the Roman world and ours, continued

To pick up where I left off last time:

Imagine that you are a historian in the far future: say, a hundred thousand years from now. Isn’t it perfectly possible that from that vantage point the rise of the United States as a global power might be seen primarily as a development in the history of the Roman Empire? To you, future historian, events from the great influence of Addison’s Cato upon the American Revolution to the Marshall Plan (paciere subiectis, debellare superbos) to the palpable Caesarism of Trump are not best understood as analogies to Roman history but as stages within it — as the history of the British Empire (Pax Brittanica) had been before us: Romanitas merely extended a bit in time and space. We know that various nations and empires have seen themselves as successors to Rome: Constantinople as the Second Rome, Moscow as the Third, the just-mentioned Pax Brittanica and even the Pax Americana that followed it. In such a case, to know little or nothing about the history of Rome is to be rendered helpless to understand — truly to understand — our own moment.

A possible chapter title from a far-future history textbook: “The Beginnings of the Roman Empire: 31 B.C.E. to 5000 C.E.”

Self-centered person that I am, I find myself thinking about all this in relation to what I’ve been calling the technological history of modernity. And Cochrane’s argument — along with that of Larry Siedentop, which I mentioned in my previous post on this subject — pushes me further in that direction than I’d ever be likely to go on my own.

In the Preface to his book, Cochrane makes the summary comment that “the history of Graeco-Roman Christianity” is largely the history of a critique: a critique of the idea, implicit in certain classical notions of the commonwealth but made explicit by Caesar Augustus, “that it was possible to attain a goal of permanent security, peace and freedom through political action, especially through submission to the ‘virtue and fortune’ of a political leader.” Another way to put this (and Cochrane explores some of these implications) is to say that classical political theory is devoted to seeing the polis, and later the patria and later still the imperium, as the means by which certain philosophical problems of human experience and action are to be solved. The political theory of the Greco-Roman world, on this account, is doing the same thing that the Stoics and Epicureans were doing in their own ways: developing a set of techniques by which human suffering might be alleviated, human anxieties quelled, and human flourishing promoted. That political theory is therefore best understood as closely related to what Foucault called “technologies of the self” and to what Martha Nussbaum has described as the essentially therapeutic character of Hellenistic ethics. The political structures of the Roman Empire — including literal structures like aquaducts and roads, and organizational ones like the cursus publicus, should therefore be seen as pointing ultimately towards a healing not only of the state but of the persons who comprise it. (Here again Siedentop’s history of the legal notions of personhood, and the relations of persons to families and communities, is vital.)

And if all this is right, then the technological history of modernity may be said to begin not with the invention of the printing press but in the ancient world — which in a very real sense, according to the logic of “great time,” we may be said to inhabit still.

the Roman world and ours

So why am I reading about — I’m gonna coin a phrase here — the decline and fall of the Roman Empire? It started as part of my work on Auden.

I first learned about Charles Norris Cochrane’s Christianity and Classical Culture from reading Auden’s review of it, published in The New Republic in 1944. Auden began that review by saying that in the years since the book appeared (it was first published in 1940) “I have read this book many times, and my conviction of its importance to the understanding not only of the epoch with which it is concerned, but also of our own, has has increased with each rereading.” I thought: Well, now, that’s rather remarkable. I figured it was a book I had better read too.

Auden concludes his review with these words:

Our period is not so unlike the age of Augustine: the planned society, caesarism of thugs or bureaucracies, paideia, scientia, religious persecution, are all with us. Nor is there even lacking the possibility of a new Constantinism; letters have already begun to appear in the press, recommending religious instruction in schools as a cure for juvenile delinquency; Mr. Cochrane’s terrifying description of the “Christian” empire under Theodosius should discourage such hopes of using Christianity as a spiritual benzedrine for the earthly city.

That metaphor — “spiritual benzedrine for the earthly city” — is brilliantly suggestive. (And Auden knew all about benzedrine.)

More than twenty years later, in a long essay on the fall of Rome that was never published for reasons Edward Mendelson explains here, Auden wrote:

I think a great many of us are haunted by the feeling that our society, and by ours I don’t mean just the United States or Europe, but our whole world-wide technological civilisation, whether officially labelled capitalist, socialist or communist, is going to go smash, and probably deserves to.

Like the third century the twentieth is an age of stress and anxiety. In our case, it is not that our techniques are too primitive to cope with new problems, but the very fantastic success of our technology is creating a hideous, noisy, over-crowded world in which it is becoming increasingly difficult to lead a human life. In our reactions to this, one can see many parallels to the third century. Instead of Gnostics, we have existentialists and God-is-dead theologians, instead of neoplatonists, devotees of Zen, instead of desert hermits, heroin addicts and beats … instead of mortification of the flash, sado-masochistic pornography; as for our public entertainments, the fare offered about television is still a shade less brutal and vulgar than that provided by the amphitheater, but only a shade, and may not be for long.

