A trip to any bookshop these days is a bewildering experience, and so I tend to treasure worthwhile recommendations and pass them on. In a recent programme on the BBC, Sebastian Faulks mentioned The Raj Quartet by Paul Scott. This roman fleuve was very popular about a quarter of a century ago, when it was televised as The Jewel in the Crown, but it is a wonderful read even today, as I am finding, discovering it for the first time.
Scott’s theme is the decline of empire – the novels are set in India during the twilight of British rule, the early 1940s. Scott does not shy away from big themes, unlike so many of our contemporaries. Susan and Sarah Layton are two sisters who have been brought up as children of the Raj. They sense the fin de siècle atmosphere that hangs over them.
“Why are we finished, Sarah? Why don’t we matter?” [asks Susan.] Because, thought Sarah, silently replying, we don’t really believe in it any more. Not really believe. Not in the way I expect grandfather Layton believed…
This seems to me to be the real reason why empires end – a fatal lack of self-belief, an abandonment of the founding myth of empire; in this case the myth that Britain had a civilising mission in the world. By the 1940s that had become unsustainable.
The Romans also had their national myth, embedded in the poetry of Virgil, and contained in the opening book of the Aeneid, in the famous words of Jove: imperium sine fine dedi. Dryden, incidentally still the best translation going of the Aeneid, renders the words thus:
To them no bounds of empire I assign
Nor term of years to their immortal line.
The Romans actually believed that their rule was sanctioned by the divine will; even St Augustine believed this, as I pointed out in a book I once wrote. Even though he lived during the final years of the Western Empire, there is no evidence whatever that Augustine believed Rome was finished.
Talking of the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, there are two excellent books on the subject. The first is by Peter Heather, entitled The Fall of the Roman Empire (2005), which takes the view that the collapse of the West was primarily military, and that as late as the mid-fifth century the West stood a chance of survival, had it not been for sheer bad luck, namely the two expeditions aimed at retaking North Africa from the Vandals ending in catastrophe.
The second is The Fall of the West by Adrian Goldsworthy (2009) which takes the view that the collapse of the Western Empire was essentially due to moral failure. By the third century, Goldsworthy argues, the senatorial class had been sidelined, and the empire fell into the hands of military adventurers whose primary aim was survival and lust for power, not service of the state.
Thus, it seems to me, Rome collapsed because it had abandoned the virtue of pietas, or self-sacrifice, the virtue that Virgil exalts as the particular mark of the Roman ruling class. I must say, I find this interpretation very attractive. It chimes in with the vision of Paul Scott. Perhaps every empire falls for this simple reason – a lack of vision, a lack of belief.
If that is the case, we can perhaps better understand our own national crisis. Contemporary Britain is in decline (can that be denied?) because few of our leaders seem to believe anything much any more. Indeed, if they believe anything at all, what they seem to believe strikes one as being opposed to the traditional beliefs of the British people. Furthermore, there is no consensus about what constitutes the national identity; and the constant harassment of religion by intellectuals and politicians undermines one of the, if not the, essential foundations of the state.
On Friday the Prince marries his bride; as I have written in the print edition of The Catholic Herald, may this be a moment of national – and moral – renewal.