Friday, February 08, 2008

Dark Ages, Shmark Ages / Sidonuis, the first neocon?

That popular conceptions of history tend to lag scholarly thought by a couple decades is nothing new. Witness this article in The Independent, "New light on the Dark Ages: Who are you calling barbaric?". For scholars of the period (late antique/earl MA), the discussion is nothing new and the article mentions Gibbon and alludes to "other interpretations." The re-examination was prompted by a new exhibit at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice, Italy. Sounds like good stuff. Unfortunately, the author saw fit to characterize the revisionist vs. traditional historiography this way:
But what if the barbarians weren't all that barbaric after all? What if the black/white, good/bad, God's chosen versus axis of evil, neo-conservative type explanation for this historical event is just as much state propaganda as the claim that Saddam Hussein was an hour away from bombarding us all with nuclear missiles?
Pathetic, really. Believe it or not, everything doesn't come back to Bushitler. Does this mean that we can now peg Sidonius Apollinaris as the first neo-con?

Anyway, here's the meat:
... what the new exhibition lays finally to rest is the notion that the barbarians were barbaric. True, they were often blond, worshipped their own gods, lacked cities with sewerage systems, heated floors, bathhouses and aqueducts. Often they were nomads. But the idea that they were in some absolute sense less civilised was Roman state propaganda. Crueller than the Romans? Hardly possible. More violent, more militaristic than the most militaristic state in history? Hard to conceive.

Once one steps back from the paranoid them-and-us, self-and-other way of looking at it, one sees that rather than the cataclysmic end of a great civilisation and its replacement by the forces of darkness, something far more compelling and creative was under way: the creation (as the curators of this exhibition put it) of Europe as we know it, welded together by Christianity, and with deeply rooted memories of Roman heritage which make dramatic returns to our collective consciousness every few hundred years: during the Renaissance, for example.

"The Barbarian kingdoms," writes Jean-Jacques Aillagon in the catalogue, "gradually drew a new political map of Europe, dividing it between the Ostrogoths and the Lombards in Italy, the Franks in western Germany, Belgium and France, the Visigoths in Languedoc, Aquitaine and the Iberian peninsula."

He continues: "If Europe was born in Athens, Jerusalem and Rome, many of its roots also lie in the peoples of the north and east of the European continent." The aim of the exhibition, he writes: "Is to reveal the profound and subtle mix between Graeco-Roman and Germanic roots from which European culture stems."

1 comment:

Feminist Avatar said...

What I like especially is the way the author entirely misses the point of the revisionist argument, by trying to prove how the Romas weren't as 'civilised' as they like to think, rather than questioning what we mean by this term in the first place.