What would you do if a handful of kingdoms—inhabited by tribes who fought with each other a lot—were thrown together and styled “The Holy Roman Empire” and you were put in charge? How would you get the empire up and running? Here are your main problems:
Communication. Each of those tribes is speaking some weird variation of Latin and other languages so they don’t understand each other too well. The economy. There’s been a constant, dreary, never-ending state of war for the past few centuries. Unless they sell swords, it’s been tough for regular shmoes to make a living. Farmers might sell their crops if (apart from the usual worry of late frost or early frost or too much rain or drought) a battalion of soldiers doesn’t march through your field. Banking, finance and the stock market haven’t been invented yet so wealth accumulation isn’t something that most serfs do. Culture. Forget about being a writer or an artist or a musician: those sensitive plants have been drafted into the army. Hardly anybody reads—even Charlemagne has to sound out the letters. Except for a few monks in monasteries, nobody writes. Architecture is mostly about fortifications. There may have been music but nobody wrote down any tunes. So, not much culture. Religion. Not every tribe in the Holy Roman Empire is Christian. Do we force those non-Christians to get with the program?
The Holy Roman Empire is a hot mess. Those countries have been conquered, all right, because Charlemagne came from a family that’s good at commanding a large military. He was great at it. But how was Charlemagne going to run this empire in peacetime?
What would you do?
Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.
Yes, yes, I know—I’m late with today’s post. I’m working on it! I’m giving Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire my patented Western-Lit-In-Only-One-Sentence ® treatment. Six volumes is taking a little longer than I thought it would. To keep my devoted readers happy while you wait, I thoughtfully provide you with links to some Roman Empire hold-music:
Here’s the mighty Miklós Rózsa’s music for the movie Ben Hur (he gets what the Roman Empire should sound like. Switching from triumphal thundering brass and drums to those foreign-oriental minor discordant bits; I don’t even read music but I know this is just right)—https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fmoWJ4R8c-E Here’s Miklós Rózsa again with music for Quo Vadis—https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G3snEHuUV4Y Here’s Dimitri Tiomkin’s music for The Fall Of The Roman Empire (it’s okay, it’s epic, but doesn’t sound Roman Empirey enough for me)—https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lMe8HKopNLE Here is Stephen Sondheim’s dead-on parody of Rózsa’s epic music. It’s from A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum—https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lLgOrvsA9tw
Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.
Edward Gibbon published The Decline and Fall in 1776
Edward Gibbon tells the whole sad story in his fascinating six-volume book, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I do recommend it. It’s not for everybody. You probably want to wait until you’re a senior in high school to read it. You need to be a reader who really enjoys reading—it takes a little while to catch on to the rhythm of Gibbon’s writing and the slightly different meanings of some words written two and a half centuries ago. Once you manage that, I promise it’ll be a rewarding experience. It will also be a horrifying experience if you pay attention to what our own idiot political & cultural elites are up to. Having read Gibbon, you’ll view each day’s top news stories with mounting panic and maybe do something drastic like start writing a history blog.
Welp, once again I’ve gotten ahead of myself by focusing with laser intensity on a single subject: how Romance languages were born from Latin. I think we should back up a bit and look at the big picture.
The big picture is: the Roman Empire had gotten too big. It was really difficult for one guy to manage. At its startup, the Empire had Augustus and then the 5 ‘good’ emperors who had the necessary skills to run the show. After that, there was a slow decline brought on by corruption, everybody-in-the-government’s lust for power, political instability, mismanagement of the economy (debasement of currency), over-reliance on a work-for-hire military, use of slave labor, religious intolerance, weak morals, and the ever-present threat of invasion from kingdoms and tribes at the Empire’s borders. Those tribes sacked the city of Rome in ad 410 and by 476 the Empire was over. I’m speaking of the western half of the Empire. The eastern Byzantine half carried on after the western half’s fall for a thousand more years.
The Egyptians were able to farm the land next to the Nile because it flooded regularly every year. When the water receded, it left behind a sludge—silt—of dead fish and plants which turn into nutrients. Crops love those yummy nutrients. The Egyptians figured out how to irrigate—they built levees and dams and canals to direct water from the Nile into their farm fields. Irrigation made farming even easier. Farming could be done by fewer people while still producing enough food to feed everybody. People who weren’t farmers could do other jobs which paid money or produced goods so they could buy or barter for food. This is how an economy begins.
Did I say growing food is easy? It’s pretty back-breaking for the poor slobs who do the work. I don’t know what their headwear is here, or why it’s brimless. A gourd shell, maybe? The Egyptian sun must have been unrelenting.
In 1913, a group of wealthy German automobile enthusiasts started building something new: a motorway—a road for automobiles only. It was designed for fast driving. You wouldn’t have to slow down or stop for horse-drawn wagons or buggies. It had four lanes—2 lanes for each direction with a wide median (grassy area) between them. It was called the autobahn.
The first 19 kilometer section near Berlin was experimental. It was a success!—a dream to drive a car on—and so through the teens, 20s and 30s the autobahn got expanded. It didn’t get expanded very quickly, though. Work stopped while Germany fought World War I. After they lost the war there was economic depression. For the many Germans out of work, the autobahn must have looked like a project for rich people who could afford cars. The autobahn was built a piece at a time, financed by local government or wealthy investors.
During that time of economic crisis, the Nazi (National Socialist) Party was gaining popularity. The party leader, Chancellor Hitler, at first rejected having anything to do with the autobahn. After all, the Nazis were supposed to be about helping the little guy, the guy who couldn’t afford a car. Eventually, though, Hitler recognized the propaganda value of seeing Germans at work on the motorway, making it seem as though the German economy were booming. He had himself photographed with a shovel wherever the autobahn was being constructed. Hitler also recognized the value of having a nationwide road system for quickly transporting troops and military vehicles (cue the ominous music).
Okay, gang—before we get started talking about Western Civilization, we should agree on what a ‘civilization’ is. I’m going to keep this kind of loose. Generally, a civilization is a big group of people—in cities, a country, or countries—who share government (a system of keeping law & order and protecting its people);
a religion (belief in a god or gods with a set of rituals and priests to perform them);
an economy (enough food for everyone plus some left over for trading);
a written language (symbols to communicate without speaking);
and art, science and technology (inventions that make life easier and more enjoyable).
Every civilization has a ‘culture’—its own way of living and doing things.
That’s it. A rough definition to understand what separates a civilization from simply a big group of people. Now we can start thinking about what Western Civilization is.