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Stop comparing the West to Rome Hysterical parallels mask our true weakness

Lucius Flavius Silva and the Roman war machine. (Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

Lucius Flavius Silva and the Roman war machine. (Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)


August 10, 2023   6 mins

On both sides of the Atlantic, hysterical comparisons between the collapse of the Roman Empire and the senile polities of the modern West have become the journalistic norm. Every major problem facing our society — from climate change to Covid to inflation — has received the Gibbon treatment.

There are, of course, regional variations. The British, tied by geography to Europe’s fortunes, tend to favour the definitive fall of the Western empire in AD 476. The Americans, ever fearful of an over-mighty executive, linger on the collapse of senatorial authority in 49 BC. And it is also more than a journalistic trope, with the unacknowledged legislators of our world also playing the same game. Elon Musk recently suggested that today’s baby drought is analogous to the low birth rates of Julius Caesar’s dictatorship. Marc Andreessen has compared California to Rome circa AD 250. Joe Rogan, meanwhile, is beginning to suspect that all this gender business might have a worrying ancient precedent.

Such appeals to the past are only human. The fourth word in Virgil’s Aeneid is Troiam. This is the first fact that we learn about Aeneas: he is from Troy. Virgil does not even bother to tell us his hero’s name until the 92nd line. Doubtless, the poets of Ur and Hattusha had their own Troys. And perhaps the first men who placed one mud brick upon another sang of flooded valleys, choked caves and herds that no longer ran. But Rome has been our common loss since the early Middle Ages. As Virgil looked back to Priam, so we look back to Virgil. In 1951, it was perfectly natural for W. H. Auden to compare a dying Britain with a dead Rome: “Caesar’s double-bed is warm / As an unimportant clerk / Writes I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK / On a pink official form
”

But journalists and billionaires do not work in a poetic register. They deal in facts and lucre. When they say that Britain or America is following imperium Romanum down the dusty track to oblivion, they seem to be speaking literally. This is not a mistake that Virgil would have made. It is all very well to evoke Rome as an elegiac warning. But if we believe that there are concrete lessons to learn from the Roman Empire’s decline and fall, then we will have to examine the mother of cities as she really was. The results are surprising.

In AD 384, 400 years after Virgil composed his Aeneid, Quintus Aurelius Symmachus had a bridge problem. Symmachus was Urban Prefect of Rome, a role of huge responsibility. By the fourth century, the city of Rome was no longer the imperial capital of the western empire; it had been replaced in 286 by Mediolanum (modern Milan), which was a good deal closer to the empire’s febrile northern borders. But Rome remained the nation’s hearthstone. Her good governance was of the highest priority. The Urban Prefect dispensed justice, organised games, fed the mob and looked after the material fabric of the city. It was not an enviable position. One man had to keep the vast, turbulent metropolis ticking over with the minimum of rioting. Symmachus was well aware of the touchiness of the Roman pleb. His own father had been burned out of his house and chased from the city after making a catty remark of the “let them eat cake” variety during the wine shortage of 375.

The bridge problem went like this. Around 382, the emperor Gratian ordered that a new bridge be built across the Tiber. It soon became clear that construction was taking too long and costing too much. Two years later, as the project neared completion, one span collapsed. Such waste of public funds could not be ignored, and so an inquiry was launched. A specialist diver was engaged to examine the structure; he discovered that the job had been bodged. The engineers responsible for the project, Cyriades and Auxentius, were summoned to account for their failure. Each blamed the other, before Auxentius, who had been caught backfilling sections of the bridge with bales of hay, fled the city — pockets doubtless jingling with public gold.

On the face of it, this sounds like a very late Roman story: a nation once famous for its engineering prowess could no longer build a bridge across the Tiber without everything going horribly wrong. But I’m not sure that’s true. Problems arise all the time, and in themselves tell us very little about a society. What matters is the response to those problems. And Symmachus’s dispatches to the imperial court make it clear that his response was considered and comprehensive. The bridge was completed in the end, and stood for over 1,000 years until its demolition in 1484. Now think of 21st-century London: remember what happened the last time we tried to build a bridge across the Thames?

Peter Brown, in his excellent new autobiography Journeys of the Mind: A Life in History, identifies the kind of dogged, even cheerful resourcefulness exhibited by Symmachus as one of the hallmarks of the later Roman elite. Brown’s long historical education, which has taken him from Oxford to Berkeley to Princeton, began as a child in Forties Dublin. Born into a Protestant society unmoored by Irish independence, he observed “what it was like to face the end of empire on the ground — in the small world of the little big men of the provinces — and to do so with dignity and good nature”. Embattled but not embittered, Brown’s family taught him that “a lively and imaginative culture could coexist with constrained political and economic circumstances. It was, perhaps, a good start with which to approach the world of late antiquity
”

This is the lesson of Symmachus, who dealt uncomplainingly with his own constrained political circumstances. The governing class of his generation was under extraordinary pressure, and yet it managed to keep the show on the road, to hand its civilisation on to the next generation despite the dramatic changes wrought by increasing barbarian incursions and the transformations brought about by an insurgent Christianity. Gratian had ordered a bridge to be built and Symmachus was going to damn well see it done.

