Gibbon: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, II

March 16, 2022

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Volume 2
Edward Gibbon
(Modern Library, 1993)  [1776]
xx + 592 p.

When Constantine gained sole imperial authority in 324, he inaugurated one of the most important reigns that the Roman Empire enjoyed, primarily, I think it is fair to say, because he promoted Christianity to a place of prominence in Roman society. This volume of Gibbon’s history begins with Constantine, and covers a mere 50 year interval, but one rich with circumstance. The emperors we meet are Constantine (324-337), his sons (337-361, with many complications), Julian “the Apostate” (361-363), Jovian (363-364), and Valentinian (364-375).

The volume opens, however, with a larger scale historical consideration of the place of Christianity in the Roman empire from the deaths of Sts. Peter and Paul during the reign of Nero up to the conversion of Constantine. It’s a fascinating story, of course, much of it hidden from view by the passing of time. Gibbon seems to have had a conflicted relationship with the Christian religion, and struggled to write about it with the same generosity and sympathy which he routinely expresses for the pagans that populate his tale. (I wouldn’t want to read too much into the fact that he, as a young man, temporarily converted to Catholicism, but it might not be totally irrelevant.) His professed intention was

“To separate (if it be possible) a few authentic as well as interesting facts from an undigested mass of fiction and error, and to relate, in a clear and rational manner, the causes, the extent, the duration, and the most important circumstances of the persecutions to which the first Christians were exposed.”

The editors of my edition, however, arraign him, not without cause, for the severity of his “clear and rational manner”, remarking that this section of the book amounts to

“a very ingenious and specious, but very disgraceful extenuation of the cruelties perpetrated by the Roman magistrates against the Christians. It is written in the most contemptibly factious spirit of prejudice against the sufferers; it is unworthy of a philosopher and of humanity.”

As I was reading, I was reminded more than once of Chesterton’s observation (in The Everlasting Man) that there is a certain kind of critic of Christianity who is still too close to it to be a fair critic, a critic who, in his memorable phrase, “still lives in the shadow of the faith and has lost the light of the faith.” He goes on to describe such souls in more detail:

Now the best relation to our spiritual home is to be near enough to love it. But the next best is to be far enough away not to hate it. It is the contention of these pages that while the best judge of Christianity is a Christian, the next best judge would be something more like a Confucian. The worst judge of all is the man now most ready with his judgements; the ill-educated Christian turning gradually into the ill-tempered agnostic, entangled in the end of a feud of which he never understood the beginning, blighted with a sort of hereditary boredom with he knows not what, and already weary of hearing what he has never heard. He does not judge Christianity calmly as a Confucian would; he does not judge it as he would judge Confucianism.

Though naturally I would never claim that Gibbon was “ill-educated”, when I found him contending that the malice which later Christians ascribed to the Roman magistrates was mere projection of their own ill will and intolerance, or referring (I kid you not) to “the swarms of monks, who arose from the Nile, [and] overspread and darkened the face of the Christian world”, or claiming that “the Romans languished under the ignominious tyranny of eunuchs and bishops”, I thought of Chesterton.

Be that as it may, he does make some helpful observations about how the Christians appeared to the Romans, and why that was a problem:

“To their apprehensions, it was no less a matter of surprise, that any individuals should entertain scruples against complying with the established mode of worship, than if they had conceived a sudden abhorrence to the manners, the dress, or the language of their native country.”

The only other group with similar scruples were the Jews, but, says Gibbon, the Jews were easier for the Romans to understand, for they were a nation, identifiably so, while the Christians were a sect, and one making conversions of Romans. It called, from time to time, at least, for a response on the part of the authorities.

The worst of the persecutions of Christians in the first centuries were those under Decius (in around 250). Gibbon attributes the policies to the emperor’s desire “to restore the purity of Roman manners”, which sounds benign enough, and he argues that they were undertaken reluctantly and without any particular animus, though he does concede that the persecution was real and eventually became quite violent:

“The governors of the provinces were directed to apprehend all persons of the ecclesiastical order; and the prisons, destined for the vilest criminals, were soon filled with a multitude of bishops, presbyters, deacons, readers, and exorcists. By a second edict, the magistrates were commanded to employ every method of severity, which might reclaim them from their odious superstition, and oblige them to return to the established worship of the gods. This rigorous order was extended, by a subsequent edict, to the whole body of Christians, who were exposed to a violent and general persecution.”

**

These troubles ended for the Christians, of course, when Constantine came to power. The sincerity of his conversion is, I suppose, something to debate — we know that he deferred baptism until old age on the grounds that the actions he would be obliged to take as emperor were incompatible with the life of a good Christian, which argues for a peculiar kind of sincerity — but Gibbon prefers to think that he was ambitious (“ambition was the ruling passion of his soul”) and knew which way the wind was blowing (“the counsels of princes are more frequently influenced by views of temporal advantage, than by considerations of abstract and speculative truth”). Whatever the truth of that question may be, the upshot was that Constantine made the empire safe for Christians, and opened the door to the Church having a central role in Roman society.

The other of Constantine’s major acts was to found the city of Constantinople as a new capital for the empire. We already saw in the previous volume how the exercise of power in the Roman empire was migrating away from the city of Rome, and Constantine’s path to power is a good illustration of this: “born in the neighborhood of the Danube, educated in the courts and armies of Asia, and invested with the purple by the legions of Britain,” he spent hardly any time in Rome. I was charmed to learn that his original plan was to found a new capital at the site of ancient Troy, which would have been a kind of homage to Rome’s own founding, but that Constantinople was chosen as the site for its strategic advantages — and also, I suppose, because nobody knew where Troy had been.

