Posts Tagged ‘History’

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.

Esolen: Life Under Compulsion

August 4, 2022

Life Under Compulsion
Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of your Child
Anthony Esolen
(ISI, 2015)
224 p.

Anthony Esolen, a few years before publishing this book, wrote one called How to Destroy the Imagination of your Child. It was a wonderfully diverting, sometimes trenchant satire written in the tradition of Uncle Screwtape, giving evil counsel in seeming-earnest. This newer book seems, based on the subtitle, to be something of a follow-up, but the Screwtape-ish aspect is gone. Here Esolen gives it to us straight.

The main thesis underlying the book’s various and sometimes sprawling arguments is that much of our modern society, especially though not exclusively as it affects children, is one that lacks freedoms that previous generations enjoyed. Our children, and we, live under compulsion in a variety of respects, sometimes because of how we have organized our lives, sometimes because of our habits of thought, sometimes because of our spiritual condition. That this is so despite our culture’s allegiance to individual freedom is just one of life’s little ironies.

Esolen is drawing here on an oft-made point about the vacuousness of the characteristically modern concept of freedom. “It is an extrinsic condition, and a negative one at that. It means that there are no strings upon the autonomous self.” This seems to promise a certain kind of freedom, but, paradoxically, ends up boxing us in. If we are truly autonomous, we have no natural telos that would give our life shape and direction, and we stagnate. If we are truly autonomous, there is no good or truth beyond us to which we are beholden, and we drift in meaninglessness.  This is in contrast to the older view, which was also paradoxical: constraints bring freedom. “Man’s nature compels him to love what is beautiful and to seek the truth. That drive for love and truth is itself his liberty.” We are only free if we can truly be what we are by nature.

Most of the book is devoted to exploring the implications of this false freedom in education, sex, family life, work, social life, and so on. Sometimes the pertinence of the subject matter to the main argument was obscure to me, and the book occasionally threatened to disintegrate into a hodge-podge, albeit one comprised of good things.

Much of the book, given its special interest in children, is devoted to matters of schooling. Esolen tackles, for instance, the historicist approach to the study of history, in which people of the past are conceived of as doing this or that primarily because of their having been conditioned to think and act in certain ways by historical forces. Moral judgement is out, and context and social construction are in. This seems, superficially, to be a cosmopolitan and tolerant approach to history, one that frees us from the need to bind ourselves to any particular moral judgements. But through the back door comes our jailer, for “the corollary to the lie that Shakespeare had to be that way is that we have to be this way“.

In contrast, when we study history in earnest, encountering people of the past as people like ourselves, failing and succeeding, as the case may be, but fundamentally inhabiting the same moral world that we do, we experience a variety of things not likely to occur to the historicist: we experience wonder at the immemorial, we rejoice at what is truly great, and we experience humility. The ambiguity of history sets our judgement free to praise or blame as we think best, we gain a perspective from which to see our own time and place in contrast, and in so doing to pass judgement on ourselves, and we do so in freedom.

He does not remark on the “woke” phenomenon which has overtaken historical studies in certain quarters. Superficially this seems much like what he admires: benign toleration and moral reticence are out, and righteousness is in. But “wokeness” is curiously one-sided; it seems capable of seeing evil in the past, but not excellence, and it is wedded to a view of social power relations that shackles people of the past — and the present — as thoroughly as historicism did.

Later he makes some provocative comments on how our public schools are organized. In his previous book, if memory serves, he remarked that they actually look, architecturally, like factories, and though the comment might seem kind of grumpy, it’s true! At least, it’s true of the schools in our neighbourhood: they are flat-roofed, non-descript, largely walled instead of windowed, lacking any sort of elegant embellishments. They look like those strip-malls one finds in industrial sections of the city.

Well, in this book he contrasts a typical public school of this kind, “built by contractors and staffed by people largely unknown and with purposes of their own, for whom parents are either compliant clients, no-shows, or pests” with the one-room schools of a hundred years ago:

“Why do people invariably enjoy visiting old one-room schoolhouses? I think it’s because they are human places, on a human scale, for the education of little humans… The school looks in part like a home, or a small town hall, or a chapel. Appropriately so, since it is a public extension of the home, in harmony with the virtues encouraged by the church.”

I do find one-room schoolhouses attractive, don’t you? Though I find them more attractive, even, than our little homeschool, so perhaps in addition to being like a home, the public character of the one-room schoolhouse is also an important part of its appeal.

Be that as it may, what about the ways in which schools organize time? Esolen is not a friend of the clock and the bell:

“The chief lesson that the bell teaches is that all things must serve a utilitarian purpose… The bell says, “Nothing is of ultimate concern, because all things end when I determine.” There are only two reasons why one would study a thing that is not of ultimate concern or that does not bring delight that carries us out of ourselves, as experiences of love and beauty do. One is that it is useful, a means to a farther end. The other is that we have no choice. We are compelled to do it.”

This is quite interesting, as are his comments on that other canard of public schooling: the benefits of ‘socialization’ (“as if it were describing a chemical process”). But in the time of COVID this seems rather backwards; now if you want your kids to be socially well-adjusted you must consider keeping them out of school.


