Fall of the Roman Empire


From the British television adaptation of Robert Graves‘s series of historical novels, I, Claudius.  In this scene featuring one infamous period of decadence among many in the Roman imperial family, Caligula addresses the Senate upon his return from his “battle against Neptune.”

On this date in 476 Romulus Augustus, last emperor of the Western Roman Empire, was deposed by Odoacer, who proclaimed himself King of Italy. The mythical date for the founding of Rome is similarly exact: April 21, 753 BC by, of course, Romulus, which is a pretty sweet bit of symmetry.  Furthermore, the Roman Republic was established  in 509 BC and the Western Roman Empire effectively ended in 476 AD, which is almost exactly the thousand years that Rome was mythically prophesied to be a great power.

So with that remarkable cycle of history in mind, here’s Frye in conversation with David Cayley on the difference between historical cycles and historical spirals — between mere repetition and progressive cultural enlightenment:

Cayley: Do you see instances in history of spiralling rather than cycling?

Frye: We find the idea of the turning cycle in the movement that went from the decline and fall of the Roman Empire to the rise of medieval civilization.  People always thought in terms of a renewed Roman Empire, all the way down to the eighteenth century, and they certainly regarded that as a spiral.  Whether we would think so or not is another question.

Cayley: I would think there’s some argument for it.  So the question then becomes whether we take our tradition with us on another turn, or whether, as appears to be the case and was noted in your remarks on senility earlier, we forget it.

Frye: I think it’s a disaster to forget it, because that means that anything new will simply be the primitive coming around again, making the same mistakes all over.  And we can’t afford to make those mistakes with the technology we’ve got now.  (CW 24, 1035)

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One thought on “Fall of the Roman Empire

  1. Tamara M

    The Hegel quote from the other day continues to ring true: “We learn from history that we never learn anything from history”

    The military ambitions of the US government might possibly be another turn of the historical cycle, and China could be the same again when it comes to Taiwan.


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