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Bewildering Stories

James J. O’Donnell, The Ruin of the Roman Empire

The Emperor Who Brought It Down
The Barbarians Who Could Have Saved It

Review article by Donald Webb

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The Ruin of the Roman Empire
Author: James J. O’Donnell
Publisher: Harper Collins, 2008
Length: 394 pp. + 32 pp notes, index
ISBN: 978-0-06-078741-7 trade paper

I. Why This Review, and Why Here?

Why recommend a book on ancient history to an audience such as that of Bewildering Stories? The reasons range from good to excellent.

First, I’ve done it before, with the review of Eric H. Cline’s 1177 B.C., The Year Civilization Collapsed. Second, we’re talking about cultural family history, about a parent of the Western world.

But I have two even better reasons: Professor O’Donnell’s book adds to a theme in today’s literature that I call “Cassandra’s Voices: Warnings to the Modern Age.” Best of all, it is just plain fascinating reading.

The endorsement on the front cover removes all doubt: “[O’Donnell] combines a historian’s mastery of substance with a born storyteller’s sense of style to create a magnificent work of art.” — Madeleine K. Albright

The former U.S. Secretary of State could hardly have put it better. And she has a professional interest in this book; it has as much to do with today’s world as with that of antiquity. I’ll offer a conversation about resemblances, differences and their ultimate meaning.

* * *

Talking about ancient Rome presents a problem: it’s a cultural commonplace. How can anyone tell readers more than they already know — or think they know?

Professor O’Donnell accomplishes the feat by bringing the Roman empire to life. I can only begin to cite the arresting and often startling facts that illuminate, page after page, the life and times of the inhabitants of the empire in many centuries.

History also lends itself to “thought experiments,” namely what can be learned from the past. Professor O’Donnell shows how one ruler, Theoderic, succeeded and how another, Justinian, might have done so if he had only had a mind to.

Perhaps it is a mark of civilization that I shall cite Theoderic’s greatest achievement in due course and defer to Professor O’Donnell’s book to tell us about the rest of Theoderic’s promising career. I’ll focus more on Justinian as a cautionary example in light of which no one can look at today’s newspaper headlines in the same way again.

Current events become all the more disquieting when we realize that rote actions often have unintended but foreseeable consequences. Governments that, out of hubris or lack of reflection or sheer stupidity, repeat the mistakes that caused the decline and fall of the Roman empire are inviting the same consequences today, namely a dark age.

II. Disclaimer

I’ve known Professor O’Donnell as “J.O.D.” since meeting him on line as a fellow member of the Humanist discussion group in 1988. That was the only place where scholars in the Humanities could gather on the primitive Internet. Those were the days of 1200-baud modems; broadband and Net browsers were years in the future.

In person, J.O.D. displays an engagingly irrepressible humor and spontaneity. You can hear it in his book, if you listen mentally. And almost every page draws parallels between antiquity and today’s world. The comparisons are always serious if occasionally humorous or ironic, and a few are justifiably though diplomatically acerbic.

III. The Roman Legacy

Professor O’Donnell’s history will interest scholars, students, and general readers alike. It abounds in enough detail and background information — as well as story plots, heroes and villains — that Hollywood and any number of writers could mine it for authentic epics and thrillers for as long as the empire itself existed.

Would you like to know how people lived? Let’s sample just a few of the topics the book expands upon: what they ate (you’ll get the full Mediterranean diet!); what they wore (tunics, after togas went out of style); and even how they smelled (no spoiler here; see for yourself).

If an ancient scholar boasts of reading by candlelight, he isn’t telling you he’s studious, he’s telling you he’s wealthy. And when the gory death cult of the early Roman arena was superseded in popularity by chariot racing, what was its social and political function? Was it an improvement? Let’s just say we learn how it bears an eerie resemblance to professional sports in today’s world.

What about the big picture? Wasn’t Rome conquered in 476? No, we discover why that date has been semi-traditional but is actually a convenient exaggeration. And didn’t Constantinople, the eastern capital, fall in 1453? So what? It had long since become a vestige waiting to be put out of its misery.

The very name “Rome” is sticky. Didn’t Napoleon put an end, once and for all, to the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, after Voltaire had dismissed it with a supercilious snort as “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire”?

