American conservatives used to be fond of saying that the United States have entered a decadent period something like that of the Roman Empire. Since American conservatives do not read history, they were never very clear on the period they had in mind, but let us assume they mean the third century, when the empire was up for sale to the highest bidder, when gangster armies fought over the spoils of the empire, when Oriental emperors such as Elagabalus stained the city’s ancient streets with vice unknown in the more wholesome days of Nero and Caligula.
Apart from the disorders, however, the empire was not a lost cause in the third and fourth centuries, largely because of the solid virtues of the class that produced the officers and bureaucrats who organized the defenses, kept the roads and aqueducts in repair, and maintained some semblance of public order. We who live in the age of The Osbournes can hardly afford to sneer at an age that produced St. Augustine and St. Ambrose or Julian and Ammianus Marcellinus.
Alas, we are not living in the age of Caligula or Commodus or even in the age of Honorius and Arcadius, Theodosius’ two incompetent sons. This is not the period before the collapse of civilization: In a moral and cultural sense, at least, the collapse has already taken place. Like the collapse of the Roman West, the modern West’s failure has been a gradual process, and, like the proverbial frog in the kettle, we have so gradually grown used to the heat that we are hardly aware of the bubbles boiling around us. On a spiritual level, the collapse began perhaps 500 years ago, but on a cultural and moral plane, the stench of decay was already perceptible before the first World War.
Poets, though not the legislators of mankind, are the secular prophets who are the first to realize and declare what is going on, and the poets of the teens and 20’s—Eliot, Pound, and Jeffers—were clear: Civilization was almost extinct. Pound, lamenting the mass slaughter of the Great War, puts it succinctly:
There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization.
The proper place to look for parallels is not in the declining years of the Roman Empire but in the period after the barbarian takeover of Italy, Gaul, and Brit-ain, when no one knew exactly what to expect except for a steady deterioration of what we jokingly today refer to as the “quality of life.” During this Gothic period, from Alaric’s sack of Rome (in 410) to the death of Cassiodorus (about 580), the task of civilized Romans was to stay alive, hold on to their property, and pass down some of their institutions to their descendants. From any perspective, whether of cultural or even material survival, the future was not bright.
Though the West was becoming increasingly Christian, this was no Golden Age of the primitive Church. When an open war broke out in Rome over who would sit in the chair of St. Peter, the pagan prefect told the winner, Pope Damasus, that he would gladly turn Christian if only he could have the wealth and power of the Pope. It is a mistake, perhaps a heresy, to imagine that any church was ever any different. Mankind being what it is, the Church was corrupt even in the time of the Apostles—as is revealed by the story of Ananias and Sapphira and by St. Paul’s constant complaints about mor-al disorders and dissensions. Even in Jesus’s time, his followers quarreled over precedence and over priorities, and one of them, perhaps in disgust at Jesus’s refusal to lead a social revolution, betrayed his Master. In many significant ways, the Church, during Her first millennium, improved more than She deteriorated.
Though Romans had nominally ruled the West down to 476, real power was exercised not in Rome but in Milan and Ravenna, whose degenerate rulers hardly cared what happened to the Eternal City. Alaric’s sack of Rome was a terrible shock to the world, and when Emperor Honorius, who was a poultry fancier, heard the news that Roma had been destroyed, he broke out in grief and astonishment, think-ing that his prize rooster named Roma had been killed. “I just saw her this morn-ing,” he complained. Once his courtiers reassured him that it was only the city, he felt a good deal better.
Italy finally lost the pretense of Roman rule once Odovacar the German deposed the last puppet emperor in 476. Odovacar attempted to preserve the structure of the empire and kept the imperial tax system and Roman officials in place, reserving the right to relax taxes whenever he wished to do a favor to a friend or gain popularity. Neither he nor Theodoric, the rival who murdered him, was up to the task, however. The economy was in shambles; agriculture, in ruins. Skilled trades were disappearing from want of work, and greedy barbarians were swarming in to take over farms they did not intend to work.
Much of what Theodoric did in Italy was a continuation of Odovacar’s policy: exercise power through the Gothic soldiers and keep the administration going, wherever possible, by making use of Roman officials like Boethius and Cassio-dorus. The Goths were assigned a full third of the lands. There were roughly 200,000 fighting men, whose numbers, filled out by women and children, must have added up to a million—a small number, really. In those days, there was not much assimilation among the immigrants. Few Goths learned Latin, and virtually none could read. The king approved of their ignorance: “A child who feared the schoolmaster’s rod,” declared Theodoric, “would never wield the sword.” He also seems to have adopted the strategy of divide-and-rule—he was the only man who could control both the Goths and the Romans. Although he is praised for his astute statesmanship, Theodoric could never have succeeded in establishing a stable kingdom in an Italy divided into two nations.
Theodoric and most of his Goths were Arian heretics, denying the full divinity of the Son of God, but although the Arians were well known as vicious persecutors of their more numerous Catholic rivals, Theodoric was wise enough to attempt moderation, though he did intervene in Church affairs and even nominated a pope in Ravenna rather than in Rome. He exasperated Catholic feelings when he compelled an entire community to repair the damages to Jewish property that had resulted from a riot, and, in the controversy that followed, the king ordered the Chapel of St. Stephen in Verona demolished. Later in life, Theodoric began to fear that his Roman subjects were more fearful than loyal, and he took steps to disarm the Italian populace; moreover, he was always willing to hear accusations made by the suspicious Goths against distinguished Romans. Theodoric’s brutal paranoia is responsible for the most famous crimes that stained his regime.
