Cultural Fragility

Following on from yesterday’s Living In A Time Of Madness, I’ve been thinking how culturally fragile human civilisations are. I don’t mean this so much in the modern sense of sustainability (e.g. Peak Oil resource depletion), but rather how easily an entire cultural heritage can be lost, simply when a generation or two cease to learn to read and write and do some math, and absolutely everything that has been learned about anything,  over many centuries, simply gets forgotten.

It seems to have been what happened to the very considerable civilisation of ancient Egypt, which lasted for several thousand years. Everything was swept away, leaving only huge stone buildings covered in indecipherable hieroglyphs that nobody – absolutely nobody – could read any more. If we can now read them, it’s not because Egyptian language and culture have been passed down to us over the intervening centuries, but because cryptographers managed to break the code a century or two ago.

The same thing very nearly happened to ancient Rome. When the Roman empire collapsed circa 500 AD, Rome gradually began to fall into ruin. Most likely, when the empire disintegrated, Romans lost their income from their former colonies in much the same way that wealthy Britons did after the demise of the British Empire, and their stately homes fell into ruin, with their now penniless occupants living in one room or two of a rotting palace. And when the empire disintegrated, Romans probably couldn’t afford any more slaves. And so they had to do the work themselves that their slaves had formerly done. They had to grow their own food, and make their own clothes, and build their own houses.

It must have been strange living in Rome in the centuries after the fall of empire, with everyone leading busy lives in a city filled with magnificent buildings and statues which nobody could afford to keep in good repair any longer. There would have been no more games in the Coliseum, no more chariot races in the Circus Maximus, and no more plays to watch in the Theatre of Pompey. And there were probably not many books left in the libraries either, because books make good fuel for fires. Illustrious families, fallen into poverty, probably burned the entire libraries that their ancestors had accrued, just to keep themselves warm. And anyway reading is an idle pastime, and few people would have had time to do any. Fewer still would have had time to write.

So I imagine that post-imperial Rome was filled with busy people, all scurrying around among the gradually collapsing ruins of the former imperial capital. And since Italy is a seismically active country, regular earthquakes probably assisted in the process of destruction. And the falling buildings were probably gradually robbed of their stones, to help repair the few that remained standing.

And with everyone working much harder than they had before, the very young and the very old would have not been able to keep up, and died young. So the population probably dwindled, or moved away out into the fertile countryside of Italy.

It must have been a time of despair, watching everything falling into rack and ruin, the aqueducts drying up, the buildings falling down, the unused roads becoming covered with weeds and grasses. Post-imperial Rome was probably a very green city, with the ruins covered in ivy, trees growing inside them and out through their broken roofs. People must have wondered how much worse it was all going to get.

And also they must have spent much of their time praying that it wouldn’t get worse.

De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine:
Domine, exaudi vocem meam.

“Out of the depths I have cried to thee, O Lord.
Lord, hear my voice.”

The Latin language survived the fall of Rome. But much else was lost. The knowledge of how to make the concrete used in the construction of the Coliseum was lost (and has never been fully recovered, even today). The obiquitous garum, a fish sauce, that Romans used in their food, also vanished, and to this day nobody really knows how it was made. Garum was probably an import from somewhere else in the Mediterranean, and when the empire collapsed, such imports probably became almost unobtainable.

And if, a century or two later, monasteries started appearing, filled with poor monks and nuns, it was probably because many people were desperately poor anyway, and they were all desperately praying already. And somehow or other it seems to have been in monastic libraries that books were preserved which weren’t being preserved elsewhere.

And in many ways the primary task of monastic missionaries in Europe was probably not so much to spread Christianity, but to simply teach people to read and write in Latin again. For early English kings like Alfred were completely illiterate. And after the Roman empire had receded from Britain in about 400 AD, its language and literature returned in a new wave a few centuries later, carried by monks who were the most well-educated people of the time.

One surprise to me about Spain, when I first started studying Spanish, was how close it was to the Latin I’d been taught as a boy. The Greek people of today still speak a Greek language that is not very different from ancient Greek. But somehow the Italian now spoken in Rome seems a long step removed from Latin. So why do the Spanish still speak Latin? And why don’t the English still speak Latin?

One answer is that Spain was one of the earliest colonies of Rome, falling under its control in about 200 BC after the Carthaginian wars. And it remained under Roman control for the next 700 years. By contrast Rome only occupied Britain for about 300 years. And during that time not every Briton learned to speak Latin, and so English is a language made up of several different languages. But in Spain, after 700 years of Roman occupation, the Latin language reigned supreme. And because Spain is a western peninsula guarded from the European continent by the Pyrenees mountains, it was probably harder to penetrate by the Goths and Vandals that swept across Europe from the east.

The modern European Union is a sort of new Roman empire. For ever since the Roman empire collapsed, people have been trying to reconstruct it.

Anyway, it’s rather sobering to realise just how culturally fragile human societies really are. We have to learn to do everything, including how to walk and how to speak. And when we’ve learned that, we also have to learn to read and write. And it only takes a pretty short break for everything to be forgotten. Because although we may have learned many things, when we die we take that learning with us. And a new generation has to learn absolutely everything all over again.

We may be living in a time of madness, but there have been far worse times to live. For we still have schools in which children are being taught to read and write, if not to smoke and drink.


About Frank Davis

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11 Responses to Cultural Fragility

  1. garyk30 says:

    Happy Birthday Ayn Rand

  2. garyk30 says:

    The Muslims/Moors ruled large parts of the Iberian peninsula for hundreds of years after the Romans left.
    One might think that the Iberians would speak Arabic instead of the Latin based Spanish.

    As for folks being literate; these days, over 20% of the adult population in the USA is functionally illeterate and 50% have only basic reading/comprehension skills or less.

  3. Rose says:


    Frank, after seeing the faces of the Democrats the other day, I’ve decided to take an interest, it’s far more interesting than watching all the major news channels asking Theresa May virtually the same questions about turmoil in the Conservative Party, rather than more relevant ones about her current trip to China.
    Fancy going all the way to China to ask her the same questions they asked her last week and the week before and the week before that. Mind you, as they constantly interrupt her it’s no wonder they don’t remember her answers and have to ask again.

    The memo

    Secret memo on FBI states British spy was desperate to stop Donald Trump getting elected
    2 February 2018
    “Mr Trump, who approved the release of the memo without redactions,”

    Main headline on the 6 o’clock news on Sky, cursory mention half way through on the BBC, no mention at all on ITV and headline news with thorough coverage on Channel 4 news at 7

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