Gibbon: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, IV

June 7, 2022

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Volume 4
Edward Gibbon
(Modern Library, 1993)  [1788]
lxviii + 598 p.

The structure of Gibbon’s great history is troubled by a threat of anti-climax. The third volume ended with the sack of Rome and the extinction of the Western empire, and in the minds of many readers that’s the end of the story, as it was, I believe, the end of the story as Gibbon originally intended to tell it. But of course in the east there remained an imperial power centered on Constantinople that, despite its Greek language and its very different feel, understood itself as the continuation of the Roman empire, called itself the Roman empire, and, in truth, was firmly rooted in the Roman empire, and its history was to continue for another thousand years. The final three volumes of Gibbon’s book, therefore, are devoted to tracing the contours of that millennium-long extension of the Roman inheritance, as well as to describing the powers that arose to replace the empire in the west, and to showing how, eventually, those two spheres, the eastern and the western, came into contact and mutual influence again.

This fourth volume covers — excluding a few tendrils that reach forward or backward in slender lines — a period of approximately a century and a half, beginning in the 470s and ending early in the seventh century.

It launches, rather unpromisingly, with a chapter devoted to religious matters such as the rise of monasticism, the conversion of the northern Europeans, and the demise of Arianism. Gibbon is not at his best on this ground, and this chapter, especially, does little more than underline his lack of sympathy for monasticism. We learn that the monks were “a swarm of fanatics, incapable of fear, or reason, or humanity” who were in thrall to a “savage enthusiasm which represents man as a criminal, and God as a tyrant”. These men he sees simply as “unhappy exiles from social life” who were “impelled by the dark and implacable genius of superstition”. He just doesn’t get it, and that’s a limitation that we, his patient readers, have to put up with.

But this is followed by a brilliant chapter — the 38th, if anyone is counting — in which he pauses to sum up and take stock of the big picture at the end of the fifth century, writing

I have now accomplished the laborious narrative of the decline and fall of the Roman empire, from the fortunate age of Trajan and the Antonines, to its total extinction in the West, about five centuries after the Christian era. At that unhappy period, the Saxons fiercely struggled with the natives for the possession of Britain: Gaul and Spain were divided between the powerful monarchies of the Franks and Visigoths, and the dependent kingdoms of the Suevi and Burgundians: Africa was exposed to the cruel persecution of the Vandals, and the savage insults of the Moors: Rome and Italy, as far as the banks of the Danube, were afflicted by an army of Barbarian mercenaries, whose lawless tyranny was succeeded by the reign of Theodoric the Ostrogoth. All the subjects of the empire, who, by the use of the Latin language, more particularly deserved the name and privileges of Romans, were oppressed by the disgrace and calamities of foreign conquest; and the victorious nations of Germany established a new system of manners and government in the western countries of Europe.

From this vantage point he pauses to summarize the main argument of the book thus far, highlighting for us a few of the factors that, in his mind, were principally responsible for the decline and fall of the empire. He puts the matter in this way:

The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight. The story of its ruin is simple and obvious; and instead of inquiring why the Roman empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it had subsisted so long. The victorious legions, who, in distant wars, acquired the vices of strangers and mercenaries, first oppressed the freedom of the republic, and afterwards violated the majesty of the purple. The emperors, anxious for their personal safety and the public peace, were reduced to the base expedient of corrupting the discipline which rendered them alike formidable to their sovereign and to the enemy; the vigor of the military government was relaxed, and finally dissolved, by the partial institutions of Constantine; and the Roman world was overwhelmed by a deluge of Barbarians.

Rome was too big to sustain itself, weakened by prosperity (and the softness of character that accompanied it), compromised by a too-powerful and insufficiently disciplined military, and subjected to too many outside pressures on its integrity. He also highlights the divided loyalties arising from the “double reign”, east and west, that troubled the empire after Constantine’s founding of Constantinople, with its potential for internal tension and multiplication of internal bureaucracies.

