Posts Tagged ‘Roman reading project’

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.

Gibbon: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, IV

June 7, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Marcus Aurelius: Meditations

May 9, 2022

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Or, again,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I would bet that St Augustine read Marcus Aurelius.


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

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

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

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

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

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

At other times it is stated in moral terms:

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

Or, conversely,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

All the world’s a stage.


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gibbon: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, III

April 21, 2022

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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.”

Martial and Juvenal

January 7, 2022

Translated from the Latin by James Michie
(Penguin Classics, 1973) [c.70-100]
205 p.

Martial in English
Edited by J.P. Sullivan and A.J. Boyle
(Penguin Classics, 1996)
436 p.

Translated from the Latin by Niall Rudd
(World’s Classics, 1991) [c.110-150]
xl + 249 p.

Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later. My track record with Roman poets — Catullus, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Propertius, Tibullus, Statius, and Lucan — has been pretty good; I’ve enjoyed, and often greatly enjoyed, reading them. But nothing is perfect in this vale of tears, and though I had been looking forward with anticipation to both Martial and Juvenal — both entirely terra incognita for me — my hopes have been dashed. They are not, of course, wholly bad, but my experience has been, on the whole, one to evoke tears from the tenderhearted.

Martial, the great epigrammatist, the chronicler of the Roman streets, the man in the corner with the choice barb and the pithy appraisal, was, in my untutored imagination, to play a role in the annals of Roman poetry roughly similar, at least in some respects, to the place of the impressionists in the galleries of Western painting: his was a great relaxation from epic themes to simpler and more quotidian pleasures. And, in a certain sense, I was right, for his poems are simpler and more quotidian: portraits of characters, expressions of emotion, witty observations of human folly, and so forth, and few of the poems are longer than twenty lines — some are as brief as two. He is considerably more relaxed than Virgil or Statius, no doubt.

Munera qui tibi dat locupleti, Gaure, senique,
si sapis et sentis, hoc tibi ait ‘Morere’.

If you were wise as well as rich and sickly,
You’d see that every gift means, ‘Please die quickly.’

That’s pretty good, right? Brief but brutal. And there are others like it:

Nubere Paula cupit nobis, ego ducere Paulam
nolo: anus est. Vellem, si magis esset anus.

She longs for me to ‘have and hold’ her
In marriage. I’ve no mind to.
She’s old. If she were even older,
I might be half-inclined to.

That’s Miche’s translation in his volume. The Martial in English volume contains a translation of the same poem, by Peter Whigham, that is even better:

Paula would wed: I pray to be exempted.
She’s old. Were she but older, I’d be tempted.

That beautiful concision comes close, perhaps, to the deftness of the original, and its charms are undeniable.

But often, I confess, I found Martial merely coarse, merely petty, or merely dull. The ‘everydayness’ of the poems, their lack of pretense and ambition, wore on me after a while. I found myself responding to many of these poems with a casual “Meh” before they disappeared without a trace. I began to wonder why I was bothering.

When I turned from Michie’s translations, however, to the larger Penguin volume, I discovered new life. This volume is quite a marvel, actually: it is a collection of Martial’s epigrams done into English by dozens of poets over the past five centuries. Not only is it a superb education in a particular strand of our poetic tradition, but it allowed me to abstract from the substance — or lack of substance — of Martial’s poems themselves in order to indulge in comparisons of translations, which yields a certain pleasure all its own.

For instance, here is an epigram (3.43) that Michie renders as follows:

You’ve dyed your hair to mimic youth,
Laetinus. Not so long ago
You were a swan; now you’re a crow.
You can’t fool everyone. One day
Prosperpina, who knows the truth,
Will rip that actor’s wig away.

This was a “Meh” poem for me. But then look what Joseph Addison did with it:

Why should’st thou try to hide thy self in youth?
Impartial Proserpine beholds the truth,
And laughing at so fond and vain a task,
Will strip thy hoary noddle of its mask.

