Decline and Fall. And Hope. | Edmund J. Mazza, PhD | Catholic World Report
Americans would do well to ask the question posed by Ponticianus’ sixteen centuries ago: “What is our aim in life?”
Perhaps Rome is not perishing; perhaps she is only
scourged, not utterly destroyed; perhaps she is chastened, not brought to nought. It may be so;
Rome will not perish, if the Romans do not perish. And perish they will not if they praise God;
perish they will if they blaspheme Him.
— St. Augustine
I was so stupefied and dismayed that day and night I could think of nothing but the welfare of the [Christian] community; it seemed as though I was sharing the captivity of the saints, and I could not open my lips until I knew something more definite; and all the while, full of anxiety, I was wavering between hope and despair, and was torturing myself with the misfortunes of other people. But when the bright light of all the world was put out, or, rather, when the Roman Empire was decapitated, and, to speak more correctly, the whole world perished in one city. ‘I became dumb and humbled myself, and kept silence from good words, but my grief broke out afresh, my heart glowed within me, and while I meditated the fire was kindled;’
— St. Jerome
From his monastic cell in Bethlehem, the great Western Father and Doctor
of the Church, St. Jerome bewailed Late Antiquity’s “9/11,” the Fall of Rome.
Rome’s fall has been an object of fascination for western writers, not least
because ever since the Founding Fathers, patriotic Americans have seen
parallels between that shining city on seven hills and our own noble republic.
Indeed, events of the last few years have called into question whether America
herself is now likewise doomed to irreversible “decline and fall.”
On August 24, 410, Rome was sacked by the warlord Alaric and his army of rampaging Goths. When a starving populace admitted the barbarian horde on that fateful August day, it was the first time in an astounding 800 years that enemy soldiers had ever breached the imperial capital’s defenses. Although their attackers were actually Arian Christians (deniers of Christ’s divinity) who spared churches and practiced some measure of clemency, the psychological impact of such a blow for the greater Roman world (some thirty million souls or more) is hard to underestimate. Rome was, after all “the light,” according to Jerome, and that is also how general Maximus characterizes it to an elderly Emperor Marcus Aurelius in the Academy award winning “Gladiator.” The battle-tested legionary has seen much of the rest of the world, and it is “brutish and dark.”
Not just modern film-makers, however, but modern historians, as well, beginning with Edward Gibbon in 1776, have tended to agree with both Jerome and the general. They have seen, starting with the reign of Marcus’ megalomaniacal son Commodus, in AD 180, a steady and almost inevitable decline of the greatest civilization man had yet produced, with the disasters of the fifth century fully emblematic of its final, fitful death throes. For Gibbon, “Christianity and barbarism,” were ultimately to blame for bringing down the Empire, and ushering in the “Dark Ages.”
Now it must be said there is much evidence for a genuine “Decline” and “Fall” in the historical record (whether Christianity is to blame is another matter). As Bryan Ward-Perkins recently recorded of material existence in Roman Britain at the fortress of Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall: