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It was on the 24th of August, in the year 410 of the common era, that the unthinkable came to pass. A guerrilla army, led by a renegade Roman general named Alaric, who had been brought up in a German-speaking community outside the actual boundaries of the Roman empire, ended years of threats and intimidation by invading the city of Rome itself. For three days they remained, destroying, looting, and killing. The exact loss of life was never known and may have been less than fears of the moment said it was, but the experience was a shattering one nonetheless. It had been 800 years since the last such defeat of the city, 800 years in which Rome had grown to be the greatest city in the world, the envy of the nations, the model for what a great city was like.

The shock was felt throughout the Roman world. In far-off Bethlehem, the scholar and monk Jerome, so prolific that one might think of him as the Stephen King of his time, could not work.

Here are his words: "And I was stunned and stupefied, so much so that I couldn't think about anything else day and night. I felt as if I were being held hostage myself and couldn't even open my mouth until I knew for sure what had happened. Hanging there, caught between hope and despair, I was torturing myself with the thought of what others were suffering. But after the brightest light of all the lands was extinguished — after the head of the whole Roman empire was lopped off — to speak truly, after the whole world had perished in a single city: I fell silent and was humbled, and I kept my silence and my sorrow was renewed. My heart grew warm within me and fire blazed up in my thoughts ..."


Jim O'Donnell is the penultimate contemporary rennaissence man. He is Vice Provost for Information Systems and Computing at the University of Pennsylvania and is also a Professor of Classical Studies. After 21 years at UPenn, he departing to become Provost of Georgetown University, effective July 1st.

I recently ran into him on the street in Philadelphia where he had just addressed the graduating senior class. The title of his talk was "A Mutual, Joint-Stock World In All Meridians." "The title," he said, "comes from Moby Dick, ch. 13, and is meant to be slightly misleading, inasmuch as the full text, spoken by Queequeg, is: 'It's a mutual, joint-stock world, in all meridians. We cannibals must help these Christians.' "
I am pleased to present Jim's talk to readers of EDGE.


JAMES J. O'DONNELL, is Professor of Classical Studies and Vice Provost for Information Systems and Computing at the University of Pennsylvania. On 1 July 2002, he will become Provost of Georgetown University He is the author of Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace.

He has published widely on the cultural history of the late antique Mediterranean world and is a recognized innovator in the application of networked information technology in higher education. In 1990, he co-founded Bryn Mawr Classical Review, the second on-line scholarly journal in the humanities ever created. In 1994, he taught an Internet-based seminar on the work of Augustine of Hippo that reached 500 students.

JAMES J. O'DONNELL's Edge Bio Page

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