Gibbon: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, I

January 21, 2022

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Volume 1
Edward Gibbon
(Modern Library, 1993) [1776]
cxxv + 567 p.

And so we arrive at the end — or, more modestly, at the beginning of the end. To crown my years-long reading project in Roman history I have decided to tackle Gibbon’s gargantuan history of the slow faltering and fading of the Roman world. Today we look at the first volume (of six) which covers the period from the reign of Nerva (96) to that of Constantine (325).

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In the briefest possible compass, the history of this period goes like this: there was a string of five good emperors, then a rocky mix during which the empire was in frequent crisis and becoming emperor was, more often than not, a death sentence, then followed a period of stability during which imperial governance was split into a Tetrarchy, and finally a series of civil wars by which it was reunited under one emperor. All the while, a new religion that would long outlast the empire was percolating through the vast Roman territories.

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Though his grand theme is decline and fall, Gibbon begins by describing what the empire declined and fell from. The period of the “five good emperors” lasted from 96 to 180, and consisted of the reigns of Nerva (96–98), Trajan (98–117), Hadrian (117–138), Antoninus Pius (138–161), and Marcus Aurelius (161–180). Notable, especially in light of what happened throughout the third century, were the long duration of each of these reigns, the manner in which each ended (i.e. without violence), and the peaceful transfer of power. Gibbon wrote a famous, if extravagant, encomium on this golden age of Roman governance:

If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus. The vast extent of the Roman empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of virtue and wisdom. The armies were restrained by the firm but gentle hand of four successive emperors, whose characters and authority commanded involuntary respect. The forms of the civil administration were carefully preserved by Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the Antonines, who delighted in the image of liberty, and were pleased with considering themselves as the accountable ministers of the laws. Such princes deserved the honor of restoring the republic, had the Romans of their days been capable of enjoying a rational freedom.

High praise, but modulated ominously to a minor key at the end. Gibbons believed that even in these halcyon days the causes which would bring about the eventual dissolution of the empire were quietly taking shape and gathering strength. He argues that, although the empire in this period had ceased to expand, it relied on a high degree of military discipline to uphold the long peace (“The terror of the Roman arms added weight and dignity to the moderation of the emperors. They preserved peace by a constant preparation for war.”) But, perhaps inevitably, a long peace gradually slackened this discipline, and the Romans became content to hire an army rather than themselves defend themselves:

It was scarcely possible that the eyes of contemporaries should discover in the public felicity the latent causes of decay and corruption. This long peace, and the uniform government of the Romans, introduced a slow and secret poison into the vitals of the empire. The minds of men were gradually reduced to the same level, the fire of genius was extinguished, and even the military spirit evaporated. The natives of Europe were brave and robust. Spain, Gaul, Britain, and Illyricum supplied the legions with excellent soldiers, and constituted the real strength of the monarchy. Their personal valor remained, but they no longer possessed that public courage which is nourished by the love of independence, the sense of national honor, the presence of danger, and the habit of command. They received laws and governors from the will of their sovereign, and trusted for their defence to a mercenary army.

*

There is a tension, I find, in Gibbon’s writing because on one hand he wants to tell a story about the gradual weakening and collapse of the empire, and this is necessarily a social, institutional, and economic story, in addition to a military and political one, but on the other hand he, like most historians before him, tends to give much attention to military affairs (which are, admittedly, often decisive for the fate of states) and to the doings of emperors. Now, studying the emperors has a specific value of its own, for it is studying human nature when certain restraints are removed (or, as Gibbon puts it, “…in the conduct of those monarchs we may trace the utmost lines of vice and virtue; the most exalted perfection, and the meanest degeneracy of our own species.”), but it is too narrow a focus for the full story that he is telling. We look with a reluctant fascination on the monstrousness of Commodus or Caracella, and with admiration on the wisdom and virtue of Marcus Aurelius or Probus, and with wary regard on the stern and effective governance of Septimius Severus or Diocletian, but one gets the impression that these imperial personalities, as interesting as they are, are often like the white froth on the crest of a wave: they catch the eye, but the real action is elsewhere, below the surface.

This impression is particularly strong as Gibbon’s history traverses the third century, during which emperors came and went with alarming frequency. They sat atop the world for a time, but who now recognizes the names of Pertinax or Quintillis or Gallienus, or can distinguish Carus from Carinus? Their reigns often lasted just a couple of years, and in some cases just a few months, before they were, usually, assassinated. Caesar’s way of death was a lasting tradition.

