I am reading Hilaire Belloc’s Esto Perpetua. The Latin title can be translated as “May it live forever.” As a journal of the author’s travels in French Algeria in the early 1900s it was both a retrospective on the long forgotten Roman presence in North Africa – still vividly present in its many ruins – as well as a hope (long since disappointed) that the West would reclaim the region for itself:
There is a fine story of a French commander who, having taken his column with great efforts through a defile where certainly men had never marched before, was proud, and sent a party to chisel the number of the regiment upon a smooth slab of rock above them, but when the men had reached it they saw in deep clear letters, cut long before, “The IIIrd Legion. The August. The Victorious.”
In the opening pages Belloc, offers a picturesque description of the swarms of small Arab ships with their lateen sails gathered around the harbors of Algeria.
Very often at sunset when the dead calm reflects things unbroken like an inland pond, the topmost angle of these lateens catches some hesitating air that stirs above, and leads it down the sail, so that a little ripple trembles round the bows of the boat, though all the water beside them is quite smooth, and you see her gliding in without oars. She comes along in front of the twilight, as gradual and as silent as the evening, and seems to be impelled by nothing more substantial than the advance of darkness.
The author digresses on the seven centuries of Punic rule, centered on Carthage, the mortal enemy of Rome. Belloc describes it as being extremely powerful… and transient. The Phoenicians left nothing like the cultural edifice of the Greco-Roman civilization. He notes their luxurious materialism and their gloomy religion (cruel even by pagan standards).
Carthage had not desired to create, but only to enjoy: therefore she left us nothing.
To read history, and to travel and witness the many memorials of the past as Belloc did, is to appreciate the lessons that others have left us. The question is, will we be the inheritors of a common culture, passing on and constructively transforming it as did Medieval Europe? Or will we imitate Carthage, only to be wiped out by more vigorous peoples and forgotten?
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