May 21, 2007

New Measures from Antiquity

Continuing with Bryan Ward-Perkins' excellent book The Fall of Rome:

...I have deliberately focused on people in the middle and lower ranks of society, and on the access that they had to sophisticated tools and products, such as writing and good-quality pottery. As we have seen, this access was widespread and impressive in the Roman period, and very restricted thereafter. In this sense, ancient 'civilization' came to an end in the West with the fall of the empire. Of course, what the ancients had done with their sophisticated 'civilization' was as varied, and often as questionable, as our own behaviour. It enabled a peasant near Luna to eat off a Campanian dinner plate, but it also built a mountain of rubbish at Mount Testaccio; it allowed a slave in Britian to express his wish for freedom, but it also enabled a Pompeiian perfume-seller to record a particularly good fuck. Such things, as much as a multitude of books and impressive buildings, are the characteristics of a complex society, or if one prefers, of a 'civilization'.

Elsewhere, Ward-Perkins notes that material culture has declined in importance among those who have been interpreting the fall of the empire; that a preference for aescetic, self-abnegating Christian monks and saints has replaced the interest in material culture.

Though my personal tastes run more in the line of reading the lives of the saints, I tend to think that societies are better judged by their ability to provide fine dining ware and other household goods for even the poorest, allow the slave to wish for freedom (or better yet to be free), and the perfume seller to revel in his good fuck (why are those latter two in opposition?).

It seems to me that widespread access to material benefits -- of Ward-Perkins' "sophisticated tools and products"--should be the primary measure of a just society.

Posted by Ideofact at May 21, 2007 11:25 PM