Gibbon does attempt to identify cultural and institutional causes of Rome’s decline. He draws attention, for instance, to the immense power of the Praetorian Guard, founded under Augustus (if memory serves) to protect the emperor, but existing in later years largely as a rival power of which the emperor himself had to be wary:

In the luxurious idleness of an opulent city, their pride was nourished by the sense of their irresistible weight; nor was it possible to conceal from them, that the person of the sovereign, the authority of the senate, the public treasure, and the seat of empire, were all in their hands. To divert the Prætorian bands from these dangerous reflections, the firmest and best established princes were obliged to mix blandishments with commands, rewards with punishments, to flatter their pride, indulge their pleasures, connive at their irregularities, and to purchase their precarious faith by a liberal donative.

Another was the increasing impatience of emperors with the trappings of Republican politics. Augustus had acquired imperial power for himself while maintaining the pretense of sharing it. The Senate continued to make decisions; consuls continued to be elected; and the machinery of government continued to turn even while real power was concentrated in the emperor. But this façade, which was pleasant to the Senate and the people, grew increasingly thin. Severus, whose enjoyed an unusually long reign (193-211), was the first to openly assert his claim:

Till the reign of Severus, the virtue and even the good sense of the emperors had been distinguished by their zeal or affected reverence for the senate, and by a tender regard to the nice frame of civil policy instituted by Augustus. But the youth of Severus had been trained in the implicit obedience of camps, and his riper years spent in the despotism of military command. His haughty and inflexible spirit could not discover, or would not acknowledge, the advantage of preserving an intermediate power, however imaginary, between the emperor and the army. He disdained to profess himself the servant of an assembly that detested his person and trembled at his frown; he issued his commands, where his requests would have proved as effectual; assumed the conduct and style of a sovereign and a conqueror, and exercised, without disguise, the whole legislative, as well as the executive power.

This was a problem because it destabilized Roman politics, fostered resentments, and undermined public investment in the governance of the empire.

A third systemic, or at least recurrent, problem was the failure of emperors to establish clear succession plans. The imperial throne was not hereditary, and although emperors did often “adopt” sons whom they hoped would reign after them, these preferences did not have the solidity of a true filial line, and in consequence the death of an emperor was often an occasion of political unrest and even civil war. When the deaths of emperors were as frequent as they were in these years, the empire found itself in what sometimes must have seemed perpetual crisis:

The right to the throne, which none could claim from birth, every one assumed from merit. The daring hopes of ambition were set loose from the salutary restraints of law and prejudice; and the meanest of mankind might, without folly, entertain a hope of being raised by valor and fortune to a rank in the army, in which a single crime would enable him to wrest the sceptre of the world from his feeble and unpopular master.

And, in addition to these tensions in the armed forces and the political leadership, Gibbon identifies as a symptom and cause of decline a general relaxation into indolence and excess of public morals. This is a matter harder to trace through the historical record, particularly in a period that has left us little in the way of literary art (which might otherwise have provided a view), but he notes, for instance, that in the middle of the third century a need was felt to resurrect the office of censor in a bid to shore up the Roman virtues in public life. But it was a futile gesture:

A censor may maintain, he can never restore, the morals of a state. It is impossible for such a magistrate to exert his authority with benefit, or even with effect, unless he is supported by a quick sense of honor and virtue in the minds of the people, by a decent reverence for the public opinion, and by a train of useful prejudices combating on the side of national manners. In a period when these principles are annihilated, the censorial jurisdiction must either sink into empty pageantry, or be converted into a partial instrument of vexatious oppression.

It’s worth noting, probably, that our age also is one in which the function of censor appears to be completely futile and impossible. Whom could we entrust with such a role?

Added to these internal matters tending to weaken the robustness and vigour of the Roman people, there were, of course, stresses to the empire from without. A large empire has a long border, and those beyond the border, especially in the north, had never proven very docile or inclined to peace. As maintenance of that border became more difficult or onerous, the pressure on it increased, and Romans living near the borders were subjected, from time to time, to violence at the hands of the barbarians. Gibbon devotes several chapters to describing the two chief powers that threatened Rome from without: the Germanic tribes (though describing them as ‘a power’ is a convenience only, for they were tribal and fractured) and the Persian empire. I cannot resist quoting a brief section in which he compares the wasteland of the northern barbarians to my own country!

Canada, at this day, is an exact picture of ancient Germany. Although situated in the same parallel with the finest provinces of France and England, that country experiences the most rigorous cold. The reindeer are very numerous, the ground is covered with deep and lasting snow, and the great river of St. Lawrence is regularly frozen, in a season when the waters of the Seine and the Thames are usually free from ice.

I’ve never felt any particular kinship with the barbarians before, but this is giving me food for thought.

This volume concludes with an account of the arc from Diocletian (reigned 284-305) to Constantine (reigned 306-337). I have always regarded Diocletian as one of the infamous emperors; in Christian history he is an arch-villain on account of the policy of persecution that he pursued. And it is true that he did do this. But Gibbon, to my surprise, sees him as one of the best emperors, sketching him in this way:

His abilities were useful rather than splendid; a vigorous mind, improved by the experience and study of mankind; dexterity and application in business; a judicious mixture of liberality and economy, of mildness and rigor; profound dissimulation, under the disguise of military frankness; steadiness to pursue his ends; flexibility to vary his means; and, above all, the great art of submitting his own passions, as well as those of others, to the interest of his ambition, and of coloring his ambition with the most specious pretences of justice and public utility.

