Sunday, May 13, 2012

Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion by Alain de Bottton

Alain de Botton, Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion, (Hamish Hamilton/Pantheon, 2012) 320 pages
Verdict?: 4/5 Insightful, eloquent thought-provoking and provocative

If you want to annoy some atheists, go to an atheist online forum and say something nice about religion.  It won't take much.  You don't even have to be very complimentary - just say or even imply that religion is not actually wholly and completely bad, stupid and wrong and that it may even occasionally get some things right or even be useful in some way.  Actually, you don't even have to do that much.  You only need to find where atheists are trying to make historical claims to criticise a religion and note that some of them have got  a few key facts wrong.  Doing any of these things is the online discussion equivalent of sauntering up to a busy hornets nest with a hefty stick and engaging in some vigorous whacking.  The result is about as noisy, angry, aggressive and, I'm sorry to say, usually as brainless.

Actually, I'm being a little unfair to many (not all, by any means) of my fellow atheists.  Sometimes their reactions to religion are far less vociferous.  Mellow even. For example, I recall one discussion where a practitioner of some kind of "Celtic" variety of the modern neo-pagan religion called "Wicca" wandered onto one atheist forum to talk about her religion.  Instead of being met with demands to justify her beliefs, ridicule of her rituals or references to her belief in "woo", she was greeted with a few questions about her faith, how she came to it and so on, and then a general attitude of "well, each to their own".  This was a marked contrast to the way a similar post by a Christian or Muslim was usually received.  And the attitude to her faith was also very different to that toward other modern, constructed religions - like Scientology - even though "Wicca" is only a decade or so older than Hubbard's "church".

And atheists can also recognise the value of at least some religious ideas and practices.  Many Buddhist ideas are well-received by rationalists and meditation, stripped of any of its "woo" or supernatural associations, is recognised as a beneficial practice that non-religious types can and do utilise.  So religion is seen as being able to get some things right occasionally.

But the hornets start to get agitated when the religion in question is Christianity or Islam or (to a lesser extent) Judaism.  Being something of a contrarian and a bit of a stickler for actually being rational rather than just shouting about it, I have on occasion been known to note that Christianity and Christians actually haven't always been absolutely wrong about everything.  And the hornets have been much displeased.

So the British populariser of philosophy, Alain de Botton, seems to have realised that he would need to don a hornet-proof suit when he released his latest best-selling book Religion for Atheists - even the title is a tongue-in-cheek provocation. He seems to have gone into the process of writing it well aware that his objective was going to annoy people, stating early in the book "The strategy outlined in this book will, of course, annoy partisans on both sides of the debate." (p. 17)  He was substantially correct, though he seems to have annoyed one side more than the other.

A fairly typical response by a Christian is that of Rev. Richard Coles, an Anglican vicar (and, oddly, former member of the 1980s pop duo the Communards) who now presents on BBC Radio 4 and writes slightly anodyne newspaper op eds.  In a review for the Guardian, Coles has generally nice things to say about de Botton's book, describing it as a welcome change from New Atheist screeds that "leave their readers with the impression that affiliation to a church is equivalent to, say, participating actively in the Spanish Inquisition".  But he ends with a brief assurance for the faithful that, despite his kind words, real religion is superior to what de Botton proposes as an alternative.  "[B]ut Christianity does not (just) offer consolation, it offers salvation. That is why people built cathedrals, and in other dispensations enormous mosques and complexes of temples: they sought, and seek, salvation, and for this God‑givenness seems to me essential."  Other Christian reviewers were less warm, but few went further than to smugly claim that by embracing any of religion's trappings, de Botton was at least partially admitting that religion is actually "right" (which doesn't follow at all).

The hornets of the New Atheist world, however, were in full buzz when the book emerged.  What got them buzzing particularly vociferously was the idea, trumpeted in the media, of de Botton building a "Temple of Atheism" in central London.  Reporting on other media outlets' reporting, the Huffington Post declared:

Author Alain de Botton announced plans to build an Atheist temple in the U.K., reports DeZeen magazine. A collaboration with Tom Greenall Architects, the structure will be built in the City of London. Dedicated to the idea of perspective, the black tower will scale 46 meters (150 ft), with each centimeter honoring earth's age of 4.6 billion years, notes Wired.
 A "Temple of Atheism"?!  This was enough to give the New Atheist hornets near-terminal conniptions.   Biologist, blogger and New Atheist, Jerry Coyne, promptly declared de Botton "an embarrassment to atheists".  Asked by the Guardian to comment, Richard Dawkins spluttered "Atheists don’t need temples ... I think there are better things to spend this kind of money on."  And across the New Atheist online commentariat, the scorn was whipped to a fever pitch.  A thread on the "Rational Skepticism" forum gives us a flavour of the commentary:

"This guy is clearly a monumental prick .... a (literally) monumentally stupid idea .... what an arse .... this guy is an anti-atheist .... this guy's several sandwiches short of a picnic .... he could be a theist infitrator (sic) ... sent by the Pope .... this dickhead .... this is a fifth column job to make atheists look stupid etc"

You get the idea.  Of course, what almost none of these "rational skeptics" bothered to do was actually check the damn story.  They should have noticed, after all, that despite claiming de Botton had "announced" this plan, none of the news reports bothered to link to or cite precisely where and when de Botton had made this supposed "announcement".  As it turns out, this is because he didn't - the whole story was a media beat-up invented from a press release about the publication of de Botton's book.  In the book he does say that buildings constructed and designed purely as places for contemplation would be a great idea and one worth stealing from religions, but as he explained in the wake of the media fire-storm, he never "announced" a plan to build one at all. And the whole "atheist temple" concept was invented by some journalist.

Carrying off the Gold of the Egyptians

So what exactly does this "arse', "dickhead", "prick", "anti-atheist" and possible Pontifical infiltrator have to say in the book that few to none of the so-called "skeptics" have bothered to read?  Put simply, de Botton makes a highly humanist argument.  Religions, he argues, are fundamentally human institutions.  If we accept that no "God" or gods exist (a proviso he makes perfectly clear on the book's very first page), it remains valuable to look at religions as purely human constructs and see if there is anything about them that has worth when the supernatural underpinnings are removed.  This is very much in the spirit of my favourite humanist motto "Homo sum.  Humani nil a me alienum puto" (I am human, nothing that is human is alien to me.) - a sentiment few of the New Atheists seem ready to embrace, since they seem determined to regard everything religious, even if only by association, as utterly and irrevocably alien to them.  De Botton claims that by jettisoning many of the uses, practices and symbols associated with religion wholesale we have "allowed religion to claim as its exclusive dominion areas of experience which should rightly belong to all mankind - and which we should feel unembarrassed about reappropriating for the secular realm." (p. 15)

As he notes, religions do this all the time, to each other.  Early Christianity merrily stole from, re-badged or absorbed all kinds of earlier, pre-Christian rituals, festivals and ideas; partly as a way of easing the conversion of a new territory but partly because these things were so closely woven into the fabric of the societies in question because, at a fundamentally psychological, sociological and human level, they worked.

