Portland, OR (2015)
The Course of Empire: Desolation (1833-36, Thomas Cole)
“First freedom and then Glory–when that fails
Wealth, vice, corruption–barbarism at last” (Lord Byron)
from H. A. L. Fisher, A History of Europe
(Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1935)
The Western Empire, A. D. 476 (pp. 124-125)
From this moment, the germanization of the West steadily proceeded. Ostrogoths poured into the Balkan peninsula, creating by their restless and turbulent activities a problem similar to that which had taxed the resources of the Eastern Empire a century before. In Italy a succession of phantom and ephemeral emperors reached its close with a pathetic figure, named by the supreme irony of providence, Romulus Augustus, who was deposed by Odovacar, the East German master of the troops (476). Military revolutions were no novelty in the annals of the Roman Empire, and the act of Odovacar had many precedents… It is true that he deposed Romulus, but the lad was a usurper, unrecognized in Constantinople, and the deed condoned by the bestowal upon its author of the high imperial title of patrician. What was original in Odovacar’s action was not that it was revolutionary, but that it was conservative. He refused to appoint a successor to Romulus, calculating that he would have more elbowroom in a united Empire governed from Constantinople as in the days of Theodosius the Great. That unity was in fact and theory preserved until the coronation of Charlemagne as Emperor of the West in 800.
The Roman Empire at the time of Theodosius I,
Last Emperor to rule the Eastern and Western parts
Barbarian invasions of the 5th century
The Eastern (Byzantine) Empire, A. D. 1453 (pp. 418-419)
Constantine VI (1458-53), the last of the Caesars, though the nominee of Murad and his vassal, shines out in the final crisis of the Empire as a statesman and hero, prepared alike for compromise and for sacrifice. The Greek population of Constantinople, for whom the quarrels of monks were always more important than the clash of races, were unworthy of such a leader. While Mohammed’s artillery was battering at the walls, the public opinion of the capital was inflamed by denunciation of the Emperor who, in the desperate hope of winning the West to his side, had dared to recognize the Roman Church and to permit the celebration of Roman rites in the Church of Saint Sophia. To these wretched theological preoccupations we may perhaps ascribe the fact that the main part of the defence of the city was undertaken, not by the Greeks, but by Spaniards, Germans, and Italians. And as the defending force was not principally Greek, so the attacking army was not wholly Turkish. The levies of Mohammed were largely recruited from men of a Greek and Christian stock. So it happened that on May 29, 1453, by default of the Christians the great city was breached and stormed, the last of the Byzantine Emperors perishing honourably in the death agony of the Empire.
Left: The Sack of Rome by the Barbarians in 410
(1890, Joseph-Noël Sylvestre)
Right: The Entry of Mahomet II into Constantinople
(1876, Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant)
Another example of Fisher’s gift for compression–a rendering of complex history vividly yet with great economy. While he describes the final fate of the Western and Eastern Roman Empires at a galloping pace, he does so in evocative language that attends to all that are remarkable and of consequence, and to the peculiar nature of personalities: the pathetic figure of Romulus, ironically named after the Empire’s mythical founder; the germanic military mensch, Odovacar, usurping power from the effete boy-king; the tragic Constantine XI (not VI), last emperor of Byzantium, protecting with his life a city that bickered against him.
While germanic barbarians whittled away at the Western Empire over a period of a hundred years, the Byzantine Empire slowly collapsed under its weight for another thousand years, until the Ottoman Turks finally captured Constantinople. Fisher dramatizes the immediate causes of the fall by describing how, even as Mohammed II’s army were banging at the walls, the Greek monks were busy publicly denouncing the Emperor for allowing Latin liturgy in an Orthodox church.