If John Dewey is not your hero, Esolen is ready with some cheering rhetoric that I can’t resist quoting. Dewey, he writes, was

“as narrow-minded a reformer as the world has ever been plagued withal… He was what Arnold would have called a philistine with a hypertrophied brain… a man suffering an exaggerated case of intellectual myopia… He had no poetry in his heart, and he never noticed the lack.”

I don’t know Dewey well enough to know if this is fair, but … but … Damn you, John Dewey!


It’s a fine book, though I confess I did not enjoy it as much as the previous one. Esolen is incapable of writing a dull sentence, but I missed the mischievous energy of the earlier upside-down-ery, and I found the argument here a bit scatter-shot. But the book’s motive is an admirable one, and the cultural criticism he offers is learned and serious and bracing. I conclude with some brief quotes.


[Education and silence]
“Proper education and proper teaching are based on the substance of silence.” (Max Picard)

“[Alongside a] manly and lawful passion for equality … there exists also in the human heart a depraved taste for equality, which impels the weak to attempt to lower the powerful to their own level and reduces men to prefer equality in slavery to inequality with freedom.” (Toqueville)

Tolerance is that important but subordinate virtue by which, instructed in our weakness, we bear with what is bad without pretending that it is good.

[Crowds and compulsion]
It is often easier to compel a hundred people to do what you could never compel one person to do. The lone man must consult his conscience, that stern and unflattering arbiter. A man in a crowd, though, can turn to the others, as the others turn to one another, each justifying the deed by referring to the next man, or to the force of all the men together.

Gibbon: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, V

July 21, 2022

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Volume 5
Edward Gibbon
(Modern Library, 1993)  [1788]
xxiii + 662 p.

In this penultimate volume Gibbon treats us to a sweeping historical tour covering a period of at least 600 years. It is a varied tale, but a few storylines dominate: the rapid rise and expansion of Islam; the slower, but steady rise of the various regional powers that replaced the western empire after its decay; and the gradual contraction of the Byzantine empire.

The previous volume concluded with a rumour of hoofbeats in the distance across the desert sands of Arabia, and in this they burst over the horizon. I am always struck by the rapidity with which the Islamic forces conquered vast territories, both east and west. I hadn’t appreciated the extent to which the war between Persia and Byzantium in the first decades of the seventh century had left both vulnerable to a confident and energetic foe. Under the leadership of Omar, the father-in-law of Mohammad, they made the most of their opportunity:

“In the ten years of the administration of Omar, the Saracens reduced to his obedience thirty-six thousand cities or castles, destroyed four thousand churches or temples of the unbelievers, and edified fourteen hundred moschs for the exercise of the religion of Mahomet. One hundred years after his flight from Mecca, the arms and the reign of his successors extended from India to the Atlantic Ocean.”

Of course, they claimed not only territories belonging to Persia and the eastern Roman empire, but also those throughout north Africa. By the year 710 they were ready to cross the Strait of Gibraltar. Gibbon describes the journey of a small advance party:

“One hundred Arabs and four hundred Africans, passed over, in four vessels, from Tangier or Ceuta; the place of their descent on the opposite shore of the strait, is marked by the name of Tarif their chief; and the date of this memorable event is fixed to the month of Ramandan, of the ninety-first year of the Hegira, to the month of July, seven hundred and forty-eight years from the Spanish era of Cesar, seven hundred and ten after the birth of Christ. From their first station, they marched eighteen miles through a hilly country to the castle and town of Julian; on which (it is still called Algezire) they bestowed the name of the Green Island, from a verdant cape that advances into the sea.”

(Parenthetically, I thrilled to this passage. A few years ago I myself visited Algecira, as it is now called by the Spaniards, and crossed the Strait to Tangiers, and then, a few weeks later, made the reverse voyage. I did not realize at the time that I was retracing this historic crossing. I can still see the shoreline, the forests, and the great rocky mount of Gibraltar, and smell the salt sea.)

Within a few decades the Iberian peninsula was largely in Islamic hands, and, famously, the expansion was only stopped in 732 at the Battle of Tours, when the Franks, led by Charles Martel, handed them a decisive defeat. The story is well-known, but I was surprised to learn from Gibbon that the surname ‘Martel’, meaning ‘hammer’, is actually an honorific “expressive of his weighty and irresistible strokes”. Whether he received the honorific before or after the Battle of Tours, I do not know.

I was likewise surprised to learn that Charles Martel, whom I regard as a heroic figure, or at least as having done all European civilization a signal service, was vilified in the aftermath of the battle and immediately after his death. The reason? He had paid his soldiers using church funds. Gibbon elaborates:

“The Arabs never resumed the conquest of Gaul, and they were soon driven beyond the Pyrenees by Charles Martel and his valiant race. It might have been expected that the savior of Christendom would have been canonized, or at least applauded, by the gratitude of the clergy, who are indebted to his sword for their present existence. But in the public distress, the mayor of the palace had been compelled to apply the riches, or at least the revenues, of the bishops and abbots, to the relief of the state and the reward of the soldiers. His merits were forgotten, his sacrilege alone was remembered, and, in an epistle to a Carlovingian prince, a Gallic synod presumes to declare that his ancestor was damned; that on the opening of his tomb, the spectators were affrighted by a smell of fire and the aspect of a horrid dragon; and that a saint of the times was indulged with a pleasant vision of the soul and body of Charles Martel, burning, to all eternity, in the abyss of hell.”

I think I am right to say, however, that this infernal vision has largely passed out of remembrance and credibility, and that Charles Martel survives in the popular imagination as an able and courageous man who defended Europe in an hour of peril.

But history is complicated, and my belief that Martel’s victory at Tours had contained and ended the Islamic threat was not quite right. I was startled to discover, for instance, that one hundred years later, during the reign of Pope Leo IV (847-855), Rome itself was under siege by a Muslim army. In fact, it was on account of that danger that the mighty walls surrounding the Vatican were erected:

“The design of enclosing it with walls and towers exhausted all that authority could command, or charity would supply: and the pious labor of four years was animated in every season, and at every hour, by the presence of the indefatigable pontiff. The love of fame, a generous but worldly passion, may be detected in the name of the Leonine city, which he bestowed on the Vatican; yet the pride of the dedication was tempered with Christian penance and humility. The boundary was trod by the bishop and his clergy, barefoot, in sackcloth and ashes; the songs of triumph were modulated to psalms and litanies; the walls were besprinkled with holy water; and the ceremony was concluded with a prayer, that, under the guardian care of the apostles and the angelic host, both the old and the new Rome might ever be preserved pure, prosperous, and impregnable.”

A marvellous scene! I must say that Leo IV emerges in these pages as a heroic figure in his own right. Gibbon, who is rarely lavish in his praise of churchmen, contends that “the courage of the first ages of the republic glowed in his breast; and, amidst the ruins of his country, he stood erect, like one of the firm and lofty columns that rear their heads above the fragments of the Roman forum.”

In the end, the Leonine defences stood, and the Islamic forces withdrew. At later dates cities in southern Italy were occasionally subject to renewed pressures, but for the most part the Islamic armies made no further inroads into western Europe. Around the turn of the 11th century a new wave of invasion beset Italy, this time — again, to my considerable surprise! — spearheaded by Normans come down from France. This was just a few decades prior to their invasion of England in 1066. In fact, under the leadership of men like Rainulf Drengot and Robert Guiscard they obtained control of Sicily and of several territories around Naples. I didn’t know any of this.


Meanwhile, in the east, Byzantium was carrying forward, at least formally, the Roman flag. Gibbon gives us one remarkable chapter in which he unspools a litany of emperors covering a period of 600 years, in which, he says, “at every step, as we sink deeper in the decline and fall of the Eastern empire”. It is a long tale in which the common theme is retreat and reduction:

“From the time of Heraclius, the Byzantine theatre is contracted and darkened: the line of empire, which had been defined by the laws of Justinian and the arms of Belisarius, recedes on all sides from our view; the Roman name, the proper subject of our inquiries, is reduced to a narrow corner of Europe, to the lonely suburbs of Constantinople.”

This formidable chapter concludes with one of his most striking moral reflections, on the transitory nature of power and fame, that is worth quoting for our edification:

“A being of the nature of man, endowed with the same faculties, but with a longer measure of existence, would cast down a smile of pity and contempt on the crimes and follies of human ambition, so eager, in a narrow span, to grasp at a precarious and shortlived enjoyment. It is thus that the experience of history exalts and enlarges the horizon of our intellectual view. In a composition of some days, in a perusal of some hours, six hundred years have rolled away, and the duration of a life or reign is contracted to a fleeting moment: the grave is ever beside the throne: the success of a criminal is almost instantly followed by the loss of his prize and our immortal reason survives and disdains the sixty phantoms of kings who have passed before our eyes, and faintly dwell on our remembrance.”

He doesn’t expect us, then, to remember much about the individual men passing in parade before us, but there were several who stood out for their particular ability and virtue, and I think it is worth saying a word or two about them, as they were all previously unknown to me.

One, for instance, was Basil I (811-886), who came to power through violence but ruled well: “he dissembled his ambition and even his virtues, and grasped, with the bloody hand of an assassin, the empire which he ruled with the wisdom and tenderness of a parent.” He founded a dynasty which ruled for almost 200 years, and is now largely forgotten, which underlines Gibbon’s melancholy reflection.

An interesting character was Andronicus Comnenus, who was emperor from 1183-85. Gibbon describes him as “one of the most conspicuous characters of the age”, and remarks that his “genuine adventures might form the subject of a very singular romance.” It’s quite true. But, as sometimes happened in romances of the medieval variety, his tale ended when he was deposed and brutally executed.

The greatest of the Eastern emperors was, in Gibbon’s judgement, John Comnenus (reigned 1118-1143). He was an able military leader who won victories against the Venetians, the Turks, the Hungarians, and Syrians, and in the process expanded and consolidated Byzantine territories. But, in a seemingly random incident that adds fuel to our ruminations on the transience of things, he died in a hunting accident:

“As he began to indulge the ambitious hope of restoring the ancient limits of the empire, as he revolved in his mind, the Euphrates and Tigris, the dominion of Syria, and the conquest of Jerusalem, the thread of his life and of the public felicity was broken by a singular accident. He hunted the wild boar in the valley of Anazarbus, and had fixed his javelin in the body of the furious animal; but in the struggle a poisoned arrow dropped from his quiver, and a slight wound in his hand, which produced a mortification, was fatal to the best and greatest of the Comnenian princes.”

