The decline and fall of declining and falling

Edward Gibbon made a famous claim in chapter 3 of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that

“If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.”

Not many people these days would be able to do this kind of thing ‘without hesitation’ (“ Oh, yes, 96 to 180AD, I remember it well…”), but Gibbon makes a good point: we organise our lives around a concept of human happiness and prosperity. It’s very important to us both within our national economies and or household economies to know whether things are getting better or worse, and whether this trajectory, once identified, is ‘normal’ or ‘exceptional’.

Gibbon’s intuitive opinion, ‘without hesitation’ was not only that happiness and prosperity were getting worse but that this had been the normal state of the world for a period of roughly 1600 years since the end of the Roman Empire. The former view was somewhat tempered by the latter. Since decline amounted to a long-term trend, it was nothing much to get excited about.

The industrial revolution made Gibbon’s historical reconstruction with its mood of nostaligia seem ‘ridiculous’ (J.C. Stobart). Not at first, since the dark satanic mills actually produced a decline in life expectancy, at least until roughly the middle of the 19th century. But it transformed the way people in England regarded the Golden Age. Now, with new and wondrous inventions appearing seemingly every year, it was increasingly obvious that the best was yet to come, not in the afterlife, as previously, but in the here-and-now or, to be precise, the here-and-soon. We are still living in this brave new world of constant progress and the pace of fabulous change continues to increase.

These two conflicting positions on the Golden Age were impressed upon me as a child by the popular culture I imbibed through the medium of television. I avidly tuned in every Thursday evening to watch a show called ‘Tomorrow’s World’. Each episode showcased a new or developing technology that was just about to transform our lives for the better and for ever. I vividly remember the episode which revealed for the first time a music CD. The presenter made a hole in it with an electric drill, yet it still played without skipping a beat. Amazing! (and not entirely honest, we might suspect, with the benefit of hindsight). The world of tomorrow, emphatically, was destined to be better in every way than that of today. At the same time as this futuristic stuff, my parents liked to watch shows presented by the poet John Betjemen. These would typically involve the great man visiting old village churches or branch line railway stations and declaiming on their faded, passing beauty, as though everything worthwhile in this life was about to be turned into a car park – the eclipse of ‘our lost Elysium’ by an ‘age without a soul’. So these diametrically opposed views of progress seemed to coexist and it was up to me to negotiate as best I could.

But perhaps there are more options than simply progress or decline…

Why should this matter? Historian Bryan Ward-Perkins claims that historians’ views of the decline of the Roman Empire tie in very neatly with their more modern concerns. In the 1940s, he points out, French historians had a strongly ‘decline’ centred view, depicting the northern Germanic ‘invaders’ as barbarous and cruel. Hardly surprising, that,  given the time these historians were writing in. Similarly he connects the more recent revisionist view of Rome’s decline as a relatively gentle assimilation of the northern tribes with the contemporary climate of European Union (especially Franco-German)  rapprochement.

Bryan Ward-Perkins, 2005: 182 The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

“I have… become increasingly puzzled that the word ‘decline’ should be so contested in historical writing when ‘rise’ is used all the time, without anyone ever batting an eyelid.”

“Present-day historians seem to feel more comfortable discussing the ‘rise’ of this or that, because there is absolutely no risk in this vocabulary of anyone being criticized or any negative value judgement being made; rather the reverse – everybody is being awarded a reassuring pat on the back. This is I think the main problem with the new way of looking at the end of the ancient world: all difficulty and awkwardness are smoothed out into a steady and essentially positive transformation of society.”

“there is a real danger for the present day in a vision of the past that explicitly sets out to eliminate all crisis and decline’ (p. 183)

What we have here is a claim that the concepts of ‘rise’ and ‘decline’ in history are constructed in relation to the historian’s own intellectual environment. It’s as though we can’t help inventing an overall assessment of the state of things, which operates in the background and conditions our thinking, linking our descriptive thinking about ancient empires (the ‘facts of the past’) with our normative thinking about present social arrangements.

