Gibbon: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, III

April 21, 2022

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Volume 3
Edward Gibbon
(Modern Library, 1993)  [1776]
xix + 556 p.

Goths, Huns, and Vandals are our unruly guests as we settle down once again with Gibbon, who in this volume concentrates on the period from the ascent of Theodosius to the imperial throne in 379 to the sack of Rome by the Vandals in 455. It’s a period of fracture and friction as the Roman imperium begins to buckle under the pressures placed upon it.

Early on, Gibbon provides us with a convenient summary of the situation that had developed from about the reign of Decius (c.250) until the reign of Theodosius, which is worth reproducing here:

During this period, the seat of government had been transported from Rome to a new city on the banks of the Thracian Bosphorus; and the abuse of military spirit had been suppressed by an artificial system of tame and ceremonious servitude. The throne of the persecuting Decius was filled by a succession of Christian and orthodox princes, who had extirpated the fabulous gods of antiquity: and the public devotion of the age was impatient to exalt the saints and martyrs of the Catholic church, on the altars of Diana and Hercules. The union of the Roman empire was dissolved; its genius was humbled in the dust; and armies of unknown Barbarians, issuing from the frozen regions of the North, had established their victorious reign over the fairest provinces of Europe and Africa.

We have a few themes here: the rise of Christianity, the weakening of Roman defences, and growing pressure around the periphery of the empire from a variety of ambitious tribes. All of these themes continue and are augmented during the period under consideration in this volume.

***

Let’s look briefly at the progress of Christianity. Theodosius, emperor in the east, used his power to effect the extinction of Arianism, which had threatened the orthodox faith in the preceding century. The decline of paganism continued, after its last, unsuccessful, hurrah during the reign of Julian. Gibbon looks dolefully on the waxing enthusiasm among Christians for honouring the saints, a “pernicious innovation” that “corrupted the pure and perfect simplicity of the Christian model”. This period also coincides with the lives of several of the most important Church Fathers: St Ambrose, St Augustine, St Athanasius (for whom Gibbon has a particular disdain), and St John Chrystostom. Of the latter, Gibbon relates a humorous account of the effect of his preaching on the ruling parties in Constantinople:

When he declaimed against the peculiar vices of the rich, poverty might obtain a transient consolation from his invectives; but the guilty were still sheltered by their numbers; and the reproach itself was dignified by some ideas of superiority and enjoyment. But as the pyramid rose towards the summit, it insensibly diminished to a point; and the magistrates, the ministers, the favorite eunuchs, the ladies of the court, the empress Eudoxia herself, had a much larger share of guilt to divide among a smaller proportion of criminals.

Of the churchmen whom Gibbon admires, the foremost is probably Pope St Leo the Great, whose courage played a role, at least, in averting the sack of Rome by the Huns in the middle of the fifth century, about which more below.

**

Governance of the empire continued to be divided between east and west. We open with Gratian ruling in the west, and Theodosius in the east. Theodosius Gibbon considers one of the ablest of the Roman emperors (“his virtues always seemed to expand with his fortunes”), though his reign was marred by acts of cruelty (see Massacre of Thessalonica).

After his death a power struggle arose between his two sons, Arcadius and Honorius, and “the subjects of Arcadius and Honorius were instructed, by their respective masters, to view each other in a foreign, and even hostile, light; to rejoice in their mutual calamities, and to embrace, as their faithful allies, the Barbarians, whom they excited to invade the territories of their countrymen.” The predictable result was an acceleration of the trends which weakened Rome. In particular, their disputes coincided with incursions by the Visigoths, under Alaric, into Greece (396) and then Italy (400). This was a back-and-forth affair, with skirmishes and battles here and there over the course of several years, and Gibbon writes with poignancy and a certain ironic wit of the occasion on which Honorius, celebrating a minor triumph over the Goths, had a triumphal arch built in Rome, “but in less than seven years, the Gothic conquerors of Rome might read, if they were able to read, the superb inscription of that monument, which attested the total defeat and destruction of their nation”.

The sack of Rome by Alaric’s army in 410, the first such since the Gaul’s had sacked the city about 800 years before, was one of the milestones in the slow decline of the empire, worth more symbolically, perhaps, than practically, since the city was no longer the seat of government. One might think that the event would have sent shock waves through the empire, but the emperor Honorius, at least, received the news with equanimity, as we learn from Procopius:

At that time they say that the Emperor Honorius in Ravenna received the message from one of the eunuchs, evidently a keeper of the poultry, that Roma had perished. And he cried out and said, “And yet it has just eaten from my hands!” For he had a very large cockerel, Roma by name; and the eunuch comprehending his words said that it was the city of Roma which had perished at the hands of Alaric, and the emperor with a sigh of relief answered quickly: “But I thought that my fowl Roma had perished.” So great, they say, was the folly with which this emperor was possessed.