De Botton argues that religions are not sterile exercises in learning and reinforcing abstract ideas of the supernatural or repetitions of and commentaries on theology.  They are made up of communities of human beings and, fundamentally and even primarily, function on that level.  My elderly mother, a devout Catholic all her life, is most certainly a believer and accepts the doctrines and theology of her faith wholeheartedly and to the best of her understanding - she would never claim to be a Biblical scholar or theologian.  But if you talk to her about her life in the Church what you hear about is people and community: who has had a baby, who has died, who is ill, who got married and how the community in her parish has responded to all this (via celebrations, hospital visits, ceremonies, gifts, support etc).  Religions may be focused on God or gods or supernatural ideas, but primarily they are institutions about people and for people in a very fundamental way.  Believe me - you can listen to my Mum talk about her church life for hours and never hear God or Jesus get so much as a mention.

So de Botton argues that given that many religions have been around for a very long time, clearly they must be getting at least some of this "people" stuff right.  Therefore it's worth looking at how religions fulfil human needs and see if these are worth adopting into a non-religious life.

His first section looks at "Community", which as the example of my mother shows, religions can sustain very effectively.  The media is constantly reminding us of how lonely much of modern existence can be.  According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, single-person households are currently the fast growing demographic in Australia; a statistic mirrored in most of the developed world.  Loneliness seems to be something of an epidemic in western societies and our lives seem structured in such a way that a sense of community is hard achieve.  I live in a major city and in a large building of mainly one bedroom apartments.  I usually smile and nod at my neighbours if I see them in the lift or the building's gym, but I only know one of them by name (and that's because he's a fairly famous TV presenter).  I travel to work each day by train and regularly see the same commuters on my line, but I have never considered speaking to any of them, apart from the attractive female ones.  And I'm quite sure that if I turned to one of them between Central Station and Green Square, sincerely said "Peace be with you" and shook their hand or kissed them they would call for Transit Security.

Yet every Sunday, across the world, millions of people turn to perfect strangers and do just that.  It's called "the Sign of Peace" and it marks a key point in the Catholic Mass.  De Botton holds up the Catholic Mass as an example of how religion has developed structures and processes that establish and reinforce community in ways that are often missing in the secular world:

A Catholic Mass is not, to be sure, the ideal habitat for an atheist.  Much of the dialogue is either offensive to reason or simply incomprehensible.  It goes on for a long time and rarely overrides a temptation to fall asleep.  Nevertheless, the ceremony is replete with elements which subtly strengthen congregants' bonds of affection, and which atheists would do well to study and on occasion learn to appropriate for use in the secular realm. (p. 30)

He notes the ways the Mass does this.  Everyone leaves their normal lives and environments and makes an effort to come together in a communal place set aside solely for this purpose.  Churches are designed to make this easy to do, but they are also generally egalitarian in their design - social status, wealth and accomplishments in the world outside generally mean nothing once you are through the doors.  The ritual also emphasises community and oneness.  As de Botton notes "if there are so many references in the Mass to poverty, sadness, failure and loss, it is because the Church views the ill, the frail of mind, the desperate and the elderly as representing aspects of humanity and (even more meaningfully) of ourselves which we are tempted to deny, but which bring us .... closer to our need for one another." (p. 35)  By breaking down our egoism and acknowledging shared fears and afflictions, the Mass by its very structure brings us together in a way that a sports team or hobby group simply can't.

The origins of the Mass lie in early Christian "agape feasts" - communal meals where believers came together to worship and to eat.  There is something hard to beat about the sense of community that comes from sharing a meal, so de Botton paints a picture of a hypothetical "agape restaurant", where anyone can share a meal with strangers, where status and rank are irrelevant, where family and friendship groups are spaced apart so everyone meets new people and where it's expected that we approach and address strangers and that they can do the same.  If that doesn't sound very feasible without the common bond of a religious belief, de Botton's enterprise - the School of Life - is already holding communal meals at restaurants in London where strangers are invited to attend and meet new friends.  Some of these have themes, with dinner speakers followed by conversations at the communal tables.  Others have a "conversation menu" on each table from which the diners can choose.  Not everyone's cup of tea perhaps but by all reports, these have been a great success .  So maybe de Botton is onto something.

Education, Wisdom and learning how to live

The rest of de Botton's book examines other parts of human life and looks at how religious structures, rituals and ideas have supported them and at what we can learn from the for our own lives, religious or otherwise.  I particularly liked his insights into exactly how badly our educational institutions prepare us for life or show us how to live.  Modern educational institutions often trumpet noble sentiments about the purpose and value of education, though they usually do so in the introduction to a university prospectus or a Vice-Chancellor's address to freshmen at the beginning of a new year.  After that, lofty ideas of the university as a home "for the best that has been said and thought in the world" are rapidly forgotten:

Graduation speeches stereotypically identify liberal education with the acquisition of wisdom and self-knowledge, but these goals have little bearing on the day-to-day methods of departmental instruction and examination.  To judge by what they do rather than what they airily declaim, universities are in the business of turning out a majority of tightly focused professionals (lawyers, physicians, engineers) and a minority of culturally well-informed but ethically confused arts graduates aptly panicked about how they might remuneratively occupy the rest of their lives. (p.105)

As de Botton has pointed out in some of his interviews about this book, a student who turned up at university and asked to be shown how to live a good life would be regarded as a bit of a nut, yet this is precisely what a liberal education, as envisaged by J.S. Mill and Matthew Arnold, was supposed to give students.  The getting of wisdom and learning how to live a good life were the central focuses of all education in the ancient world and is the underpinning of the entire western educational tradition.  Plato's academy and Epicurus' garden school didn't produce any lawyers, accountants or marketers, but they didn't do too bad a job of showing people how to live fulfilling lives and of turning out some of the best thinkers in human history.

De Botton contrasts modern secular education with the religious educational ethos, which "believes us to be at heart desperate, fragile, vulnerable, sinful creatures, a good deal less wise than we are knowledgeable" (p. 112)  Secular education orders, delineates and passes on discrete blocks of fact - what modernism is, the basis for the law of torts, how to structure a below-the-line direct marketing campaign etc.  Despite its lofty claims, it concentrates virtually not at all on passing on wisdom, let alone guidance on how to live as the complex, emotional, interconnected, confused and often (when at university at least) inexperienced and immature humans we are.  Religious education, by contrast, helps that part of us "which is not precisely intelligence or emotion, not character or personality, but another even more abstract entity loosely connected with all of those and yet differentiated from them by an additional ethical and transcendent dimension" (p. 113)  De Botton would win no friends in the New Atheist hornet's nest by doing so, but he suggests we could refer to this idea by the Christian word - the soul.

Yet he sees merit in the religious idea that we are in our essence not just ignorant, but childlike and confused.  We need lessons, parables and sermons that will not just give us mere information but more importantly give us guidance, wisdom, insight and comfort.  There doesn't have to be anything supernatural about this, but it strikes him as odd that "it would be a shocking affront to university etiquette to ask what Tess of the d'Ubervilles might usefully teach us about love, or to suggest that the novels of Henry James might be read with an eye to discover parables about staying honest in a slippery mercantile world." (p. 117)  But surely education should serve us by teaching us these things rather than merely passing on a vast quantity of facts, information and concepts.  Secular education could learn from religious education's desire to educate our immature "souls" rather than just have us rote-learn a whole lot of ... well, "stuff".

