Saturday, April 18, 2009

Are We Barbarians? Do we think we’re better than the Romans?

I suppose if you asked someone to describe the difference between ourselves and the Romans they might answer, “They lived crude backward lives without modern conveniences” or “They were Barbarians. We’re not.” There is a tendency to think everything is better now; that human beings have progressed over the last two thousand years to a higher form – ruled by logic and not fists. I wonder if the “We’re not barbarians” comment is accurate.

I’m a fan of the Showtime series The Tudors, and have observed with curiosity the many beheadings shown in the episodes. I found it surprising that parents brought their children to these “events” held five hundred years ago. Wouldn’t we label this barbaric behavior? Why would a mother bring a child to witness a beheading, watching the head fly off and blood shoot all over? Is this any different from gladiators in the Coliseum?

The word barbarian comes from “baba”, the Greek term for speech they couldn’t understand, particularly those of the backward tribes to their north. To the Greeks, barbarians were people who didn’t speak Greek and were, therefore, unrefined. A barbarian to them was an uncivilized person, or by our modern definition, a person lacking in moral or intellectual advancement - not humane, ethical, and reasonable.

Were all Romans barbarians because the games in the Coliseum were barbaric? I doubt it. Like any society, the Romans must have had a range of ethical and moral standards among the people. There must have been those who considered violence against human beings barbaric. We can’t say how many or what percentage, but any society includes those who oppose violence.

Now we come to the present day to ponder the following statement: “If there are barbarians now, then we have not become more civilized.” Alas, we can readily observe them operating in Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. Isn’t cutting off the hands of thieves, like the Saudis do, barbaric? This modern age, like the past, has a range of moral behavior from the “very civilized” of the west to “very uncivilized’ in some other parts of the world. I bet the majority of Americans would say we are the most civilized nation on the planet. After all, we’ve taken being civilized to the limit. We not only won’t kill people, we won’t insult them. In contemporary America, calling a person “fat” is uncivilized.

But we still have our murders and rapists acting uncivilized. Five point four percent of the United States population is in jail. These people must be barbarians, right? Or maybe the white collar criminals aren’t because their crimes were committed in a civilized manner.

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