The sack of the city was a short-lived affair — just 3 days — and Alaric withdrew into Campania. He died the following year, and his brother Athaulf, who succeeded him, ceased the offensive against Rome, having apparently conceived an admiration for its laws and government, saying, “It is now my sincere wish that the gratitude of future ages should acknowledge the merit of a stranger, who employed the sword of the Goths, not to subvert, but to restore and maintain, the prosperity of the Roman empire.” We have reports that within a few years Rome’s prosperity and security seemed to have been restored.

At about the same time, Gaul was invaded by a number of tribes in a series of migrations:

They entered, without opposition, the defenceless provinces of Gaul. This memorable passage of the Suevi, the Vandals, the Alani, and the Burgundians, who never afterwards retreated, may be considered as the fall of the Roman empire in the countries beyond the Alps.

In an attempt to shore up the western empire, Honorius attempted to introduce a form of regional self-government, but it failed due to disinterest on the part of the Romans: “The emperor Honorius expresses his surprise, that he must compel the reluctant provinces to accept a privilege which they should ardently have solicited.” This failure perhaps tells us more about the ultimate reasons for the decline of the western empire than any series of battles could do.

**

In the first half of the 5th century a new threat appeared on the horizon: the Huns, led by Attila. They careened through the Byzantine territories, dealing out defeats to the startled Greeks. Crossing the Rhine, they swept into Gaul, where they were met by a coalition of Romans and Visigoths led by Flavius Aetius, the western empire’s leading general. In 451, at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, Attila’s forces were bested and retreated.

The victory was not decisive, however, for the next year the Huns made an incursion into Italy — scattering, in the process, those living on the north border of the Adriatic onto a series of islands just off-shore that would, in time, become the city of Venice. Attila threatened the city of Rome, and again it was Aetius who came to the rescue: he arranged a diplomatic contingent, including among its members Pope Leo the Great, to meet with Attila; after the meeting Attila withdrew his forces, for reasons that are disputed.

For his services to the empire against the Huns, Aetius earned the adulation of the Roman people, and the envious ire of the western emperor, Valentinian III, who, in an act that shocked observers, had Aetius assassinated. One of Valentinian’s courtiers is reported to have described the act as being that of “a man who cuts off his right hand with his left”. But the fame of Aetius outlived that of the emperor nonetheless; under the Italianate version of his name, Ezio, he has been given the opera treatment by luminaries such as Handel and Gluck, and that can’t be said for everyone.

**

In 455 Rome suffered a further indignity at the hands of the Vandals, who had taken control of the territories around Carthage. Led by their king Genseric, they assaulted and sacked Rome. Pope St Leo the Great again met the oncoming forces as emissary, and although he wasn’t able to convince them to withdraw, he did exact a promise from Genseric that the inhabitants of Rome would not be harmed. The gates were thrown open, and for two weeks the Vandals looted the city.

Gibbon gives us a moving portrait of Rome in the aftermath of the Vandal’s sacking, putting the travails of the city into perspective. It is worth quoting at length:

The spectator who casts a mournful view over the ruins of ancient Rome, is tempted to accuse the memory of the Goths and Vandals, for the mischief which they had neither leisure, nor power, nor perhaps inclination, to perpetrate. The tempest of war might strike some lofty turrets to the ground; but the destruction which undermined the foundations of those massy fabrics was prosecuted, slowly and silently, during a period of ten centuries; and the motives of interest, that afterwards operated without shame or control, were severely checked by the taste and spirit of the emperor Majorian. The decay of the city had gradually impaired the value of the public works. The circus and theatres might still excite, but they seldom gratified, the desires of the people: the temples, which had escaped the zeal of the Christians, were no longer inhabited, either by gods or men; the diminished crowds of the Romans were lost in the immense space of their baths and porticos; and the stately libraries and halls of justice became useless to an indolent generation, whose repose was seldom disturbed, either by study or business. The monuments of consular, or Imperial, greatness were no longer revered, as the immortal glory of the capital: they were only esteemed as an inexhaustible mine of materials, cheaper, and more convenient than the distant quarry. Specious petitions were continually addressed to the easy magistrates of Rome, which stated the want of stones or bricks, for some necessary service: the fairest forms of architecture were rudely defaced, for the sake of some paltry, or pretended, repairs; and the degenerate Romans, who converted the spoil to their own emolument, demolished, with sacrilegious hands, the labors of their ancestors.

The emperor Majorian, mentioned in this passage, who reigned briefly from 457-461, is, for Gibbon, one of the most splendid figures of the age, a “man of great and heroic character, such as sometimes arise, in a degenerate age, to vindicate the honour of the human species”. He was an able general and won several significant victories in Gaul and Iberia, and was able to arrest for a time, though not reverse, the political dissolutions that eroded the cohesion of the empire. Gibbon relates a marvellous anecdote about him:

Anxious to explore, with his own eyes, the state of the Vandals, he ventured, after disguising the color of his hair, to visit Carthage, in the character of his own ambassador: and Genseric was afterwards mortified by the discovery, that he had entertained and dismissed the emperor of the Romans.

