I am not going to repeat what you have already read or heard. I am not going to say that what happened in Paris on Friday night was unprecedented horror, for it was not. I am not going to say that the world stands with France, for it is a hollow phrase. Nor am I going to applaud Francois Hollande’s pledge of “pitiless” vengeance, for I do not believe it. I am, instead, going to tell you that this is exactly how civilisations fall.
Here is how Edward Gibbon described the Goths’ sack of Rome in August 410AD: “ ... In the hour of savage licence, when every passion was inflamed, and every restraint was removed ... a cruel slaughter was made of the Romans; and … the streets of the city were filled with dead bodies ... Whenever the Barbarians were provoked by opposition, they extended the promiscuous massacre to the feeble, the innocent, and the helpless …”
Now, does that not describe the scenes we witnessed in Paris on Friday night? True, Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published in six volumes between 1776 and 1788, represented Rome’s demise as a slow burn. Gibbon covered more than 1400 years of history. The causes he identified ranged from the personality disorders of individual emperors to the power of the Praetorian Guard and the rise of Sassanid Persia. Decline shaded into fall, with monotheism acting as a kind of imperial dry rot.
For many years, more modern historians of “late antiquity” tended to agree with Gibbon about the gradual nature of the process. Indeed, some went further, arguing “decline” was an anachronistic term, like the word “barbarian”.
Far from declining and falling, they insisted, the Roman Empire had imperceptibly merged with the Germanic tribes, producing a multicultural post-imperial idyll that deserved a more flattering label than “Dark Ages”.
Recently, however, a new generation of historians has raised the possibility the process of Roman decline was in fact sudden — and bloody — rather than smooth.
For Bryan Ward-Perkins, what happened was “violent seizure ... by barbarian invaders”. The end of the Roman west, he writes in The Fall of Rome (2005), “witnessed horrors and dislocation of a kind I sincerely hope never to have to live through; and it destroyed a complex civilisation, throwing the inhabitants of the West back to a standard of living typical of prehistoric times”. ...