Tuesday, 24 June 2014

A New Hope

One of the most challenging aspects of writing a blog is trying to gauge the degree to which my writing is connecting with my audience, or whether my words fall so far outside my readers' experience that I fail to make a meaningful connection at all. This is especially so when I write about a subject as difficult as the death and life of great civilizations, to borrow a turn of phrase from Jane Jacobs. For some of you these concepts are likely quite new and perhaps troubling. For others it might be a new formulation of old news. Still others I know are actively preparing for the end of our present civilization.

In the interest of bringing things home to everyday experience, allow me, just for a moment, to descend from the heights of sweeping historical narrative to tell a personal story. It's something that's been on my mind because it came up during a conversation last week with a friend of my own age, and then again this week with another group of friends. At the risk of moving from sweeping narratives to sweeping generalizations I'd say it's an experience common to many people of my generation.

As a child I had the good fortune to receive a quality public school education, something that has, perhaps more than anything else in my life, shaped me into the person I am today. Thanks to the modern school system, by age seventeen I had a broader knowledge of the world I live in than most Romans would have had by age seventy. Broader, that is, but not deeper, since as a seventeen-year-old high school graduate I didn't have the life experience to make sense of all I'd been told about history, biology, chemistry, literature, philosophy, environmental science, and global issues.

Not that I've got it all figured out at age twenty-four- not by a long shot. But that didn't stop the adults who educated me and my peers from telling us from a young age that we had the power to change the world, and that we could even be the ones to save the world from its current destructive course. It was meant to empower us, and there was some truth to it: if knowledge is power, we were the most empowered generation ever to walk the earth.

But of course, knowledge is power only if you if you have the means to use it. Otherwise, it's a weight that grows heavier the longer you reflect on the tremendous force of the world's currents and your own smallness within them. Toward the end of high school and into my years at university I grew sadder the more I learned about climate change and other global injustices, until deep depression and anxiety dominated my life. My recovery since that time has involved sharing my story and my struggles with friends and family, but as powerfully it has involved changing my hopes and expectations about what my life could mean.

'A New Hope' thus describes the present chapter of my life quite well. Incidentally, it's also the title of a story so influential that it's become one of the great myths of Western culture's collective subconscious. Yes, I'm talking about the original Star Wars film, and no, this isn't an obsequious pop culture tribute for the sake of appearing 'with it'. The Star Wars saga had a powerful effect on me as a young boy, even a young boy growing up twenty years after its first appearance, and there are good reasons why.

You'll recall, perhaps, that the narrative concerns a young man who averts galactic doom with a single well-place torpedo blast, then goes on to redeem the sins of the previous generation, and even to abolish the evil Empire and restore the Galactic Republic. What could be more appealing to a young boy raised on hopes of saving the world? And what could be more appealing to a culture fixated on quick solutions to big problems, ridden with guilt over its own dark side, and longing for the simpler mores of the past even as it lusts after its supposed destiny among the stars?

The truth about Star Wars, though, is that it doesn't describe reality. Neither do other narratives that tell us that the young people will save us because goodness must triumph in the end. The history of Rome shows us quite clearly that bad things do happen on enormous scales, and that 'things fall apart', to borrow a turn of phrase from W. B. Yeats. This doesn't happen because people are inherently evil or inept; it happens because of the laws of thermodynamics.

If you want to know the real secret of empire and of life itself, consider the human body once more. As we grow from infancy we take in more food energy all the time, replacing the tissues in our bodies with newer and stronger tissues before they wear out. As we reach adulthood and stop growing, we don't continue to eat like teenagers without serious consequences, and our energy intake plateaus. The level of entropy in our bodies, however, doesn't, and as we get older a greater and greater proportion of our energy is turned toward basic maintenance. We couldn't live forever unless we grew forever, a condition which would kill us all the sooner as our hearts wore themselves out trying to pump blood throughout our massive bodies.

Similarly, the Roman emperors could have attempted to expand indefinitely, but they couldn't have effectively governed an ever-larger Empire from its heart in Rome. On the other hand, they couldn't accept stable borders without also accepting rising internal entropy and the aging of the Empire. In the modern context, conventional economists are correct to teach that when exponential growth ceases, stagnation follows. They're also mad to suppose that sustaining a growth state indefinitely is possible or even desirable.