Sic transit gloria mundi, he must have said, or might have said, had he spoken Latin like a Roman.


A curiosity in this volume is a chapter devoted to a religious sect called the Paulicians who thrived in Anatolia from the seventh to the ninth centuries. My knowledge of Christian history is reasonably broad, but this sect was new to me, and I was rather surprised to see how much they interested Gibbon, especially considering how little we know about them. Doctrinally, they seem to have had certain similarities with the (earlier) Manichaeans and the (later) Albigensians. They rejected the Old Testament and parts of the New; they may have rejected the Trinity; and they were iconoclasts. Gibbon, largely, it seems, on the basis of this last item and on their general rejection of the prevailing religious traditions, sees them as proto-Protestants, and finds them interesting and valuable on that account.

To make an understatement, we can say that Gibbon did not love Catholicism; we can infer as much from many bits of evidence sprinkled throughout his book. Yet his attitude toward Protestantism is less clear, no doubt because this branch of Christianity doesn’t come into his history at all. In his maturity he was seen as one of the exemplars of Enlightenment, but whether and how this affected his own religious beliefs I do not know.

I found, therefore, the following passage quite intriguing. It is one of the few occasions on which he hints at his views on the Reformation, and it’s worth looking at:

“Since the days of Luther and Calvin, a secret reformation has been silently working in the bosom of the reformed churches; many weeds of prejudice were eradicated; and the disciples of Erasmus diffused a spirit of freedom and moderation. The liberty of conscience has been claimed as a common benefit, an inalienable right: the free governments of Holland and England introduced the practice of toleration; and the narrow allowance of the laws has been enlarged by the prudence and humanity of the times. In the exercise, the mind has understood the limits of its powers, and the words and shadows that might amuse the child can no longer satisfy his manly reason. The volumes of controversy are overspread with cobwebs: the doctrine of a Protestant church is far removed from the knowledge or belief of its private members; and the forms of orthodoxy, the articles of faith, are subscribed with a sigh, or a smile, by the modern clergy. Yet the friends of Christianity are alarmed at the boundless impulse of inquiry and scepticism. The predictions of the Catholics are accomplished: the web of mystery is unravelled by the Arminians, Arians, and Socinians, whose number must not be computed from their separate congregations; and the pillars of Revelation are shaken by those men who preserve the name without the substance of religion, who indulge the license without the temper of philosophy.”

He favours toleration, manly reason, liberty of conscience, freedom, and moderation, and he implies, perhaps, that these were part of the inheritance bequeathed by Luther and Calvin. Yet he also seems quite edified that this inheritance has hollowed out the doctrinal backbone of the Protestant churches, whose clergy subscribe to the articles of faith with a sigh, or a smile. On this view, Protestantism is a bridge from Catholicism to secularism. That this is so has, of course, been a consistent claim of Catholics ever since the Reformation, as Gibbon also confirms. From a Catholic point of view, therefore, this is a valuable passage, assuming I’ve interpreted it correctly; it’s gratifying when your opponent not only finds your argument sound, but adopts it as his own.


One last topic on which I’d like to touch in these notes is the state of Byzantine intellectual life and scholarship. It is unquestionable that European culture owes a major debt to the generations of Byzantine scholars who studied and preserved ancient manuscripts until the time when, as a result of the Islamic conquest of Constantinople, they came flooding into the west, bringing their books, and their knowledge of Greek, with them. Although, in fact, they had access to numerous ancient works that, tragically, never made it safely into western hands either through eventual neglect or through destruction:

“Some estimate may be formed of the literary wealth of the twelfth century: Constantinople was enlightened by the genius of Homer and Demosthenes, of Aristotle and Plato: and in the enjoyment or neglect of our present riches, we must envy the generation that could still peruse the history of Theopompus, the orations of Hyperides, the comedies of Menander, and the odes of Alcaeus and Sappho.”

But if we pause for a moment, and call to mind the original masterpieces of Byzantine literature, we might find that our minds are blank. Were there any great Byzantine poets? Any great historians? Any great philosophers? My ignorance is nearly boundless, so I’ll not answer definitively, but I will confess that I can’t think of any. Neither can Gibbon, and he has given us a lengthy, but absolutely delicious, scathing appraisal of Byzantine letters:

“They held in their lifeless hands the riches of their fathers, without inheriting the spirit which had created and improved that sacred patrimony: they read, they praised, they compiled, but their languid souls seemed alike incapable of thought and action. In the revolution of ten centuries, not a single discovery was made to exalt the dignity or promote the happiness of mankind. Not a single idea has been added to the speculative systems of antiquity, and a succession of patient disciples became in their turn the dogmatic teachers of the next servile generation. Not a single composition of history, philosophy, or literature, has been saved from oblivion by the intrinsic beauties of style or sentiment, of original fancy, or even of successful imitation. In prose, the least offensive of the Byzantine writers are absolved from censure by their naked and unpresuming simplicity: but the orators, most eloquent in their own conceit, are the farthest removed from the models whom they affect to emulate. In every page our taste and reason are wounded by the choice of gigantic and obsolete words, a stiff and intricate phraseology, the discord of images, the childish play of false or unseasonable ornament, and the painful attempt to elevate themselves, to astonish the reader, and to involve a trivial meaning in the smoke of obscurity and exaggeration. Their prose is soaring to the vicious affectation of poetry: their poetry is sinking below the flatness and insipidity of prose. The tragic, epic, and lyric muses, were silent and inglorious: the bards of Constantinople seldom rose above a riddle or epigram, a panegyric or tale; they forgot even the rules of prosody; and with the melody of Homer yet sounding in their ears, they confound all measure of feet and syllables in the impotent strains which have received the name of political or city verses.”

Why was this so, if it was so? In Gibbon’s view this lassitude was rooted in complacent self-satisfaction that was itself a consequence of a lack of competition with rival powers. Byzantium, he says, was too secure to be spurred to great things. I’m not sure this answer fits the evidence, for we’ve already seen the eastern empire contending for its life against Islamic and Persian foes, but perhaps those were not the right kind of competitor. Think of the Islamic and Persian masterpieces of the same period and your mind might be blank again. (And, again, I admit ignorance, especially of Persia.) But, in any case, the advent of the Crusades brought a breath of fresh air to the Byzantine world:

Alone in the universe, the self-satisfied pride of the Greeks was not disturbed by the comparison of foreign merit; and it is no wonder if they fainted in the race, since they had neither competitors to urge their speed, nor judges to crown their victory. The nations of Europe and Asia were mingled by the expeditions to the Holy Land; and it is under the Comnenian dynasty that a faint emulation of knowledge and military virtue was rekindled in the Byzantine empire.”

It’s an interesting and appealing claim that the west, which in the fifteenth century would reap a harvest from the east, perhaps, in some small way, had itself planted the seed, or at least watered it, several centuries earlier.


We conclude this volume in a state of some uncertainty. The eastern empire looks as weak as it ever has, beset by troubles on every side. It seems to lack internal dynamism, and though it is blessed, from time to time, with wise and able emperors, they are mostly not conspicuously either. Off in the west, Rome still exists, but has become a pale shadow of her former self. After five of six volumes, the decline and fall are far advanced.

[military aphorism]
In a light of precaution, all conquest must be ineffectual, unless it could be universal, since the increasing circle must be involved in a larger sphere of hostility.

Rome 1300

July 11, 2022

Rome 1300
On the Path of the Pilgrim
Herbert L. Kessler & Johanna Zacharias
(Yale, 2000)
237 p.

Rome is a city that sprawls through time like no other. Buildings separated by centuries sit cheek-by-jowl, and the span of the city’s memory stretches back to an ancient pedigree that few can rival. A stimulating thought experiment is to take a time-slice of the city: what would it have looked like in the year X?

That is just what Kessler & Zacharias have done in this book. They imagine what it might have been like to be a pilgrim coming to Rome in 1300, the year in which Pope Boniface VIII declared the first Jubilee. Modern visitors to Rome tend to think first of ancient Rome and of Renaissance Rome, so the choice of 1300 is a very good one; it gives us an opportunity to imagine the city as we probably have not done before.

What would a pilgrim have seen and heard at that time? No Michelangelo, no Raphael, no Borromini, no Bernini. St Peter’s basilica, as we know it, was not there. Go further back.

They put us in the shoes of a pilgrim who arrived, at the city’s south side, on August 14, the eve of the Feast of the Assumption. On that night there was an annual procession through the city from St John Lateran to Santa Maria Maggiore that passed by many sacred sites. Over the course of the book, we walk to the marvellous church of San Clemente, then past the Colosseum and through the ancient Roman Forum, visiting the church of Sts Cosmas and Damian before turning north to pray at Santa Prassede and then, in the early hours of the morning, at Santa Maria Maggiore. After a brief rest, our pilgrim then makes her way down to St Paul’s Outside the Walls, and, finally, to St Peter’s to conclude her pilgrimage.

Reading the book has been an unalloyed delight for me, bringing back so many wonderful memories of my time in Rome. San Clemente is my favourite church in the city; when I was last there I rented an apartment from which, leaning out the window, I could touch the façade of Santa Prassede; I have myself followed a procession from the Lateran to Santa Maria Maggiore (although it was for the Feast of Corpus Christi, and followed a much more direct route). At every turn of the page more wonders were in store.

Although many of the sites and sights were familiar to me, not all were. Some things have changed in the intervening 700 years, though not as many as you might think. The book spends a good deal of time on the Sancta Sanctorum at the Lateran, which I not only have never visited (few have), but did not know about. And of course St Peter’s is radically different today; the earlier basilica was, in structure, much more similar to St Paul’s than to the new church, and I read this section with fascination. But the great candlestick at St Paul’s is still there.

The narrative device used by the authors to organize the book — of pilgrimage — is an appealing one, but it is a device. In its bones, this is an art history book, dedicated primarily to describing and understanding the architecture and art of the churches. The pilgrim would have had to be unusually thorough to apprehend all of the details the authors describe, and would have been accustomed to thinking in unusually academic prose to boot, but this didn’t bother me. The book is illustrated with over 200 photos, many of them in colour. It’s a wonderful book.

