Moving Towards South Asian Confederation


Ideal of Human Unity - Chapters

Chapter VI Part II

Unity in heterogeneous aggregates

Sri Aurobindo next examines how psychological unity was sought to be established in the heterogeneous empire in ancient times. He selects imperial Rome as ‘one great and definite example’ of how an artificial political unity of a heterogeneous aggregate could be transformed into a psychological unity. Even the great empire of ancient China that encompassed five nations and was admirably organized did not have to face the cultural heterogeneity that the ancient Roman Empire had to encounter.

 How did imperial Rome deal with the centrifugal pulls of its heterogeneous units, heterogeneous in ethnicity, language and culture? The Roman Empire was consolidated by military conquest and military colonization. However, that was not the end of the story. The Romans knew that neither an efficient administration nor economic well-being would suffice to check dissidence of conquered subjects. On the contrary, once the subjugated units would be accustomed to the efficient organization and economic prosperity of the Roman Empire, they could turn more vociferous to claim these very privileges as independent nations. Therefore, Romans cleverly ventured to assimilate other cultures not by obliterating them but by eulogizing them. They initiated this transcultural symbiosis by acknowledging the superiority of Greek culture and created a Graeco-Roman civilization. But that acknowledgement of the cultural superiority of the Greek did not mean a walk-over to the Greek culture. The Romans cleverly dealt with ground reality. The Graeco-Roman civilization was spread and secured in the East through the Greek dialect. But elsewhere, in the non-Greek, non-Roman dominions, the Graeco-Roman civilization was introduced by the Latin language and Latin education. This served a two-fold purpose. Firstly, a Graeco-Roman perspective was more enrichening than the Roman perspective alone. Secondly, Latin being the classical among all European languages, it would be more acceptable to other European cultures, even to cultures like Gaul which had become decadent or inchoate. (This was a correct move as Latin became actually the mother of several modern European languages.) However this process of transcultural symbiosis would not have been able to abolish all separatist tendencies unless supplemented simultaneously by an actual movement of political equality to the subjects of all conquered provinces. Therefore, imperial Rome ‘not only admitted her Latinised subjects to the highest military and civil offices and even to the imperial purple, so that within less than a century after Augustus, first an Italian Gaul and then an Iberian Spaniard held the name and power of the Caesars, but she proceeded rapidly enough to deprive of all vitality and then even nominally to abolish all the grades of civic privilege with which she had started and extended the full Roman citizenship to all her subjects, Asiatic, European and African, without distinction’ (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg 296).

Thus, military colonization, administrative efficiency and economic well-being were supplemented by transcultural symbiosis and political equality to effectuate a sense of psychological unity in the politically united fiefdom of Imperial Rome. Besides, the imperial government was a principate that combined aspects of the republic and the monarchy, a combination that could cross-check dictatorial attitudes – a phenomenon needed to maintain the inner principle of unity. ‘The result was that the whole empire became psychologically and not only politically a single Graeco-Roman unity. Not only superior force or the recognition of Roman peace and good government, but all the desires, associations, pride, cultural affinities of the provinces made them firmly attached to the maintenance of the empire. Every attempt of provincial ruler or military chiefs to start provincial empires for their own benefit failed because it found no basis, no supporting tendency, no national sentiment and no sense of either material or any other advantage to be gained by the change, in the population on whom the successful continuity of the attempt had to depend’ (Ibid, pg 296-297).

The Roman Empire lasted several centuries. The Roman State started as a Republic (509 BC), became an empire under the stewardship of Augustus Caesar (27 BC) and thereafter witnessed uninterrupted peace and prosperity for two and half centuries and thus laid the foundations of development of the Mediterranean world. The Roman Empire persisted till it split into Eastern and Western parts (AD 395), a movement that signaled the beginning of its end. The Western part, under severe pressure from the barbarians, finally disintegrated by the 5th century AD, the east continued as the Byzantine empire until 1453.

Why did the Roman Empire disintegrate? Why did the psychological unity binding the heterogeneous conglomerate succumb to the forces of division after centuries of success? Why did the Roman’s experiment fail? Sri Aurobindo explains that the end came not merely by a disruption from within but by the decaying of its centre of life. ‘By crushing out, however peacefully, the living cultures or the incipient individuality of the peoples he ruled, he deprived these peoples of their sources of vitality, the roots of their force….In the end Rome could not even depend on a supply of vigorous individuals from the peoples whose life she had pressed out under the weight of a borrowed civilization; she had to draw on the frontier barbarians. And when she fell to pieces, it was these barbarians and not the old peoples resurgent who became her heirs.’ The Huns, the German tribes, the Vandals, the Franks gradually infiltrated the remnants of the western part of the erstwhile empire. The once acclaimed Roman citizen army became a barbarian mercenary army. In this context, Sri Aurobindo makes a psychologically relevant comment, ‘For their barbarism was at least a living force and a principle of life, but the Graeco-Roman civilization had become a principle of death’ (Ibid, pg 297). This is a very politically significant observation. In history, whenever a sophisticated ruling elite runs out of the vitality needed to sustain its continuation; it can be replaced by a rustic and unsophisticated ruling group who may lack political vision, aristocracy and foresight but nevertheless can occupy the centre-stage by bringing in a fresh influx of energy.

It would also be pertinent to point out that political equality granted by Imperial Rome to the subjects of the conquered provinces did not mean social equality in terms of the rich/poor divide. It was the rich men from all over the Empire including the conquered provinces who were admitted to the Senate. With the passage of time, the differences in the rights and privileges of the rich and the poor also began to magnify. This too was one of the many factors that facilitated the infiltration by the barbarians.

It is traditionally considered that the greatest change to the Roman Empire was religious. Actually, the Time-Spirit carries in its bosom a wisdom that surpasses political acumen, breaks conventional forms and allows history to surge forward. Sri Aurobindo writes that the Graeco-Roman civilization had ‘to be destroyed in its form and its principle resown in the virgin field of the vital and vigorous culture of medieval Europe. What the Roman had not the wisdom to do by his organized empire, -- for even the profoundest and surest political instinct is not wisdom, -- had to be done by Nature herself in the loose but living unity of mediaeval Christendom’ (Ibid) .Yet the very concept of Imperial Rome carried such prestige that Charlemagne, crowned Emperor on Christmas Day, 800 AD, had to use the name ‘Holy Roman Empire’ (Heiliges Romisches Reich) to claim that his empire was the successor of the Roman Empire. He used the term ‘Holy’ to establish his status as God’s vicar in the temporal realm parallel to the papal status in the religious realm but ostensibly, this religious symbol was not enough and had to be augmented by reference to Imperial Rome!

Thus the mighty Roman Empire had established a psychological unity amidst heterogeneity for a considerable period of time spanning several centuries which even the modern Soviet Republic failed to replicate even for a century. Sri Aurobindo writes, ‘But, significantly enough, every attempt at renewing the Roman success has failed. The modern nations have not been able to follow Rome completely in the lines she had traced out or if they tried to follow, have clashed against different conditions and either collapsed or been obliged to call a halt. It is as if Nature had said, “That experiment has been carried once to its logical consequences and once is enough. I have made new conditions; find you new means or at least mend and add to the old where they were deficient or went astray.” ’(Ibid, pg 298) In his ‘The Ideal of Human Unity’, Sri Aurobindo sets out to construct a new integer of unity that is based not merely on the cognitive field of thinkers and the emotional field of mystics and artists but manifests in the flux and turmoil of political reality.

Date of Update: 18-Nov-11

- By Dr. Soumitra Basu