He prosecuted his policy against the Christians because he saw them as undermining commitment to Roman religion, Roman virtues, and public commitment to the state, all of which might well be true. In any case, without denying that he was a terrible persecutor of the Church, I appreciated that Gibbon has encouraged me to see that he was also more.

In fact, Diocletian introduced an innovation into Roman governance that was to have far-reaching consequences in the long run. He divided the imperial power into a Tetrarchy, such that the empire was ruled jointly from four different locations around the empire, and he himself, though in some sense the first among the tetrarchs, ruled not from Rome but from Nicomedia, in modern Turkey. Now, although the Tetrarchy lasted only about 40 years (from 286 until Constantine reestablished the empire under one power in 324), the idea that the empire might have multiple centres of power, and be ruled from somewhere other than Rome, not only would have been unthinkable in earlier centuries, but proved durable under Constantine and, eventually, permanent.

Diocletian is remarkable for another reason too: as Sulla had done centuries earlier, he reached the summit of power and then chose to voluntarily resign to private life. Predictably, his departure led to eruptions of conflict between the other powers in the Tetrarchy:

The empire was afflicted by five civil wars; and the remainder of the time was not so much a state of tranquillity as a suspension of arms between several hostile monarchs, who, viewing each other with an eye of fear and hatred, strove to increase their respective forces at the expense of their subjects.

Constantius, the father of Constantine, soon succeeded to power in the western empire, and Constantine began making a name for himself, first on the front against Persia in the east, and then in collaboration with his father in Britain.

When his father died in 306, Constantine was acclaimed emperor by his troops, and became one of the tetrarchs. Over the next several decades an uneasy, episodic civil war was fought. The famous Battle of the Milvian Bridge, at which Constantine defeated Maxentius, made Constantine sole power in the west. (It is worth noting, I think, that in this battle it was Constantine who was attacking Rome, and his triumphal entry into the city might — I’m not sure — have been his first time there.) In 324 he defeated Licinius, the sole remaining power in the east, and became, once again, sole emperor. A moment of triumph, perhaps, but one that found the empire in an exhausted state, impoverished, with outsized power in the hands of the military.

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I have greatly enjoyed this first volume, and am looking forward to the second.

****

[A sketch of Hadrian]
He encouraged the arts, reformed the laws, asserted military discipline, and visited all his provinces in person. His vast and active genius was equally suited to the most enlarged views, and the minute details of civil policy. But the ruling passions of his soul were curiosity and vanity. As they prevailed, and as they were attracted by different objects, Hadrian was, by turns, an excellent prince, a ridiculous sophist, and a jealous tyrant. The general tenor of his conduct deserved praise for its equity and moderation. Yet in the first days of his reign, he put to death four consular senators, his personal enemies, and men who had been judged worthy of empire; and the tediousness of a painful illness rendered him, at last, peevish and cruel. The senate doubted whether they should pronounce him a god or a tyrant.

[The emptiness of ambition]
The ascent to greatness, however steep and dangerous, may entertain an active spirit with the consciousness and exercise of its own powers: but the possession of a throne could never yet afford a lasting satisfaction to an ambitious mind. This melancholy truth was felt and acknowledged by Severus. Fortune and merit had, from an humble station, elevated him to the first place among mankind. “He had been all things,” as he said himself, “and all was of little value.” Distracted with the care, not of acquiring, but of preserving an empire, oppressed with age and infirmities, careless of fame, and satiated with power, all his prospects of life were closed.

[Advantages of monarchy]
Of the various forms of government which have prevailed in the world, an hereditary monarchy seems to present the fairest scope for ridicule. Is it possible to relate without an indignant smile, that, on the father’s decease, the property of a nation, like that of a drove of oxen, descends to his infant son, as yet unknown to mankind and to himself; and that the bravest warriors and the wisest statesmen, relinquishing their natural right to empire, approach the royal cradle with bended knees and protestations of inviolable fidelity? Satire and declamation may paint these obvious topics in the most dazzling colors, but our more serious thoughts will respect a useful prejudice, that establishes a rule of succession, independent of the passions of mankind; and we shall cheerfully acquiesce in any expedient which deprives the multitude of the dangerous, and indeed the ideal, power of giving themselves a master.

[Politics and violence]
Those who refuse the sword must renounce the sceptre.

[Crime and punishment]
Whenever the offence inspires less horror than the punishment, the rigor of penal law is obliged to give way to the common feelings of mankind.

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