That bites much more fiercely than Michie’s did — and I confess an incapacity to disdain any poem that says “hoary noddle”. But then I found that a twentieth-century Welsh poet named Olive Pitt-Kethley has also translated this poem, and in this way:

You were a swan, you’re now a crow.
Laetinus, why deceive us so,
With borrowed plumage trying?
The Queen of Shades will surely know
When she strips off your mask below —
In Death there’s no more dyeing.

Yes! We get the contrast of the swan and crow, which Addison missed, and a rhyme that is more complex than Addison’s and more regular than Michie’s, and, to top all, it concludes with a triumphant pun, the highest form of humour. I love it.

There’s a fair bit of that kind of amusement in the Martial in English collection, and I would readily recommend it to anyone with an interest in Martial. Arranged chronologically, it includes poems by Donne, Jonson, Crashaw, Dryden, Pope, Swift, Johnson, Coleridge, Stevenson, and Pound, along with a great crowd of less well-known names. If there was one poet in the collection who most impressed me, it was Stevenson, whose poetry I am otherwise innocent of. Here is an example: his translation of epigram 5.34, about the death of a young girl named Erotion.

Mother and sire, to you do I commend
Tiny Erotion, who must now descend,
A child, among the shadows, and appear
Before hell’s bandog and hell’s gondolier.
Of six hoar winters she had felt the cold,
But lacked six days of being six years old.
Now she must come, all playful, to that place
Where the great ancients sit with reverend face;
Now lisping, as she used, of whence she came,
Perchance she names and stumbles at my name.
O’er these so fragile bones, let there be laid
A plaything for a turf; and for that maid
That ran so lightly footed in her mirth
Upon thy breast—lie lightly, mother earth!

That, I think, is really touching, and is a good example of what I found most appealing in this sojourn with Martial and his interpreters.


Though, as I said, I was generally disappointed with Martial, I did find enough to enjoy to fill out the space above. Alas, I’ve less to say for Juvenal. His sixteen Satires, written in the first half of the second century AD, are, in a sense, kin to Martial’s epigrams. They are witty sallies against the excesses and follies of the Roman people of his day. Unlike Martial, Juvenal is a moralist, and a rather steely one, but the poetry didn’t suffer on that account. I simply found them wordy, over-long, shapeless, and dull. I suppose it is obligatory to mention that the English phrases “a healthy mind in a healthy body” and “bread and circuses” come from these poems, but beyond those canonical examples I found nothing noteworthy to latch onto, and I read through the entire collection without marking a single passage. Sad, but true.


Unless there is a surprise lying in wait, I believe this is the last poetry stop on my tour of Roman literature. An anti-climax, then, but it cannot be helped, and the journey has, on the whole, been an excellent one.

Suetonius: Lives of the Twelve Caesars

December 15, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lucan: Pharsalia

November 30, 2021

Translated from the Latin by Matthew Fox
(Penguin Classics, 2012) [c.65 AD]
lxx + 474 p.

For civil hatreds, only the sword suffices
to draw right hands down deep into Roman vitals.
(VII, 373-4)

Lucan began writing his epic poem on the Roman civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great when he was still in his early 20s — a precocious, but not precipitous, venture, for Lucan also had the misfortune to begin writing his epic poem during the reign of Nero, with this consequence: had he not begun early he’d not have begun at all. In 65 AD, when just 25 years old, Lucan was arrested for his part in a conspiracy against Nero’s life; he was forced to commit suicide, leaving his great poem incomplete.

The poem that we do have is probably a substantial part of the poem he had planned. It begins with Caesar crossing the Rubicon in 49 BC — the spark that set the forest aflame — and ends with Caesar besieging Alexandria in 47 BC. Perhaps Lucan intended to bring it down to Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC; we don’t really know. There are about 8000 lines in all. He wrote in dactylic hexameter, the metre used by Homer, Virgil, and Ovid in their epic poetry, so he was clearly swinging for the bleachers.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the poem, considering the poetic tradition within which he is clearly conscious of working, is the absence of supernatural elements. There are no gods presiding over these affairs of men, no divine interventions, no sacred groves or pious gestures. Lucan is writing history, straight up.

