The Benedict Option 1: 5th-century history

I’ve decided to blog my way through Rod Dreher’s book The Benedict Option. I do not know if, overall, this is a good book or a helpful book or — even if it is both of those things — my kind of book. But it is a book much talked about. And I am a historian of late antiquity as well as a Christian concerned about the survival of the faith and of western culture who believes that ancient and medieval texts have relevance for today’s world.

Two things first, though.

Thing One: My qualifications for critiquing the historical side are: a Ph.D. in the History of Christianity and Classics; two published articles about late antique Christianity plus a third in press that is specifically sixth-century; one year of teaching ancient history, primarily late antique, at a major research university; one year of research into late antique Christianity in Rome itself; a current postdoctoral position studying mediaeval manuscripts. I do Latin, canon law, christology, the Later Roman Empire, and manuscripts. Intellectual history.

Thing Two: Thing One will make me critique Rod Dreher in ways an ordinary, sane human would not, and possibly at times unfairly. Nonetheless, I believe that professional writers, even if not academics, have a duty to do research and read the sources themselves as well as at least some of the most current analysis of the sources and events they write about. I don’t think that’s unfair. I certainly, however, do not expect Rod Dreher to have read Gregory the Great or Benedict in Latin, or to have read Adalbert de Voguë’s multi-volume French commentary on the Rule of St Benedict. That would be absurd.

I have read Chapter 1. In this chapter Dreher sets out very quickly the plight of conservative Christians in America and gives a very brief account of the life of Benedict from St Gregory’s Dialogues, which you can read here. It is also included in Carolinne M. White’s Early Christian Lives from Penguin. My concerns do not lie with the brief outline itself, but with the decline and fall narrative as we have it here.

Dreher maintains that Rome in the year 500 ‘was no longer the Rome of imperial glory’ (13). This is only sort of true, but the grounds he gives are weak — the Visigothic sack of 410 (p. 13) and the fall of the western Roman Empire when a barbarian deposed the last emperor in 476 (p. 13). The population ‘plummeted in the decades after the sack.’ (13)

The fact of the matter is, the sack of 410 was a Bad Thing, but that seems mostly to have been on a psychological level — everyone, Dreher included, cites Jerome’s histrionics after the fact. But no one cites Rutilius’ poetry that seems to imagine a city full of glories and intact temples. And yes, people left. Mostly wealthy people; we see them turn up in North Africa and Palestine-Syria. But the Goths were mostly after moveables, besides any human cost. If they could carry it, they did. Otherwise, it stayed behind. The same goes for the very successful Vandal pirate raid of 455.

Now, I don’t want to say that Rome in 500 was a shiny city of marble or that it was in as good condition as it was when Constantius visited in 357 or when Theodosius I visited in 389. But I maintain that the main cause was not necessarily the sacks of Rome but the loss of Africa. The überwealthy of the fifth century owned most of North Africa, so when the Vandals conquered it throughout the first four decades of the 400s, that shattered their own personal financial base. And the subsequent imperial attempts to gain it back — including the largest joint East-West Roman army every mustered — went to impoverish the already economically weak imperial fisc in the West.

But, as Dreher notes (p. 14), Rome in 500 was still important enough for Theoderic the Ostrogoth (misidentified as a Visigoth) to visit. And the wealthy aristocrats were still there — Symmachi, Anicii, et al. 410 makes a nice, neat bundle for pegs to hang your history on, but it is not a primary cause for the gradual decline of the city of Rome in the fifth and sixth centuries. And it was still the largest city in the West, if not the whole Mediterranean when Benedict visited.

It seems like a needlessly simplified story to have Rome in 500 a crumbling shadow of its former self, when we know that there was a certain amount of urban revitalisation going on. However, this seems to be part of Dreher’s rhetorical strategy. On page 14, he posits that the reason why Roman morals were so bad in Benedict’s day — so bad that the young, tenderhearted Christian ran off to become a hermit — was precisely because of the shock of Rome’s fall, citing modern parallels. This could have worked for Rome in the immediate aftermath of 410 or 455, but not 500. Moreover, Benedict finding the city a corrupting influence and thus running away is a trope. Not to say it’s not what happened, mind you. Finally, Rome is always described by its critics as being a city of sin, whether these critics are Juvenal c. 100 or Ammianus c. 380.

That this is all too neat seems to hover at the edges of Dreher’s awareness when he says that things in Italy continued much as they had before (13). In fact, Italy’s great change and disruption do occur during Benedict’s posited lifetime and extend beyond into Gregory the Great’s era — first, Justinian’s Byzantine-Gothic War, second the Lombard invasions. These are what ruptured the social, cultural, and economic fabric of Italy. If Benedict had been in southern Gaul or Spain, Dreher’s neat, little late Roman narrative would have worked. But he lived in Campania.

I have three further critiques of this chapter’s presentation of history, more specifically about the sixth century. But this has gone long enough, and I need to get ready for bed. So I’ll leave it here for now, and then jump in next time with the history of monasticism, post-Roman powers, and ‘barbarism’.

5 thoughts on “The Benedict Option 1: 5th-century history

  1. Hi! Very interesting thoughts. I was wondering, is there a book or books, on the history of this period that you would recommend? I am doing research on Benedict (I am an oil painter) for a portrait of his that I have painted, and would like to accurately portray his life and social context in the written information that attends the show. Any resources you could point me toward would be much appreciated.

    • Hi Melissa! Thanks for dropping by. For Benedict’s own life, the only near-contemporary source we have is Gregory the Great, Dialogues, book 2, to which I’ve linked in the post. As for his wider context, I think the most easily acquired and readable is Chris Wickham’s book The Inheritance of Rome — it covers 400-1000, but is divided chronologically and geographically, so the right chapters and sections of chapters for Italy and western Europe 400-600 should cover what you need. If you have access to a good library, the relevant sections (so, the general outline chapter, the chapter on monks, the chapter on social life in Italy/the West) of the Cambridge Ancient History Volume 14 would also be worth looking at. But it costs over £100, so it’s not the first starting point!

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