Bizarre New World

Just in time for what has been insistently declared, despite the resistance of the pedants, to be the new millennium, a handsome and informative book appears, to enlighten us about that long, difficult, and often neglected period, the postclassical world. It runs, the editors declare, roughly from 250 to 800 CE. Those centuries have received their undying definition from the masterpiece of Edward Gibbon: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. That title does not conceal a moral judgment—the fall of the Roman Empire, evidently, was a bad thing. As Gibbon famously declared,

If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus [that is, 96-180 CE].

And as he said again, much later in his history:

Whatever prejudices may be suggested in favour of Barbarism, our calmer reflections will ascribe to the Romans the superior advantages, not only of science and reason, but of humanity and justice.

We, by contrast, live in an age which is unhappy about making moral judgments, especially about other periods or other cultures; and we are, in many ways, prejudiced in favor of Barbarism—at least as opposed to imperialism. Gibbon goes on to say:

The story of its ruin is simple and obvious; and instead of inquiring why the Roman empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it had subsisted so long.

We are even better placed to appreciate that remark, now that we have witnessed the rise and collapse of the European empires, come and gone in a mere couple of centuries. Rome did last a very long time, being dominant in the Mediterranean world from about 200 BCE to the first sack of the Eternal City by a barbarian chieftain in 410 CE, and continuing to exist, with more or less power and dominion, in Constantinople (“New Rome,” “Rum” in the language of the Muslim neighbors who coveted it), until the capture of that city by the Turks in 1453.

The West has traditionally been both surprised and also sorry that Rome fell. Surprised, perhaps, in part because of the extraordinary success of the Romans in constructing buildings so imposing that they almost look timeless, and because of the power of their propaganda, which really does radiate the self-confidence of an empire that would last a thousand years: propaganda both visual, in statues and mosaics and triumphal arches, and also literary—the Aeneid of Virgil, the Roman Odes of Horace, the Histories of Livy and Tacitus. Sorry, because of a sense that a culture both higher and also more congenial was overwhelmed and replaced by something uncouth, violent, difficult to grasp, and hard to find sympathetic; by societies obsessed with religion in ways that are remote from us, and producing art and literature which need a lot of apology and defense …

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