Both Voltaire’s wit and Napoleon’s coup d’état came much too late: the Roman empire had become an ideal, a myth, a legend. Its prestige had left a long shadow and a collection of flags to be selected in later centuries to support various moral, cultural, or political ideologies. That shadow falls too close for comfort to today.

IV. The Roman Empire at Your Doorstep

Seeing Resemblances Now

The ancient world was not so long ago and not so far away. Europeans are often surrounded by souvenirs, if only in the form of stately artworks, ruins and archeological finds. North Americans have to look a little farther. If you know what you’re looking at, what you see there can be even more startling than in Europe.

When I visited the historical site of Port-Royal, in Nova Scotia, I admired its careful preservation and upkeep. It looked authentic, too. I could imagine how much at home its founder, Samuel de Champlain, the first governor of New France, might have felt if he could have revisited it with me almost four hundred years after its founding in 1605. I mischievously wrote in the guest register, “This settlement reminds me very much of the fort I built in Sacramento, California in 1839. [signed] Johann Sutter.”

Coming from the American South, I’m somewhat used to old things. Sometimes one can even see a mansion that survived the Union armies in the Civil War. In the back country, one may still chance upon cabins, still inhabited, that once were the homes of slaves.

What does any of this have to do with the Roman empire, which was more than a millennium in the past and half a world away? Let’s look at the resemblances.

Seeing Resemblances Then

Port-Royal is very reminiscent of the country settlements of northern France in the 16th century and — change the name — of northern Gaul at the time of the Franks, a thousand years earlier. Likewise, bring an ordinary inhabitant of the Roman empire from the year 340 to California in 1840; he would feel quite at home at Sutter’s Fort. And in each colony, the governors even spoke a descendant of Latin: French, at Port-Royal; Spanish, in Sacramento.

Tourists time-traveling from the western Roman empire would not have felt at home, exactly, in the antebellum Old South of the U.S. However, they would have instantly recognized the society: plantations owned by several hundred wealthy families and worked by slaves.

Those visitors would have seen a replica of a society that persisted — one may justifiably say stagnated — for centuries in Italy, southern Gaul and Hispania. In the early 19th century, those visitors might have met people who could read Latin, which was required learning for any well-educated person.

And even today, ancient Rome just doesn’t seem to go away. We keep seeing it in TV costume dramas complete with swords and sandals. And for many, the Bible remains a permanent reminder of real people living in the reality of the Roman world.

Differences and Meaning

However, as we shall see, differences can be as important as resemblances, and conditions were by no means identical. For one thing, the pioneers in North America had something that the Romans did not: gunpowder.

Even in 1840, metallurgy was still in its infancy; steamboat boilers had an unhappy tendency to explode. The transcontinental railway, delayed by the Civil War, was completed only in 1869. It was small arms that made the conquest of the American frontier possible. That process includes a warning that solemnly echoes Professor O’Donnell’s message.

In June 1876, General George Armstrong Custer’s 7th Cavalry faced Indians armed with the bows, arrows and lances of antiquity. But the Indians also had plenty of rifles and ammunition. Gunpowder and the weight of numbers enabled the Plains Indians to turn the tables on the U.S. Army in the borderlands of the Old West... but too late.

In the Middle East, which has forever been both the birthplace and graveyard of empires, 21st-century battles have likewise been fought with what might be called “mixed ordnance” and as unconventional warfare. The name Custer raises a warning flag in the light of General Douglas MacArthur’s caution against waging a ground war on the continent of Asia.

Now, do 1,700 years seem so long ago and far away? Not when conditions were still recognizable to the ancient Romans as recently as 170 years ago.

V. Was the Roman Empire Worth It?

Borderlands know no borders.

Table of Contents


Part I: Theoderic’s World
  1. Rome in 500: Looking Backward
  2. The World That Might Have Been
Part II: Justinian’s World
  1. Being Justinian
  2. Opportunities Lost
  3. Wars Worse Than Civil
Part III: Gregory’s World
  1. Learning to Live Again
  2. Constantinople Deflated:
    the Debris of Empire
  3. The Last Consul


Let the Table of Contents outline Professor O’Donnell’s book. As we can see, it deals mainly with the fateful sixth century. After that time, only the eastern Roman empire remained vital as a social and political entity, and its days were numbered.

