Posted by: ken98 | September 17, 2009

Who murdered the Empire?

Day 5 – Ken here

Who dun it

It was the christians.

Well, with some help from the barbarians.

Chapter 2 begins with a review of religion.  Gibbon is laying the groundwork for his later charge that Christianity destroyed the fabric of ancient society – literally.  He says the threads that tied citizens and others to their cities, religions and culture, were cut when men embraced the ultimate individuality of primitive Christianity.  He makes this case with great irony in the last 2 chapters of this first volume (published in 1776) – the famous 25th and 26th chapters – which at the rate we’re going, we won’t read before the New Year.

I think it sounds like a good case, but I think its probably far more complex. Everything seems to me to be both a lot simpler and a lot more complex than is commonly imagined (hmmm – that last sentence sounds like Roseanne Roseannadanna writing her Phd thesis).  A book – Fustel de Coulange’s The Ancient City – I read in Graduate School helped me model in my own head what drove, in part, the economy of the ancient world – I’ll get back to it later in the month. Although Wiki isn’t very impressed with Fustel De Coulange, his thesis is in part: that father-dominated families evolved into tribes that evolved into nations (like Rome). These nations, in turn created city-states which were extensions of the family itself. That kind of loyalty and drive which is an inextricable combination of religion (household gods) and state (gods of the state treated as extensions of household gods), as well as a combination of family and state created incredible amounts of energy in that society. The energy drove the fantastic engines of ambition that characterized the Republic of Rome before it was an empire.

Sack of Jerusalem by Rome - from Arch of Titus, son of Vespasian - after Jewish Revolt 69 A.D.

Sack of Jerusalem by Rome - from Arch of Titus, son of Vespasian after Jewish Revolt 69 A.D.

Gibbon is a man of the Enlightenment – and directly a man of his age.  Much of his thought seems second nature to Americans, because our country is essentially (via Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights) the most successful and longest-lived child of the Enlightenment on the planet.  Gibbon writes of Rome and its toleration of religion, its moderation and reasonableness in matters of gods, and its expectation that as long as the political rights of the state aren’t being subverted, all religions are welcome. Of course, this is a huge overstatement, but with the principal exceptions of Christians and Jews (who did not recognize the imperial cults) their motto was live and let live when it came to questions of spirituality.

The parallels between Rome and the U.S are legion (no pun intended, i guess). Much of the political superstructure of the Federal Government was consciously modeled on Rome with the strong intention of building a nation that would NOT decline and fall. We’ll get back to more of this as we continue on this year I hope.

The Deep South

Today we also end Chapter 1 with more provinces – Syria, Egypt, Africa.  In Roman times, Egypt and Africa were the grain belt of the Mediterranean, and like the ubiquitous tags “Made in China” today, “Grown in Africa” was a sign of the ruin of small farmers in Italy.  Corporate farming took over in the Roman Empire.  It may be strange to think of Egypt and Africa as nondescript and ordinary to a Roman as North Dakota is to a New Yorker, but it was so – well, maybe that’s not exactly true.  Egypt was ordinary, but very self-assured in its strangeness, like a Texan would be to a yankee from Maine.  Everything was bigger in Egypt.  And Africa was the deep south of the Empire – rich and agricultural.  Both became Roman around the beginning of the Millenium (year 0) and stayed Roman for 400 – 600 years (longer than Europeans have been settled in the States up till now). Africa and Eqypt were very Roman for a long long time.

well – enough for now

to bed with me, until tomorrow


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