Wednesday, March 18, 2009
AN OLD GATED COMMUNITY
As the country I was born in melts away before my eyes, I'm reminded that the passing away of established orders is common in History. Parts of our country are slowly and quietly occupied by third world populations. Our government operates more and more without reference to our constitution or our traditions. Increasingly my fellow citizens assume the existence of Hate Speech Laws even though such laws do not as yet exist. And so we change from what we called a "Free Country," into something else.
When I was young I was taught that the Roman Empire ended with the sacking of Rome in 410 AD. I suppose that most people think of this time as a period of rapine and mass destruction. And so we look for these things in our own time in hopes of finding comfort in there absence. But our expectation of what decline and fall looks like is flawed by bad movies and outdated history.
What brings all this to mind is my happening on the letters of Caius Sollius Appolinaris Sidonius. He was a Gallo-Roman aristocrat and Bishop who lived between 431 and 489AD.
One of the letters details how Sidonius spends a delightful vacation in what is now France, visiting the still intact estates of fellow Roman aristocrats. From the letters it is impossible to tell that anything had changed. Yet he lived not under Roman law but under the rule of Theodoric II, a Visigoth King. In another letter he writes a surprising laudatory description of the King himself.
What strikes me in reading this and other accounts of the decline of Rome is how for the people of the ruling class the end of Roman society was not so much a disaster as a period of accommodation to new realities. The Germans don't invade and burn so much as take over the army and just invite the relatives over to stay. They control the countryside and the Romans remain in the cities living for a time much as they always did except under a different and lighter burden of taxation. The Roman landed aristocracy makes common cause with the Barbarians via the marriage bond and the Middle Ages begin.
I suspect that we are seeing the beginnings of some similar process all around us without recognizing it. Our language slowly corrupts and our government becomes as feckless and overbearing as the Romans. Many of us are on the move to the South or the countryside to escape our fellow citizens. Will the letters, (or emails) detailing the life of some late American in the last gated community survive for someone else to ponder? Will some successor civilization produce people who want to read them? Who can say?