Now the country does not even boast a tree.
—Robert Browning, “Love Among the Ruins”
Every empire seems to think (as much as empires seem to think) that it will be the one to outlast them all. And all of them have ended up more or less the same way in the end. This isn’t just a gloomy fact of human history, it’s a fact of entropy, mortality, and the linear experience of time. If imperial rulers forget—begin to think themselves immortal—there have always been poets to remind them, though maybe not so directly. Epic poetry often legitimizes the founding of empires. Another form, the poetry of ruin, interprets their inevitable demise.
All the Romantics were doing it, and so too was an unknown 8th century British poet who encountered Roman ruins during the so-called “Dark Ages.” The poem they left behind “gives us a glimpse of a world of mystery,” says Paul Cooper above in episode one of his Fall of Civilizations podcast, which begins with Roman Britain and continues, in each subsequent (but not chronological) episode, to explore the collapse of empires around the world through literature and culture. “Every ruin,” says Cooper in an interview with the North Star Podcast, “is a place where a physical object was torn apart, and that happened because of some historical force.”
We are enthralled with ruins, though this can seem like the product of a distinctly modern sensibility—that of the poets who inhabited what novelist Rose Macaulay called in her 1953 study Pleasure of Ruins “a ruined and ruinous world.”
But as our Old English poet above demonstrates, the fascination predates Shakespeare and Marlowe. Cooper would know. He has dedicated his life to studying and writing about ruins, earning a PhD in their cultural and literary significance. Along the way, he has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, National Geographic, Discover Magazine, and the BBC.
Cooper also began publishing one of the most intriguing Twitter feeds in 2017, detailing in “several nested threads” various “ruin-related thoughts and feelings,” as Shruti Ravindran writes at Timber Media. His tweets became so popular that he turned them into a podcast, and it is not your standard informally chatty podcast fare. Fall of Civilizations engages deeply with its subjects on their own terms, and avoids the sensationalist cliches of so much popular history. Cooper “knew, for certain, what he wanted to avoid,” when he began: the “focus on gruesome torture techniques, executions, and the sexcapades of nobles.”
“History writers often don’t trust their audience will be interested in the past if they don’t Hollywoodize it,” says Cooper. Instead, in the latest episode on the Byzantine Empire he recruits the choir from the Greek Orthodox Cathedral in London, “and a number of musicians playing traditional Byzantine instruments such as the Byzantine lyra, the Qanun and the Greek Santur,” he explains. In his episode on the Han dynasty, Cooper looks back through “ancient Chinese poetry, songs and folk music” to the empire’s rise, “its remarkable technological advances, and its first, tentative attempts to make contact with the empires of the west.”
This is a rich journey through ancient history, guided by a master storyteller dedicated to taking ruins seriously. (Cooper has published a novel about ruins, River of Ink, “inspired by time spent in UNESCO sites in Sri Lanka,” Ravindran reports.) There is “love among the ruins,” wrote Robert Browning, and there is poetry and music and story and song—all of it brought to bear in Fall of Civilizations to “make sense about what must have happened,” says Cooper. Find more episodes, on fallen civilizations all around the world, on YouTube or head to Fall of Civilizations to subscribe through the podcast service of your choice.