The last days of Empire

Tuesday, March 22, 2016 0 Permalink 0

Unclaimed Treasure

In our area there are literally pots of gold buried in the ground. Usually they are ink pots.

It seems that the lowly ink pot, for reason of its lowliness, no doubt, was the vessel of choice for buried treasure as the chaos of the Dark Ages engulfed the late Roman Empire here in Gaul.

The burials of these caches of gold were attempts to preserve wealth against the wave of lawlessness that swept the area in the 5th century as government and society collapsed.

Who knows how often it worked. What we do know is that very often the owner of the buried wealth never returned to retrieve it.


The bulldozer operators have the best stories, for they make the first cuts. The bulldozer will be scraping a path to make way for a road or foundation, the blade catches a buried pot just at grade, and they say a spray of gold is what the operator sees first, bursting out into the mud like a handful of glitter cast in the path of his machine.

He’s hit another pot of gold. Merde! Everything will have to come to a stop until the archaeologists can do their work. (Or, and no one knows how often this is instead the case, the offending antiquity is quietly pocketed or otherwise sidelined, filled over or done away with, in order to advance the work on schedule, without the bother of inviting meddling historians onto the worksite.)

The ink pot in the feature image above is in the archaeology museum at Montans. It was discovered in just this way under Main Street in front of the museum a few years ago.

Because it was real gold, and bright as the day it was minted, it survived. Lesser metals, pottery and carvings left underground for a 1,500 years are not always so lucky.

This spring feels like a fall

I’m thinking much about the unknowable stories of those buried ink pots lately, as we had a visitor last week, only our second in 5 years looking to flee the homeland of the USA. I imagine these kinds of refugees, seeking counsel as to how best to go about the extraction and re-installation in a new land when already in one’s 40s, will increase in volume from now on. His advent and confession of intent was not a surprise, in view of what’s going on in that most recent Empire called America.

To a certain kind of person (I would argue for anyone paying attention) it does not matter which frontrunning candidate wins the American elections this political season. It does not matter in the long run, as the end is at hand. The Empire is going down faster than anyone thought possible. That much seems obvious no matter what side you are on and no matter what your priorities.

Questions posing as headlines

There is a saying in the threadbare-elegant South of my youth, “It only takes 10 years to build up a great family, but it can decline forever.”

Greatness comes fast, sometimes erupting quite suddenly out of circumstances unforeseen like a volcano from the tranquil earth, after which the forces of erosion can take their time on the resulting mountain of stone, leaving traces that might last millions of years, if they are ever fully erased.

But the greater part of the grandeur falls away almost as quickly as it arose. Many’s the grassy knoll that once was running with hot rivers of lava.

What is true of a family name and a volcano is also true of empires. Their origins are varied and cast widely over preceding history, but the evident facts of their rise and the moment of their zenith are more or less agreed upon and historic by consensus.

But like that erosion that never quite fully erases those who made a truly great mark on the world, they can decline so long that it’s difficult to say when they stopped being a great empire, much less when the decline became irreversible.

To the frustration of those who would draw a moral lesson from history, the Roman decline in power came hundreds of years after the most famous despotic emperors and relaxing of public mores. It has even been suggested that the most prurient and vicious of the moral declensions may have actually spurred the political acme that  followed.

Looking around today at the United States, and remembering personally the first four freewheeling “decadent” decades of my life in it, I can see the difference firsthand in so-called moral and real socio-political collapse, and I can’t help but tire of the torrent of inane articles nowadays asking, “Is the United States in Decline?”

The real punchline is in their datelines, and the syntax. If you can ask that now, it’s long past the time. The publication is begging the obvious, still afraid to say it outright.

The process is so well advanced by the time the curtain of ignorance and denial is torn down that the rotten machine of the interior can come as quite a shock, but its exposure in no way marks the start of the decline. We are well into it, maybe even nearing its end.


When did the decline start? At precisely the moment of greatness. We’ve been in decline since most of us got here.

But when did it become irreversible? That answer is harder to take: On our watch.

How much longer do we have? Well, another way to look at the Roman Decline is to call it Late Antiquity and the origin of all that rose after. Maybe in the long view of history we are already in that building period, a new age, without realizing it.

But here again are the days when gold is interred and panic reigns. Possessions are cached hastily into storage, some Rubbermaid bins and a padlock on a storage unit is the modern ink pot, and only the bodies with only what they can carry flee their accustomed continents in ships and airplanes, some never to return.

Some of us won’t make it back to our hoards. This election cycle in the USA is like nothing any of us have ever seen – verging Civil War, but most certainly heralding the collapse of a long-hegemonic system of 20th-century government.

The vanities are on fire. Riches are again disappearing – a great system, a peaceful life for some privileged to be called citizens, soon to be in tatters.

One can imagine, one day in the distant future, a person holding a lowly clay ink pot – the scribe, perhaps, of her tribe – somehow unearthing a fabulously complex bulldozer gone to ruin, and wondering what it would have been like to be one of the lucky ones at the height of their greatness.