In their heyday, the Romans ruled the world – or at least the world they knew.
Calling their former domain massive puts it too lightly. At its peak Rome held sway over 65 million people, about 21% of the world’s population. If you were born in the second century AD, there was a one in five chance you were born a Roman.
To give you a sense of how insane that is, only about 5% of the world’s population lives in America today. 10% calls Europe home. Africa boasts 17%. Proportionally, the Roman Empire outstrips them all.
How’d a little city on seven hills take over the world? Infrastructure. A Greek historian writing during Caesar Augustus’s fabled reign famously quipped that the Romans best displayed their greatness through aqueducts, drains, and roads.
Roman law stipulated that public roads should be the exact width needed for two-way cart traffic. Most city roads also boasted sidewalks which removed wayfarers from the way, keeping wheeled traffic moving. Custom dictated that roads should be straight wherever possible, to save on material. And that material varied from road to road – flattened gravel, concrete, paving stone – prioritizing ease of repair.
Rome reduced road-building down to a science. And necessarily so: these standardized streets stitched Roman land together, making continued control easier.
These viae Romanae were the web on which Rome’s military moved. Centurions led cohorts to and fro along them, moving quickly, staying supplied. If conquered colonists ever made trouble, in no time at all, like white blood cells swarming an infection, there was Rome.
The Romans didn’t win or keep their empire by asking nicely. They won it with war. And they kept it by roads.
John Wick’s not like most action heroes.
His skills aren’t particularly unique. Sure, he’s ridiculously good with a gun. So are most action stars that come to mind. That’s not what I’m talking about.
What makes John Wick different from every other modern action protagonist in film is his motivation, the ultimate reason why he fights.
Jason Bourne fights to remember more about himself. Jack Bauer fights to save America. James Bond fights because . . . well, it varies, but it usually involves saving the world.
John Wick fights so he can have peace.
Consider John’s backstory. His life was bullets and bodybags. Then to be with the woman he loved, he bought his way out of the assassination game with blood. At last he could rest.
But then his wife dies. And some moronic mobster punks steal his car and kill the adorable puppy she gave him as her final gift, an “opportunity to grieve unalone.”
As he scrubs his dog’s viscera from the floor the morning after, John’s face transforms into a cocktail of pain and rage. He does not want to fight anymore. But actions have consequences.
So for the rest of John Wick, the titular hero obliterates any force that would ever disturb his calm again. He torches the Tarasov crime family, leaves it in ashes, and makes peace with what’s left at the beginning of the sequel.
That’s right, there’s a sequel. Because that’s the point. John’s terrifyingly thorough rampage through the Tarasovs nevertheless riles up the entire worldwide criminal underworld, making it more and more unlikely that he’ll ever regain the peace he had.
By movie number three, everything’s snowballed. John’s on his last legs, beset on all sides. Where can he go?
John stumbles into the lair of The Director, a powerful underground figure who trains assassins. Grasping an old cross, speaking a language we the audience had no idea he knew, he begs her for an audience. The Director calls him by another name that thrums with tradition and age: Jardani Jovanovich.
We feel the immensity. John has returned to his tribe, his ancestral family. He’s invoking a bond running back centuries, rooted deep, a commonality beyond mere convention.
“What do you want, Jardani?” The Director waits for an answer.
The Director’s a member of the High Table, the criminal ruling body who wants John’s life. Granting his request will bring down retribution on her head. She knows this. But she also knows where John’s trying to go, what he’s trying to get back.
So despite the cost, she chooses to help John, opening the way for his journey on.
At first, I thought the subtitle of John Wick Chapter 3 was goofy. But in light of the Director’s aid to John, it makes sense. Your tribe won’t forsake you in times of war. They’ll close ranks. And they’ll do what they can to guide you along a pathway to peace.
Human beings are tribal by nature. Aristotle was right to call us “political animals,” but God put it far better: “It is not good for man to be alone.” Our most essential instinct is the drive to connect.
Some tribal loyalties run deeper than others. The deepest ones involve choice. No tribe is perfect. Belonging to one takes heartache and sacrifice, but brings jubilation and happiness.
As a tribal member you participate in tradition, feeling the past in your bones, passing it on to the future. As a species, we’ve done this since we could communicate. Tradition grants something elemental and special to a song or a rock or a grove of trees. Adding ritual to the mundane gives it lasting significance that lives as long as memory does.
College is a tribe we choose, each class a container of multitudes, a willed community of individuals who came to learn and live together.
Tribes fight, with and within each other. But colleges fight differently than other tribes. They fight in the most honest, settled, peaceful way.
Every autumn Saturday, teams of tribal warriors meet in battle. They fight for victory for 60 punishing minutes as thousands look on. The winner wins; the loser loses. And then we do it again.
College football is a weekly war that somehow brings peace. It’s uniquely American and acts like it, boasting swaggering personalities and screaming partisans. Yet it has a strange commonality to it.
Because we care about our tribal teams, yes, but also about this 130-army-large, 150-year-old cacophony our nation plays every year like clockwork. When we watch college football, we’re not only connected to our collegiate circles. We enjoy watching itself, because the spectacle and the stories are so palpably real.
You cheer for your team, and I cheer for mine, but in the end, we all cheer. And at the end of the game we exit the stadium the same way, returning home down the same roads.
Rome’s roads brought not only conquest, but civilization. Plebeians walked them, trade arrived along them, and from the Empire’s center theater and art and culture spread using them. Both the Roman government and private citizens paid to create and maintain Rome’s concrete highways and byways. In fact, the Romans considered road maintenance so important that the most well-respected magistrates, the censors, were personally responsible for their upkeep.
But all things fall. Eventually it was Rome’s turn.
In the twilight of the Empire, Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus wrote De rei militari, a handbook of Roman army practices. We don’t know much about the author beyond his name. But he was a Roman citizen, and an avowed Christian.
As Rome had doddered into old age, the soldiery had grown corrupt. By showing the people Rome’s glorious past, Vegetius hoped he could spur the army to reform, to return to their ancient ways.
Vegetius’s work inspired leaders for years to come, becoming standard reading for commanders and kings. Perhaps the most famous portion of the manuscript is a collection of pithy military maxims. Some historians believe it’s cobbled together from a variety of famed sources: the wall-builder Hadrian, the statesman Cato, even the great Caesar Augustus.
Maybe it was that final source, the crafter of the Pax Romana, who inspired Vegetius to pen five simple words that neatly sum up Rome’s strategy, form the heart of John Wick’s story, and echo in every gridiron clash.
Si vis pacem, para bellum.
If you desire peace, prepare for war.
At last, it’s here! College football’s back in a matter of hours. I hope you’re as excited as I am.
Every week this season, I’ll be publishing a column called Watching College Football right here at The Resurgent. It’ll break down Saturday’s games, sorting the slam-bang spectacular ones from the stuff you can skip. In fact, here’s a quick and painless abbreviated breakdown for this Saturday, all times CST: Florida plays Miami at 6pm on ESPN, and Arizona faces Hawaii at 9:30p on CBSSN.
You should watch ‘em both. It’s college football. And it’s been too long.
I’ll also be posting a lot on Twitter, watching along with y’all. As the season goes on, I’ll introduce some more fun things, like rankings, polls, and a foolproof way to predict the College Football Playoff (I hope)! Follow @WatchingCFB and you’ll always be up to date.
I can’t wait to take this ride with you, whoever you are. Thank you for reading, and I’ll see you next week.
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