An essential consideration is not apparent in the Table of Contents: the importance of borderlands both in the Roman empire and in the world generally. The very first sentences of the Preface announce the theme. Note the postmark: it’s from borderlands that continue to be emblazoned in today’s headlines:

An American soldier posted in Anbar province during the twilight war over the remains of Saddam’s Mesopotamian kingdom might have been surprised to learn that he was defending the westernmost frontiers of the ancient Persian empire against raiders, smugglers and worse coming from the eastern reaches of the ancient Roman empire. This painful recycling of history should make him — and us — want to know what recurrent pathology [...] draws men and women to their deaths again and again in such a place. The history of Rome, as has often been true in the past, has much to teach us. (p. ix)

Borderlands come back to haunt the 21st century as much as the sixth century: the American southwest, Ireland, North Africa, Ukraine, the lands east of the Mediterranean and Hong Kong, to name a few. In the sixth century, the two important ones in Europe were the Rhine and Danube. We shall see why they were borders to begin with and what they meant.

What’s it all about?

Suppose we could go back in time and ask a few emperors, “What does the Roman empire stand for?” I suspect that most emperors would not understand the question; they might cite past or present glories, especially military triumphs.

But we’re not asking what the empire was bad for; we know about the conquest, plunder and oppression typical of warlike empire-builders such as the Romans, Incas and Aztecs. Rather, we’re asking, “What is the empire good for? What purpose does it serve? What is it supposed to do?”

Americans ought to have no problem if asked the same question about their own country. They can simply point to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and say, “That is what America is supposed to be all about.” The Romans didn’t have that. But they did have a general idea: civilitas, which meant, roughly, “law and order” and everything it implied, including social and commercial trust and our modern word “civility.”

Turn the question upside down and it becomes easier. Take away the Roman empire in its place and time: what do you get? You don’t need an emperor to tell you: it’s a blighted neighborhood. It’s one where the people have either no concept of productive labor or, if they do, no hope of improving their lives by it. If they’re lucky, they may be able to trade some items, but mostly they don’t get ahead; they stay even by subsistence farming and by stealing from each other or from their neighbors.

We can find an example in a legend dating from the founding of Rome itself: the “rape” (‘abduction’, and the modern sense counts, too) of the Sabines. The Romans needed wives, but the neighboring Sabines mistrusted the Romans and wouldn’t deal with the rival town. There was as yet no Roman or other empire to resolve the local politics — or belay the shakedown gone bad — at the core of the problem; and the rest, as the saying goes, is history.

Picture also the clan and tribal warfare of pre-antiquity and the early Middle Ages or today’s urban street gangs and organized crime. Take a wrong turn — into a dark wood or a hostile village; or, today, into a dark alley, a modern hate group, or economic fraud and dislocation — and you’re back in the Dark Ages. The purpose of the Roman empire was to suppress danger and armed conflict, but it had to use force to do so.

Sometimes force worked, especially by eradicating piracy and banditry and by promoting trade. The Mediterranean became a Roman lake — mare nostrum, “our sea” — and a superhighway. Wind power alone made it less expensive to ship food to Rome from Egypt and the rest of North Africa than to cart it overland from villas in Italy itself. Vagaries of weather and harvests often made adequate supplies undependable, but the system worked better than any other available.

Today, we might say of the Roman empire, “A nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.” However, on second thought, we might add, “Unless I happened to live almost anywhere else at the time.”

Things would be a lot simpler if they weren’t so complicated.

Sometimes force didn’t work. Ever since Augustus, the Roman empire had only two land borders on the continent, roughly along the Rhine and Danube. Those borders were defendable. But maintaining them as borders — somewhat like the Rio Grande, between Texas and Mexico — had inadvertent consequences that are central to Professor O’Donnell’s thesis.

We all may have seen maps colorfully depicting the incursions of “barbarians” into the Roman empire. We might imagine serried ranks of armored, spear-toting troops, like the Saxons in Jerry Bruckheimer’s film King Arthur, chanting, “Schlachten Feindar!” (‘Slay the foe’). No, you’d expect something similar but much less carefully choreographed in border wars or, much later, in Viking raids. In migrations? Not so much.