“The madness of war is upon us, the power of iron,
the fist, will confound all justice, and wicked crimes
will be called virtue — and this fury will continue
for many years. What use to beg the gods for an end of it?
Peace comes with a tyrant.”
(I, 712-16)

I was amused to read that in our tradition Lucan has, on these grounds, often been classed with the historians, rather than the poets. It’s not an entirely unjust view, but it does evoke a certain pang of pity for the man, who must have given himself some trouble, historical accuracy and all, to make his lines scan.

A second aspect of the poem that surprised me was its view of its two central combatants. Given that Caesar won the civil war, and given that Lucan was writing under an emperor who belonged to the Julio-Claudian line he founded, I expected Caesar to be the hero of the tale. But not so. Lucan obviously favours Pompey. More than once he is directly critical of Caesar:

“For shame,
Caesar! That you alone love wars your men condemn!”
(V, 326-7)

Pompey, on the other hand, gets handled with kid gloves. Even his flight from the field of battle at Pharsalus, which in previous accounts I’ve always seen interpreted as his lowest point, a shameful and unmanly retreat, Lucan tries to burnish into something glowing:

Success in war never saw you arrogant
nor will adversities see you broken now.
As faithless as she was to you when happy,
through three triumphs, now in misery
Fortune is beneath you. Now you depart untroubled,
your burden of fate laid down. Now you are free
to reflect on happy times. Your hopes recede,
never to be fulfilled. Now you are allowed
to know what you have been.
(VII, 793-801)

It’s not such a good thing to lose the principal battle of the civil war, of course, but at least he was freed up to reflect on happy times. It’s the slimmest of silver linings.

When, on the shores of Egypt, the end finally comes for Pompey, Lucan grants him a heroic finish:

But when the steel struck
his back and cracked against his chest, Magnus
maintained a splendid dignity and holy figure,
his face cursing the gods, his mortal end
changing nothing in the man’s appearance
or behavior — so they acknowledge who saw
his severed head.
(VIII, 814-820)

The reason for this preference of Pompey over Caesar connects to the underlying logic of the poem, which develops a critique of monarchy and concentration of power. The force of this argument increases as the poem proceeds, and I am not surprised to discover that Lucan had a gradual falling out with Nero during the period of composition. As I already mentioned, this growing animus caught up with him, and brought him down, before the poem could be finished.

Lucan has been continually read and appreciated in all the centuries between his time and ours, and he has had a huge influence on our literary tradition. Dante, Petrarch, and Chaucer, each in their own way, owe him a debt. Speaking for myself, I enjoyed reading the poem, but found that its straightforward, naturalistic approach to its subject matter prevented it from matching the high ambition and grandeur of the other epic poets. It just seemed a bit flat. Perhaps this is the translation more than the poem; it’s hard to know. But if I want to read again the history of this very dramatic and fascinating period of history, I will reach first for Caesar’s own account.

Petronius: Satyricon

October 19, 2021

Translated from the Latin by William Arrowsmith
(Univ Michigan, 1960) [c.60 AD]
225 p.

The Satyricon of Petronius has a singular place in the Roman literature that survives to our time; its nearest rival would be Apelluis’ The Golden Ass, written a few generations later, which still does not manage to out-Petronius Petronius. The Satyricon is an anti-epic — a huge, sprawling, shapeless, irreverent, disgusting mess of a book that nonetheless manages to cast a different, and therefore, in its own way, valuable kind of light on Roman life in the first century.

The story, such as it is, concerns the antics of Encolpius and a few companions who wander from misadventure to misadventure in search of food and sex — both in a profuse variety limited only by the imagination of the author. The joke on Encolpius — whose name means something like “crotch” — and the running joke through the entire work, is that he is impotent. No matter what shenanigans he gets into it, no matter how careful the plotting or how tantalizing the young boy, he’s left tending naught but a wilted lettuce. Ha ha. There you have the Satyricon in brief compass.

