I remember purchasing Botch’s We Are the Romans at Earwax on State Street in Madison in October of 2003, and I remember buying along with it Dying Fetus’ latest record, Stop At Nothing. This was a time in which I not only listened to bands with names like Dying Fetus but also took perverse delight in announcing to folks that I enjoyed bands with names like Dying Fetus. The perversity was the fun, but it was only fun because I had accumulated sufficient ironic detachment to recognize that it was absolutely absurd that a band should dub itself “Dying Fetus.”

I don’t in any way mean to demean Botch’s insight into time and types by equivocating between these two bands: Botch are light-years apart from Dying Fetus and other Cookie Monster-voiced ilk. I only recount purchasing these records together because that’s how it happened. Stop At Nothing was a fun listen that month but ended up forgotten before too long. We Are the Romans, however, is still a terrifyingly stellar record, and sounds as supercharged and adventurous as it did the day I bought it.

If we in the year of our Lord 2020 are still living in the shadow of the Romans, Botch’s spiritual children and grandchildren are doing the same. Norma Jean, The Chariot, Gwen Stacy, Every Time I Die, The Devil Wears Prada: We Are the Romans is the quarry from which their catalogues have been dug. Even if hardcore isn’t your bag, you’ve almost certainly made it within two degrees of separation, as Minus the Bear’s guitarist Dave Knudson got his start with Botch. Where we are sonically has been shaped by these four upstarts from Washington State twenty years ago.

But it’s that shadow of influence, or perhaps of determination, that makes Botch’s final full-length such a statement. The album is replete with experimentation and careens between groovily awkward time signatures and guitar techniques unusual for earnest devotees of metalcore. Jazz-inflected drumming and haunting, sometimes even beautiful, dynamics render each song on this record truly unique. There is no hardcore assembly line churning out more of the same here. But lyrically the album also stands out for setting a question mark against the ideals of conquest and prestige in more existentially impressionistic terms rather than the head-on assault upon living political figures that so many other bands would resort to.

We Are the Romans is less a document of 1999 than it is a thermos of hot coffee for the imperial hangover the West has been nursing since 476 AD. Every generation clamors for the return of a mythical golden age, for the nation to be made great “again.” (Whenever that first go-round was, we can’t be sure, but let’s do it again!) The fever dream of the benevolent empire continually returns to haunt a people’s imagination, spurring them on to feverishly pursue impossible projects to win glory and immortality. Worse, this fever dream is often coated in a pseudo-Christian rhetorical varnish which lies and pretends it is an exercise in Christian virtue.

W. H. Auden, following his return to Christian faith, was alarmed by the parallels between Rome and twentieth century America as well. In a review of Charles Norris Cochrane’s Christianity and Classical Culture, he wrote:

Our period is not so unlike the age of Augustine: the planned society, caesarism of thugs or bureaucracies, paideia, scientia, religious persecution, are all with us. Nor is there even lacking the possibility of a new Constantinism; letters have already begun to appear in the press, recommending religious instruction in schools as a cure for juvenile delinquency; Mr. Cochrane’s terrifying description of the “Christian” empire under Theodosius should discourage such hopes of using Christianity as a spiritual benzedrine for the earthly city.

Auden’s point regarding “a spiritual benzedrine for the earthly city” is a timely one. Why are we the Romans? To answer that question is to diagnose our national theology of glory. Maybe it’s not because the empire was a laboratory for lofty ideals — as much as we’d like that to be the reason — but because that polyglot of a people was so possessed of the drive to achieve and maintain Greatness once and for all. Maybe because even within the fathomless caverns of the human soul, the autocratic need for accomplishment can’t coexist with the pathways of memory that root us in our contingency as creatures.

But this is the Satanic shape of our ambition, isn’t it? Forgetting where we come from? Forgetting how we got to where we are? Erasing our origin from the story and rushing to swallow up everything else? And that is the history initiated by the Romans and recapitulated again and again in their successors, including us. History is what happened, but so is the forgetting and misuse of what happened. The city that sought primacy over the world almost seemed to forget its humble origins as a backwater. We in the U.S. can’t even get the facts surrounding the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving right. How can any imperial power grow in dominion while keeping an honest inventory of the wrongs committed along the way? Wouldn’t the one cancel out the other?

Human civilization, as a whole, is seeking a solution to a problem which cannot be solved, seeking it in expensively dressed, headstrong, self-assured heads of state and of industry who will carry all our hopes and fears into the battlefield of history to snatch up the glory we are all convinced is in too short a supply to be shared. We foist our individual delusions of greatness upon Princeps and Supreme Leaders to carry them further than we are able with our limited means. We hunger for glory more than for food, for rest — it’s the goal toward which all of our lives are magnetized from birth.

