Posts Tagged ‘Ancient Rome’

Sutcliff: Three Legions

February 6, 2023

Three Legions
The Eagle of the Ninth
The Silver Branch
The Lantern Bearers
Rosemary Sutcliff
(Puffin, 1986) [1954, 1957, 1959]
640 p.

The period of Roman political influence in Britain began with Julius Caesar’s brief crossings of the Channel in 55 and 54 BC, became sustained and powerful during and after the reign of Hadrian, and fell apart by roughly the 5th century. Rosemary Sutcliff wrote a series of novels set at various points during that interval, and three are collected in this volume under the title Three Legions.


The Eagle of the Ninth is the best-known of these stories, and justly so. Set, I believe, in approximately the year 120 AD, it tells a gripping story about two young men, a Roman and a Briton, who travel beyond Hadrian’s Wall into the (modern) Scottish highlands to discover the fate of a Roman legion that had marched north years before and never returned. It’s a stirring tale of friendship and adventure, well-shaped and very exciting. I appreciated the way in which Sutcliff worked in the different attitudes those in Britain had to Rome, the texture of life at the time, and the pagan piety of the people. The story works very well.


It is late in the third century, with Diocletian on the throne in Rome (or Nicopolis) and an upstart “emperor” ruling Britain, when the story of The Silver Branch takes place. It, too, follows two young friends who find themselves close to critical events when the British emperor is overthrown, and who join a secret movement to help the Western emperor Constantius recover power from the usurper. It shares many of the strengths of the earlier book, especially the believable characters and the portrayal of the winsome friendship between them. This was, of course, a period before Christianity was legalized in the empire, but the new religion was known, and Sutcliff works in oblique references in one or two spots. I did not find the story quite so compelling as in the previous volume.


Although the popularity of The Eagle of the Ninth is justified, in some ways my favourite of these three tales was the last, The Lantern Bearers. Its story takes place in the sixth century, after the departure of the last Roman legion from Britain. (Whether it was fitting to include it in a collection with this title is therefore debatable, but let’s not be nit-pickers.) The story plays out as a young man, a Roman raised in Britain, and loyal to the reality of Britain over the (for him) abstraction of Rome, finds himself fighting, in various ways, and over the course of about twenty years, to help Britain stand on her own feet against the violent incursions of the Saxons. It’s a sensitively told story, as he finds himself caught between the claims of the Britons, the Saxons, the pagans, the Christians — all of whom he has, in time, cause to respect. There is a wonderful monk character. I was also charmed by the manner in which Sutcliff subtly set the stage for the emergence into British history of King Arthur, a theme that I gather is pursued more explicitly in the sequel to this third book, Sword at Sunset. I just might read it.

The Lantern Bearers won the Carnegie Medal in 1959.


The three books, and perhaps also her other Roman Britain books, are tied together in various ways that justify considering them under one banner, or between two covers. Although the individual stories are separated in time by centuries, the characters (at least in these three books) are related by ancestry, and certain plot elements from one book bear eventually on others. I’ve long admired Sutcliff as a writer of children’s books, but I don’t know that I’ve enjoyed any of her books as much as I’ve enjoyed these.

Gibbon: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, VI

August 14, 2022

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Volume 6
Edward Gibbon
(Everyman’s, 1993) [1788]
xxv + 684 p.

The previous volumes had brought the story to roughly the eleventh century, on the cusp of the Crusades. In this final volume Gibbon gathers up all the dangling threads and follows them to the middle of the fifteenth century, when, with the fall of Constantinople, the decline and fall of the Roman empire was completed.

Naturally, the focus is mainly on the eastern empire during these centuries, but he also keeps an attentive eye on the city of Rome. Along the way, we learn about the rise of the Ottoman Turks, the Crusades, religious controversies and schisms and councils, the sack of Constantinople in 1204 (after which, for a time, it was in the hands of Latin-speaking Crusader emperors), the migration of the papacy to Avignon, the Mongol invasions, and, of course, the final defeat of the eastern empire in 1453.

These pages are peopled by a remarkable cast of characters, from great Crusaders like Tancred (in whom “we discover all the virtues of a perfect knight”) and St Louis IX of France (“the father of his people, the friend of his neighbors, and the terror of the infidels”), to admirable foes such as Saladin, Timur, and, at the last, Mehmed II. Nearly an entire chapter is devoted to the life of Rienzi, who tried to revive Rome in the fourteenth century (and who, for his trouble, became the subject of a Wagnerian opera).

It’s a big story, bursting with incident, and boasting a sometimes bewildering surfeit of narrative paths to tread. Some, such as those about the Crusades, were fairly familiar; others, such as those about the Turks and Mongols, were not. Generally speaking, the predominant focus on the long denouement of the eastern empire made this volume the least engaging in the set for me. In these notes I’ll not attempt anything like a thorough overview. Instead, I’ll simply pick out a few aspects that particularly interested me.


The tendency today is to look askance at the Crusades, for a variety of reasons that are too familiar to bother with here. Gibbon, for his part, sees them generally as motivated by an unseemly fanaticism, but he is not unwilling to acknowledge individual excellence among the Crusaders when he sees it, nor does he overlook what he sees as their positive consequences. We saw in the previous volume, for instance, that he thought contact with the western powers en route to the Holy Land gave a very salutary spark to the ailing, inert cultural life of Byzantium. He also, in this volume, makes an argument that the Crusades benefitted western Europe by breaking the feudal system:

“The independence, rapine, and discord of the feudal lords were unmixed with any semblance of good; and every hope of industry and improvement was crushed by the iron weight of the martial aristocracy. Among the causes that undermined that Gothic edifice, a conspicuous place must be allowed to the crusades. The estates of the barons were dissipated, and their race was often extinguished, in these costly and perilous expeditions. Their poverty extorted from their pride those charters of freedom which unlocked the fetters of the slave, secured the farm of the peasant and the shop of the artificer, and gradually restored a substance and a soul to the most numerous and useful part of the community. The conflagration which destroyed the tall and barren trees of the forest gave air and scope to the vegetation of the smaller and nutritive plants of the soil.”

