I started off with an idea for a post. It is a good idea. But then something I read made me say, "Not today."
I am in the midst of reading Bernard Cornwell's "The Saxon Tales," I'm on the fourth volume of that series, Sword Song. The series follows a character named Uhtred, born a Saxon in Northumbria, but captured by the Danes after the death of his father, also named Uhtred. Confused yet?
If you are not familiar with the early history of the British Isles then you might not know what the heck I'm talking about. Aren't the Saxons German, and the Danes, you mean from Denmark, those guys? Well, yes and no. We are talking about Vikings, but not really. Not if you know what "viking" really means.
And there's a reason why the term "Anglo-Saxon" has the meaning it does. (But that's for another time perhaps.)
Early in its history Britain was populated by Britons, Picts, and Celts and no doubt other folk whom I cannot recall at the moment. King Arthur was a Briton, probably from somewhere in what we now call Wales. This bit from Wikipedia might give you some clues of what happened after the time of Arthur and when the Romans were getting ready to leave -
As the Roman occupation of Britain was coming to an end, Constantine III withdrew the remains of the army, in reaction to the barbarian invasion of Europe. The Romano-British leaders were faced with an increasing security problem from seaborne raids, particularly by Picts on the East coast of England. The expedient adopted by the Romano-British leaders was to enlist the help of Anglo-Saxon mercenaries (known as foederati), to whom they ceded territory. In about 442 the Anglo-Saxons mutinied, apparently because they had not been paid. The Romano-British responded by appealing to the Roman commander of the Western empire, Aëtius for help (a document known as the Groans of the Britons), even though Honorius, the Western Roman Emperor, had written to the British civitas in or about 410 telling them to look to their own defence. There then followed several years of fighting between the British and the Anglo-Saxons. The fighting continued until around 500, when, at the Battle of Mount Badon, the Britons inflicted a severe defeat on the Anglo-Saxons. (Source)Well, rather than go on and on about this, let me get to my point. There is a paragraph on page 53 of Sword Song which is about the time Uhtred is arriving at the "palace" of Sigefrid, a Danish warlord in Lundene (what we now call London). Part of it, the part which inspired this post, reads:
The great hall was lined with Roman pillars and its walls were of brick, but here and there patches of marble facing had somehow survived. I stared at the high masonry and marveled that men had ever been able to make such walls. We built in wood and thatch, and both rotted away, which meant we would leave nothing behind. The Romans had left marble and stone, brick and glory. Bernard Cornwell, "Sword Song"That bit really struck me. Right after I read it, I thought of standing here -
Where is that you ask? The city of Rome, right outside the Flavian Amphitheater (what some call, inaccurately our lovely guide told us, the Coliseum). Those flagstones were laid down over 2,000 years ago. When Christ walked the hills of Galilee, Romans walked upon those stones. They are still there. Though what they surround is now in ruins.
What happened to that mighty empire? The empire which stretched from northern Britain (where Hadrian built his wall to keep my ancestors out) to the northern coast of the Persian Gulf. Which bordered the dark forests to the east of the Rhine down to the sands of the Sahara. Where did they go?
You can see the remains of their roads, their aqueducts, and buildings throughout Italy, western Europe, Africa, Spain, and the Middle East. It was a long lasting empire which lasted over 400 years, then, fragmented, it broke into a Western Empire and an Eastern Empire. The western portion lasted almost a hundred years after the collapse of the old empire. The Eastern Empire, what later scholars would call the Byzantine Empire, would last into the 15th Century. It died when the capital, Constantinople (modern Istanbul) fell to the invading Ottoman Empire. The Muslim Ottoman empire would last until after World War I, nearly 500 years after the fall of Constantinople.
But the Roman Empire left much behind. Its history, its traditions, a legacy of conquest, but also a legacy of strong government. The Romans were brilliant, practical engineers. They built things to last.
But the citizens of Rome became lazy and bored. They wanted free food, free entertainment, the well known "bread and circuses." They were too "civilized" to defend their empire, soon proper Romans couldn't even be convinced to join the Legions. Yes, in the Legion was hard service, battle, and the possibility of a brutal death on the borders of the Empire. But if one survived there was land to be had. Increasingly though, that land was on the borders.
Across those borders were hard-eyed men, they wanted what the Romans had. Land, prosperity. For many of those people outside of the Empire, other hard-eyed men were driving them from their ancestral lands. It was flee or die. One tribe would displace another, like dominoes those tribes pressed against Rome.
The Legions were weakening. Governors in the boundary areas began to take in some of those "barbarian" tribes. If they would serve in the Legions, if they would help protect Rome, they too could have land and perhaps even prosperity. So it happened.
But the Empire was no longer governed by the Senate and the people of Rome. Now there were emperors, some good, some not so good, and some very bad indeed. But as things got worse and worse, things began to fall apart, the center could no longer hold.
And Rome fell.
Byzantium lasted longer. But she too was pressed from the south by the armies of militant Islam. Byzantium fell, the East was lost. The West had fragmented into petty kingdoms and warring overlords long before that.
I make no analogies to what is going on in these modern times. But I wonder some days.
Rome, so marvelously governed for so long. A prosperous and industrious people. What happened to them? Why did they lose all that they had?
Rome, in the ancient world, after the fall of the Greek democracies, the fall of the empire of Alexander, was civilization. Even more so than ancient Greece, even more so than Egypt with its god-kings and soaring architecture and science. Rome was a glimpse of the modern world to come, long centuries later.
Rome became Christian, allowing Christianity to spread and survive. Where would we be without that? I don't know.
But I often ponder, what became of the glory that was Rome?
I pray that the West is not fading as Rome faded...
Sic transit gloria mundi...