‘Alright, well. I had a tracked version of this that we already mastered, and then it turned out there was a mysterious seven-and-a-half-second gap in the other one. All hail the mysterious gap!’
So opens track two of Songs for Pierre Chuvin, the eighteenth studio album by the American Alternative/Indie group The Mountain Goats. The title of this track ought to give some clue as to the album’s focus (if, like me, the name Pierre Chuvin doesn’t immediately jump out at you!): ‘Until Olympius Returns’. How many songs about 5th century Neoplatonist Alexandrian pagans can you think of? It’s clear straight away this album is concerned with something a bit, shall we say, unorthodox.
But before we delve into the album itself, let’s dwell on one of the ‘mysterious gaps’ in the discipline of Classics: Late Antiquity. Because, despite the formative Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon (arguably the most influential work on Classical Antiquity to be published in English), this is a remarkably understudied period in Roman history. Yes, we all know Augustus (31 BC – AD 14) but how many of us could pick Galerius (AD 305-311) out of a line-up, or know anything about Honorius (393-423 – aside from his fêted chickens, that is)? Most of us – myself included – would be hard pressed even knowing when to date the period: should we count everything that followed the 3rd century Crisis (after which the Empire was split and never quite got back on its feet) or does Late Antiquity start with the Edict of Milan, Constantine’s conversion, or some other explicitly religious demarcation from the old gods to Christianity? Let’s not even begin to unpack when we might date its end: 476 or 1453?! Answers on a postcard!
All of this means as a consequence that few of us really consider how the Classical World, full of galavanting deities, curse tablets and picking through liver entrails to tell the future, became the Christian world of organised ecumenical belief centred on a core text and universal rituals. While we could all probably bring to mind an explanation of the Empire’s overarching collapse (from internal lead in the pipes-esque narratives or barbarians at the gate-type answers of external pressure), that micro-process, that lived experience of watching, experiencing and participating in the change from one kind of belief system to another is one that I, and maybe some of you reading this too, have rarely sat and reflected on.
But if there was ever a year for sitting down and reflecting…
This, however, is simply some disciplinary context to my experience of listening to the album. And what an unusually prescient album it is. The story goes that the band had a fully recorded album good to go (what was to be Getting into Knives released in October 2020) just as the coronavirus began its tragic spread across America in March of last year. Quickly realising that this would take a massive toll on their lives, not just their ability to tour and promote the album, the band, which is largely the brainchild of lead singer and lyricist John Darnielle, returned home and prepared to settle in for the lockdown the world knew was coming.
Darnielle, however, clearly did not spend long ruminating on lost income or the disruption to his year’s plans. An avid reader, whose previous output has included one album composed solely of songs inspired by verse from the Tanakh and New Testament, he picked up a history book by the late French historian Pierre Chuvin (1943-2016) and began reading A Chronicle of the Last Pagans.
What followed can only be described as a mad burst of creativity I doubt many of our lockdown experiences can match. In ten days (March 16-25 2020), Darnielle wrote and recorded as many songs inspired by this work on Late Antiquity, all on a home boombox (a marked feature of their earlier work, but unused for an album since 2002 – perhaps digging out an old piece of kit from the attic during lockdown is as close as most of us can get!).
These songs range from the darkly comic (‘Let he who’s without sin/Throw the first one, like you said/Let anyone else throw the second/As long as it connects with your head’ he sings on ‘Last Gasp at Calama’, echoing a story from the Letters of St Augustine) to the sinister (‘We will deal with you/Me and my pagan crew’ runs the refrain of album opener ‘Aulon Raid’), to the oddly touching (‘Crushed like a sea shell by a sea-side warrior’s foot/Trying to turn the tide’ runs ‘January 31, 438’, its title a reference to the date the Theodosian Law Court came into effect, codifying the persecution of pagans in law for the first time). At points, Darnielle seems to write with a nod to the newly triumphant Christians (as suggested by the title of the album’s closing song: ‘Exegetic Chains’), but more often he takes the persona of a ‘pagan’, a preserver of the ancient mysteries of Cybele or Isis, at turns angered, depressed or resigned to the new monotheistic world that confronts them.
So many individual lines seem to capture perfectly the emotions that must have been felt by these people, the last believers in the traditional gods. From ‘Going to Lebanon 2’:
‘Pick up the faint, faint scent
Of the faith of our fathers
Their names were known once to me
I hear them sometimes on the Song of the Sea’
Or in ‘Their Gods Do Not Have Surgeons’:
‘Return the peace you took from me
Give me back my community
Show us the goodwill you were shown
But leave us alone’
And, perhaps most poignantly, in ‘Hopeful Assassins of Zeno’:
‘Get familiar with affairs of state
Foretell the future
Get a pretty good success rate
Notch some wins, take some losses
Be nice to the guys who wear necklaces with crosses
They will stab you in the back’
These lyrics, to me, do so much more than traditional historiography to restore agency to this maligned group of the defeated. They situate you in their experience, giving voice to their passions and fears in a way that even our primary sources – dominated as they are by the victorious Christians – often fail to. But more than that, these songs elucidate the experience of change from the epic (the great triumph of Christianity in the all mighty Roman Empire) to the quotidian.
The line quoted in my title, ‘one summer, and all of this is gone’ (from ‘Last Gasp at Calama’) is a perfect encapsulation of this. Whenever I hear it, I think about the Roman Forum, about being a citizen in the 4th century, living in the city or perhaps in its environs, visiting the marketplace each year and seeing it slowly over time being divested of its ancient glories. I think of the day after the Altar of Victory was removed from the Forum, of the newly empty space heavy with history, the marks of the removal all now left of the centuries old monument, and I think of the way that, slowly, imperceptibly, we too experience seismic change in our lives and our societies.
This year of lockdown has made change more tangible than ever of course, pressed history right up to your nose and forced you to sniff it, and many have sought to ponder how epochal this moment might prove. In some matters, our times almost uncannily reflect those of the Late Roman Empire: monuments to the old guard toppled as a crowd fired by righteous anger and the sense that a better world must be possible rise to create it. But in other ways, this time has been experienced most acutely in the mundane: the normality of mask-wearing; the step into the road to distance yourself from other pedestrians; the ubiquitous scent of hand sanitiser we all now are accustomed to. And it is perhaps in these subtler moments, in these silently shifting behaviours, the unspoken acceptance of the new rules of the game, that we might best think about not only that especial period we term Late Antiquity, but the historical process more widely, as the accumulation of days, months and years turn somehow into epochs.
I am grateful to Darnielle, and his fellow Mountain Goats, for this insight, and I encourage you all to listen to the album!
PS – for those of you who wonder what this has to do with the Black Sea, check out track five.