Many often declare that since, “To the victor go the spoils,” so too, that, “Victors write the history books.” This pithy phrase assumes that historical narratives boil down to power, a concession to postmodern theory that I am loathe to make. Aside from the debate over the theory, however, history itself will not confirm the statement. Several examples exist to prove this point:
- The Athenians exiled Thucydides but we read of the war that helped bring about his exile almost exclusively through him.
- Athenian Democracy “won” by executing Socrates, but subsequent generations of readers learned Athenian democracy primarily through Plato’s eyes.
- The triumph of the “imperial” system over the Republic in Rome became a fact of life after Augustus, but we think of that triumph foremost through the writings of Tacitus, a significant critic of most of the emperors.
- The North won the American Civil War, but the Confederacy had a variety of champions shortly after the war and a variety of sympathizers today,
and so on.
As Tocqueville noted, mere physical force can control the body but often has the opposite impact on the soul. The examples above demonstrate also that, contra the mundane postmodernist, shaping how we see the world has much more to do with our imagination that rote political force.
Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Excellent Empire disappointed me overall. He is likely one of the few who could have possibly made a history of Christian doctrine an exciting read, and he did just that in his four volume work The Christian Tradition. In The Excellent Empire he flashes his ability to deftly dance from text to text, but seems to get trapped into the detached tone of his main subject, Edward Gibbon, whose The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire forms the backdrop of this book.
I give Gibbon much credit for his labors, his erudition, and for having a defined point of view. Alas, he writes like a know-it-all, and I cannot buy into how he frames his narrative. Pelikan seems to accept Gibbon’s perspective (or–is just playing a scholarly game, or am I too dense to notice something else?), and discusses how GIbbon’s perspective relates to Christian thoughts at the time from Sts. Jerome and Augustine, as well as a touch of Salvian and Orosius.
Gibbon’s work is an interesting examination of who gets the last laugh.
Roman contemporary critics of Christians viewed them as a drain on the Roman state, and in many ways enemies of the Roman state. Jerome saw the collapse of Rome in the most starkly apocalyptic terms, and in the most anguished. He compared Rome’s end to various passages from Revelation. He saw Rome as ripe for judgement. Yet, he grieved over their fall, seeing their end as the end of all things as he knew them. Augustine took a more cerebral approach, which gained him some more penetrating insights. He conceived of a Rome built upon shaky foundations from the start. In one brilliant passage from Book 3 of The City of God he writes,
First, then, why was Troy or Ilium, the cradle of the Roman people (for I must not overlook nor disguise what I touched upon in the first book(2)), conquered, taken and destroyed by the Greeks, though it esteemed and worshipped the same gods as they? Priam, some answer, paid the penalty of the perjury of his father Laomedon.(3) Then it is true that Laomedon hired Apollo and Neptune as his workmen. For the story goes that he promised them wages, and then broke his bargain. I wonder that famous diviner Apollo toiled at so huge a work, and never suspected Laomedon was going to cheat him of his pay. And Neptune too, his uncle, brother of Jupiter, king of the sea, it really was not seemly that he should be ignorant of what was to happen. For he is introduced by Homer(4) (who lived and wrote before the building of Rome) as predicting something great of the posterity of AEneas, who in fact founded Rome. And as Homer says, Neptune also rescued AEneas in a cloud from the wrath of Achilles, though (according to Virgil (1))
“All his will was to destroy
His own creation, perjured Troy.”
Gods, then, so great as Apollo and Neptune, in ignorance of the cheat that was to defraud them of their wages, built the walls of Troy for nothing but thanks and thankless people.(2) There may be some doubt whether it is not a worse crime to believe such persons to be gods, than to cheat such gods. Even Homer himself did not give full credence to the story for while he represents Neptune, indeed, as hostile to the Trojans, he introduces Apollo as their champion, though the story implies that both were offended by that fraud. If, therefore, they believe their fables, let them blush to worship such gods; if they discredit the fables, let no more be said of the “Trojan perjury;” or let them explain how the gods hated Trojan, but loved Roman perjury. For how did the conspiracy of Catiline, even in so large and corrupt a city, find so abundant a supply of men whose hands and tongues found them a living by perjury and civic broils? What else but perjury corrupted the judgments pronounced by so many of the senators? What else corrupted the people’s votes and decisions of all causes tried before them? For it seems that the ancient practice of taking oaths has been preserved even in the midst of the greatest corruption, not for the sake of restraining wickedness by religious fear, but to complete the tale of crimes by adding that of perjury.
Such analysis gave medieval Europe a whole new foundation of political and religious ideology on which to proceed.
Rome attacked Christians for not giving themselves fully to the well-being of the state. For the Romans, this might have taken the form of not giving due sacrifices to the emperor, or not joining the army. Gibbon pointed out as well that the best men in the Church gave themselves to the Church, and not Rome. Imagine a Rome where Athanasius, Jerome, Augustine, Ambrose, etc.–with all of their energy and intelligence–served as provincial governors instead of bishops.
Jerome and Augustine responded variously with how Rome had doomed itself to destruction via its sins, or how Christians were in fact the best citizens of Rome. Their analysis won the day. Monastics, for example, appear on the surface at least, to not contribute anything to the well-being of civilization. But monastics would be honored in the west for the next 1000 years. Their presence made no sense to either the Romans or to Gibbon. The “social triumph of the church,” as Pelikan calls it, gave the Church the power of interpreting Rome’s history. But I gathered that Pelikan thought Augustine and Jerome thieves, to a certain extent.* Perhaps for Pelikan, Gibbon restored Rome’s vision of itself back to the stream of history.
Augustine and Jerome appeared to be the victors in the 5th century A.D. and beyond, as the Church had a strong hand on shaping the next millennium. But historical spoils can be slippery things. In an irony that perhaps not even Gibbon might have foreseen, today’s Christians, having abandoned much of the otherworldliness of the Church of the 5th century, may find more congeniality with Gibbon’s interpretation as opposed to Augustine’s. What modern mega-church leader, for example, would tell anyone to become a monk? We have our eyes set on this world and have no concept of how to patttern ourselves after the heavenly realms. Some may applaud this. But without the worldview of Augustine and Jerome we may find ourselves wishing, along with Gibbon, that St. Augustine had served as proconsul of Alexandria.
*I could be totally wrong here. Part of the difficulty I had with this book was I felt that I was reading a different Pelikan than the one I encountered in The Christian Tradition. I had assumed that The Excellent Empire was written before this series, because its tone seemed more distant to me, less committed to the idea of truth than The Christian Tradition. I knew that Pelikan had converted to Orthodox Christianity in 1998. But I had somehow thought (how I thought this I’m not sure) that The Christian Tradition was written during/after his conversion, when in reality the early volumes stretch back to 1973, and the last volume predates his official reception into the Church by eight years.
This could mean that
- I have misread Pelikan entirely in The Excellent Empire
- Pelikan is deft at hiding his particular point of view from the reader and is simply examining certain points of view in a more detached way.
- He does admire Gibbon (which is understandable) and agrees with Gibbon that Christians really did bring down Rome from the inside out. This stance is not Augustine’s or Jerome’s, but it is certainly not an anti-Christian idea in itself. Nebuchadnezzar’s first dream may hint at this (Daniel 2). Perhaps I am too ingrained in my distaste for Gibbon’s pompous Enlightenment attitude to see that, despite this weakness, he may have been right after all about the Church’s relationship to Rome.