“Unmixed” and “every” strike me as exaggeration; no doubt feudalism had its weaknesses, but the testimony of medieval Europe is more mixed than Gibbon allows here. All the same, it is interesting to me that he makes this argument at all. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century there was a theory that the Crusades were undertaken by those members of European society who had nothing to lose: unpropertied second sons, and the like. On that view, the Crusades were a kind of greedy violence by which Christendom enriched and employed itself by spilling the blood of Muslims. This theory has been overturned in medieval scholarship, I believe, and has reverted to something very much like what Gibbon argues here: that the wealthy families of Europe impoverished rather than enriched themselves by taking the cross. I’d not have been surprised to find that Gibbon was the originator of the earlier theory; it is instructive to learn that he was not.


At one point, Gibbon discusses the work of the Byzantine historian Laonikos Chalkokondyles (c.1430-c.1470), and the result is quite diverting. By this time quite a lot of Crusaders had come through Byzantium, spinning tales about home, and it is amusing to read what the easterners — or at least this one easterner — thought about the western nations.

Of Germany, for instance, Laonikos writes that

“The soil, except in figs and olives, is sufficiently fruitful; the air is salubrious; the bodies of the natives are robust and healthy; and these cold regions are seldom visited with the calamities of pestilence, or earthquakes…and the Germans may boast of the invention of gunpowder and cannon.”

I’d not be at all surprised to learn that the Germans did indeed boast of it.

Of the French, he notes that they

“…are an ancient and opulent people; and their language and manners, though somewhat different, are not dissimilar from those of the Italians. Vain of the Imperial dignity of Charlemagne, of their victories over the Saracens, and of the exploits of their heroes, Oliver and Rowland, they esteem themselves the first of the western nations; but this foolish arrogance has been recently humbled by the unfortunate events of their wars against the English, the inhabitants of the British island.”

Some things, it seems, just don’t change. Although the English cannot smile too broadly at this appraisal, for they are next:

“…the land is overspread with towns and villages: though destitute of wine, and not abounding in fruit-trees, it is fertile in wheat and barley; in honey and wool; and much cloth is manufactured by the inhabitants… Their language bears no affinity to the idioms of the Continent: in the habits of domestic life, they are not easily distinguished from their neighbors of France: but the most singular circumstance of their manners is their disregard of conjugal honor and of female chastity. In their mutual visits, as the first act of hospitality, the guest is welcomed in the embraces of their wives and daughters: among friends they are lent and borrowed without shame; nor are the islanders offended at this strange commerce, and its inevitable consequences.”

In the face of this scandalous reputation, Gibbon protests that poor Laonikas has “confounded a modest salute with a criminal embrace”, and draws this lesson: “to distrust the accounts of foreign and remote nations, and to suspend our belief of every tale that deviates from the laws of nature and the character of man.”


For me, as, I expect, for many readers, the most engrossing section of this volume concerned the siege of Constantinople in 1453. I was startled to realize, while reading, that although I consider this siege as historically important I did not know much of anything about how it happened. I did not know, for instance, that the siege was led by a young (just 21 years old) Ottoman commander, the Sultan Mehmed II. I did not know that the attacking force numbered in the vicinity of 200,000 men, while the defenders, under the command of Constantine XI Paleologus, were fewer than 10,000. Nor did I know that the attack on Constantinople is important in the annals of military history because it made use of the new technology of gunpowder, which was to so profoundly change both tactics and strategy in the centuries to come.

Most poignant to me was the account of how, after nearly two months of siege,  the people of Constantinople prepared for what they could see was imminent defeat. Of the eve before the city was finally taken, Gibbon writes:

“They wept, they embraced; regardless of their families and fortunes, they devoted their lives; and each commander, departing to his station, maintained all night a vigilant and anxious watch on the rampart. The emperor, and some faithful companions, entered the dome of St. Sophia, which in a few hours was to be converted into a mosque; and devoutly received, with tears and prayers, the sacrament of the holy communion. He reposed some moments in the palace, which resounded with cries and lamentations; solicited the pardon of all whom he might have injured; and mounted on horseback to visit the guards, and explore the motions of the enemy. The distress and fall of the last Constantine are more glorious than the long prosperity of the Byzantine Cæsars.”

And so the city fell. Mehmed II, who earned in this affair the cognomen “the Conqueror”, allowed his soldiers three days of looting, slaughter, and rape, after which about 30,000 civilians, the last remnant of the Roman empire, were sold into slavery.


Around the same time — technically, a few years earlier, but from this distance they look nearly simultaneous — across the sea in Rome, a scholar named Poggio Bracciolini stood with a friend overlooking the ruins of the Roman forum, meditating on the transitoriness of human endeavours, and he later composed a memorable lament for the city, which Gibbon preserves for us:

“Her primeval state, such as she might appear in a remote age, when Evander entertained the stranger of Troy, has been delineated by the fancy of Virgil. This Tarpeian rock was then a savage and solitary thicket: in the time of the poet, it was crowned with the golden roofs of a temple; the temple is overthrown, the gold has been pillaged, the wheel of fortune has accomplished her revolution, and the sacred ground is again disfigured with thorns and brambles. The hill of the Capitol, on which we sit, was formerly the head of the Roman empire, the citadel of the earth, the terror of kings; illustrated by the footsteps of so many triumphs, enriched with the spoils and tributes of so many nations. This spectacle of the world, how is it fallen! how changed! how defaced! The path of victory is obliterated by vines, and the benches of the senators are concealed by a dunghill. Cast your eyes on the Palatine hill, and seek among the shapeless and enormous fragments the marble theatre, the obelisks, the colossal statues, the porticos of Nero’s palace: survey the other hills of the city, the vacant space is interrupted only by ruins and gardens. The forum of the Roman people, where they assembled to enact their laws and elect their magistrates, is now enclosed for the cultivation of pot-herbs, or thrown open for the reception of swine and buffaloes. The public and private edifices, that were founded for eternity, lie prostrate, naked, and broken, like the limbs of a mighty giant; and the ruin is the more visible, from the stupendous relics that have survived the injuries of time and fortune.”