Indeed, spend a few hours reading his dispatches and you would agree that asking whether Britain is “declining like Rome” is nothing less than an insult to the Roman Empire. The city of Rome was sacked by the Visigoths in 410, by the Vandals in 455, and finally swallowed up by a new Gothic regime in 476. But while the legions held on the borders and the lawyers argued in the forum, while the tax revenues rolled into the treasury and the grain shipments cruised into Ostia, Symmachus and his friends do their duty to the patria. There had been crises before, after all, and Rome had always muddled through. It is only with the benefit of hindsight that men like Symmachus acquire the glamour of an endangered species.

Even after the disaster of 476, there were still men around to keep the cogs turning. Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus held multiple public offices during the early sixth century. His masters were Ostrogothic kings, not emperors, and the capital was no longer at Mediolanum, but at Ravenna. None could doubt that the western Roman Empire was at an end, especially when compared to the eastern empire centred on Constantinople, which was about to flourish anew under the reign of Justinian. And yet, what do we find Cassiodorus doing? He did not waste his time on elegies for a lost world. He was far too busy for that sort of thing. Many of the city’s great buildings were falling into disrepair, so he decreed that Rome’s main brick depot be refitted with a view to manufacturing 25,000 new roof tiles every year. He chased the Governor of Lucania for his region’s taxes. He ensured that teachers of Rhetoric were properly paid. When a Goth settler seized the land of two Italians and reduced them to slavery, Cassiodorus was there to intervene.

This is not to minimise the impact of Rome’s collapse. As Bryan Ward-Perkins has shown, the post-Roman West was a bit of a dump. Timber supplanted dressed stone, flagged floors gave way to beaten earth. Coinage vanished. Cows shrank. Honorific statuary disappeared, as did indoor plumbing. The Roman ceramics industry, which had pumped out vast numbers of high-quality, wheel-thrown vessels for centuries, ground to a halt. Britain’s decline was among the most dramatic. In one moving passage, Ward-Perkins draws attention to a small object excavated at the Sutton Hoo ship burial. This famous site, which yielded intricate gold jewellery and elaborate ceremonial armour, also contained a small pottery bottle. Even the humblest Roman family would have regarded such an item as an unremarkable piece of household clutter. In seventh-century Britain, that small bottle sat naturally among the exquisite grave goods of a celebrated man.

And this is revealing. When our journalists and billionaires ask whether Britain or America is “declining like Rome”, they are really thinking about the grim realities of the early Middle Ages — a time of deprivation rather than plenty. And perhaps they are right to do so. However terrible life was in the post-Roman West, it was nothing like as bad as a similar rupture would be today. Most of us lack both the land and the knowledge to grow our own food. The support structures provided by extended family networks and stable local communities — the mortar of the pre-industrial world — have been fatally weakened. Many people rely upon regular medical intervention simply to stay alive. Our most basic goods are imported from the other side of the planet, as is the fuel required to power the machines that make contemporary life possible. Above all, centuries of peace have left us ill-equipped for the return of a society in which war is commonplace and might makes right. A fourth-century Roman would regard modern Britons as laughably weak, ignorant and dependent.

If Rome’s fall still resonates today, it is only because we know so little about the subject. Popular images of Roman decadence — Caligula drinking pearls dissolved in vinegar; Nero’s Golden House — are largely drawn from the first century, when the empire was at its height. Later emperors had no time for such diversions. They were an overworked and harassed bunch who often died violent deaths, but they often got the job done. In a sense, to ask whether the modern West is “declining like Rome” is to ask whether we are governed by people with the grit of Symmachus and the tenacity of Cassiodorus. One might as well compare a woollen toga to a polyester T-shirt.


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Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
11 months ago

On both sides of the Atlantic, hysterical comparisons between the collapse of the Roman Empire and the senile polities of the modern West have become the journalistic norm.
In a sense, to ask whether the modern West is “declining like Rome” is to ask whether we are governed by people with the grit of Symmachus and the tenacity of Cassiodorus.
So what you’re saying is that the comparisons are not nearly hysterical enough.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
11 months ago

Yeah, that’s what I got from this piece too.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
11 months ago

Yeah, that’s what I got from this piece too.

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
11 months ago

On both sides of the Atlantic, hysterical comparisons between the collapse of the Roman Empire and the senile polities of the modern West have become the journalistic norm.
In a sense, to ask whether the modern West is “declining like Rome” is to ask whether we are governed by people with the grit of Symmachus and the tenacity of Cassiodorus.
So what you’re saying is that the comparisons are not nearly hysterical enough.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
11 months ago

This feels like an historical essay looking for a reason to be written. I quite enjoyed the essay actually, but when people compare the west to Rome, they are merely comparing the fall of one great empire to the potential fall of another.

Rohan Moore
Rohan Moore
10 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Then why don’t they compare the potential fall of one to the fall of, say, the Mongol empire? The decadence thing is what the Gibbon fans are talking about. And whether they’re right or wrong in their historical parallels, it’s hard to deny that their sentiment’s in the right place.