The “barbarians” who were warriors fought a lot, just not everybody and not all the time. And warriors did not just spring up out of the ground; they presumably had mothers. At their origin and in the background were families and tribes who needed food, clothing, shelter and a reasonably peaceful life.

The total number of invasions and invaders, at the most generous count, is still triflingly small compared with the wealth and military force that Rome had at its disposal. (p. 87)

Some tribes, such as the modernly tattooed Picts north of Hadrian’s Wall, just wanted to be left, for good or ill, to their own devices. Many others did not want to resist the Romans, they wanted to become Romans. They knew a good thing when they saw it: protection from their neighbors and from each other. Two cases in point:

Theoderic reigned, for all practical purposes, as emperor in the west at his court in Ravenna from 493 to 526, and his reign was praised in his own time as a golden age of restored peace and civilitas. When you consider how little remains of ancient writing, a good word goes a very long way. “Not bad for a barbarian” is a modern condescension. But we don’t have to take an ancient’s word for it; the proof is in the results:

After Theoderic’s death in 526 [...] Italy as a whole would know no comparable unity, prosperity and freedom from warfare until the 1950’s. (p. 106)

How could a “barbarian” become not only a Roman emperor but also one of the most successful? By instinctively recognizing and preserving the best that Roman culture had to offer: civilitas. In the process, he appears to have exercised such political skill that his name never became a household word for conqueror. He, too, knew a good thing when he saw it and was careful to distill and preserve the best of it.

Theoderic’s golden age did not last. The empire ruled from Constantinople took major wrong turns under Justinian (r. 527-565).

VI. Two Wrong Turns

“There’s a sort of vicious cycle. The more you gain control and the more you can monitor, the more paranoid you become of anything going wrong.” — Anabel Quan-Haase

Professor O’Donnell begins his book with the curious story of Cosmas, an Alexandrian merchant who traded with east Africa and elsewhere in the early sixth century. Cosmas described his travels prolifically and was dubbed by a later copyist as one who had sailed to the Indies. Alas, he never went to India. But I imagine he would have enjoyed the notoriety; like any sailor, he liked tall tales.

The tallest tale of all is Cosmas himself. A Greek trader out of Alexandria, the intellectual capital of the empire, he believed the world was flat.

Today, a “round-earth denier” is dismissed as delusional. In the sixth century, Cosmas was a joke: a cranky reactionary who selected imagery from scripture and gave it an absurdly literal interpretation in order to score what amounted to quaint debating points. Insert your own acerbic modern comparisons here.

Justinian ended the sixth century in the same way as Cosmas began it. They both marched into the future with their eyes fixed firmly on the past and on untenable fairytales. Cosmas was a relatively harmless crackpot; Justinian wasn’t harmless. Justinian’s efforts to monitor and gain control had the predictable consequences. And he took two fatal wrong turns.

The Wrong Turn in Europe and Asia

“If you’re not with us, you’re against us.” — George W. Bush
“Don’t do stupid stuff.” — Barack Obama

Justinian’s tragedy is not really a matter of post hoc hindsight, but there’s no point in condemning the person himself. Rather, one might say he misunderstood his job description. He thought of himself as an emperor mainly to the extent that he made Constantinople, as Professor O’Donnell puts it, a kind of imperial “theme park.” His talents for show business did not compensate for an administrative style better suited to a police chief or border-patrol commander.

Justinian adopted a kind of bunker strategy by defending the Danube as his north-central border. The Berlin Wall, which closed the “short 20th century” with its fall in 1989, was an egregious caricature of Justinian’s policy, but the idea was cut from the other side of the same cloth. The Danube line might have made sense when Augustus adopted it, five centuries earlier, but it no longer made sense in Justinian’s time.

Defense, policing and border patrol have their place, but an emperor’s priority is the big picture, the nature of the empire itself. Justinian did not have to welcome the people of the Balkans as undocumented immigrants, so to speak, like the Vandals and Franks; no one had to line up at consulates to fill out forms. At worst, it was a matter of finding places for newcomers to live. Goths and Lombards found homes in Italy, where they assimilated readily. And since the empire’s cities needed all the agricultural production they could get, and since the population of Europe was a small fraction of today’s, was finding room an insurmountable problem?