It could hardly be said better.


All good things must come to an end, and we now, at long last, have come to the end of Gibbon’s great work. Nearly two hundred and fifty years have passed since its publication, and naturally some of his scholarship has been superseded, but as a masterpiece of both historiography and of English prose it can have few, if any, rivals. To read the book is to acquire an education in Western history; its principal themes and theses are, as he says, “connected with many of the events most interesting in human annals”. To wit:

the artful policy of the Cæsars, who long maintained the name and image of a free republic; the disorders of military despotism; the rise, establishment, and sects of Christianity; the foundation of Constantinople; the division of the monarchy; the invasion and settlements of the Barbarians of Germany and Scythia; the institutions of the civil law; the character and religion of Mahomet; the temporal sovereignty of the popes; the restoration and decay of the Western empire of Charlemagne; the crusades of the Latins in the East: the conquests of the Saracens and Turks; the ruin of the Greek empire; the state and revolutions of Rome in the middle age.

The very last sentence of the book is a famous one; he, like Poggio Bracciolini, was inspired to write as he sat overlooking the Forum:

“It was among the ruins of the Capitol that I first conceived the idea of a work which has amused and exercised near twenty years of my life, and which, however inadequate to my own wishes, I finally deliver to the curiosity and candor of the public.”

I am happy to acknowledge my gratitude to him — and happy, too, to have finally finished! It took nearly 10 months for me to read the entire book, and, given my state of life, it is fair to say that this counts as a modest but, remembering the parable of the widow’s mite, fine achievement.

In any case, I believe that I have now concluded my efforts to blog about this large work. May those who think I have blogged too much, or those who think I have blogged too little, forgive me. May those who think I have blogged just enough join me in giving thanks to God.

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.

Marcus Aurelius: Meditations

May 9, 2022

Marcus Aurelius
Adapted by George Chrystal from the 1742 Foulis translation
(Walter J. Black, 1941) [c.180]
120 p.

Marcus Aurelius, he of the golden name and the laudable reputation, has for me always had something of an aura, as it were, about him. Even the terse title of his famous book promised something sturdy and placid, something on which to sit and rest myself. I am happy to have finally made the time for it.

It is rare to have a book, especially one of this kind, written by a man of such eminence. He was Roman emperor, the most powerful man in the world he knew, yet his book is not about conquest or war or even greatness in any worldly sense. It is a book about the interior life, for the most part: about virtue, and the good life, and preparing for death, and learning to be happy. He wrote it for himself.

It is an aphoristic book. Marcus Aurelius spent much of his time as emperor on the road, in the field of battle, and it seems he jotted down his thoughts when he had a fleeting opportunity to do so. The book it most reminded me of, at least structurally, was Pascal’s Pensées. Not the least of its merits is that it stands as a reproach to those of us who think we’re “too busy” to do something worthwhile.

Because of its fractured format, it’s a good book to dip into, and a difficult one to summarize. Today my aim is simply to pluck at a few dominant ideas that I noticed, and to preserve for my own benefit some passages that struck me as especially worthy.


Much of the book is occupied with the question of what constitutes good character. Let’s start with an extended sketch that he gives early in his meditations when he is recounting what he learned from various mentors and exemplars:

The counsels of Maximus taught me to command myself, to judge clearly, to be of good courage in sickness and other misfortunes, to be moderate, gentle, yet serious in disposition, and to accomplish my appointed task without repining. All men believed that he spoke as he thought; and whatever he did, they knew it was done with good intent. I never found him surprised or astonished at anything. He was never in a hurry, never shrank from his purpose, was never at a loss or dejected. He was no facile smiler, but neither was he passionate or suspicious. He was ready to do good, to forgive, and to speak the truth, and gave the impression of unperverted rectitude rather than of a reformed character. No man could ever think himself despised by Maximus, and no one ever ventured to think himself his superior. He had also a good gift of humour.

There we have a winsome and compelling portrait of a good man; who would not wish to be spoken of in such a way? One of the character traits in this sketch is integrity: to be what one appears to be, to be candid and honest in one’s dealings with people, to say what one means. This is a matter that comes up frequently throughout the book, and is expressed in different ways. For instance, he tells us that we should

Never esteem aught of advantage which will oblige you to break your faith, or to desert your honour; to hate, to suspect, or to execrate any man; to play a part; or to set your mind on anything that needs to be hidden by wall or curtain. (III.7)

Or, again,

If you discharge your present duty with firm and zealous, yet kindly, observance of the laws of reason; if you regard no by-gains, but keep pure within you your immortal part, as if obliged to restore it at once to him who gave it; if you hold to this with no further desires or aversions, and be content with the natural discharge of your present task, and with the heroic sincerity of all you say or utter, you will live well. And herein no man can hinder you. (III.12)

It might be that certain jealous or envious people will cast aspersions at a man who lives thus candidly before the world, ascribing to him secret hidden motives that he does not have, but this, says Marcus, is nothing to be concerned about:

Though others may not believe that he lives thus in simplicity, modesty, and contentment, he neither takes this unbelief amiss from any one, nor quits the road which leads to the true end of life, at which he ought to arrive pure, calm, ready to take his departure, and accommodated without compulsion to his fate. (III.16)

This is appealing to me; here is something to aspire to. But I fear, on good grounds, that I would fail, as I have failed at lesser challenges. A charge open to Marcus, as it is open to anyone who sets up an ideal, is that it is unrealistic: people just aren’t that good. We are all hobbled by various weaknesses and corruptions. This side of things is muted in the book, but not absent. At one point, for instance, he offers counsel on how to resist the lure of avarice:

Dwell not on what you lack so much as on what you have already. Select the best of what you have, and consider how passionately you would have longed for it had it not been yours. Yet be watchful, lest by this joy in what you have you accustom yourself to value it too highly; so that, if it should fail, you would be distressed. (VII.27)

This is a kind of therapy for temptation and weakness of will. In another place he offers advice to those who, though trying to live in accordance with reason — a Stoic ideal — find that they have fallen into error:

Remember that to change your course, and to follow any man who can set you right is no compromise of your freedom. The act is your own, performed on your own impulse and judgment, and according to your own understanding. (VIII.16)

To be in error is a fault, but to discover an error is an opportunity to exercise both freedom and gratitude. But he goes beyond even such rosy therapies and glass-half-full ruminations once or twice:

This your suffering is well merited, for you would rather become good to-morrow than be good to-day. (VIII.22)

I would bet that St Augustine read Marcus Aurelius.


Marcus had to deal with difficult people — not just irritating people, but people scheming against him for something, and perhaps in the grip of a particular vice. We all have to do this from time to time, according to our state in life. Marcus has some counsel for such situations.

Say this to yourself in the morning: Today I shall have to do with meddlers, with the ungrateful, with the insolent, with the crafty, with the envious and the selfish. All these vices have beset them, because they know not what is good and what is evil. But I have considered the nature of the good, and found it beautiful: I have beheld the nature of the bad, and found it ugly. I also understand the nature of the evil-doer, and know that he is my brother, not because he shares with me the same blood or the same seed, but because he is a partaker of the same mind and of the same portion of immortality. I therefore cannot be hurt by any of these, since none of them can involve me in any baseness. I cannot be angry with my brother, or sever myself from him, for we are made by nature for mutual assistance, like the feet, the hands, the eyelids, the upper and lower rows of teeth. (II.1)

There are a few ideas here: evildoers don’t know what they are doing, not truly; evil committed against me cannot hurt me, not truly; my own good is consonant with, rather than opposed to, the good of others. Each is debatable, of course, but each is important to Marcus’ way of seeing things. As to the last point, for instance, he cites (or coins) a neat aphorism: “What profits not the swarm profits not the bee. (VI.54)”.

The notion that a good man cannot be harmed by others comes up again and again. At times it is expressed metaphysically:

Material things cannot touch the soul at all, nor have any access to it: neither can they bend or move it. The soul is bent or moved by itself alone, and remodels all things that present themselves from without in accordance with whatever judgment it adopts within. (V.19)

The mind can convert and change everything that impedes its activity into matter for its action; hindrance in its work becomes its real help, and every obstruction makes for its progress. (V.20)

At other times it is stated in moral terms:

Let any one say or do what he pleases, I must be a good man. It is just as gold, or emeralds, or purple might say continually: “Let men do or say what they please, I must be an emerald, and retain my lustre.” (VII.15)

Or, conversely,

The sinner sins against himself. The wrong-doer wrongs himself by making himself evil. (IX.4)

Socrates used to say something very much like this, and there is a kernel of hard truth in it. I may be made to suffer for my integrity, but so long as I’m willing to undergo that suffering, so long as I value my integrity more than I fear the suffering, I cannot be compelled to forsake it. This is a stern moralism, but attractive. Consistently, Marcus counsels us to aim, in freedom, at what is right according to justice, and accept the consequences.

In the present matter what is the soundest that can be done or said? For, whatever that may be, you are at liberty to do or say it. Make no excuses as if hindered. You will never cease from groaning until your disposition is such that what luxury is to men of pleasure, that to you is doing what is suitable to the constitution of man on every occasion that is thrown or falls in your way. You should regard as enjoyment everything which you are at liberty to do in accordance with your own proper nature; and this liberty you have everywhere. (X.33)

We are to look at what is intrinsically right, without regard to extrinsic factors like approbation, reward, or suffering. Keep your eye on the ball. He is especially keen to discount the importance of rewards for good deeds. No doubt he was surrounded by sycophants seeking an imperial back scratch for services rendered, but he would have none of it:

When you have done a kind action, another has benefited. Why do you, like the fools, require some third thing in addition—a reputation for benevolence or a return for it? (VII.73)

Instead, he sketches for us an ideal to contrast with the fool:

Some men, when they have done you a favour, are very ready to reckon up the obligation they have conferred. Others, again, are not so forward in their claims, but yet in their minds consider you their debtor, and well know the value of what they have done. A third sort seem to be unconscious of their service. They are like the vine, which produces its clusters and is satisfied when it has yielded its proper fruit. The horse when he has run his course, the hound when he has followed the track, the bee when it has made its honey, and the man when he has done good to others, make no noisy boast of it, but set out to do the same once more, as the vine in its season produces its new clusters again. “Should we, then, be among those who in a manner know not what they do?” Assuredly. (V.6)

This is a matter that I’ve often thought about. I’m a person who, on those rare occasions when I do some good for a friend, does not expect anything in return. The matter is forgotten. Likewise, when someone does me a good turn, I don’t feel any pressing obligation to return the favour. I am grateful; I say ‘thank you’; and then I move on. I don’t keep accounts, for better or for worse. This can be irritating to my wife, who is much more sensitive to the intricacies of obligation and debt. But I am in agreement with Marcus on this point; I do what I see as my duty, or as right, and why should I place another under a debt for doing so? And when I receive a good from someone, can I not receive it as a gift, or must it place me under some obligation to reciprocate? Well, it is simpler, at least, to be as the horse, the hound, and the bee.

Wrapped up in Marcus’ counsel that we should simply do the right thing is his belief that we should not particularly care about the outcome. We do our part, he says, and the rest is not up to us.