Many readers have found in the work an attractive free spiritedness, a liveliness of invention, a fascinating window into first-century Roman sexual mores and the lives of the lower classes, a refreshing buffoonery and light-heartedness, and a diverting satirical tone that clears away the formality of the Roman poets who otherwise dominate the literature. There is something to be said for the Satyricon on these grounds.

The work, as we have it, is fragmentary. In fact, it might be better to say that we have only fragments of the work. Though it runs to a couple of hundred pages in a modern edition, I am told that scholars speculate that we might have only about one-tenth of the original whole. Weeping is not warranted, however; we have enough. A little pederasty goes a long way, and my appetite, at least, for peppered dildos shoved where the sun don’t shine is easily satisfied by the merest morsel.

If asked to speculate, I’d have guessed that the author was a ne’r-do-well from the provinces who tried to make a name for himself by scandalizing the reading public. But in fact Petronius was a notable Roman, a governor and even a consul, who held an honoured place in Nero’s court. The Satyricon, it seems, was just what passed for keen entertainment in Nero’s company. The most intriguing reading of the Satyricon I’ve yet come across holds that its anti-hero, Encolpius, may have been a subtle satire on Nero himself; if true, it would do much to redeem the nearly unfathomable scurrility of the work.

The book has been a black sheep for most of the interval between its writing and today. It made a comeback in the late nineteenth century when the Decadent movement took up its standard: J.K. Huysmans in France championed it, especially in his novel À rebours, and in the English-speaking world it made its first big splash in a pseudonymous translation by Oscar Wilde. One can surmise what attracted these writers to the book. It is worth noting, I think, that both these authors later converted to Catholicism. If enthusiasm for the Satyricon is a stepping stone in that direction, it gives us another, perhaps surprising, opportunity to affirm that nothing in this vale of tears is wholly bad.

Statius: Thebaid

August 22, 2021

Translated from the Latin by A.D. Melville
(Oxford, 1992) [c.90 AD]
lv + 371 p.

You will recall that in the later stages of the ascent of Mount Purgatory, Dante and Virgil are joined by a third traveller, the poet Statius, who accompanies Dante as far as the terrestrial paradise, remaining even after Virgil has made his farewell. “Who is this Statius?” you might well ask. And I can answer: He was the screenwriter of Seven Samurai. Or rather — pardon me — he was the author of the Thebaid, an epic poem completed in Rome toward the end of the first century AD.


The strife of brothers and alternate reigns
Fought for in impious hatred and the guilt
Of tragic Thebes, these themes the Muses’ fire
Has kindled in my heart.
(I, l.1-4)

His poem takes us back to the early days of Greece, before the Trojan War, to a conflict between two brothers that arose in the city of Thebes. When their father, Oedipus, stepped down from the throne, Polynices and Eteocles were to share governance of the city, and they, under guidance of the gods, settled on a scheme of alternating years in power, a scheme that immediately led to strife, for Eteocles, enjoying his first year in power, refused to relinquish the throne to his brother at the appointed time.

Polynices, therefore, sent into exile, travelled around cultivating allies and building an army to help recover the throne of Thebes. He found assistance especially in the city of Argos, where he pieced together a force led by — you guessed it — seven able commanders, each with his own distinctive character: there was Tydeus, a small but immensely strong warrior prince prone to outbursts of uncontrolled wrath and capable of slaying dozens of enemy soldiers; there was Hippomedon, a valiant horseman; and Parthenopaeus, a talented but young and inexperienced archer; he recruited also Amphiaraus, a seer who provided both divine counsel and military prowess on the battlefield; there was Capanaeus, a boisterous atheist who shouted insults at the gods and killed Thebans with joyous abandon; in the background there was Adrastus, the king of Argos, who provided leadership; and, finally, of course, there was Polynices himself, the man for whom the whole pot was boiling.


