H.V.Morton on Gregory the Great and the deserted Palatine

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.[1]

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!

  1. [1]By Methuen; In the 1984 paperback reprint this is p.208

3 thoughts on “H.V.Morton on Gregory the Great and the deserted Palatine

  1. Sounds like a good book. It’s like that when you read Agatha Christie books set in Syria and Iraq, too.

    Btw, there was a Washington Post story about the Hobby Lobby guy’s Bible museum and the scholars and such who are working for him. The story came out on Sept. 11, and so I think it has slipped under the radar. It sounds like it will either be awesome or a total disaster or both, but that’s pretty much all the DC museums. 🙂

  2. Er, sorry about not closing my tag correctly.

    Btw, there’s a Shakespeare museum right behind the Capitol and Library of Congress (that’d be the Folger Library), and several religious sites and museums very close to the National Mall. DC has a lot of stuff. A Bible museum will fit right in.

  3. Thank you so much for that link. What a VERY interesting article! I deeply approve of what he is doing here, and of course I sympathise with his objectives anyway. But papyrology could really use a right-minded billionaire getting involved in funding useful stuff and rooting it out of the drawers of the antiquity dealers.

    You’re right about the Agatha Christie novels from Egypt and Mesopotamia. They too evoke a bygone era. The H.V.Morton was written, of course, in the middle of the “dolce vita” era of Rome, and is itself a historical document. I’m still reading it, btw.

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