Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire - Part I

After I finished reading it the first time a few years ago, I didn't think I'd ever want to read it again. But over the years, I've read about it from writers whom I respect. They talked not only about what a great history it is, and how it relates to today's world, but about what a great read it is. I didn't think it was so great upon first reading. But this time, I took it slowly. The first time, I just wanted to get through it. It was tedious. This time I paid attention, and I discovered that all of those people talking about what a great writer Gibbon was, are right. I read the first volume, all 956 dense, footnoted pages over the past month. I really enjoyed the journey this time. The Latin and Greek footnotes did slow things down, but most of the footnotes in English were worth reading. And of course, Gibbon doesn't just tell the story, he tries to teach us lessons in morality and proper living. He tries to show the difference between excellent governance and poor governance. He gives us portraits of the great, the not so great, and the truly awful. Gibbon has this to say about the sons of Constantine and the conflict among them.
After the partition of the empire three years had scarcely elapsed before the sons of Constantine seemed impatient to convince mankind they were incapable of contenting themselves with the dominions which they were unqualified to govern.
He charts the rises and falls of emperors, generals, great men and scoundrels. And he does so with intelligence and wit that is rarely found in any of today's histories.

People don't write like that any more. The big histories of today are full of minutiae. They include everything but the kitchen sink. Gibbon covers too much ground for that, but he still tells a great and marvelously entertaining story and gives enough detail to make the reader ponder and feel the tragedy that the fall of the Roman Empire wrought through Europe, N. Africa, and E. Asia. The Romans were the superpower of their day. They kept order throughout their lands and the surrounding lands. When they began to self-destruct, order was reduced. Brigands, barbarians, and other opportunists were able to make life miserable for everyone. The suffering caused by this collapse lasted for a thousand years.

As with other great histories, this one is not only about one people during one time. It is the story of ancient and modern empires and superpowers. And it's the story of people and how they act and react. As much as we'd like to think otherwise, people haven't changed much over the past few thousand years. Corruption of morals is universal.
Tiberius, and those emperors who adopted his maxims, attempted to disguise their murders by the formalities of justice, and perhaps enjoyed a secret pleasure in rendering the senate their accomplice as well as their victim. By this assembly the last of the Romans were condemned for imaginary crimes and real virtues. Their infamous accusers assumed the language of independent patriots, who arraigned a dangerous citizen before the tribunal of his country; and the public service was rewarded by riches and honours. (55) The servile judges professed to assert the majesty of the commonwealth, violated in the person of its first magistrate; (56) whose clemency they most applauded when they trembled the most at his inexorable and impending cruelty (57) The tyrant beheld their baseness with just contempt, and encountered their secret sentiments of detestation with sincere and avowed hatred for the whole body of the senate.
Today, it is reputations that are murdered, but in Judaism, that is believed to be as great crime as stealing from or cheating another.

The minds of despots throughout history work the same.
In the administration of justice, the judgments of the emperor were characterised by attention, discernment, and impartiality; and whenever he deviated from the strict line of equity, it was generally in favour of the poor and oppressed; not so much indeed from any sense of humanity, as from the natural propensity of a despot, to humble the pride of greatness, and to sink all his subjects. to the same common level of absolute dependence.
Along with using the iron fist to earn the fear of the subject people, pander to the lowest among them and gain their gratitude. Wealthy scapegoats are the best.

I could go on quoting Gibbon as there are so many passages worth quoting, but I won't. Other points Gibbon makes though, are that as the empire declined, pomp and glorious titles increased. Emperors had greater retinues, more slaves, bigger entourages as their power and prestige declined. Superficial aspects became more pronounced as the insides rotted. While the army and praetorian guard named then assassinated emperor after emperor, the Roman people were given their bread and circuses in an effort to keep them mollified. There were good emperors and bad ones, but for a lengthy period, none of them died a natural death.

There were attempts to rebuild, but after a steady decline, and the slaughter of so many Romans in civil wars, the momentum was impossible to reverse.

Stay tuned for part II.

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At 1:57 PM, Blogger MightyMom said...

whoa. I can't believe you read it....TWICE.

I'm impressed.


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