Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire - Part II

One thing I forgot about in my first post on Gibbon; he was viciously anti-Semitic. All of his descriptions of Jews and Judaism are outrageous. He accuses Jews of cannibalizing their defeated enemies. That's just stupid. Observant Jews, which would have been the entire Jewish community at the time, wouldn't have eaten people. People aren't kosher. We don't have split hooves, and unless you consider chewing gum, we have no cud to chew. He also accuses the Jews of Rome of starting the infamous fire that the Emperor Nero was said to fiddle during. And it was (according to Gibbon) the fault of the Jews that Christians were persecuted. I think it's another one of those British attitudes.

I'm not sure Gibbon's anti-Semitism is ever discussed, probably because his Decline and Fall is a such an otherwise magnificent piece of scholarship and writing. As I said in part I (if I remember correctly), the man could construct a sentence and describe a character better than most novelists. He did have an advantage over writers of fiction though. These were real people he was fleshing out for us. He merely had to find the right words.

During Rome's decline, when one emperor after another was being raised and then violently dispatched, it was clear that the virtuous men of genius who ruled Rome and fought for Roman interests during its ascension in centuries past, were either no longer available or they weren't being allowed to rise up from the multitude. Instead, there was a centuries long parade of scoundrels, usurpers, and con men, who had abbreviated reigns wearing the purple. The great were sometimes thrust into the throne, but they were the exception.

As Gibbon would begin his descriptions of each new emperor rising or being forced to the top during the tumultuous third and fourth centuries A.D., I wondered each time how long this one would last and what manner of violent end he would suffer, because they all came to violent ends, the good, the bad, and the indifferent. Major exceptions were Diocletion, Julian, and Constantine, but try as they might, they couldn't halt Rome's decline. The best they could do was to slow it down.

By this time, corruption reigned and the edges of the empire were being eaten away by the barbarians Rome could no longer control, but only negotiate with in-between increasing futile wars. Rather than handle the barbarians, whom I think had embraced certain aspects of civilization over the centuries, and who were being squeezed by the Scythians (who were even more barbaric) on the other side, Rome chose to negotiate when they needed to concentrate on internal problems. Who did these negotiations help the most? Well, it wasn't the Romans.

The West (Rome) discovered (and then promptly forgot) the lesson on letting a cruel barbarian tyrant grow strong by neglecting to squash him when he's weak. What is it with humanity? Don't we ever learn?

When corruption becomes the order of the day, when it's not only tolerated but expected, when society has lost its memory of what responsibilities we all must fulfill to pass our civilization on to our children, how do "we the people" maintain a civil free society? The Romans were finally overwhelmed by their own pathologies, which weakened them enough for outside forces to invade and finish the job. It was a long process though, and as each generation contributed to their share of Rome's decline, whatever they were living through was their normalcy, no matter how degraded they would have appeared to their ancestors.

Does this story hold lessons for we the living of today? Sure it does. Will we listen? We never have.

Next summer, I will reread volume II. I'm looking forward to it.

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1 Comments:

At 5:03 PM, Blogger Jungle Mom said...

"Does this story hold lessons for we the living of today? Sure it does. Will we listen? We never have."
Chilling...

 

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