Adding that “Such an anecdote may be rejected as an improbable fiction; but it is a fiction which would not have been imagined, unless in the life of a hero.” Somebody, it seems to me, ought to have written an opera or two about him as well.

***

But the glory of Majorian was a last hurrah. This volume peters out with a litany of short-lived emperors who together constitute a portrait of ignominy, violence, and desperation. Presiding over them, providing these twilight years with a certain kind of unity, looms the knife-wielding shadow of Ricimer, whom Gibbon credits with having assassinated at least three, and possibly four, emperors. Let us have a few more operas!

**

The end of this volume marks the approximate mid-point of Gibbon’s great history, and effectively concludes his account of the decline and fall of the western empire. When we think of the empire having “completed” its decline, it was not the case, of course, that it was reduced to dust and ashes. Life continued, and a contemporary might have been surprised to be told that the empire’s decline was complete. Gibbon resists the temptation to draw a bright line at any particular year as marking “the end”.

In the three remaining volumes the focus will be primarily on the eastern empire, though we will also see how the decline of the western empire allowed room for new political forces to emerge, and how those forces eventually began to again affect the political fortunes of the eastern empire. I’m looking forward to it.

[Aphorism]
“The disregard of custom and decency always betrays a weak and ill-regulated mind.”

4 Responses to “Gibbon: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, III”

  1. David Elliot Says:

    Wonderful further review of Gibbon! I just read and thoroughly enjoyed it now. Thank you very much for it.

    You hit on all the figures I particularly admire: Theodosius, Pope St. Leo the Great, Aetius, Athaulf, and the wonderful Majorian (I’d myself add Constantius III and Anthemius) and I was glad to hear Gibbon’s deserved praise for them.

    Athaulf strikes me as a great might-have-been in his approach: i.e., a chance for the Goths to have become to Rome what the Illyrians had been in the late 3rd c. crisis.: a much-needed injection of fresh blood and vitality from which soldiers and emperors (e.g., Aurelian, Constantius, Constantine) would be recruited and who were ultimately Romanized. JH Newman has kind things to say of Goth possibilities: “Blow after blow, and revolution after revolution, sufficed at last to heave up, and hurl down, and smash into fragments, the noblest earthly power that ever was. First came the Goth, then the Hun, and then the Lombard. The Goth took possession, but he was of noble nature, and soon lost his barbarism. The Hun came next; he was irreclaimable, but did not stay. The Lombard kept both his savageness and his ground; he appropriated to himself the territory, not the civilization of Italy… In his dark presence the poor remains of Greek and Roman splendour died away.”
    (“Downfall and Refuge of Ancient Civilization: The Lombards”). Tom Shippey has a piece on Tolkien called “Goths and Romans” where he argues that the Gondor/Rohan relation was, among other things, JRRT’s wish fulfillment fantasy of a “Roman wisdom joined with Gothic strength” scenario that never worked out.

    I will not even begin to speak of Genseric or Ricimer (!!!) lest I have to go to confession, but I must say that Majorian should be far better known and better loved. It amazes me that he never became a kind of folk hero, perhaps a kind of King Tirian or better yet, a Roman King Arthur figure. Perhaps we have yet to uncover some letter from Sidonius Apollinaris describing Majorian as the “once and future emperor,” a kind of Western equivalent to Constantine XI who in legend was rescued by an angel when the Turks battered into Constantinople and lies in a cavern near the Golden Gate until the day when he will be brought to life again. Certainly my impression is that Majorian was exceptionally beloved. In any case, a Handel opera which ends with Majorian being spirited away to some cavern under Rome “until he wakes again,” ideally set to the sublime melody of Handel’s De torrente in via bibet, would have been perfect. Thanks again for another wonderful review.

  2. cburrell Says:

    Thank you, David. If there were a contest for best comment ever…

    You are right that my silence was not fair to Anthemius, a poignant figure. I confess Constantius III fell into my capacious pit of forgetfulness.

    Thank you for the pointer to Newman; I will read it. Your grasp of the tumult of this period seems better than my own.

    I had no notion of Majorian prior to reading Gibbon. I won’t say that I’m surprised at the precise fact that he’s not the hero of an opera — though, now knowing what I know, and knowing too that Europeans until the nineteenth century remembered many things now forgotten, I am a little surprised — but it’s regrettable that his life hasn’t at least been given a novelistic treatment, or some kind of quasi-fictional realization. Maybe here is a project to keep my occupied in my dotage.

    Let us imagine together the closing scene, with music:

  3. David Elliot Says:

    Thank you, Craig, I thought yours was an ideal post and I really admired which figures you handled and how you handled them. A sense of who matters, to what degree, and why is hardly an easy task given the sheer bulk of material Gibbon presents! I thought you struck a perfect balance, so thank you.


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