The Empire never ended

“The Empire never ended” is a phrase which recurs throughout Philip K. Dick’s surreal testament/novel VALIS. Like the novel itself, the phrase has stuck with me; in the novel it refers primarily to the Roman Empire and discontinuity with the flow of time, but I at any rate also inferred a broader reference to futility and fatalism.

Whether or to what extent that was the author’s intent, it occurred to me this week that both significances are compatible with the actual persistence of the Roman Empire in the 21st century.

This struck me especially when I looked at a Wikipedia page, about the French parliament, which displayed an ornamented fasces labeled “Emblem of the French Republic.” Now, Wikipedia’s entry for the fasces itself traces this back through Roman civilization to Greek and Etruscan origins, which I will presume is historically sound. But that doesn’t exactly falsify the sense of such continuity, across millennia, as to suggest that the Empire never ended.

Any notion of “when the Roman Empire ended” has always been vague, anyway. We tend to think of barbarians’ conquest of the Western Empire in the fifth century, and regard the Byzantine Empire’s many centuries of subsequent history as distinct. But the Byzantines did not think so, and neither did Gibbon; his Decline and Fall actually has six volumes, with four through six covering the Eastern Empire’s history after the fall of the Western.

In a meaningful sense, yes, the Roman Empire did definitely end centuries ago, whatever specific date one selects. In another meaningful sense, so much of it remains in our culture that it feels like “the Empire never ended.”

We use the Empire’s alphabet. English is more of a Germanic than Romance language, definitely, but plenty of Latin terms persist even without getting into specialist uses, and Romance languages remain widely spoken globally; I’m studying one right now. We have a far better numerical system, but we keep the Empire’s dumb numerical system around for prestige, anyway. The state religion for most of the Empire’s existence is still flourishing, today. We perpetuate the Empire’s architectural styles. (More than a little of the Empire’s actual architecture is still standing, in Europe.)

We employ not only the questionable symbolism of the fasces, but also the abysmally idiotic tradition of the literal senate. It is dumbfounding that people actually considered the history of the Roman Senate and—again and again in nations around the world—decided to recreate one of the most disastrous zombie institutions to have ever existed. They sure did, though! Likewise people still bleat about “the republic,” probably not even considering that this concept has minimal real overlap with “democracy” which they usually mean, but the hold that these ideas have after millennia is no less striking, for that.

For all that we think of revolutions and disruption and tremendous change since antiquity, the conservative and imitative tendencies of humanity seem staggeringly resilient. Society can seem to experience radical change for generations, yet the earlier culture can exercise a kind of gravity and pull society back toward it eventually.

So much of what’s supposedly going on around us is bullshit, and The Empire never ended.

Comments are closed.

Post Navigation