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Ancient and modern

Why do we assume our western good life will last for ever?

The ancients were so used to constant death and disaster they grew worried when things went too well

21 November 2015

9:00 AM

21 November 2015

9:00 AM

The slaughter in Paris is a catastrophe for the victims and their families, but the usual hysterical response across the media reminds us, yet again, what an extraordinary achievement it is that we Westerners simply assume the world owes us a life lived to the full, in comfort and security.

From the ancient world until relatively recently, there was little sense that the world owed us anything. About half of Romans would not make the age of five; probably a third would not make three months. War was commonplace, as deadly for civilians as soldiers, as were disease and famine. The destruction of Pompeii by Vesuvius was greeted with relative indifference. Ancients simply accepted that this sort of thing was bound to happen.


The murderous emperor Caligula made a joke out of it all. Suetonius wrote: ‘He openly deplored the state of his times, because they had been marked by no public disasters: the rule of Augustus had been made famous by the massacre of Varus’ three legions in Germany and that of Tiberius by the collapse of the amphitheatre at Fidenae. But the prosperity of his own times threatened his reign with oblivion!’ So he occasionally expressed a wish for ‘the destruction of his armies, for famine, plague, conflagrations, or a gigantic earthquake’.

The popular response to this world was one of brutal pessimism. Everyday proverbs, fables and sayings suggested that man was better not born at all, and second best was an early death; life was fragile, ruthless and short; all man could do was endure, making decisions in response to circumstances that would enable him at least to survive; only the lucky could expect happiness. None of this meant that personal grief was in any way less raw. Emotions were handled with traditional rituals and laments, communal and personal.

The depth of unreality into which the West’s uniquely blessed condition is plunged is demonstrated by the only analogy endlessly invoked to describe the Parisian slaughter: it was like a movie. And it was in this respect: a movie made by Isis.


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