That's the angle you'll hear from most environmentalists these days, but my conviction is that most greens aren't taking their analysis far enough. Those who speak of sustainable growth for our societies ignore the fact that growth, by its very nature, is unsustainable, unless it is exponential. And exponential growth on a finite planet is also unsustainable by its very nature, since the limits to growth are firmly set by the scarcity of reliable energy resources.

Thus our civilization's fate is already sealed, though the fact has yet to register for most of its members. We are long past the Augustan age and into the Augustinian age, and a case can be made that the immense psychological blow dealt by the fall of Rome in 410 has precise parallels in the fall of the Twin Towers in 2001. It was a moment when Americans and North Americans were suddenly faced with the mortality of the earthly power they relied on, and most reacted with fear, anger, and blame-casting.

We should remember, however, that between the initial sack of Rome and the deposition of the last Western Roman Emperor in 476, three generations were born and grew to adulthood. By the time the mighty Roman Empire had broken down into the warring barbarian kingdoms that would give birth to medieval Europe, the oldest grandmothers in those kingdoms would have had only dim childhood memories of the beginning of the end. We're used to thinking of sudden calamities and swift victories like the one Luke Skywalker won over the commanders of the Death Star, but that isn't how things work in the real world. Large-scale change takes time.

The other thing movies don't show is that even after massive wars and deep dark ages, life goes on. The reason I began writing out this train of thought by asserting that it's not the end of the world is because I truly believe there will be human people two hundred years from now, living lives as colourful and intense and meaningful as the lives we live today, and I believe their perspective is worth considering deeply. When they look back on the history of our age, what will they remember us for? Better yet, what will they thank us for? If there really is a dark age ahead, as my forecast indicates, we will need to prepare now to preserve the things that are worth preserving from our present civilization.

At around the time I turned the corner from despair into hope I realized that the few of us who see what's coming can't save the world, no matter how hard we try. The best we can do is prepare the soil for the seeds of worlds to come, and that will be my life's work. How empowering, and how cheering, to think of Laura Erb planting her garden seven generations from now, and thanking the people of the twenty-first century for planting the trees that kept intact the soil that sustains her. How good it must feel for her to remember the communities that worked throughout the years of sorrow to keep alive the ties that bind and the memory of what was good and noble.

*       *       *

I'm getting on a train this evening that will carry me across the great expanse of Canada to my family on the West Coast, so I won't be posting next week. When I return on July 8 I'd like to turn to an examination of the world of Laura Erb as portrayed in my story The Messengers, because it will make clear some of the details of what I've thus far been talking about in the abstract. I also wouldn't mind hearing from you about what has stood out to you most from A Wizard of Earth so far. Are there subjects you'd like to hear more about? Angles that surprised or confused you? Leave a comment with your name and I'll happily reply once I'm back from my break. Until then, enjoy the birdsong and ponder on.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

The Two Cities

In the autumn of 410 the Roman world reeled as an astounding piece of news travelled outward from Italy like a shock wave: the Eternal City had fallen. On the twenty-third of August the barbarian warlord Alaric had entered Rome and plundered it for three days, terrorizing its citizens and carrying off its wealth. No enemy had breached the gates of the City for nearly eight hundred years. Across the Empire there was dismay that the nation built up by Augustus and sustained by God (or the gods, depending on whom you asked) could suffer so terrible a defeat.

Throughout the first two centuries following the death of Augustus in 14 CE Rome had enjoyed almost unbroken internal peace. The Empire's borders pushed outward to include the new provinces of Britain and Mesopotamia, among others, and various emperors created programs to finance small farm loans, feed urban orphans, hold accused persons innocent until proven otherwise, and limit the kinds of torture masters could legally inflict on slaves.

But even as the Empire reached the height of its prosperity and stability, the jaws of the entropy trap were tightening. Ruling the world was expensive, especially a world with so much state-funded infrastructure. Without significant growth and expansion, there were no new energy surpluses to put toward the rising cost of maintaining what previous generations had added to the Empire. Every one of Augustus' successors sold off some imperial assets in order to balance the books, and diluting Rome's silver coinage with greater and greater proportions of non-precious metals became a standard way of cutting costs.

In the last decades of the second century CE a wave of plague from the east and newly strengthened Germanic raiders from the north pushed the strained system into a prolonged crisis. The third century was dominated by wars and civil wars, as a long series of emperor-generals vied to be seen as the man who could deal most ruthlessly with the Empire's many problems. By the end of the third century a new Roman Empire had emerged, one governed by two or three or four allied emperors, and as the fourth century drew to a close the Eastern and Western halves of the Empire were functioning independently from each other. Both the Eastern and Western emperors ruled through a growing bureaucracy and an army that consisted more and more of immigrants such as Goths, Vandals, and Huns. Both ruled from wherever it was most pressing for them to be, and the city of Rome was reduced to merely symbolic importance.

