CHAPTER 13.—CIVILIZATION DESTROYS CIVILIZATION.
For the next millennium, until the discovery of America, western Europe will be the focus of history. Other parts of the world will be doing things that are in many ways more interesting than what the Europeans are doing during that time, but they will not be making history properly so called.
Let us therefore pause for a moment to survey the shattered remains of the Roman Empire in the west in about the year 500. Everywhere we look, we see barbarian kings as acknowledged rulers. In Italy, the Ostrogoths have conquered; in Spain, Visigoths rule. In Gaul, the Franks have made themselves at home and are already beginning to think of naming the place France after themselves; but they have encountered some opposition from the Burgundians, who vote for calling it Burgundy. Across the Mediterranean, the Vandals have established themselves in the province of Africa and covered the public buildings with graffiti.
Anyone familiar with our school histories would say that we are looking at the beginning of the Dark Ages, but our school histories are wrong. The lights are still on. Given half a chance, the barbarians find that they enjoy civilization and can get pretty good at it. It will be the Romans themselves who ultimately destroy classical civilization, because they would rather destroy it than let filthy barbarians have it.
If we take a closer look at Italy, we find that the whole peninsula is thriving. Rome is still the queen of cities; her ancient splendor has been restored, and quite a bit of new construction is going on. Art and literature are flourishing; merchants are growing rich; travelers make it to their destinations unmolested. After the disasters of the 400s, it looks like a new golden age for Rome.
All this comes from the wise and just rule of Theodoric, the Gothic king who swept into Italy, got rid of Odoacer, and went on to rule fairly and well for a generation. Under his benevolent government, the old Roman bureaucracy continued to function unimpaired, and decades of stability brought both economic and cultural recovery. Naturally, the Romans were seething with resentment against a barbarian king who had the temerity to govern their country better than they could govern it themselves. Oh, how they longed to be rid of these disgusting Goths, with their uncouth language and their Arian heresy and their just and competent government!
There is an old Roman saying about “the curse of an answered prayer” that would be very appropriate here.
As for the rest of the West, it is true that occasional waves of barbarians are still sweeping across the landscape. (Historians once believed that history was made up of a series of such waves, but modern historians have shown that history sometimes behaves as a particle as well.) On the whole, however, there is more stability in western Europe than there has been for a century, and there is good reason to hope that the lingering shadows will soon be dispelled by the strong light of civilization still beaming from Rome. (Historians usually resort to elaborate metaphors when they are not quite sure what they are talking about.)
Now we must turn our attention back to Constantinople for a moment. During the reign of Theodoric, the relationship of the Roman emperor to Gothic Italy was rather like the relationship of the British monarch to Australia: his face was on the money and his name at the top of the chart, but he was not expected to attempt any actual governing, and any active interference in western affairs would have been hotly resented In 527, however, a new emperor named Justinian came to the throne. Almost immediately he began rubbing his hands together and declaring that he was going to get a few things done around here.
Justinian is the most unaccountable character in history. No other ruler has ruled so well and so poorly at the same time. He could slip away unscathed from the most disastrous failures, but his successes were absolutely ruinous. His most conspicuous failure, the riots that burned half of Constantinople, ended up giving us the Church of Holy Wisdom, one of the most inspiring works of architecture on the planet. His most conspicuous successes, on the other hand, destroyed civilization in the west and caused the astonishingly rapid Islamic conquests in the East. He added millions to the tax base and bankrupted the Empire. There was nothing the man could not accomplish. And as if his life were not confusing enough, the historian who gave us the most fawning panegyrics on Justinian’s virtues, and the historian who penned the most outrageous calumnies against him, are the same man—Procopius, who, like many a cubicle-dweller since, kept a little notebook in his desk to jot down what he really thought of his employer.
Having consolidated his position with the usual round of murders, Justinian took it into his head that he was going to restore the Roman Empire to its former extent. This was without a doubt the stupidest and most unrealistic idea a Roman emperor had ever had. It was clearly impossible. Since no one dared to tell Justinian that, he very nearly managed to pull it off.