Try to persuade men to agree with you; but whether they agree or not, pursue the course you have marked out when the principles of justice point that way. Should one oppose you by force, act with resignation, and shew not that you are hurt, use the obstruction for the exercise of some other virtue, and remember that your purpose involved the reservation that you were not to aim at impossibilities. What, after all, was your aim? To make some good effort such as this. Well, then, you have succeeded, even though your first purpose be not accomplished. (VI.50)

We encroach here on the Stoic belief that we should strive for detachment from success, fame, and wealth. Instead, we should accept, in humility and simplicity, whatever happens, be it good or bad by conventional standards of judgment. Such things — merely external things that happen to us — are of no ultimate importance:

Now death and life, glory and reproach, pain and pleasure, riches and poverty—all these happen equally to the good and to the bad. But, as they are neither honourable nor shameful, they are therefore neither good nor evil. (II.11)

When under the sway of our passions, we grow attached to things that are transitory and bound to pass away. We want things to be this way, and not that way. But this is a recipe for unhappiness, for all things are transitory, and even if we attain what we want, it will not last. Instead, we ought to receive everything that happens with a kind of detached indifference:

The healthy eye ought to look on everything visible, and not to say, “I want green,” like an eye that is diseased. Sound hearing or sense of smell ought to be ready for all that can be heard or smelt; and the healthy stomach should be equally disposed for all sorts of food, as a mill for all that it was built to grind. So also the healthy mind should be ready for all things that happen. That mind which says, “Let my children be spared, and let men applaud my every action,” is as an eye which begs for green, or as teeth which require soft food. (X.35)

Again, this way of thinking has a certain appeal. For a Christian it must be a limited appeal, for Jesus taught us to ask for our daily bread, rather than to <i>not</i> ask for it. The Christian way is to love rather than to be indifferent. And Marcus’ belief that it is better not to desire particular goods does occasionally cross the line into something that feels perverse:

You will think little of a pleasing song, a dance, or a gymnastic display, if you analyse the melody into its separate notes, and ask yourself regarding each, “Does this impress me?” You will blush to own it; and so also if you analyse the dance into its single motions and postures, and if you similarly treat the gymnastic display. In general then, except as regards virtue and virtuous action, remember to recur to the constituent parts of things, and by dissecting to despise them; and transfer this practice to life as a whole. (XI.2)

This just seems like a therapy for how not to like things: by conceptualizing them in a way that makes them not likeable.


A final theme of Marcus’ meditations that I’ll touch on is a familiar one: the brevity of life. This is a common enough trope in the ancient world; we saw it when we were reading Seneca a few moons ago, and it is a perpetual favourite of moralists the world over. All the same, Marcus invests the familiar tune with his own distinctive voice. He emphasizes the moral urgency that human life acquires because of its limits:

Order not your life as though you had ten thousand years to live. Fate hangs over you. While you live, while yet you may, be good. (IV.17)

And he concludes his entire set of meditations with a memorable passage on the inevitability and unpredictability of death:

You have lived, O man, as a citizen of this great city; of what consequence to you whether for five years or for three? What comes by law is fair to all. Where then is the calamity, if you are sent out of the city, by no tyrant or unjust judge, but Nature herself who at first introduced you, just as the praetor who engaged the actor again dismisses him from the stage? “But,” say you, “I have not spoken my five acts, but only three.” True, but in life three acts make up the play. For he sets the end who was responsible for its composition at the first, and for its present dissolution. You are responsible for neither. Depart then graciously; for he who dismisses you is gracious. (XII.36)

All the world’s a stage.


The Meditations is unquestionably a great book; it doesn’t need me to praise it. Reading as a Christian, I see its wisdom as limited in various respects, but that it contains genuine wisdom I do not doubt. Stoicism probably never found a better spokesman than Marcus Aurelius. Perhaps the thing that struck me most, as I was reading, was just how immediately it spoke to me. I would go so far as to say that for no book from the ancient world, with the notable and important exception of Augustine’s Confessions, have I felt the centuries melt away as I did with this. Marcus speaks to me as a contemporary, and that is a remarkable achievement.


The best revenge is not to copy him that wronged you. (VI.6)

Men will go their ways nonetheless, though you burst in protest. (VIII.4)

[Human nature and reason]
In the reasoning being to act according to nature is to act according to reason. (VII.11)

Had you at one time both a step-mother and a mother, you would respect the former, yet you would be more constantly in your mother’s company. Your court and your philosophy are step-mother and mother to you. Return then frequently to your true mother, and recreate yourself with her. Her consolation can make the court seem bearable to you, and you to it. (VI.12)

[Love those around you]
Adapt yourself to the things which your destiny has given you: love those with whom it is your lot to live, and love them with sincere affection. (VI.39)

[Choose the best]
Frankly and freely choose the best, and keep to it. The best is what is for your advantage. If now you choose what is for your spiritual advantage, hold it fast; if what is for your bodily advantage, admit that it is so chosen, and keep your choice with all modesty. Only see that you make a sure discrimination. (III.6)

[Change and transitoriness]
Consider frequently how swiftly things that exist or are coming into existence are swept by and carried away. Their substance is as a river perpetually flowing; their actions are in continual change, and their causes subject to ten thousand alterations. Scarcely anything is stable, and the vast eternities of past and future in which all things are swallowed up are close upon us on both hands. Is he not then a fool who is puffed up with success in the things of this world, or is distracted, or worried, as if he were in a time of trouble likely to endure for long. (V.23)

[Good zeal]
For what should we be zealous? For this alone, that our souls be just, our actions unselfish, our speech ever sincere, and our disposition such as may cheerfully embrace whatever happens, seeing it to be inevitable, familiar, and sprung from the same source and origin as we ourselves. (IV.34)

[Metaphysical beauty]
Whatever is beautiful at all is beautiful in itself. Its beauty ends there, and praise has no part in it. Nothing is the better or the worse for being praised; and this holds also of what is beautiful in the common estimation: of material forms and works of art. Thus true beauty needs nothing beyond itself, any more than law, or truth, or kindness, or honour. For none of these gets a single grace from praise or one blot from censure. (IV.19)