Why modern art can be (literally) crap

Last month I visited my former home state of Tasmania and spent a bit over a week doing everything I could to forget about work and my career and just relax.  Tasmania's combination of scenery, wilderness, fine food and wine (and local single malt whisky!) makes this pretty easy to do, though the part of my trip that made me totally step out of my daily grind was the day I spent at MONA.  This amazing "Museum of Old and New Art" was built by local billionaire eccentric David Walsh to house his personal art collection, indulge his love of radical architecture and give Tasmania a "subversive adult Disneyland".  The result - a vast, labyrinthine, Bond villain-style underground lair that looks like it was designed by M.C. Escher and decorated by David Lynch - is so amazing it has become the state's most popular tourist attraction and features on many "must see" lists for visitors from all over the world.

What I liked about MONA was how far it is from most art museums.  There are no guides, no tours and no little plaques to tell you about the art.  Visitors are given an iPhone-style touch screen console and then set loose to wander the darkened underground maze wherever they want.  Most get lost pretty quickly, but that's part of the idea.  The consoles detect what art works are closest to you and then you can get as much or as little information on the piece as you want via a series of menus (including one entitled "Art Wank" with a graffiti penis as an icon).  The resulting experience is so strange, immersive and so abstracted from the world outside that on emerging back into the sunshine I noticed most of my fellow visitors came out in silence and with a look on their faces best described as "contemplative".

Perhaps de Botton would approve of MONA, at least in some respects, but he clearly does not approve of how modern museums and galleries present art.  "While exposing us to objects of genuine importance, they nevertheless seem incapable of adequately linking these to the needs of our souls". (p. 209)  The rather clinical way that galleries and museums present great art of the past, which are often religious objects taken from their original contexts of ritual, parable, symbolism and significance and stuck in a white-walled room with a plaque carrying dates and bald information about styles and schools, robs them of most of their meaning.  He describes the resulting reactions of most gallery visitors as resembling that of "the disappointed participants in a failed seance". (p. 215)

It gets worse when the art is from our own period and created largely to be presented in clinical white-walled rooms.  Here we are often even more at a loss as to what the hell the art is even meant to mean, let alone what it can tell us about ourselves: "the only certainty is neither the artist nor the museum is going to help us: wall texts are kept to a minimum; catalogues are enigmatically written". (p. 215)  In his TED lecture which encapsulates the thesis of the book (which I highly recommend - it's well worth watching in full) de Botton admits that his main reaction to most modern art galleries is bafflement, a comment which gets a knowing laugh of sheepish agreement from the audience.  The experience at MONA was sometimes baffling, but usually only when it was meant to be.  On the whole, this museum did go out of its way to help me understand the art in question via the touch-screen console, which usually gave me access to audio interviews with the artist.  Though when I stood in front of one piece - the odd and pungent-smelling "Cloaca" by Wim Delvoye, a series of glass vats and tubes that simulates human digestion and produces a daily quantity of shit - I did have to ponder whether at least some modern art is literally crap.

De Botton thinks we could learn from religious art and make it and its museums and galleries remind us of what matters:

It exists to guide us to what we should worship and revile if we wish to be sane, good people in possession of well-ordered souls.  It is a mechanism whereby our memories are forcibly jogged about what we have to love and to be grateful for, as well as what we should draw away from and be afraid of. (p. 215)

In 1512 Matthias Grünewald was commissioned to paint an altarpiece for the monastery of Isenheim.  The resulting Crucifixion is one of the greatest pieces of art ever produced by the Northern Renaissance and an eloquent if horrific study of human cruelty, suffering, sorrow and pain.  There is absolutely no doubt what this painting is about and even someone with no knowledge of the Christian story of Jesus could recognise the human emotions and ideas embodied in it.  What is notable is why it was produced.  Isenheim was a monastery devoted to tending to the sick, especially those afflicted by ergotism - a painful and terrifying disease that causes seizures, wild hallucinations, gangrene and usually madness and death.  It was customary for patients admitted to the monastery's infirmary to first be taken to the chapel to meditate on a painting that said "pain is human" loud and clear.  No bafflement there.

Religious art has generally had this didactic element, made accessible via a shared language of symbols and indicators.  Someone not versed in that didactic language would understand the human emotion of this painting, but would probably not recognise John the Baptist, Mary, Magdalene and John the Apostle as the other figures around the cross.  Many would object to that level of didacticism in secular art but something like de Botton's idea of a gallery arranged according to emotions and ideas, with a "Gallery of Suffering" or a "Gallery of Self-Knowledge" may lead to people emerging from an art museum looking enlightened or at least contemplative rather than baffled and disappointed.  The looks on the faces of my fellow visitors to MONA indicated to me that David Walsh at least is getting it partially right.

Getting Away from it All

As de Botton's previous book The Architecture of Happines argued, the spaces we live in have an effect on how we feel. So it's no surprise he notes the way religious architecture has always functioned to help people to remove themselves from the mundane, look at themselves differently, inspire them to see themselves from a wider, vaster, eternal, more cosmic perspective. In his section on how some buildings can, just by being in them, help us to see our place in things and to literally put things into perspective, he imagined a "Temple to Perspective" - a narrow light well shaft where the visitor enters to look up toward a skylight or opening high above, with each centimetre of its height representing a million years in the age of the universe (p. 262).  A good place to sit and think, I'd say.  It was this rather elegant idea that got caricatured into the "De Botton plans to build a Temple of Atheism" story that bothered the New Atheist hornets so much.

But there's more to getting away from it all than having well-designed spaces for peaceful contemplation.  Religions have been providing structured processes for meditation, self-examination, reassessment, penitence and simple stillness for centuries.  Even my atheist colleagues have to acknowledge the way that Buddhism can and does give us insights into these things.  But religious retreats of all kinds have long given us an opportunity to step away from our lives, re-examine things, relax, think and - probably best of all - shut the hell up for a while.  Holidays at luxury golf resorts or visits to a day spa don't quite do the same thing.  If I reassess my life's priorities while relaxing by a fire in a mountain resort or getting a really good massage, it's by chance, not because my holiday had a structured point where I was invited to do so.

Taking time once a year to go on a personal, non-religious retreat with similar structures and objectives is certainly something non-believers can do.  So is making a time each day for meditation or contemplation and quiet, without any associated references to deities or the supernatural.  Some of de Botton's other suggestions are less practical and several seem to be mainly tongue in cheek, but all of them give food for thought.

And I have to say that this is the first book on atheism I have read in years that has actually done that - made me think.  Dawkins' The God Delusion would perhaps have made me think when I was 16, but is so sophomoric I felt its main purpose is to reinforce some pretty simple ideas, even if they are ones I generally agree with.  Hitchens' God Is Not Great is far more eloquent and a much smarter book, but its main purpose is to highlight certain religious stupidities and to stoke rage against various religious obscenities.  As such, it's another exercise in taking a 12-gauge shotgun to a barrel full of large salmon and calling yourself a fisherman.  But Alain de Botton's book not only made me think, it actually made me reassess several things in my life.  I have now made an effort to seek out more community with those around me.  I'm getting back into the habit of meditating daily (well, mostly).  And I'm seriously considering taking myself off to the Blue Mountains next month for three days of retreat, self-analysis and contemplation.

