Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Book Review: 428 AD

    When you go through a History of Western Civilization course in school, what do you learn about?  Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution, etc.  Those are the major stops.  To say there are gaps would be a major understatement.  But one glaring gap that has festered in my mind for a long time is that missing near millennium between the golden age of the Roman Empire and the coming of the High Medieval era.  It’s like there was Julius Caesar, the birth of Christianity, and then…something about barbarians, blah blah blah…ta-da! Middle Ages!

    So, in the last few years, as I’ve been reading more and more about Medieval times, ancient times, the rise and fall of various religions and ideologies, the advances of technology, the migrations of peoples, etc., I’ve been trying to piece together that missing time that is left out of the general history books.  I’ve discovered the fascinating and nearly forgotten (or expunged) golden age of Moorish Spain, the much more complex than I imagined interactions between Europe and Asia, and the explorations and developments that led to an expanded understanding of our world that continued throughout the so called (often justifiably so, mostly) Dark Ages.  It was a time when Christianity was still sorting itself out, shifting from Jewish cult into a codified religion of its own; when many different ideas of Jesus, what he was and what he meant were explored, and only a few came out alive; and when paganism and rationality both still had a chance of winning out (well, honestly, did rationalism ever have a chance?).  And it was a time of great change sweeping back and forth across Europe, changing borders, languages, religions, and setting the stage for all the complexities of the future.

    The book takes us to a specific year, 428, and uses that as an anchor to explore an era, with the Christianity we know coming to its final place of dominance and with the remnants of the old pagan Empire on its last legs.  It tells the story of a rich time when so much was possible, when shifts in one direction or another could have shaped the world in very different ways.  For such a short book, author Giusto Traina sure crams in a lot of information.  At first this is a serious problem.  The first couple chapters are an explosion of word salad, with places, names, dates, and citations flying fast and furious.  It was somewhat overwhelming and became quite a slog.  At only 130 pages, plus about 70 pages of notes and citations, I expected to blow through the book in no time, but three days later found me still laboring through Chapter III.  Holy crap.  It turned out to be appropriately Byzantine for a section on Constantinople and its surrounding region.  But, once the exploration of Asia Minor was finished, the pace jumped up several notches and the look around the rest of Europe and North Africa became more invigorating.

    With stops in Italy, pre-Moorish Spain, North Africa over into Egypt, and then back east to the Holy Land, we see a world divided and united by various metaphysical ideas.  Political machinations and the pressures of populations and power seekers shaped a time frequently obscured in history texts.  I wonder if some of this near willful avoidance comes from people’s wish to judge history based upon their own politics and religious nature.  This era must be somewhat difficult for many to face, because it’s not pretty, and it’s not neat.  Christian VS Christian, pagan and Christian co-habitation, violent and bloody fanaticism and anti-intellectualism on the part of the rising Christian powers may make the modern believer uncomfortable (though considering the fanaticism and anti-intellectualism that is all the rage today, perhaps not).  I remember reading the response from a viewer to the film Agora, where the writer was appalled by seeing Christians portrayed as murderous zealots as bad as any post-9/11 demonizing of Moslems.  But it is absolutely true that Christianity’s rise to religious and political dominance in Europe and beyond was a blood spattered affair, paved with the bones of countless dead.  They did murder and suppress, burn and wreck historic documents and locations, and generally cause all kinds of hell (not that they were the first or last to employ such barbaric tactics to secure power).  And as is so common of the righteous of any denomination, it was all in the name of peace and love.

    If you can push your way through that first 30 or so pages (doesn’t sound like much, but dang!), this book is a good resource for getting the lay of the land.  The rise of the Church, the fall of classic Rome, the Dark Ages well in progress, and the foundations for the Middle Ages being set.  And as always with a good history, I find myself wanting to read more about a dozen new topics.  And I have more loose threads tied into the greater tapestry of history and understanding.

428 AD: An Ordinary Year at the End of the Roman Empire
Author: Giusto Traina
Publisher: Princeton
ISBN: 978-0-691-15025-3
Pages: 203


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