Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Kenneth Clark on the fall of Rome

From Kenneth Clark, Civilisation (BBC and John Murray: London, 1971), the book of the glorious TV series:

What happened? It took Gibbon six volumes to describe the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, so I shan't embark on that. But thinking about this almost incredible episode does tell one something about the nature of civilisation. It shows that however complex and solid it seems, it is actually quite fragile. It can be destroyed. What are its enemies? Well, first of all fear - fear of war, fear of invasion, fear of plague and famine, that make it simply not worthwhile constructing things, or planting trees, or even planting next year's crops. And fear of the supernatural, which means that you daren't question anything or change anything. The late antique world was full of meaningless rituals, mystery religions, that destroyed self-confidence. And then exhaustion, the feeling of hopelessness which can overtake people even with a high degree of material prosperity. There is a poem by the modern Greek poet, Cavafy, in which he imagines the people of an antique town like Alexandria waiting every day for barbarians to come and sack the city. Finally the barbarians move off somewhere else and the city is saved; but the people are disappointed - it would have been better than nothing. Of course civilisation requires a modicum of material prosperity - enough to provide a little leisure. But, far more, it requires confidence - confidence in the society in which one lives, belief in its philosophy, belief in its laws, and confidence in one's own mental powers. The way in which the stones of the Pont du Gard are laid is not only a triumph of technical skill, but shows a vigorous belief in law and discipline. Vigour, energy, vitality: all the great civilisations - or civilising epochs - have had a weight of energy behind them. People sometimes think that civilisation consists in fine sensibilities and good conversation and all that. These can be among the agreeable results or civilisation, but they are not what make a civilisation, and a society can have these amenities and yet be dead and rigid.

So if one asks why the civilisation of Greece and Rome collapsed, the real answer is that it was exhausted. And the first invaders of the Roman Empire became exhausted too. As so often happens, they seem to have succumbed to the same weaknesses as the people they conquered. It's misleading to call them barbarians. They don't seem to have been particularly destructive - in fact, they made some quite impressive constructions, like the Mausoleum of Theodoric: a bit heavy and megalithic compared to the little Greek temple at Nimes - the shallow dome is a single piece of stone - but at least built with an eye to the future. These early invaders have been aptly compared to the English in India in the eighteenth century - there for what they could get out of it, taking part in the administration if it paid them, contemptuous of the traditional culture, except insofar as it provided precious metals. But unlike the Anglo-Indians, they created chaos; and into that chaos came real barbarians like the Huns, who were totally illiterate and destructively hostile to what they couldn't understand. I don't suppose they bothered to destroy the great buildings that were scattered all over the Roman world. But the idea of keeping them up never entered their heads. They preferred to live in pre-fabs and let the old places fall down. Of course, life must have gone on in an apparently normal way for much longer than one would expect. It always does. Gladiators would have continued to fight each other in the amphitheatre of Arles; plays would still have been performed in the theatre of Orange. And as late as the year 383 a distinguished administrator like Ausonius could retire peacefully to his estate near Bordeaux to cultivate his vineyard (still known as Chateau Ausone) and write great poetry, like a Chinese gentleman of the Tang dynasty.

Civilisation might have drifted downstream for a long time, but in the middle of the seventh century there appeared a new force, with faith, energy, a will to conquer and an alternative culture: Islam. The strength of Islam was its simplicity. The early Christian Church had dissipated its strength by theological controversies, carried on for three centuries with incredible violence and ingenuity. But Mahomet, the prophet of Islam, preached the simplest doctrine that has ever gained acceptance; and it gave to his followers the invincible solidarity that had once directed the Roman legions. In a miraculously short time - about fifty years - the classical world was overrun. Only its bleached bones stood out against the Mediterranean sky.

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