The Mediterranean was a Roman lake

by Kiko Matsing

The Roman Empire at its greatest extent under Trajan

The Empire, as it was finally shaped by Augustus, included Spain, Gaul, Italy, and the Balkans, the north coast of Africa, Palestine, Syria, and Asia Minor. The Mediterranean was a Roman lake. Every people who had contributed to the sum of Western civilization was now subjected to Rome.

(from A History of Europe, H.A.L. Fisher, p. 85)

Found this excellent book on the history of Europe in the discount section of an antique shop in Old Town Goleta. The author, H.A.L. Fisher, was a member of the British Parliament, upon whose retirement became warden of New College in Oxford, where he wrote, among other things, this history. Published in 1935, the trauma of the Great War was still within living memory, and its consequences very much apparent in world affairs, with the Nazi Party having assumed power in Germany just two years prior. It is a 1280-page tome, but easy on the reader with its brisk pace and vivid prose. It is not textbook fare. For example, the following account of the fall of Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian War is rendered in a high elegiac tone:

When her fleet had been destroyed at Aegospotami at the end of a long and bitter war, Sparta might have applied to Athens the same terrible penalty which, in a spasm of passionate wrath, Athens had meted out to the little island of Melos. She might have razed the city to the ground, she might have slaughtered or enslaved its inhabitants. In the fierce hatred inspired by Athenian tyrrany, these cruelties would have been popular and were, in fact, recommended; but Athens was saved by the respect which even Sparta was compelled to feel for the brightest ornament of Hellenic civilization.

The city was spared in consideration of her virtues, and not on one occasion only. Seventy years later, when Alexander of Macedon had destroyed Thebes, saving only the house of Pindar, and Athens, which had designed to send help to the Thebans, was exposed to his attack, the same sentiment of homage to the shrine of so much genius interposed its mediation–

                         and the repeated air
Of sad Electra’s poet had the power
To save the Athenian walls from ruin bare.

(p. 41)

Leo von Klenze, Reconstruction of the Acropolis
and Areus Pagus in Athens, 1846

The last lines are from Milton’s 8th sonnet, which in turn refers to an episode in Plutarch’s biography of Lysander, the Spartan general who brought Athens to its knees. There was a clamor for “the city be razed to the ground, and the country about it left for sheep to graze.” But during a banquet among the leaders, a Phocian sang the first chorus of Euripides’ Electra, and “all were moved to compassion, and felt it to be a cruel deed to abolish and destroy a city which was so famous, and produced such poets.” (Loeb Classical Library, 1916). Fisher uses this dramatic tension to drive home the cultural importance of Athens even in its decline. The poet’s gentle art had the power to stop the conqueror’s bloodlust with the Miltonian supplication: “Lift not thy spear against the Muses’ Bowre.”

Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire: Destruction, 1833-36

Again, we hear this elevated tone in his account of the final destruction of Rome, after the long drawn-out war between Byzantine Emperor Justinian and the barbaric Goths that occupied Italy. Atrocities were commited on both sides, but ironically, it was Gothic king Totila who more than once offered peace. He was willing to rule Italy as a servant of the Empire and even to pay tribute, but Justinian was rigid in his orthodoxy and single-minded in his designs. He wanted nothing less than to wipe out the Germanic tribes who had converted to a heretical form of Christianity (Arianism). Having achieved thus, the city of Rome was laid waste in the process.

For the city of Rome, five times besieged, the results of this calamitous struggle were decisive. At the end of the war, the teeming capital, with its luxurious public baths, its system of food doles and popular amusements, had disappeared. In its place a few thousand impoverished beings, many of them clerics, lingered on among monuments of ancient greatness, henceforth and for many centuries to come to be girdled by undrained and malarious wastes. No more was there a Roman Senate. The last circus had been held, the last triumph celebrated, the last consul elected. Trade and commerce were extinct, and since the Goths had cut the aqueducts which had given to ancient Rome as good a water supply as any modern city can boast, the reign of mediaeval squalor which Roman example might have corrected, spread without resistance through the Western world.

(p. 135)

I can see the haunting image of bewildered clergy stumbling among the toppled columns of the Roman Forum at the triumph of their faith. In a feat of both vivid language and sharp compression that characterize his history, Fisher powerfully evokes the irrevocable loss of civilized life, as well as foreboding the misery of the Dark Ages, when the light of Rome was snuffed out.

Theodora (mosaic detail), Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna

I think Fisher’s narrative style is borne of his approach to history, which he lays down in the Preface, that sees contingent causes, rather than overarching patterns, moving the fortunes of men.

Men wiser and more learned than I have discerned in history a plot, a rhythm, a predetermined pattern. These harmonies are concealed from me. I can see only one emergency following upon another as wave follows wave, only one great fact with respect to which, since it is unique, there can be no generalizations, only one safe rule for the historian: that he should recognize in the development of human destinies the play of the contingent and the unforeseen.

Arnold Toynbee, for example, in A Study of History, discerns a general movement (genesis, growth, time of troubles, universal state, and disintegration) in the rise and fall of nineteen civilizations from Egypt to China. (Wikipedia) Fisher, on the other hand, dispenses with such theories, and focuses, for example, on the character of the players and their actions, which make for dramatic storytelling. In his account of the Byzantine Empire under Justinian, we get this memorable sketch of Theodora, the Emperor’s wife:

[He] had looked into the gutter for a wife and picked out a diamond. Theodora was the daughter of a Cypriot bear-keeper. She had been an actress and a courtesan, had wandered and suffered, and combined in her person every quality of station and experience certain to give offence to respectable people. But though a thousand scandals were woven around her name, though she was violent in her passions and vindictive in her hates, she appears to have been in a sense a noble being, beautiful and witty, with a high courage, a statesman’s mind, and the precious gift of womanly compassion.

(p. 133)

Though done in quick brush strokes, it is quite clear who this woman was. Theodora became a tempering influence to the extremism of Justinian, and brought some measure of tolerance to his orthodoxy. Fisher’s history is thus about individual actors rather than sweeping structures. The name of so and so should be remembered, he would often say. He is like Herodotus in this sense, as well as in his firm belief in pure happenstance–like the odds of finding a diamond in the gutter. The fates of civilizations, it turns out, are determined more from the fickle outcomes of battles than from abstract, inexorable forces, as evinced in the decisive defeats of the Moslems by the Frankish king Charles Martel in 732 and by Byzantine Emperor Leo III in 718 AD.

Had Leo the Isaurian failed to beat off the imposing armada of Moslemah, the Moslem might have spread like prairie fire through the Balkans and the plain of Hungary and northward and eastward to the Urals. From this danger the great defence of Constantinople in 718, conducted by a young and capable Emperor with the aid of stout fortifications, a superior navy, Greek fire, and the timely assistance of a Bulgar army, delivered European civilization. The name of Leo should be remembered. That the Russian Church is Greek and not Moslem today is one of the results, how fortunate we dare not say, which may, without a great stretch of probabilities, be attributed to his great and resounding triumph.

(p. 149)

American journalist James Foley was beheaded by an ISIS jihadi

But there is no reason to assume that Western civilization will go on forever. Camille Paglia, in a TIME essay, wrote: “The earth is littered with the ruins of empires that believed they were eternal.” As the West faces the resurgence of virulent Islamic extremism in ISIS, it is indeed well to remember the name of Leo the Isaurian (who in some accounts was actually Syrian), his staunch defense of Constantinople, and what its outcome meant for the survival of the Western tradition, both Hellenic and Christian.