Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Breaching the Pomerium

The Pomerium was the sacred boundary of ancient Rome. Some of the inscribed stones that marked if off are still in place around the city. Inside the Pomerium, weapons were not allowed; and, except on the very day of their triumphs, even generals could only cross it in civilian dress. I was reminded of this bit of lore when the children were murdered in Connecticut and the NRA called for arming the kindergarten teachers. 

I guess we have different ideas of what ought to be sacred.

Perhaps its peculiar to allude to a Roman institution when insisting that our country or at least some part of our country should be a zone of peace. The Romans were remarkably brutal people, for whom conquest and domination were the essence of foreign policy and staged homicides the national pastime. Still, the ancients understood something important about civilization, perhaps because they were so familiar with its absence. Justice and peace are not natural at all; they are artifacts of human effort.

Where the will to maintain the Pomerium falters, the result is a reversion to the regime of strong men facing each other down: Goths and Vandals, Dodge City, Crips and Bloods. (One of capital ironies of the day is that the gang-related murder epidemic in contemporary Chicago reflects the honor-based ethic that black emigrants absorbed from the white culture of the old South.) The essence of modern reaction is a resentment of central power and a hankering for the manly world of face-to-face local authority where private revenge takes the place of law and order and any more comprehensive justice is God’s business. If the American right triumphs, in fact, a future historian will be able to reuse Gibbon’s summary of his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: “I have described the triumph of barbarism and religion.”


Anonymous said...

I've got to laugh at your account of the Pomerian "zone of peace". I'm sure that when the Goth hordes ransacked Rome they respected that "zone". OOPS!, we
can't and shouldn't cross that line.
That moral outrage and solution to school violence protects no one. That is, unless you lock up all of the lunatics (goths). Who gets to classify?

Allan Dobbins said...

The idea that the gangs of contemporary Chicago inherited the honor code of the old South is an interesting one. Do you know of evidence that supports it? When did black urban gangs emerge? And weren't there ethnic and neighborhood gangs in many large Eastern American cities going back more than a century? Perhaps black gangs developed in response to the gangs in place in the cities they immigrated to during the great migration. Are there studies bearing on this?

Jim Harrison said...

Mr. Dobbins,

Sorry I've taken so long to respond. I just now noticed your comment—not even I read this blog very often.

You raise some excellent questions, and you're quite right to challenge my assertion about Chicago gangs. I've got to admit that my idea is based on reading accounts of the gangs in Chicago newspapers. I'm also drawing on my experience of the South and a couple of years I lived in a black neighborhood. None of this counts as proper sociology, of course.

I expect that it's also true that the similarity between gang behavior in various places is partly a result of convergent evolution.