De nobis fabula narratur

from National Geographic

For a couple of decades now the leaders of Europe have been struggling to implement a revolutionary and furiously controversial idea: a single European currency. Governments have fallen, fists have flown and bitter curses have been exchanged in a variety of languages over this visionary idea of doing away with the English pound, the French franc, the Italian lira and the German mark in favor of one universal form of money. So explosive are the politics of the proposed "Euro" that some say the notion of a single coinage for so many different people is an impossible dream.

Or is it?

For there was once a time - not measured in decades but in centuries - when a single currency, a single code of laws, a single army, and a single emperor held sway over a vast swath of the entire Western world, including the heart of Europe, a large chuck of western Asia and the northern tier of Africa from the Atlantic Ocean to the Dead Sea. This was the Roman Empire. Long before anybody thought of automobiles, airplanes or e-mail, the emperors of Rome efficiently maintained their famous Pax Romana (Age of Roman Peace) over a 3,000-mile-wide territory that today includes parts of more than 40 different nations. Just how did a small farming village on the shores of the Tiber River become the richest and strongest empire in Western history? How did the Romans keep a vast and varied collection of peoples unified for so many centuries? They did it with a genius for organization and tolerance for cultural diversity interrupted now and then by bursts of passionate ruthlessness. Their supreme talent turned out to be their government. A passage from Virgil's Aenied tells the tale:

"The Greeks shape bronze statues so real they seem to breathe, And carve cold marble until it almost comes to life. The Greeks compose great orations and measure the heavens so well they can predict the rising of the stars. But you Romans, remember your great arts: To govern the peoples with authority, To establish peace under the rule of law, To conquer the mighty and show them mercy once they are conquered."

Yet why, despite this mastery, did Rome fall?

The story of Rome is a tale studded with names and phrases we've all heard: veni, vidi, vici; Antony and Cleopatra, Spartacus, habeas corpus; Julius Caesar and Attila the Hun. It is tale with particular significance at the end of the 20th Century for the citizens of the United States, which happens to be the richest and strongest nation at this moment in history. The Romans gave to the modern world elements of justice, language, literature, art, architecture, government, military and many others.

As the late Roman scholar Frank Bourne used to say, "In the age of Pax Americana, there's no more important lesson we can teach young Americans than the rise and decline of the Pax Romana." When Bourne taught Roman History at Princeton, he began and ended his course with the words De nobis fabula narratur -