But as a symbol Rome was as powerful in 410 as it had been in 14. The news of its fall shook Romans everywhere and prompted deep soul-searching. Never mind that the 'conqueror' was actually an officer of the Roman army hoping to wring greater rights for his Gothic countrymen from the state that employed them; never mind that he had given his men strict orders not to violate churches, priests, or nuns during the sack; never mind that the emperor, senators, and political institutions of the Western Empire had survived and would outlast Alaric and his army of Goths; the Eternal City had proved mortal, and history itself needed to be rewritten.

One man rose to the task. His name was Aurelius Augustinus, or Augustine, and he was bishop of the city of Hippo in what is now Algeria. His father had been a pagan Roman and his mother a Christian Berber, and he had dabbled in numerous creeds and philosophies before embracing the Catholic faith at the age of thirty-two. His account of this inner journey, his Confessions, is one of the first autobiographies known to the Western world. It's remarkable both for its intensely personal nature and for the fact that the author considered his struggles with life's toughest questions to be inextricable from his development as a person.

At age fifty-eight he sat down to write an answer to those who charged that Rome's fall had been brought about by the Empire's conversion to Christianity. Not so, he countered: the old Roman gods had in fact been demons intent on leading their followers into vice; rather, Rome's former glories and its current miseries were from God alone. After ten volumes in this vein he turned his attention to writing a complete history of the world from its creation through to its end and final judgement to come, a feat he accomplished in twelve more volumes. The whole project took him thirteen years, and its twenty-two volumes go by the title The City of God.

That title is a reference to the first of two 'cities' whose development Augustine traces from before the beginning of time until time's end. One is heavenly; its citizens, though they walk the earth in flesh and blood, are willing subjects of Christ's kingdom, and look forward to sharing eternity with him in Paradise. The other is earthly; its citizens live only for this world, loving themselves foremost and scorning those among them whose hope is in unseen things. They will spend eternity in Hell.

Though it sounds grim from a modern secular perspective, the message of The City of God to a deeply troubled world was that the things of this world were destined to perish, while the things of the next world were enduring and worth hoping for. Rome had never been eternal; its fate, like the fate of all flesh, was to fall away. Using the concepts of his time, Augustine was grappling with the reality of entropy, and his solution was to ground himself in an unseen reality that did not decay.

He put forward his vision of the City of God at a time when millions had lost their faith in the City of Rome, and the book took hold in popular imagination as few had before or have since. The depressing decline which Augustine observed in the world around him went hand in hand with the surging growth of the monastic movement, in which thousands of men and women renounced the world to seek 'the green martyrdom' by retreating to cloistered wilderness communities. Meanwhile the cities built by Rome crumbled or shrank or vanished altogether, as waves of crises continued to batter Europe through the fifth century and into the sixth. For the next half millennium and more The City of God would be the most widely copied book (after the Bible) in Medieval Europe.

Our world is thus a world built upon the thought of Augustine, but it's worth remembering that it didn't have to be that way. Instead of his heavenly/earthly dichotomy, we could have inherited the theology of Patrick of Ireland, who wrote beautiful poetry about the immanence of God in all of nature. Or the last Roman emperors could have chosen to persecute Catholics and endorse Arians, who emphasized Jesus' humanity over his divinity. Christianity, then as now, was a seething pool of contradictory interpretations and opinions, and the Christianity that won out and that shaped all subsequent Western thought was Augustine's.

The last thing I want to say just now is this: between Augustus and Augustine the shape of the world changed, and a new story was needed to make sense of things. When I look at the rapidly changing world around me today, I wonder whether the old stories will be able to guide us through the crises ahead. What streams of thought exist in this day and age that take into account the growth and decline of earthly cities? And what hope can there be for those of us who cannot put our faith in the heavenly city? These questions are yours to ponder, and I'll be putting some thought into them as well next week.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

The Emperor's Trap

Last week's story of the rise of the Roman Empire and the beginnings of the Christian movement within it may have felt like a detour from my stated purpose of writing about nature and the magic thereof, but I can assure you it wasn't. There are two main reasons for this. The first is that if we want to look honestly at our present culture's relationship with nature, it's important to understand the roots of that culture and how we got to where we are. Anyone reading this blog in the English language has been affected to some degree by the dominating influence of Western European cultures, and these cultures have their strongest roots in Rome and in Christianity.