Meanwhile, New Atheist bloviator and blowhard, PZ Myers, has fired off a string of typically moronic insults at de Botton, while at the same time showing that he hasn't actually bothered to read the book or understand what de Botton is even saying.  He describes de Botton as " the atheist who has been straining to crawl up religion’s asshole and take its place" and brays:

Our culture is currently divided between three groups: Atheists, who think the truth matters, and want our problems addressed with real-world solutions; theists, who want a god or supernatural powers to solve our problems with magic; and fence-sitting parasites like de Botton who see a personal opportunity to pander to the believers for their own gain, who will ride the conflict while pretending to be aloof from it, and win popularity with the masses by trying to tell everyone they’re all right.

  His eloquent response to a mild observation de Botton made about New Atheists like Myers was "fuck you very much".  It's certainly interesting to turn from de Botton's genuinely thought-provoking and stimulating analysis written in elegant and measured prose to Myers' gems with titles like "the League of Nitwits has farted in my general direction".  De Botton's book has done what all good books should do, added to my understanding and shown me the world in a new light.  In fact, it's also made me change the way I live.  No-one will ever say that of PZ Myers.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

A Geologist tries History (or "Agora" and Hypatia Yet Again)

Two years after its release, Amenábar's movie Agora is continuing to perpetuate some modern myths about the history of science.  The latest person to swallow its fable-version of history is a geologist called Donald Prothero, who is one of a number of bloggers at Skepticblog and who has written a glowing review of the film entitled "Hypatia, Agora and Religion vs Science".  Prothero is Professor of Geology at Occidental College in Los Angeles and, judging from his posts, someone who has been keeping up the fight against the irrational idiots of the "Creation Science" movement and its latest stalking horse, the "Intelligent Design" political lobby.  For that he deserves both our thanks and our pity.  Unfortunately, probably as a consequence, he has bought the "Conflict Thesis" idea wholesale and so is happy to find it being reinforced by the version of history found in Agora.  Of course, it's probably not entirely fair to expect a geologist to have much of a grasp of Late Roman history or to be up on the early history of science.  But he seems to be taken as an authority on these matters by the readers of Skepticblog, judging from the readers' comments.  Which is a worry, because, despite referring to "scholarly sources" that he consulted when writing his review, he makes a complete hash of the history behind this story.

He doesn't exactly get off to a flying start by opening with a quote from Hypatia.  Or I should say a "quote" allegedly from Hypatia which is actually a modern fake:

Fables should be taught as fables, myths as myths, and miracles as poetic fancies. To teach superstitions as truths is a most terrible thing. The child mind accepts and believes them, and only through great pain and perhaps tragedy can he be in after years relieved of them. In fact, men will fight for a superstition quite as quickly as for a living truth — often more so, since a superstition is so intangible you cannot get at it to refute it, but truth is a point of view, and so is changeable.

Now, these are fine sentiments, especially the "fables should be taught as fables" part, which is advice Amenábar could perhaps have taken before he made this film.  But the "quote" is a fabrication.  It was invented by the American writer, soap-salesman and eccentric Elbert Hubbard in a 1908 book entitled  Little Journeys to the Homes of the Great Teachers.  Hubbard chose Hypatia as one of his "great teachers" but was stymied by the awkward fact that we have virtually nothing of Hypatia's writings or teachings, making it a bit hard to present her as "great".  He solved this problem by simply making some up, including the wise words above.

Prothero goes on to praise Agora as "a gem of a movie" and to describe its production values, sets and so on.  No problems there, but then he plunges headfirst into some bold statements about history:

The central story revolves around Hypatia of Alexandria (born ca. 350 to 370 A.D, died 415 A.D.), who lived in Hellenistic Alexandria during the final death throes of the Roman Empire. 

"Final death throes"? Alexandria was part of the Eastern Roman Empire, which did not fall until a whopping 1038 years after Hypatia's death.  Those are some pretty long "death throes".  Prothero goes on:

Most of the historical events portrayed in the film is as accurate as historians can know them, from the religious tension to the destruction of the Alexandrian library (and its priceless collection of the works of the ancients) by a black-clad Christian mob who viewed philosophy and learning as pagan and idolatrous, to the eventual subjugation of the Roman Empire by Christian leaders.

Of course, very few of the events depicted in the film are accurate at all, as my two previous articles on this movie's liberties with history have shown (see "Agora" and Hypatia - Hollywood Strikes Again and  Hypatia and "Agora" Redux).  There is no evidence of any library in the Serapeum and the idea that "Christian leaders" regarded philosophy and learning as "pagan and idolatrous" is simply nonsense.  Prothero then assures us that "Hypatia is practically the only prominent female name among scholars in the ancient world", which is also wrong.  Just a generation after Hypatia, for example, we have another famed female philosopher in Alexandria, Aedisia.  Not only was she a famous scholar and teacher and a woman, but she was also a pagan.  Yet somehow she managed to remain entirely unmolested by black-clad Christian mobs, which should give a bit of a hint that the portrayal of history in this film that Prothero finds so rock solid is actually not telling us the truth.

Prothero tells us Hypatia "may or may not have invented the astrolabe and the hydrometer".  His caution is wise, since these claims have no basis at all.  The idea that she "invented" the hydrometer is based on a letter to her from Synesius asking her to get one made for him.  Why this letter has led to the idea that she invented the instrument is a puzzle, since in it Synesius has to explain to her what a hydrometer is and how it works.  That would be odd if she was the instrument's inventor.  Clearly he is asking her to get one made for him because there were instrument makers capable of the job in Alexandria and not in Lybia.  Prothero goes on:

The movie has her character questioning Ptolemaic astronomy and investigating the heliocentric model of Hipparchos of Samos, and coming up with Kepler’s elliptical orbits as a solution to the problem of heliocentrism. This last part is probably fiction, but then Hypatia has been such a symbol of science and feminism for centuries that nearly every author has embellished our ideas of her.

Actually, it's not just the "last part" that is fiction (there' no "probably" about it) -  there is zero evidence of Hypatia questioning the Ptolemaic model and, as the daughter of Ptolemy's best editor, the whole idea that she would is pretty fanciful.  Heliocentrism had long since been rejected by ancient astronomers on what were, at the time, quite reasonable grounds, so the idea that Hypatia dabbled with it is fantasy.  Of course, the film's promoters were happy to peddle it as history, with video of vox populi on the streets of a German city being used to advertise the film showing unsuspecting people being told that Hypatia discovered heliocentrism.  They are surprised that they have never heard this.  They shouldn't be, of course.  Because it's crap.  Prothero also gets his ancient scientists muddled up - the Samosian he was trying to refer to was Aristarchus, not Hipparchus of Samos.  The latter did study astronomy, but was definitely not a heliocentrist.

But no account of Hypatia is complete without the perpetuation of the myth that she was flayed alive:

And the ending, where her Christian former slave suffocates her to save her from a painful death for being a pagan and a witch, was not nearly as harsh as reality. According to historical records, a Christian mob kidnapped her from her chariot, stripped her naked, flayed her alive with sharp potsherds, and then dragged her skinned body through the streets.

