Flea the Obvious

In one of my personal ironies of history, the period of ancient times that I find least interesting is the one I’ve been reading most about. Part of that is based on my lack of coherence when it comes to selecting reading material. I take recommendations seriously, so when a friend suggested Justinian’s Flea by William Rosen, I figured I’d better read it. I had fairly recently read Philip Jenkins’ Jesus Wars, about the nearly unbelievable shenanigans of post-apostolic Christendom, and so I felt up to taking on the Plague. Justinian’s Flea is about the fall of the Roman Empire. At Gorgias Press, where Justinian’s former prostitute wife Theodora was subjected to revisionist history that made her a lifelong saint, I learned to discount most of what went on during this time period. I was, it seems, a bit too hasty. Justinian and Theodora’s reign is quite interesting, and it is, as intimated, largely because of ecclesiastical politics.

Rosen begins his study by laying out the background to Justinian’s imperial days in Constantinople. In describing the disputes between what specialists now call various Christianities (formerly true believers versus heretics), Rosen notes that Christians had particular disdain for Gnostics, largely based on interpretations of what Jesus’ death might mean. At one point he writes, “Monotheistic religions are famously intolerant of apostasy, even when they disagree about what constitutes it.” Here he hit the flea on the head. “I doesn’t know what it be, but I’m ag’in it.” This attitude of religions has long been the motivation behind massive campaigns of bloodshed and intolerance. Often in the name of religions that claim peace and tolerance as the highest goods. So it was in the early church; heretics were routinely martyred for their “wrong” belief.

Not to throw in a spoiler, but the first great wave of the Plague does nearly draw an end to the ailing Roman Empire. Justinian’s expansions were mere band-aids trying to hold together a Frankenstein’s monster of many nationalities. So riding home on the bus I was surprised first of all that the driver engaged a passenger in conversation (generally frowned upon) and second of all, that he ranted for many miles about politics. It isn’t very comforting in the stressful traffic around New York City to hear your bus driver cry out, “the Roman Empire collapsed—maybe it’s time America did as well!” The prospects of getting home seldom looked dimmer. And I had just been reading about that very empire’s last days. I try to stay away from predictions because I dislike being proven wrong—the end of the story hasn’t been written yet. Rosen, however, has given us a great cautionary tale; if the humble flea can help bring down the world’s mightiest empire—one ruled by a leader overwhelmingly concerned with religion—maybe it’s time to canvass what the infidels like to take in their coffee.

5 thoughts on “Flea the Obvious

  1. “I doesn’t know what it be, but I’m ag’in it.”

    Fantastic !

    You said:

    ” I try to stay away from predictions because I dislike being proven wrong.”

    I don’t know if this was said fictitiously, but it made me think: I actually love making predictions and stating my opinions for two important reasons:
    (1) They help me think about things more clearly. My mind is more careful when I claim to agree with an idea.
    (2) I LOVE having my opinions overthrown — truly love it. Actually I just started a draft post today on that very issue — my recent Europe trip overthrew some of my opinions. So stating opinions helps me to watch more carefully for ways to overthrow them.

    The book sounds fun — did you enjoy it? (the bus trip story made me laugh!! Thanx)


    A Yale’s course on the Early Middle Ages may be another pleasant distraction on your learning ventures from this period.


      • Steve Wiggins

        Thanks, Sabio! It is always good to hear from you. Yes, you caught me in a rhetorical flourish although I always blush when I’m caught being wrong. Sorry I haven’t commented for so long over on Triangulations–work keeps me very busy these days. The book was enjoyable but very detailed on the analysis of Y. pestis; with your medical interests you might find it informative.


        • Nice to hear from you again too:

          (1) I forgot if you answered this, but your writing is more clearly critical of religion than it was 3 years ago. Are you no longer looking for jobs at Christian schools? Or is there some other change?

          (2) Even if you used a “rhetorical flourish” (great phrase — you write superbly), perhaps by disposition you are more inclined to not state boldly state an opinion as I am. I think that may be a spectrum thing for personalities — what are your intuitions. Go ahead, take a chance. 🙂

          (3) No need to apologize on not commenting. Go comment on my recent post about Biblical and Greek allusions — you are the perfect commentor for this post!!

          Peace, dude.


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