The historian Douglas Boin argues that we have misread the fall of Rome and its relevance to today because we have ignored religious beliefs. “Anxious notions about the last days, notions of spiritual warfare, and a righteous belief that a divine hand was endorsing a specific law or policy were ideas in Rome that crossed the theological aisle. But that doesn’t make them any less ‘religious.’”
“That’s why today’s ghost stories are ultimately so revealing. We keep pretending we’re doing Roman history when what we’re really masking is our own severe anxiety about the fast-changing changing world—using the same ideas that our ancestors did, two thousand years ago. It’s time we put these beliefs back into our history books instead of doing as Gibbon did: ignoring them or, worse, pretending they were never there. What people believe—and what people are taught to believe—can’t be left out of history.” I agree. I have long argued that ideas and beliefs are key to understanding the past. Of course they must be understood within the particular circumstances in which they are found, but to ignore them completely has too often led us to misunderstand the past and the present.