**

Before I began reading this book, the one thing I’d have thought that I could tell you was that Gibbon lay the blame for Rome’s decline at the feet of the Christians. He does do so, as we’ll see in a moment, but his claim is not so bald nor so simple. We’ve just seen that he cites quite a number of contributing reasons for Rome’s fall. When he does get around to criticizing Christianity, he says:

The clergy successfully preached the doctrines of patience and pusillanimity: the active virtues of society were discouraged; and the last remains of military spirit were buried in the cloister: a large portion of public and private wealth was consecrated to the specious demands of charity and devotion; and the soldiers’ pay was lavished on the useless multitudes of both sexes, who could only plead the merits of abstinence and chastity. Faith, zeal, curiosity, and the more earthly passions of malice and ambition, kindled the flame of theological discord; the church, and even the state, were distracted by religious factions, whose conflicts were sometimes bloody, and always implacable; the attention of the emperors was diverted from camps to synods; the Roman world was oppressed by a new species of tyranny; and the persecuted sects became the secret enemies of their country.

In other words, Christianity softened the Roman virtues and fostered division within Roman society. Yet, not stopping there, he goes on to recognize that Christianity also brought important benefits, both by attempting to unite society under one faith, and by moderating the conflict between Rome and the barbarians, who themselves often adopted the faith:

If the decline of the Roman empire was hastened by the conversion of Constantine, his victorious religion broke the violence of the fall, and mollified the ferocious temper of the conquerors.

So I would judge that when it comes to the overall, broad-strokes role of Christianity in the decline of the Roman empire, Gibbon is at least making an effort to be even-handed.

**

The weight of the narrative, from this point forward, falls in the east. Insofar as the Western powers come into it, it is mostly a tale of woe. We see the Ostrogoths, led by Theodoric, establishing themselves as the principal power in Italy for about 50 years before yielding again to the Eastern empire, which was itself subsequently overrun by the Lombards come down from the north. The Lombards founded a long-lasting kingdom that persisted for several hundred years. I was intrigued to learn that it was during the period of Lombard rule (from, say, about 565 until the reign of Charlemagne in the late 8th century) that the Latin language began to break apart into regional dialects. The Lombards, it seemed, spoke a native tongue less inflected than Latin, and gradually produced a less inflected form of Latin that better suited them. Presumably it was this evolved (or devolved, according to taste) form of Latin from which the relatively uninflected Romance languages emerged.

The Lombard kingdom was ruled from Pavia, in northern Italy, and Rome, during this period, suffered from neglect. Gibbon dilates on the fate of the city at the end of the sixth century in a passage so lovely and characteristic of his strengths as a writer that I cannot resist quoting it at length. Rome, he writes, had at this time reached “the lowest period of her depression.”

By the removal of the seat of empire, and the successive loss of the provinces, the sources of public and private opulence were exhausted: the lofty tree, under whose shade the nations of the earth had reposed, was deprived of its leaves and branches, and the sapless trunk was left to wither on the ground. The ministers of command, and the messengers of victory, no longer met on the Appian or Flaminian way; and the hostile approach of the Lombards was often felt, and continually feared. The inhabitants of a potent and peaceful capital, who visit without an anxious thought the garden of the adjacent country, will faintly picture in their fancy the distress of the Romans: they shut or opened their gates with a trembling hand, beheld from the walls the flames of their houses, and heard the lamentations of their brethren, who were coupled together like dogs, and dragged away into distant slavery beyond the sea and the mountains. Such incessant alarms must annihilate the pleasures and interrupt the labors of a rural life; and the Campagna of Rome was speedily reduced to the state of a dreary wilderness, in which the land is barren, the waters are impure, and the air is infectious. Curiosity and ambition no longer attracted the nations to the capital of the world: but, if chance or necessity directed the steps of a wandering stranger, he contemplated with horror the vacancy and solitude of the city, and might be tempted to ask, Where is the senate, and where are the people? … The edifices of Rome were exposed to the same ruin and decay: the mouldering fabrics were easily overthrown by inundations, tempests, and earthquakes: and the monks, who had occupied the most advantageous stations, exulted in their base triumph over the ruins of antiquity.

About all that was left to interest the world about Rome was the papacy, and if it was true that the last years of the sixth century were the nadir for Rome, Gibbon largely credits the pontificate of Pope St Gregory the Great (590-604) for beginning the long, slow process of turning things around.

(Before passing on from the Lombards, I cannot resist a personal aside about Pavia, their capital. Today it is a relatively small city reachable by train from Milan in under an hour. I have been there myself. In one of its churches, San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro (which Dante mentions in the Paradiso), are interred two of the great men of our tradition: St. Augustine and Boethius. I went there on a personal pilgrimage to honour Augustine, whose tomb, I was grateful to discover, is stunningly beautiful; pictures can hardly do it justice. Sadly I didn’t learn about Boethius’ tomb until years later, so I was not able to pay my respects to him. Nonetheless, visiting Pavia remains one of the best and most rewarding things I’ve ever done.)

