Friday, September 22, 2006

The Test of Time

It is perhaps the most recognizable architectural object on the planet after the pyramids. The Roman Colosseum appears on so many travel brochures that it is practically the logo of Italy. Opened in 80 A.D. the Colosseum is a testament to the minds that built it--both their hideous purposes, i.e. the staging of gladiatorial contests, and their view of the future.

I pondered that view of the future when I visited the Colosseum on a recent trip to Rome. It's a view which seems to be expressed in the stones themselves. The Colosseum's major arches are composed of huge travertine slabs held together not by mortar, but by iron rods in the center which connect each slab to one above it.

If not for several earthquakes, the complete structure might be standing today. As it is, visitors can still climb into the stands just as spectators did 2,000 years ago. This is despite the fact that the arches are now pocked-marked with holes drilled long ago to rip out the iron inside and melt it down for other uses. (The Colosseum was habitually mined as a source of raw materials for other buildings until 1749 when Pope Benedict XIV outlawed its use as a quarry.) Both the Colosseum's scale--it was said to hold 50,000 people--and its durability say something about the minds of those who built it.

The ancient Romans constructed things as if they expected their society to endure for a very long time. In fact, the Colosseum's last known use in antiquity was in 523 A.D. almost 450 years after its completion. And it remains solid enough today to be used for special concerts and other performances.

It may seem odd then, that for all their engineering prowess, the Romans were little interested in the kind of technical progress we prize so highly. Michael Grant, in his wonderful account of ancient Roman life, The World of Rome, explains why. First, what we call applied science or invention was regarded as lowly work, not to be engaged in by patrician Romans, who were alas the most educated and therefore the most capable of such work. Second, the huge available pool of slaves made labor-saving devices seem unnecessary. Grant relates the following:
[W]hen [the Emperor] Vespasian was offered a labor-saving machine for transporting heavy columns he was said to have declined it with the words: "I must always ensure that the working classes [read: slaves and lower-class Romans] earn enough money to buy themselves food."

Such sentiments can scarcely be understood by the modern mind. Even more puzzling are accounts of one Hero of Alexandria who constructed a steam engine in the first century A. D. that was never used for anything beyond powering toys.

This rejection of technology may seem foolish to us today. But as the petroleum age comes to a close, the hyper-caffeinated rate of technical progress that cheap energy made possible may slow, and we may be forced to return to older, less energy dependent technologies and methods. Vespasian rejected a labor-saving device for reasons of social stability. And, Romans never grasped the potential of the steam engine. But, perhaps that was because they were ultimately content with what they had. Despite the cruelty perpetrated on slaves and others, for Roman citizens and freedmen the ancient Roman way of life was far more luxurious and sophisticated than what followed for more than a thousand years after the fall of Rome.

Almost completely free from war under imperial rule, ancient Romans generally enjoyed an adequate and varied diet; fresh water brought in by aqueducts (some of which are still in use today); regular baths (a practice that didn't return until the 19th century); excellent exercise facilities; household plumbing; and grand, but violent, entertainments (which we would find repugnant but which oddly seem acceptable to us when packaged in the form of an action film). For the more elite Romans, Latin writers provided some of the finest poetry and prose of antiquity. In fact, Latin proved to be such a broad and flexible language that it continued to be spoken by the educated classes of Europe throughout the Middle Ages. And, no one needs to be told that sculpture, painting and architecture thrived under the patronage of the Roman state and wealthy Roman individuals.

Still, it's not a life one should try to recreate. Romans delighted in cruelty, accepted slavery and narrowly circumscribed the role of women. But, the lives of these ancients remain a window into the mind that created a great civilization with achievements in engineering, law, architecture, military tactics and administration which still influence us today. And, all of that was accomplished without an ideology of perpetual economic growth or its attendant short-term thinking, both of which so imperil us now.

Today, our time horizons are three months for business executives, two years for most politicians, and perhaps 10 or 15 years for the builders of Wal-Mart stores. The aim of those who produce goods and services is to sow dissatisfaction among the population through advertising campaigns that exhort them to buy things which are new and improved. And, the idea that a building should last 500 years--well, that's considered downright crazy.

Heraclitus tells us that "nothing endures but change." To be sure, the ancient Romans and their ways evolved over time. But, should we seek out change for its own sake? Should we automatically assume that change means improvement?

Yes, our society needs to make changes, drastic changes, in order to meet the challenges of energy depletion, global warming and the myriad other ecological problems the industrial way of life has created. Perhaps we should take our cue from the ancient Romans and seek out the kind of changes which will end up creating a more stable and enduring way of life, one that is in harmony with the natural world we depend on and more gentle on the adaptive powers of the human body and mind.