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Washington, D.C, December 25, 1966


BOOKS: Conflicting Views of the Emergence of the West


The Mask of Jove: A History of Gracco-Roman Civilization From The death of Alexander to The Death of Constantine. By Stringfellow Barr Lippincott. 598 pages. $15.

The End of  the Ancient World. By Santo Mazzarino. Alfred A. Knopf. 198 pages. $4.95.


   The decline of Classical Civilization is once more drawing scholarly attention, as can be seen in growing concern with the life and work of Edward Gibbons and in a sharp increase of historical works on the subject, such as Ramsay MacMullen’s “Enemies of the Roman Order: Treason, Unrest, and Alienation in the Empire” (Harvard University Press). This return to a subject which has been discussed so frequently and over such a long period may indicate growing concern over the decline over our own civilization. But it is evident that the need to reopen the problem so frequently would not exist if the problem itself had ever been clearly envisaged.


   Lack of agreement on what the problem is can be seen clearly in these two books of Barr and Mazzarino. In fact, it would be difficult to imagine two books on any subject more different than these. Barr’s lively and well-written volume is almost straight cultural history, filled with quotations from contemporary writers. Mazzarino has a hundred page on the historiography of the idea of decadence from Lucretius and Cicero to the present; this is followed by a briefer section of comments on a variety of scholarly works dealing with Roman religion, family life, economics and such. But significantly, Barr’s book stops at A.D. 337, while Mazzarino’s chief interest is in the following two centuries. The two authors are concerned with the same subject but see it in terms of two quite different problems. To Stringfellow Barr the decline of antiquity lies in the eclipse of Greek culture of Roman Power; to Mazzarino the decline of antiquity lies in the collapse of Roman Power. In Barr’s broad and cultured view the turning point was as the second century B.C., which he sees as the beginning of an age of “Violence and Rhetoric” (the title of his third chapter).


Stringfellow Barr

Stringfellow Barr 

   On the other hand, Mazzarino’s narrower and rather uncritical ( but documented ) examination of unintegrated topics reaches the rather surprising conclusion that there was no “decadence” but only an accidental political and social crisis which allowed the barbarians to destroy Rome. As he puts it (pp.185-186):


   “The barbarians tore to pieces an empire which was still full of life….The age of the death of Rome threw up individuals of great stature, sometimes giants: Constantine, Julian the Apostate, Stilicho. Technical innovations and the application of centuries-old discoveries, which had been neglected up to that time, make it clear that we are not dealing with a world that has fallen asleep….We may see that there was no decadence in the fields of poetry or art of religious life, and also perhaps in the intimate recesses of home life and its effects. There is, however, a crisis in those things which concern the state….The literature and art of the late empire are expressions of an intuitive sensibility of a high order which can still move or exalt us. But there was a political and social crisis even if there was not a general decadence. The great creators lived in the midst of a civilization which left the solitary or which felt weary, although it displays to us infinite spiritual resources. The Roman empire was struck dead by the barbarians.”


   No agreement and no conclusions can be drawn from points of view as different as these. What is even more disgraceful is that no dialogue or discussion is possible. The fault is not all on one side. Barr has the uncritical mythology of the typical Classicist, while Mazzarino has the overspecialized paralysis of the usual historian. It is commentary on the undeveloped techniques of history that it has not yet achieved the necessary common vocabulary, the standards of judgment, nor the analytical techniques which would allow the discussion to move fruitfully on a problem as important to us as the collapse of our best known predecessor civilization.



Scan of original review


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