Thomas Cahill: Civilizations Then and Now


In How the Irish Saved Civilization, you make a comparison between Rome and the current Western world as “the empire.” Recently, there’s been much discussion of whether our empire is on the verge of falling. Do you think that comparison holds up, fifteen years after the book’s initial publication?
    I don’t believe in enormous predictions. What we do know is that there are certain patterns that seem invariable, and one of them is that all empires fall sooner or later. Rome’s empire lasted twelve centuries, which is longer by far than any other historical empire known to us. The United States of America has only been around a couple hundred years. So is it about to slip into third place or something like that? I think it’s hard to know. But what I do believe is that sooner or later our time in the sun will have come and gone.
With regard to specific comparisons between Rome and the United States or the Western world, I see two very close comparisons. Rome was really done in by two forces, one internal and the other external. The internal force was injustice within the empire, which specifically was focused on taxation. In order to fund its many enterprises, the emperors taxed heavily. They taxed the poor and what now would be called the middle class. They didn’t tax the rich. That’s the internal comparison that I see.
     The external one has to do with the barbarians.The barbarians of the Roman Empire eventually, along with the injustices within the empire, brought down the empire. The barbarians were not really the wild marauding screwballs that we tend to think of them as. They were poor people who wanted in. They were immigrants. And we are doing a terrible job right now with immigration. We are trying to close down our doors, which I think is one of the worst things we can do.
    If the Romans had looked at the problem rationally, they would’ve said, the best thing that we can do is try to figure out how we can integrate these people into the society. They didn’t do that. We can’t afford to do the same thing. We must answer the question, how can we integrate these people? All this nonsense that’s going on right now politically across the country, with people saying that we must build higher walls between Arizona and Mexico, is just silly. There’s no wall that we could make that would be high enough and strong enough to keep them all out. And of course no one should know that better than Irish Americans who almost all have some relationship to immigration – either directly or because of ancestors who came here at the turn of the 19th or 20th century – otherwise they wouldn’t be here. And that’s true of almost all Americans with some Irish identity. So we of all people should be in the forefront of protecting immigrants and welcoming them.

I love the section in How The Irish Saved Civilization on scribes adding their own footnotes and commentary as they copy manuscripts —
Part of it was that although they did know the alphabet and they could read and write, they weren’t sophisticated people. You and I might find it rather boring to copy texts in languages that we didn’t understand very well, like Greek, or, even if we did understand the language, the thoughts were so different from anything that would have been spoken by Irishmen in that period. The scribes were copying very difficult texts, and they entertained themselves by making little pictures in the margins and putting in little comments on the texts or on other scribes’ work. At times they put in these beautiful little poems and that’s how we have what we have left of early Irish poetry. It all started off as oral poetry, but it was written down by the monks and that’s why we still have it. Maybe while they were copying out some particularly ponderous section of Plato, they would put in a little four-line poem about finding a girl in the medieval forest.

It’s almost like there’s a conversation going on between the authors and the scribes. I’m tempted to link this idea of intertexuality to Web media,  open-source projects and the    blogosphere where media is an ongoing conversation. Is that a link that you see?
I do, and one of the great pioneers of this intertextuality was James Joyce; Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are reflections of that. In Ulysses he is in some ways in a dialogue with Homer. And Finnegans Wake is a dialogue with everything [laughs]; he tries to get everything in there one way or another. Whether it’s from an opera or prose from the past that [Joyce] particularly admires; all of that is thrown into Finnegans Wake. So this is long before the Internet, but in some ways he really embodies that.