The second reason is that the story of the Roman Empire illustrates one of nature's most important lessons. Rome arose and flourished, but later declined and fell, and for a thousand years thereafter Western Europe was peopled by much smaller and less sophisticated societies. We call this subsequent period the Middle Ages because it occurred between Rome's time and ours. But why did this happen?

I realize that I stray into dangerous territory when I begin to tell stories experienced by real people living in time, a danger that confronts anyone who attempts to study or explain history. (Whose story, did you say? What about her story? Or their story? For that matter, what about our story?) If you've experienced a historic event and later read about it in the news or in books, you're probably aware that the facts of what happened and why depend quite a lot on who's telling them.

The story of Rome is especially so. As Adrian Goldsworthy points out in How Rome Fell (Yale University Press, 2009), every age has projected its own internal narratives and anxieties backward onto the enigma of why Rome fell. For medieval monks it was moral decline; for the eighteenth-century British historian Edward Gibbon it was "the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness." Gibbon was writing at the same time that the American colonies were breaking free of his own British Empire and establishing an independent union. Later, during the rise of German nationalism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the role of Germanic enemies like Arminius of the first-century Cherusci nation became more important to the story of the Empire's fall.

I'll cheerfully admit that I'm no exception to this rule. I'm also far less qualified than Goldsworthy to explain how Rome fell, so that made it all the more surprising to me that he did such a bad job of it. Goldsworthy's argument is that Roman decline began at the top and spread downward: the late empire's strength wasted away in civil war after civil war due to a lack of strong and farsighted leadership on the part of the later emperors.

From my perspective as an apprentice wizard of earth, that's like telling someone dying of old age that their body's strength is wasting away due to a lack of resolve on their part. Depending on the individual there might be a grain of truth in that diagnosis, but it ignores all the other converging systems failures that characterize the old age of both humans and human societies. If you want a good introduction to the late Roman Empire I'd recommend How Rome Fell; it's a clean, straightforward narrative full of memorable anecdotes about the emperors and their courts. If you want a deep and nuanced explanation of how Rome fell, look elsewhere.

The story I want to tell can be approached from a few different angles, but I want to start with one that most of us will be familiar with: roads. Roads were one of the keys to the Romans' greatness, and they were quite good at building them. If you've ever stopped to watch a modern road being constructed then you have a fair idea of how it worked. Land had to be surveyed, then a trench dug and filled with stones or packed earth, and finally a concrete surface applied, ever so slightly arched in order to shed rain. (Did you know that the Romans invented concrete? They were good at that too, and if you try to imagine any building in your neighbourhood standing as long as the Coliseum has, you start to realize just how good). The first paved Roman road was built in 312 BCE in order to convey troops more quickly to rebellious neighbouring regions, and that logic extended outward as the Empire grew until most of Europe was linked by roads.

The problem with roads, as everyone knows, is that they need periodic maintenance in order to stay functional. This is especially true here in Canada, where it's said that we have two seasons in a year: winter and road work season. It's worth a chuckle, but it's also worth a moment of deeper reflection. Unless someone puts energy into their upkeep, roads always move from a state of ordered repair toward a state of disordered disrepair. Remember our old friend entropy from a couple of weeks ago? That's who's to blame for the potholes wreaking havoc on the suspension of your car or ox-drawn wagon, not the government. And that's where I respectfully disagree with Adrian Goldsworthy's analysis of the fall of Rome.

Maintenance is a part of every well-planned public works program because entropy is a part of every physical system in the universe. The second law of thermodynamics says that without additional energy inputs, roads and buildings always get more run down over time, never less so. That's just common sense, but its implications are less often explored. Consider, for example, that the more roads you build, the more roads you have to maintain. Likewise with temples, coliseums, aqueducts, bathhouses, forums, commemorative arches, lighthouses, assembly halls, country villas, dockyards, and public toilets. Have I made my point yet? The Romans built a lot of stuff.

During the expansion phase of the Empire this wasn't a problem, because the flow of energy inward from conquered provinces was growing faster than entropy was accumulating in Rome's infrastructure. The emperor Augustus' conquests made him wealthy enough to personally finance the rebuilding of Rome's most ancient roads, and he threw in some extravagant temple upgrades and a new public bathhouse for good measure. Before his death in 14 CE he boasted that he had found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble, a claim which was meant to be taken figuratively but was not far from being literally true.