Gibbon looks disdainfully and regretfully on the massive bureaucracy that thrived in Constantinople, seeing in it a manifestation of the sclerosis overtaking the empire, and, conversely, on the threadbare string of military garrisons — nearly 600 of them — strung out along the vast imperial borders, an increasingly implausible defense against emboldened enemies. His preoccupation with the “decline and fall” of Rome draws his attention also to a particular policy decision made by Constantine, who introduced a distinction between soldiers on the borders of the empire and those stationed in the internal cities; the latter were almost never required to fight, and “insensibly forgot the virtues of their profession, and contracted only the vices of civil life”, while the former were paid less and had little hope of promotion to the cities, which arrangement very naturally bred resentment within the ranks.

Constantine’s reign was, in Gibbon’s judgment, one of initial triumph, but gradual decline into “the opposite yet reconcilable vices of rapaciousness and prodigality”. When he died, he bequeathed power to his three sons, who were to reign in parallel over three regions. I can’t think of a single historical example where this kind of arrangement worked, and it certainly didn’t work here: the next few decades were marred by civil war as the sons contended for power, with Constantius eventually emerging as sole emperor, a man whom Gibbon remarks “may be dismissed from the world, with the remark, that he inherited the defects, without the abilities, of his father”.

*

Although his reign lasted fewer than 2 years, Gibbon devotes nearly a third of this volume to the successor to the House of Constantine: Julian. In Christian history he is remembered as the emperor who tried to reverse Christianity’s displacement of paganism by reviving the ancient rites of the Roman gods (hence, “Julian the Apostate”). Gibbon, however, sees Julian as one of the ablest and noblest figures of Roman history. It is true that his career as a military leader was a splendid one, and that he rose to power on his merits rather than by violence or subterfuge, and it might be true that “he deserved the empire of the world”, and it is plausible that his studies of Plato “had animated him with the love of virtue, the desire of fame, and the contempt of death”, and perhaps it was the case that he “considered every moment as lost that was not devoted to the advantage of the public or the improvement of his own mind.” But are we really sure that “his sleep was never clouded by the fumes of indigestion”? Some things, dear Edward, are too good to be true.

To his credit, Julian attempted to restore the honoured place of pagan worship by example, rather than by force. He believed that religion was a matter of personal commitment that could not be compelled, and he understood that Christian martyrs were a greater advantage to the Christians than to himself:

“Julian was persuaded, that if the diseases of the body may sometimes be cured by salutary violence, neither steel nor fire can eradicate the erroneous opinions of the mind. The reluctant victim may be dragged to the foot of the altar; but the heart still abhors and disclaims the sacrilegious act of the hand. Religious obstinacy is hardened and exasperated by oppression; and, as soon as the persecution subsides, those who have yielded are restored as penitents, and those who have resisted are honored as saints and martyrs.”

And so he followed a policy of religious toleration. His efforts were unsuccessful, of course, and it is easy to see him as a figure of some pathos as he fought a last-ditch offensive. On one famous occasion, Julian visited Antioch in expectation of a great pagan festival, but found none, for “the zeal of Antioch was diverted, since the reign of Christianity, into a different channel. Instead of hecatombs of fat oxen sacrificed by the tribes of a wealthy city to their tutelar deity the emperor complains that he found only a single goose, provided at the expense of a priest, the pale and solitary inhabitant of this decayed temple.” (This episode was memorably integrated into David Bentley Hart’s sympathetic treatment of the decline of paganism in his wonderful story “The House of Apollo”.) In the end,

“The genius and power of Julian were unequal to the enterprise of restoring a religion which was destitute of theological principles, of moral precepts, and of ecclesiastical discipline; which rapidly hastened to decay and dissolution, and was not susceptible of any solid or consistent reformation.”

*

Julian led Roman forces into the field against Persia, but was mortally wounded in battle. He was hastily succeeded by Jovian, a man who reigned for just a few months, but long enough to re-establish Christianity as the official religion of the empire. He also ended the conflict with the Persians by signing a peace treaty that Gibbon calls “infamous”, marking a watershed moment in the decline of the empire:

“The predecessors of Jovian had sometimes relinquished the dominion of distant and unprofitable provinces; but, since the foundation of the city, the genius of Rome, the god Terminus, who guarded the boundaries of the republic, had never retired before the sword of a victorious enemy.”

*

Jovian was followed by Valentinian, who again divided power between the Eastern and Western parts of the empire, reigning himself from Constantinople, while his co-emperor Valens ruled from Milan. It is interesting to note, once again, how Rome had fallen into the background. Gibbon concludes this volume with a whirlwind tour of Roman military activities all along the borders of the empire: in Germany, in Britain, in Africa, in Persia, and along the Danube, where the Goths, who will figure largely in the next volume of this remarkable history, were making incursions into Roman territories.

**

The period covered by this volume is dominated by a few important themes: the establishment of Christianity, growing tensions along the borders of the empire, a major military concession that hinted at a flagging of Roman dominance, and the migration of power away from the city of Rome.

***

[Gibbon the humorist]
“If, in the neighborhood of the commercial and literary town of Glasgow, a race of cannibals has really existed, we may contemplate, in the period of the Scottish history, the opposite extremes of savage and civilized life. Such reflections tend to enlarge the circle of our ideas; and to encourage the pleasing hope, that New Zealand may produce, in some future age, the Hume of the Southern Hemisphere.”

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