In my 8th grade Humanities class (I teach a class that combines History, Theology, and Literature), Rome fell on Wednesday. She collapsed under the weight of barbarian invasion from without and the rottenness of her political and economic systems from within. Odacer, the barbarian general who took the title King of Italy, grew tired of pretending in a higher authority and he offered Romulus Augustulus (the little Augustus; he was only 14) a good retirement if he would abdicate. Being more pliable than his stubborn father Orestes (who got his head chopped off), Romulus agreed.
And the greatest empire the world had ever seen was no more. Oh, sure, a remnant carried on in the east. They spoke Greek, though. And they abandoned, for the most part, the Western provinces. But for the Western empire in Gaul and Britain and Iberia and North Africa and Northern Italy, life as everyone knew it, life as everyone’s ancestors going back a thousand years knew it, was over.
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I told my students that in order to understand the Middle Ages, they need to understand that the people of Western Europe lived in the shadow of Rome, they lived with the evidence of a Great Civilization that had become dust.
We will start Beowulf next week. Beowulf, and other works of Old English Literature, are written in the shadow of Roman ruin. I had a professor in graduate school who said that she showed her sophomores in her Early British Literature classes clips of The Walking Dead, in which Atlanta is empty and abandoned, in order to make this point. The demons and monsters come out of the forests and swamps and wild lands when the light of civilization has been extinguished.
Grendel is only possible because the legions are long gone.
In whom shall we hope?
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My students have also been reading Revelation over the course of the last couple of weeks. Revelation, a difficult book to teach to 8th graders because the Apocalyptic genre of Jewish and Christian literature is so hard to get a handle on, primarily makes this point: empires and kings and economic and cultural systems will be judged and found wanting; they are, none of them, saviors. But there is a God, there is a King, who is and was and will be; and he reigns now and forever.
St. Augustine makes a similar point in City of God when he explains how God can possibly allow Rome to fall, when he challenges the myth of Rome as the eternal city. Civilizations crumble around us, kings and emperors come and go, but we are held in the hands of our Lord and King.
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As the Teacher says in Ecclesiastes: ” What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.”