Magazine article The Spectator

The Centre That Could Not Hold

Magazine article The Spectator

The Centre That Could Not Hold

Article excerpt

`Roman history begins in Rome and ends at Constantinople.' It recounts the slow shift of the centre of gravity of the Mediterranean world - of European civilisation - from a pagan, latin West to a Christian, hellenised East. Here it will remain, until northern Europe asserts itself in the High Middle Ages.

This epic found its Homer in Gibbon. But it contains no more fascinating passage than the fifth century, the subject of the latest in a long, distinguished series of popular, scholarly works by Michael Grant. This one, however, may not entice to the end a reader not already interested in late Antiquity: the style is clumsy; there are massive quotations from secondary sources; the organisation and flow found in fellow historians of the period such as Peter Brown, Averil Cameron - or earlier Grant - are missing.

Some episodes of special interest to readers in these islands do not feature either: the departure, for instance, of Roman forces from Britain around 407, or the later resistance to the invading Saxons by the mysterious Ambrosius Aurelianus, who may perhaps represent any reality there is behind King Arthur. The set pieces, however, are here: the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410; the extinction of the Western Empire by the compulsory redundancy, with pension, of the last, insignificant emperor, Romulus Augustulus, in 476 . . .

The impact of that sack lay in its symbolism - Rome, despite its prestige, was no longer the actual capital. But Jerome still howled from his retreat in Palestine that `the bright light of the world was quenched ... the whole Universe had perished in one city'. Of more enduring importance for Western thought, it forced Augustine to address the tormenting question of how could God permit such a catastrophe when Rome was a Christian city? His answer was The City of God, finished in 427. Here, he argues that paganism was in error; that Christianity was no guarantee of earthly happiness; and, with grim consequences for the future, that man is inherently sinful and in desperate need of divine grace for forgiveness. (He had no time for the British 'heretic' Pelagius, who emphasised our freedom to choose.)

But why, Grant asks, were all these disasters happening? Why should the Western Empire 'fall', but the Eastern Empire go on, in the next century, to produce St Sophia and attempt the reconquest of the Mediterranean basin, and indeed survive till 1453? …

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