We than thank our old pal Edward Gibbon for this one - a guy who is the point of origin for many persistent historical myths.   What Socrates Scholasticus tells us about the nature of her death was that the mob used "ὄστρακα" to kill her.  An "ostrakon" could be a potsherd.  Or it could be an oyster shell, which is how Gibbon interpreted the word and so came up with the idea Hypatia was flayed with sharp shells.  But while the image of a naked woman being flayed alive with sharp shells or potsherds is suitably lurid and dramatic, the word ὄστρακα here most likely refers to roof tiles.  Hypatia was stoned to death with the projectiles that would have been most readily at hand in an Alexandrine street: terracotta roof tiles.  Of course, that's not exactly a pleasant way to go out, but for some reason people seem to prefer the idea of her being flayed alive.  The quote from Scholasticus in the Wikipedia entry on Hypatia even changes his plain statement "they completely stripped her, and then murdered her with tiles" to "they completely stripped her, and then murdered her by scraping her skin off with tiles and bits of shell", which is not even remotely close to what Scholasticus wrote.  I suppose one way to get the evidence to conform to pseudo historical myth is to simply change the source material.*

But then Prothero gets down to ideological brass tacks:

But although the historical details could be quibbled over, the main point of the movie rings true, especially in this current age where religious dogmatism is still attempting to suppress science and free inquiry. 

The movie actually has a lot more to do with "this current age" than it does with anything that happened in the Fifth Century.   Prothero has certainly bought the message of its fable.  It's another manifestation of the old "Conflict Thesis" that seems to be reinforced by the actual, very modern, conflict between reactionary fundamentalist Biblical literalists and modern science.  For Prothero, as for many people without a good grasp of the history of science, if (some) religious types are opposed to proper science today then it makes sense that they must have always done so.  Therefore he likes the fact that this is being reinforced by Amenábar's movie and is oblivious to the fact that Amenábar has had to distort history to get it to conform to the "Conflict" model.

Of course, the problem here is that actual historians of science have long since abandoned the "Conflict Thesis" and debunked the Nineteenth Century works of ideologues like John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White, whose books fixed this idea in the popular imagination.  Gary Ferngren neatly summarises the current state of play amongst professional historians on this subject:

While some historians had always regarded the Draper-White thesis as oversimplifying and distorting a complex relationship, in the late twentieth century it underwent a more systematic reevaluation. The result is the growing recognition among historians of science that the relationship of religion and science has been much more positive than is sometimes thought. Although popular images of controversy continue to exemplify the supposed hostility of Christianity to new scientific theories, studies have shown that Christianity has often nurtured and encouraged scientific endeavour, while at other times the two have co-existed without either tension or attempts at harmonization. If Galileo and the Scopes trial come to mind as examples of conflict, they were the exceptions rather than the rule. (Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction, p. ix)

For some modern ideologues, however, this will not do at all.  They want the "Conflict Thesis" to be true and get mighty cross with these pesky historians when they find they no longer accept the old "the Church suppressed science" idea that they like so much.  The odd coterie of atheists of the particularly grumpy variety over at Butterflies and Wheels, for example, are having none of this fashionable nonsense about religion perhaps actually nurturing science and dismiss such outrageous poppycock as "revisionism".  When confronted by the awkward fact that the "Conflict Thesis" is rejected by leading historians of science such as Ronald Numbers, David Lindberg and Edward Grant, they are forced to resort to conspiracy theories - apparently these learned and celebrated scholars are all being bribed by the evil Templeton Foundation and are thus being swayed by wicked theists to compromise their academic careers and reputations and adopt an "accomodationist" stance on history.  Don your tinfoil hat now.  Not surprisingly, everyone's favourite retired high school teacher Charles Freeman has found his natural home on that odd little blog.

It seems the history of science simply can't be left to mere historians to write, since they don't write the version of history that some of my fellow atheists would like, which is very irritating to the grumpy anti-theistic movement.  Luckily we have scientists who are happy to venture out of their fields and set those silly, muddle-headed award winning renowned historians straight.  Particle physicist and grumpy anti-theist Victor J. Stenger is about to deal a mighty blow to all revisionist historians and Templeton Foundation quislings with his upcoming book God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion .  I have my copy on pre-order, so expect a review here in coming months.  The George Sarton Medal committee has been informed.

Speaking of scientists dabbling with history, back to Professor Prothero.  "Late Roman Alexandria was  indeed a tolerant place" he tells us, "where the Egyptian, Greek, and Roman gods were still worshiped."  There might be an alternative universe where pre-Christian Alexandria was a "tolerant place", but here in our world it was anything but.  Novelist Mike Flynn's series of articles "The Mean Streets of Old Alexandria" show that Alexandria was a hotbed of street violence, political killings, factional brawling and inter-faith conflict long before Christianity was added to the mix.  The city has the dubious distinction of being the site of several of the earliest recorded anti-Jewish pogroms.  And the "tolerance" of this notably intolerant city did not extend to Christians for the first three hundred years of that faith's history.  Like Manicheans, Alexandrine Christians were subjected to periodic bouts of Roman "tolerance" that involved "tolerant" things like being burned alive in arenas, being crucified and being fed to wild animals.  As the man hanging in the cell in The Life of Brian said "Terrific people, the Romans".  Very "tolerant".

We then get Prothero telling us about how the Christians destroyed the library-that-wasn't-there in the Serapeum and then this statement:

Many scholars still consider the murder of Hypatia and the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity (with the destruction of nearly all Greek and Roman scholarship) as the beginning of the “Dark Ages” in the west.

"Many scholars"?  Really?  Such as who?   No scholar with a clue would consider any such thing, since if we can read any Greek or Roman scholarship at all we have a Christian scribe to thank for the privilege.  The Grumpy Anti-theist Brigade love this idea of the quaintly named "Dark Ages" being ushered in by Christianity and wicked book-burning Christians, though they get frustrated (and annoyed) by pesky rationalists who dare to ask them to present some evidence of this "destruction".  They usually try the "Christians burned the Great Library" tack, but when the rug gets pulled out from under them on that score, they get rather cross when they find they have nothing else they can cite.  Pesky historians attribute the loss of knowledge in western Europe to the not inconsequential effects of the total collapse of the Western Roman Empire, but that's no fun for an anti-theistic ideologue.  And it's strange that when Prothero was writing that sentence above it didn't occur to him to ponder how the events of Hypatia's life caused the collapse of learning "in the west" when she lived in the east.  That should have been a hint that something else was going on.

Naturally, Galileo is now invoked along with a reference to Creationism.  Then we are told that "the intolerant Christian mobs that came to rule the late Roman Empire were in turn defeated and driven out of Alexandria by even more fanatical Muslim armies and rulers, who destroyed what little remained of classical civilization that the Christians had not already burned or banished".  Again, we seem to be in some alternative universe's history here, since in the real world the naughty old Muslims actually took the Greek and Roman knowledge that had been preserved by wicked Byzantine and Nestorian monks and expanded on it, carrying it to Spain where it was eagerly embraced by Medieval Christian scholars and returned to the west.  But that story is no fun at all.  Pesky historians and their pesky facts and evidence ruin it for everyone.