Rohan Moore
Rohan Moore
10 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Then why don’t they compare the potential fall of one to the fall of, say, the Mongol empire? The decadence thing is what the Gibbon fans are talking about. And whether they’re right or wrong in their historical parallels, it’s hard to deny that their sentiment’s in the right place.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
11 months ago

This feels like an historical essay looking for a reason to be written. I quite enjoyed the essay actually, but when people compare the west to Rome, they are merely comparing the fall of one great empire to the potential fall of another.

T Bone
T Bone
11 months ago

Rome was a centrally planned economy run by Philosopher Kings and enforced by Military Generals. A military dictatorship.

The point of a representative Democratic Republic was to decentralize and redistribute power to localities while creating checks on the Central Planner’s “Interest Convergence Strategy” to expand their own power. The social engineers’ goal is always to “integrate” everybody’s problems into “Social Insurance” Contract that’s managed by the Central Planner.

Stakeholder Capitalism is a fusion of State and Corporate power. Its an increase in Central Planning that offers the “benefit” of expanded Social Insurance which just so happens to come with Social Credit scoring.

If the West should have learned anything Post WW2 its that Command Economics isn’t the way to ensure domestic tranquility.

Rick Frazier
Rick Frazier
11 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

It’s frustrating to see stakeholder capitalism dragged into the political arena. A couple decades ago, Robert Bayless, former Chief Account at The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, declared that intangible assets were becoming more important and that public companies should do more to inform investors about how well those assets were being managed, leveraged and safeguarded. His statement never caused a stir.
Intangible assests are the nucleus of a multi-stakeholder operating system. In many ways, it simply makes managerial sense to focus on the quality of stakeholder relationships as an integral part of the day-to-day obligations of management. Does the corporate culture inspire employess to give their best effforts (employee engagement)? Do customers perceive enough value in their relationship with the company to remain loyal and pay prices that make that relationship an economically profitable one for the company? Do communities welcome the company to set up shop based on its reputation for being a good neighbor, or does the company incur friction costs when communities work to keep them out? Do they have a mutually beneficial and trusting relationship with their suppliers?
Politics ruins just about everything. Upstream intangible assets are critical to downstream financial performance. I can make this claim after having done the “roll up one’s sleeves” work to prove it during my previous life as a consultant. Internal intangible asset indexes were built and causal path models were used to evaluate the relationship between the performance of those indexes and corporate performance. And that relationship revealed itself in a significant way. Unfortunately, perverted distortions by those who advocate it and those opposed to it, are undermining the original, pragmatic intent of a multi-stakeholder operating system.

T Bone
T Bone
11 months ago
Reply to  Rick Frazier

Respectfully, I’m going to have to disagree with you. I think the vague concept of “Stakeholders” justifies taking actions like awarding positions and moving money in non-transparent ways and then using symbolic virtue signaling as a distraction.

You listed numerous groups that fall into the “stakeholder” definition. There’s no reason those groups: Investors, Customers, Employees and Local Communities need to be merged into one category unless you’re intentionally being vague.

If you really want those groups to trust you and build a strong culture than the company should speak in clear, concise language that tells people “We’re doing our best” to meet your expectations. Good Faith Effort goes a long way.

Last edited 11 months ago by T Bone
T Bone
T Bone
11 months ago
Reply to  Rick Frazier

Respectfully, I’m going to have to disagree with you. I think the vague concept of “Stakeholders” justifies taking actions like awarding positions and moving money in non-transparent ways and then using symbolic virtue signaling as a distraction.

You listed numerous groups that fall into the “stakeholder” definition. There’s no reason those groups: Investors, Customers, Employees and Local Communities need to be merged into one category unless you’re intentionally being vague.

If you really want those groups to trust you and build a strong culture than the company should speak in clear, concise language that tells people “We’re doing our best” to meet your expectations. Good Faith Effort goes a long way.

Last edited 11 months ago by T Bone
Rick Frazier
Rick Frazier
11 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

It’s frustrating to see stakeholder capitalism dragged into the political arena. A couple decades ago, Robert Bayless, former Chief Account at The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, declared that intangible assets were becoming more important and that public companies should do more to inform investors about how well those assets were being managed, leveraged and safeguarded. His statement never caused a stir.
Intangible assests are the nucleus of a multi-stakeholder operating system. In many ways, it simply makes managerial sense to focus on the quality of stakeholder relationships as an integral part of the day-to-day obligations of management. Does the corporate culture inspire employess to give their best effforts (employee engagement)? Do customers perceive enough value in their relationship with the company to remain loyal and pay prices that make that relationship an economically profitable one for the company? Do communities welcome the company to set up shop based on its reputation for being a good neighbor, or does the company incur friction costs when communities work to keep them out? Do they have a mutually beneficial and trusting relationship with their suppliers?
Politics ruins just about everything. Upstream intangible assets are critical to downstream financial performance. I can make this claim after having done the “roll up one’s sleeves” work to prove it during my previous life as a consultant. Internal intangible asset indexes were built and causal path models were used to evaluate the relationship between the performance of those indexes and corporate performance. And that relationship revealed itself in a significant way. Unfortunately, perverted distortions by those who advocate it and those opposed to it, are undermining the original, pragmatic intent of a multi-stakeholder operating system.

