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the graeco-roman world: a brief reflection

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Because I haven’t written much here in a while, methinks I should throw something down. I have a few things in the pipeline, but regular bouts of mild depression and sapped confidence, the is-it-really-worth-it phenomenon that overwhelms me from time to time, have left things in abeyance. So I’ll just say that I’ve finished reading a book. The Classical World by Robin Lane Fox was a cheapie, in the classical orange Penguin series. It’s the fourth book by Fox that I’ve read in the last year or two, and obviously discovering his work has been one of the great delights for me in recent times. I’ve been fascinated by the Graeco-Roman world since I was a teenager, and to find a ‘companion’ to help me explore and re-explore that world, a companion who’s liberal, sceptical, insightful, thorough and deeply fascinated by every aspect of human activity, almost makes up for not being able to be there. And by ‘there’ I mean in the Graeco-Roman world itself, but also in modern Europe and the Middle East, amongst the ruins and the archaeological digs, breathing in the traces of ancestors.

Fox ends this book at the reign of Hadrian, one of the wiser emperors, who chose to abandon the interminable military campaigns of his predecessors and to consolidate an almost unimaginably vast empire by travelling through it constantly and making himself relatively accessible to the ‘plebs’. One could argue that this was the high point of empire, from which the decline was so gradual as to be imperceptible to any ‘groundling’, just as we struggle today to work out whether certain superpowers – the term ’empire’ being hopelessly old-fashioned and discredited – are on their way up or down, and at what rate. The difference being that in today’s less rigidly confined and more informed western society, analysis of these issues is available to just about everyone at the click of a mouse.

Comparisons, though, are never as easy as they seem, because one of the first things you learn on examining the Graeco-Roman world in more detail is that it was never monolithic, in space or time. Of course we can generalize about a lot. Apart from the huge growth of the modern press, there is modern science and the concept of human rights. While slavery persists almost everywhere, it’s no longer sanctioned anywhere. Democracy, occasionally experimented with in the classical world, is a modern western standard, as is basic education for all. But many of these developments which we take for granted are relatively recent, and a historical glance at the Europe of only a few hundred years ago – the Europe of the thirty years’ war in the first half of the seventeenth century for example – might well have us preferring even the life of a slave in the Rome of Hadrian’s time.

This brings me to the old question of the impact of Christianity and the development of Christendom. Fox’s book ends on this ambiguous note, with Hadrian in his ‘semi-retirement’ villa:

By his judgements, his letters and his edicts, it was Hadrian who now made the laws by which justice was done. As emperor, he was freed from the laws; as an educated man, he was personally free from fears of the underworld. Nonetheless, in a famous poem, he addressed consolatory words to his ‘little soul’, a future wanderer in a chilly and humourless afterlife. Long centuries of change in the scope of justice, freedom and luxury lay behind Hadrian’s outlook from his villa garden. But he had no idea that the Christians, whose harassment he regulated, would then overturn this world by antiquity’s greatest realignment of freedom and justice: the ‘underworld’ would no longer be a garden-designer’s fancy.

Actually, not so ambiguous perhaps. The underworld, the pagan version of the Christian Hell, was a desolate, if rather ‘iffy’ sort of place. The Hell that replaced this nebulous, half-fancied world was definite, inescapable and relentlessly horrific. And it was apparently controlled and manipulated by the authorities of this world. A dark age indeed.

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Written by stewart henderson

February 25, 2012 at 11:19 am

Posted in anthropology, history

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