Saturday, February 25, 2012

Edward Gibbon on The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Most people exposed to Roman history have heard Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire mentioned. This work has long been considered essential reading for those interested in the Roman Empire, but I never got around to it for some reason. Maybe I thought it would be too big to tackle – six volumes – or maybe I thought I knew why Rome fell. It is the purpose of this blog, however, to educate and enlighten so we need to include the contribution of Gibbon.

Edward Gibbon’s dates were 1737-1794. Born in Surrey, he received a rigorous formal education and served in the English militia during the Seven Years War. After discharge in 1762, Gibbon embarked on a grand tour of Europe, which included a stay in Rome. Seeing the ruins of the Forum captured his imagination and from that moment on he dedicated himself to writing the history of the fall of the Roman Empire. Back in England Gibbon spent time managing his father’s estate and serving in parliament while writing his history. The first volume was published in 1776, volumes three and four by 1781, and the final two volumes appeared in 1787. Interesting to note the coincidence with important American dates. The Decline was immensely popular in its day with the first two volumes selling out three editions.

The first impression made on the reader is a prose style which is stylish and easy to read, unlike most history. Example:

“The principal conquests of the Romans were achieved under the republic; and the emperors, for the most part, were satisfied with preserving those dominions which had been acquired by the policy of the senate, the active emulations of the consuls, and the martial enthusiasm of the people. The seven first centuries were filled with a rapid succession of triumphs; but it was reserved for Augustus to relinquish the ambitious design of subduing the whole earth, and to introduce a spirit of moderation into the public councils.”

Gibbon’s writing style was praised by contemporary writers including the philosopher David Hume, Adam Smith, and Horace Walpole. His scholarship is very thorough, setting a standard for the time. Gibbon utilized all the available resources available to him and incorporated extensive footnotes and references into his volumes. There are mistakes, of course: some because of his lack of information or assumptions he made. There are also some biases, particularly with respect to religion, but these blemishes do not detract from the overall quality of this important work.

Gibbon begins volume one with a summary of the period from Augustus to Domitian, gets down to detail with Trajan, and moves forward through the life of the Caesars until the empire is no more. Here and in future posts I will identify and discuss the factors he cites as the causes of the collapse of the empire.

The first of these appears in volume one chapter 5 where he writes:

“The Praetorian bands, whose licentious fury was the first symptom and cause of the decline of the Roman empire, scarcely amounted to nine or ten thousand. They derived their institution from Augustus.  That crafty tyrant, sensible that laws might color, but that arms alone could maintain his usurped dominion, had gradually formed this powerful body of guards, in constant readiness to protect his person, to awe the senate, and either to prevent or to crush the first motions of rebellion.”

The Praetorian Guard was the unique personal army of the Caesar designed to protect his person against threats from any quarter. Originally named because they were used to protect military praetors during war, the name was co-opted by Augustus to apply to a new kind of personal bodyguard. Augustus’ original contingent of nine cohorts of 500 men was soon raised to cohorts of 1000, carefully rotated to keep them separated and less dangerous. Nevertheless, danger would become a reality thirty three years later when Sejanus, praetorian prefect of Tiberius, attempted to overthrow his master, before he was exposed and executed.

The guard acted a kingmakers for the first time when they found Claudius hiding behind a curtain after the assassination of Caligula, and proclaimed him Caesar. I mentioned in previous posts the guard’s sinister role in the year of four emperors and the auctioning of the Empire. Gibbon comments specifically on the danger of a private army:

Such formidable servants are always necessary, but often fatal to the throne of despotism.  By thus introducing the Praetorian guards as it were into the palace and the senate, the emperors taught them to perceive their own strength, and the weakness of the civil government; to view the vices of their masters with familiar contempt, and to lay aside that reverential awe, which distance only, and mystery, can preserve towards an imaginary power. In the luxurious idleness of an opulent city, their pride was nourished by the sense of their irresistible weight; nor was it possible to conceal from them, that the person of the sovereign, the authority of the senate, the public treasure, and the seat of empire, were all in their hands.  To divert the Praetorian bands from these dangerous reflections, the firmest and best established princes were obliged to mix blandishments with commands, rewards with punishments, to flatter their pride, indulge their pleasures, connive at their irregularities, and to purchase their precarious faith by a liberal donative; which, since the elevation of Claudius, was enacted as a legal claim, on the accession of every new emperor.

In the previous post I described what must be considered the worst excess of the guard – the auctioning of the empire -- but there are other abuses to add to the list of infamous acts:

Emperor Caraculla murdered in a plot by the Praetorian Prefect in 218 A.D.
Emperor Elagabalus murdered by the guard in 222 A.D.
Emperor Balbinus murdered by the guard in 238 A.D.
Emperor Pupienus murdered by the guard in 238 A.D.
Emperor Gordian III murdered by the Praetorian Prefect in 244 A.D.

By 284 A.D. Diocletian had removed the Praetorians from the palace and substituted his own version of a protection force. Finally, in 312, Constantine defeated a guard force supporting the usurper Maxentius, disbanded the guard, and demolished its camp in Rome.

So we have described the first of the causes of the fall of the Roman Empire according to Edward Gibbon. We’ve seen that when you create a private army to protect yourself from the public army, you lose the separation that maintains the mystique of the supreme leader. When the private army is able to observe the leader’s humanness close up, they may decide he’s no better than them.


Geoff Carter said...

Very interesting post; who guards the Emperor from his personal troops? his personal bodyguard; some emperors used Germans, and the Pope has Swiss Guards.
Not sure what you mean by this;
"We’ve seen that when you create a private army to protect yourself from the public army, you lose the separation that maintains the mystique of the supreme leader."

Separation and otherness can be an important part of the way a supreme office may be perceived, and a traditional tool of monarchy. Clearly, the institution of Emperor changes over time, and we must distinguish between the perceptions the elite and those of the population.

Anonymous said...

Gibbon's work is valuable above all because it is one of the high points of prose style in the English language. It's true, of course, that his work does not reflect the latest scholarship, but it remains the starting point for
the classical historians that followed him. His dispassionate treatment of the Arab expansion is still useful, because he doesn't take sides. And his withering irony can be very funny, too, particularly in his footnotes. Moreover, there is wisdom to be gleaned from his book. If his style were more colloquial and his latinate sentences shorter, he would be known as a great aphorist. Here are just a few examples:

“It is much less difficult to invent a fictitious story than to support a practical fraud.”

“The most incredible stories are best adapted to the genius of an enraged people."

“A people dissatisfied with their present condition grasp at any visions of their past or future glory.”

“A people elated by pride, or soured by discontent, is seldom qualified to form a just estimate of their actual situation.”

“The incapacity of a weak and distracted government may often assume the appearance and produce the effects of a treasonable correspondence with the public enemy.”

“The first moment of public safety is devoted to gratitude and joy; but the second is diligently occupied by envy and calumny.”

“There exists in human nature a strong propensity to depreciate the advantages, and to magnify the evils, of the present time.”

“The desire of obtaining the advantages, and of escaping the burthens, of political society, is a perpetual and inexhaustible source of discord.”