The year 590 CE started with floods on the River Tiber. Rumors of dragons as big as tree-trunks flowed with the rising waters. Much relied-upon granaries were destroyed. Churches that were the spiritual, political, and logistical heart of Rome’s many communities collapsed. Even the sea monsters drowned, “smothered among the rough and salty waves of the sea and cast up on the shore,” as the seventh-century chronicler Gregory of Tours reports.
The devastation was considerable. Then came the plague. Moving from house to house, the plague consumed Rome. The city handled it with all the messiness we have come to expect, including, so Gregory of Tours chronicles, a massive seven-part procession that began from churches across the city and converged on the basilica of the blessed Virgin Mary. Social distancing this emphatically was not. In fact, eighty people were said to have fallen dead during the announcement of the grand procession alone.
Plagues came and went throughout the fourteen-year papacy of Gregory the Great (r. 590–604). It is fair to say that Gregory was more apt than we are to see the world as drawing to its end. Plagues were, to use a precise theological term, apocalyptic for Gregory: They literally “unveiled” the true state of the world. That which was previously hidden is now revealed for all to see. In these conditions Gregory saw a world drawing to a close and promoted such visions not only in his ornate biblical exegesis but in the countless letters he wrote to his fellow bishops across Europe and North Africa. In 599, when a plague was spreading throughout North Africa, Gregory encouraged the bishop of Carthage to interpret plagues as one of the things we should expect to happen in the last of days. In an earlier exchange when the plague of 590 was still ravaging the Italian peninsula, Gregory encouraged the bishop of Narni to use the ongoing plague as an opportunity to urge the “barbarian heretics” to convert to the Catholic faith. The plagues were, to put it simply, an opportunity to convert to the Catholic faith rather than perish at the final judgment.
Gregory’s crisis instincts are, of course, not ours. He was more apt to see the plague in spiritual terms with cosmic stakes. While many Americans are ordering groceries online, watching Tiger King on Netflix, and dutifully participating in Zoom conference calls, Gregory’s age preferred good old-fashioned repentance and penitence. In the sermon he purportedly gave in Rome at the outbreak of the plague, Gregory exhorted the people in a time when “our fellow-citizens…are being bustled off in droves” to bewail and repent their sins while there was still time for lamentation. With some notable exceptions, religious leaders are not calling for mass revivals for the people to repent their sins. Churches are surprisingly compliant with recommendations to suspend all public gatherings.
Before the full extent of COVID-19 became evident, Western Europeans and Americans shared the crisis instincts of the fifth-century theologian and bishop Augustine of Hippo. Like kingdoms, plagues come and go. We recover and resume our familiar patterns. In his City of God, Augustine was, in fact, more apt to mock those who thought they might be able to imagine a way of life in this world that is perfectly protected from plague. Like Augustine, who thought of himself as participating in a continuous tradition that stretched back to Cicero and before, we think of ourselves as part of the world in which wars and pandemics don’t significantly alter our lives. Our affections are no longer formed by the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 or even the world wars. We are rather men and women of les trente glorieuses.
But in recent weeks, it is becoming apparent that our instincts are migrating toward the Gregorian, if not the outright apocalyptic. Gregory knew his world to be “modern,” as Cassiodorus, the sixth-century politician-turned-monk, baptized the post-Augustine age. For Cassiodorus, the modern was not the new, cool age that would displace the out-of-date, traditional past. The value judgment was otherwise: Cassiodorus, like Gregory, had a strong sense of their age’s relative posterity, of a loss of something noble and glorious. But it also came with a new kind of hope. They could look forward to a new, no doubt different reality ordered around their favored institutions.
I suspect that we are coming to see our world as increasingly discontinuous with the twentieth century, and COVID-19 is just one of the many breaking points. Pax Americana has for some time now been an unconvincing description of the twenty-first century. Indeed, appeals to the mass mobilization and solidarity that accompanied World War II are becoming increasingly incredible. If our current political order is upended, we are unlikely to think of it as the COVID-19 disruption. It will be bigger than that. The signs of larger shifts are already in the works. Oddly enough, “Brexit” now seems to belong to a previous age, when European Union rules, processes, and treaties were effective norms for debating its value and consequences.
We appreciate better with every briefing from Dr. Anthony Fauci that pandemics can linger a long time. The longer COVID-19 lingers, the more likely it is to be part of bigger social and political changes. Meanwhile, our cultural memory of the virus will paradoxically become less coronavirus-centric. A case in point: The great plagues of the late Roman empire have receded into the background. Historians are more apt to recall the third-century economic crisis of Rome and the subsequent persecutions of Christians than the Plague of Cyprian, named for the Bishop of Carthage who provided the most detailed description of it. The Byzantine emperor’s invasion of the Italian peninsula in 535 is more often the subject of study than the Plague of Justinian that began in 541 and felled, according to some estimates, 40–50 percent of the population of Europe (anywhere from 25–100 million people). In more recent times, the destruction and loss of life that occurred in World War I has overwritten the memories of the Spanish flu that killed, by some estimates, more than the war.
Apocalypticism is coming to dominate our understanding of the current crisis. Though few are proclaiming the end of the world, many see the rapid spread of COVID-19 and the striking incapacity to do much about it other than “shelter in place” as revelatory of our society and culture. If this is one of those epochal events—and we won’t know any time soon whether it will prove to be—then much of what we know and how we’ve come to feel about our politics, society, and culture will change, for better and for worse. Learning to accept a new reality will be difficult. I wager that it is Gregory, not Augustine, who might be our better guide in this new modernity. But the question remains for us: Is there a world that we can look forward to birthing in this new reality?