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Rome, Falling

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Here is the thing about the fall of Rome–it should be a matter of straightforward reporting, but it isn’t.  And it’s the way in which it isn’t that interests me.

We know more or less when the civilization of Egypt ended, and the civilization of Sumer, and the civilization of Babylon.  What were once great empires simply disappeared into the mist, and although bits and pieces of them still float through the cultures of the world, their foundational principles are largely forgotten and unimportant for those of us now alive.

With Rome, it’s not so easy, because although the Roman empire disappeared, Rome itself did not, and the civilization of Rome is with us still.  We still read the Roman writers, from the earliest days of the Republic right down to the Christianized Senators and saints-in-training.  The Roman Catholic Church still has Latin as its official language, and Latin is the language with the most modern offshoots still in existence.

So maybe what I’m asking here is what it means that Rome “fell.”  Or that any civilization ever falls, if it doesn’t completely disappear.

The usual date for the fall of Rome is 410 AD or CE, the year the Visigoths, I think it was, sacked the city.  A lot of people sacked the city over the course of about a century.  We tend to pick this particular sack both because it was the first and because it gave rise to a truly remarkable book, St. Augustine’s Civitas Dei, City of God.

In a way, Augustine founded what would become almost a genre–books in which the fall of Rome is seen as a metaphor for something or the other the writer wants to say, or an object lesson in some moral the writer wants to make. 

For Augustine, this was about the transiency of the earthly city and the permanence of the eternal one.  Rome the Empire pronounced eternity but delivered only a fragile and precarious temporality that was at long last due to fail.  Christianity promised eternal life in a city God built, that could not be destroyed by anyone but God himself, who had promised He would not. 

The other great book about the fall of Rome is, of course, Edward Gibbon’s Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, which is a kind of anti-Augustine.  Gibbon’s point was that Rome fell because it had become Christianized, that Christianity was an afflication that made men and nations weak.  He might have bee the precursor of today’s New Atheists.

But none of this really gets to what I’ve been thinking of, which is that what strikes me about accounts of this period–and especially of accounts that attempt some kind of historical accuracy in the sequencing of events–is how diffuse it all was.

Rome didn’t “fall.”  It did something closer to just sort of sag–like a balloon losing air very slowly.  We hear a lot about how Christianity appealed to the pagan mind, but not so much about why it appealed.  By the time Constantine adopted that religion in the fourth century, most Romans no longer actually believed in their gods.  They hadn’t been talked out of belief.  They hadn’t made any rational and reasoned decision.  They’d just sort of…stopped.

This seems to me to be much closer to what is going on in the US and Western Europe today than our present narrative about religion recognizes.  I don’t think people stop believing because they’ve been convinced by arguments and evidence that there is nothing to believe in.

I think that what they do is to wake up one morning and find that, somehow, it all just sounds–well, not real.  Or maybe silly.  Or just not anything that can hold their attention any more.  It’s as if once these were stories with narrative drive, and suddenly they’re not.

This kind of thing happens all the time, of course, with actual fiction–the public goes through a mania for vampire stories, for instance, or romances, and then the mania peters out and the interest runs out of steam. 

Religious narratives require a stronger commitment, and they last longer–although I do wonder how long that will be in the world of the Internet. 

The thing is, I don’t know if it’s even possible to reinvigorate a narrative once it has fallen out of favor in this way.  It is, as a teacher of mine once said, the “so what” factor–and it seems to be operative in a lot of places these days.  It is in a lot of Christianity in the West, but in Western Europe it is also operating in the entire idea of a distinctly Western civilization. 

I have no idea if I’m making this clear enough.  I do know that, reading through this book, the incredible ennui of the Romans with their religion sounds very familiar. 

For Rome, ennui with paganism was finally transformed into passion for Christianity, but in order for such a transformation to happen, a new narrative must arise that evokes passion in both the people who tell it and the people who hear it.

I know of nothing of that kind now.  What Robert has called “the movement” doesn’t really do it.  It leaves most people completely cold, and it is completely cold.  The other contender would be Islam, which at least has the passion of its believers, but it doesn’t seem, as yet, to be capturing the passion of much of the rest of us.

Somebody or the other said once that no empire, and no ruling class, was ever defeated–they always defeated themselves.

I wonder if they don’t so much defeat themselves as just get tired.

Written by janeh

February 5th, 2010 at 12:38 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Rome, Falling'

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  1. Part of this is a perspective problem, of course. We don’t see how much of Darius and Xerxes lives on, because it doesn’t live on with us. The same is true of much of South Asian and East Asian history.
    Also, nations and empires fall in different ways. Carthage is just gone: people, language, culture, religion, everything. We have the histories of their destroyers, a smattering of archeology, and more or less informed guesswork based on their relatives in the eastern Med. We’re not a lot beter off with the Picts. Best guess now is Celts and a sort of Briton, but the best guess 70 years ago was quite different.
    We know what the ancient Egyptians were, but despite genetic continuity, they’re vanished as a people: no trace of language, culture or religion survive.
    But Rome isn’t like that. Transport a Roman of 410 AD to 2010 AD, and he could folow a Latin mass, language and belief both. He could sound out writing, and if he stuck to basic things–bread, wine and water; geographical terms and family relationships–he could understand and be understood in at least three or four provinces of the Empire. It probably wasn’t more than five or six at the peak of the empire, and he’d have had trouble with accents then.
    What happened to Rome in the West is that the people remained, adulterated by invaders and immigrants, but the government passed away. Most of the other changes were the consequence of that one big one.
    But western Rome at the end was a hugely bureaucratic structure, spending much of its revenue just to keep the government going, unable to provide for the safety and prosperity of the citizens, and unable to arrive at and implement decisions in a timely manner. The moral reserves which rebuilt Rome after it was sacked by the Gauls and kept it going when Hannibal was at the gates were long exhausted.

    We can be sure THAT won’t happen again.


    5 Feb 10 at 4:37 pm

  2. I haven’t done much reading about Rome but what I have read leaves me with the impression that “ennui” fits the whole empire and not just the pagan religion.

    During the Republic, the Roman army was made up of citizens and anyone who wanted to go into politics had to first serve in the army. That meant that leading families sent their sons into the army

    Toward the end of the Empire, the army was mostly barbarians and I get a feeling that the ordinary people in the empire treated security as the job of someone else.

    I’m reminded of the fact that in World War 2 every university had ROTC and their graduates became officers. Whereas now, the universities have shut down ROTC.


    5 Feb 10 at 7:29 pm

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