Prothero ends with a fine flourish by talking about "Christians suppressing the heretical notion that the Earth is round".  I suppose if you write a post peppered with totally discredited pseudo historical myths and demonstrate a high school level and totally cartoonish grasp of history you might as well end with an absolute doozy - the old "flat earth myth".  Many of his readers lapped up this serving of the "Conflict Thesis" with comments like "this film really made me angry, and yet it also made me proud to be a freethinker".  When one tries to caution that Agora actually took liberties with history, Prothero counters by claiming "so little is known about “facts” back in 400 AD that scholars have very little that is well documented and non-controversial".  What? So we can just make up any crap we like then?  Several events in this movie are actually extremely well documented.  The destruction of the Serapeum is one of the best documented events in ancient history, with no less than five separate independent accounts of it.  Oddly, none of them mention any library there or any destruction of books.  Not even the hostile, anti-Christian philosopher Eunapius' account. And the contemporary accounts of Hypatia's death tell us it was caused by politics and had nothing to do with religion or learning.  These accounts are entirely "non-controversial", but they don't support Amenábar's pseudo historical fable at all.

We also get some whackiness in the comments.  One "Dr Strangelove" informs us authoritatively that "Copernicus read Aristarchus".  It would be remarkable if he did, considering none of Aristarchus' worked survived to Copernicus' time or to ours.  The same commenter goes on to note "Galileo read Archimedes, Columbus and geographers read Eratosthenes and Ptolemy, Newton read Euclid, Kepler read Apollonius".  He doesn't seem to have noticed, however, that they read these ancient authors because Byzantine, Nestorian and western Catholic monks preserved their works.  So much for "book-burning Christians".  Then we get this gem:

The ancient Greeks already had prototype steam engines and mechanical computers. Had the Church not killed Alexandrian science, we could have the Industrial revolution 1,000 years before James Watt.

The "prototype steam engine" referred to here is the tiny aeolipile of Heron, a cute little toy that would never have led to an actual steam engine given the metals technology of the time.  The "mechanical computer" seems to be a reference to the Antikythera mechanism, an astronomical calculator of a kind that continued to be produced for centuries later, without ushering in any "industrial revolution".  And the Church preserved Greek science, thanks substantially to the insistence of  another learned Alexandrine, Clement, who stressed that all knowledge was from God and that Greek rationalism was to be revered and not rejected.  But who wants to let pesky facts get in the way of pretty myths?

Luckily, at least some of the skeptics on Skepticblog actually have a true scepticism and went to do some fact checking on the movie.  One summed up what they found very nicely:

Too many modern attitudes pasted onto Roman-Hellenistic people. And too many modern attitudes about religion pasted onto early Christians. This wasn’t a historical drama, it was Narnia for atheists.

"Narnia for atheists" indeed.  One of the later posters linked to my critique of Agora's history.  That was nice of them, but I suspect it was a bit late - most of the "sceptics" had digested their serving of "history by a scientist" and moved on, prejudices confirmed and myths reinforced.  Unfortunately this junk is what passes for "rationalism" on the internet.  Sometimes this rationalist truly despairs.

* A reader of this blog has corrected the translation of Socrates Scholasticus' account of Hypatia's death quoted on Wikipedia, so it now reads correctly.  Let's see if it stays that way or if the zealots change it to conform to their fantasies again.

Postscript:  Here's one for the Irony Files.  The same Donald Prothero who wrote the error-laden post on Hypatia, the history of science and the supposed suppression of learning by the church later wrote a post on Skepticblog on the Dunning-Kruger Effect.  He defined this as the way "ignorant or unskilled people tend to overestimate their level of competence and expertise".  His post made good observations about the implications of Dunning and Kruger's findings, talking about examples of "incompetents who don’t recognize their incompetence, often shouting out their inanities and attempting to drown out their expert critics".

I couldn't resist noting in the comments on that post that a certain earlier Skepticblog post by Prothero on Hypatia and the history of science was a perfect example of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, given that it was riddled with errors of fact and demonstrated what happens when "ignorant or unskilled people tend to overestimate their level of competence and expertise" in a field they know nothing about.  Interestingly, an hour or so after it was posted, my comment was suddenly edited out.  Luckily others had already noted it and commented unfavourably on its being censored.  I reposted it with a link the to post above and chided Prothero for removing my original comment.  This time the comment was allowed to stay.


Wednesday, February 29, 2012

If Rome Hadn't Fallen by Timothy Venning

Timothy Venning, If Rome Hadn't Fallen: How the Survival of Rome Might Have Changed World History,(Pen and Sword, 2011) 224 pages,
Verdict?: 3/5 Interesting but ultimately unconvincing overall.

My primary school's library carried a British weekly educational magazine called Look and Learn, which had articles on science, history and culture for kids, as well as short fiction and a few weekly cartoon strips.  One of its slightly odder regular offerings was a space opera comic serial called "The Trigan Empire" - a kind of Dan Dare/Flash Gordon space adventure which caught my eye because the main characters, for reasons never explained, all wore Roman-style togas, robes and armour.  I can't say this strange cartoon ever really grabbed me, since beyond the Roman aesthetic it was simply B-grade sci-fi of a slightly quaint variety, but it seems to have made quite an impression on the young Timothy Venning;

Thanks are due to the staff who created the 'Trigan Empire' comic strip for Ranger and subsequently Look and Learn magazine, which first gave me the concept of 'what if' fantasy when I was at primary school in the late 1960s.  This innovative science-fiction series showed what a Roman-type civilization might have looked like if it had survived to the Space Age, particularly due to the artwork of Don Lawrence.  My exploration of the scenarios took off from there.
(Venning, "Acknowledgements", p. xvii)

With all due respect to the artwork of Don Lawrence, I still find myself asking the question I asked aged eight: "If they have space ships and lasers, why do they still fight with swords while wearing Roman helmets?"  That never made much sense to me.  Whether it made more sense to Venning or not is not clear, but it certainly got him thinking about a particular counterfactual historical scenario: what if the Roman Empire had survived?

The Trigan Empire or 'Romans in Space'
The Benefits and Pitfalls of Historical Hypotheticals

Counterfactuals, historical hypotheticals or "what if" scenarios are tricky things to pull off effectively, let alone in a way that sheds some light on history in any useful way.  At their best, the examination of what might have happened can help a historian to look at the evidence for what did happen in new ways, since constructing viable possible alternative paths that events may have taken requires a very careful re-examination of the evidence from different perspectives.  At their worst, they are self-indulgent fantasies where the examiner picks an outcome they find intriguing or appealing (Hitler conquers Britain or the British Government grants home rule to Ireland in 1896) and then works backwards to contrive a way that this outcome was actually highly "likely" if only a few small things had gone differently.  The worse kind of counterfactual depends heavily on a rather simplistic view of history; one where things tend to happen for single or simple reasons and only a little needs to have been different for totally different outcomes to result.

There are some examples of the better kind of counterfactual.  In 1997 Niall Ferguson edited a collection of hypotheticals called Virtual History: Alternatives And Counterfactuals, which examined the possible results of a number of scenarios, from Charles I avoiding the English Civil War to JFK living to win a second term of office.  As with all the better types of historical counterfactuals, these served to throw a new light on the events they imagined not happening - Dr Mark Almond's contribution "1989 Without Gorbachev: What if Communism had not collapsed?" certainly made me reassess the (usually still-accepted) American interpretation that the Soviet Union was rotten to its core and outspent and outflanked by brave Ronald Reagan and so would have fallen apart anyway.

