Moving Towards South Asian Confederation
Ideal of Human Unity - Chapters

Chapter XII Part II

The Ancient Cycle of Prenational Empire-Building – The Modern Cycle of Nation-Building

The Dissolution of Rome and other Empires

Sri Aurobindo attempts to understand how the mighty Roman Empire could not automatically transform into a durable nation-unit. He finds that the imperial set-up subsisted by turning the assimilated units ‘into food for the life of the dominant organ’ (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg 368). As a result the annexed cultural units lost their essence, uniqueness and meaning and at a certain point in time could no longer supply fresh intellectual stimulation and physical input necessary to maintain the vitality of the unifying centre in the absence of which any further progress is arrested. ‘Gaul, Spain, Africa, Egypt were thus killed, turned into dead matter and their energy drawn into the centre, Rome; thus the empire became a great dying mass on which the life of Rome fed for several centuries. In such a method, however, the exhaustion of the life in the subject parts must end by leaving the dominant voracious centre without any source for new storage of energy. At first the best intellectual force of the conquered provinces flowed to Rome and their vital energy poured into it a great supply of military force and governing ability, but eventually both failed and first the intellectual energy of Rome and then its military and political ability died away in the midst of the general death’ (Ibid).

Sri Aurobindo also points out that the Roman civilization would have ended earlier unless it had an interchange with the East from where it received new ideas and motives. However as fresh inputs from Rome ceased, the flow needed for an ongoing interchange could no longer be maintained. ‘When the Roman grasp loosened, the world which it had held so firmly constricted had been for long a huge, decorous, magnificently organized death-in-life incapable of new origination or self-regeneration; vitality could only be restored through the inrush of the vigorous barbarian world from the plains of Germany, the steppes beyond the Danube and the deserts of Arabia. Dissolution had to precede a movement of sounder construction’ (Ibid, pg 368-369)

There is an important point to be noted. The Roman Empire banked on a bland uniformity at the cost of the richness of the wide diversity of its annexed units but that did not mean that it wanted to annihilate totally the identity of the cultural units as like religious zealots who annexed culture-units with the motive of religious conversion and forceful imposition of an alien culture on the conquered people. ‘The crushing domination of Roman uniformity was a device, not to kill out permanently , but to discourage in their excessive separative vitality the old smaller units , so that when they revived again they might not present an insuperable obstacle to the growth of a true national unity ‘(Ibid, pg 369).

A dissolution of the ancient cycle of Prenational Empire building had to take place before the modern cycle of nation-building could start. The Roman Empire dissolved from within. Other Empires also had to undergo the process of dissolution demanded by the Time-Spirit but Nature followed different ways to achieve that goal. In India, ‘the Maurya, Gupta, Andhra, Moghul empires, huge and powerful and well-organized as they were, never succeeded in passing a steam-roller over the too strongly independent life of the subordinate unities from the village community to the regional or linguistic area. It has needed the pressure of a rule neither indigenous in origin nor locally centered, the dominance of a foreign nation entirely alien in culture and morally armoured against the sympathies and attractions of India’s cultural atmosphere to do in a century this work which two thousand years of a looser imperialism had failed to accomplish’(Ibid).

Thus the old Empire-unities whether organized around consolidated imperialism as in Rome or based on a loose imperialism as in India had to be destroyed to pave the way for the modern nation based on broader universal principles . In the process, old institutions have to be broken, ‘for Nature tired of the obstinate immobility of an age-long resistance seems to care little how many beautiful and valuable things are destroyed so long as her main end is accomplished: but we may be sure that if destruction is done, it is because for that end the destruction was indispensable’ (Ibid). In the passage of history, Nature had to shift the focus from the cry of the vanquished to the right of self-determination, from the conflict between the monarch and serfdom to the harmony between the individual and the collectivity. The modern nation needs to act as a template for refined universalism.


Date of Update: 21-Dec-12

- By Dr. Soumitra Basu