Most things you say and do are not necessary. Have done with them, and you will be more at leisure and less perturbed. On every occasion, then, ask yourself the question, Is this thing not unnecessary? And put away not only unnecessary deeds but unnecessary thoughts, for by so doing you will avoid all superfluous actions. (IV.24)

[Talking himself out of bed in the morning]
In the morning, when you find yourself unwilling to rise, have this thought at hand: I arise to the proper business of man, and shall I repine at setting about that work for which I was born and brought into the world? Am I equipped for nothing but to lie among the bed-clothes and keep warm? “But,” you say, “it is more pleasant so.” Is pleasure, then, the object of your being, and not action, and the exercise of your powers? Do you not see the smallest plants, the little sparrows, the ants, the spiders, the bees, all doing their part, and working for order in the Universe, as far as in them lies? And will you refuse the part in this design which is laid on man? Will you not pursue the course which accords with your own nature? You say, “I must have rest.” Assuredly; but nature appoints a measure for rest, just as for eating and drinking. In rest you go beyond these limits, and beyond what is enough; but in action you do not fill the measure, and remain well within your powers. You do not love yourself; if you did, you would love your nature and its purpose. (V.1)

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.

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

Yourcenar: Memoirs of Hadrian

February 15, 2022

Memoirs of Hadrian
Marguerite Yourcenar
Translated from the French by Grace Frick
(Farrar Strauss Giroux, 2005) [1951]
347 p.

The novel takes the form of a long letter written by Hadrian to his adopted son, Marcus Aurelius (“Mark”), and this format was a problem for me. “I am trusting to this examination of facts,” he says, “to give me some definition of myself, and to judge myself, perhaps, or at the very least to know myself better before I die.” An honourable purpose, no doubt, but this letter is strictly ruminative. Hadrian doesn’t paint scenes, doesn’t give us any dialogue, doesn’t really vary the tone. We do get a basic outline of the events of his life — where he travelled, whom he met, what he did — but mostly the book is occupied with giving us Hadrian’s thoughts on this or that. For me none of these events came to life, and neither did Hadrian himself.

As an epistolary novel about a Roman emperor, it naturally reminded me of Williams’ Augustus, but I much preferred that book because the points of view were various and it allowed some liberties with its letters that brought them closer to narrative. I will say that Yourcenar, whose professed aim was “to approach inner reality, if possible, through careful examination of what the documents themselves afford”, does grapple ably and in detail with the historical Hadrian; her Emperor is necessarily a fiction, but is certainly no idle fancy, and that dedication to the reality of her subject is something I can respect, though I don’t particularly care for the result.

[The legacy of Rome]
When I was visiting ancient cities, sacred but wholly dead, and without present value for the human race, I promised myself to save this Rome of mine from the petrification of a Thebes, a Babylon, or a Tyre. She would no longer be bound by her body of stone, but would compose for herself from the words State, citizenry, and republic a surer immortality. In the countries as yet untouched by our culture, on the banks of the Rhine and the Danube, or the shores of the Batavian Sea, each village enclosed within its wooden palisade brought to mind the reed hut and dunghill where our Roman twins had slept content, fed by the milk of the wolf; these cities-to-be would follow the pattern of Rome. Over separate nations and races, with their accidents of geography and history and the disparate demands of their ancestors or their gods, we should have superposed forever a unity of human conduct and the empiricism of sober experience, but should have done so without destruction of what had preceded us. Rome would be perpetuating herself in the least of the towns where magistrates strive to demand just weight from the merchants, to clean and light the streets, to combat disorder, slackness, superstition and injustice, and to give broader and fairer interpretation to the laws. She would endure to the end of the last city built by man.

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).


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.


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.


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.

Suetonius: Lives of the Twelve Caesars

December 15, 2021

The Lives of the Twelve Caesars
(Modern Library, 1931) [121]
361 p.

The twelve Caesars are those who ruled Rome from 48 BC, when Julius Caesar defeated Pompey, to 96 AD, when Domitian was assassinated. Much of this ground, excluding the reigns of Julius and Augustus on the front end and the reigns of the three Flavian emperors at the back end, was covered, and covered better, by Tacitus. Suetonius is less probing and more anecdotal, which is mostly too bad but has a silver lining.

Suetonius typically begins by giving us the family history of the emperor, relates how he came to power, and gives an overview of his chief accomplishments in politics, military affairs, and religion. All of this is well and good, and would be particularly valuable to a reader coming to this history untutored. If you want Augustus’ reign in 10 pages, Suetonius is your man.

He then pivots to more personal commentary on each emperor. What sort of character did he have? What were his chief virtues and vices? Which family members did he murder? Which sexual perversions were his favourites? What entertainments did he stage in Rome? When he died, did the Roman people rejoice or weep?

This is where Suetonius really comes into his own. I know of no other historical source, for instance, that tells us that Julius Caesar had male pattern baldness, or that Augustus liked to eat cucumbers, or that Caligula operated a brothel in his own palace. He is truly the master of imperial gossip.

If Suetonius is to be believed — and it is important to stress that there is some question about this — then it is fair to say that the Roman emperors were a sick lot, mostly. Some considerably sicker than others, granted. The old nostrum about the corrupting powers of absolute power finds ample support in these pages. There are all the sexual crimes and misdemeanors: rumours swirled around Julius Caesar, who behind his back was dubbed “every woman’s man and every man’s woman”; even Augustus, the paradigm case of a good Roman emperor during this period, with a reputation for just governance, moderation, and intelligence, was apparently a Jeffrey Epstein-type who had his friends bring him young virgins to deflower; Tiberius seemed fairly level-headed and restrained at first, but when, in later years, he retired to Capri, he had his rooms painted with pornographic scenes and indulged a passion for pedophilia; Caligula, if possible, was even worse, and is best discreetly veiled. Speaking of veils, Nero wore one, along with a lovely dress, when he had himself married to another man. On and on it goes. The Flavians, starting with Vespasian, seem to have brought a measure of restraint on this front — or maybe Suetonius was still too close to them to write freely.