T Bone
T Bone
11 months ago

Rome was a centrally planned economy run by Philosopher Kings and enforced by Military Generals. A military dictatorship.

The point of a representative Democratic Republic was to decentralize and redistribute power to localities while creating checks on the Central Planner’s “Interest Convergence Strategy” to expand their own power. The social engineers’ goal is always to “integrate” everybody’s problems into “Social Insurance” Contract that’s managed by the Central Planner.

Stakeholder Capitalism is a fusion of State and Corporate power. Its an increase in Central Planning that offers the “benefit” of expanded Social Insurance which just so happens to come with Social Credit scoring.

If the West should have learned anything Post WW2 its that Command Economics isn’t the way to ensure domestic tranquility.

Johann Strauss
Johann Strauss
11 months ago

Isn’t the truth that all empires rise and fall. Never mind the Roman empire or the Persian empire, just look at the good old British empire and where the UK is now, a satrapy of the US, or to put it in simpler terms our leaders act like poodles to the US political elites.

What is for sure is if the US continues on its current path of progressive wokeism, the decline will be rapid, only to be replaced by dictatorial regimes such as China.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
11 months ago
Reply to  Johann Strauss

Is “What is for sure…” the best choice of words? It seems to me (to quote a famous American philosiphizer) “Predictions are hard, especially about the future.”

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
11 months ago
Reply to  Johann Strauss

Is “What is for sure…” the best choice of words? It seems to me (to quote a famous American philosiphizer) “Predictions are hard, especially about the future.”

Johann Strauss
Johann Strauss
11 months ago

Isn’t the truth that all empires rise and fall. Never mind the Roman empire or the Persian empire, just look at the good old British empire and where the UK is now, a satrapy of the US, or to put it in simpler terms our leaders act like poodles to the US political elites.

What is for sure is if the US continues on its current path of progressive wokeism, the decline will be rapid, only to be replaced by dictatorial regimes such as China.

Malcolm Knott
Malcolm Knott
11 months ago

Perhaps we may better compare our condition to that of the Republic of Venice which, in the years of its decline, retained all the pomp and ceremony of a great nation but had long since ceased to take itself seriously and devoted most of its energy to carnivals and intrigues.

Malcolm Knott
Malcolm Knott
11 months ago

Perhaps we may better compare our condition to that of the Republic of Venice which, in the years of its decline, retained all the pomp and ceremony of a great nation but had long since ceased to take itself seriously and devoted most of its energy to carnivals and intrigues.

Simon Neale
Simon Neale
11 months ago

Hysterical parallels mask our true weakness

An entertainingly erudite essay, but I suspect our “true weakness” might be better dealt with in Mary Harrington’s essay.

Simon Neale
Simon Neale
11 months ago

Hysterical parallels mask our true weakness

An entertainingly erudite essay, but I suspect our “true weakness” might be better dealt with in Mary Harrington’s essay.

David Barnett
David Barnett
11 months ago

Rome suffered many severe military defeats (eg. Hannibal’s invasion of Italy) throughout its history, but always bounced back. Central authority held, and the empire even expanded. But after 476, revival of the western empire was half-hearted and petered out after a generation or two. What changed? People no longer saw the imperial authority as a benefit.
The rot was already apparent 250 years earlier, when the overblown bureaucracy could not be financed except by inflation and widening the tax base to include every resident of the empire. That is where the today’s west is.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
11 months ago
Reply to  David Barnett

Yes, this. Obsolete bureaucracies become increasingly totalitarian as they cling desperately to whatever vestiges of power they once had. We see this happening with legacy news media and the education system. I believe we are on the cusp of a great cultural renaissance which is being suppressed by old twentieth-century style agencies turned toxic.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
11 months ago
Reply to  David Barnett

Yes, this. Obsolete bureaucracies become increasingly totalitarian as they cling desperately to whatever vestiges of power they once had. We see this happening with legacy news media and the education system. I believe we are on the cusp of a great cultural renaissance which is being suppressed by old twentieth-century style agencies turned toxic.

David Barnett
David Barnett
11 months ago

Rome suffered many severe military defeats (eg. Hannibal’s invasion of Italy) throughout its history, but always bounced back. Central authority held, and the empire even expanded. But after 476, revival of the western empire was half-hearted and petered out after a generation or two. What changed? People no longer saw the imperial authority as a benefit.
The rot was already apparent 250 years earlier, when the overblown bureaucracy could not be financed except by inflation and widening the tax base to include every resident of the empire. That is where the today’s west is.

