Every time I look at you I don’t understand why you let the things you did get so out of hand. You’d have managed better if you’d had it planned. Now why’d you choose such a backward time and such a strange land? If you’d come today you could have reached a whole nation. Israel in 4 BC dad no mass communication. So sings Judas to Jesus in the 1970 rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.
I just returned from a vacation in Italy where I had the opportunity to visit the city of Ravenna. The city is in my opinion one of the most fascinating in the world and visually imparts how a paradigm shift in belief systems can impact a society. Ravenna was the capital city of the Western Roman Empire from 402 until that empire collapsed in 476. It later was incorporated into the Byzantine Empire. The old city and surrounding areas are home to UNESCO World Heritage Sites that were constructed during and around the time of Emperor Justinian. These sites tell the dramatic story of the adoption of Christianity by the Roman Empire. In fact, Justinian is considered by many to be the last true Roman emperor, and was surely the last one who conducted state business in Latin.
Other than the beauty of the mosaic contained in these sites, what is interesting is how they depict religion and the religious characters. Most dramatic are the mosaics of the Basilica of San Vitale (http://www.ravennamosaici.it/?page_id=33&lang=en). Others include the Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo (http://www.ravennamosaici.it/?page_id=21&lang=en) and the Nenonian Bapistry (http://www.ravennamosaici.it/?page_id=29&lang=en) where Christian figures are presented as Roman royalty and functionaries. Jesus is not the traditional long haired fellow with a beard and robes but rather as a Roman king, wearing a purple toga and bearing a strong resemblance to Apollo. Satan in depicted in Sant’Apollinare as a Roman functionary.
These mosaics tell an amazing story of transition from the Imperial period to the Middle Ages. This was a time when the glory that was Rome was starting to become a distant memory and the culture of Christianity was taking over Europe. Not until the Renaissance in the 1200s would art again have the character that one finds in Ravenna, not in Rome, not in Constantinople, not in Paris. It always makes we wonder when I see these mosaics if the people living in Ravenna, or in Rome, or London or in Damascus or any Roman city really understood just what was happening to their society and what the next 800 years would bring.
The Roman and later Byzantine empires stretched across the territories currently being sacked by the fighters of the self-described Islamic State. In fact, Libya is just a couple of hundred miles from the border of Italy. ISIS is promoting a medieval type society not much different than that of medieval Europe. And while I don’t believe that ISIS will dominate the Mediterranean basin, or for that matter the parts of Syria and Iraq that its fighters currently control, one has to wonder about how suddenly transitions in society can happen. Rome fell in a matter of decades, the Pax-Britannica under which the British Empire ruled one-fifth of the world’s population collapsed in just the first 50 years of the 20th Century and now the western world and its economy seem to be under threat from everywhere including ISIS, a resurgent China and even a revived imperial Russia.
In a time when it is possible for a group like ISIS to reach a whole nation and in fact, a whole world over the internet, it is important to keep history in mind. Dramatic changes can happen quickly and without the people living in a society even knowing what has happened. I worry that the current threats to the Pax Americana are not as civilized as the Visigoths that took Rome, or the Ottomans that ended the empire of Justinian.