten and instilled in the future policy makers throughout their formative years, by example as well as by instruction, the definition and interpretation of the mos maiorum varied, but the underlying concepts were general enough to ensure a commonality of compliance.

For example, the law might say, “A is defined as X and must exist within the confines of Y, except where condition Z exists. Failure to obey the content of A will cause result B to occur.” Since those parts of the mos maiorum that were unwritten could never achieve the clarity that the law could, at least in its most theoretical state, a verbal explanation of “A” would probably be a simple statement linked to the historical circumstances surrounding its creation.

My interpretation of what “A” is will not necessarily be that of the next person, and the description of its historical setting could be substantially different. The result was compliance with core concepts and divergence over the details, with the consequence that when circumstances arose that brought this aspect of the mos maiorum into focus, there would likely have been a general acceptance of the principle but debate over the applicability of the details.

This ensured the relevance of the mos maiorum and allowed for a gradual erosion of parts of it that could not be maintained in the face of external forces. The principle could still be acknowledged as valid and desirable, but the practicalities of the moment could gently push the untenable part to one side. This model of change would have been most applicable to reasoned debates within the Senate. Change initiated by the people could be more dramatic and in the latter years of the republic, violent.

Trying to achieve the same result through codification in a law will be a hopeless task. The details of the topic are rendered fixed and immutable, while the underlying principle is probably not even described. Even if some form of preliminary introduction is included, cementing the details in concrete form makes the likelihood of debate over relevance very remote. If it does occur, particularly in the context of the Constitution, it can only be as a debate over the general desirability of the section in question, rather than its applicability to the issue of the moment.

The absolute nature of the law will terminate discussion, for the law is the law and compliance is mandatory. Any attempts, even with the best of motives, to deviate from that principle will result in similar attempts being made in circumstances where there is no overwhelming consensus to ignore a law. Laws have to be strictly adhered to, where no ambiguity in the drafting exists, for to do otherwise invites contempt for the rule of law and ultimately anarchy.

Clearly if the Constitution is not to grow so ridiculously large that it becomes useless as a body of law, there is a limit to how much of what would normally be part of the mos maiorum could be included in it. Equally the level of detail and explanation must be similarly curtailed. The end product must therefore be a document that has only the most transitory relevance as a vessel containing the social, political and legal mores of Nova Roma.

These facts ensure an unhealthy dependency on an inferior product, with limited ability to affect change. The duality of voting and the majority needed to change the Constitution make this a tedious and slow process. Historically in issues of policy the Senate could elect to follow the mos maiorum or adopt a new course, whereas in Nova Roma this flexibility is absent.

For the mos maiorum to assume its fundamental characteristic of constancy, change could not be affected lightly, so while I make reference to its ability to change (due partly to it being largely unwritten), it should not be inferred that such changes were regular or frivolous. That said, we in Nova Roma have a process that has subverted the traditional role of the mos maiorum, with a foundation resting on concrete absolutes set in a framework that is cumbersome, focused solely on process, relying on the dictates of modern constitutional law and drafted in a restrictive yet not definitive manner.

This brings into focus the claim that is starting to surface as a defence for the continued existence of the Constitution, that its substitution for the mos maiorum is only necessary until such point as the citizen body as a whole has clearly developed a sense of Romanitas to the degree necessary to be able to competently understand, respect and abide by the mos maiorum. This is an approach which can be characterized as a “Nanny’s Charter”, where control is deemed necessary in order to prevent opportunistic magistrates from herding the voting populace into courses of action aimed at dismantling Nova Roma’s structure and disestablishing the Religio. For this latter reason to be a valid reason for maintaining a Constitution four sets of general circumstances would have to exist in a post-constitution Nova Roma.