Was Justinian inventing problems where there were none? Of course, no one was going to charm the likes of Attila the Hun (r. 434-453). But with able leaders such as the general Aetius, the empire could stand up to him and his ilk. In fact, Professor O’Donnell tells us something surprising about Attila: “He is envied and admired by history buffs and business-management writers who conveniently forget that, as a leader, he was a catastrophic failure.” (p. 92)

What if Justinian had had the common courtesy — let alone the imagination — to deal politely with the people beyond the Danube? If he had treated his neighbors with the respect accorded to citizens of his own realm, they might have seen the advantage in becoming such citizens or, if they knew a good thing when they saw it, allies, or even willing defenders of the new country in their own lands.

Sadly, the peoples of the borderlands were either exploited or shut out entirely; Justinian left them on their own to sort out their own identities. Professor O’Donnell’s conclusion is both startling and sobering: in effect, Justinian created the Germans and Slavs by default.

Meanwhile, the Persian emperor Khusro offered peace, alliance, and even collegiality. Justinian spurned it, having in mind only the ancient enmity between Greece and Persia. Professor O’Donnell explains the details of the missed opportunity, but we know the consequences: horsemen from the steppes of Asia eventually put paid to Justinian’s ostrich policy.

The Wrong Turn in Religion

Knowledge is to wisdom as facts are to meaning.

Diversity is built into any religion, and Christianity has always run true to form. By the sixth century it had taken on various “flavors” depending mainly on where it was practiced.

That diversity has long since become the rule. The Lutheran denomination in North America, to cite one example among many, has “synods” based mainly on national origin, namely Germany and the Scandinavian countries. And each synod has subgroups that emphasize one form of practice or another. To us, such diversity seems quite natural. Not to Justinian.

Justinian could have followed a good example, assuming he was familiar enough with it. Constantine (r. 306-337) apparently did understand diversity. An astute politician, he sort of sided with Christianity, which had become popular with the common people, and yet he avoided alienating other sects and the influential people who might adhere to them. Not Justinian’s style.

Constantine’s politics may have been a form of civilitas; at the very least, it would have given Justinian a model of pragmatism. In addition, wisdom could have gone a long way toward providing a safety net. And that meant revealing what was hiding in plain sight.

* * *

Le pouvoir n’aime pas un autre pouvoir. — Gustave Flaubert
Political power dislikes another power.

As I see it, the ancients seem to have faced a problem in logic. Christianity was based on what had always been acknowledged as a conundrum: how could Jesus be both man and God, i.e. both natural and supernatural? Canada’s eminent literary scholar, Northrop Frye, explains it:

In descriptive writing you have to be careful of associative language. You’ll find that analogy, or likeness to something else, is very tricky to handle in description, because the differences are as important as the resemblances. As for metaphor, where you’re really saying “this is that,” you’re turning your back on logic and reason completely, because logically two things can never be the same thing and still remain two things. [...] The only genuine joy you can have is in those rare moments when you feel that although we may know in part, as Paul says, we are also a part of what we know. (in The Educated Imagination)

Frye’s succinct explanation fell upon appreciative and understanding ears in the CBC’s Massey Lectures of 1963. Today we understand “Christ” as a metaphor for an authority claim of a kind that was entirely new in those early centuries.

It matters not in the slightest whether Jesus’ confrontation with Pontius Pilate actually took place or is a dramatization designed to make a point (e.g. John 18:33-38). Rather, it sums up a problem that faced the ancient world for centuries and is not always fully understood today.

In this primordial Passion play, Pilate asks whether Jesus is “king of the Jews.” Jesus answers, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Since Pilate understands only “my kingdom,” one would expect Jesus’ case to be closed on the spot. It’s not that the Pilate character in this drama won’t listen; quite the contrary. Rather, “not of this world” is something he simply can’t understand.

Pilate is not thinking, “Just a minute here: the Roman empire does not allow separation of church and state.” Rather, he’s unable to grasp the concept of a parallel, non-state counter-culture even when it’s put to him in plain terms.