David Yetter
David Yetter
11 months ago

God help us! Another in the long series of genuinely unserious historical discussions about the “Fall of Rome”. No mention of the fact that from 324 onward the capital of the Empire has been moved to the city Constantine called “New Rome” and everyone else called “Constantinople”. The dreadful event of 476 given such importance by Gibbon — chiefly because he wanted to dispossess the Eastern Empire of its Romanity, even a Charlemagne’s propaganists had by calling it the “Empire of the Hellenes” — was the retirement of the last Western Augustus to a villa near Naples because the Emperor (and Eastern Augustus) in Constantinople, Zeno, concluded that the parallel Western office was pointless, as the King of the Ostrogoths, in his other office as Patrician of the Romans, could look after imperial affairs in the old homeland of the Empire just fine.
No one notice that Rome “fell”. Indeed, centuries later, Charlemagne didn’t regard himself as establishing a new Empire, but reviving the disused office of Western Augustus, and only when his claim to the title was rebuffed by the Empress Irene and her court, did he style his Empire as the “Holy Roman ‘Empire” and begin slandering the actual Roman Empire, which was still very much a going concern in 800, as the “Empire of the Hellenes”, a vicious slander, as at that time “Hellene” had the sense of “Greek pagan”.
A fate like Rome for “The West”, if one wants to think of the present moment as akin to 476, would be something like the loss of Europe to some other civilization, with the West carrying on just fine in the Anglosphere (with or without Britain) for another six centuries, before declining into a city-state somewhere in the New World over the course of the next four, and then, finally truly falling.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago
Reply to  David Yetter

Did no one teach YOU to write concise English sentences?

The sentence that begins “The dreadful of event of 476

.. “, rumbles on for an amazing 93 words and is almost incomprehensible as a result.

“God help us indeed”.

Andrzej Wasniewski
Andrzej Wasniewski
11 months ago
Reply to  David Yetter

“West carrying on just fine in the Anglosphere” ?
Anglosphere is is destroying the West. Cosmic scale corruption and tribal wars in the US, woke cancer eating UK, COVID fascism of Australia, Canada and NZ.
F…k Anglosphere

T Bone
T Bone
11 months ago

Partially agree. The Anglosphere Hermetically created the Mind Virus in its Academic Idea Labs but its basically a syncreticism of Romanticism, German Idealism and South American Liberation Theology.

Laurence Siegel
Laurence Siegel
9 months ago

Despite its many flaws, the Anglosphere is where I want to live to maximize my freedom (somewhat more limited that it was before) and prosperity (somewhat more limited). Anyone care to suggest a better place?

T Bone
T Bone
11 months ago

Partially agree. The Anglosphere Hermetically created the Mind Virus in its Academic Idea Labs but its basically a syncreticism of Romanticism, German Idealism and South American Liberation Theology.

Laurence Siegel
Laurence Siegel
9 months ago

Despite its many flaws, the Anglosphere is where I want to live to maximize my freedom (somewhat more limited that it was before) and prosperity (somewhat more limited). Anyone care to suggest a better place?

Russell Sharpe
Russell Sharpe
11 months ago
Reply to  David Yetter

Charlemagne never called his realm the “Holy Roman Empire”, though he certainly regarded himself as the successor and heir of the western Roman Emperors. And nor did Otto the Great, though the so-called “Holy Roman Empire” is often considered to begin with his imperial coronation in 962. As far as I know it was only termed “Holyš in the mid-13th century, some three centuries after Otto and four after Charlemagne.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago
Reply to  Russell Sharpe

1254, according to the Wikibeast, via the:’Lexikon des Mittelalters’.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago
Reply to  Russell Sharpe

1254, according to the Wikibeast, via the:’Lexikon des Mittelalters’.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
11 months ago
Reply to  David Yetter

Well, Roman Empire didn’t fall until 1453, and the so-called Gothic takeover resulted in almost two centuries of extraordinary cultural and intellectual activity in Ravenna. The concept of Rome’s fall was created by Gibbon et al., who had their own cultural agenda to promote.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago
Reply to  David Yetter

Did no one teach YOU to write concise English sentences?

The sentence that begins “The dreadful of event of 476

.. “, rumbles on for an amazing 93 words and is almost incomprehensible as a result.

“God help us indeed”.

Andrzej Wasniewski
Andrzej Wasniewski
11 months ago
Reply to  David Yetter

“West carrying on just fine in the Anglosphere” ?
Anglosphere is is destroying the West. Cosmic scale corruption and tribal wars in the US, woke cancer eating UK, COVID fascism of Australia, Canada and NZ.
F…k Anglosphere

Russell Sharpe
Russell Sharpe
11 months ago
Reply to  David Yetter

Charlemagne never called his realm the “Holy Roman Empire”, though he certainly regarded himself as the successor and heir of the western Roman Emperors. And nor did Otto the Great, though the so-called “Holy Roman Empire” is often considered to begin with his imperial coronation in 962. As far as I know it was only termed “Holyš in the mid-13th century, some three centuries after Otto and four after Charlemagne.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
11 months ago
Reply to  David Yetter

Well, Roman Empire didn’t fall until 1453, and the so-called Gothic takeover resulted in almost two centuries of extraordinary cultural and intellectual activity in Ravenna. The concept of Rome’s fall was created by Gibbon et al., who had their own cultural agenda to promote.