The king showed his greatest prudence in selecting distinguished Romans to staff his bureaucracy. Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius was heir to the last patrician family of republican Rome, the Anicii. As a Manlius, he claimed descent, however implausibly, from the legendary heroes of the early republic, such as Manlius Torquatus. Boethius was born about 480 to a family as wealthy as it was distinguished. His father had been consul under the last emperors, and he was to be consul under the Goths. He married a descendant of the great jurist Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, and he lived to see his sons made joint-consuls in 522.
Although a hardworking public servant, Boethius was best known as a writer and scholar. His was the last generation to have a command of good Latin, and he excelled his contemporaries. He also learned Greek, though the story that he studied in Athens may well be fiction. In a last-ditch effort to preserve the Hellenic inheritance in an increasingly monolingual Italy, he translated important Greek works on music, geometry, astronomy, theology, and—perhaps most importantly—the logical works of Aristotle, which are the indispensable foundation for all systematic science.
Boethius was the most prominent Roman in public life, gaining positions of consul and patrician and magister officiorum—something like chancellor or prime minister. He was no mere creature of Theodoric or toady to the Goths. He intervened to save the lives of Romans unjustly attacked by the barbarians and, in his policies, attempted to relieve the provinces of the crushing burden of taxes, robbery, and exploitation imposed by the Goths.
We shall never know what was going on in Boethius’ mind during those years: a civilized man, preserving and translating Aristotle, organizing what was left of the imperial administration, while putting up with the unwashed and intemperate barbarians who ruled Italy by the sword. From one point of view, both he and Cassiodorus were collaborators with the enemy, but, like the leaders of Vichy France, they were making the best deal they could under the circumstances. He must have known, or ought to have known, that barbarians can never be trusted. They might be honorable in their own way, true to their code, but they are—as Aristotle would have said—akrateis, not in control. A barbarian is prey to his passions—greed, lust, gluttony, drunkenness, arrogance—and many Goths found it inconceivable and disgusting that a civilized and just Roman should wield so much authority.
Two years after the doting father witnessed his sons’ inauguration as consuls, he was accused by resentful Goths of plotting to restore the authority of the only remaining emperor—Justin, the elderly but competent uncle of Justinian. The Goths had reason to be afraid. As soon as Justinian took the throne, he began planning a campaign to restore Italy—which he did—and an educated Roman born in 480 could hardly be blamed for sighing after the good old days. However, we simply do not know if Boethius was guilty even of treason in the heart.
Here is the case. Albinus, a Roman senator, was accused of hoping for a restoration of the liberty of Rome. Boethius defended him with the rhetorical commonplace of free men: “If Albinus is guilty, then so is all the Roman Senate including me. If we are innocent, Albinus is entitled to the same protection of the laws that the rest of us enjoy.” The emperor drew the wrong conclusion, and a document was found or manufactured, inviting the emperor to conquer Italy, signed by both Albinus and Boethius. Boethius was thrown into jail in Pavia, not far from Milan. The charge of practicing magic—the only basis of which was, apparently, his philosophical studies—was added to harm his reputation among Christians. Without a trial or a hearing, Boethius was pronounced guilty, and 500 miles away in Rome, a servile Senate, as Gibbon says, “pronounced a sentence of confiscation and death against the most illustrious of its members.”
The sentence was carried out in the cruelest fashion imaginable: Cords were twisted around his skull, tighter and tighter until his eyes began to pop out. Some Goth must have taken pity, because Boethius was finally clubbed to death. His father-in-law, Symmachus, mourned his loss too openly, and he was dragged in chains to Ravenna, where he was executed. He was the great-grandson of the pagan Symmachus who had argued for the restoration of the Altar of Victory removed from the Senate house by Gratian. Now, his worthy descendant shared the religion of his ancestor’s opponent, St. Ambrose.
Boethius has been called the last of the Romans, and with good cause. His pursuit of humane learning, decent Latinity, and civic virtue was not to be found again until Petrarch. His most important successor, Cassiodorus, wrote wretched Latin and treated the classical inheritance only as a propaedeutic for the education of priests and scribes. Though medievalists might celebrate the transformation of Latin into a simpler language, the loss of balance and structure and precision was symptomatic of the deeper loss of those qualities in all aspects of the culture of the early Middle Ages.
Anyone who has watched the language of Eliot and Waugh and Mencken degenerate into that of Adrienne Rich, John Grisham, and everyone who writes for the New Republic and its “conservative” clones in New York will know how to interpret the loss of clarity and purity.
The American character has been corrupted, from top to bottom, from Ken Lay to Larry King. No grassroots populist rebellion against Washington can change that. A hundred thousand principled and educated men and women, on the other hand, would constitute a revolution, but that revolution will not be hatched in public or private schools but in the institutions that can still be saved: the Luther-an Church—Missouri Synod, for example, where good intentions are not always matched by sound learning; or in the military academies, where, if the women were expelled and standards raised, a generation of clearheaded warriors could be reared; in the business schools that should be requiring a humane education instead of courses in “business ethics” named after criminal Wall Street manipulators; and in every home, where parents can cut the plugs off the television set and game machines and read grown-up books to their children.
As individuals, we cannot change, much less save, the world, but, as members of families and parishes, schools and businesses, we can help our children and colleagues take a giant step backward toward civilization.