Mediterranean Reflections on What Went Wrong

by Victor Davis Hanson

PJ Media


I have been traveling as a lecturer on a Hillsdale College Byzantium Cruise (from Venice to Athens, with several stops in the Adriatic, Mediterranean, and Aegean) for the last few days, and here are some eccentric reflections on civilizations of the past.


I spent yesterday in Venice — hot, humid, and crowded, as I had never quite seen it before. So much for the global recession that has supposedly curtailed world tourism.

Venice was not a classical city, and one can see why. It was malarial, without natural harbors or any readily identifiable deep ports or surrounding cliffs. It is instead a conglomeration of over 100 islands in the swamps of an Adriatic lagoon. Yet between 1200 and 1600, Venice was in many ways the preeminent city of the world. People — not oil, coal, timber, or farmland — matter most.

You can see the Lion of St. Mark cut into almost any fortification wall anywhere in the eastern Mediterranean — Crete, Rhodes, Cyprus, or Nauplion. For over three centuries the galleys of the republic kept the central and Western Mediterranean safe from Islam, while making a fortune as the go-between for Indian and Chinese imports from ports on the Eastern Mediterranean to Western Europe. By 1400 some 3,000 Venetian galleys and commercial ships brought into St. Mark’s Square loot from around the world. The elegant villas and palazzos show it. Venice was the best proof of the power of republican government when married to capitalism, as a rather small city without any natural resources soon created a renaissance from nothing other than political stability and market entrepreneurship.

What brought down Venice — by 1700 it had receded into a provincial city — was not periodic plague, or even the rise of Islam (checked in 1571 at Lepanto). But rather the ascendance of the Atlantic port maritime states of Western Europe — England, France, Holland, Portugal, and Spain — that soon bypassed the Asian land routes and shipped in Chinese and Indian goods without going through the Mediterranean or dealing with the Ottomans. And with the discovery of the New World, and the rise of the great sailing ships, Venice was doomed as a key international city. (That said, how such a small out-of-the-way polis ever remained preeminent is the real story, rather than its logical decline).

Venice missed out entirely on the fabulous wealth and commerce from the Americas. But more importantly, its republicanism eroded, and with it so too went the entrepreneurship which otherwise might have encouraged a more westward view.

Irony, But Lessons Too

A great deal of irony here: while Venice became legendarily wealthy from eastern trade, mastered the galley, and held at bay the rise of the Ottomans from Western Europe, it was insidiously becoming irrelevant. (Lepanto was the last large galley battle in history). Sometimes great states become obsessed with the immediate enemy, and forget the more creeping dangers on the horizon. Had Venice applied a fraction of its genius to trans-Atlantic shipbuilding and looked westward beyond Gibraltar rather than eastward to Istanbul, it might well have rivaled Portugal and Spain well into the eighteenth century.

In our own case, we are bickering over how to spend some $3.5 trillion ($2 trillion in borrow money) — millions for the Palestinians, billions to conduct two wars, trillions to redistribute in new social programs. But meanwhile other states are saving, investing, and improving their educational systems. The notion that the average American youth — 20 hours a week before the video game or TV console, a product of a therapeutic education that seeks to ensure that he is sensitive rather than educated — will inherit the lifestyle of his fathers seems to me dubious.

Our Tenth Hour

Our great wealth in the 20th century was in part predicated on natural bounty — farmland, oil, coal, iron ores, timber, etc. — under the aegis of a wonderfully stable constitution. The 21st will adjudicate whether our prior success was also predicated on superior intellect, law, and culture, inasmuch as our resources are now not so singular on the world stage. America to remain exceptional more than ever is going to have to have unusual citizens that are as lawful as they are creative.

Unless we return to a meritocracy, emphasize science, math, liberal arts, and engineering — rather than the plague of ‘studies’ courses (as in environmental-, leisure-, gender-, Latino-, black-, Asia-, Chicano-, community-, feminist-studies, etc.) — we simply will not match the Chinese and Indians in this century.

The American people are waiting for a leader bold enough to balance budgets, restore meritocracy, end the therapeutic mushy sentimentality in our educational system, and insist on the rule of law, free markets, and limit government.

Otherwise we know the ultimate end of the present road: a vast bureaucracy of non-taxpaying incompetents, damning the estranged few for not producing ever more to be taxed, convinced that they are geniuses — and only due to some sort of unfairness have been surpassed by others.

The Chinese are rough, competent people and have no such delusions. In about 10 years their enormous financial power will begin to translate into military sophistication, and I don’t think their foreign policy will either have much to do with human rights or care much about what we have to say about them.


