Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Unnoticed Anniversary: Rome Fell 1600 Years Ago; Greeks Beat Persians 2500 Years Ago, Lessons for the Present?

By Barry Rubin

Next year marks important anniversaries of two of the most important events in Western history both of which, as far as I know, have been pretty much ignored.

Next September 21, it will be 2500 years ago exactly, on September 21, 491 BCE (BC to most of you), that the Greeks defeated the Persian invasion at Marathon.

And next August 24, it will be 1600 years ago, on August 24, 410, that Rome fell to the Visigoths under Alaric. Many historians mark this date as the end of the Roman Empire, though there continued to be emperors for another 66 years.

These two dates--whose anniversaries fall within a few days of each other--can be said to mark, respectively, the beginning of Western civilization's primacy and it's at least temporary end.

The victory for the Greek city-states marked the triumph of relative democracy and logic-based philosophy, among other things. It laid the basis for all that was to come.

The collapse of the Roman Empire brought to a close the Classical era of history and high civilization in general. While the truth is somewhat more complex, it can be said that it took humanity, certainly in the West, 1200 years to return to the intellectual and cultural level that had existed then.

While there has been a long and complex debate on why Rome and ancient civilization collapsed, clearly there were both internal and external reasons. Among the former can be counted: a loss of civic pride and patriotism, refusal of citizens to fight for their country, and decay of traditional values. The latter factors include the assault by other peoples with a strong religious and national sense of identity who were still willing and even eager to fight, and the flooding of the empire by immigrants who had a different world view and agenda aimed at taking it over.

People are free to draw conclusions regarding a comparison with contemporary conditions, but the subject should certainly be considered seriously. The study of Roman history has also undergone some change which seems to coincide with Political Correctness. The classical explanations for the Rome's decline and fall included moral corruption, the loss of identity, and letting the "wild warriers" of the Germanic tribes settling on its territory due to a labor shortage.
Many more recent writers speak of the Romans as not being nice enough to the Gothic immigrants, on whom they increasingly depended for their army.

On the other hand, we should never forget the great achievements. As Aelius Aristides summed them up in a 175 letter to Emeror Marcus Aurelius:

"Now the whole world keeps holiday and laying aside its ancient dress of steel [armor] has turned in freedom to adornment and all delights. The cities have abandoned their old uarrels, and are occupied by a single rivalry, each ambitious to be more pleasant and beautiful....Today Greek or foreigner may travel freely where he will...as though he was passing from homeland to homeland....To be safe it is enough to be Roman....You have...bridled rivers with many a bridge, cut mountains into carriage roads, filled the deserts with outposts, and civilized all things with settled discipline and life."

As one of the relatively few people who can claim direct descent from the Persian Empire’s beneficiaries (King Cyrus of Persia ended the Babylonian exile of the Jews and allowed the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem) and from the Roman Empire's victims (since it killed and exiled my ancestors after the capture of Jerusalem following the great revolt there) I can appreciate counter-arguments regarding Persia's tolerance and Rome being an aggressive and often repressive dictatorship, too.

But the broader, long-term points remain valid.

(Here one can insert some sarcastic and humorous remark about what the world would be like if Rome existed today. An emperor who apologized for all its past conquests or the representative of Caligula or Nero chairing the UN Human Rights Commission? I leave the choice of appropriate examples to readers.)

Still, if many experiences remind one of personal mortality, this is an event that should make us think about civilizational mortality, something we hopefully won’t be finding out about directly.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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