Crimes, Follies and Misfortunes

History doesn't offer much hope. At work I sometimes take a little heat for being an old school humanist who rather snobbishly favors the classics over current literature, but reading that old stuff helps me to remember that the current state of affairs is not something new or unique. Political stupidity, cupidity, and duplicity have always been a part of the human condition. When I read about Athens' folly in precipitating the invasion of Sicily or the savagery of Roman power politics, the modern messes and scandals don't seem so odd or unusual. "History," Edward Gibbon once said, "is little more than a register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind."

I sometimes doubt that the 21rst century will be an American Century like the last one. It all seems to be coming to an end in an orgy of triviality and obesity. Even so, I try to remind myself that there must have been a few pleasant afternoons as the late Roman Empire went down the long slide. I hope we get a long, slow decline like the Byzantines, but I'm also mindful that there have been some pretty fast erasures.

Case in point: the Assyrians. They lasted almost 2,000 years (2,300-600 BC) and were double tough, Biblical Nazis, but then they decided to take on Egypt and with the army mired far way, all of the various peoples they had oppressed over the centuries took the opportunity to revolt. In just a few months it was over. The city of Nineveh was leveled and the Assyrians slaughtered wholesale or sold into slavery. There is no such thing as an Assyrian today.

Less than two hundred years after this, the Greek mercenary Xenophon was wandering back from fighting in a Persian civil war and came across massive foundations in the desert, not too far from modern day Kirkuk. Here was an entire city, 60 some square miles, with fortress walls that once were 50-foot thick. Here were the sand covered outlines of enormous palaces, gardens, and great fountains lying in rubble. These ruins were almost deserted, but Xenophon did find a few men grubbing about and he asked what place this had been. No one knew. Assyria had been erased, and in less than two hundred years no one was left who thought they were worth remembering.

Like I said, here’s hoping for a nice, long, languid Byzantine decline.

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