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.

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.”

Gibbon: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, II

March 16, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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


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


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

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.

Beard: SPQR

August 1, 2021

A History of Ancient Rome
Mary Beard
(Profile, 2015)
600 p.

A feature of my ongoing Roman reading project has been that I read primary sources only: ancient Roman history as told by the ancient Romans. But this strategy, sensible as it is, does have one drawback: the ancient Romans didn’t always fill out the context adequately for readers twenty centuries removed from them. So, as a concession to such shortsightedness, I decided to choose one good, modern history to give me a high-level overview and background, and I chose this fat volume by Mary Beard.

I think I chose reasonably well. She covers roughly the first millennium of Rome’s history: from the city’s beginnings down to about 200 AD, when the city ruled a far-flung empire, hitting the main historical highlights, and providing interesting context from archaeological evidence.

She relates the development of Roman law, from its rudimentary beginnings in the Twelve Tables; she discusses the strategies the Romans used as they expanded to bring new peoples under their political control (they focused on establishing dominion over “people, not places”, and never did really gain strong territorial control over the periphery of the empire); she describes the shape of the Roman political system, which, in the offices of consul, senator, and tribune combined elements of monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy, respectively; and of course she talks about the transition from republican Rome to imperial Rome, and the personalities of the most famous, and infamous, emperors. (She makes a modest attempt to rehabilitate the reputation of Caligula, on the plausible but weak grounds that he probably wasn’t quite so black as he was painted.)

The archeological evidence she brings to bear I found quite interesting, on account of its being new to me. She claims, for instance, that the famous burning of Rome by the Gauls in about 390 BC, which Livy relates, is not well supported by evidence. Archeology also reveals much to us about the living conditions in the city over time. I was interested to learn that in Roman “high-rises” (of a few floors) it was, opposite to today, the poorest people who lived on the top floors on account of their being at greater risk in case of fire. And physical evidence, in statuary and inscriptions, also survives that gives us insight into what “being Roman” meant as one went further and further from the city.

Later chapters, expanding on this theme, delve into what she calls “Rome outside Rome”: what was it like, and what did it mean, to be “Roman” to the people — the great majority — who did not live in and around the city? The Romans made modest demands on those whom they brought into their empire: pay taxes, honour the emperor and the Roman gods, but retain your local customs, language, and religion. We can imagine that to those in the far-flung corners of the empire, “being Roman” might have been little more than a formality.

But there were some for whom even the modest Roman demands were too much. The Jews, of course, refused to honour the Roman gods and famously refused to admit a representation of the emperor into the Temple in Jerusalem. The Romans seem, for the most part, to have treated this intransigence with bemused toleration, at least until there was outright revolt in the late 60s AD, which occasioned a siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 70.

Christians, likewise, were a problem for the Romans, for not only did they inherit from the Jews a fierce rejection of Roman religion, but they were not confined to a particular ethnic tradition: they spread, and converted people as they went. At first, of course, they were little more than a curiosity, but popular animus developed, so much so that Nero thought it a winning strategy to blame the Christians for the Great Fire of Rome. Beard reminds us that the persecution of early Christians was sporadic and on a modest scale, for the most part; this may be true, but it was nonetheless formative for the fledgling faith. A litany of those killed in Rome is still part of the prayers at every Mass throughout the world.

These difficulties notwithstanding, the success of Rome, Beard argues, is in no small part due to the modest demands they placed on those whom they conquered. There were distinctions, of course, between slaves, and free men, and citizens, but these distinctions very gradually declined in importance. Her history ends, in fact, with Caracalla’s decision to grant citizenship to every person in the empire — the apotheosis of Roman expansion, as it were. Naturally the story continues — all histories do — but this seems a fitting way to conclude her account of how a great thing called Rome arose from humble beginnings.

Tacitus: Histories

April 11, 2021

The Histories
Translated from the Latin by Church and Brodribb
(Modern Library, 1942) [c.100]
250 p.

Though written first, Tacitus’ Histories begins where his Annals ended: 69 AD. Originally consisting of more than a dozen Books and covering the years up to the death of Domitian in 96, we unfortunately have only the first third or so, which treats just two years: 69-70. They were, however, years rich in incident, stuffed to bursting with short-lived emperors, a time, says Tacitus, “rich in disasters, frightened in its wars, torn by civil strife, and even in peace full of horrors.” (1.2)


Nero’s death in 68 had brought an end to the Julio-Claudian dynasty that had ruled Rome since the time of Julius Caesar more than a century earlier. It was unclear who would rise to the imperial throne, and, as is common enough in such circumstances, there were multiple claimants, and a threat of civil war. In four parts of the empire, four men gathered support: on the Iberian peninsula, Galba, a governor with a fairly distinguished track record of civil service; in modern Portugal, Otho, an ambitious governor; in the north, patrolling the Rhine, Vitellius, a popular general; and in the east, Vespasian, a general currently preoccupied with putting down a rebellion in Judaea. The history of these first Books of Tacitus’ Histories is the history of how these four men contended for power.

