Day 181 – Ken here (Th)(3-11-2010)
(DEF II, v.3, ch.29,30, pp.120-130)(pages read: 1220)
The Tired Old Thesis of Moral Degeneracy – Why did the Empire Fall and How Could it have been Stopped
Gibbon (quoting the poet Synesius) – makes the point that the driving force behind the Empire’s obvious decline (especially militarily) was love of riches and corruption. I think these are symptoms, rather than problems, much like a blemish/bump on the skin is a symptom of cancer, not the problem itself. It is easy to blame historical failures on a perceived moral failure, because it is impossible to prove (How do you SHOW moral degeneracy), and easy to suggest a remedy (just DO RIGHT).
This is not very helpful, but if feels good.
I suggest the opposite – that the failure of the empire was due to a disconnect between imperial elites, the fundamental generation of wealth, and the effective military force of the empire (easy to prove – the elites who controlled the resources were no longer connected to the “common man” in the cities even remotely – the city states were dead – the empire killed them, and the military was no longer connected to the common man in the cities – they were all barbarian mercenaries). In fact, a new empire was a-borning, although no one knew it. The unsustainable empire of serfs, elites, and barbarians was rapidly giving way to a germanized melting-pot empire/culture of pan-european scope. The borders weren’t being crossed, they were in effect being erased as unnecessary. Europe was being born. The substance of Antiquity was gone, and now even its outward forms were evaporating under the onslaught of barbarian migration and invasion.
Singing at the End of the World – Synesius – a Brief Biography
This from Wiki (here) on the Late Antique Poet-Bishop-Man-About-Town Synesius:
What a guy!!!! And he knew Hypatia!
Synesius (Greek: Συνέσιος; c. 373 – c. 414), a Greek bishop of Ptolemais in the Libyan Pentapolis after 410, was born of wealthy parents, who claimed descent from Spartan kings, at Cyrene between 370 and 375.
While still a youth (393) he went with his brother Euoptius to Alexandria, where he became an enthusiastic Neoplatonist and disciple of Hypatia. On returning to his native place about the year 397 he was chosen to head an embassy from the cities of the Pentapolis to the imperial court to ask for remission of taxation and other relief. His address to the emperor Arcadius (De regno) is full of topical advice as to the studies of a wise ruler, but also contains a bold statement that the emperor’s first priority must be a war on corruption.
His three years’ stay in Constantinople was wearisome and otherwise disagreeable; the leisure it forced upon him he devoted in part to literary composition. The Aegyptus sive de providentia is an allegory in which the good Osiris and the evil Typhon, who represent Aurelian and the Goth Gainas (ministers under Arcadius), strive for mastery; and the question of the divine permission of evil is handled.
After the successful Aurelian had granted the petition of the embassy, Synesius returned to Cyrene in 400, and spent the next ten years partly in that city, when unavoidable business called him there, but chiefly on an estate in the interior of the province, where in his own words “books and the chase” made up his life. His marriage took place at Alexandria in 403; in the previous year he had visited Athens.
In 409 or 410 Synesius, whose Christianity had until then been by no means very pronounced, was popularly chosen to be bishop of Ptolemais, and, after long hesitation on personal and doctrinal grounds, he ultimately accepted the office thus thrust upon him, being consecrated by Theophilus at Alexandria. One personal difficulty at least was obviated by his being allowed to retain his wife, to whom he was much attached; but as regarded orthodoxy he expressly stipulated for personal freedom to dissent on the questions of the soul’s creation, a literal resurrection, and the final destruction of the world, while at the same time he agreed to make some concession to popular views in his public teaching.
His tenure of the bishopric was troubled not only by domestic bereavements (his three sons died) but also by barbaric invasions of the country (in repelling which he proved himself a capable military organizer) and by conflicts with the praeses Andronicus, whom he excommunicated for interfering with the Church’s right of asylum. The date of his death is unknown; it is usually given as c. 414, because he appears to have been unaware of the violent death of Hypatia.