Firstly, it would presuppose that the voting population in the upper level centuries, consisting particularly of those who had given service to Nova Roma in positions of central and provincial responsibility, would be swayed into dismantling a fundamental part of the Republic. What makes it so unlikely is that the people who would have to vote in favour would have owed their advancement to the system and to individuals who in all likelihood would be sitting in the Senate or the Collegium Pontificum. While of course not clients of their “sponsors”, there would still be an influence that could be legitimately brought to bear on them. Additionally such a “revolution” would be unlikely to begin from within the system, among those that have served and benefited from it. Thus it remains only a theoretical possibility, not a credible one.

Secondly, it is based on the supposition that there is either a deliberate “plot” to undermine the Religio Publica or at best a dismissive and negligent attitude exhibited towards it survival. The sad truth is that the Religio Publica, as distinct from the Collegium Pontificum, doesn’t merit any determined plot because its pulse and respiration can be barely measured.

Why would a gang of rabid Christian zealots waste time trying to eradicate what to all intents is practically dead anyway? To do so would in fact be to their disadvantage as such a policy may generate sympathy and support for the Religio Publica. As to the existence of a negligent attitude, that undoubtedly does exist, in part due to the very determined political efforts that have been made in recent years to oust the strict conservative reconstructionists from the Collegium Pontificum.

Thirdly, it presupposes that no veto would be interposed. This is highly unlikely. A rogue Consul would have his colleague’s veto to contend with, as well as the Tribuncian veto. Two rogue Consuls would still have to contend with the Tribunes. Even allowing for the Consuls and Tribunes being in league, the Senate would have to sit idly by and not pass the Senatus consultum ultimum or appoint a Dictator. If all these normal checks and balances failed, then once again the people would have to vote for it.

Fourthly, this assumes that influential supporters of the Religio would not be canvassing support to defeat such a measure. Clearly under these circumstances the Religio as a whole, or at the very least the Religio Publica, would have lost all support in Nova Roma. While the Collegium Pontificum may come under scrutiny and criticism, this is in large part due to political and personal differences. To destroy the Religio Publica in order to destroy the Collegium Pontificum is a step that is barely credible as a policy and highly unlikely to command support, for to amputate one’s head to cure a headache is ridiculous.

The desire, of those adherents of the Religio opposed to repealing the Constitution, to maintain the firewall provided by it is very understandable, but totally misguided. The Constitution can be changed. The Senate could also see its composition and thus its prevailing views changed. The Constitution can only offer limited protection, and if like the Maginot Line a future “enemy” simply circumvents these limited protections, then defeat is inevitable.

If there were a total failure of the checks and balances listed in the four factors above, then the protection afforded by the Constitution would also be totally overwhelmed. It is far more likely that the normal protections, as opposed to constitutional ones, would simply eradicate the threat before it was ever necessary to rely on the Senate’s 2/3rd majority provision. If the four fail, then the constitutional protection will also have inevitably failed. Thus the Constitution is a paper tiger and utterly unnecessary to defend the primacy of the Religio. With or without the Constitution the Religio will have the same chances of survival, no greater or smaller.

If then the Constitution can never deliver more protection than the normal checks and balances, and in fact is likely to do less, and it can never act as even a poor substitute for the mos maiorum, what then is the reason for keeping it?

There is only one rational explanation, namely that the power elite in Nova Roma has little to no faith in its citizens. Those that cleave so passionately and desperately to the Constitution obviously have little trust in the people in whose name they exercise their “authority”.

For some this is rooted in the hostile attitude that elements of this modern world show towards their beliefs. It is an entirely understandable reaction to being marginalized and persecuted for over 1,700 years. They have absolutely no reason to place their trust in those that don’t share that faith, and yet they stand to loose everything if they do not.

For the others, the seekers of power and titles, they are utterly beyond the power of rational debate or logic. They cannot see that people become citizens because they are fascinated with Ancient Rome, and have been delighted to discover Nova Roma. Instead they view every new member as a potential fifth columnist, presumed guilty until they prove their allegiance to the power bloc of the day. They pay no heed to the fact that a new citizen or even groupings of citizens who have been here years have little voting power if they haven’t accumulated the required century points. Certainly the small amount they have and the likelihood that they are capite censi, relegates most new citizens to the ranks of the lower centuries and/or the urban tribes. They pose no threat to Nova Roma, so reference to plots, potential plots, misguided voters, the influence of rogue magistrates are all smokescreens to hide behind.