It was Galba who occupied the throne first. He came to power in the middle of 68 with the support of the Praetorian Guard. He had gained their support because his assistant had bribed the soldiers with the promise of a big payout in return – a bribe Galba knew nothing about, and which, when once he had been named emperor, he felt no need to honour. For this reason, by January 69, when Tacitus’ history begins, Galba was strongly disliked by the Praetorian Guard, a perilous position for any emperor since Tiberius. He was also increasingly hated for his evident cruelty – toward Rome’s soldiers for his revival of the practice of decimation, and by the senatorial and equestrian classes in Rome for his policy of purging not only his enemies, but their families as well.

The camel’s back, in other words, was already quite heavily loaded when Galba made an important announcement on 10 January 69. To ensure a smooth transition in power at the end of his reign, he said, he was adopting as his son, and successor, one Lucius Calpurnius Piso. This news greatly offended and angered Otho, who had had a long relationship with Galba and had expected that he would be named heir. Otho moved quickly, and on 15 January Galba was murdered in the Roman Forum:

“About the actual murderer nothing is clearly known. Some have recorded the name of Terentius, an enrolled pensioner, others that of Lecanius; but it is the current report that one Camurius, a soldier of the 15th legion, completely severed his throat by treading his sword down upon it. The rest of the soldiers foully mutilated his arms and legs, for his breast was protected, and in their savage ferocity inflicted many wounds even on the headless trunk.” (1.41)

Piso, the heir-apparent, was also targeted for assassination. He took refuge in the Temple of the Vestal Virgins, but the soldiers were not pious: they dragged him out and killed him on the steps. The grisly scene was the stage for Otho’s triumphant arrival:

“The Forum yet streamed with blood, when he was borne in a litter over heaps of dead to the Capitol” (1.47)

Of Galba’s character and success as emperor Tacitus makes this judicious appraisal:

“His character was of an average kind, rather free from vices, than distinguished by virtues… He seemed greater than a subject while he was yet in a subject’s rank, and by common consent would have been pronounced equal to empire, had he never been emperor.” (1.49)


Otho, however, fared no better than Galba. Already the legions in Germany had rallied behind Vitellius and were marching on Rome. That the emperor was now Otho and not Galba mattered little to them; the sticking point was that the emperor ought to be Vitellius. A confrontation was inevitable, and Otho directed the legions around Rome to prepare and march north. Outright civil war had arrived.

The armies clashed in northern Italy, near modern Genoa. There were skirmishes and sieges, but the decisive battle occurred at Bedriacum on 14 April. Vitellius’ forces were victorious. When the news arrived in Rome, Otho was philosophical. Though he was urged to continue the fight, he decided to cede power to Vitellius rather than sacrifice more lives to his personal ambition:

“By this let posterity judge of Otho. Vitellius is welcome to his brother, his wife, his children. I need neither revenge nor consolation. Others may have held the throne for a longer time, but no one can have left it with such fortitude. Shall I suffer so large a portion of the youth of Rome and so many noble armies to be again laid low and to be lost to the State? Let this thought go with me, that you were willing to die for me. But live, and let us no longer delay, lest I interfere with your safety, you with my firmness. To say too much about one’s end is a mark of cowardice. Take as the strongest proof of my determination the fact that I complain of no one. To accuse either gods or men is only for him who wishes to live.” (1.47)

On 16 April he committed suicide, having been emperor for just three months. Vitellius was proclaimed the new emperor.


Vitellius arrived in Rome, accompanied by his rough and wild soldiers from the German frontier, many of whom had never seen Rome before. He was a man, Tacitus tells us, of “shamelessness, indolence, and profligacy,” and under his leadership the city quickly descended into decadence:

“The sole road to power was to glut the insatiable appetites of Vitellius by prodigal entertainments, extravagance, and riot. The Emperor himself, thinking it enough to enjoy the present, and without a thought for the future, is believed to have squandered nine hundred million sesterces in a very few months.” (2.95)

Rumours began to reach Rome that far off, in Judaea, support was rising for Vespasian as a rival to imperial power, but Vitellius seems to have preferred to enjoy, rather than defend, himself:

“Buried in the shades of his gardens, like those sluggish animals which, if you supply them with food, lie motionless and torpid, he had dismissed with the same forgetfulness the past, the present, and the future.” (3.36)

Urged by his advisors, he did finally order an army to march north to protect Italy against Vespasian. Meanwhile, Vespasian’s brother, who lived in Rome, tried to begin negotiations with Vitellius. But he was attacked and took refuge on the Capitoline Hill. Vitellius’ men continued their assault and, in the process, burned the Temple of Jupiter to the ground — a great sacrilege, for the temple was one of the oldest and most sacred sites for Romans:

“This was the most deplorable and disgraceful event that had happened to the Commonwealth of Rome since the foundation of the city; for now, assailed by no foreign enemy, with Heaven ready to be propitious, had our vices only allowed, the seat of Jupiter Supremely Good and Great, founded by our ancestors with solemn auspices to be the pledge of Empire, the seat, which neither Porsenna, when the city was surrendered, nor the Gauls, when it was captured, had been able to violate, was destroyed by the madness of our Emperors” (3.72)

