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This Anxious Age of Late Antiquity

History never repeat itself. Too many variables are at play each moment for anything to return identical every few centuries. Even if time itself might be cyclical in the very long run – like the ancient Greeks and Hindus believed – the specific vicissitudes of history don’t follow a cyclical course.

But even though the events of history never repeat themselves, the human psyche, on the contrary, tends to replicate its responses to similar situations in different ages.

For example, it is possible to identify some interesting recurrences – at least in terms of psychic responses – between what happened in the Mediterranean world during the age of Late Antiquity (roughly spanning from the 2nd to the 6th century AD), and what is taking place today in the West, in the age of Late Modernity.

Of course, there are many differences between these two ages. We live in a highly technological, interconnected, post-democratic world, while the Mediterranean region in Late Antiquity could count on little available technology, it was not remotely as interconnected as we are today, and it was used to centuries of Imperial rule.

But there are also several important similarities.

For one, they are both ages of pandemics. Chronologically speaking, Late Antiquity is contained between two great explosions of the plague: the Antonine plague of the 160s AD, and the Justinian plague of the mid-6th century. And an innumerable series of other pandemics took place between these two great ones, exacting a horrific toll in terms of human lives and individual suffering.

Both ages are stuck in seemingly endless economic crises. In Late Antiquity, the crisis erupted in the third century AD, and it concerned primarily financial and monetary stability – with serious risks to the very survival of the monetary system of the Roman empire. In our own time, the crisis that exploded in 2008 seems to have become a permanent feature of our socio-economic landscape.

Late Antiquity was also an age of environmental disasters and growing scarcity, with episodes of famine becoming endemic to the whole Mediterranean region up until the 8th century AD. It’s not necessary to stress the similarities here.

And Late Antiquity was also a time of great political turmoil. After a period of relative stability, in which the Roman empire enjoyed a supremacy comparable to that of the Atlantic West after the fall of the Soviet Union, the geopolitical stage started to be rocked by increasingly convulsive movements. The pressure exerted by the barbarians in the northeast, and by the Parthians in the southeast, contributed to an already ongoing movement towards implosion. Civil wars began to erupt with increasing frequency within the Empire, especially in its Western provinces. And the State responded to these challenges by tightening its social control over its own people. Police control grew to the levels of a modern totalitarian regime, while the penalties inflicted to transgressors became increasingly brutal. The Roman empire progressively withdrew from its old functions as an enhancer of social development, to concentrate almost exclusively on its immense military machine – which in turn fuelled frequent revolts and attempted coups d’etat. Increased taxation became necessary to sustain this militaristic system, and it fell, as it does today, almost entirely on the lowest classes – while the upper classes could emancipate themselves from governmental control, thus effectively forming a galaxy of para-states within the State.

Beyond these historical similarities between the physical and social landscape of Late Antiquity and our own, however, it is interesting to consider how the social psyche of the time responded to the situation in which it lived.

Late Antiquity was, as Dodds famously remarked, an “age of anxiety”. And its people reacted to their growing feelings of instability, decline and impotence, by deploying a series of radical psychological strategies.

It was then, that a general negative attitude towards the world and the body became mainstream for the first time in the Mediterranean region. In the eyes of the Gnostics – whose movement traversed Paganism, Judaism, Christianity and, later, Islam – the world was essentially an evil place, which had to be sabotaged and fled as soon as possible. Reproduction was seen as a grave sin, since it perpetuated the human enslavement to this evil world and to the cage of the body.

The first ascetic movements of the Mediterranean world developed around that same time, with hordes of disenchanted people escaping the metropolises to seek refuge in the deserts or in the wilderness.

Political debate was supplanted by dynamics of inter-religious hostility, which often lead – as in the city of Alexandria by Egypt – to explosions of violence and mass murders.

While the ancient Pagan beliefs began to wane, those who still belonged to the “old world” of Paganism converged either towards a resigned cynicism, or, most frequently, towards a closer familiarity with magic, mystery rituals and attempts at personal salvation. That was the time, for example, of the explosion of magic among the adherents to Neo-platonic philosophies and religions, and of the peak of success of Hermetism.

Under different guises, Christian, Gnostic or Pagan, the general psychic mood of the time saw the world as a place that could not be saved without the miraculous intervention of a divine power. Everything was lost, so it seemed, and historical change was beyond human intervention.

