I haven’t completely gotten through my Gibbon, so this brief primer on Late Antiquity was a useful read:
It is perhaps something of a truism to compare our own age with the period of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. Funnily enough, when researching my thesis, which had a chapter about Saint Augustine, I read quite a lot about what historians call Late Antiquity…
So, what can we learn from the twilight of the Roman Empire?
For a start, it is a mistake to think of it as a twilight. The Empire was substantially intact at the death of Theodosius the Great in 395, and even after 410, when Rome had been sacked by Alaric the Goth, Augustine makes clear in The City of God that he thinks that Rome, though suffering a reverse, is by no means defeated. Indeed, contemporary historians now think that while the fall of the North African provinces was a huge blow, which occurred in the year of Augustine’s death, 430 AD, it was only the two subsequent failures to win them back, in 461 and 468, that doomed the West. So, even into the second half of the fifth century, people in the Roman Empire may well have been confident that the Empire was going to survive, just as it had survived the very difficult period in the third century before the accession of Diocletian.
An interesting read, coming as it does with a degree of beneficent separation in time and space. Far better to read about Rome’s eventual fall than live through it, I should think.
I am starting to feel as if I am living in a Vandal state, perhaps on the frontier near Carthage around a.d. 530, or in a beleaguered Rome in 455. Here are some updates from the rural area surrounding my farm, taken from about a 30-mile radius. In this take, I am not so much interested in chronicling the flotsam and jetsam as in fathoming whether there is some ideology that drives it.
Last week an ancestral rural school near the Kings River had its large bronze bell stolen. I think it dated from 1911. I have driven by it about 100 times in the 42 years since I got my first license. The bell had endured all those years. Where it is now I don’t know. Does someone just cut up a beautifully crafted bell in some chop yard in rural Fresno County, without a worry about who forged it or why — or why others for a century until now enjoyed its presence?
The city of Fresno is now under siege. Hundreds of street lights are out, their copper wire stripped away. In desperation, workers are now cementing the bases of all the poles — as if the original steel access doors were not necessary to service the wiring. How sad the synergy! Since darkness begets crime, the thieves achieve a twofer: The more copper they steal, the easier under cover of spreading night it is to steal more. Yet do thieves themselves at home with their wives and children not sometimes appreciate light in the darkness? Do they vandalize the street lights in front of their own homes?
If I were to use a cellphone while driving and get caught, the state might make an easy $170 for five minutes’ work. If the same officer were to arrest the dumper who threw a dishwasher or refrigerator into the local pond among the fish and ducks, the arrest and detention would be costly and ultimately fruitless, providing neither revenue from a non-paying suspect nor deterrence against future environmental sacrilege. We need middle-class misdemeanors to pay for the felonies of the underclass.
The state’s reaction to all this is a contorted exercise in blaming the victim, in both the immediate and the abstract senses. Governor Brown wants to raise income taxes on the top two brackets by 1 to 2 percentage points, making them over 11 and 12 percent respectively. That our schools are near dead last in test scores, that many of our main freeways are potholed relics from the 1960s, that we just passed the DREAM Act to extend state financial support for college-age illegal aliens, and that the overtaxed are fleeing the state do not register. Again, those who in theory can pay, should — and should keep quiet about why they must suddenly pay a 12 percent income tax that was not needed, say, in 1991, 1971, or 1961, when test scores were higher, roads better, and communities far safer.
“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.” — Luke 2:1
Not these days. Which is why, perhaps Rome will have had a gentler decline than we ourselves.