And so, as I said, Statius really did write the screenplay for Seven Samurai — and, by extension, for Ocean’s 11, and The Avengers, and all those movies in which a cast of characters is assembled to accomplish a great feat together. Although I suppose that he himself might well have been looking backward, to Jason and the Argonauts perhaps.

Except that Statius’ vision is bleaker than just about any of his imitators, for when, in the second half of his poem, his seven great men begin their great work, they meet with defeat on defeat. A seer, foretelling the disaster to come, puts it in avian terms:

One, soaring high,
The sun’s quick blaze ignites and his high heart
Is humbled; one, attempting to keep pace
With stronger birds, his frail young wings let sink;
One falls locked in his foe’s embrace; one flees
In whirling flight and leaves his friends to fate;
One dies swathed in a rain-storm; one in death
Devours his living foe. A spray of blood
Spatters the hollow clouds. Why hide your tears?
(Book III)

One by one they fall, bloodied and beaten, until none but Polynices remains, all his efforts turned to ash. And then, in the poem’s climax, the two brothers meet on the field of battle, with predictably tragic consequences for both.


An interesting aspect of the poem is its attitude to the gods. As I’ve already mentioned, one of the central characters, and one of the most colourful and likeable, is a militant atheist, brash and belligerent. The poem seems to be very much on his side, treating his atheism with bemused toleration — until his death scene, which is marvellous. As Capaneus scales the walls of Thebes he is struck down — literally struck down — by a bolt of lightning hurled by Jupiter. Take that. It’s a wonderfully wry, bleakly comic moment.

Statius granted the gods a victory in that case, albeit a somewhat cheap one, but the poem as a whole seems to adopt a sceptical, and even critical, stance toward divine powers. The gods intervene in the action throughout the poem — this is normal for epic poetry — but more often than not their actions lead to disaster, either by malice or incompetence or insensibility to the sufferings of humanity. The two brothers, for instance, are ready in the beginning to share the throne of Thebes peaceably; it is Jupiter who incites jealousy between them, spurred by a grudge he nurses against their father Oedipus. Later, after Polynices sends a peace embassy to his brother, which is rebuffed (and then some), it is again Jupiter who commissions Mars to incite a lust for war in the people, so that the conflict between the two brothers will catch fire and grow into a conflagration. There is a dark vision being drawn for us, in which the troubled affairs of men are stoked by the will of the gods. It is a kind of reverse Providence.


Another very striking feature of the poem is its wary stance toward warfare itself. Epic poetry, in the tradition, is war poetry: the Trojan War, Odysseus’ bloody triumph, Aeneas sinking his sword hilt-deep in the chest of Turnus — and the high points of the poems of Statius’ forebears are the victories of the heroes over their adversaries. I think that’s a fair reading of the tradition, although I would not go so far as to say that there is no nuance in the attitudes of Homer and Virgil to war.

I’ve already said that in Statius’ poem there is no final military triumph. There are partial victories here and there, yes. In one of the early books Tydeus is ambushed by a group of 50 Theban assassins, and he kills them all. This is Marvel movie material, and Tydeus himself, certainly, conveys no nuances about the tragedy of violence in his angry tirade over the bodies of his adversaries. In the same vein, each of the seven united against Thebes sports some kind of military prowess, and there are plenty of passages in which spears are thrown, bodies are pierced, horses fall, arrows fly, and bodies are mutilated.

