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Herod, Augustus, and Us

November 23rd, 2008 - 7:48 am

It seems that Israeli archeologists have found Herod’s tomb.  It was quite something, some 75 feet high, adorned with all manner of frescos, worthy of an emperor.  As well it should have been;  Herod presided over a Middle Eastern empire, and, like other emperors, caused the creation of an amazingly modern infrastructure from roads and water systems to monuments and temples.  Anyone who visits Rome, whence I have just returned, must be amazed at the fabulous combination of engineering and artistic talent that made Rome the center of the world for many centuries.  Did you know that Augustus’ wife had a villa on top of what is now the Forum, in which she had steam heat?  And did you know that the principal roads, which began on the Capitoline Hill (now the site of the city hall, in Michelangelo’s magnificent piazza at the center of which stands a copy of the golden equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius–the original standing inside the museum that borders the piazza)?

So, if only for the magnificence of Herod’s world, the discovery is important and exciting, and no doubt the Israelis will restore it.  I can’t wait to see it.  And it gets me thinking about the fascination of the monuments of antiquity, and the ebb and flow of creativity.  In many ways, Roman technology was totally modern, by today’s standards.  Barbara and I lived in the center of Rome for many years, and we were always struck by the incredible efficiency of the ancient water system.  Our neighborhood’s water came through the original aquaducts, which carried water by gravity from the hills outside the city into the center.  All the palaces (we lived on the fifth floor of a 15th-century building, next to the prison, with no heat, no elevator, and electrical wires running on the outside of the walls) had that terrific water, aqua marcia, which is extraordinarily health-giving and was probably sent by the Almighty to make perfect pasta.  That system always worked, while the newer neighborhoods–those built mostly in the 19th and 20th centuries–had periodic breakdowns, and people used to come into our neighborhoods with plastic containers which they filled from the fountains.  And it prompted me to think of the significance of one of my favorite Roman legends:  that the statue of Marcus Aurelius on the Capitoline had a magic significance.  Romans believed that if that statue were ever to fall, the world would end.

In a sense that remains true today.  For the Romans bequeathed a lot to us, from their incredible engineering to their elaborate legal system, much of which remains at the heart of the modern concept of law and order.

Which brings me to one of the great failures of modern education:  the politically correct notion that all cultures are morally equivalent.  That is false and dangerous.  I do not believe that history is the story of human progress, not at all.  When ancient Rome was sacked by barbarians, it was a huge setback for mankind, and it took a very long time before we got back to the notion of law and order, as it took a very long time for us to recover the technological skills that Herod and his contemporaries had mastered.

The famous wall around the gardens that bordered Solomon’s Temple remains mysterious to this day.  It was constructed with enormous marble stones which were fitted together with tongue-and-groove methods (much as the Mormons built their Tabernacle and other public buildings in Salt Lake City;  but that was done with wood, not stone, which is much easier).  The stones of that wall fit together so tightly that you cannot put a narrow blade between them.  How could they have been cut with such precision?  And we’re talking about stone blocks of many tons.

That culture was, and remains, one of the great achievements of mankind.  It is superior to most other cultures, and it should not be dumbed down by a theory of false equivalence.  If we’re going to work our way through our current time of troubles, we have to appreciate superior men, and the cultures they created.

Harvard used to brag that it was devoted to excellence, excelsior.  That is the true purpose of education, and I’m afraid that those who still advocate it are too often dismissed as bigoted elitists.   The PC critics need a refesher course.  Badly.

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