Thursday, July 5, 2018

Prepare ye the way of the Lord, Germanicus

How did I manage to miss a pretty key chapter of Roman conquest history? Maybe Boomer teachers were too caught up in current events like Vietnam to inform us that Caesar’s troops spent a quite a bit of time putting down the wild tribes of Germany (aka my ancestors!). The 1888 history text I rocketed through this week (An Outline History of Rome by Dr. John H. Vincent and James R. Joy) offers the first solid explanation I’ve heard about why one of the more famous Augustine descendants was called “Germanicus” (tip: there’s a hint, right there, in his name!). Vincent and Joy offer endgame spoilers like: “But the Germans who dwelt in the unknown forest region beyond the (Rhine) river were a constant menace to the peace of the empire.” (pg 183-184). That’s what we’d call a foreshadowing in the literary world because these are the fellows who brought Rome’s empire to a messy halt a few centuries later. (And BTW, there’s a *very* active subculture out there of men in basements who build battlefields over abandoned ping-pong tables, and populate them with tiny action figures of Gauls, Celts, and Roman soldiers. I discovered this when looking for a juicy image with which to grace this post. Scary.)

Aside from the typically scathingly elegant 19th century condemnation for those Romans who devolved from upright, stable, stern family men to licentious, libertine slackers, Vincent and Joy gallop through Roman history with gusto. And, when the action starts getting hot and heavy, these normally chatty chaps present it in surprisingly telegraphic prose. In fact, in some battle sequences, the authors lose their Victorian dignity and sound more like boys yelling out the really cool parts to each other. Passages fluctuate between meandering prosily through ancestry accounts and breezing along, assuming readers are well familiar with famous Latin phrases like “Vini, Vidi, Vici” and “crossing the Rubicon.” Well, let’s say those phrases USED to be famous (see my Victorian-esque rant against the dumbing down of American education here).

Hilariously awful portrait sketches are sprinkled about, some laughable bad. I doubt any reader who encounters their hook-nosed Cleopatra (a vile, wicked woman in their estimation, whose treachery, cowardice, and conniving helped bring down a tottering empire) would ever think “Wow, Anthony, she was soooo worth it!”

The battle for Roman rulership rages briskly over the centuries as we plow along. Christians are persecuted, Jews are scattered, epic walls are erected (so THAT’S who Hadrian is!), temples are demolished.  It’s a bit like the toga-clad version of 1 and 2 Kings and Chronicles—power-mad men and their conquests, big and small. After a while, the Caesars’ names all blur together…Octavius, Vespasian, Honorius, Caligula. The pagi (pagans) and the haiden (heathens) win out in the end as the barbarians trample the culture under their Visigothic feet. When the Mongol hordes of Attila the Hun (aka “The Scourge of God”—how’d you like that for a nickname?) showed up in the middle of the 5th century, “panic preceded their advance, and desolation followed in their wake.” (pg 231) Aetius, a Roman general, defeated him in France, thus, according to Vincent and Joy, saving Western Europe from barbarism and claiming he “preserved for modern times the civilization of the Greeks and Romans.” (pg 231). Which turns out to be a very good thing for readers like us!

I flat-out love Dr. Vincent’s assumptive claims about why God allowed the Roman empire to crush all comers.. “Little did the men who made Rome the power and the terror it was dream that its aggressions and control were but preparations for the coming of One mightier than any or all of the rulers over the vast empire. Forerunners of the King of kings were all these crowned and sceptered chieftains. They built their ships that Paul and his associates might sail the Eastern seas. They stretched out broad and smooth and well-defended highways that God’s word of gospel grace might the more swiftly run. Thus man’s work furthers God’s plan. They unify government and spread abroad a common speech, that Hebrew truth, informed by a new and living Spirit, may sweep from east to west, from north to south, and give news of one salvation to all men every-where.” (pg 4) “Rome has her lessons for the true Church of Jesus Christ, lessons of warning, emphatic and earnest, against worldly ambition, greed of gold, and earthly influence.” (pg 5)

You know how I’ve mentioned finding little surprises tucked into these vintage texts? Well, this one did not disappoint. A little rectangle of paper was tucked into the chapter discussing the learned Marcus Aurelius, author of “Meditations” (which our authors reluctantly admit is “among the noblest and purest of heathen writings” pg 213). The rectangle is V-cut in the middle, creating a sort of match-up icebreaker quiz of the inked quote: “Beware of entrance to a quarrel; but being in, bear’t that the opposed may beware of thee.” It’s a quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and how it wound up with Marcus is a mystery, but, as always, such little treasures remind me of the Victorian emphasis on the importance of memorizing key quotes, dates, names, and facts.

It’s safe to say I’ve learned more about the Roman empire in a week, reading this book, than in the many months spent learning ancient history as a kid. Why? Well, maybe it’s my Pansy-fed motivation? After reading Isabella (“Pansy”) Alden’s The Hall in the Grove, I got a wee bit obsessed with Chautauqua and especially with Pansy’s depictions of the power of education on the underserved, illiterate “lower classes” of her day and how much belief she and her peers had in the power of the written word to uplift the masses. I wanted to read firsthand what ignited the passion in her ‘Paul Adams” character that took him from the saloon to sobriety to scholar. And as I close the covers of this little brown book, I begin to see how Rome’s valor and vanity could fan to flame a latent genius in even such as he.  

“Why do the nations rage and the peoples imagine a vain thing? The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord. The One enthroned in Heaven laughs.” Psalm 2: 1-2, 4

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