As I have mentioned before, I’m listening to and thoroughly enjoying The History of Rome podcast. I’m up to Constantine, and Late Antiquity.
I was talking to my son the other evening. He was expressing his desire to be Master of the Universe. I have been listening to the history of men who were, for all practical purposes, Masters of the Universe. And what I’ve learned is that the job, while it had its perks, was really kinda a ball of suck.
Don’t get me wrong; being a master of your universe is likely better than the other options. But it wasn’t, for the Roman emperors, the unfettered ball of joy that my son clearly envisions. No matter how much you got away with during the height of your power — Commodus, I’m looking at you — eventually the bill had to be paid. Likely in poison, garrote, or the blade.
But that’s not always evident from the start.
I didn’t challenge my son’s desire for power, autonomy, and control of his environment. That’s human. Everyone wants to not be at the whimsical mercy of powers beyond their control. And, frankly, childhood can be rather like that. Why is it, after all, that I insist chores be done before playing? It’s evident cruelty and nonsense, apparently. Fantasies of power are part of human nature.
Instead of challenge him, I asked him how he would work out the practical details. How would other people eat, sleep, and be kept safe? How would criminals be punished? Who would own property and profits? What recourse would everyone else have if they disagreed with The Master?
By the end of the discussion M had voluntarily modified his military dictatorial autocracy to a modified autocracy, retaining rule by fiat by with an elected body of representatives to air grievances and make requests. Allegations of crime would be investigated by robots and judgments made by the Supreme Autocrat. Work would be organized somewhat like the Soviet Collectives, with rules enforced by appointed quasi-military commanders acting on data collected by robots.
I was pleased with this discussion. With some questions from me my eight-year-old got as far as the major political mistakes of the sixteenth-through-twentieth centuries. This is excellent. This, this is why we teach history, you understand. We teach history so we stand a snowball’s chance in hell of not making the same damn mistakes over and over again. Part of what made Constantine “The Great” was the fact that he had Diocletian’s administrative successes to build on. Part of what felled the Western Roman Empire was that none of these folks understood how inflation worked. If any of them had figured it out you can bet his successors would have not erred again.
Everybody makes their own mistakes. Nothing we can teach can stop a person from just going right on ahead with a terrible idea. Moreover, you can’t make any new mistakes. Not really.
What we can do is try to learn what sort of mistakes other people have made, and avoid the obvious missteps. We can look at the array of choices available to us and make a sincere and intelligently informed decision as to which sets of predicted consequences we want.
Lie about doing chores? Grounded for a week.
Put a puppet king on the throne of Armenia again? War with Sassanid Persia. Again.
Stomping tantrum when reminded to put away clothes? An extra chore.
Debase the currency? Overthrown by the legions.
If you don’t want war with the Sassanids at this juncture, stay away from Armenia. If you want to play Minecraft later, finish your schoolwork cheerfully. It’s easy to pick the outcome you want when you understand the consequences.
I love history.