David Yetter
David Yetter
11 months ago

God help us! Another in the long series of genuinely unserious historical discussions about the “Fall of Rome”. No mention of the fact that from 324 onward the capital of the Empire has been moved to the city Constantine called “New Rome” and everyone else called “Constantinople”. The dreadful event of 476 given such importance by Gibbon — chiefly because he wanted to dispossess the Eastern Empire of its Romanity, even a Charlemagne’s propaganists had by calling it the “Empire of the Hellenes” — was the retirement of the last Western Augustus to a villa near Naples because the Emperor (and Eastern Augustus) in Constantinople, Zeno, concluded that the parallel Western office was pointless, as the King of the Ostrogoths, in his other office as Patrician of the Romans, could look after imperial affairs in the old homeland of the Empire just fine.
No one notice that Rome “fell”. Indeed, centuries later, Charlemagne didn’t regard himself as establishing a new Empire, but reviving the disused office of Western Augustus, and only when his claim to the title was rebuffed by the Empress Irene and her court, did he style his Empire as the “Holy Roman ‘Empire” and begin slandering the actual Roman Empire, which was still very much a going concern in 800, as the “Empire of the Hellenes”, a vicious slander, as at that time “Hellene” had the sense of “Greek pagan”.
A fate like Rome for “The West”, if one wants to think of the present moment as akin to 476, would be something like the loss of Europe to some other civilization, with the West carrying on just fine in the Anglosphere (with or without Britain) for another six centuries, before declining into a city-state somewhere in the New World over the course of the next four, and then, finally truly falling.

R Wright
R Wright
11 months ago

Reminds me of the archaeological dig at Hadrian’s Wall that showed that even decades after the end of Roman rule some unknown warband was still residing at one of the fortresses in a wooden structure, presumably still holding back the painted tribesman beyond the former frontier on behalf of one of the dozens of petty kingdoms and city states that popped up in the 5th century. Even amid absolute chaos there will be islands of order.

R Wright
R Wright
11 months ago

Reminds me of the archaeological dig at Hadrian’s Wall that showed that even decades after the end of Roman rule some unknown warband was still residing at one of the fortresses in a wooden structure, presumably still holding back the painted tribesman beyond the former frontier on behalf of one of the dozens of petty kingdoms and city states that popped up in the 5th century. Even amid absolute chaos there will be islands of order.

Jonathan N
Jonathan N
11 months ago

“The Urban Prefect dispensed justice, organised games, fed the mob and looked after the material fabric of the city. It was not an enviable position. One man had to keep the vast, turbulent metropolis ticking over with the minimum of rioting.”

Yesterday there was violent disorder in Oxford Street arising from a large mob of young people trying to loot the shops for sportswear and electronic goods. The Police issued dispersal orders and deployed horses to regain control. It does have “decline and fall” feel to it.

Last edited 11 months ago by Jonathan N
Jonathan N
Jonathan N
11 months ago

“The Urban Prefect dispensed justice, organised games, fed the mob and looked after the material fabric of the city. It was not an enviable position. One man had to keep the vast, turbulent metropolis ticking over with the minimum of rioting.”

Yesterday there was violent disorder in Oxford Street arising from a large mob of young people trying to loot the shops for sportswear and electronic goods. The Police issued dispersal orders and deployed horses to regain control. It does have “decline and fall” feel to it.

Last edited 11 months ago by Jonathan N
Russell Sharpe
Russell Sharpe
11 months ago

The city of Rome was not “swallowed up by a new Gothic regime in 476”, and it is rather misleading to say that thereafter “no-one could doubt that the western Roman Empire was at an end”. The Ostrogoths under their king Theodoric, acting with the express approval of the Empire, only invaded Italy in 489, and took Rome the following year. Until then it had been governed by Odoacer, another Germanic warlord of uncertain provenance, formally on behalf of the Roman Emperor Zeno in Constantinople. The fact that there was no longer (since 476) a Roman Emperor in the West did not mean that anyone doubted that legal authority did not still formally remain with the (now sole) Emperor, at least formally, and this legal fiction remained when Theodoric took over as the Emperor’s viceroy in 490. Roman citizens continued to be subject to and governed by Roman law. It was only in the 520s that the relationship between Theodoric and the Empire began to break down, eventually leading (after Theodoric’s death) to the ruinous Gothic Wars of the 530s-550s, which represent the true Fall of Rome. And within a few years of the Empire’s exhausting itself in the struggle to wrest de facto as well as de jure control of Rome and Italy back from the Ostrogoths, it was to lose it again, this time permanently, to the Lombards.

Last edited 11 months ago by Russell Sharpe
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago
Reply to  Russell Sharpe

An excellent synopsis and a fine antidote to Yetter, thank you.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago
Reply to  Russell Sharpe

An excellent synopsis and a fine antidote to Yetter, thank you.

Russell Sharpe
Russell Sharpe
11 months ago

The city of Rome was not “swallowed up by a new Gothic regime in 476”, and it is rather misleading to say that thereafter “no-one could doubt that the western Roman Empire was at an end”. The Ostrogoths under their king Theodoric, acting with the express approval of the Empire, only invaded Italy in 489, and took Rome the following year. Until then it had been governed by Odoacer, another Germanic warlord of uncertain provenance, formally on behalf of the Roman Emperor Zeno in Constantinople. The fact that there was no longer (since 476) a Roman Emperor in the West did not mean that anyone doubted that legal authority did not still formally remain with the (now sole) Emperor, at least formally, and this legal fiction remained when Theodoric took over as the Emperor’s viceroy in 490. Roman citizens continued to be subject to and governed by Roman law. It was only in the 520s that the relationship between Theodoric and the Empire began to break down, eventually leading (after Theodoric’s death) to the ruinous Gothic Wars of the 530s-550s, which represent the true Fall of Rome. And within a few years of the Empire’s exhausting itself in the struggle to wrest de facto as well as de jure control of Rome and Italy back from the Ostrogoths, it was to lose it again, this time permanently, to the Lombards.