They were a violent lot too. To some extent this came with the territory; Romans had none of the qualms we have about capital punishment, and they applied it frequently. But the worst of the emperors seem to have relished the power they wielded over the lives of others. In Tiberius’ later years, we are told, “not a day passed without an execution”. Caligula would force parents to attend the executions of their children, and had a special passion for violent spectacles:

“He burned a writer of Atellan farces alive in the middle of the arena of the amphitheater, because of a humorous line of double meaning. When a Roman Knight on being thrown to the wild beasts loudly protested his innocence, he took him out, cut off his tongue, and put him back again.”

Nero, not content with the power to order deaths, was actually accused of venturing into the streets at night to randomly accost and murder civilians: “…he used to beat men as they came home from dinner, stabbing any who resisted him and throwing them into the sewers”.

And to lust and violence we can add greed: Caligula, again, was the worst offender, for, Suetonius says, “seized with a mania for feeling the touch of money, he would often pour out huge piles of gold pieces in some open place, walk over them barefooted, and wallow in them for a long time with his whole body”. Presumably this was in the early days of his reign, because he burned through the imperial treasury in just a few short years with his extravagant living.

Like Tacitus, Suetonius completely misses the importance of Christianity’s first forays into the Roman world. Christians are mentioned once, in connection with Nero, who, Suetonius comments, persecuted this “class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition.” But the persecution under Domitian, which looms large in Christian history for its many Roman martyrs, gets no notice.

All in all, these are very much “feet of clay” portraits of the emperors. Admittedly, they have a certain diverting quality, like a P.T. Barnum gallery of freaks. There is a reason Suetonius has remained as popular as he has over the centuries. But even the most lurid stories can be redeemed by a touching anecdote or a telling detail. I’d have been willing to read through a good deal of salacious gossip just to learn that Julius Caesar, freshly dead, was carried through the streets of Rome, “with one arm hanging down”.

Pliny: Natural History

May 30, 2021

Natural History
A Selection
Pliny the Elder
(Penguin Classics, 1991) [c.79]
450 p.

Pliny’s Naturalis Historia is one of the charming oddities of ancient literature: a vast compendium of knowledge, legend, and speculation about the natural world as seen by the Romans in the first century after Christ. Pliny was himself a successful statesman, but his avocation was as a man of apparently boundless curiosity. He did his duty during the day, and at night wrote his many books — sleep, he is reported to have said, is like death, and to be avoided as much as possible.

His Natural History was, he said, “written for the masses, for the horde of farmers and artisans”, rather than for scholars. It consists of 37 books, all of which, I believe, have survived, although the single volume under consideration here is but a sampling. Pliny himself claims to have consulted 2000 sources in compiling his book; modern scholars, I read, judge the number to have been higher still.

It is a well-organized but rather artlessly executed work. He is careful to keep his thoughts about birds or medicine separate from his remarks on metalwork or planets, but on any particular topic the subject matter ranges from lists of interesting facts to anecdotes to moral reflections. It’s the sort of book for which “hodge podge” seems the right designation — or, I suppose, hodgus podgus in this case.

He begins at the beginning: with astronomy and cosmology, which is of course quite interesting. The natural world, he tells us, is “a deity, everlasting, boundless, an entity without a beginning and one that will never end” (2.1). He knows that the earth is a sphere that rotates every 24 hours — it is interesting that one of the arguments he gives (1.164) is the same one given in St Thomas’ Summa; I think it possible that that example had by then become canonical, or perhaps it simply meant that Thomas had himself whiled away a few pleasant hours in Pliny’s company, which is a happy thought indeed. He has a basic understanding that if the earth is a sphere it relativizes our usual understandings of “up” and “down”:

Scholars assert that men are spread out all round the earth and stand with their feet pointing towards each other and that the top of the sky is alike for all of them and that their feet point down towards the centre of the earth from wherever they are. An ordinary person, however, inquires why men on the opposite side do not fall off – as if there is not an equally good reason for them wondering why we do not fall off. (1.161)

He gives the ancient estimates for the circumference of the earth; that of Eratosthenes was off by only about 15%.

About God Pliny does not have much of interest to say; he conceives of God as a super powerful being, as the Romans tended to do, of whose existence he is doubtful, and, even if God does exist, Pliny wonders why he would care for humanity.

Of mankind he has a jaundiced view. “This alone is certain, namely that there is no such thing as certainty, and that nothing is more wretched or more conceited than man” (2.25). “The only thing he knows instinctively is how to weep” (7.4). He does admire the great men of Roman history, notably Caesar and Pompey, but overall sees us as pitiful creatures cruelly subject to changes of fortune and sudden deaths, tormented by the knowledge that we will die.

He takes us on a whirlwind tour of the known world, hitting the geographical and cultural highlights of Italy, Spain, Britain, North Africa, Egypt, Syria, Judaea, Asia Minor, China, India, Sri Lanka, Arabia, and Ethiopia. In a long series of books he describes animal life, and these are among the most entertaining sections of the work: elephants (which “have qualities rarely apparent even in man, namely honesty, good sense, justice, and also respect for the stars, sun and moon” (8.1)), crocodiles, hippos, and apes, sharks, octopus (including a story about one that climbed a tree), and crabs. He takes time to rail against the “purple fish” which has fostered an unbecoming appetite for luxury among Romans (who used it to dye cloths purple). We read of eagles, ostriches, ravens, and parrots. Of insects he is most fascinated by bees, about which the Romans knew a great deal. He notes that most animals have bad breath.

On and on it goes: trees, shrubs, perfumes, metals, farming practices, making of pigments, and medicines all come up for discussion. He doesn’t think much of Roman medicine, and especially of Roman doctors (“Doctors learn by exposing us to risks, and conduct experiments at the expense of our lives. Only a doctor can kill a man with impunity” (29.18)). He does think highly of Greek artists, and makes particular note of the famous Laocoon sculpture, “a work superior to any painting or bronze”, which has survived to the present day in the Vatican collection.

