Rock bottom defined

For some reason, I’ve forgotten what, I’ve been dipping lately into the Roman historians. Not in a serious, studious way (I hardly ever do that), simply opening a Loeb here or there, in just the way I used to open a newspaper. There is a view of history that is utterly unHegelian, and I take it. I’m sure the story makes some sense, run forward in strictly chronological order; it seems to make better sense run backward. Whichever, we may discover the sound-and-fury significance, but not in this lifetime. Meanwhile, if we spread it out on our mental broadsheet of space and time, it’s just a lot of news; and as others have observed, extremely repetitious.

Cassius Dio and Ammianus Marcellinus are the ones I want to be reading, but those Loebs somehow disappeared in the course of my last personal catastrophe. But everything is online anyway, these days, in a form that will wreck your mind and eyesight.

The former was a ten-volume bore, as I distantly recall. Dio takes his Historia Romana from the arrival of Aeneas down to his own early third-century floruit, when he was himself a player, watching horrible things happen, first-hand. (He was a rather pompous Roman senator, and sometime provincial governor.) The text is scatty, but largely recoverable from Byzantine compilations. His eightieth and last scroll is the best. It leaves us shortly after the reign of Heliogabalus, the fourteen-year-old transgender Syrian boy who became emperor in AD 218 (thanks to the machinations of his very wealthy high-born mother), and who amazed the establishment “inside the beltway” of the Eternal City with a crazed, sick religious cult, and his own vile, disgusting behaviour, until his Praetorian Guard mercifully “took him out” in 222. Gentle reader must consult the original sources for hints of that behaviour; I won’t repeat them in this family website.

The latter, Ammianus, who took upon himself the task of updating Tacitus, wrote a Res Gestae that has almost entirely disappeared, except for some good bits towards the end, which give a chronicle of events through the generation AD 353 to 378. Having served at a high, mostly soldiering level in Persia, Egypt, and elsewhere, and being familiar with the court of Constantius II, and then Julian (“the Apostate”) — he is an elegant and charming gentleman to my sight, who provides a wonderful, sometimes mildly droll, world picture of that age, when the western Empire has not yet properly collapsed, but the whole is trending increasingly oriental. It is the age that corresponds to the Arian utter mess in our Church. Ammianus is not a Christian himself, but he has nothing against Christians, and nothing to do with what we might call the last stand of classical paganism, which expressed itself in more persecutions.

Let us not overload this post with (Greek-speaking) Roman historians. I want to emphasize the time between the two I have mentioned: about six generations. And I do this to deny two illusions about the Roman “decline and fall.” The first is that it was “progressive,” in the sense that things got continuously worse. The madness at the top was fairly continuous, but was often worse in the earlier centuries than in the later. The second is that, despite memorable (and frequent) catastrophic events, the thing took a long time to fall, and only in the West did public order collapse, almost entirely, into what we call the Dark Ages. Even those have been misreported to the popular mind, for relics survive to the present day, and the Holy Roman Empire went down only the day before yesterday, historically speaking. (To be replaced by Bismarck, Wilhelm II, Hitler, &c.)

Through it all, through every century so far as I can see, the apocalyptic sense has been active. We are always, and reasonably, thinking “things can’t get worse,” but things can and often do, and any apparent relief from the long disaster of human self-government is, at best, a quick and confusing “time out.”

The American Republic was (rather ostentatiously) founded in the image of the Roman, and to my mind had already mutated into something more like the Empire, by the time of Andrew Jackson. History is too grubby to form neat parallel lines, but we should not be surprised to find by now that leadership is in the hands of men (and women!) who are (on the analogy of alcoholics) “functioning insane.” And as all the more decadent emperors of the past, their power depends on their supporters, many of whom justify their loyalty because, well, the alternative is worse, and must be avoided at any cost. In the end, some Sardanapalus pulls them all down — spiritually, but also materially.

This is no Apocalypse — which may still come at any time. But when it does, we’ll know it. You can’t miss stuff like the sky actually falling.

Instead, everything is normal. Augustine touched on this in De Civitate Dei. Gentle reader will recall that there are two cities. We should not be surprised, and our efforts should not be principally directed towards the wrong one. Rather than, say, trying to make America great again, our worldly efforts should instead be directed only to preventing the worst from happening; to deflecting missiles, as it were, regardless of their source; to calling “time outs” whenever possible, and tending to the victims. Because that is the limit of what we can do, in this vallis lacrimarum.