Thursday, February 14, 2008


I have lately been reading, simultaneously, Theodore Mommsen's History of Rome and the third and last volume of John Julian Norwich's history of Byzantium. In Mommsen I have reached his last section, the imposition of the military monarchy, in Norwich the declining fortunes of the Greek empire during the first century of the crusades.

Mommsen describes what has become a sort of paradigmatic shift for us (embodied lately in "Star Wars," of all places), the collapse of the Republic into the (evil) Empire--except that Mommsen has no sympathy with the democratic tendencies of the "revolutions" of the second century B.C. under the Gracci, and his favorable treatment of the murderous Sulla portends a sympathy with the imposition of the military monarchy that is somewhat averse to our normal American scale of values. At least until the recent present.

Twelve hundred years later the Byzantine emperors are in the midst of another situation well-beloved of our phrase-turners, the Barbarians at the Gate--barbarians including not only the Turks and Syrians, but the Franks, Germans, Venetians, and those perpetual and insatiable warmongers, the Normans. Norwich's Byzantium vacilates between holding the balance as the great center of civilization and plunging into periods of almost unbelievable cruelty and xenophobia. A massacre of Franks under Andronicus doesn't excuse the Fourth Crusade (still far off, as Crusader Jerusalem still stands), but it portends the growing hatred that will be exploited by expansionist powers in the West for short-term plunder and the long-term collapse of Christendom in Asia.

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