The Important Question

The word 'empire' has decidedly negative connotations in the modern world. When many modern europeans hear it, they think about the Colonial empires, about the Soviet empire, about the Nazi empire, and about the American empire - and just perhaps about the Empire from Star Wars. All of these - to varying degrees - conjure negative mental images.

But empires need not be all bad. Consider, for instance, the Roman empire. While it certainly had its share of corruption, oppression, and other assorted unpleasantness, it provided - in the long run - a great many advantages to the people under its rule. It was not by any modern standards an admirable system, but it was leagues ahead of anything contemporary.

Being conquered by a foreign power is never pleasant, and exploitation was the norm of the day, but that was little different from life under the various warlords or city-state tyrants of contemporary Europe, and in many cases the civilian population found that - after the relatively brief unpleasantness of invasion - they were better off. For the Romans brought three things everywhere they went: The Roman Peace, the Roman Roads, and the Roman Law.

Rome, however, also teaches another important lesson for would-be empires: With empires come centalised political systems, and it is vitally important to safeguard those against collapse. Rome failed on that account, and thus the last significant action of the faltering empire was to provide a highroad for the injection of Christianity into the Europe.

The collapse of Rome as the dominant power in the region has many interesting facets, but possibly the most disturbing aspect is the ease with which the political system that had in so many ways lifted Europe a step towards civilisation was hijacked to promote and spread a system of thought that is so fundamentally at odds with civilisation.

As such Rome provides both a facinating promise and a stark warning for Europe as we set out to take our place on the geopolitical stage: It is indeed possible to create a benevolent empire - to use geopolitical power for the good of humanity. But if the political structure of an empire is corrupted, the disaster takes on dimensions that scarcely bear thinking on.

The vitally important question for the incipient European empire is how to become the former, while safeguarding ourselves and the world against the latter.


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