Among the psychic reactions to this dire state of things, it is especially interesting to mention the experience of Aelius Aristides, a Greek rhetorician who lived in Asia Minor in the 2nd century AD. With uncanny sensitivity, Aelius seemed to feel in advance the incoming wave of despair – and he lost no time to deploy a strategy against the overwhelming suffering which it brought.

In his youth, Aelius planned to become a rhetorician. He studied under the best teachers, and when he was ready he decided to go to Rome to start his career. The journey to Rome, however, was a disaster. Aelius returned home one year later, gravely ill in both body and mind. He went to the sanctuary of the god of medicine, Asclepius, where he tried to cure his multiple diseases. As it was customary, his cure consisted in a combination of diets, exercise, and especially an intense engagement with his own dreams. In the dreams – it was believed – the god revealed to his believers the recipes of his miraculous cures. Aelius had a great number of such dreams, which he recorded in a strange little book, titled The Sacred Discourses.

The book clearly shows that Aelius’ ailments were not only physical but, most frequently, psychological and psychosomatic. Every day he felt a new illness, and every night the god would come into his dreams to tell him what to do. Asclepius’ intervention did not consist in providing one definitive cure, but it was rather an endless chain of miracles that constantly saved the life of his patient.

These were not always easy cures. Asclepius would sometimes demand from Aelius extreme forms of purification and of sacrifice – as when he asked him to cut off a finger in exchange for health to the rest of his body. More frequently, however, Asclepius expected from Aelius a different kind of performance – much more artistic than either medical or magical. In his dreams, and sometimes in his waking visions, Aelius heard the god often asking him to compose a text and to recite it immediately. Rhetoric was to be Aelius’ best cure – and he had no time to consider the physical, pychological or intellectual obstacles that could limit him. Even when he had nothing to say, or when he felt such anxiety that he could not open his mouth, the god intervened and made him speak, telling him precisely what to say.

To our surprise, perhaps, but not to that of Aelius, he would eventually become a famous rhetorician, and indeed among the most celebrated of his time.

But the sanctuary of Asclepius provided Aelius with more than just a place where he could dream. Reading his writing, it is possible to gain an idea of what it was like to spend years inside the sanctuary, as Aelius did, and what kind of environment a person could find there. When the god ordered him to speak, Aelius could always count on an audience ready to listen to him. Not only his fellow patients and the friends who often visited him found nothing strange in his following orders received in a dream, but they actively encouraged Aelius to follow them, and they were happy to assist him.

In the great turmoil of Late Antiquity, although somewhat ahead of their historical time, people like Aelius Aristides found comfort in a world outside of the world. They followed the injunctions that came from an unfathomable elsewhere, effectively trusting the tendency (and ability) of their psyche to cure itself.

This is not unlike what many young people are doing today, in the time of Late Modernity. Many of our contemporaries wish to escape this “evil” world – typically through digital means – and they share with Late Ancient people the drive to drop out of the lures of the body and of the trap of reproduction.

Unlike dreamers like Aelius, however, there seems to be little space, today, where one can find that level of support to the quest of following their own dreams – not intended as aspirations or ambitions, but as mysterious voices through which our deepest psyche (seen as innately divine) tries to address our consciousness towards a therapy of self-cure.

If we were to follow the historical trajectory of Late Antiquity to its bitter conclusion, we would have little reason to be optimists about our own present. After centuries of civil war, police repression, political instability, financial and environmental crisis, pandemics and famine, the Mediterranean world succumbed to one of the darkest moments in its history. Only the triumph of Islam, many centuries later, will be able to return a part of it to the same splendour which it had enjoyed during the Roman period.

But history does not repeat itself, and the fate of Late Antiquity is no indication of what expects us. Things might go entirely differently, this time.

But what if they didn't?

In that case, if we were really to fall into a debacle as abyssal as that of Late Antiquity, we could still learn from people like Aelius Aristides that in times of great distress, when a definitive cure seems impossible, only the solidarity that comes from an environment of shared dreaming makes it possible to survive – and possibly to thrive.

This is indeed a form of escapism, but not without good reasons.

Although history never repeats itself, it is possible to see that there are recurrent moments when engaging with the world amounts to condemning oneself to the direst of defeats and to the most burning of frustrations. In those moments, as different as they are each time, it is always possible to start a mass exodus outside of the world, towards unexplored realms. To move out of the battlefield, and to seek a different elsewhere.

As Aelius teaches us, such a radical migration is best done together, as a path of therapy, rather than alone, as a flight of madness.


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