As regular readers know, or those who peruse my Twitter timeline know, I have another blog where I write political essays, The People’s View. I try to keep those two worlds separate as much as I can. I generally want this blog to deal with the breadth and scope of my interests outside of politics, from writing to reading, family to friends, work to play. But, sometimes, those two worlds intersect. This is one such case.
While hanging out at TPV, one of the regulars posted a comment leading me to a podcast I hadn’t heard of: The Fall of Rome. Produced by recently enshrined PhD historian Patrick Wyman—who is a fellow Angeleno HOLLA—it expands on his dissertation to encompass the slow decay and fall of the Roman Empire, from roughly 376 to 550 CE. As of this writing, I’ve listened to the first episode, and I’m hooked.
In case you don’t know this about me: I’m a huge Roman history buff. I mean huge. I don’t think I can overstate just how much Rome fascinates me. As a child in parochial school in New York City, our school library had a book on Roman history. It was part comic book, part history treatise. I remember that it was a very well written, thorough text, and the illustrations were just what would appeal to a geeky young boy. From the time I began attending that school in 2nd grade to graduation in 8th, I must have checked out that book a few times a year, even after I had advanced far beyond it in my reading abilities. Roman history has been a passion of mine since the 2nd grade, first just because it was so ancient and alien, and then as I grew older because I could discern commonalities with my own time. The similarities between the decay of the Republic and our own American malaise spoke to me as a younger man. And now, as the American Empire and perhaps the American Experiment may be entering the twilight, the slow unraveling of Rome is on my mind.
I won’t go much into the podcast, as you must enjoy it for yourself. But one thing Dr. Wyman said towards the end of the first episode struck me.
In academic circles devoted to Rome’s fall, two schools predominate: the continuists and the catastrophists. The continuists posit that there was no “fall”, that the western Roman world merely evolved into a new form; as Dr. Wyman illustrated, a monk in a 7th century abbey could still read Ovid in his library. The catastrophists are quite clear that calamity struck, and everything fell apart at one stroke. Their great example is the fate of Britain, which really did suffer a catastrophe as the legions departed and everything became a war of all against all.
Dr. Wyman seeks a synthesis of the two, and he posits that Rome neither died of natural causes (continuists) nor was murdered (catastrophists) but that it instead died by accidentally committing suicide. As he puts it (paraphrased): tens of thousands of people across the Empire made tens of thousands of decisions which led to the state’s unraveling, from not paying taxes to not participating in civic life to, as with Britain, bringing in Saxon mercenaries to handle security, never foreseeing that those mercenaries would soon dispense with their employers. Bit by bit, citizens of the Empire lost any sense of connection with each other, until, one day, the idea of the Empire no longer obtained.
Driving in my car (of course), listening to that bit of the podcast, the parallels to our condition struck me. Are we committing slow, unconscious suicide, as we eschew any common good, wrapped up in a tribal struggle? You all know to which tribe I belong; that doesn’t mean that I don’t see this war as anything but inimical. From Brexit to Calexit the sureties of the past seem to be falling by the wayside. Just as the collapse of a Roman’s ability to travel from London to Carthage in safety and speed heralded the death of the idea of the Empire, is the same happening here and in Europe? Californians are different from Texans; Britons are different from Germans. What binds us together? Do we wish to be bound together any longer?
Of course, I’m not answering those questions in this essay. Just food for thought.
Go. Download the podcast. Take it as your friendly librarian’s recommendation.