Sunday mornings with the LRB
These are the unexpected little gems that, every so often, I really like waking up to on a quiet, sunny Sunday morning over coffee:
High in the Pyrenees, early in the fifth century, a knot of Roman soldiers huddled together over the saddest kind of duty. A comrade-in-arms had died young, after just two years under the standards. They buried him with the honours he deserved, in his best uniform and his shining metal belt – the cingulum that was every fighting man’s pride, the sign that he was a soldier. No headstone would mark his grave – there was no one for miles to do the carving and, besides, headstones had been falling out of fashion for centuries. Only the memory of the young soldier would remain, fixed in the minds of onlookers by the spectacle, by the precious things deposited with the body, vanishing for ever as the earth fell on it. Without a headstone, we can’t know this young soldier’s name. In that, as in the manner of his burial, he is typical of thousands of fifth-century soldiers whose graves have been excavated. Or typical save in one respect: the dead Pyrenean soldier was a monkey, an adolescent macaque from the coast of North Africa, a thousand kilometres from where he died. (LRB, 31:3, pg. 22)
That hooked me. And the review article (by Michael Kulikowski) did not disappoint. Another gem, towards the end of his text:
A year rarely goes by without a new version of the Attila story, whether told in its own right or as part of the story of Rome’s fall. Given that all the thorny historical problems were worked out decades ago, each new version differs from the last mainly by way of emphasis, artistic colour, and the author’s competence as a historian. Kelly’s well-told and reliable account is the best to have come along in years, showing a judicious approach to archaeological evidence that one could wish more widely imitated. Its subtitle and some of its conclusions, however, stand rather too close to a revenant ‘it were the Huns wot done it’ school of analysis: no Huns means no Goths means no fall of the Roman Empire. The revival of this external catastrophist model, last popular immediately after the Second World War, is no doubt a response to the rose-tinted, EU-inspired interpretations of the 1990s, which at their height could construe the fall of the empire as a Mediterranean break from which the barbarian holidaymakers forgot to return. Yet I suspect that barbarian hordes have come back into vogue because they are, in their way, a comforting explanation. If only the aliens had been kept out, if only the empire had had the sense to strike back in time, then Rome wouldn’t have fallen. In a Western world that feels itself increasingly under assault from mystifying outside forces, from multiculturalism where once there was monoculture, and from Islamism where once there were colonies, the model of barbarian invasion spares us having to contemplate a far queasier proposition: the worrying capacity of an entire society to collapse, and a whole culture to disappear, through stupidity, greed, indifference and the weight of its own unsustainable contradictions.
The sideswipe at the petits fonctionnaires of the EU might be contrived, or cheap, but does not really concern me here. I’m just enjoying my coffee and a little more decent reading than that which is provided by the national (Mexican) press’s morbid, flat and otherwise philistinic headlines and editorial pages day in and day out (hmm, philistinic + comatose = philistose…good enough portmanteau for me, in this context!).