The trap for his successors lay in the combination of maintaining expensive infrastructure and intentionally limiting the Empire's growth. Later emperors went ahead and conquered some new provinces to boost their own prestige, but these didn't significantly alter the fact that the amount of entropy within the Empire was rising faster than its energy inflow. You can picture this by thinking back to our earlier comparison of the Empire with a human body. In early life our bodies are growing and replacing tissues faster than those tissues are aging, and as a result our strength and vitality increases up until our twenties. When we reach maturity our body checks its drive for growth and turns its focus toward maintaining what it's built up.

At age twenty-four I'm at the very peak of my physical condition, but already the mechanisms of aging are locking into place inside me. The slow build-up of entropy in my body over the next half-century or so will mark the milestones on my journey toward death, provided I don't hasten the process by falling under a bus before then. Does that sound grim to you? It doesn't to me, because I've known for a long time that one day I will kick the metaphysical can and there's absolutely nothing I can do to change that. Instead I've sought out teachings and companions that will aid me in my journey rather than distract me from it.

But you didn't come here to get a young guy's advice on aging well; you came to read about the fall of Rome. My human body metaphor is at best inexact and at worst an oversimplification of an exceedingly complex process. Human civilizations do have recognizable life stages, but they don't have predetermined lifespans in the way that human bodies do. In this sense they're- curiously- more organic than the body's machinery. Moreover, they can make collective decisions to revitalize themselves, on the one hand, or to rush headlong down the path of decline and fall, on the other.

The mechanics of growth and entropy buildup do hold true for both bodies and civilizations, however, because both are partially closed thermodynamic systems. How this works on the bigger scale is fascinating to explore, but perhaps best saved for another post. What I want to draw your attention to today is that people have a very hard time thinking about their own mortality, and an even harder time thinking about the mortality of the civilizations they inhabit. When stark reminders of these facts appear, people respond in many different ways, and not all of them are good ways. The best and most creative responses, however, become the foundation of what comes next, because in nature, the end of one thing is always the beginning of another. We'll go back into story mode next week as we look at the end of the Roman Empire and the beginning of what came next.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

The Long View

Two thousand years ago a child was born in the Roman Empire who would change history. From a young age he displayed sharpness of thought and an ability to see beyond what most saw, and when he grew to manhood crowds would flock to hear him speak. By the time he was thirty he had changed the world irrevocably and made many enemies in the process, but his followers believed he would put an end to war. It was said that his dominion would have no end, and he was hailed during his lifetime as the Son of God. His name was Gaius Octavius, or Octavian, but he's better known in our time by the title he took later in life: Caesar Augustus.

Perhaps that wasn't the name you thought of first, but if so it's not a coincidence. A great deal of what Jesus of Nazareth said and did was a methodical inversion of the man who had ruled the world for more than forty years and finally died when Jesus was a teenager. Jesus' biographers played up this aspect of his message considerably, which is why Luke's version of the Christmas story begins with "During the reign of Caesar Augustus..." For those who wish to follow Jesus' teachings as well as for those who want to understand his legacy historically, it's important to understand the power of Rome, because Jesus' words and deeds demonstrated to his followers a dramatic counterexample to that power. And the man who symbolized Roman power more than any other in Jesus' day was Octavian.

The Rome that Octavian and Jesus knew had already undergone drastic changes since its founding in 753 BCE. After throwing off the oppressive rule of foreign kings, the leading men of the young city-state had crafted a system of governance designed to prevent any one man from gaining too much power. The wealthy elites made up a governing body called the senatus or Senate, and elected two of their number each year to the top position of consul. All men who owned land, however little, were required to serve in the army and defend the city. The system worked rather well, and was referred to as the res publica, 'the public matter' or 'the concern of all', from which we get our English word 'republic'.

The Republic defended itself vigorously from hostile neighbouring states and began to conquer some of them and incorporate them into its own economy. It was considered proper for men of the senatorial class to balance their political career with both administrative and military commands, and this fuelled the drive for Roman military victories and expansion of the Republic's holdings. By the beginning of the third century BCE Rome dominated the Italian peninsula and was waging costly naval wars against the mighty North African city of Carthage; by the middle of the second century BCE Carthage was a Roman colony and Greece and Spain were falling to Roman legions.

