Philobiblon: History in perspective

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

History in perspective

The first essay in the Yourcenar collection on which I posted yesterday is a comparison of the state of Rome as recorded in the Historia Augusta (which covers the second and third centuries AD).

This site, which has the - almost - complete set in Latin and English, rather unkindly describes it as a "mockumentary".

Yourcenar would agree with that conclusion, but her main point is, for her, a rather conventional one, that the "decline" of Rome in this period is being mirrored as she writes: "We have learned to recognize that gigantism which is merely the morbid mimetism of growth, that waste which makes a pretense of wealth in states already bankrupt, that plethora so quickly replaced by dearth at the first crisis ... that atmosphere of inertia and panic, of authoritarianism and of anarchy, those pompous reaffirmations of a great past amid present mediocrity and immediate disorder, those reforms which are merely palliatives ... The modern reader is at home." (Pages 22-3; written in 1958 - and boy could she write)

But what did take me was the reflection she makes about how today's times might be seen not as something new, but merely as an extension of Roman times "... Hitler waging his last battles in Sicily or in Benevento like a Holy Roman emperor of the Middle Ages, or to Mussolini .. strung up by the heels in a Milan garage, dying in the 20th the death of a third-century emperor." (pp. 21-2)

It left me musing about how a historian in 3,000AD, or 4,000AD, assuming of course that there is any such creature - and the way we are going with the environment it may well have a carapace and lots of legs, so think a bit differently to we do - might sum up the history of the world before the time it gets interesting, the last millennia or two for her. (Much as I skipped over the Hittites and neo-Hittites in Syria a couple of days ago.)

Of course the themes would depend on this creature's own concerns; she might want to do decadent decay, if she thought her own society was decaying, as did Yourcenar, or she might even want to do Victorian era-style growth towards a glorious present.

But it is salutary to think how unimportant most of the things that we anguish over today would be, and to consider what elements of today's politics and society might be thought important.

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