It helped a great deal that he happened to have an extraordinary military genius at his disposal. Belisarius, Justinian’s master strategist, took Africa from the Vandals so easily that his mere name could stir terror in a barbarian heart. From Africa he went on to Italy. Luckily Theodoric had died and been succeeded by a pack of idiots, so Belisarius rolled right up the southern half of the peninsula with very little trouble. As he continued his steamroller march toward Rome, the Goths decided that the wisest thing to do would be to run to Ravenna, screaming like little girls all the way. They took the most popular Roman senators with them as hostages and left the Romans some simple instructions (“Don’t do anything we wouldn’t do”) that they hoped would prevent them from handing the city over to Belisarius right away. Then they left, and the Romans handed the city over to Belisarius right away.
Holed up in the relative safety of Ravenna, the Goths had time to reconsider their position. Perhaps it had not been such a good idea after all to let the imperial army take the greatest city in their realm without a fight. It began to occur to them that there were a whole lot of Goths, whereas the imperial army was just a few dozen Greeks—the kind of people who sat around on velvet cushions and talked about philosophy all day. Why had they retreated? What were they afraid of? This Belisarius wasn’t so tough. So they decided to go down there and take Rome back. First, just to make sure they would be welcomed as liberators, they killed all the hostages; then they came and besieged the city.
They might have taken Rome easily except for two facts: first, that Belisarius was directing the defense, and second, that the Goths were spectacularly bad at sieges. They seemed to think that the way to besiege a city was to sit around in the suburbs until they got bored, and then hurl themselves at the walls, whereupon the imperial defenders would pierce them with arrows and crush them with stones until the Goths had had enough. Sometimes Belisarius would send out a sudden sally while the Goths were still sitting around in the suburbs, which was awfully unsporting of him, since they were never ready for him.
Having failed to take the city by standing around and glowering, the Goths thought up an idea that taxed the limits of their strategic thinking: they decided to cut the aqueducts, depriving Rome of her water supply. This was good thinking as far as it went: Romans were used to having water, and they would surely start to grumble against Belisarius if they had to remain grubby and unwashed. So the aqueducts were cut, and the water ceased to flow into Rome. Instead, it poured out by the millions of gallons into the land around the city, turning the Gothic camps into squishy, malaria-infested swamps. This was not quite the result the Gothic brain trust had envisioned, though it might have occurred to any child who had ever played with a garden hose.
The Goths held out as long as they could, but it really did begin to feel as though Belisarius was somehow besieging them from inside the city. Every time they tried another assault, the Romans would rain down bits of statuary and architecture, not to mention arrows, which the Goths didn’t like at all. Belisarius, meanwhile, held firm. It was true that the greatest city in the world was being disassembled piecemeal around him, but he had the true military genius’ contempt for collateral damage. The important thing was that he was winning.
Finally, after a year, the Goths gave up, and the grubby unwashed citizens of Rome thought they had seen the last of them. They had not. It took several more years of the most devastating wars the Italian peninsula had ever seen before Belisarius could report back to Justinian, “I have returned Italy to the Empire,” the way a teenager might hand you a steering wheel and a bent fender and say, “Here, I brought back your car.” And even then, while Belisarius was reporting in at the palace, the generals he had left to guard Italy were botching the job so badly that the Goths reconquered almost the whole province, including Rome, and it had to be re-reconquered, and re-re-reconquered, and so on.
By the end of the Gothic War, as the imperial side called it, Italy was a wasteland. The city of Rome had been reduced to a clot of squalid villages huddling amongst the ruins. The great country houses, with their libraries and art collections, were blackened wrecks. Almost everyone who could properly conjugate a Latin verb was dead. But it was Roman soil again, so that at least was cause for celebration. And that happy state of affairs lasted for about an hour and a half until the savage Lombards, seeing that there was almost no one left to defend the place, poured into Italy to destroy what little was left of civilization there.
So much for the destruction of civilization in the heart of the West, one of Justinian’s two greatest accomplishments. Meanwhile, Justinian had not been idle in the East. As the visible head of Christendom, he had the responsibility of seeing to it that his subjects enjoyed all the benefits of Christian orthodoxy. It would be nothing less than rank dereliction of duty for him to allow a single one of his subjects to hold any religious opinion that differed in so much as a single iota from the orthodox standard. Immortal souls were at stake! It was clearly his duty to launch a ferocious persecution against the wicked iotists. He did not ask himself whether it would be wise to make half the East long to be free of the tyranny of Constantinople: he simply saw his duty, and he did it.
That is why half the East longed to be free of the tyranny of Constantinople. And those oppressed millions would soon get their wish, leaving them a millennium and a half to contemplate the curse of an answered prayer.