Friday, November 25, 2016

The Modern Cultural Myth of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Jonathan Theodore (2016)

The Modern Cultural Myth of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire explores the idea of the decline and fall of the Roman empire as a myth and archetype more than a discreet event, which makes the book more about us than the past:

This book investigates the ‘decline and fall’ of Rome as perceived and imagined in aspects of British and American culture and thought from the late nineteenth through the early twenty-first centuries. It explores the ways in which writers, filmmakers and the media have conceptualized this process and the parallels they have drawn, deliberately or unconsciously, to their contemporary world. Jonathan Theodore argues that the decline and fall of Rome is no straightforward historical fact, but a ‘myth’ in terms coined by Claude Lévi-Strauss, meaning not a ‘falsehood’ but a complex social and ideological construct. Instead, it represents the fears of European and American thinkers as they confront the perceived instability and pitfalls of the civilization to which they belonged. The material gathered in this book illustrates the value of this idea as a spatiotemporal concept, rather than a historical event – a narrative with its own unique moral purpose.

This is clarified more in a statement from the introduction:

In the literary and cinematic examples cited throughout this book, whether nineteenth-century or twenty-first, the story takes the same essential form. Rome fell because Rome first declined; she declined, because she was tainted from within; and the forces that corrupted her, with some local variation, are those that every society or civilization must hold in check if they are to be spared the consequences which befell the Roman example. Without the utter clarity of this narrative, the story of Rome has no mythological meaning; and no comparative value for the authors who seek a tale about the present as much as the past. It would be only a specialist historical concern; with perhaps some wider, but largely symbolic significance as the “end of an era.” ...The fall of Rome, the causes of its decline, and the universal relevance of the story, have occupied a unique place in the Western mind. As a society, we have shared a common obsession with this fall. It has been valued and exploited as an archetype for every perceived decline, from the political to the theological; and hence as a symbol for the multifarious fears held about society, culture and civilization as a whole. There is a constant representation of Rome in this regard as “a world not unlike our own,” engulfing the myth of Roman decline in a continuum with the current world of the author, and ancient history with perceptions of the present day. The decline and fall is a myth in which a mutually explored aspect of the contemporary world is a recreation of the Roman Empire, in some aspect or form, allowing the same moral force of judgement to apply.

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