The Romans always win until they don’t

One of the most fascinating inscriptions from ancient Rome is the so-called ‘Hisma inscription’. Written in Greek by someone named ‘Lauricius’ in probably the late 2nd century AD, it proclaims that: ‘The Romans always win’. The sandstone slab was found in South Jordan, in Roman Arabia, on the edge of the Empire.

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The Hisma Greek inscription (G. Tanner
‘Greek Epigraphy in South Jordan’, Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, 83 (1990), p. 194)

The Romans kept winning until they stopped winning, and then the empire collapses into successor states. In the East, it became the Byzantine state centred around Constantinople. In less than 400 years, Lauricius’ statement became a museum piece. Roman Arabia was lost to the Sasanian Empire of Iran in the 610s.

Lauricius’ optimism is a historical constant. Every tribe, city, state, kingdom and empire at every point in history asserted its permanence and its ability to conquer the future tense. Always is a big word, but its never too big for those who believe tomorrow will be a reiteration of today. In retrospect, we smile, but we rush to make the same mistake. Past performance is not a guarantee of future success. This is true of school grades, economic estimates as well as political statements.

No amount of historical precedent will mitigate our enthusiasm for our world’s imperium sine fine, empire without end, as another epic optimist put it, the perdurability of the world as we know it. It is unlikely the world of the 2010s will survive the current crisis unscathed, yet most of us profess a belief in a ‘return to normality’, understood as a reversion to the status quo ante, the world as ‘before’. ‘We always win’ are words which seem to resound on the tongue of millions of modern-day Lauriciuses. But history doesn’t really care about our sandstone slabs, hopeful op-eds or dinner table optimism. Nothing is ever written in stone even if may be carved in stone. The museums are there to prove it.

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