At the end of the conversation, Pilate admits, for all practical purposes, that he has no idea what Jesus is talking about. It’s probably just as well. Crushing any opposition — real or imagined — was all in a day’s work for the Pilate of history. How might he have reacted if he had realized that he and his empire were being dismissed as irrelevant?

Pilate’s incomprehension had deep cultural roots. If we polled inhabitants of the empire at random and asked them why they mixed religion with government, they might say, “A government with gods is good juju. Or bad, as the case may be. We’ve always done it that way. And, in any case, you seem to be making a distinction without a difference.”

Nor did the common worldview distinguish between the natural and the supernatural; everything — from animals to man to gods — was of a piece. And the fact that gods or other mysterious entities were directly accessible only to the privileged, namely rulers and priests, was immaterial. And yet a few were beginning to ask what else there might be. The idea was in the wind, and it was catching on.

Roman power enabled early emperors to clothe themselves with divine status by circular logic: “I’m divine because I’m emperor, and I’m emperor because I’m divine.” Some seventeen centuries later, a prophet of another sort saw that Jesus had turned the principle upside down and inside out. Jefferson concluded that divine sanction applied to everyone and that it guaranteed a priori not the political power of empire but the rights of civilization, including “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

In the end, Pilate’s cynical shrug “What is truth?” sums up the rationale of a flunky who is “just following orders.” The truth is that human beings define the divinity whose will they claim to do. That’s the moral responsibility that comes from having a conscience or, if you prefer, from eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Could “Christ” have been accepted as a transcendent metaphor, as Frye explains it? Would those who put it into practice have phrased it even roughly in those terms? Yes. As Northrop Frye points out, when Paul speaks of understanding a figure “spiritually” he means the same thing as we do by “metaphorically.” My suggestion is that the literal content of the metaphor is “man,” the figure is “God,” and the meaning is faith in action, including self-sacrifice.

Children typically grasp one element or another of the image but fail to understand the meaning that links the literal and the figurative. Justinian seems to have taken the “God” part literally while overlooking the human part and the meaning. Literalism and an authoritarian mindset may go at least part of the way toward explaining why, as Professor O’Donnell suggests, Justinian took religion and himself seriously to a fault.

Justinian wanted above all a conformist Christianity and insisted with an almost Stalinesque heavy-handedness on a single “pledge of allegiance.” He succeeded only in alienating denominations such as that of Theoderic’s culture as well as those in Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean.

Professor O’Donnell sadly concludes that Justinian ultimately made Christian unity impossible and, I gather, opened the door to Islam’s charge of polytheism. The imputation is mistaken, of course, but it’s hard to blame Muslims if they found Christians’ differences as baffling as their own appear to others today.

Sixth-century theological squabbles may have aroused passions at the time, but today they’re eye-glazing. The schism of the Reformation, some nine centuries later, had equally earth-shaking consequences, and it has taken Protestants and Roman Catholics another five hundred years to begin to realize, belatedly, that they need each other.

How much easier and more beneficial would such a realization have been in Justinian’s time? How odd and curious will our own rationales appear to the 36th century, assuming there is one?

A review of the J. J. O’Donnell’s Pagans:
The End of Traditional Religion
and the Rise of Christianity

appears in issue 613.

VII. What Might Have Gone Right?

Here’s where alternate history comes in. I’ll summarize Professor O’Donnell’s thesis and run with it.

If Justinian had only opened his hand, would freshly roasted pigeons have fallen into it as though downed by Cyrano de Bergerac’s fast-food rifle? Nothing is ever so easy. And yet it is more inspiring to wonder what might have happened if the “barbarian” Theoderic had been emperor in Constantinople and Justinian had not.

Think big. Roman order and civilitas might have spread in the Balkans and to central and eastern Europe. One opportunity can lead to another. An alternate-history Roman empire might have stood with Persia against the Mongol onslaught in the 12th century and skipped the Middle Ages.

Regression to the Mean

Of course, such “what if’s” depend on many factors, especially systemic ones. The Roman empire always had broad shoulders and a neck but was at something of a loss when it came to finding a head. Succession in high political “office” was sometimes negotiated but too often determined by power struggles in the form of coups and wars. The best that can be said for the system is that it was as quick a fix as could be expected under the circumstances.

