This morning I read these words:
I descended the noble steps [from the church of St Gregory on the Caelian hill]. Every day of his life, I reflected, St Gregory while in Rome, and before he went to live at the Lateran Palace as Pope, must have seen the Colosseum; a few paces would take him past the Circus Maximus, already weed-grown and deserted, above which rose the imperial palaces, unoccupied for centuries but still capable of housing a stray Exarch from Ravenna. The last time they received an emperor was twenty-five years after Gregory’s death, in 629, when Heraclius visited Rome and was invested with the diadem in the throne room on the Palatine. What a ghostly moment that must have been; for the middle ages were ready to be born.
These words are from H.V. Morton, A Traveller in Rome, published in 1957.
I know nothing of that visit to Rome by Heraclius, I must say, but that portrait in words moves me to find out. Which, in a way, says that the book is doing its job!
I’m reading the book because it’s a gentle, restful book to read. For those unfamiliar with them, Morton’s books are a mixture of personal observation and material rewritten from books such as the popularisations of Lanciani, and are perfectly targeted at the educated but non-specialist reader. They are uneven; but the best are very good indeed.
But it is a wistful experience, reading Morton’s Through Lands of the Bible, where he travels through Palestine and Iraq in the 1930’s. It is a portrait of a peaceful, quiet world. Under the rule of the honest, efficient colonial powers, the region knew the first enlightened, progressive, civilised government that it had ever had.
How sad that it was also the last. I am by no means anti-American, but America has been the dominant power in the region since WW2, and the policies pursued by its ruling class, often well-intentioned but invariably counter-productive, have condemned its inhabitants to ceaseless, pointless strife, poverty and misery.
Let us take up the books written in better days, and dream of a better world than our own.
UPDATE: Later in the book Morton refers to a visit by Constans II to stay in the Palatine, some 20 years later than Heraclius. I have a feeling that his books were serialized, which may explain how episodic they sometimes can be; and mistakes like this!
- By Methuen; In the 1984 paperback reprint this is p.208↩