And the henchmen of Augustus are very recognisable figures.
I have chosen this because a lot of books on Ancient Rome, my own included, generally like to tell stories that take fragments of evidence and piece them together to make a coherent narrative. But there is also a deep pleasure in looking at some of the things that we think we know about Rome, or the myths that we know are not actually true, taking the mystery to pieces and examining the works and seeing what is there. This is what Mary Beard does in her book. Are the ideas of the Romans who wrote about it true?
But how does she manage to go back so far and genuinely know that what she is revealing is right rather than what there was before?
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Well, you have to trust her. It is like in any detective novel you have to trust the detective. She is such a scholarly yet wittily sceptical guide that as you read it you feel that you can trust her to lead you through the labyrinth that she is exploring and point out what is true and what is not, so by the time you get to her ultimate conclusion you are perfectly content to take her word for it.
At base it is about questioning and exploring things that anyone can be guided through. That is what she does so well. She is not dumbing down but she is making accessible what is incredibly interesting. I chose this because the great revolution in moral and ethical affairs, which the Roman Empire witnessed and which Gibbon touches on as well, very amusingly and mordantly, is the rise of Christianity. We tend not to think of Christianity as being an expression of Roman civilisation but in so many ways it is, even though it radically transformed the empire.
The first half is looking at how pagans function in the years before the reign of Constantine, and you have glimpses into the practices and very deeply held beliefs of the pagans.
ISBN 13: 9780060787417
And then in the second half you have the same treatment being given to Christians. It is an absolutely panoramic tour de raison of how people believed and thought, and the revolution and the convulsion that was underlying the religious life of the time. And ever since reading it I have become much more interested in the way in which the great religions such as Judaism and Islam emerged out of the world of the Roman Empire and antiquity generally. The book I am writing at the moment is about how Islam emerged from the context of the Roman Empire and the Persian Empire.
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There is also, of course, the position of Peter Heather , who argues that the barbarians had become strong enough by the 5th century to dismantle the Empire in the west — but you have to ignore an awful lot of tomfoolery among the Romans themselves to arrive at this position. The main example, of course, is in those momentous years of the idiot emperor Honorius , who was ruled largely by his court and by the magister militum head of the Army Flavius Stilicho, who stripped the border guard in order to deal with an invasion of Italy by the Visigoths in CE.
As a consequence of this, a huge army composed of various Germanic tribes crossed the then-frozen Rhine River in the last day of CE, and thereafter much of Gaul, Spain, and Africa passed out of the domain of the Roman Empire. Moreover, there is the enticing theory of Ramsay McMullen , who argued that the disparity in wealth between rich and poor in the later Roman Empire in the west was so great that at some point nobody could be found to care about the Empire itself. So the revenue-strapped state hired lots of barbarians to join the armies, and according to this theory at some point the barbarians in the Roman Army switched sides.
Another event, no doubt, at which the later Roman Empire in the west collapsed, was the murder of the magister militum Aetius, whose main claim to fame in this day and age was to have been depicted in a TV miniseries about Attila the Hun. Aetius was the fellow who in CE organized the barbarian armies which had by that time settled within the borders of the Roman Empire en masse to defend what was left of the Empire in the west against Atilla.
So you see, history is guided by trends, but shaped by events, which are caused by living, breathing people capable of free will. Perhaps a solid screw-up event for the Roman Empire occurred earlier on, in the disastrous Battle of Adrianople now Edirne, in Turkey , in the year CE. The most vivid depiction of this catastrophe remains to this day in the manuscript of Ammianus Marcellinus , of which a good portion remains lost to this day.
The emperor Valens , less competent brother of Valentinian I, sent an army out on a broiling hot and super-humid day in August to confront a band of Visigoths who had been invited into the Roman Empire some time earlier by the Romans. Valens could have waited for Gratian , then ruling in the west, to send an army to work out a deal with the Visigoths.
The Ruin of the Roman Empire: A New History
But nooo, Valens had to be The Man, and so an army of hot, dehydrated Romans, with him at the head, met the Visigoths. After that disastrous battle, there was a permanent barbarian presence inside the boundaries of the Roman Empire which never left. The Romans themselves did not have the manpower to eradicate it — at any rate, the barbarian kingdom within the borders was seen by the emperor Theodosius who succeeded Valens in the east as a source of troops which he could use to fight off usurpers to the imperial throne. All of which exists as a preface for the volume discussed in this diary.
The century or so from to CE reflects human plans and wishes with their successes and failures, showing how rulers who could not understand their world as existing on a continuum much older than themselves squandered countless opportunities. In particular the Ostrogoths, barbarian conquerers of Italy, wanted for the most part to be good Romans, and to back this up they hired a good Roman bureaucracy to govern the Ostrogothic Kingdom in the era of King Theoderic.
So, even though the Empire as an Empire existed only in the east after , Roman civilization in Italy was said to continue through at least Theoderic, who died in CE. In literature this was the age of Boethius, author of the Consolatio Philosophiae.
A picture of a festival in this era is granted us from a letter written by Cassiodorus :. On the climactic night of the festival, we are told, when the priest or bishop began his prayers, the water in the baptismal spring sensed what was about to happen and rose exultantly to meet the prayers from above. A course of man-made steps led down into the spring, with the water regularly covering five of them, but the two higher steps remained dry, except when the prayers began and the water welled up spontaneously — miraculously — to facilitate the baptism.
And in the evening, songs were sung in the tents and shelters, songs we shall never hear, for the real life of ancient times always escapes us.
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