Villagers & pillagers

My mind wanders through reading. Currently I’m in the sixth century, and somewhere in the East of Christendom, in those happy days when we were rid of the Arians, holding the Sassanids at bay, and hadn’t faced the Arabs yet. Well, things look rosier from a distance. (This was God’s plan, to lift our spirits.) The closer one gets, the better one focuses, the worse things appear. I have come to the view that at every moment of history — if you are there — everything has gone to hell, and the end is near for the world as we know it. Too, Holy Church is in crisis. And yet life goes on.

Pannonia is where I am, in mind. It is the old Roman province tucked inside the great southward bend of the Danube, sufficiently spread to cross seven modern national borders as it squiggles towards the Euxine (Black Sea). Ethnically, it is the usual mess. Huns, Ostrogoths, Avars have settled and (God help us!) here come the Slavs. These are the days long before the great schism, East and West. The pope is in Rome, we think, but the emperor is definitely in Constantinople. Sirmium, the ancient provincial capital, has seen better days. Ammianus Marcellinus, who seldom wrote promotional copy, had called it “the glorious mother of cities” two centuries before. Now it is a dive.

One thinks of shepherds in the pastoral vein. The ancients, like us, were given to romantic Arcadian fancies, and their urban folk loved to depict the shepherds piping. But if one lived down on the farm in Pannonia, one was more likely to think of them as marauders; as delinquents and barbarians — latrones — and perhaps illegal immigrants, too.

In the spirit of Gibbon, we dream of the Roman Empire, ever falling, and the troops out at the wild frontiers, lonely and afraid. The reality was usually different. They minded the borders, but mostly they were employed in police functions, on the near side of it, trying to enforce some civilized order. This was true not only for the pagan Romans but for the Christian Byzantines who succeeded them. Both had a lot of “West Texas” to defend. Pannonia was a bit like that, and by the sixth century, becoming more so. The people there did not like to be ruled, preferring to select their own vigilantes. Often it was farmers versus ranchers (“shepherds”).

I have never entirely trusted the police — I have lived in too many countries — but I can see the need for ordering force, paramilitary if it comes to that. Dress anyone in a little authority, and he will be tempted to personalize it. Humans are like that, we tend to appropriate things. And as Paul Valéry explained, “Power without abuse loses its charm.”

My reflection for this morning is that this is always so. There can be no permanent security, only expedients of time and place. It follows that justice comes and goes, and is often rather murky. The Byzantines sent irenarchs (beautiful word): peacemakers to knock a few heads. They changed them frequently, if they survived.

Overlooking questions of race, creed, and colour, the world is divided between traders and raiders, between villagers and pillagers: enterprise will never be confined to one side. And though we live at the heart of Empire, our children will find themselves at the frontier. I have before me an old postcard with the Delacroix painting: “Attila the Hun and his Hordes overrun Italy and the Arts.”