Vespasian’s brother was captured and executed, which effectively cut off all hope of negotiation with Vespasian. Although Vespasian himself was still in Egypt, generals loyal to him arrived in northern Italy and encountered Vitellius’ armies. The city of Cremona, which had been established as a defensive bulwark against Hannibal during the days of the Punic wars, centuries earlier, was destroyed. The emperor’s forces were failing, but Vitellius was indolent:

“The Emperor’s ears were so formed, that all profitable counsels were offensive to him, and that he would hear nothing but what would please and ruin.” (3.56)

To the astonishment of the Roman people, on 18 December 69 Vitellius abdicated the throne in an official announcement, but then, instead of retiring to private life, returned to live in the imperial palace. With little taste for ambiguity, Vespasian’s forces arrived in Rome a few days later, seized Vitellius, and executed him in the Roman Forum. Vespasian, though absent, was declared emperor, the fourth in less than 12 months. There followed a frenzy of violence in the city that surpassed anything the Romans had seen in many years:

“When Vitellius was dead, the war had indeed come to an end, but peace had yet to begin. Sword in hand, throughout the capital, the conquerors hunted down the conquered with merciless hatred. The streets were choked with carnage, the squares and temples reeked with blood, for men were massacred everywhere as chance threw them in the way. Soon, as their license increased, they began to search for and drag forth hidden foes. Whenever they saw a man tall and young they cut him down, making no distinction between soldiers and civilians. But the ferocity, which in the first impulse of hatred could be gratified only by blood, soon passed into the greed of gain. They let nothing be kept secret, nothing be closed; Vitellianists, they pretended, might be thus concealed. Here was the first step to breaking open private houses; here, if resistance were made, a pretext for slaughter. The most needy of the populace and the most worthless of the slaves did not fail to come forward and betray their wealthy masters; others were denounced by friends. Everywhere were lamentations, and wailings, and all the miseries of a captured city, till the license of the Vitellianist and Othonianist soldiery, once so odious, was remembered with regret. The leaders of the party, so energetic in kindling civil strife, were incapable of checking the abuse of victory. In stirring up tumult and strife the worst men can do the most, but peace and quiet cannot be established without virtue.” (4.1)

When Vespasian did finally arrive in the city, he re-established law and order. Tacitus describes him in this way:

“Vespasian was an energetic soldier; he could march at the head of his army, choose the place for his camp, and bring by night and day his skill, or, if the occasion required, his personal courage to oppose the foe. His food was such as chance offered; his dress and appearance hardly distinguished him from the common soldier; in short, but for his avarice, he was equal to the generals of old.” (2.5)

The Romans always loved a ruler with a distinguished military record, and Vespasian fit the bill. He was comparatively moderate in his governance. Purges of enemies were common in Roman history following transfers of power, and Vespasian, too, “cleaned house,” but he did so more on the basis of character than of political allegiance. Those whom he considered to have acted faithfully and honestly, regardless of which side they had taken in the civil war, he elevated; those whom he deemed unreliable or malicious were exiled or executed. He undertook major building projects in the city, rebuilding the Temple of Jupiter, and, down the road, beginning construction on an amphitheatre that would become one of the most famous buildings in the world. And his policies seem to have been largely successful, for he remained in power for a decade, and, through his two sons, Titus and Domitian, established a new imperial dynasty that was to rule Rome until 96 AD.


A year before he became emperor, Vespasian had been in Judaea attempting to put an end to a rebellion among the Jews. When he departed for Rome, he left his son Titus in charge of the operation. Tacitus gives us some background on the conflict, and, in a fascinating section (5.2-5), provides a brief anthropological introduction to the Jewish people. This must be taken with some reservations, for it is obvious that he dislikes them intensely, but it is still interesting. He notes their Sabbath observance, use of unleavened bread, circumcision, and, of course, monotheism, which was a continual source of friction between the Jews and Rome. He sees their unwillingness to pay worship to the emperor as an impiety, a determination “to despise all gods, to disown their country”, and he finds their conception of God peculiar:

“The Jews have purely mental conceptions of Deity, as one in essence. They call those profane who make representations of God in human shape out of perishable materials. They believe that Being to be supreme and eternal, neither capable of representation, nor of decay. They therefore do not allow any images to stand in their cities, much less in their temples. This flattery is not paid to their kings, nor this honour to our Emperors.”

Early in Book 5 he describes how Titus drew up his forces and began a siege of Jerusalem, but unfortunately that is where it ends, for the rest of the Histories is lost. We know what happened, of course: the city was taken, the Temple was destroyed, and the Jewish people were scattered throughout the world, an event of incalculable importance to world history.


So ends my voyage through the principal historical works of Tacitus. He is a fine historian, with a blunt and manly style, a commitment to sifting truth from fiction, and a talent for forthright moral judgment. It is true that the most important events that occurred in the Empire during the period he covered – the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, and the founding of the Christian religion – were almost entirely missed, and he certainly did not appreciate their importance for Rome and for the world. Nonetheless, as an imperial historian of the first century, though he has rivals, he has no betters, and I have greatly enjoyed reading him.