When The Gods Had Ceased To Be

Yourcenar plaque in Capri

In the afterword to Marguerite Yourcenar’s historical novel, Memoirs of Hadrian, I read this quote, which she attributes to Flaubert:

Just when the gods had ceased to be, and the Christ had not yet come, there was a unique moment in history, between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, when man stood alone.

The Romans of this period remind one of the United States of our current era, the hegemonic power that sees itself as the guarantor of the world order. I don’t say that in a critical way. Hadrian, in the novel, describes his dissent from the expansionisting policies of his predecessor, Trajan, and his shift to a defensive posture (e.g. Hadrian’s Wall in Britain). Late in this life, he faces the Jewish rebellion in Judea. The Jews of that time fought with suicidal tenacity that strikes me as similar to the fanaticism of the Taliban. But in taking on the great imperial power, they were utterly defeated, and Judea itself was renamed by the Romans as Palestine.

Growing up as an Orthodox Jew, it seemed to me that Hadrian, and his predecessor Titus, who destroyed the Jewish temple, were horrific characters. Now that I am secular, I see it from a different perspective, and identify somewhat uncomfortably with the Romans, who were trying to keep a relatively peaceful multicultural realm intact against challenges by barbarians and religious fanatics. When they finally failed, Europe fell into the Dark Ages.


4 Responses to “When The Gods Had Ceased To Be”

  1. 1 John P
    November 17, 2009 at 3:12 pm

    Now you can try Yourcenar’s other great work, “The Abyss”

    Extraordinary writer, isn’t she?


  2. November 17, 2009 at 3:15 pm

    Yes, I enjoyed reading it, and it helped me get inside the head of people of that era–as did visiting Pompeii, which impressed me by immersion that the Romans were living, breathing people just like we are now and will no longer be 2000 years hence.

  3. 3 David Kimball
    November 19, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    It sounds like the defeat of the men who stood without gods was the entrance to the Dark Ages. Correlation? Or Connection?

  4. November 19, 2009 at 4:01 pm

    There are lots of theories about what caused the fall of Rome, and it can’t all be blamed on the conversion to Christianity (as Gibbon does–but that doesn’t account for the survival of the Eastern Roman/Byzantine Empire).

    However, the story of the persecution of the pagan philosopher Hypatia is characteristic of a withdrawal from intellectual investigation that accompanied the conversion to Christianity.


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