Last edited 11 months ago by Russell Sharpe
Bruce Russell
Bruce Russell
11 months ago

Definitely can’t compare the West to ancient Rome. The Romans actually had functioning infrastructure

Bruce Russell
Bruce Russell
11 months ago

Definitely can’t compare the West to ancient Rome. The Romans actually had functioning infrastructure

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago

In case anyone is wondering the caption photograph is one Peter O’Toole about to flatten Masada,*in 73AD, to use Christian chronology.

In reality the siege was accomplished in about six weeks, such was the Roman expertise in these matters.

(*Now in Israel.)

Albert McGloan
Albert McGloan
10 months ago

Dear Charles, a gentleman of your vintage should know that for Christians it would be AD 73, not 73AD.

Albert McGloan
Albert McGloan
10 months ago

Dear Charles, a gentleman of your vintage should know that for Christians it would be AD 73, not 73AD.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago

In case anyone is wondering the caption photograph is one Peter O’Toole about to flatten Masada,*in 73AD, to use Christian chronology.

In reality the siege was accomplished in about six weeks, such was the Roman expertise in these matters.

(*Now in Israel.)

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
11 months ago

These are arguments appropriate to the kind of gent who wears a bow tie to a Wetherspoon.

One of your posher Spoon’s. Muswell Hill maybe?

Last edited 11 months ago by Dumetrius
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago
Reply to  Dumetrius

Or even QUISLINGTON!

Malcolm Knott
Malcolm Knott
11 months ago
Reply to  Dumetrius

I wear a bow tie and once visited Wetherspoons in Manchester. I thought it was a very interesting essay even if it only nibbled at a subject which Gibbon dealt with at greater length.

Last edited 11 months ago by Malcolm Knott
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago
Reply to  Dumetrius

Or even QUISLINGTON!

Malcolm Knott
Malcolm Knott
11 months ago
Reply to  Dumetrius

I wear a bow tie and once visited Wetherspoons in Manchester. I thought it was a very interesting essay even if it only nibbled at a subject which Gibbon dealt with at greater length.

Last edited 11 months ago by Malcolm Knott
Dumetrius
Dumetrius
11 months ago

These are arguments appropriate to the kind of gent who wears a bow tie to a Wetherspoon.

One of your posher Spoon’s. Muswell Hill maybe?

Last edited 11 months ago by Dumetrius
Michael Walsh
Michael Walsh
9 months ago

Regarding your point about bridges – our utterly useless London government can’t even fix a bridge* never mind build a new one

* Hammersmith

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago

Quintus Aurelius Symmachus Was a PAGAN! *
Need I say more?

(*345c-402c AD, to use Christian chronology.)

R Wright
R Wright
11 months ago

To be a pagan in an era where temples were being closed down, philosophers attacked and the ancestral rites neglected took great courage. If you’re going to attack him on that basis at least be explicit.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago
Reply to  R Wright

I am NOT attacking him but rather I am praising him.

However it would be a total waste of time trying to explain his position, and indeed that of Paganism in general in the Late Roman Empire to the hallowed ranks of UnHerd readers.

I can say that categorically because I have tried on several occasions over the past few years. Some things people just don’t want to hear. C’est la vie!

Last edited 11 months ago by Charles Stanhope
michael harris
michael harris
11 months ago

My very slight familiarity with Paganism, Charles, comes from travels in India and a little reading of Brahmin and Jain texts.
Is this in any sense, Charles, connected with the Paganism driven out of Rome by Christianity?

Last edited 11 months ago by michael harris
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago
Reply to  michael harris

Indeed it is.

michael harris
michael harris
11 months ago

An afternoon I spent 20 years ago with my wife in Vijayawada (Andhra Pradesh).
We crossed the Krishna river through the shallows beside the road bridge (closed) and bumped in our autorickshaw down a few miles of dirt road to a hillside with a rock-cut temple.
Two floors, three rooms on each floor. Many bas-relief carvings.
On the top floor a room with a wooden guichet and a single bare hanging lightbulb. At the entrance two rock-cut guardians with clubs and long teeth. Ahead of us a sleeping Vishnu.
He was twice life size. He lay on the coils of the giant snake that is eternity. He slept and dreamed. A few flowers and some saffron powder were scattered on his stomach, left there perhaps by the men of the Architectural Survey of India who keep the site.
The dream that Vishnu dreams is the Universe and all the life in it. You and I, Charles, are a part of his dream.
Bas reliefs of people and animals were carved on the wall beside their sleeping creator. We and our rickshaw driver were the only people there that afternoon. The driver was moved. He insisted we continue to the principle temple of the city on a hilltop. There we did puja (some rupees passed) to Vijaya, the goddess of the city, a form of Durga.
How long since in Europe and the Mediterranean world one could show such respect? Two millennia? And where and to what idol?
Ephesus and Diana before Christianity erased them?

