We are at the end of chapter 43 and we find Gibbon in full on enlightenment mode. The reign of Justinian happened to coincide with a couple of comets, some significant earthquakes and a major plague. Previous ages would have agreed with the Byzantines themselves and taken these as communications from God but Gibbon is a modern man and instead gives us the science. The plague was probably the biggest event in history since the fall of the western empire and had profound effects many of which are still being unpicked today.
My latest dollop of Gibbony goodness as I continue my extended review of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. And on the subject of extended things, in Chapter 43 we are looking at an empire that has just been considerably extended. Or rather, it is not so much extended as overextended. Let’s start with the newly reconquered province of Africa.
We have given a lot of attention to the campaigns of Belisarius, especially those in Italy. Gibbon covers it all in sumptuous detail. I think we can assume that the court in Constantinople did as well. Big events like the recapture of Rome and Ravenna are bound to be seen as important and significant.
We’ve all got used to social media and communicating over the internet. We instinctively know what the real meaning of a lot of communications are. You can tell that an email or a message on Twitter is not genuine even without reading the whole thing. But put yourself in the place of an historian looking back on the 21st century from a 1,000 years in the future. Human nature probably won’t be very different, but the social context will have changed enormously. Many of the social conventions we regard as so obvious we hardly even feel the need to notice let alone explain will be far from obvious any more. There will probably be a thesis written on exactly what LOL means. Our future digital historian might well ponder statistics about how many plaintive tweets went unanswered and ponder how lonely people using Twitter used to be in the early years of the twentieth century. As to what they will make of Twitter exchanges between famous people – well we all know that their accounts are run by their offices. But how do we know that? Again, taken out of context would it make any sense?
The Goths were far from out of the running and although they had pulled back from Rome they still held plenty of territory in northern Italy, had a very strong base in Ravenna and were mobile and numerous enough to counterattack at any time.
The Goths with their extensive kingdom in Italy ought to have found events in Africa thought provoking. Here was a resurgent Empire confidently recovering a lost province. They must have guessed that they were now top of the to do list. Perhaps now was the time to unite against a common enemy.
One of the problems of reading history is that we get a very distorted view of it. We are looking at the past down the wrong end of a telescope. A good example is the Vandal kingdom of North Africa. This seems like a very ephemeral kind of thing from our point of view. In fact the Vandal Kingdom lasted for over 50 years and it must have seemed pretty well established to people living in it. It was possible to have been born in it and to have lived to a pretty mature age without knowing any different.
The extraordinary flowering of thought in Athens in the fifth century before Christ has demanded an explanation but has defied submitting to one. People have suggested all sorts of reasons from the development of the Greek economy to the availability of exceptionally nutritious shellfish.
The largest man-made enclosed space in the world is the Pentagon. The United States is a big country, with a big opinion of itself and which asserts that it has an important mission. Their defence headquarters is not just somewhere to keep their photocopy paper. It is a building that is meant to impress.
Globalisation is not a new thing. The Roman and Chinese economies were linked by the trade between them, and this trade was significant enough to have an effect on their economies. Although they weren’t in a direct dialogue with one another, they were aware of each other’s existence and the policies they followed made a difference.