And then the comically dyspeptic conclusion: “I have no idea what is actually going to happen before I die except that I am not going to like it.” (For those interested, the unpublished essay may be found in this collection.)

Clearly for Auden, the story Cochrane tells was one that had lasting relevance. Elements of Cochrane’s narrative turn up, in much more complex form than in the late-career bleat just quoted, for decades in Auden’s poetry: “The Fall of Rome,” “Memorial for the City,” “Under Sirius,” “Secondary Epic,” and many other poems bear Cochrane’s mark. As I mentioned in my earlier post, I’m now reading Christianity and Classical Culture for the fourth time, and it really is impossible for me also not to see the Roman world as a distant mirror of our own. How can I read this passage about the rise of Julius Caesar and not think of Donald Trump?

In the light of these ancient concepts, Ceasar emerges as a figure at once fascinating and dangerous. For the spirit thus depicted is one of sublime egotism; in which the libido dominandi asserts itself to the exclusion of all possible alternatives and crushes every obstacle in its path. We have spoken of Caesar as a divisive force. That, indeed, he was: as Cato had put it, “he was the only one of the revolutionaries to undertake, cold-sober, the subversion of the republic”; … A force like this, however, does more than divide, it destroys. Hostile to all claims of independence except its own, it is wholly incompatible with that effective equality which is implied in the classical idea of the commonwealth. To admit it within the community is thus to nourish the lion, whose reply to the hares in the assembly of beasts was to ask: Where are your claws?

And how can I read about this extension of the Emperor’s powers and not reflect on the recent hypertrophy of the executive branch of American government?

The powers and duties assigned to the emperor were broad and comprehensive. They were, moreover, rapidly enlarged as functions traditionally attached to republican magistracies were transferred one after another to the new executive, and executive action invaded fields which, under the former system, had been consecrated to senatorial or popular control. Finally, by virtue of specific provisions, the substance of which is indicated in the maxim princeps legibus solutus, the emperor was freed from constitutional limitations which might have paralyzed his freedom of action; while his personal protection was assured through the grant of tribunician inviolability (sacrosanctitas) as well as by the sanctions of the Lex Maiestatis. The prerogative was thus built up by a series of concessions, made by the competent authority of senate and people, no single one of which was in theory unrepublican.

But the more I read Cochrane, the more I suspect that we may not be talking about mere mirroring, mere analogies. Last year, when I read and reviewed Larry Siedentop’s book Inventing the Individual, I was struck by Siedentop’s tracing of certain of our core ideas about selfhood to legal disputes that arose in the latter centuries of the Roman Empire and its immediate aftermath. And this led me in turn to think about an ideas that Mikhail Bakhtin meditated on ceaselessly near the end of his life: great time. David Shepherd provides a thorough account of this idea here, but in short Bakhtin is trying to think about cultural developments that persist over centuries and even millennia, even when they have passed altogether from conscious awareness. Thus this staggering passage from one of his late notebooks:

The mutual understanding of centuries and millennia, of peoples, nations, and cultures, provides a complex unity of all humanity, all human cultures (a complex unity of human culture), and a complex unity of human literature. All this is revealed only on the level of great time. Each image must be understood and evaluated on the level of great time. Analysis usually fusses about in the narrow space of small time, that is, in the space of the present day and the recent past and the imaginable — desired or frightening — future.


There is neither a first nor a last word and there are no limits to the dialogic context (it extends into the boundless past and the boundless future). Even past meanings, that is, those born in the dialogue of past centuries, can never be stable (finalized, ended once and for all) — they will always change (be renewed) in the process of subsequent, future development of the dialogue. At any moment in the development of the dialogue there are immense, boundless masses of forgotten contextual meanings, but at certain moments of the dialogue’s subsequent development along the way they are recalled and invigorated in renewed form (in a new context). Nothing is absolutely dead: every meaning will have its homecoming festival. The problem of great time.

If we were take Bakhtin’s idea seriously, how might that affect our thinking about the Roman Empire as something more than a “distant mirror” of our own age? To think of our age, our world, as functionally extensive of the Roman project?

