Americans love the underdog. I'm not sure why, although I don't doubt that there are more psychology papers written about it than one could shake Archimedes' lever at. And I'm no exception - the best heroic plots are those where the protagonist is weak and/or unprepared, and ultimately winds up defeating the villain anyway. 'Star Wars', 'Silverado', World War Two... that sort of thing.
This attitude of rooting for the side one would assume to be the victim seeps into our view of history. And this is Wrong. There is a very definite unconscious sense that the loser, particularly if they were highly outgunned, was probably the good guy. I know I've touched on this before in a different article, but I wanted to investigate this particular manifestation of the "little guy is morally right" phenomenon. It is rather ironic how this idea is strong in America, the bastion of Democracy, where the idea that in general most people have the right idea is built into our power structure. Perhaps it is because of that - a 'grass is greener' sort of thing. See the aforementioned psychology papers.
When I touched on this earlier, it was in the context of colonization, and that's where I'm going to start. The Aztecs were evil. I'm sorry, but in that particular clash of cultures, anyone of modern sensibilities would have to root for the Spaniards. Not that they were particularly lovable, but at least they pretended to disapprove of killing people.
Sure, you say, that one's obvious. But there's more. The North American Indians weren't some sort of paragon of mother-earth-loving utopia dwellers. The first English settlements along the Virgina coast were attacked and the inhabitants murdered not because they had attacked the Indians, or taken land that they particularly wanted, but because it was fun. Raiding other groups was an Indian tradition of long-standing. The idea of 'scalping' was not introduced by Europeans.
In Africa, the Zulu who were wiped out by the British had just finished a tremendous and bloody expansion south, united in warfare by the legendary Shaka. His conquest of all the Zulu and then the neighboring tribes was called 'Mfecane' - 'the Crushing'. When his mother died, he declared that no crops would be planted nor milk used for a year; all pregnant women were slaughtered along with their husbands, and cows were slain so that even calves would know the pain of losing a mother. The British elimination of the power of the Zulu was a great boon for everyone in the area with the sole exception of the Zulu chiefs themselves.
In fact, the tyranny of the ultimately defeated power is frequently a factor in their defeat, as it was with the Zulu and the Aztecs. Or the American South. Or the Germans, twice in the twentieth century. Was Napoleon worse for Frenchmen than the busy guillotine of the Directorate?
Which is not to say that the good guys (or the closest approximation thereto) always win. Witness the Mongols. Central Asia, once home to a thriving civilization, is still depopulated and backwards because of them. But we have a subtle tendency to assume that the losers were, by virtue of being underdogs, perhaps morally superior to the victors. And if anything, the converse is true.
This came up recently during a lecture on the Punic wars. The leader of the Carthaginian forces during the second Punic war (the important one) was Hannibal, famous as one of the best military leaders ever. His defeat of the Romans at Cannae became the epitome of the successful battle that all military tactitians since have longed to emulate. Ultimately, though, Carthage was defeated, and after the third Punic War it was leveled to the ground, the inhabitants butchered, and the site sown with salt so that nothing could live there again.
So the Romans were the bad guys, right? Not necessarily. You see, the patron deity of Carthage was Baal. Yes, the same one as in the Bible. Hannibal as a name means 'beloved of Baal'. (So much for naming your kid that, eh?)
And Baal was not a kind and loving god. The particular form of sacrifice Baal demanded was of infants, thrown by the dozens and (in particularly bad times, such as famine) by the hundreds and thousands into the red-hot ovens of the god.
One thing the Romans were was religiously tolerant. You worshipped Horus? Okay - set up his altar over in that corner, and we can come to temple together, you can worship Horus, and then we'll both worship Apollo. Admitting new gods wasn't a big thing to the Romans.
But human sacrifice was a bit much. So the Carthaginians were always suspect, always a bit dangerous, and ultimately had to be destroyed. The same with the Druids. Modern paganism may involve dancing barefoot in the dew, but ancient paganism involved impaling people on trees and piling up skulls. You can still find Celtic skull piles in Wester Europe. And the Romans couldn't accept that.
No, the Romans weren't saints. (Well, most of them.) In fact, in the light of modern morality, they were often quite evil. But were the people they defeated and swept into the dustbin of history better?
- Sun Ra
Columns by Sun Ra