Unfortunately, the worse kind of counterfactual - the ones which are little more than self-indulgent fanboy fantasies based on creaking premises - are far more common.  Worst of all are the ones where the fantasy in question is based on wholly erroneous or ideologically biased historical assumptions.  The fantasy of the "hole in science created by Christianity" by an online polemicist called Jim West (and its attendant graph, aka "the Dumbest Thing on the Internet Ever") is a classic case of where ideologically-driven ignorant pseudo historical nonsense will get you if you switch off your brain.

Luckily Venning's grasp of the relevant history is extensive and detailed and so, on the whole, he manages to avoid the self-indulgent fanboy pitfalls.  Or at least he does for most of his intriguing book.

"The Fury of the Goths" - Paul Ivanovitz

The "Furor Teutonicus"

Like the post factum interpretation that the Soviet Union was ready to fall regardless of what Gorbachev did (which does not really explain why its fall was so totally unexpected and remarkable at the time - hindsight is a useful thing) there is a school of thought that the fall of the Western Roman Empire was inevitable.  It is one with a long pedigree - back in 1776 Gibbon asserted:

The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the cause of the destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and, as soon as time or accident and removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight. The story of the ruin is simple and obvious: and instead of inquiring why the Roman Empire was destroyed we should rather be surprised that it has subsisted for so long.

Several more recent analysts have been inclined, at least partially, to the same conclusion, most notably Adrian Goldworthy in his recent The Fall of the West: The Death of the Roman Superpower (reviewed below), who sees the roots of the inevitable fall of the west in the chaos of the Third Century, though with seeds that went all the way back to Augustus.  The lack of a regular mechanism for succession was an inherent weakness of the Empire, according to Goldworthy, and this was made worse by the vast and unwieldy size of the Empire and its uneven recovery from the near collapse in the Third Century.  All this left the poorer, weaker western half of the Empire tottering and eventual collapse was pretty much a matter of time.

Venning, on the other hand, seems to think that it was at least possible that the west could have survived.  He acknowledges most of the things Goldsworthy points out, but feels they did not have to be fatal the Western Empire.  If a few things had been different, he argues, the Western Empire could have survived.

Venning does take a broad view of the reasons for the fall of the Western Empire, but it seems on the whole he subscribes to more of a "catastrophist" perspective, similar to that of Peter Heather in The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians and the Barbarians.  Heather, a leading Germanicist, is very much of the view that the Empire did not die, it was murdered.  And it was the barbarian invasions that were the cause of death. So the first part of Venning's "what if" concentrates on the Germanic barbarians, and explores what he feels may have been the consequences if Tiberius and his successors had annexed all of northern Germania as far east as the Elbe.

His analysis focuses on two elements that he feels could have gone differently - the Teutoburgerwald disaster where Varus' three legions were annihilated by a Cheruscian uprising in 9 AD and Tiberius choosing to "rein in" Germanicus in his 15-16 AD campaign east of the Rhine.

Like many, Venning pins the Varian disaster squarely on Varus himself:

A better general than Varus would not have allowed himself to be led into a German trap far from the Rhine by supposedly loyal German 'scouts' or if he had done so he could have provided more inspiring leadership.
(Venning, p. 5)

People have been scapegoating Varus for what was a highly embarrassing defeat ever since the battle itself, so Venning is hardly alone here.  But the idea that it was all Varus' fault is actually only found in one of the sources: that of Vellius Paterculus.  And Paterculus had a family beef with Varus' family, the Quinctilii, and so we have to tread his blame of Varus with a degree of healthy scepticism.  The other sources paint Varus as a noble and courageous heroic figure and put the defeat primarily down to the cunning and military skill of his very wily and able opponent, the Cheruscian war-leader Arminius.  Venning seems very sure that "a better general" would not have "allowed himself" to be outfoxed by Arminius, but during Germanicus' later campaign his subordinate general Aulus Cæcina did just that.  Cæcina was no amateur, in fact as the commander of the lower Rhine legions and a veteran of forty campaigns, he was about as good a general as the Romans had.  Yet, just like Varus, he was led into a trap by Arminius and was on the verge of having the dubious distinction of being the second Roman general in five year to have three legions wiped out under his command when he was saved more by the ill-discipline of Arminius' warriors than any skill of his.  Like many Romanophiles, Venning seems to under-estimate Arminius' skill as a general, because that was what defeated Varus.

But Venning accepts that even if Varus had not been defeated, this would not have made a substantial difference to the longer-term position of the Romans vis a vis Germania. So he then looks at whether things may have been different if Germanicus had continued his campaigns east of the Rhine frontier and succeeded in taking the frontier up to the Elbe.  He argues that this could not only have provided Rome with a large source of Germanic military manpower but would also have resulted in more defensible frontiers:

Indeed, if the conquest of the Marcomanni in Bohemia by Marcus Aurelius in the late 170s had been followed through ... Rome could have been defending a frontier from the Elbe to the Carpathians rather than from the Rhine to the Danube.
(Venning, p. 7)

He argues that this shorter frontier would also have been far more defensible, since the Carpathian passes are far easier to hold than the long and rather porous frontiers provided by the Danube, since rivers in the ancient world were more conduits than barriers.  This last point is reasonable, but there are several problems with this section of Venning's argument.

To begin with, the whole idea that Germanicus was "reined in" by the jealousy of his wicked uncle Tiberius is a great story, but it is one with only one source: Tactius.  And in Tacitus' neat moral narrative Germanicus is the golden-haired wunderkind and the lost hope for what might have been, while Tiberius is the envious villain.  So while Tacitus paints Germanicus' campaign as a wholesale success with strings of glorious victories cut short by bad old Tiberius, there is evidence even in his account that things were not quite so rosy.  Leaving aside the fact that, as noted above, Cæcina narrowly escaped Varian Disaster Mark II, victories that Tacitus depicts as comprehensive do not seem to have been quite as clear cut as his story makes out.  Germanicus supposedly inflicts a crippling defeat on Arminius in the Battle of Idistoviso, yet only days later Arminius' supposedly comprehensively beaten army fights another battle at the Angrivarian Walls, which even Tacitus has to admit was something of a draw.  So as neat as Tacitus' story might be, there is good reason to believe that Germanicus withdrew because outright victory simply eluded him.

But the second problem with Venning's conclusion that conquering Germania up to the Elbe would make a difference lies in its assumptions about the significance of the Germanics in the fall of the Western Empire.  It assumes (with Heather) that the Germanic incursions were a primary cause of the fall of the Empire and not (as Goldsworthy argues, and I have to agree) more of a symptom of fundamental internal collapse.  Whenever the Empire had been weak before, the barbarians had tested and sometimes breached the frontiers.  They breached them permanently in the Fifth Century only because that time the internal collapse was terminal.