By the first century BCE relentless growth had changed Roman society dramatically, as slaves and plunder poured in and Roman colonists poured out. As in all growth economies, a handful of men benefited far more than the rest. These were the wealthy senators, who were investing in huge plantations planted with cash crops and tilled by armies of slaves. Unemployment became a big problem as small-scale farmers were priced out of the market, and soon enough the problem was temporarily solved by allowing the landless poor to join the ever-expanding army.

All this was tending toward a society ever more deeply rooted in military and economic violence. The people's loyalty leaned more and more toward charismatic generals, who could feed them and give them work, and away from the state, which seemed to have deserted them. In 88 BCE one such general saw his chance and marched on Rome itself, launching more than fifty years of civil war as other ambitious politicians threw their luck in with the swords of the legions instead of the votes of the senate. The Republic had fallen victim to its own success.

Octavian grew up during this dangerous period, and his great-uncle Julius Caesar was one of those charismatic generals. He was eighteen when Caesar's assassination on the Ides of March led to the revelation that the older man's will had named Octavian as his adoptive son and heir. Octavian took this in stride and proceeded to fight with force and guile against the various factions vying for power in the war-torn Republic. After more than a decade of campaigning in the field and in the halls of power he defeated the last remaining forces of Marc Antony and Cleopatra in 31 BCE and assumed supreme command. He annexed Egypt as his personal property and made the legions swear oaths of loyalty to him alone, promising to pension them out of his own pocket. Officially he was the first among senators, restorer of the ancient Republic, but effectively he was king of the known world. He was thirty-two years old.

Over the next forty-five years he would transform the Roman political system to reflect its new status as an empire. No longer would an elite group rule, but instead a military dictator descended from Venus, goddess of peace, and sanctioned by Jupiter, god of firm rule amid chaos. He took up the title 'Augustus', meaning 'the Revered One', and his image was added to the pantheon of gods and goddesses worshiped in temples across the empire. Those whose polytheistic attitudes permitted it gratefully offered sacrifices to him as their saviour from the horrors of war.

By this point you may well be wondering why a blog about nature has suddenly veered into giving history lessons. To this I would reply that nature's chief concern is with growth and change, and that's the story of Rome in a nutshell. As I've mentioned before, human societies are never static; when we take the long view we see that they grow and change like the living beings that make them up, as surely as everything else in nature's great drama. Even at the height of Rome's power it was well understood that civilization and nature were inextricable components of one living, breathing world. The poet Virgil, who prospered under Augustus' patronage, wrote of a coming golden age in which 

                        ....the uncultivated earth will pour out 
    her first little gifts, straggling ivy and cyclamen everywhere, 
    and the bean flower with the smiling acanthus. 
    The goats will come home themselves, their udders swollen 
    with milk, and the cattle will have no fear of fierce lions: 
    your cradle itself will pour out delightful flowers, 
    and the snakes will die, and deceitful poisonous herbs 
    will wither; Assyrian spice plants will spring up everywhere. 
     (Virgil's Fourth Eclogue, lines 18-25, poetryintranslation.com)

And all this because of "the child who's born...under whom the first race of iron shall end, and a golden race rise up throughout the world" (lines 8-9). Romans of Augustus' time, as well as those born in the following two centuries of almost unbroken stability within the empire, often interpreted these lines as an homage to the young emperor; those born in the Middle Ages, after the decline of Roman power, read it as a prophecy of the birth of Christ.

Thus the legacy of Jesus, who had died an early death in the most painful and humiliating of ways, outstripped that of the long-lived ruler as the centuries passed. Jesus' teachings had birthed a vibrant cultural undercurrent in the Roman world whose dynamism was in direct proportion to the tension between it and the dominant, Roman way of being. That's why the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the empire three centuries after Jesus' time makes for such a strange and interesting story- but it will take me from my purpose if I start into it now.

Augustus' reign took Rome near to the height of its power, but he was a ruler who kept the long view in mind. After conquering several new provinces he decided that continual growth would make the empire ungovernable. He set its boundaries at the Sahara Desert in the south, the Atlantic Ocean in the west, the Rhine and Danube rivers in the north, with the wild Germanic forest beyond, and the smaller Parthian empire in the east, with a few client kingdoms like Judaea and Armenia as a buffer zone in between. The moment he did so he unwittingly laid a trap into which his successors would spend the next four hundred years walking deeper and deeper, until its tightening jaws finally shattered the once-mighty Roman Empire.