Saturday, August 30, 2014

Stephen Vincent Benét: On the End of a World

Valeria Victrix
Badge and Standard of Legion XX
Moulded Antefix Roof Tile
Holt, Clwyd, Wales

In Stephen Vincent Benét's short story "The Last of the Legions," the first-person narrator, a centurion of high intelligence, speaks with his Greek friend Agathocles, who keeps accounts for the legion, about the growing darkness as Rome begins to pull back from its borders, in the legion's case, from the northwest of Britain, and he asks why order ends:
"But tell me," I said, "why does it end?"

He shook his head. "I do not know," he said. "Men build and they go on building. And then the dream is shaken - it is shaken to bits by the storm. Afterwards, there follow darkness and the howling peoples. I think that will be for a long time. I meant to be a historian, when I first joined the eagles. I meant to write of the later wars of Rome as Thucydides wrote of the Greek wars. But now my ink is dry and I have nothing to say."

"But," I said, "it is there - it is solid - it will last," for I thought of the country we had marched through, and the boy, unafraid, on his pony.

"Oh," said Agathocles, "it takes time for the night to fall - that is what people forget. Yes, even the master of your villa may die in peace. But there are still the two spirits in man - the spirit of building and the spirit of destruction. And when the second drives the faster horse, then the night comes on."

"You said you had a state and a law," I said. "Could you not have kept them?"

"Why, we could," said Agathocles, "but we did not. We had Pericles, but we shamed him. And now you and I - both Romans" - and he laughed and coughed - "we follow a hairy general to an unknown battle. And, beyond that, there is nothing."
And I wonder, as I look on the state of our world today, how dark is the future we face in the face of our storm.

Read the story.

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