Friday, September 22, 2023

Tom Holland on Pax: War and Peace in Rome's Golden Age

Last night we headed for Waterstones in The Galleries, Bristol to hear the author Tom Holland give a captivating talk on his latest tome, Pax: War and Peace in Rome's Golden Age. I received the book as a birthday present from my son and have just started to dip into it. The last time we heard Holland speak at the same venue he was promoting his previous work, Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind (see a report here). 

The speaker began by taking us to Hadrian's Wall, which marked the northernmost point of the Roman Empire. The Emperor Hadrian liked to visit the outposts of his vast domain, which stretched from Scotland to Arabia. The point of Hadrian's Wall was not so much to keep the barbarous Scots at bay, as to rub their noses in the fact that they had been excluded from the vast cultivated garden that flourished under Roman rule. 

Nero was the last Emperor to have descended from the great Augustus. His demise triggered the 'Year of the Four Emperors' in 69AD. Wannabes Galba, Otho and Vitellius failed to maintain their hold on power. Those who followed such as Vespasian, Domitian, Trajan and Hadrian ruled for long enough to ensure stability. That stability was the product of good PR as much as the might of the legions at the Imperial overlord's command.

The Emperors had statues erected in their honour across their domains. Coins bore the stamp of the Emperor's face. These images depicted how the Emperors wished to be seen, whether as aged throwbacks to antique virtue, or eternally young and virile rulers. Roman noblemen were usually clean shaven, but Hadrian affected a soldierly beard, which also gave him the aspect of a Greek philosopher. Holland had a suspiring amount to say about imperial barnets and beards. Otho's toupee made him an altogether unsuitable candidate for Emperor. No wonder he only lasted three months and a day in office. 

The writer described the Roman Emperors as the 'apex predators' of history. They ruled unhindered by any Christian notion of what constitutes right and wrong. After the death of his wife Poppaea, Nero spotted a slave boy who bore a passing resemblance to his dear departed Mrs. He had 'Sporus' castrated and married him. Following Nero's death, Vitellius sought to win the approval of the masses by having Sporus gang raped at a gladiator show. The poor lad only avoided this public humiliation by committing suicide. The short-lived rule of Vitellius ended when he was slaughtered by his successor Vespasian's troops. 

Holland described Christians of the time as 'Mesozoic mammals in a ecosystem dominated by dinosaurs.' But it was the little Christian mammals who won the day. The reason why we are appalled at the blood-soaked deeds of the mighty Emperors is that the 'Christian Revolution' totally transformed the moral landscape of the ancient world. How that happened is the story told in Dominion.    

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

The destroyer of worlds

'Ban the Bomb' was a thing in the 1980s. The Greenham Common women protested at the presence of nuclear missiles at the Berkshire RAF base.  A little more modestly, I braved being told off in school for wearing a CND badge. Those were the days. The prospect of nuclear oblivion haunted our teenage imaginations. In their number 1 single, Going Underground, The Jam lamented, ‘You want more money, of course I don't mind/To buy nuclear textbooks for atomic crimes.’ Fun, eh?

The man who wrote the ‘nuclear textbook’ was the subject of Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster movie, Oppenheimer. Richard Oppenheimer brought together some of the most brilliant scientists of his day to develop nuclear weapons ahead of Nazi Germany. Winning that arms race was a massive scientific achievement. The resulting bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending World War II. Yet Oppenheimer was deeply disturbed by the weapon of mass destruction he had helped to create, ‘I have become death, the destroyer of worlds’, the scientist reflected.

You won't find me sporting a CND badge these days. Sadly, nuclear weapons can’t be uninvented, although I certainly hope they will never be used again. Oppenheimer highlights what is best and worst about human beings. We are capable of the most astounding scientific breakthroughs, yet we are also capable of unleashing death and destruction on a massive scale. The Christian faith recognises that human beings are made in the image of God. Hence our exceptional abilities. But the Bible also testifies, ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’.

Jesus came to deliver us from sin by dying in our place. Christ’s resurrection from the dead  brings the hope of a new creation for those who put their trust in him. The film Oppenheimer concludes on an ominous note, with the world teetering on the brink of nuclear oblivion. The Bible ends more hopefully, pointing us to Jesus as the one in whom there is life, the Saviour of the world. In the Book of Revelation John is given to see this glorious vision: ‘I saw a new heaven and a new earth... and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away’.

*For September edition of various parish magazines 

Monday, September 04, 2023


Even Jesus needed a break. After a time of extremely busy activity he said to his followers, ‘Come away and rest a while.’ The trouble was that the crowds got wind of where Jesus was heading and followed him there. Cue the feeding of the 5000. So much for that break. At least the intention to stop for a rest was there.

The Lord did not make us to keep going 24/7. We need a good night’s sleep and beyond that, regular breaks from the daily grind. God commanded the people of Israel to rest on the sixth day of the week, or the Sabbath. The Christian day of rest is Sunday, the first day of the week. It was on that day that Jesus rose again from the dead.

It is often during the summer that people take time off work for their main annual holiday. But there is a big difference between rest and leisure. The American novelist Marilynne Robinson  reflected, ‘The Sabbath has a way of doing just what it was meant to do, sheltering one day in seven from the demands of making money. Its benefits cannot be commercialised. Leisure, by way of contrast, is highly commercialised. But leisure is seldom more than a bit of time ransomed from habitual stress.’

I’m sure anyone who has braved a busy theme park would agree. You pay through the nose to spend up to an hour queuing for the brief thrill of a rollercoaster ride and then its on to the next thing. Fun, if you like hurtling around while upside down. Restful, not so much.

Yet it’s rest that our troubled souls and weary bodies long for. Days off and holidays are of some help, but there is more. We were made for God and it is only in being reconciled to him that we can find true peace. Jesus died on the cross for our sins that we may be forgiven and be put right with God. He says to us, ‘Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’

* For the August edition of various local parish magazines