Even if the tribes west of the Elbe had been subdued, there were still plenty of tribes beyond the Elbe who could have exploited any weakness in the Empire - in fact, most of the tribes who carved out successor states in the old Western Empire were from further east anyway: the Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Burgundians, Vandals and Lombards were all from beyond Venning's hypothetical stronger frontier.  And while the Carpathians may have been more defensible than the Danube, the Rhine would still have been porous and the even more defensible Alps did not prove much of a barrier in the Fifth Century anyway.  And that was because the Fifth Century Romans were locked in an endless cycle of petty civil wars that were fundamental to the spiral of decline, fragmentation and collapse.

The "Military Anarchy" and the Dominate

To his credit, Venning recognises that a victory by Varus or an northern frontier along the Elbe were unlikely to have made much difference at all:

Incompetent leadership and/or the bad luck of a civil war were crucial factors that better frontiers would not have affected.
(Venning, p. 8)

He refers to the relatively stable succession of emperors (hiccups like 69 AD aside) from Augustus to the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180 AD as a "run of good luck".  He then explores some alternatives  by which this "good luck" could have gone on longer, avoiding the near collapse of the Empire in the Third Century and the consequences of that period which led to the final downfall in the Fifth Century.  Perhaps if Commodus' twin brother, Titus Aurelius Fulvus Antoninus, had not died aged four, he could have ruled alongside his brother and proven the better ruler, leaving his lazy and possibly mad twin to indulge his penchants for parties and gladiator fights.  Perhaps, but then again his brother could also have proven even worse than his brother for all we know.

Alternatively, he argues that Septimus Severus could have stabilised things after the civil war that resulted in the overthrow first of Commodus, then Pertinax and then Didius Julianus, arguing that the Empire had recovered from a similar civil war in the "Year of the Four Emperors" in 69 AD.  This is true to an extent, but the difference is that Vespasian had two able sons who were capable enough to secure stability via a dynasty that spanned 27 years.  Septimus Severus' son was Caracalla - a tyrant whose reign was seen as even less legitimate than that of his "foreign" father.

The stabilisation of the Empire by Vespasian and the Flavians had been because they had been able to quickly restore the facade that Goldsworthy calls "the veiled monarchy" - the shared fiction that hid the fact that the Roman Empire was a military dictatorship and always had been.  The Julio-Claudian, Flavian and Antonine dynasties had maintained stability by propping up this fiction, but it was inevitable that the facade would crumble eventually.  Venning explores some "what ifs" about Third Century emperors who may have stayed in power longer and so, perhaps, have restored the fiction of "the veiled monarchy".  I'm afraid I found this wishful thinking.  Like Goldsworthy, I feel that once the veil had been torn off the fiction was dead.  All that could save the Empire was what did save it (for a while): the establishment of a true, despotic and highly centralised monarchy that made no bones about its despotism - the one established by Diocletian.

The establishment of the Dominate, a new kind of emperor far more like an eastern demi-divine potentate and a new administrative structure pulled the Empire back from ruin, but in the west it ultimately contained the seeds of its own downfall.  A formal division between the eastern and western halves of the Empire was on the cards even before Diocletian and once it came in the later Fourth Century the western poor relation was highly vulnerable if not actually doomed.

The Calamitous Fifth Century

Venning's examination of the Fifth Century also examines some "what ifs", but again many of them fail to convince.  He suggests that all the consequences of the Goths being allowed to cross the Danube in 376 AD, including Alaric's later sack of Rome and the establishment of the Visigoth kingdom in Gaul and Spain, could have been avoided if Valens had handled the situation better.  That may be, but the later crossings of the Danube by Alatheus and Saphrax and then by Radagaisus shows that the pressures further east caused by the Hunnic incursion were pushing many tribes east and south.  If Fritigern's people had been refused entry or been settled peacefully, it is highly likely that some other migratory groups would have done more or less as the Goths did eventually.  The game of "what if" can be played many ways.

After rehearsing an overview of what he correctly refers to as "a vicious circle of gradual collapse" that saw some provinces abandoned, others lost due to virtually no resistance and the core of the Western Empire slowly dwindling as political and economic collapse spiraled out of control, Venning proposes how things could have been different:

Outlying provinces and their resources might have fallen away under the pressures of from outside from around 395, but the core of the Empire would have remained intact if there had been domestic stability and an unbroken run of powerful military leaders from Theodosius the Great to Stilicho to Constantius III to Aetius to the latter's heirs.
(Venning, p. 49)

The problem here is that the "domestic stability" on which the "if" in that sentence depends was never going to happen because the cycle of civil wars that Diocletian had arrested broke out again in the West.  This was actually precisely because of "powerful military leaders".  As Ian Hughes argues in his Stilicho: The Vandal Who Saved Rome, it was the concentration of military power in the hands of a single magister militium in the West which was a key fatal flaw in the Western Empire's administration. This never happened in the East and it was this factor that was one of the key differences in the fates of the two Empires.  That aside, outlying provinces did fall away and "the core of the Empire" did remain intact - for a while.  But the "core of the Empire" could not survive without being sustained by provinces like southern Gaul, parts of Spain and, particularly, Africa.  So the idea that a more politically stable "core" would have survived is hard to credit anyway.

From about this point the book becomes increasingly speculative, with all kinds of scenarios like the breakaway northern sub-Romans Gallic state of Aegidius and Syagrius for some reason being "likely to rally to the Empire" after a succession of other "what ifs" that have the "core of the Empire" coming back from the brink.  If anything, the sheer effort Venning has to go to so as to have the Western Empire survive served to underline for this reader exactly how inevitable its collapse really was.

Romans versus Mongols (ands Spiderman versus Batman?)

There is a silly meme on historical internet fora where people speculate which ancient peoples from different time periods would have prevailed over other such peoples if they could somehow have met in battle.  So ancient Japan fanboys argue at length with Roman fanboys over whether an army of samurai and yari-armed Japanese infantry troops could have beaten the armies of Trajan.  These debates have all the rigor of comic book nerds arguing if Spiderman could beat up Batman.  I must say that while I found Venning's faith that the fall of the Empire was not inevitable unconvincing, at least the first half of his book was a stimulating and detailed examination of that collapse and it made me look at these events from many fresh angles.

The second half, however, moves to try to hypothesise how a surviving Roman Empire would have shaped later history and as it went on it began to increasingly feel like a Spiderman versus Batman discussion.  Topics like how the Romans would have dealt with the Vikings or the Roman colonisation of the Americas (with Romans fighting Vikings in North America,  no less) began to feel increasingly contrived.

It also felt that anything about these later centuries that Venning liked, such as the Twelfth Century Renaissance or the Reformation, was considered "likely" to have still happened under his hypothetical continued Roman Empire.  While things he does not like do not appear in his contracuted alternative history.  And things he seems to think would be cool, of course, do happen, however implausible or even silly they may be.  By the time we get to the Romans resisting and containing the armies of Islam and gloriously expanding to the Hindu Kush to tackle the Mongols, we are not quite at the level of the "Trigan Empire" comics that inspired the young Venning, but we are getting dangerously close.

This is a mildly intriguing book on the whole and the first half is an interesting way of re-examining history.  For this reader, the second, far more speculative half was not so fruitful, but others may enjoy it.  After all, maybe a Viking would kill a ninja and Batman would make short work of Spiderman.  Who knows.