I note that around the same time Ward-Perkins wrote this in 2005 there was something of a popular return to decline – especially in the form of Jared Diamond’s widely read book, Collapse. How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005), followed by Thomas Homer-Dixon’s book, The Upside of Down. Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization (2006).

These writers are not historians. They are relying on the work of earlier decline-focused historians and the message they are promoting is the Egalitarian message that great empires are fragile and they fall and that  if we don’t change our own civilization’s values it will fall too. Note the assumptions in the subtitles: that it’s possible somehow to choose not to collapse, that civilization is in need of and capable of renewal. At the end of his book, Homer-Dixon recounts a visit to the Hajar el Hibla at Baalbek in modern Lebanon. This is a collossal stone plinth weighing 1,000 tonnes, quarried by the Romans in order to extend an already enormous temple. The point is, of course, that they never managed it. The rock lies in the quarry, never to be erected. Homer-Dixon writes:

If my supposition was right, the rock before me – the last rock – was a powerful symbol of the exhaustion of an enormous social and political enterprise. It was enduring evidence of overreach. The Romans had oaught to cut and move a stone unlike anything they’d ever moved before. And they couldn’t do it. In the end, Rome’s existential values – values that said, among other things, that life’s meaning could be found partly in monumental efforts of engineering – led the empire into a dead end from which it couldn’t escape. (p.307f.)

Just in case we haven’t got the message yet, he continues:

Will our civilization have its last rock too… Or maybe, just maybe, before we’ve exhausted nature and ourselves in a futile effort to produce meaning from material things, we’ll reconsider our values and recognise that we can choose another path into the future. (p. 308)

This is all very stirring, but it doesn’t necessarily tell us much about either the past or the present – except that we construct them the way we want them to be – declining or rising, according to how we believe the world in general must be shifting.Grid-Group Cultural theory would connect these views to the four cultures it describes.

Egalitarianism is committed to a world of decline – just as Rome fell, so will we if we don’t treat one another and nature properly.

Individualism is committed to a world of increase. It’s nonsense to see Rome as a high point. The real high point is the immediate future, in which things will be even better than they are now. Civilizational collapse is for losers!

But there are two more views available.

The Hierarchical approach sees order and management not just as bulwarks against collapse but as denials of its very possibility (or more precisely, collapse could theoretically happen if order were to break down, but in practice it just isn’t going to, so collapse is only ever a threat rather than an actuality). Think of the rulers of the Eastern Roman Empire, which lasted another thousand years after the so-called collapse of Rome. Or of Mehmet II who conquered Byzantium in 1453 and named himself Kayzer-i Rum (Caesar of Rome), then attempted to ‘reunite the Roman Empire’ by invading Italy in 1480. Or of Charlemaigne, who had himself crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800 (Karolus serenissimus Augustus a Deo coronatus magnus pacificus imperator Romanum gubernans imperium it said on his charters) . For such leaders and their courts, the Roman Empire never went away- it is simply and forever under new management.
Finally there is the Fatalist view of history: everything rises and falls and, crucially, there’s not a thing we can do about it. It’s an outlook summed up by The Consolation of Philosophy (524) by Boethius, one of several figures named ‘the last of the Romans’.

I turn my wheel that spins its circle fairly; I delight to make the lowest turn to the top, the highest to the bottom. Come you to the top if you will, but on this condition, that you think it no unfairness to sink when the rule of my game demands it.

This work has been seen as a bridge between classical literature and the changed sensibilities of the Middle Ages. It popularised the rota fortunae, the  image of the wheel of fortune, depicted in the medieval Carmina Burana as a king travelling up, over and back down a wheel. I will reign, I reign, I have reigned, I am without a reign, the captions read. It is also well illustrated by the words of a song from that collection, Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi (Fortune, empress of the world).

So when is/was/will/will not be the golden age? And are things getting better, or worse? The answers to these questions are not merely of historical interest. They are what our culture uses to teach us what it would take for us to be, in Gibbon’s words, ‘happy and prosperous’. So it is worth taking stock of how these four alternative visions of decline and fall make use of us, perennially, as their mouthpieces.

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