Far spread the field, a hideous expanse
Of boundless blood; abandoned there lay arms
And steeds, once proudly mounted, mangled limbs
And corpses unregarded and unpyred.
(Book X)

But, even so, Statius strikes a markedly different note from the tradition in which he is working. I was surprised at the way in which he includes in his account of the battles their effects on non-combatants. In the early going, for instance, in the aftermath of Tydeus’ heroics against the massed assassins, we are given a remarkably moving passage in which the women and elderly citizens of Thebes come to the battlefield to recover the bodies of the fallen. It goes, in part, like this:

Now from the city wives death-pale and children
And ailing parents poured by broad highways
Or pathless wastes in piteous rivalry,
All rushing to their tears, and thousands more
For solace’ sake throng too, and some were hot
To see that one man’s deeds, that night’s travails.
The road was loud with wailing and the fields
Re-echoed cries of grief. Yet when they reached
Those infamous rocks, that ghastly wood, as though
None had bewailed before, no storm of tears
Had streamed, as from a single throat there rose
A cry of utter anguish. When they saw
The bloody carnage, frenzy fired them all.
Grief, flaming fierce, with bloody raiment rent,
Stands there and beats his breast and leads along
The wives and mothers. Helmets on cold heads
They scrutinize and point to bodies found,
And over friends and strangers lean alike.
Some steep their hair in blood and some seal eyes;
Deep wounds are washed in tears, a hand withdraws
A spear, vain mercy; gently, severed arms
Are set in place and heads rejoined to necks.
(Book III)

This is both tragic and humane. “Helmets on cold heads.” And there is, later in the poem, a stirring section in which the poet describes the panic that grips the civilians of Thebes as the armies of Polynices approach the city:

The scene within was ghastly. Mars himself
Would scarce enjoy the sight. Fury and Grief
And Dread and Flight, swathed in blind darkness, rent,
With discord many-voiced, the maddened city,
Reeling in frantic horror. War, it seemed,
Had entered. Back and forth they seethed around
The citadel and clamour blocked the streets,
As everywhere they imagined fire and sword,
Imagined themselves clamped in cruel chains.
Fear feels the future now: temples and homes
Are thronged and their ungrateful altars ringed
With lamentation. Young and old alike
Were seized by the same terror. Age cried out
For death; youth burned and blanched by turns; the shrieks
Of wailing women shook the echoing halls,
And children sobbed and knew not why they sobbed,
Only afraid because their mothers wept.
(Book X)

It is a scene that must have been repeated many thousands of times in history, and he evokes the sense of panic and futility powerfully. Statius, it seems to me, is a poet who sees the human cost of war, and even though he is working with mythological material and within a tradition that celebrates, at some level, violence and victory, he finds a way to show us suffering human hearts, and in such a way that, for me at least, it was those hearts that remained in my mind when the dust settled.


And so, sitting here, in the settled dust, I circle around once again to the question that partly motivated my picking up the Thebaid in the first place: why did Dante give Statius such an honoured place in his poem? Unlike the case of Virgil, whose sixth book was an obvious influence on the Inferno, I can see no particular thematic or dramatic connection between the Thebaid and The Divine Comedy. Dante idolized Rome, and Virgil, as the great poet of Rome and her history, was naturally precious to him, but he had no, so far as I know, comparable attachment to Thebes.

The truth is that I don’t know the answer to my question. It may have been simply that Dante greatly admired Statius’ poetry, and why not? True, I found the poem sagged at points — there are fully two books given over to a subplot that appears to go nowhere in particular, and numerous briefer passages, particularly those reporting the minutiae of battlefield encounters, in which my attention nodded — but, then again, I do not read Latin with anywhere near sufficient competence to appreciate its literary merits, and so whatever such merits Statius possesses are lost on me, as they were not lost on Dante. So maybe that’s it, or maybe not, but I am happy to have read the Thebaid in any case: a little-known bridge between Virgil and his medieval admirers, a fascinating and instructive window into Roman attitudes to warfare in the first century, and a cracking good tale too. Somebody should make a movie.

Now in the vault of heaven, when the sun
Had given his service, rose the queenly moon,
Borne through a silent world on dewy wheels,
The soft air limpid in her cooling balm.
Now beasts and birds are silent, slumber steals
O’er greed and grief and, nodding from the day,
Brings sweet oblivion to lives of toil.
(Book I)

To faint hearts nothing’s false.
(Book VII)