*

Meanwhile, in Constantinople, the sixth century is dominated by the life of Justinian, an emperor who, perhaps nearly as much as Constantine himself, left a legacy that shaped politics and culture for centuries afterwards. My judgement, prior to reading Gibbon, was that Justinian’s reign was primarily a beneficial one, though marred by serious faults (such as, to cite a case hard to ignore, the execution of Boethius). Gibbon is inclined to see things the other way around; for him, Jusitinian is a rather nasty character: superstitious, violent, and lacking nobility. He was, we learn, “neither beloved in his life, nor regretted at his death”. The obvious bright light in his reign, which for Gibbon survives as practically the only bright light, was his decision to reform the legal framework of the empire. The Justinian Code survives to this day in the legal regimes of numerous European nations. (Gibbon pauses at this point to devote an entire chapter of his book to a history of Roman jurisprudence. It’s a brilliant performance, I am told, though I am here skipping lightly over it.)

Justinian is overshadowed for Gibbon by his most eminent general, Belisarius, and we are treated to a fine encomium on the man’s merits:

Amidst the perils of war, he was daring without rashness, prudent without fear, slow or rapid according to the exigencies of the moment; that in the deepest distress he was animated by real or apparent hope, but that he was modest and humble in the most prosperous fortune. By these virtues, he equalled or excelled the ancient masters of the military art. Victory, by sea and land, attended his arms. He subdued Africa, Italy, and the adjacent islands; led away captives the successors of Genseric and Theodoric; filled Constantinople with the spoils of their palaces; and in the space of six years recovered half the provinces of the Western empire. In his fame and merit, in wealth and power, he remained without a rival.

He was executed by Justinian, who was allegedly jealous of his success and fame.

A pleasure of reading a long, involved history such as this is that it turns up admirable characters where I hadn’t known them to be. Belisarius is one, and the emperor Tiberius II, who came to the throne about a decade after Justinian’s death, is another. I had no notion of him at all, but Gibbon regards him highly, writing:

After recording the vice or folly of so many Roman princes, it is pleasing to repose, for a moment, on a character conspicuous by the qualities of humanity, justice, temperance, and fortitude; to contemplate a sovereign affable in his palace, pious in the church, impartial on the seat of judgment, and victorious, at least by his generals, in the Persian war. The most glorious trophy of his victory consisted in a multitude of captives, whom Tiberius entertained, redeemed, and dismissed to their native homes with the charitable spirit of a Christian hero. The merit or misfortunes of his own subjects had a dearer claim to his beneficence, and he measured his bounty not so much by their expectations as by his own dignity.

Here, it seems, was a man worthy of remembrance. But for every such, there were an armful of tyrants, squabblers, loafers, or worse. Just a few years after Tiberius’ death, for instance, the throne was seized by one Phocas, a violent careerist who is best remembered today for being drawn into an epochal conflict with the Persian empire. The war outlasted Phocas, but was continued through the long reign of Heraclius, and ended, in 628, in a state of depletion and exhaustion for both powers.

This whimper of an outcome was epochal because a new force was ready to sweep into the power vacuum created by the war, and the thunder of its hoofbeats could be heard, faintly at first, but not faintly for long:

An obscure town on the confines of Syria was pillaged by the Saracens, and they cut in pieces some troops who advanced to its relief; an ordinary and trifling occurrence, had it not been the prelude of a mighty revolution. These robbers were the apostles of Mahomet; their fanatic valor had emerged from the desert; and in the last eight years of his reign, Heraclius lost to the Arabs the same provinces which he had rescued from the Persians.

The tale of how the Islamic armies conquered the Persians, the Byzantines, the North Africans, and the Iberians in just one hundred years will be one of the principal narrative threads in the succeeding volume. I look forward to it.

***

[Gibbon’s Whiggish optimism defies his main theme]
Every age of the world has increased, and still increases, the real wealth, the happiness, the knowledge, and perhaps the virtue, of the human race.

[Limits of reform]
It is the first care of a reformer to prevent any future reformation.

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