I’ve been reading the Princeton historian Peter Brown’s short book, The World of Late Antiquity, and came across a passage that seemed oddly contemporary:
The senators of the fifth century cannot be accused of having failed to participate in the political life of the empire. Far from it: they simply annexed the governmental machine to their own style of life, which had regarded politics with studied hesitation, and administration as an opportunity to look after one’s friends. Amateurism, the victory of vested interests, narrow horizons — these are the ugly hallmarks of the aristocratic government of the western empire in the early fifth century.
But it was, at least, their own Roman empire. No group of Romans ever idealized Rome as enthusiastically as did the senatorial poets and speechmakers of the later fourth and early fifth centuries. The myth of Rome that was to haunt medieval and Renaissance men — Roma aeterna, Rome conceived of as the natural climax of civilization, destined to continue for ever — was not created by the men of the classical Roman empire: it was a direct legacy of the heady patriotism of the late fourth-century Latin world.
But this patriotism, Brown continues, only divided the Roman world. The pagans were the loudest patriots, and they believed the roots of Rome’s greatness were found in its pagan past. Christians rejected this, saying that Rome enjoyed divine favor because the bodies of Saint Peter and Saint Paul were buried there. Even something that should have united Rome — agreement on its greatness under heaven — served to divide, because its biggest factions could not agree on the nature of its greatness.
This reminds me of our own country, except that our loudest patriots are conservative Christians. Does America’s strength lie in the fidelity of its people to the God of the Bible, and our unity as people bound by a constitution that holds all as equal under the law? Or does America’s greatness lie in its secularity, and its diversity, which, according to this view, makes us stronger?
But it also reminds me of contemporary Europe. The leadership elites in western Europe, and perhaps a majority of its people, believe that Europe’s greatness is entirely a matter of secularism and status as standard-bearer of a universal civilization based on human rights. A minority believes that it is because of Europe’s (now-discarded) Christian past and national particularities.
Brown says that the internal division and weakness in Roman society, and its rigid rejection of outsiders, left it vulnerable to the barbarian invasions from the north:
As a result, the barbarian tribes entered a society that was not strong enough to hold them at bay, but not flexible enough to ‘lead their conquerors captive’ by absorbing them into Roman life.
This is the significance of the so-called ‘barbarian invasions’ of the early fifth century. These invasions were not perpetual, destructive raids; still less were they organized campaigns of conquest. Rather, they were a ‘gold rush’ of immigrants from the underdeveloped countries of the north into the rich lands of the Mediterranean.
Does this not sound a lot like Europe 2016, with reference to the migrants from the Middle East and Africa? Europe is not strong enough to halt the gold rush of immigrants (it is even considered racist by the elites to mention certain sources of these new invasions), but it also has not been flexible enough to absorb generations of outsiders into European life (whence the banlieues and ghettos).
Late in the book, Brown talks about the sea change that had overtaken popular culture by the end of the transition period away from Antiquity to the Medieval period:
The new, popular culture of the late sixth century was ‘medieval’ in the true sense: it ran on new lines, it exploited new energies, it marked the emergence of a new, non-classical sensibility. The upper-class culture of the Late Antique world had been exclusively literary. The book and the spoken word were the only forms of culture that interested the educated man: no Late Antique bishop, for instance, so much as hints that the churches in which he preached were being set with revolutionary mosaics. By the sixth century, the literary tradition had piled up as an imposing legacy from the past. …
The written word had withdrawn into a shell. Music was the new idiom of the sixth century. Theological controversy hinged on the refrains of devotional chants. The Byzantine liturgy developed its dramatic form. Previously the Cross was shown in Late Antique art as a distant symbol — as a Roman trophy of victory or as a remote, star-studded sign in the sky of a mosaic vault; it was now charged with the body of the Crucified, through the pathos of the Good Friday dirges of Syria.
And, besides music — the icon. The visual image, the stylized portrait, was a concentrated and potent symbol that spoke directly to the man in the street. For the average man had lost touch with the erudite, literary symbolism that had encrusted the public empire. When an emperor placed the traditional, classical winged ‘genius’ of Constantinople on his coins in 570, the provincials were shocked: they thought he had become a pagan; what they wanted on their coins was the simple, charged emblem of the Cross.
Last night, a couple of us here were watching the ball drop in Times Square. Just before midnight, a British singer I, being encrusted, have never heard of (just looked her up: Jessie J) led the million or so revelers in a performance of that most sacred of contemporary hymns, the Te Deum of our time: John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
John Lennon, who controversially said in 1966:
Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I’m right and I’ll be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first— rock ‘n roll, or Christianity.
In the 50 years — yes, it’s now a half century — since Lennon made that statement, has he not been proven more right than wrong, at least as far as the West goes? Think about what has happened over the last century regarding the decline of the culture of the written word, and the ascendancy of music and visual culture, and how that has affected the place of Christianity in the Western imagination.
We live in interesting times. Happy New Year.