These epic historical moments were popular subjects of paintings in the 19th century, with Sylvestre depiciting in Academic mode the Sack of Rome by the Visigoths, while Benjamin-Constant employed the lush Orientalist style for Mohammed II’s triumphal entry into Constantinople. In Sylvestre’s painting, brutish barbarians, in their animal nakedness, scale the imposing statue of Caesar to topple it, while Alaric the Bold looked on. The stolid white marble of the Roman Forum, and the imperious demeanor of larger-than-life Caesar, adorned with laurels of victory and bearing a lion shield, contrast effectively with the sanguine beastliness of the German mob. In Benjamin-Constant’s painting, Mohammed II on his black Arabian stallion raises the green crescent flag as he tramples upon the dead Byzantines–patrician women and slaves, monks and knights, even Moors. Smoke billows from the burning Christian city, as a late afternoon light washes the stone archway with a tinge of saffron, the sun setting on the ruins of a once glorious Empire.
While such arcane theological debates that caused so much grief and bloodshed throughout Europe’s history seem quaint today, a new sort of religion has taken its place, especially among the secular Left in the West, in the form of PC activism. While ISIS razes the Middle East and Al-Qaida threaten Western civilization in Europe, the priests and prophets of Climate Change are preoccupied with theological sophistries (carbon emissions causing terrorism?) and persecution of its heretics (plotting civil suits against “deniers”?). Their long incubation in the comforts of civilization have detached them from the grim realities that prop up the conditions of their existence, and like the monks behind the walls of Constantinople, they have lost all sense of proportion.
Cities, however, are not defended by beliefs, but by will and material power. Had the Greeks been resolute and united, had the navies of Genoa and Venice been placed at the disposition of the Imperial Government, had there been among the Greek and Italian peoples a common will to save Constantinople, saved it would have been. (p. 418)
This flight from reality is symptomatic of a decadent exhaustion in the late phases of Empire. What fools they would seem when Europe is finally reduced to the rule of tribal despots and subjected to Sharia Law. The barbarian invasions of the 5th century forever changed the character of Europe; there is no reason it will not happen again.
But while the pagan German invaders converted to Christianity and schooled themselves in Latin culture, the Ottoman Turk did not. At the end of his account of the fall of Constantinople, Fisher writes this coda:
The conquerors were Asiatic nomads and so remained. Sir Charles Eliot, describing the interior of the house of a Turkish gentleman in the nineteenth century, observes that it contained no more furniture than could be carried off at a moment’s notice on a wagon to Asia. A certain dignity of bearing, coupled with a grave exterior polish and a sense of humor and irony, were noted by Western observers as favourable traits in the Turkish character… But the culture of the West was not valued. The Turk remained an alien in Europe, having no part in its traditions, and limited in his notions of imperial government to the philosophy of a slave-owning oligarchy in a world of potential slaves. (p. 419)
Coronation of Roger II, robed in Byzantine splendor
from H. A. L. Fisher, A History of Europe, pp. 195-196
(Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1935)
So under the full glow of papal benediction these freebooters of the North laid the foundations of a civilized state in Mediterranean waters. With Norman flexibility the descendants of Tancred organized government under new and difficult conditions and on original lines. In the kingdom of Roger II, who united the Norman territories on either side of the Straits of Messina, Europe witnessed a polity half Oriental, half Western, providing a shelter for Greek, Latin, Moor, and Jew, and better organized, seeing that it preserved the tradition of its Greek and Saracen past, than any other European government of that age. Among the orange groves of Palermo, Roger, the descendant of the Vikings, sat upon his throne, robed in the dalmatic of the apostolic legate and the imperial costume of Byzantium, his ministers part Greek, part English, his army composed as to half of Moors, his fleet officered by Greeks, himself a Latin Christian, but in that balmy climate of the South, ruling in half Byzantine, half Oriental state, with a harem and eunuchs, a true representative of his lovely island shared then as ever between East and West.
