Ian Dallas is the author of numerous books which study and analyze the current political and social situation (latest are: The Time of the Bedouin, The Interim is Mine, Political Renewal), a number of novels (The Book of Strangers, The Ten Symphonies of Gorka König) and a number of plays and essays which have been recently published in his collected works by Budgate Press. In his latest book, The Engines of the Broken World,[i] the author, using the Machiavellian method of employing ancient roman history to decipher the riddle of contemporary events, puts the study of history back in its rightful place. That is, following the tradition of the great historians from ancient times up until today: Thucydides, Tacitus, Lucan, Ibn Khaldun, Gibbon, Schiller, Mommsen, Froude, Carlyle. In doing so he passes on for coming generations the Tacitean discourse on history that has been discarded from most contemporary curriculums.
The modern structural model of history presents events simply as a passive narration of what happened, making it almost irrelevant as a subject of study, since it bears no relation to current times. On the other hand, the Tacitean discourse asks not only what happened, but why it happened and most importantly, who made it happened? In the words of the author, commenting on Tacitus’s works:
“If he lived in an age where the vast structure made men, he had to go back to that point where men had made the structures – how, and why. He arrived to the who of it.” (TEBW, 33)[ii]
The scope of the book is vast, and it would not do it justice to try and summarise it in an article or a book review, for it requires careful study. It deals with the transition and transformation of the Roman Republic into an empire, the tyranny of tranquillity established by Augustus, the pax Augusta, and the necessary devolution of the individual in order to accept the lie that that was –a republic in name and a dictatorship in essence. It points out the oligarchy that always lay behind the roman government and elucidates a pattern of power. That pattern of power is later used to unmask the oligarchy that has ruled the British and American empire, and that remains protected behind the façade of politicians in a numerical system on the brink of collapse. Throughout his entire analysis, the author quotes Tacitus, Sallust, Livy, Lucan and some modern historians, especially Ronald Syme to illustrate his thesis. Ian Dallas makes very clear that at the centre of the tragedy is the individual. He addresses the why and who of it, and finishes with a superb analysis of Lucan´s poetry addressing the heart of the matter – that the individual has lost the capacity to relate things to their given names, and at the centre of that is his incapacity to recognize the divine. The author ends the book, in an exhilarating last chapter, giving us a breath of fresh air that leaves us relieved from the catastrophe.
Given the great topics covered in this work, which can only be grasped by a careful reading, I would like to focus on one of the specific points dealt with in the book – the pax Augusta. That is the system that Augustus established, creating a new oligarchy which ruled the empire in dictatorial fashion, under the façade of a republic. . The reason to choose this particular subject from within the many covered in the work is because of the political similarities that we can observe in the time of the pax Augusta and our present age.
Augustus established his system under the symbolism of his personal seal – the Sphinx. It is difficult to believe that the princep was oblivious to its meaning. Rather, Augustus knew exactly what it represented – those who are not able to decipher the riddle are killed and eaten by the Sphinx. It could also be that Augustus considered himself like Oedipus, the hero, who in the Greek tragedy resolves the riddle of the Sphinx, and embodies that element which makes possible the transition between the old religious practices and rise of the new Olympian Gods.
The choice of the Sphinx as his seal reveals various aspects of Augustus’s character. The Sphinx was treacherous and merciless; however she was guarding the entrance to the great city of Thebes. The cruelty was necessary to assure that only those who were beneficial to the city would pass. Thus, the Sphinx was the guardian of the city. In this light, we can deduce that Augustus considered himself the guardian of Rome. Augustus was both Oedipus, for he had deciphered the riddle and brought a new order, and the Sphinx, in his role of guardian.
The question hence arises, what was the riddle that had to be deciphered in order not to be killed and eaten by Augustus? The answer lies in Augustus himself and what he established. He claimed to have revived the Republic but he established monarchy. The paradox is clear if we look at the matter of succession, how can you have a hereditary power, from Augustus to Tiberius, and still claim to be a Republic? Augustus and his party of new oligarchic power had created a new state which was not a Republic. It used the terminology of the republic, and even kept some of its elements, such as the senate, but the seat of power had moved. The decision making process was no longer in the public forum with the senate, but in the private cabinet of Augustus.
The riddle therefore was that if one was not able to see what was happening, if one believed that it was still possible to live by the old ideal of the Republic and if one fought for it, then one was killed and eaten.
Pax Augusta is the name given by historians to the period of time between 27 BC and 180 AD. The implication is a time of peace and tranquillity in which Rome flourished. But what really happened during that time was a complete collapse of the Roman behavioural model, the establishment of the Augustan deception, that is, a Republic which in itself is a military dictatorship – and the end of politics. As explained by Ian Dallas:
“A devolutionary process was set in motion and once it had achieved its rational political deconstruction it had also by that token arrived to a quite different kind of men”. (TEBW, 32)
The type of men that the author refers to, has been mentioned previously in the book:
“Something had happened. It was not the events. It was not the individual actors on the scene. It was not immortality. An inner dislocation of the experiencing self had – over the long time-span from Sulla to Augustus (from the primal dictator to the absolute dictator) – taken place that was deeper than the acts of enslavement. The Roman citizen, son of the Republic, had been enslaved, but it was not the Gladiator´s enslavement. Spartacus could rebel, but the citizen could not. This was a quite new achievement, the forging of an obedient slave, to all accounts free, enjoying the circle and the spectacle. Here, our contemporary species was born”. (TEBW, 31)
The root of this virtual enslavement, with its very real existential consequences for the Roman citizen, is what is called, in medical terms, schizophrenia. That is because the individual, unable to cope with the reality that surrounds him, creates an alter reality and absorbs himself into it. When that same circumstance happens at a social level it could be called social schizophrenia. That is, roman society, the masses as well as the oligarchy, unable to accept the reality that they lived under a dictatorship, choose rather to believe in the deception of the Republic, and live under a lie. The only cure for the person affected by schizophrenia is to make him realize the difference between what is real and what is not, that is, to relate the thing to its given name.
[i] The Engines of the Broken World, Ian Dallas, Budgate Press, Cape Town 2012
[ii] TEBW: The Engines of the Broken World
This article was orginally published in Globalia Magazine