Optimism can be inspiring: sometimes a country gets the leader it needs. And timing can be all-important. Thus, modern democracies such as the U.S. hedge their bets on leadership by limiting the terms of office of their heads of government.

For example, President James Buchanan, looking backwards, tried and failed to sweep under the political rug America’s differences over slavery. As a consequence, it was left to Abraham Lincoln’s political and, especially, literary genius to create a new unifying narrative for the nation. If Buchanan had served a longer term in office, the dark age depicted in Ward Moore’s classic novel Bring the Jubilee might have seemed less implausible than it does.

Governments whose leaders have no term limits don’t hedge their bets; they go all in with each new ruler. They may win big, but they also stand to lose everything. What were the odds that the empire’s dice would roll two Theoderics? Very small, especially since Justinian made sure that he would be the average while Theoderic would remain an outlier.

With Justinian trying to imitate Augustus while having the conceptual limitations of Pontius Pilate, the Roman empire outlived its usefulness and made itself irrelevant. It needed a new, civilized narrative for new times, but that narrative and the structure that embodied it would have to come, for both good and ill, from the counter-culture.

VIII. Cassandra’s Voice

Cassandra's Voices

Cassandra’s Voices
Warnings to the Modern Age

Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God
Eric H. Cline, 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed
Jane Jacobs, Dark Age Ahead
James J. O’Donnell, The Ruin of the Roman Empire
Don Webb, Cassandra’s Voices in 2016

The Big Picture

Cultures hang by threads. Eric H. Cline shows how a late Bronze Age culture prospered from international trade but hung by the threads of “palace economies” and uncertain peace. It was brought down by a “perfect storm” of war and natural calamities, with the Sea Peoples’ invasions as the coup de grâce.

Jane Jacobs tells us what a dark age is: it’s a culture’s forgetting what it has lost. She identifies five threads that are fraying in Post-Industrial society. And she cites Jared Diamond’s example of a culture’s taking a wrong turn: In 1433, China was foremost in the world in oceangoing exploration and trade. But a political power play that only historians know of and no one cares about today caused the ships to be recalled and the shipyards dismantled. China turned inwards, left the world open to the Europeans, and sank into a dark age.

Karen Armstrong explains the nature of the world-wide civil war (my term) playing out in today’s news headlines. She may help us understand Justinian’s siege mentality as a kind of prototypical “fundamentalism,” a word Karen Armstrong dislikes but admits we’re stuck with.

We may not always know at the time what crucial threads have been cut or what wrong turns have been taken. Some of them, as in the sixth century CE and the 12th century BCE, may be invisible in the worldview of the rulers at the time. No matter: the shadows may lengthen quickly or slowly, but they have a way of growing inexorably.

Choices Then

Which is better: impenetrable borders or productive citizens? Remember the Franks in northern Gaul and their successors, including Charlemagne. Theoderic, a Goth from the Balkans became the epitome of a Roman emperor. And even the itinerant Vandals found a home.

Which is better: unity or conformity? What are the consequences of enforcement? What are the benefits of tolerance?

Theoderic’s great achievement was the coexistence of Romans with Romans and Romans of many different kinds, and even a suggestion of dissolving that unity would have baleful consequences. (p. 127)

Choices Now

We know what Justinian would do today: we see it regularly in news reports of political strutting, provocation and ideological obduracy. How, then, can a dark age be avoided? At the end of his Epilogue, Professor O’Donnell warns against becoming locked into utopian or straitjacketed thinking in any guise and thereby failing to perceive, as I see it, “the signs of the times”:

Today, as in the sixth century, a calm sense for the long view, the broad view, and a pragmatic preference for the better rather than the best can have a hard time overcoming the noisy anxiety of those who would transform — that is, ruin — what they do not understand.

Civilization is a thing of the calm, the patient, the pragmatic, and the wise. We are not assured it will triumph. (p. 394)

The conclusion is stated almost in terms of practical politics, as well befits the author’s subject. Alas, it also reminds us that politics is practiced, for good or ill, by human beings. Like everyone, politicians are products of their childhood, society and cultural history. Only the wise and reflective can escape those constraints.