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago
Reply to  michael harris

“Thou shalt have no other gods before me”* is perhaps the most INTOLERANT remark there has ever been.

QED.

(*Exodus.20:2.)

michael harris
michael harris
11 months ago

And, perhaps, we are now at the terminus of monotheism where we worship ourselves in the form of mind. Dispensing with the ONE GOD whom WE created in our own image.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago
Reply to  michael harris

Hence AI?

michael harris
michael harris
11 months ago

Pride before the fall…AI.

michael harris
michael harris
11 months ago

Pride before the fall…AI.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago
Reply to  michael harris

Hence AI?

michael harris
michael harris
11 months ago

And, perhaps, we are now at the terminus of monotheism where we worship ourselves in the form of mind. Dispensing with the ONE GOD whom WE created in our own image.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago
Reply to  michael harris

“Thou shalt have no other gods before me”* is perhaps the most INTOLERANT remark there has ever been.

QED.

(*Exodus.20:2.)

michael harris
michael harris
11 months ago

An afternoon I spent 20 years ago with my wife in Vijayawada (Andhra Pradesh).
We crossed the Krishna river through the shallows beside the road bridge (closed) and bumped in our autorickshaw down a few miles of dirt road to a hillside with a rock-cut temple.
Two floors, three rooms on each floor. Many bas-relief carvings.
On the top floor a room with a wooden guichet and a single bare hanging lightbulb. At the entrance two rock-cut guardians with clubs and long teeth. Ahead of us a sleeping Vishnu.
He was twice life size. He lay on the coils of the giant snake that is eternity. He slept and dreamed. A few flowers and some saffron powder were scattered on his stomach, left there perhaps by the men of the Architectural Survey of India who keep the site.
The dream that Vishnu dreams is the Universe and all the life in it. You and I, Charles, are a part of his dream.
Bas reliefs of people and animals were carved on the wall beside their sleeping creator. We and our rickshaw driver were the only people there that afternoon. The driver was moved. He insisted we continue to the principle temple of the city on a hilltop. There we did puja (some rupees passed) to Vijaya, the goddess of the city, a form of Durga.
How long since in Europe and the Mediterranean world one could show such respect? Two millennia? And where and to what idol?
Ephesus and Diana before Christianity erased them?

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago
Reply to  michael harris

Indeed it is.

michael harris
michael harris
11 months ago

My very slight familiarity with Paganism, Charles, comes from travels in India and a little reading of Brahmin and Jain texts.
Is this in any sense, Charles, connected with the Paganism driven out of Rome by Christianity?

Last edited 11 months ago by michael harris
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago
Reply to  R Wright

I am NOT attacking him but rather I am praising him.

However it would be a total waste of time trying to explain his position, and indeed that of Paganism in general in the Late Roman Empire to the hallowed ranks of UnHerd readers.

I can say that categorically because I have tried on several occasions over the past few years. Some things people just don’t want to hear. C’est la vie!

Last edited 11 months ago by Charles Stanhope
R Wright
R Wright
11 months ago

To be a pagan in an era where temples were being closed down, philosophers attacked and the ancestral rites neglected took great courage. If you’re going to attack him on that basis at least be explicit.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago

Quintus Aurelius Symmachus Was a PAGAN! *
Need I say more?

(*345c-402c AD, to use Christian chronology.)

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
11 months ago

To be fair, the author specifically mentions the more accurate and therefore relevant comparisons of America specifically to Rome at the end of the Republic period, just before the rise of Julius Caesar, a comparison with far too many and far too specific parallels to ignore entirely, and then proceeds to focus instead on the other, more hyperbolic, more easily countered comparisons of western civilization in general to the collapse of the western empire into medieval Europe, far more easily skewered as it constitutes an apples to oranges comparison thanks to vastly different basic conditions of technology. Moreover, it is doubtful a regional civilizational collapse of the scale of western Rome is even possible, given current communications and transportation realities. Comparisons to the fall of Rome thus, like the prophecies of doom related to climate or AI, can be filed neatly into the category of overblown apocalyptic predictions in general, which while varied in form, scale, and motivation, have always been ubiquitous throughout history.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
11 months ago

To be fair, the author specifically mentions the more accurate and therefore relevant comparisons of America specifically to Rome at the end of the Republic period, just before the rise of Julius Caesar, a comparison with far too many and far too specific parallels to ignore entirely, and then proceeds to focus instead on the other, more hyperbolic, more easily countered comparisons of western civilization in general to the collapse of the western empire into medieval Europe, far more easily skewered as it constitutes an apples to oranges comparison thanks to vastly different basic conditions of technology. Moreover, it is doubtful a regional civilizational collapse of the scale of western Rome is even possible, given current communications and transportation realities. Comparisons to the fall of Rome thus, like the prophecies of doom related to climate or AI, can be filed neatly into the category of overblown apocalyptic predictions in general, which while varied in form, scale, and motivation, have always been ubiquitous throughout history.