While getting my Bettany Hughes fix watching a history program about Rome, I saw a strange parallel to modern times. The slave revolt led by Spartacus was characterized not as a heroic epic where Tony Curtis and Kirk Douglas fought to get freaky with Jean Simmons, but a nearly successful uprising that not only scared the bejezzus out of the city state’s wealthy citizenry, but started Rome down a path toward dictatorship and eventual ruin.
I would never argue with Ms. Hughes; Britain’s History Goddess, about anything, and I’ll always take her version over Hollywood on Roman Empire Era history. In this case it’s convincing because of one word: Fear.
I’ve been thinking about fear a good bit recently. Not sure exactly why. I woke up one morning a few weeks back and it just popped into my thick head. Why are we so afraid these days and when did it begin?
American children are safer now than they’ve ever been and parents won’t let them play outside without armed guards. Crime is at a forty year low and people are terrified of strangers, especially anyone wearing a hoodie.
I realize our current president is a master at scaring the crap out of normal, rational thinking people by inventing problems involving dark skinned people. But he didn’t invent that tactic. Nothing seems to motivate voters quite like fear. A lot of those things are fabricated and seem to include nemeses considered inferior by the prevailing population.
The idea that people different from us in almost every way are multiplying while we God Fearing Real Americans are disappearing is hard to accept, and scary. Spanish restroom signs in Lowes don’t make it any easier. We are frustrated by change and fear it. And we are ashamed of our fear.
I’ve often wondered why we offhandedly dismiss the excess and mismanagement of big Pharma, financial institutions, and the Defense Department, but bristle at poor people getting a couple hundred dollars worth of welfare dishonestly. Then I watched Bettany Hughes explain how mortified the citizens of the world’s greatest power were at the idea of being overrun by a mob of subhumans that belong in servitude.
The Roman population was terrified when Spartacus escaped his chains and took hundreds of trained fighters with him. The fact that slaves were the bottom of the food chain in Roman society made the idea even more appalling. No Roman citizen could stomach the idea of losing their beloved city state at the hands of unwashed, inferior people. So they gave total authority to a ruthless, wealthy former soldier.
Marcus Licinius Crassus was a Roman general and politician who was called on to defeat Spartacus and his slave army after two years of pursuit by regular Roman authorities proved fruitless. Ambitious and brutal, Crassus proved his worth by defeating the slave army and crucifying nearly 6000 survivors.
Crassus is also credited with taking the first steps toward transforming the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire. As the dictators became more ruthless and less capable of ruling, the empire began to crack. Less than four hundred years after Crassus, in 376,the Roman Empire disappeared.
How will history record our continued reaction to fear?
Image: Bettany Hughes image is borrowed from her website (promotional/fair use); Kirk Douglas leading the slave army is a promotional photo created for the film "Spartacus" - a 1960 film directed by Stanley Kubrick (promotional/fair use – a public domain).