The view from space

The now-departed UFO’s of the late 20th century have, no doubt, reported to their home world that human beings often have far more cognitive intelligence than emotional intelligence. One may know the proverb Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien (‘Best is the enemy of good’), but one needs emotional intelligence to apply it, to exercise prudence and avoid hubristically or stupidly knocking over a hornets’ nest.

The space aliens surely have a more advanced literary style. They’ll look upon us with the same ironic detachment as we view antiquity: “Earthlings are very smart but abysmally ignorant. Many of them think they’re practical; fewer of them are wise.”

The view from the future

A 50th-century historian has already reported how the Post-Industrial Age resembles the late Bronze Age and what the consequences will have been. In a postscript, that historian adds:

The Industrial Age took a correct turn in the second quarter of the 20th century by recognizing, albeit dimly, that economies depend on entire populations as well as on isolated means of production. In the second half of the century, the Cold War reversed the process, and a prescient American president warned against concentrating power in the “military-industrial complex.”

But the concentration proceeded apace, and a climate of fear in the Post-Industrial Age lured national leaders into futile wars abroad and repression at home. At the same time, nations sealed their borders, turned inwards, and let their societies stagnate.

Politics itself became irrelevant. Nationalists and partisans tacitly conspired to maintain low-level mutual antagonism in order to retain political power. They were eventually overcome by economic and cultural sects attempting to impose quasi-religious or religious shibboleths. Science was attacked and even suppressed when ideology caused both politicians and the people to lose touch with reality. Production and trade dwindled as economic inequality increased. Land and even entire territories became the last valuable commodities for the wealthy few. The stage was set for a new feudalism.

But too late. Economic distress and popular unrest overwhelmed thought control and police-state surveillance. Natural calamities caused mass migrations to repeat those of the Sea Peoples on a vastly larger scale. The ends of both the Bronze Age and the Roman empire were duplicated simultaneously.

IX. Conclusion: What Is Civilization, Anyway?

Travaillons donc à bien penser: voilà le principe de la morale. — Pascal, Pensées
Let us then strive to think well; that is the principle of ethics.

Professor O’Donnell’s book sounds a clear and grim warning against futile conflicts both then and now. But it offers far more: it lays out the facts of the Roman empire and asks implicitly, “What did it mean and what ought it to have meant?” In short, he’s asking the pragmatic question of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile, which lies at the basis of all education: À quoi cela est-il bon? — ‘What’s it good for?’

A discussion of civilization can hardly conclude without going to the mountaintop. The passage from Northrop Frye’s “Motive for Metaphor,” quoted earlier, itself ends with a quote from Paul’s famous hymn to charity in 1 Corinthians 13:1-13. And Paul gives one of the more succinct definitions we have of the civilized mind.

Paul says nothing about empires and everything about individuals. But we must keep him and Jesus in perspective: neither was a social or spiritual isolationist. Rather, they show us that, like Theoderic or Justinian or Cosmas or even themselves, one is always in a position to do good or harm. How does anyone fit into the sweep of history? Paul tells us bluntly: we can see it only dimly, if at all. But “we are a part of what we know,” and we know we do matter in the grand scheme of things.

In that regard, our apocalyptic scenarios are not a contradiction and claim no special insight. The “space aliens” simply state the obvious. Our “future historian” merely draws straight-line extrapolations from what has already happened or is happening now. Our fictional historian does not — in fact, cannot — take into account such factors as non-linearity, path dependency and sheer luck, about which we shall hear in a future review.

To paraphrase Paul’s conclusion: let’s read our job descriptions correctly. Not a single one of them says that anyone is the boss of the world, let alone its emperor. As we know, some leaders, politicians or rulers — in any century — either never get the memo or misread it.

And yet many people have seen through the glass, however darkly. Two examples, taken almost at random:

Civilization is not a people or place, it’s a state of mind — in other words, it is “not of this world.” In politics, Roman civilitas was a good start toward good government, and it remains as key a factor as it ever was. Caritas is the transformative value that leads from empire to civilization.


Northrop Frye, “The Motive for Metaphor” in The Educated Imagination (Toronto: Anansi Press, 2002 and HarperCollins Canada, Ltd.)

Copyright © 2014 by Donald Webb

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