Destroyers and Preservers
CAPTIVES OFTEN enslave conquerors with their culture. The sack of cities precedes their renaissance. The barbarian at the gate becomes the builder of the temple. The Dark Ages of Europe ruined and translated classical arts to later centuries, the desert tribes of Islam became the heirs of the Hellenes, even the later rulers of the predatory Mongols became princes and patrons of the practices of peace. As Shelley urged the West Wind:
Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh hear!
While Byzantium formed a Roman empire of the east, its rulers tried to return to the western Mediterranean. At Ravenna, the mosaics celebrating God the Father and the Byzantine emperors reached their apogee. Beneath the dome of San Vitale, springing on arches from its octagonal base, the imperial couple, Justinian and Theodora, stand golden between heaven and earth, offering the chalice to their dependent courtiers as intermediaries and givers and arbiters of the divine to the human. The later Ostrogothic and Lombard conquerors of Ravenna approved such a royal role between God and man: the mosaics were respected. King Theodoric the Great's mausoleum honoured classical architecture with its wide arches and cupola, while its spare ornamentation introduced the austere style of Germanic goldsmiths. But as the letters of his civil servant Cassiodorus state, Rome itself had been sacked and was being despoiled of its treasures by war and theft carried out by its remaining citizens. 'If there were any reverence in human nature,