Down the coast Ravenna is a strange place. The modern port is quite ugly or perhaps “bustling” is the better word. It is part of the muscular Italian north — smelting, petrochemicals, industrial trade — that explains why Italy is far wealthier than we usually suppose when we head to the more touristy south. If we wonder why all those quaint shops in Syracuse, Naples, Rome or Florence have nice glass, steel, and aluminum fixtures, come to Milan or Ravenna.

The city was the Byzantines’ last effort to keep Roman civilization safe a while longer from the so-called barbarians of the north. I spent the day walking alone to the city’s various churches and tombs — the great Basilica di San Vitale, the Battistero Neoniano, the little Mausoleo di Galla Placidia, and weird Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo. Ravenna was the Western capital from the late fifth to eight century, a final effort to preserve Roman culture. One can see the results in the beautiful mosaics, and octagonal and brick Byzantine church designs.

The city, like Venice, is on a lagoon, but the canals were in large part long ago covered. Other than the monuments, it is a rather depressing modern industrial city, though parts of the old inner urban core are still quite beautiful, very clean and well preserved. One gets a tinge of sadness — and warning — when entering these monumental churches, studying the mosaics that are among the best in the world. Civilization of a thousand years was collapsing, and yet somehow the old guard was able to marshal manpower and capital to created churches of enormous size, sophistication and beauty, a sort of last gasp as it were to keep art, learning and scholarship alive for yet another generation.

Our Own Ravenna

Here too, there are warnings. In California we are spending hundreds of billions on prisons, in which killers and thugs sue constantly for expanded rights, while universities lay off professors (though rarely nonacademic apparatchiks and administrators), and turn away students. Ravenna invested in thousands of hours of sculpture, we in thousands of hours of legal work in appeals and writs. Our cynical intellectual elites are becoming ever more postmodern even as the undereducated majority becomes premodern.

The state spends more and more on redistributive entitlements, less and less on infrastructure. Its population is bifurcating. A small, highly taxed elite supports museums, the arts, and gives to universities, a growing underclass swarms the emergency rooms, criminal justice system, and welfare roles.

The utopianism of the shrinking elite wants the Saturday night felon to have sophisticated jurisprudence when he is arrested, the best brain surgeon when a .44 magnum enters his skull in a gang dust-up, and humane day care, health care, and counseling — and yet now has no way any longer either to pay for it, or how to convince the growing underclass to become better educated and more productive. (To do so would demand a tragic diction and mindset).

One percent of Californians pays over 40% of our income taxes, perhaps as few as 360,000 out of some 36 million in the state. Each time one of these golden gooses flies east to no-tax Nevada, we lose about $50,000-80,000 in state taxes — or the money to keep a felon in the Corcoran prison fed, housed, medicated, and counseled for a year. Do the math: one small businessman escapes to Tahoe or Reno, one lifer has no support.

The World Outside

But the system, like Ravenna abound 500 A.D., is in collapse (so we are letting out felons onto the streets as our tax-paying elites leave). A high school teacher of history in 1950 in the Los Angeles public school system would not recognize the curriculum of today. But he would recognize parts of the 101 — about the same in many places, with about 10 times the traffic.

The Ravenna effect of trying to create lasting art and beauty at the eleventh hour as the world disintegrates is harrowing to experience. Looking up at the domes of these great churches, and factoring in the engineering brilliance and artistic genius that produced them, while the entire infrastructure of Roman society was disintegrating, is again eerie. For all the vigor of the Visigoths or Lombards, or Huns, there was little there of the Roman genius for architecture, art, or engineering.

While exploring the Basilica di San Vitale today, I was reminded of the news from America. An entire nation is obsessed with the silly Henry Louis Gates affair. A supposedly premier intellectual, who is a professor of African-American grievance, gets into a spat with a cop, purportedly evokes his “mama” in slurs, warns the cop whom he is “messin’” with, and then gets affirmation from the President — and we are supposed to think this is some sort of cosmic “teachable moment” in between trying to borrow another trillion dollars to socialize medicine in the manner of the Department of Motor Vehicles?

Just as there is no logic in ruining the American medical system, so too there is no longer an elite class when its best and brightest scream slurs like “mama” and “messin’”, or condemn an entire police force as acting “stupidly” when it is trying to keep the rule of law.

Yes, parts of the United States are becoming like the collapsing world outside the sanctum of San Vitale.

N.B.: I’ll try to get off this Spenglerian gloom before writing from a gloomy Santa Sophia in Constantinople next week.

©2009 Victor Davis Hanson

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