Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Well Said: The End of Rome and the Catholic Church

I love H.V. Morton's talent for weaving his current-day travel commentary with the history of each place he visits. In this case, I was riveted by his tale of how Rome declined, the barbarians came in several waves, and the measures taken to try to shore things up. You'll know why I like this bit especially after you read it. It's a little lengthy but worth it.
Every expedient was tried by Diocletian to stave off the crash. He froze wages and prices in 301, and created a bureaucracy animated by the spirit of a century of extortion. The tax collector became the terror of the countryside. Men fled their homes rather than meet him and revenged themselves on the state by becoming brigands. Wealthy landowners, developing a technique of tax evasion, managed to exist on their estates, surrounded by serfs and armed men--a forecast of the Middle Ages--defying and bribing the Treasury.

Perhaps the worst aspect of state control was the decision to freeze men as well as prices and wages. It became illegal for a man to change his employment, and a son was obliged to follow his father's calling. All trades, occupations and professions became hereditary. A man who fled from a baker's shop, wishing to become a silversmith, would be hunted down and brought back like an escaped criminal. ...

In this grim caricature of Plato's Republic, the only place where a man ceased to be a tax-producing unit, and became a human being with an immortal soul, was the Church. The bishops were truly the shepherds of their flocks and had the courage to stand up to authority. St. Basil once offended a Praetorian Prefect by his plain words and was told that no one had ever dared to speak in such terms to him. "No doubt," replied St. Basil, "you have never met a bishop." ...
H.V. Morton, A Traveller in Rome, 1957


  1. Doesn't sound much like our bishops today

    1. I think we have more bishops today like this than we did ten years ago ... which seems like a good trend to me.

  2. Julie,

    The matter of the good ol' boys yucking it up at the last two Al Smith dinners suggests not.

    I am so glad you have quoted from H. V. Morton! Apparently he was something of a scoundrel, but, gosh, what a great travel writer!