The University Bookman


Fall 2016

Digging Up the Bones of Empire


Russell Kirk

We moderns still are uncovering the tremendous remains of the Roman Empire, which extended from what is now Iraq to what is now Scotland, and from what is now Morocco to what is now West Germany. What modern man cannot accomplish with all his mighty and swift inventions, the Romans did: they gave common laws and common culture to three continents.

Recently this commentator visited archaeological work in progress at two ancient sites, far distant from each other: Split, in Yugoslavia, and York, in England. At both places, picturesque old towns stand on the site of Roman settlements. And at both places, discoveries of Roman power still are being made.

The oldest quarter of Split is within the walls of the immense palace built by the Emperor Diocletian for his retirement, which occurred in AD 306. Thousands of people are living inside what really was a fortified villa for one man; the Palace has been a town ever since the frontiers of the Roman Empire broke under the barbarians’ pressure.

And today, here under Diocletian’s Palace, archaeologists still are excavating the immense cellars, filled with the rubbish of 1,500 years. No remarkable works of art have been discovered, but many curiosities are on display. One can walk from the harbor of Split straight through the cellars, mount a flight of ancient stairs, and find himself in the Peristyle of the Roman palace—converted into the square of a medieval city. There one sips Turkish coffee at a café facing Diocletian’s tomb, for many centuries the cathedral of Split. What a civic continuity!

In York, thousands of miles northwest, a massive Roman building probably of the same period as Diocletian’s Palace has been discovered in recent months beneath York Minster, that vast Gothic cathedral. The foundations of the Minster having become unsafe, the cathedral chapter set to work shoring up the church by a system of steel beams; and in the process, they came upon the bones of empire.

This heavy Roman structure, so long hidden and forgotten, was the administrative headquarters of the Roman military establishment in the north of England. At York, in the year 306, Constantine—later Emperor and protector of the Christian Church—was proclaimed Augustus; and the Roman building probably is of his reign, and so almost as old as Diocletian’s Palace, though much inferior in style. A fallen Roman column is to be re-erected in the precincts of the Minster.

Although now and again I am invited to lecture or write on the future of civilization, I know that I am playing a game when I engage in that exercise. For no man can know the future: the event is in the hand of God. We cannot know even tomorrow. For all we can tell, our civilization might terminate in 1970; having acquired the secret of atomic fission, we have it in our power to extirpate ourselves.

But the past is knowable, even though history is an art, rather than a science. Through a fuller understanding of vanished civilizations, we may do something to avert our own destruction. Roman achievements and Roman errors, signified by the subterranean rubble of places like Split and York, are “relevant” to our condition as no amount of speculation about the future can be.

“We learn from history that we learn nothing from history,” Hegel wrote. He meant that the lessons lie there, but we ignore them, more’s the pity. Had I leisure to meditate for years at Split and York, I might grow wise—far wiser than any Futurist.  

(© 1969, Gen.Fea.Corp.)

Posted: December 19, 2016 in To the Point.

Did you see this one? book cover

Burke, Party, and the Human Person
JP O’Malley
Spring 2013

The twentieth-century conservative is concerned, first of all, with the regeneration of the spirit and character—with the perennial problem of the inner order of the soul, the restoration of the ethical understanding, and the religious sanction upon which any life worth living is founded. This is conservatism at the highest.

Russell Kirk


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