His many-sided activity, as shown especially in his letters, and his loosely mediating position between Neoplatonism and Christianity, make him a subject of fascinating interest. His scientific interests are attested by his letter to Hypatia in which occurs the earliest known reference to a hydrometer, and by a work on alchemy in the form of a commentary on pseudo-Democritus.
A Man For All Seasons – the Very Interesting Poet-Bishop Synesius
Synesius was an interesting man who lived (unfortunately) in interesting times (the end of civilization as he knew it – the turn of the century of 400). Rome was falling, barbarians (who had been living in the empire for a generation or two, and had been fighting their wars for them for even longer), were becoming the majority in the new world order, and were militating to take their rightful place at the table – the Roman table. It was still very possible to live the life of an extremely rich country gentleman, be a playboy, go to University at the capital, dabble in politics, and end up a married bishop and a reluctant Christian, forced into the clergy by your admiring co-citizens, and organize military operations to repel marauding barbarian hordes threatening your legion-less imperial district. Synesius did all of these things.
He became Bishop of Ptolemais, in the Cyrenais – the Pentapolis, the Five Cities at the top of the hump of Libya in North Africa. It had a long history (Phoenecian, Greek, Carthaginian, Roman) and went down in flames in the early 400’s – here is a private memorandum Synesius made to himself the Catastasis (or downfall of Cyrenaica)
Here is a piece of Synesius’ rambling thoughts on the destruction of his home town – he is sick of siege, sick of waiting for the inevitable barbarian raid, sick of not having any relief in sight (the empire has its hands full and is not sending timely aid to the falling cities):
Which of these things could one permit to reach pious ears? Anyone who thinks the citadels which they destroyed worth remembering, and the utensils, furniture, cattle, and sheep that have been hidden in the ravines, relics of the barbarian brigandage; such a man amidst so great disasters can scarcely escape the charge of frivolity. And yet they loaded five thousand dromedaries with their booty, and retired with three times their number by the addition of captives, and their host was so much the greater.
Pentapolis is death, extinguished; its end is come, it has been assassinated, it has perished. It has perished entirely out of existence, both for us and for its emperor. For a place from which he will get no return will be no possession for an emperor, and who shall collect from the desert?
 As for me, I have no longer a native place to desert. That I am not at sea and seeking an island is, in my case, only from lack of a ship, for I distrust Egypt. Even there a dromedary can cross with an Ausurian hoplite  on its back. I shall make an island of my home, a poor instead of a rich man, an alien less honored than a citizen of Cythera, for after many inquiries I have now ascertained that Cythera is opposite Pentapolis, and perhaps the south winds will carry me thither. With their citizens I will live as a stranger, a wanderer, and if I attempt to say anything about my great ancestry, they will not give it credence there.
[§8] Alas for Cyrene, whose public tablets trace the succession from Heracles down even to me! for I should not be accounted a simpleton in my grief amongst men who know of the degradation of my noble ancestry. Alas for the Dorian tombs wherein I shall find no place! Unhappy Ptolemais, of which I was the last priest to be appointed! The horror of it is ever with me. I can speak no longer, tears overpower my voice…
I am full of the thought of what it will mean to abandon the sacred objects. The crew ought already to have put to sea, but when anyone called me to the ship I shall beg leave to delay a little longer. I shall go first to the shrine of God, I shall make the circuit of the altar. I shall drench the most precious pavement with my tears; I shall not retreat from the spot before I have said farewell to that portal and that throne. How many times shall I call upon God and turn to Him, how often shall I press my hands upon the railings!
But necessity is a mighty thing and all-powerful. I long to give to my eyes a sleep uninterrupted by the sound of the trumpet. How much longer shall I stand upon the ramparts, how much longer shall I guard the intervals between the turrets? I am weary of picketing the night patrols, guarding others and being guarded myself in turn, I who used to hold many a vigil, waiting for the omens from the stars, I am now worn out watching for the onsets of the enemy. We sleep for a span measured by the water clock, and the alarm bell often breaks in upon the portion allotted me for slumber. And if I close my eyes for a moment, oh, what somber dreams!