THE PURSUIT OF WORLDLINESS
by Barry Edelson
A Mob of One
"A mob is no less a mob because they are with you."
– John Adams
Legend has it that when barbarian hordes sacked Rome in the fifth century, laying waste to a large part of the city, they were so awed upon entering the Pantheon that they left it untouched. The ancient temple seemed so extraordinary to the invaders, so other-worldly, they could not fathom that it was the work of mere humans, and did not dare to disturb it. If the Pantheon's immense scale, perfectly proportioned dome and beguiling oculus impress modern-day visitors, to whom vast and grand buildings are commonplace, imagine how non-Romans of antiquity may have been left dumbstruck by such a strange and wonderful sight.
Though the story is likely apocryphal, Rome was in fact overrun by invaders at least three times as the Empire went through its death throes, and the Pantheon did indeed come through largely unscathed. But there may have been other reasons besides sheer wonder that convinced the marauders to leave the Pantheon intact. They were probably more interested in plunder than wanton destruction, and perhaps they had more regard for Rome and its monuments than popular history would have us believe. Many of these so-called barbarians, particularly their leaders, were raised within the Empire's orbit and experienced Roman tutelage. They may have imagined themselves not as Rome's destroyers, but as its inheritors.
Numerous domed buildings around the world derive their inspiration from the Pantheon, though for sheer ingenuity, none have surpassed it. Given the technology available when it was built during the first century AD, its construction is especially remarkable. Its dome remains the largest unreinforced concrete structure of its kind ever built, its diameter about 1.5 times larger than the dome of the Capital building in Washington. It is no accident that when democracy arose on the American continent during the Enlightenment, builders looked to the Greek and Roman republics of antiquity as models for the architectural symbols of modern self-government. Hence, columns and domes dominated. Many state houses adopted the dome as the secular embodiment of the democratic creed, and of course the Capitol in Washington is the supreme example of this unabashed determination to establish temples of democracy at the heart of government. No less than at the Pantheon, the sight of the Capitol dome soaring above one's head from the floor of the rotunda is an astonishing vision.
The destructive behavior of the rioters in the Capitol last Wednesday, all of them Americans, makes one question whether the foreign invaders of Rome would have likely been more respectful of the city's great buildings. Those of us who witnessed the incursion into the Capitol live on television may have been struck by one particular image, captured on video from above, of a steady stream of rioters walking in a straight line through Statuary Hall between the ropes, like children on a school holiday. At one point, as the number of people grew, one of the rioters moved some of the stanchions to make the path wider, but didn't knock them over or remove them. This bizarre scene of self-declared revolutionaries staying within the lines, after smashing doors and windows to get in, and vandalizing offices and rampaging through the hallways, betrays the overall aimlessness of the day's events. Their failure to lay waste to the structure itself was perhaps less a show of respect for the sanctuary of the republic than a complete and total lack of planning.
This will go down, deservedly, as one of the most dreadful and shameful episodes in American history, but it is far too generous to grant it the label of rebellion or insurrection. Though some of the attackers clearly entered the Capitol with pre-meditated, violent intent, and claimed the incitement of a civil war as their ultimate goal, it was organized in no discernible fashion to achieve that aim. No doubt many of them expected, when the day began, that they would surround the building and, with a show of numbers, intimidate lawmakers into overturning the election results. Surprised to find themselves inside, and no one at home but a thinly stretched police force, they wandered about like a crowd of unruly adolescents, racing through the house looking for something to steal or break to justify being there. (If there were a liquor cabinet, it would have been emptied to be sure.) Neither revolutionary armies bent on the overthrow of the government, nor marauders intent on mindless destruction, typically spend the day taking selfies. One is reminded of the family dog who, when it finally manages to corner the squirrel it has been chasing for years, has no idea what to do with it except to growl and put on a big show.
What we saw on display was no more or less than the monumental cowardice of a mob. Mark Twain described it best in Huckleberry Finn:
"The pitifulest thing out is a mob; that's what an army is—a mob; they don't fight with courage that's born in them, but with courage that's borrowed from their mass, and from their officers. But a mob without any MAN at the head of it is BENEATH pitifulness."
The cowardice of this particular mob was matched by that of its dear leader, who retreated, as he has done at every critical juncture in his pathetic excuse of a life, behind bullet-proof glass, a phalanx of lawyers, and piles of cash gathered from the unresisting hands of fools.
The origin of the word "barbarian", in its Greek form, meant a foreigner or, more specifically, someone speaking a foreign tongue. The syllables "bar-bar" were meant to mock the unintelligible language of non-Greeks, much as we might say "blah-blah" today to dismiss words that are meaningless or simply unimportant. The Romans similarly used "barbarian" to describe anyone who was not Roman. But in the particular way that language has of revealing the culture from which it derives, calling someone a barbarian in modern English has almost exactly the same connotation as it had in ancient Greek or Latin. A lack of civil behavior and an inclination to mindless violence is implicit in the idea that anyone who is not one of us is automatically less than one of us. The Greeks were no less inclined than any other people to believe that their civilization was superior to that of their neighbors, and that they themselves represented a better class of individual. The Romans were also similarly predisposed to think extraordinarily well of themselves. Perhaps they did not employ the phrase "Roman exceptionalism", but in their words and deeds they exuded the arrogance that came with being born a Roman.
In the end, as their empire crumbled around them, the Romans likely consoled themselves by basking in the stench of their own self-importance, much as some Americans today continue to extol the exceptional nature of America and Americans. If there is any tendency in mankind to learn from the errors of our forebears, it has yet to manifest itself. And there is little in the events of the past week to suggest that human nature is evolving quickly enough to rescue us from ourselves.
January 10, 2021
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