The Imperial Citizen

Dying Gaul, 3rd century BCE
As a child, I would often daydream about living the glories of Rome.  This was a secret admission, given that a large part of my family is Greek, and we all know the Romans did nothing but take from those most ancient of Greeks, who invented everything ever.  The Romans were thieves, worthy only of disdain!  Fiends who renamed all the gods and eventually managed to get those very same names chosen for the planets of our solar system.

But Rome had everything it seemed: the biggest Empire, prestigious citizenship, vast wealth, cool stone columns.  It was large on a scale Greece could not be due to either fragmented city-states or a fickle Alexander and his warring generals.  For centuries the Roman Empire was the very embodiment of civilization, military prowess, and intellectual advancement.   Who, alive then, would not have wanted to be born Roman?

At face value, this all appealed greatly to the mind of an ambitious child convinced he was born into the wrong era.  It seemed like there was such great purpose in being an imperial citizen, purpose that could not be found with the prospect of a 9-to-5 job with only vague relation to anything tangible.  Today we are sheep; then, we were wolves.  Or at least suckled by them.

By my time, the idea of empire had conquered every fictional medium:  book, television, film, even video games.  But here it was always villainous, oppressing, killing, and destroying whatever it willed with ruthless efficiency.  Efficiency which at times made you almost immune to the reality of what just happened.  When an empire killed or displaced, its victims were but statistics, easily forgotten.  Indeed, the heart felt not what the hands had done.  The chain of command was so long, so convoluted (an unconscious but purposeful design), that placing responsibility became nearly impossible.  Not that there was much interest.  The shock troops were so pure in their ideology that they felt no remorse, and the ruling class saw nothing but sterile white as they signed off on the latest massacre.

The imperial citizens, like children stuffed sublime on lunch meat and jello, never bloodied their minds.  Day by day, they would walk fabulously wide streets, marvel at the obelisque architecture, and casually chat about the weather, completely unaware that their glorious country ever committed a single misdeed.  And of course it could not, as the Empire was all that was true and right in the world by its very definition.  This more than anything was the power of fantasy - real and imagined.

Still, I wondered what it would be like to walk in their shoes, at least for a day.  There's no shame in that, right?  Imperial life is the womb we all at times long for - a shelter from the harsh realities of existence.

It is the subtlety of empire we never discuss.  Imagine if we opened our studies of Rome with a truthful, enlightening statement:  The Roman Empire was built on the backs of slaves.  What perspective would we gain with this method?   What if we were to also remember to mention the irregulars and Legions in equal measure; to tell the story of the proletarii, capite censi, and slave as often of that as the pleb and patrician?  Would we then still glorify empire?  Would a child still dream of being an imperial citizen if they understood they would have to live with the reality that they only obtained abundance by depriving it of others?  Or, is it instead more likely this child would apply those lessons to the current day?

In America, we call our Empire democracy, freedom, and sometimes liberty.  Our ingenuity knows no bounds.   We've outgrown the ugly task of conquering new lands and disposing of their peoples - we need only ensure the right natives are running the gig.   We strongly believe that we live in an enlightened, classless, post-racial, equal opportunity, well-educated great society, where anyone can become President or member of Congress as long as they have the merit, and where ideas flow so freely that the best ones are always adopted.  We believe these things even though none of them are true.  We do so because, more than anything, we hold onto the idea that each citizen has a significant say in things: that, if somehow our glorious country had any glaring deficiencies, we could easily remedy them through the sacred power of the vote.  This is, of course, also untrue.  But it does sound nice.

It's due to this mass euphoria that one can spend the greater part of their childhood wondering what it would be like to live in a real life empire, while they actually live in a real life empire.  And such was my story.  Don't get me wrong - I always knew I was being lied to.  I always knew that the structure of the society I lived in didn't exactly incentivize ethical behavior.  I was aware something was wrong.  But it took me years to absorb enough knowledge to where I could fit most of the pieces together.  It took me that long to realize that I am the imperial citizen I always wanted to be.  And I could not have been more disappointed.

It is an understatement to call this realization life-changing.  How many would accept a social contract that began with "Here, your success comes at the expense of others.  It is predicated more by the happenstance of birthright than by any innate ability or hard-earned skill.  The great luxuries you will indulge yourself in are only available to you due to the subjugation of other human beings halfway across the world."?   It just wouldn't happen.  We would all be certain we could build a better society on our own.  Unfortunately, we don't get to make that choice, and as long as we play along, we cannot avoid sharing some of the responsibility for the mechanizations done in our name.  For the ethical among us, our only solace is found in attempting to counterbalance what harm we inadvertently cause, and in fighting back against that which we realize is wrong.

This is my attempt at doing so.

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