I’ll take up those questions in another post.

synopsis of Cochrane’s Christianity and Classical Culture

  • Augustus, by uniting virtue and fortune in himself (viii, 174), established “the final triumph of creative politics,” solving “the problem of the classical commonwealth” (32).
  • For a Christian with Tertullian’s view of things, the “deification of imperial virtue” that accompanied this “triumph” was sheer idolatry: Therefore Regnum Caesaris, Regnum Diaboli (124, 234). 
  • “The crisis of the third century … marked … an eclipse of the strictly classical ideal of virtue or excellence” (166), and left people wondering what to do if the Augustan solution were not a solution after all. What if there is “no intelligible relationship” between virtue and fortune (171)?
  • Christians had remained largely detached during the crisis of the third century, neither wanting Rome to collapse nor prone to being surprised if it did, since its eventual fall was inevitable anyway (195).
  • Then Constantine came along and “both professed and practiced a religion of success” (235), according to which Christianity was a “talisman” that ensured the renewal of Romanitas (236).
  • After some time and several reversals (most notably in the reign of Julian the Apostate) and occasional recoveries (for instance in the reign of Theodosius) it became clear that both the Constantinian project and the larger, encompassing project of Romanitas had failed (391).
  • Obviously this was in many ways a disaster, but there was some compensation: the profound impetus these vast cultural crises gave to Christian thought, whose best representatives (above all Augustine) understood that neither the simple denunciations of the social world of Tertullian nor Constantine’s easy blending of divergent projects were politically, philosophically, or theologically adequate.
  • Thus the great edifice of the City of God, Cochrane’s treatment of which concludes with a detailed analysis of the philosophy of history that emerges from Augustine’s new account of human personality: see 502, 502, 536, 542, 567-69.
Just in case it’s useful to someone. Those page numbers are from the Liberty Fund edition, which I ended up using for reasons I’ll discuss in another post. 

Virgil and adversary culture

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Adam Roberts has been blogging about the Aeneid, prompted by his reading of Seamus Heaney’s fragmentary translation. Adam concludes his most recent post on the subject with these thoughts:

One of the biggest questions about the Aeneid, one critics and scholars still debate, is whether it is a simply encomium for Empire, sheer Augustan propaganda; or whether (as in Shakespeare, who presents us with a similar difficulty) the surface celebration of the triumph of the state and the authority of the strong leader veils much more complex and critical sense of what Empire means. Since we nowadays tend to value complexity, and prize texts that hide cross-currents and ironies under their surface storytelling, it’s tempting simply to assume the latter. I have to say, I’m not convinced. We might think that condensing together into one dark-coloured and potent cube loss, punishment and imperial glory is to force three immiscible elements into an unstable emulsion, that the contradictions and tensions in the ideological structure of the poem will pull it apart. But I don’t think so. Of course we know that Empire is a grievous thing to be on the receiving-end of, as armies march into your homeland and subdue your way of life and prior freedoms to theirs. But Empire is hard work for the conquerors, too, However asymmetric the balance, it entails losses and punishments on both sides. Maybe the mixture in Aeneid 6 speaks to a simpler truth.

Indeed this seems to me likely — though that’s a point difficult for many of us to grasp, because we are so accustomed to literary culture as fundamentally adversarial in relation to the culture at large. This is an inheritance of Modernism, as Paul Fussell explained some years ago in a very smart essay; but it is a lasting inheritance. It explains why when critics call a writer or a text “subversive” it’s always a compliment. That a truly great artist could also be wholly supportive of his society’s chief political project scarcely seems possible to us.

I’m now re-reading (for, I believe, the fourth time) a book that I think of as one of the great monuments of twentieth-century humanistic scholarship, Charles Norris Cochrane’s Christianity and Classical Culture (1940). As an interpretation of Rome’s passage from republic to pagan imperium to Christian imperium it is, I believe, unsurpassed and of permanent value. Cochrane believed that Virgil understood what Octavian was trying to achieve, endorsed it, developed and as it were poetically theorized it, all in a way that was recognizable to Octavian as his own work. In Virgil, Cochrane says, the Romans “at least discovered the answer by which their [cultural and political] doubts and perplexities were resolved; it was he, more than any other man, who charted the course of their imperial future.”

Here’s the key passage:

Viewed in the light of [Virgil’s] imagination, the Pax Augusta emerged as the culmination of effort extending from the dawn of culture on the shores of the Mediterranean — the effort to erect a stable and enduring civilization upon the ruins of the discredited and discarded systems of the past. As thus envisaged, it thus constituted not merely a decisive stage in the life of the Roman people, but a significant point of departure in evolution of mankind. It marked, indeed, the rededication of the imperial city to her secular task, the realization of those ideals of human emancipation toward which the thought and aspiration of antiquity had pointed hitherto in vain. From this standpoint, the institution of the principate represented the final triumph of creative politics. For, in solving her own problem, Rome had also solved the problem of the classical commonwealth.

This is what Virgil taught the Roman people, and continued to teach them for hundreds of years. In Cochrane’s telling, the later rulers of Rome betrayed this inheritance in multiple ways, but to Virgil’s articulation of the Roman mission — to regere imperio populos, Romane, memento / (hae tibi erunt artes), pacisque imponere morem, / parcere subiectis, et debellare superbos — there was simply no alternative, no other way of conceiving Roman identity. The Roman world long awaited a figure of comparable genius, a comparable sweep of imagination and force of language, to offer a competing vision.

Eventually, though too late, that figure appeared: Augustine of Hippo.