Romans (Pagan Empire & Monotheism)



I bet these guys could deconstruct a temple. Or turn martyrs into mincemeat. Without blinking an eye. If they had to.

There is not a trace of idealism in these heads; not an iota of mercy. These are “real men.” I love looking at them, at these human heads, but I don’t like them, these tough, stoic Romans (late Republican or early Augustan).

You can find them down the long hall in the new Roman galleries at the Met on the main floor on your way up the elevator from the ground floor (wheel chair and stroller accesible) entrance. (I tend to see them each time I go to the Met.)

Who knows what is on their mind? What do they think and what do they feel? Maybe nothing.  I can’t for the life of me imagine. The problem of other minds. They strike me as completely alien, violent, human all too human, and not nice at all. But maybe that’s my problem, not theirs. Or maybe Daniel Dennet is right and there is no such thing as consciousness. Hard to say.

These guys do make me wonder about monotheism and pagan empire in the ancient Roman empire. According to some theorists, monotheism is uniquely culpable for political violence. Looking at these guys, I’m just not sure that’s right. Perhaps the Palestinian rabbis (in Mekhilta de Rebbi Ishmael?) understood things better. Whatever good these guys did was for the sake of empire. Tolerant pagans? Just don’t cross them, or look at them funny.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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3 Responses to Romans (Pagan Empire & Monotheism)

  1. Whenever I go to the Met, I love looking at those busts. I can totally identify with your appraisal of them (or at least what the sculptor sought to capture). Thanks for posting this!

  2. Gail says:

    Yes, these guys look like Caesar’s hit men.
    And I share your compulsion to dwell with these hard, disciplining faces as if we were staring at the gate-keepers of empire.
    But I think I still disagree with your last paragraph, even though in disagreeing I’m not sure I want to *agree* with proponents of monotheism’s “unique” capacity for violence. I really don’t know enough (to link arms with Shahn’s Maimonides again). Still, to speculate from within my ignorance, it seems to me that the intolerance of pagans can be conceptually different from the dogmatic craziness of Christian imperialism (and I say this as a Christian…). I’m thinking of mass forced conversions, mass executions, the genocides of the New World, centuries and centuries of awfulness, all aside from the particular viciousness of Christian anti-Semitism that culminated in Shoah.
    As Weber might ask from within his iron cage: Why did such dogmatic, crazy viciousness not happen on SUCH a scale in China, or India, or Africa?

  3. zjb says:

    But maybe that dogmatic, crazy viciousness has more to do with Christianity than with monotheism per se.

    After all, we don’t see it in Islam either. The problem of political violence in the Hebrew Bible is harder to understand, since so much of it reads more like presecriptive fantasy than historical fact –and also because the reach of Judean-Israelite poltiical empire, if that’s what it ever was, was more limited in geographical scope (according to the biblical minimalists, most claims re: Davidic and Solomonic empire are not to be taken at face value).

    So maybe the problem with historical Christianity is/was the combination of monotheism + Romanism. Or maybe it has to do with the sectarian origins of Christianity, which would lend itself to a special form of rhetorical violence. Or maybe it has to do with evangelism (which is also unique to Christianity?). Or maybe some combination of all these and other factors. I don’t know.

    Right off the bat, I’d recommend Marc Cohen, “Under Crescent and Cross”; also Daniel Boyarin’s book “A Radical Jew.”

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