The simple truth is that the secular power elite has no reason to fear or suspect the people, but everything to loose, in their own eyes, by having faith in them. The further one climbs the greasy pole of power in Nova Roma, the more likely that one is to be contaminated by this nonsense. It all seems so rational of course, the benevolent wise ones ministering to the intellectually unwashed and misguided. The refrain of all elites, of despots and dictators has echoed through the ages, and shadows of it can even be seen here in Nova Roma. This attitude could be best summarized by this, as yet, imaginary address:

“Citizens, leave it to your betters to decide what is best for the state, for there are dark forces gathering and waiting to strike at the heart of our Republic. Place your trust in us and in the Constitution!”

There is no gathering storm in Nova Roma and there never has been, nor is it likely that there ever would be. At our current rate of growth we are simply insignificant and not worth the bother. One would have to be a very shortsighted anarchist that expended time and effort infiltrating Nova Roma, and a very under-employed religious zealot that sought to destroy the Religio.

There will never be a time in the future when the citizen body is developed enough to allow for the mos maiorum to play a full part in the life of Nova Roma, nor will there ever be an optimum time for the “ordinary” law to regain its place in the legal chain of authority, for the people to be trusted enough to be given the ultimate authority through the law to decide their own fate, for better or worse. Why? Because the power elites of Nova Roma will never judge that those times have come, for their agenda is one of tight and limited control. They mouth the phrase that the people of Nova Roma are supreme, but they invest no energy in trusting the people and yet plenty in constraining them through the Constitution.

The Constitution is just one method of “control” amongst many. Maybe its adherents really on some level believe the myths about its protective power, but then again after the sad experience of Tiberius Galerius Paulinus in his failed attempt to claim his right of provocatio, who but a charlatan, a mountebank, a carpetbagger, could delude themselves that the Constitution is anything other than a means to prevent the people from determining their own destiny?

What is at stake in Nova Roma for so long as we have the Constitution is freedom and respect. Each day that the Constitution remains in force is another day of shame. A shame that those powerful elites are so insecure in their paltry positions of “power”, with all the built in restraints and checks that they have at their disposal, that they refuse to grant the people the right to choose that destiny.

Each day that the Religio Publica hides under the skirts of the Constitution, and its adherents lack the courage necessary to take it out into the open, to convince, to persuade, to be proud, to be an integral part of Nova Roma rather than some sickly child that has to be kept in its room out of the sunlight, is another day that demeans those who follow the path of the Religio.

Enough of hiding in the dark, let us understand a simple truth, that if the majority of the people reject the Religio Publica, and even the Religio as a whole, then it cannot survive, Constitution or no Constitution. The longer the Religio remains trapped by its past and fearful of the future, the more likely that it will suffer a slow death through increasing irrelevance to the life of Nova Roma. The Constitution is an impediment to its potential and future growth, because it promotes a siege mentality. Trapped in a far from gilded cage, the Religio will wither and die. It is time to release it.

Likewise release the people from the shackles of the Constitution and treat them as the adults that they are. Have faith in them, for if you have no faith and instead fear the consequences, they will repay you with an equal amount of distrust and hostility.

Be vigilant by all means and be prepared for the unlikely, but ultimately believe in Nova Roma by believing in the common sense of the people to be given the power to legislate at will, unfettered by the tarnished chains of the Constitution.

Believe also that they have the capacity to learn enough about Roman society that they can follow the mos maiorum. Do this now, for now is as good a time as any to begin to build Nova Roma from within. No better time will come and unless we do this soon, all that awaits Nova Roma is a slow and painful death through all-consuming fear and lack of growth as a Roman citizen body.

We can either ascend to heights only dictated by our willingness to go further, or we can plumb the depths and eventually disappear from view completely into the abyss of irrelevance.

I choose the heights. What do you choose?