Here is just one, from Indiana: The factory town of Muncie is famed as the site of the Middletown sociology studies a century ago. It was the longtime home of the Ball Brothers glass-jar company, since departed. It is still the home of Ball State University, steadily growing. Like other manufacturing cities in the Midwest, Muncie has battled the effects of industrial decline. Among the consequences was a funding crisis for the Muncie Community Schools, which became so severe that two years ago the state took the system into receivership.
Last year, Ball State University became the first-ever public university in the country to assume direct operational responsibility for an entire K—12 public-school system. But getting this far involved innovation and creativity in the political, civic, financial, and educational realms to win support in a diverse community. Mearns, who has been president of Ball State since and is a guiding force behind the plan, told me this year in Muncie. Run away. But you have to do it. This craziness and commitment keeps a culture alive.
A new world is emerging, largely beyond our notice. Our Towns: James Fallows on how a local newspaper survives. Even when the formal ties of the Roman empire had broken, informal links connected its various parts. In the absence of the Roman state, there was still the Latin language as the original lingua franca; there was still a network of roads. Christianity in some form was a shared religion. Today the links include trade, travel, family lineage, and collaborative research—links that, like the internet, were forged in an era of functioning national and global institutions but with a better chance to endure.
Senate has not approved a major treaty in years. Morley Winograd, a former adviser to Al Gore and a co-author of the new book Healing American Democracy: Going Local , argues that networked localities have already taken effective control of crucial policy areas.
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He gave the example of planting trees, which might sound insignificant but, according to a new study by researchers in Switzerland, could be a crucial step toward removing excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Last year, the Trump administration said it would abandon the targets for cutting automobile emissions and improving fuel efficiency that the Obama administration had said automakers must reach. Historians in a thousand years will know for sure whether the American empire in this moment was nearing its own late antiquity.
Perhaps by then Muncie and South Bend will loom as large in the historical imagination as the monasteries of Cluny and St. Gall do today. The ancient university towns of Palo Alto and New Haven may lie in different countries. We want to hear what you think about this article. Tom Holland , the author of Rubicon, tells us about the exercise of power, the staging of ceremony and the influence of religion in ancient Rome. The thing about adapting the texts is that the framework is there for you. Essentially, all that you are doing is a glorified cutting job. But you have to cut it in such a way that preserves both the structure of the narrative and those episodes within it that will give the listener, who may not be familiar with the text, some sense of the reason why it is so powerful and the reason why it has had the impact not just over the centuries but also over the millennia.
Obviously it is harder to adapt a classical text than it is, say, a 19th century novel, simply because we are further removed from the Roman world. With all the upheavals in the world do you think there are things that we can still learn from Roman times? I think that the quality of great literature is that it contains timeless truths. It is like a kaleidoscope — our understanding of the text will change according to the way that we ourselves change.
In terms of the lessons to be drawn from Roman history, of course it will always hold a mirror up to the present, for the simple reason that what is distinctive about Western civilisation, particularly compared with the other great civilisations like China or India or even the Middle East, is that in the West we have had two cracks at it.
We had the first starting in BC and lasting up until the collapse of the Roman Empire and then the second, building on the ruins left by classical civilisation, continuing into the present. And all the way through our attempts to construct civilisation we are always overshadowed by the previous attempt, so we will find in Roman history what I guess we find in science fiction — that there are points of resemblance heightened and made strange by the way that they are also completely different.
I thought that if I was going to choose five books on Roman history I really had to choose a Roman historian because, for modern historians, Roman historians have always been the great model. Because the classics are classics. Throughout the Middle Ages when people wanted to have a model they would look back to great Roman historians.
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I was thinking I should possibly have chosen the man who I think is the greatest Roman historian, Tacitus , who is a sort of pathologist of vice, particularly the vice of autocracy. I think he is one of the all-time great historians.
But I decided against that because my next two choices are very infused with the spirit of Tacitus. And it really had a crucial sense of shaping our understanding of Imperial Rome as a place of vice and savagery and sexual depravity and violent, brutal, bawdy splendour. I think that what would leap out would be the shenanigans of Caligula, who indulged in incest, forced prostitution — lunacies that would put…. And that is simply because he has exerted such a magnetic appeal on future generations. His influence is so clearly massive and he is seen by many people as a very attractive figure.
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My own feeling is that he is actually much darker, verging on psychopathic, but it is that tension between the man who in his correspondence is witty and charming set against the record of someone who brought unbelievable slaughter and mayhem to Gaul and then to his own people. And it is that combination of creativity and destruction within him that I think makes him one of the all-time magnetic figures in world history.
Next up is The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, which is considered a classic by many, but also somewhat of a heavy read. I think it is regarded as a heavy read simply because it is physically heavy. The most accessible version is the Penguin one which comes in three large volumes. But the truth is that it remains incredibly readable. As I said before, it takes Tacitus as its model, who was famous for his waspish style, and a careful balancing and modulating of the sentences so that irony would be generated.
This is what Gibbon does as well, and it means that not only is it an incredible work of scholarship but it is also compulsively entertaining.
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I really think that anyone who is prepared to give it a chance will find themselves smiling at the very least throughout it. It was written in the 18th century, but do you really think it still has an enduring appeal? Yes, and what is interesting about Gibbon is that his work is not only a masterpiece of 18th-century prose but it shapes the terms of historical debate now. Instead it continues right the way up until the fall of Constantinople in and even beyond.
Get the weekly Five Books newsletter. What that does is to give us a sense of how when civilisations fall they are inevitably clearing the decks for other civilisations to rise. That is the sort of understanding that has taken historians quite a long time to catch on to and it means that Gibbon is now coming back into focus as someone who really has something to teach. This again is an absolute classic which is completely informed by Tacitus. It has that very mordant take on the way that power works and operates.
One of the reasons for that is that it was written not in the heyday of the British Empire — a time when British historians were rather keen on the workings of the Roman Empire and identified themselves strongly with the Caesars and all their works — but in the s, and published just as World War II was starting.
Yes, but also the power of it is that it is a dispatch from the frontline of dictatorship. So any notion that this is just ancient history, and therefore for that reason somehow removed from how politics function and work now, is absolutely impossible to sustain when you read this and hear the details about how the Romans are coming to terms with Augustus and his regime. And the henchmen of Augustus are very recognisable figures. I have chosen this because a lot of books on Ancient Rome, my own included, generally like to tell stories that take fragments of evidence and piece them together to make a coherent narrative.
But there is also a deep pleasure in looking at some of the things that we think we know about Rome, or the myths that we know are not actually true, taking the mystery to pieces and examining the works and seeing what is there.
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