Dark Age to Dark Age

The decline and fall of the Roman Empire began to haunt the West’s imagination many centuries before Gibbon’s masterpiece immortalized the phrase.  Indeed, it is hard not to agree with Fried­rich Heer’s judgment that every European empire since Char­le­magne’s time—the Holy Roman Empire, Czarist Russia, Napoleonic France, Hitler’s and Stalin’s failed experiments—was a conscious attempt to recreate the empire that to this day symbolizes a Western unity that not only subsumes the national quarrels between France and England and Spain but even links Rome with Athens and Moscow.

By a well-known “irony” Gibbon published the first volume of his work in 1776, the year in which the Americans’ declaration of independence supposedly signified the first real liberation from the heritage of ancient Rome.  This notion—put forth by Noah Webster among other democratists—was utter nonsense.  Most of the so-called founders were classically trained, and Jefferson went to his grave convinced that only ancient poetry was worth reading.  Jefferson, Adams, and Madison, to name only three, thought a great deal about the lessons taught by democratic Athens and imperial Rome.  It did not take even a century for Lincoln to imagine he was great Caesar’s ghost, and it took only a bit more than two centuries for Latin-less neoconservatives to begin prating of the...

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