Tuesday, 17 June 2014

The Two Cities

In the autumn of 410 the Roman world reeled as an astounding piece of news travelled outward from Italy like a shock wave: the Eternal City had fallen. On the twenty-third of August the barbarian warlord Alaric had entered Rome and plundered it for three days, terrorizing its citizens and carrying off its wealth. No enemy had breached the gates of the City for nearly eight hundred years. Across the Empire there was dismay that the nation built up by Augustus and sustained by God (or the gods, depending on whom you asked) could suffer so terrible a defeat.

Throughout the first two centuries following the death of Augustus in 14 CE Rome had enjoyed almost unbroken internal peace. The Empire's borders pushed outward to include the new provinces of Britain and Mesopotamia, among others, and various emperors created programs to finance small farm loans, feed urban orphans, hold accused persons innocent until proven otherwise, and limit the kinds of torture masters could legally inflict on slaves.

But even as the Empire reached the height of its prosperity and stability, the jaws of the entropy trap were tightening. Ruling the world was expensive, especially a world with so much state-funded infrastructure. Without significant growth and expansion, there were no new energy surpluses to put toward the rising cost of maintaining what previous generations had added to the Empire. Every one of Augustus' successors sold off some imperial assets in order to balance the books, and diluting Rome's silver coinage with greater and greater proportions of non-precious metals became a standard way of cutting costs.

In the last decades of the second century CE a wave of plague from the east and newly strengthened Germanic raiders from the north pushed the strained system into a prolonged crisis. The third century was dominated by wars and civil wars, as a long series of emperor-generals vied to be seen as the man who could deal most ruthlessly with the Empire's many problems. By the end of the third century a new Roman Empire had emerged, one governed by two or three or four allied emperors, and as the fourth century drew to a close the Eastern and Western halves of the Empire were functioning independently from each other. Both the Eastern and Western emperors ruled through a growing bureaucracy and an army that consisted more and more of immigrants such as Goths, Vandals, and Huns. Both ruled from wherever it was most pressing for them to be, and the city of Rome was reduced to merely symbolic importance.

But as a symbol Rome was as powerful in 410 as it had been in 14. The news of its fall shook Romans everywhere and prompted deep soul-searching. Never mind that the 'conqueror' was actually an officer of the Roman army hoping to wring greater rights for his Gothic countrymen from the state that employed them; never mind that he had given his men strict orders not to violate churches, priests, or nuns during the sack; never mind that the emperor, senators, and political institutions of the Western Empire had survived and would outlast Alaric and his army of Goths; the Eternal City had proved mortal, and history itself needed to be rewritten.

One man rose to the task. His name was Aurelius Augustinus, or Augustine, and he was bishop of the city of Hippo in what is now Algeria. His father had been a pagan Roman and his mother a Christian Berber, and he had dabbled in numerous creeds and philosophies before embracing the Catholic faith at the age of thirty-two. His account of this inner journey, his Confessions, is one of the first autobiographies known to the Western world. It's remarkable both for its intensely personal nature and for the fact that the author considered his struggles with life's toughest questions to be inextricable from his development as a person.

At age fifty-eight he sat down to write an answer to those who charged that Rome's fall had been brought about by the Empire's conversion to Christianity. Not so, he countered: the old Roman gods had in fact been demons intent on leading their followers into vice; rather, Rome's former glories and its current miseries were from God alone. After ten volumes in this vein he turned his attention to writing a complete history of the world from its creation through to its end and final judgement to come, a feat he accomplished in twelve more volumes. The whole project took him thirteen years, and its twenty-two volumes go by the title The City of God.

That title is a reference to the first of two 'cities' whose development Augustine traces from before the beginning of time until time's end. One is heavenly; its citizens, though they walk the earth in flesh and blood, are willing subjects of Christ's kingdom, and look forward to sharing eternity with him in Paradise. The other is earthly; its citizens live only for this world, loving themselves foremost and scorning those among them whose hope is in unseen things. They will spend eternity in Hell.

Though it sounds grim from a modern secular perspective, the message of The City of God to a deeply troubled world was that the things of this world were destined to perish, while the things of the next world were enduring and worth hoping for. Rome had never been eternal; its fate, like the fate of all flesh, was to fall away. Using the concepts of his time, Augustine was grappling with the reality of entropy, and his solution was to ground himself in an unseen reality that did not decay.

He put forward his vision of the City of God at a time when millions had lost their faith in the City of Rome, and the book took hold in popular imagination as few had before or have since. The depressing decline which Augustine observed in the world around him went hand in hand with the surging growth of the monastic movement, in which thousands of men and women renounced the world to seek 'the green martyrdom' by retreating to cloistered wilderness communities. Meanwhile the cities built by Rome crumbled or shrank or vanished altogether, as waves of crises continued to batter Europe through the fifth century and into the sixth. For the next half millennium and more The City of God would be the most widely copied book (after the Bible) in Medieval Europe.

Our world is thus a world built upon the thought of Augustine, but it's worth remembering that it didn't have to be that way. Instead of his heavenly/earthly dichotomy, we could have inherited the theology of Patrick of Ireland, who wrote beautiful poetry about the immanence of God in all of nature. Or the last Roman emperors could have chosen to persecute Catholics and endorse Arians, who emphasized Jesus' humanity over his divinity. Christianity, then as now, was a seething pool of contradictory interpretations and opinions, and the Christianity that won out and that shaped all subsequent Western thought was Augustine's.

The last thing I want to say just now is this: between Augustus and Augustine the shape of the world changed, and a new story was needed to make sense of things. When I look at the rapidly changing world around me today, I wonder whether the old stories will be able to guide us through the crises ahead. What streams of thought exist in this day and age that take into account the growth and decline of earthly cities? And what hope can there be for those of us who cannot put our faith in the heavenly city? These questions are yours to ponder, and I'll be putting some thought into them as well next week.


  1. Really good questions Dylan. You've made me wonder what stories shaped the 1900s...before and after the Great War. And will 9/11 be the marker of this century? And what story/ies shape us now? Perhaps the great divide is that there are competing ideologies, with very different stories. Fundamentalism in all its forms seems to tell a story I can't buy into. Environmentalists have a story to tell too...

  2. Carol, I was thinking exactly that about 9/11. It was a moment when the story we were familiar with (the US and the West have everything under control) suddenly came under fire.

    That word 'ideology' is a funny one. So often it seems to mean just 'the opinions of people we don't like very much'. But I like the original meaning: 'the stories we don't even think to question'. The ideology of this age seems to be that every story is open for questioning! And that is a hard story to be a character in, so in some ways I can see why fundamentalism is so appealing.