In the afterword to Marguerite Yourcenar’s historical novel, Memoirs of Hadrian, I read this quote, which she attributes to Flaubert:
Just when the gods had ceased to be, and the Christ had not yet come, there was a unique moment in history, between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, when man stood alone.
The Romans of this period remind one of the United States of our current era, the hegemonic power that sees itself as the guarantor of the world order. I don’t say that in a critical way. Hadrian, in the novel, describes his dissent from the expansionisting policies of his predecessor, Trajan, and his shift to a defensive posture (e.g. Hadrian’s Wall in Britain). Late in this life, he faces the Jewish rebellion in Judea. The Jews of that time fought with suicidal tenacity that strikes me as similar to the fanaticism of the Taliban. But in taking on the great imperial power, they were utterly defeated, and Judea itself was renamed by the Romans as Palestine.
Growing up as an Orthodox Jew, it seemed to me that Hadrian, and his predecessor Titus, who destroyed the Jewish temple, were horrific characters. Now that I am secular, I see it from a different perspective, and identify somewhat uncomfortably with the Romans, who were trying to keep a relatively peaceful multicultural realm intact against challenges by barbarians and religious fanatics. When they finally failed, Europe fell into the Dark Ages.