Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Aimless Reading: The P's, Part 39 (Polybius)

The Rise of the Roman Empire
The Rise of the Roman Empire

Purchased either online or at Talking Leaves, not sure which.

This was an important book on my oral exam list in graduate school. This list, which Charles Bernstein oversaw, focused on important works of history throughout history. Polybius gave me some very useful insights about the origins of the concept of universality. He was a Greek living under the Roman Empire. His work, which is actually called his Universal History, in forty volumes, chronicles the one hundred or so year period from the Punic wars through the conquest of Greece, finally ending with the destruction of Carthage in 146 BCE.

At this time, Rome was becoming so powerful that the entire history of the Mediterranean was becoming Roman history. From this perspective then, as Rome was more or less everything, so it's history was becoming 'universal.'

It's interesting to think of universality from this perspective, as it reveals the kind of class biases inherent in the concept. If one knows about exceptions to the rule (or to one's rule, as it were), then it is difficult to make any true claim for the idea of the universal. Therefore, it follows that in order to establish universality, a single rule must first be established, in this case the Roman empire. There can be no "outside" if we are to believe in universality.

The idea, then, is one developed by the ruling class, or in this case, the ruling class of the ruling city, in order to justify its rule. If you rule everything, then your rule is universal, as is your worldview and your history. But what happens when history catches up with you? When the empire collapses, universality collapses with it, so was it every truly universal?

I'll leave you with that question this morning.

from The Rise of the Roman Empire

For what gives my work its peculiar quality, and what is most remarkable in the present age, is this. Fortune has guided almost all the affairs of the world in one direction and has forced them to incline towards one and the same end; a historian should likewise bring before his readers under one synoptical view the operations by which she has accomplished her general purpose.

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