Apocalypse and the Golden Age

By Christopher Star
Based on the ancient Greek for “uncovering” or “revelation,” today the word apocalypse conjures up images of global death and destruction that at once combine the Biblical world with the modern. The millennia-old notion of apocalypse offers a revelation of hidden knowledge. Soon God’s might will overthrow earthly powers and usher in an endless, utopian reign for the elect. More recent visions of the apocalypse see the coming destruction as wrought by humans, such as through nuclear war or climate catastrophe. The survivors will live in a horrifying world of scarcity.

For centuries, millenarian and messianic groups have expected the end of the world to be coming soon. Since 1947, the “Doomsday Clock” of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has warned that humanity stands perilously close to destruction. Even before the Covid crisis, in January 2020, the clock was moved to 100 seconds to midnight, where it has stayed through 2021. As noted in the Bulletin’s 2021 press release, this is the closest the clock “has ever been to civilization-ending apocalypse.” Today, there is a combination of apocalyptic anxieties and expectations coming from the seemingly opposed spheres of ancient religion and modern science. Popular works of speculative fiction and films vividly depicting the end of the world and aftermath further contribute to the contemporary fear of and fascination with the possibility of an apocalyptic future.

This current combination of religious, scientific, and creative visions of the end of the world is not unprecedented. My book, Apocalypse and Golden Age: The End of the World in Greek and Roman Thought, demonstrates that in Greek and Roman antiquity poets and philosophers offered various accounts of how the world might end. These scenarios can be found in myths about the wrath of the gods at criminal humanity; and they can be found in the rational accounts about the fate of humanity, gained by the study of nature, of philosophers such as Plato, Lucretius, and Seneca. This tradition of poetic and philosophical explorations of the end of the world by Greek and Roman authors developed before and then in tandem with the more familiar Jewish and Christian apocalypses, such as Daniel and Revelation from the Bible.

Compared to the ever-growing bibliography on Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature as well as contemporary interest in end-of-the-world scenarios in literature and scholarship, investigations of how the ancient Greeks and Romans envisioned world catastrophe are lacking. Judging from their massive building programs, inscriptions on stone, and the celebrations of eternal glory by their poets, the ancient Greeks and Romans had a high level of confidence in the survival of their civilization as well as of their fame through the ages. Nevertheless, there also was an acceptance that, despite all their accomplishments, their world would meet its end. In Apocalypse and Golden Age, I trace this lengthy and important, but under-explored, tradition of Greek and Roman visions of the end of the world. These visions can be found as early as the archaic Greek poet Hesiod. They continue down through the history of classical literature, with apocalyptic scenarios being written by several key authors, including Plato, Epicurus, the Stoics, Lucretius, Cicero, Vergil, Horace, Ovid, Seneca, Lucan and even the emperor, Marcus Aurelius. While each author develops his own account of what the end of the world might look like, they often do so in dialogue with others. Plato’s theory of periodic world catastrophes builds on Hesiod’s account of the various catastrophes that have been visited by the gods upon humans in the past and his prediction of the destruction that awaits the current age of iron. Centuries later, in his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius even-handedly explores the possibility that the world will end in fire, as the Stoics argued, or will break apart and scatter into its constituent atoms, as the Epicureans posited.

Taken together, the texts I explore in this book engage in thought experiments akin to the modern analyses of the existential risks facing humanity. Yet there are key differences. Greek and Roman authors typically viewed the end of the world, in whatever form it might take, as inevitable. Today, by contrast, modern scenario mapping is aimed at exploring, but also preventing, or at least mitigating, world catastrophe. Greek and Roman authors envisioned two main scenarios: the total annihilation of the world or rebirth following the global cataclysm. Renewal unfolds according to a set pattern of cultural and political development. There is no room for improvement in the aftermath; humanity is caught in the same cycle of progress, decline, and catastrophe. This is undoubtedly a bleak view of the future. Unlike today, Greek and Roman authors do not envision the development of technology that can prevent world catastrophes.

There are, however, important parallels with the contemporary world. Roman authors often envision a world made new again by an autocratic leader, such as Augustus or even Nero, surprisingly. The variety of Greek and Roman scenarios for the end of the world demonstrates that, like today, the authors explored in this book debated the possible futures that lay ahead. Also like today, the ancient Greeks and Romans used visions of apocalypse to help demarcate their place in cosmic history, to serve as a warning about the future, and as a means to improve life in the present.  

 As I completed this book amid the pandemic, I came to appreciate more clearly how ancient Greek and Roman explorations of a world catastrophe can help us to examine the paths our future might take. We find ourselves at a crossroads in the wake of the current global crises. Will we develop a new and better society after Covid, for example? Or will we, as the Greeks and Romans often predicted, fall into the same inevitable patterns and repeat the same mistakes?

Christopher Star is a professor of classics at Middlebury College. He is the author of The Empire of the Self: Self-Command, Political Speech in Seneca and Petronius and Seneca, and Apocolyaspe and the Golden Age: The End of the World in Greek and Roman Thought.

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