Monreal Cathedral (from Wikipedia)
Time has dealt kindly with this dynasty of gifted pirates. Mosaics, the best which Greece could provide, still embellish the walls of the noble cathedral of Monreale, which looks down upon the flowers and orchards of the Conco d’Oro. In that same earthly paradise an exquisite cloister still invites to repose, and the visitor, noting what he there sees of building and sculpture, of jewellery and decoration, must admire the splendour of the Norman princes now sleeping in tombs of dark porphyry, who in the twelfth century brought about so great an assemblage of the arts and crafts of their age.
Very different was the Scandinavian scene from which the Vikings had sailed forth to slay, to burn, and to conquer. No Monreale, or Caen, or Durham rose in the solitary valleys of Norway. There the Viking aristocracy bled to death in civil war. By the thirteenth century Scandinavia was empty of personal eminence, The days of her influence was over. A rude, unlettered peasantry extracted a sorry living from a barren soil.
One of the many memorable passages in H. A. L. Fisher’s A History of Europe. A signal example of what contemporary critics called “a marvel of compression” (The Spectator), while praising its “[narrative] richness and glow” (The Times). I continue to delight in reading this book I found in the dusty bins of an old thrift shop. It is a must companion on any trip to Europe.
Here Fisher describes in one nimble sweep the effect of Norse conquest of Latin Europe after the disintegration of the Western Roman Empire. Like the Germanic tribes before them, the Norsemen became more humane from contact with civilizing Latin culture. Thus the conquerors, in turn, were conquered, adapting the language and manners of the Romans, the prestige of their Church and gilded glow of their liturgy. The romance and chivalry of Medieval Europe evolved from the Latin enlightenment of these Northern barbarians.
To make the point of how far these Viking marauders have come along in two centuries of Mediterranean settlement, he describes the splendor of their palaces and churches, their cosmopolitan society and civil government, and the excellence of their arts and crafts, contrasting this to their progenitor’s descent into barbarity.
But even as Fisher surveys history with a clear-sighted long view and even-handed judgment, he brings into relief those remarkable characters, scenes, and episodes in expressive, even lyrical, language rich in detail and drama, such as the coronation of Roger II, decked in Byzantine splendor among the orange groves of Palermo, or the elegiac image of Norman princes in their tombs of porphyry.
This vivid language and magisterial command is what is now lost in the tedious bureaucratese of what passes for scholarship these days in the humanities.
“A Revolution from the Center”
Marcos Martial Law Propaganda
This Week with David Brinkley covering
the 1986 Philippine People Power Revolution
with Jim Laurie reporting from Manila
Vintage news footage of the People Power Revolution that toppled the Marcos dictatorship thirty years ago (February 22-25, 1986). It ended more than two decades of despotic rule by Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos without any bloodshed–the first revolution of its kind in the world. I was a 16-year-old high school kid at the time. By 1989, one authoritarian communist regime after another fell behind the Iron Curtain from similar (if not as bloodless) popular revolts.
The aftermath of the People Power Revolution, however, was bittersweet. The presidency of Cory Aquino, widow of Ninoy Aquino (opposition leader assassinated by the Marcoses in 1983), was wracked by multiple attempts at power grabs by the very mutinous military wing that precipitated the 1986 revolt. Whatever they may say of Aquino’s presidency, in my mind, her main achievement was surviving seven coup attempts that would have dragged the country back to repressive military rule.
It was because of this that this year we mark three decades of not-always-but-still civil government in the Philippines.
Bowie as Aladdin Sane
Ziggy Stardust was not a drag act—he was a shamanistic daydream, half kabuki, half Weimar cabaret. With the Thin White Duke, Bowie did a rigorous, self-purging exercise in minimalism… As the Thin White Duke, Bowie shifted into Byron-in-exile mode; he was now a haughty, self-shielding arbiter of elegance in the Baudelaire manner… Ziggy Stardust had become too vampiric and had to be assassinated for Bowie to live.
(from Camille Paglia’s tribute at Salon)
Camille Paglia, whose book Sexual Personae was one of Bowie’s top 100 reads, gives tribute to her gender-bending rock-and-roll idol.
David Bowie And The Story Of Ziggy Stardust