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Ancient and modern

Ancient and Modern

A classicist draws on ancient wisdom to illuminate contemporary follies

12 July 2003

12:00 AM

12 July 2003

12:00 AM

Last week this column began publishing Alexander Demandt’s list of the 210 reasons for the fall of the Roman Empire (from Der Falls Rom, 1984). The list is now completed, and a conclusion drawn:

‘Lack of leadership, lack of male dignity, lack of military recruits, lack of orderly imperial succession, lack of qualified workers, lack of rainfall, lack of religiousness, lack of seriousness, large landed properties, lead-poisoning, lethargy, levelling (cultural), levelling (social), loss of army discipline, loss of authority, loss of energy, loss of instincts, loss of population, luxury. Malaria, marriages of convenience, mercenary system, mercury damage, militarism, monetary economy, monetary greed, money (shortage of), moral decline, moral idealism, moral materialism, mystery religions, nationalism of Rome’s subjects, negative selection. Orientalisation, outflow of gold, over-refinement, pacifism, paralysis of will, paralysation, parasitism, particularism, pauperism, plagues, pleasure- seeking, plutocracy, polytheism, population pressure, precociousness, professional army,

proletarisation, prosperity, prostitution, psychoses, public baths.

Racial degeneration, racial discrimination, racial suicide, rationalism,

refusal of military service, religious struggles and schisms, rentier mentality, resignation, restriction to profession, restriction to the land, rhetoric, rise of uneducated masses, romantic attitudes to peace, ruin of middle class, rule of the world. Semi-education, sensuality, servility, sexuality, shamelessness, shifting of trade routes, slavery, Slavic attacks, socialism (of the state), social tensions, soil erosion, soil exhaustion, spiritual barbarism, stagnation, stoicism, stress, structural weakness, superstition. Taxation, pressure of terrorism, tiredness of life, totalitarianism, treason, tristesse, two-front war, underdevelopment, useless diet, usurpation of all powers by the state,

vaingloriousness, villa economy, vulgarisation.’

One might conclude that this magnificently self-contradictory list makes a mockery of history as a rational, let alone objective, study; and indeed it would do, were history merely the collection of data. But it is not. As the Greeks first asserted, its purpose is to try to understand and explain the past as a sequence that makes intelligible human sense, without recourse to supernatural explanations. The list is a striking testimony to our curiosity, ingenuity and determination to know. If some of the historians have got it wrong, they too are only human, and even their mistakes tell us something about humankind.

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