Naturally not everything Pliny records is as accurate as Eratosthenes’ estimate of the circumference of the earth. He thinks earthquakes are caused by either lightning or wind. But even that speculation, wayward as it is, tells us that he’s trying to be careful — it’s either lightning or wind, he’s not sure which. And he does make an honest effort, throughout, to sift what is reliable from what is fabulous. (After noting reports of basilisks and werewolves, he says, “It is astonishing how far Greek gullibility will go. There is no occurrence so fabulously shameless that it lacks a witness” (8.82).)

There are several famous anecdotes in the book; I do not know if we know them principally through this book or not, but it is nice to read them in any case. Among my favourites is this one, about Cato and his fig:

Burning with a deadly hatred of Carthage and troubled with anxiety about the safety of his descendants, Cato used to shout at every meeting of the Senate: ‘Carthage must be destroyed!’ Now one day he brought into the Senate House an early ripe fig from Africa, showed it to his fellow senators and said: ‘I ask you, when do you think this fig was plucked from the tree?’

All agreed that it was fresh, so he said: ‘Know this, it was picked two days ago in Carthage; that’s how near the enemy are to our walls!’ Immediately they began the Third Punic War, in which Carthage was destroyed. (15.74-75)

It’s a fun book, then, though not one to read closely for long periods. It has been known and read throughout the centuries from Pliny’s day to ours. I am sure that for historians it is a gold mine of details that help them resolve questions about Roman engineering and the material conditions of life at the time. For the rest of us, it’s a cornucopia of trivia, good stories, and often amusingly refracted scientific ideas, written with a good deal of personality. It ends with this salutation:

Greetings, Nature, mother of all creation, show me your favour in that I alone of Rome’s citizens have praised you in all your aspects.

I hope that his wish was granted.

Even in the most favourable circumstances, the intoxicated never see the sunrise and so shorten their lives. This is the reason for pale faces, hanging jowls, sore eyes and trembling hands that spill the contents of full vessels; this the reason for swift retribution consisting of horrendous nightmares and for restless lust and pleasure in excess. The morning after, the breath reeks of the wine-jar and everything is forgotten – the memory is dead. This is what people call ‘enjoying life’; but while other men daily lose their yesterdays, these people also lose their tomorrows. (14.142)

Williams: Augustus

May 15, 2020

John Williams
(NYRB Classics, 2014) [1971]
336 p.

I’ve whiled away the past year of my Roman reading project in the company of poets of the Augustan age: Horace, Virgil, Ovid, Tibullus, and Propertius. In this poetry the figure of Augustus is frequently present, but usually on the periphery. We hear him praised, and certain of his acts and policies impinge upon the poetry in various ways, but we do not get a strong sense of the man himself. But we do know that his reputation, in the eyes of the Roman historians, is primarily a good one: he brought stability to Rome, and moderation, even though he altered its Republican government for keeps. If he did not burn as brightly as Julius Caesar, he burned more steadily, and certainly he compared favourably with the string of cruel and even lunatic emperors who followed in his immediate wake. But he was the emperor, and so even to those who admired him he was a somewhat distant figure, not susceptible of nuanced appraisal.

In this novel John Williams takes Augustus as his subject, and attempts to imagine the man as a man, using the resources of the modern novel to humanize a figurehead. His main interests are in the man’s character and his relationships with family and close friends.

The novel is epistolary, consisting of a collection of letters exchanged between his family members, friends, and courtiers. The letters move back and forth in time, and do not always pertain directly to Augustus, but he is there in the background, and gradually, here and there, as in a pointillistic painting, a picture of his life emerges.

Many of the characters writing these letters are well-known historical figures: Marc Antony, Cleopatra, Horace, Ovid, his daughter Julia, his friend and advisor Maecenas. Others, like a tutor hired in his household, are either imagined or known only glancingly in the history books. Williams uses the epistolary structure of the novel well to give us a variety of perspectives on Augustus, and also to highlight tensions between the characters (as when he alternates letters from Cleopatra to Marc Antony with her letters to her government ministers, the former full of flattery and misdirection and the latter of hard-headed realism on the same topics).

He is also able to bring to life some of the quieter moments that we know happened, but which are normally passed over in historical accounts. What was it like, for instance, when young Octavius received news that his adoptive uncle, Julius Caesar, had been killed? Williams paints the scene for us through the eyes of a friend. What was it like for Augustus to sit with Marc Antony and Lepidus while negotiating which notable Romans would be executed? Williams brings us into the room. What would it have been like to attend one of the literary evenings at which Augustus hosted poetry readings by Virgil and Horace? Williams brings one to life.

We also learn about Octavius’ childhood, and for me the most touching letter in the book was one in which his childhood playmate and nurse, a slightly older girl, recounts how she encountered him again, by chance, in the streets of Rome when they were both elderly. It’s like that scene in the life of Joseph when he is reunited with his brothers — when people who grew up together but whose lives took very different paths meet again under drastically changed conditions, and all that accumulation of experience drops away, revealing the tenacity of the intimate human bond — and just as affecting.

The effect of the collection of letters is prismatic: the life of Augustus comes to the reader refracted through the eyes of many others. But in the last fifty pages of the book this changes: Williams gives us a long letter from Augustus himself, a reflective letter written in old age, in which he reviews and ponders the events of his life. Episodes that we saw before through the eyes of another we see again through his eyes, alongside ruminations on the advantages and disadvantages of power and influence. It is a fine way to sum up and round out the book.

This novel won the National Book Award in the year of its publication. It is well-written, thoughtfully constructed, and presents well-known historical events in an interesting way. The writing is not dazzling, but it is sound and sturdy. Augustus is not a great book, but it is a good one.