Lately I’ve been watching The History Channel‘s “Engineering an Empire” documentaries. It’s easy to see the remains of these empires and be impressed, be appreciative of the wonder they provide us, be grateful for the technology they inspired — although often enough what they did was forgotten for hundreds, even thousands of years.
While the engineering feats are truly amazing, the historical and societal contexts are equally fascinating. Almost without exception, the rulers involved are described as ruthless, often as driven, and even sometimes as insane. Usually these wonders were works of personal vanity or aids to conquest.
While aiming for eternity, the intentions (if not the artifacts) rarely outlasted the lifetimes of the instigators. Too often the single-mindedness of these projects brought their empires to the brink of bankruptcy or destruction. Watching the documentaries over a relatively short period of time, I developed a feel for the ebb and flow, the generational wavelength you might say, of these attempts. Each leader thinking “this will endure” while with historical hindsight I knew that it would end with their death or soon thereafter, sometimes only a few years away.
Another insight from seeing this repeated over and over again around the world and through the ages … your descendants may appreciate what was done, but you did not want to be there. Human strength was pretty much the only source of power, so slavery or forced labor was the rule. Only rarely were workers hired or fairly paid for their labors. Nor did you want to oppose the grand idea, nor suggest that the empire’s wealth could be better spent on its citizens or defending its borders — these guys earned the title “ruthless”.
I’ll leave you with a couple poems.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Epitaph for the Race of Man
See where Capella with her golden kids
Grazes the slope between the east and north:
Thus when the builders of the pyramids
Flung down their tools at nightfall and poured forth
Homeward to supper and a poor man’s bed,
Shortening the road with friendly jest and slur,
The risen She-Goat showing blue and red
Climbed the clear dusk, and three stars followed her.
Safe in their linen and their spices lie
The kings of Egypt; even as long ago
Under these constellations, with long eye
And scented limbs they slept, and feared no foe.
Their will was law; their will was not to die:
And so they had their way; or nearly so.
image: Niki K, Compass (drafting).jpg, Wikimedia Commons