Thomas Cahill is director of religious publishing at Doubleday. He is also a classicist, scholar, philosopher, and fine teller of tales, and his delightful book is not as immodest as its title. Cahill focuses on the years between the collapse of Rome in the fifth century and the beginning of the Middle Ages, between the end of the ancient world and the beginning of the medieval. During this tumultuous period, the literature of classical Greece and Rome might well have been lost had it not been for the Irish. Because Cahill believes that histories have been written largely by Anglo-Saxon Protestants who have ignored the Celtic-Catholic contribution to Western civilization, this is the story he wishes to tell.
Cahill begins with a look at the fateful century when Rome fell. At that time, Ireland was considered so insignificant that the Romans had not bothered to conquer it. As the great libraries of Europe were looted and burned by Germanic invaders, however, Western civilization was saved “by men so strange they lived in little huts on rocky outcrops and shaved half their heads [the Irish tonsure] and tortured themselves with fasts and chills and nettle baths.” These Irish monastic scribes, newly literate, copied thousands of manuscripts that served as the repositories for Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian culture. Later, Irish monks, on their mission to Christianize the northern European tribes, renewed civilization throughout the Continent by bringing with them books that would otherwise have disappeared.
Cahill’s heart is clearly with the Irish, and it is not long before he gives readers an account of prehistoric Ireland in all of its mystery, terror, and fascination. After its invasion by Celtic tribes in 350 b.c.e., Ireland remained essentially static for some nine centuries. A seminomadic, Iron Age warrior people, the Irish stripped before battle and fought naked, wearing only sandals and a torque, a neck ornament of twisted metal. Men, possessed by the violence of attack, believed that they could alter their appearance. They called this fearful transformation the “warp-spasm.” An account of Cuchulainn, the Irish hero, describes how his body twisted inside his skin so that his knees were to the rear, his heels and calves to the front. His face became “a red bowl: he sucked one eye . . . deep into his head; . . . the other eye fell out along his cheek,” and his cheek “peeled back from his jaws until the gullet appeared.” Accompanying photographs depict monstrous Celtic gods, some devouring human victims; the ambiguous sheela-na-gig, who, like the Hindu goddess Kali, symbolizes both fertility and death; and Celtic ruins complete with niches for human skulls.
In this fierce, pre-Christian Ireland, speech was direct; even the women were vigorous and sexually frank. Medb (or Methv), daughter of the high king of Ireland, was a powerful and perceptive warrior queen who assembled her own army yet offered her “own friendly thighs” to seal a bargain. The culture was aristocratic and illiterate, its wealth based on the possession of animals and slaves, one of whom would later become known as Saint Patrick.
Cahill recognizes that a transition is more difficult to analyze than a clearly defined period that would lend itself to the specialist. It is easier to describe stasis (for example, the classical period) as most historians have done, than describe the movement itself. Nevertheless, Cahill finds a vivid image to illustrate this shift between two worlds.
One of Cahill’s most notable gifts is his ability to make an ancient scene come alive. This book begins on the banks of the Rhine River on December 31, 406. Thousands of hungry barbarians gather on the east bank, eyeing the Roman soldiers on the west bank. Meal preparation is in progress in both camps. The Roman cook is carefully slicing carrots lengthwise into three long triangles. A tribal woman on the east bank slices her carrots crosswise into orange coins. This is a day so cold that the river has frozen solid. Spontaneously, the Germanic tribesmen begin to walk across the Rhine to Roman territory. The Romans cannot stop them even though they kill twenty thousand Vandal men, not counting the women and children who accompany them.
Not only are Romans and barbarians making contact, but physical barriers have been removed. Cahill likens the Germanic invasion of Rome to what happens, for example, on the U.S.-Mexican border as hundreds of people simply walk across. The change is gradual but cumulative. Rome will fall within four years; the last Western emperor...