The Fall of Rome

A poem by W.H. Auden:

The piers are pummelled by the waves;
In a lonely field the rain
Lashes an abandoned train;
Outlaws fill the mountain caves.

Fantastic grow the evening gowns;
Agents of the Fisc pursue
Absconding tax defaulters through
The sewers of provincial towns.

Private rites of magic send
The temple prostitutes to sleep;
All the literati keep
An imaginary friend.

Cerebretonic Cato may
Extol the Ancient Disciplines,
But the muscle-bound Marines
Mutiny for food and pay.

Caesar’s double-bed is warm
As an unimportant clerk
Writes I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK
On a pink official form.

Unendowed with wealth or pity,
Little birds with scarlet legs,
Sitting on their speckled eggs,
Eye each flu-infected city.

Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.

Did Rome fall because they used lead in all their pipes? Maybe.

John Noble Wilford believed a combination of gout and lead poisoning did the trick.

Of course, it matters little whether or not this proposed cause actually precipitated the collapse; what’s important is that the Romans knew of the dangers of lead and yet continued to use it—for plumbing, for mining, even for preparing food. According to this forum on Skeptics:

Lead was known to the ancients from at least the 4th millennium BC, but its use increased markedly during Roman times, to the extent that it became a health hazard. Mines and foundry furnaces caused air pollution; lead was extensively used in plumbing; domestic utensils were made of lead and pewter, and lead salts were used in cosmetics, medicines and paints. As a microbicide, lead was also used to preserve food. A grape juice concentrate (sapa) commonly used as a sweetener was prepared by preference in lead containers.

Just like the Easter Island tribes continued to eat rats until dying of sexually transmitted diseases (as a new theory goes), our oligarchy will poison the ground water to wring the last drops of natural gas from the living shale. History repeats itself—and, as Marx said, it does so twice: first as tragedy and then as farce.

Back to the poem: the last two stanzas give me goosebumps. Yes, it has an Ozymandias feel, but there’s also something more: seeing the decline of a civilization from the vantage of now-liberated animals. I think that when our civilization declines, our contemporary non-human co-inhabitants will similarly rejoice.

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