And yet never lastingly arrive at it. The Roman Empire, after all, is no more. And unfortunately Botch is no more. Earwax is no more. Now even the library building on Wyman Street, where once I passed on purchasing a hardcover edition of Auden’s prose, is demolished. That branch was closed in November 2017 and subsequently razed to the ground, marking the first time I could see the Rock River from Church Street in midtown Rockford. I loved that place. But so it goes with every great, momentous work: it rises, reaches it apogee, then plummets back through the atmosphere.

So many parts of the midwest look like that razed patch of real estate: dilapidated, abandoned, bereft of hope. But even where structures are still standing, abuzz with activity, the social bonds that knit us together are declining, ripping at the seams. Most sensible people are unhappy with where we are, but they are also convinced the person across the street from them is to blame. The President of the United States was just impeached but the votes for and against followed partisan lines, ensuring years of bitter acrimony to come, regardless of what happens next in the Senate. A cacophony of voices pollute the discussion that has to be had regarding the President’s conduct with the type of rhetoric Auden criticized in the passage cited above. The nonexistent center cannot hold; the apparatus is rotted and rotting.

Can it be renewed? Not by any purely secular physic any talking head you could tune in to would recommend. Its destiny, as with all creatures in this present evil age, is death. Again and again states and societies cycle through the meat grinder of history, rising, falling, dying spasmodically, desperate, like Ebola, to throw some trace of its genetic data to another host in which to take up residence. The burden of empire is cast as a noble sacrifice for the good of the benighted many, but its administration always creates deserts and calls them “peace”; it builds monuments to cities which had to be sacrificed for total victory but forgets the names of the human beings who lived in them. History is frequently appealed to as a justification for barbarities carried out but “history” has no consolation or approbation to speak back to us. As Auden wrote in the final stanza of his poem, “Spain”:

The stars are dead. The animals will not look.
We are left alone with our day, and the time is short, and
History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help nor pardon.

Auden, in time, would disavow this poem, but that doesn’t change how true these words are. Botch, similarly, would repudiate the breakdown in We Are the Romans’ third-to-final song, “Frequency Ass Bandit” (at the 3:22 mark) as too-typical hardcore padding. But I disagree. The song’s lunging high/low crests and troughs build towards the unrestrained release of brutality that breakdown bodies forth — the song demands this detonation of focused fury. It’s the perfect transition into the record’s final stretch which culminates in “Man the Ramparts,” whose gonzo Gregorian chant interlude says it all: We are the Romans. Our days are numbered. We may go down fighting, but we are going down.

And maybe this isn’t such a bad thing.

The things that transmit and bring home grace are fragile things, things that cannot endure the weight of empires and cycles of history, things that will be denigrated or forgotten by official histories and court chronicles. But these are the things that will persist into the age to come, make the passage of time before that age’s full unveiling more bearable. In the riotously counterintuitive kingdom of God, arsenals and conquests and treasure troves count for less than nothing, whereas a cup of cold water, we are promised, will be remembered by its king. All hangs in the balance awaiting a refreshing drink, and though it come in a Dixie cup it will not go unrewarded. So it goes with the upside down kingdom.

I learned that Botch disliked that breakdown while listening to the commentary on the DVD of their final show, 061502. I bought that disc one Christmas season when I was staying in Chicago with my friend Dave Shay, whose family always opened their home to me and made me feel so welcome. It was always such a refreshing break from the arid stupidities that characterized life back at home in Wisconsin: the familial troubles, the disconnection from friends, the long-lasting aftershocks of compromise and idiocy during high school… These things regularly choked out joy and made the year feel like December without Christmas. The kindness and affection that hung about their home and clung to their interactions was a glimpse into what family should look like, of how Christian faith shapes the day-to-day. It felt like Harry spending Christmas with the Weasleys. It was a cup of cold water every time I stayed with them; though it will never make its way into any history textbook it will never be forgotten.

We Are the Romans was released twenty years ago last November. Botch is remembered by some, but not by as many as they deserve to be. So it goes — this is a world where people know the latest silly thing John Macarthur has to say but aren’t aware of who Jean Vanier is so as to mourn his death. We are entangled in so many stupid, life-draining regimes, too preoccupied with the superficial and insubstantial to take note of the good and true and beautiful ‘til long after they’re gone. Rome couldn’t recognize what was right in front of its eyes and executed the Lord of Glory as an enemy of the state.

And in a way, they were right. In this Epiphany season, we remember the coming of the humble child King who will bring to ruin every other reign and recompense every good gift, however small. The despots of his day sensed in their guts the threat he posed to their way of doing things and instinctively followed the protocol natural to all claimants to empire. Botch howl and fire devastating decibels against every charade of imperial burden, and they deride any theology of glory-derived Christianity as a hangnail clipped from the Adamic limb. We Are the Romans could be the dissonant crash we need to awaken us to our plight. Remember rightly, put the spiritual benzedrine back on the shelf, and prepare some cups of cold water instead.