All reviews copyright 1984-2015 Evelyn C. Leeper.
THE HISTORY OF THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE by Edward Gibbon:
[From the MT VOID, 08/07/2015 - 09/25/2015]
I will not attempt to review THE HISTORY OF THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE by Edward Gibbon (ISBN 978-0-307-70076-6). Instead I will make a few observations, and then comment on various passages I found memorable or significant. Because of the length, I will make my general comments this week, and then do one of each of the volumes in the six-volume edition for each of the next seven weeks (because I need to split the comments on the sixth volume).
The first observation is that, like Adam Smith's magnum opus, AN INQUIRY INTO THE CAUSES AND NATURE OF THE WEALTH OF NATIONS, Gibbon's masterpiece is so often referred to by a title abbreviated by trimming off the *beginning* that it is had to find when works are alphabetized by title. At least with Gibbon it is under either "H" or "D", though, while with Smith it could be "I", "C", or "W".
A related observation is that Gibbon's names for places and people are not necessarily the ones we commonly use these days. The constant references to the "Euxine Sea" are to what we know of as the "Black Sea", for example. And the much-vaunted search capabilities of e-books are substantially impaired by the variations in naming. I was completely unsuccessful in finding "Maximinus Thrax", for example, or "Maximinus" or "Thrax". It turns out that Gibbon calls him "Maximin". (I only found him when I googled for him and found alternate names.)
Oh, and one must remember if one's ebook uses British or American spelling. (I have tried to retain Gibbon's original British spelling throughout this.)
Connected to this is Gibbon's structure. Unlike most history books, which are basically chronological, Gibbon is arranged more topically. So for example, the first chapter in Gibbon's fifth volume is about icons and iconoclasty, the power of the popes, and the Holy Roman Empire, and covers 726 through 1378. The next chapter covers Arabia 569 through 680. Then we get conquests by the Saracens and other Muslims, 632 through 718, and so on. (For reasons passing understanding, the entirety of the Modern Library edition of Volumes Five and Six is labeled "1185-1453 A.D.") So one finds oneself bouncing around a lot in time, made even more difficult to follow by the fact that Gibbon puts almost no dates in his text! (And what he does put he spells out rather than using digits.) If I recall correctly, one edition puts dates and sometimes emperors' names in the margins, which might help.
If you wonder why Roman history is fascinating, just consider the death of Valentinian: When he met with the Quadi, expecting them to surrender abjectly, they instead complained about how he had invaded them and then treacherously killed their chief (after inviting him to dinner!), notwithstanding which the recent attacks on Romans were not by them, but by some "freelance" robbers. Then, Gibbon writes:
"The answer of the emperor left them but little to hope from his clemency or compassion. He reviled, in the most intemperate language, their baseness, their ingratitude, their insolence. His eyes, his voice, his color, his gestures, expressed the violence of his ungoverned fury; and while his whole frame was agitated with convulsive passion, a large blood vessel suddenly burst in his body; and Valentinian fell speechless into the arms of his attendants."
He was not just speechless--within a few minutes he was dead. Now that's dramatic!
Plus you have such great designations, such as "The Year of Four Emperors" (69 C.E.)--a period of chaos. But then later (193 C.E.) you have "The Year of Five Emperors", when things are even worse. But wait--it doesn't end there; no, you get "The Year of Six Emperors" (238 C.E.).
(Volume I of VI)
"A martial nobility and stubborn commons, possessed of arms, tenacious of property, and collected into constitutional assemblies, form the only balance capable of preserving a free constitution against enterprises of an aspiring prince."
E: Gibbon certainly seems to be coming down in favor of the Second Amendment here. However, THOTDAFOTRE (gack--even the abbreviation is too long!) was published between 1776 and 1788, before the Second Amendment was proposed (1789), let alone ratified (1791).
"The principles of a free constitution are irrecoverably lost, when the legislative power is nominated by the executive."
E: Hence the "separation of powers" and "checks and balances" incorporated in our Constitution.
"But when the consular and tribunitian powers were united, when they were vested for life in a single person, when the general of the army was, at the same time, the minister of the senate and the representative of the Roman people, it was impossible to resist the exercise, nor was it easy to define the limits, of his imperial prerogative."
E: This could be applied today, when both the executive and the legislative branches seem to spend time trying to assert that they have control over the same decisions. The legislature passes (or fails to pass) a law, the executive signs an executive order negating (or implementing) it, and or vice versa. (And it is not just at the Federal level; one sees the same thing at the state level, and undoubtedly it exists at the local level as well.)
"... nor was he deceived in his expectation, that the senate and people would submit to slavery, provided they were respectfully assured that they still enjoyed their ancient freedom."
E: In other words, as long as the people were told that they were free, they did not actually pay too much attention to the reality. This is, so far as I tell, one of the positions of both the Tea Party and the ACLU and others--that we are being told we are free even as our freedoms are being taken away. The two groups, of course, do not always agree on which freedoms are being taken away, or perhaps it is which are important.
"Spain, by a very singular fatality, was the Peru and Mexico of the old world. The Discovery of the rich western continent of the Phoenicians, and the oppression of the simple natives, who were compelled to labour in their own mines for the benefit of strangers, form an exact type of the more recent history of Spanish America."
E: I have no real comment on this, just that it is indeed an interesting coincidence.
"In the cool shade of retirement, we may easily devise imaginary forms of government, in which the sceptre shall be constantly bestowed on the most worthy, by the free and incorrupt suffrage of the whole community. Experience overturns these airy fabrics, and teaches us, that in a large society, the election of a monarch can never devolve to the wisest, or to the most numerous part of the people. The army is the only order of men sufficiently united to concur in the same sentiments, and powerful enough to impose them on the rest of their fellow-citizens; but the temper of soldiers, habituated at once to violence and to slavery, renders them very unfit guardians of a legal, or even a civil constitution."
E: This is a fairly bleak portrayal of the situation, at least in a monarchy. But even in a republic, the same issues arise. The question of how to have a standing army without it acquiring a sense of its own power and a devotion only to its own ranks. And, as Rome (and every other powerful political entity) discovered, one needs a standing, trained army to defeat its enemies. A citizen army worked for Rome when it was small and its enemies equally small and disorganized. But a citizen army could not defeat the Goths, the Huns, the Sassanids, or any other substantial foe.
"Every mode of religion, to make a deep and lasting impression on the human mind, must exercise our obedience, by enjoining practices of devotion, for which we can assign no reason; and must acquire our esteem, by inculcating moral duties analogous to the dictates of our own hearts."
E: Or in other words, religions become popular by requiring of its believers what they want to do anyway, or perhaps more that they acquire believers who what to believe what they are promoting. Christianity got its first converts among the poor and powerless, because it disparaged earthly wealth and power. "The meek shall inherit the earth" is less likely to attract people at the top of the power pyramid than those who are at the bottom. And the Nazis acquired followers by telling them that they were the "Master Race" and superior to everyone else.
"The most civilizations of modern Europe issued from the woods of Germany, and in the rude institutions of those barbarians we may still distinguish the original principles of our present laws and manners."
E: One suspects that the Nazis might have latched onto this as proof of German superiority, although the characterization of the early Germans as barbarians would not be as pleasing.
"... the use of letters is the principal circumstance that distinguishes a civilized people from a herd of savages incapable of knowledge or reflection. Without that artificial help, the human memory soon dissipates or corrupts the ideas intrusted to her charge; and the nobler faculties of the mind, no longer supplied with models or materials, gradually their powers..."
E: This is an interesting theory, but the ability of non-literate societies to transmit knowledge is now known to be considerable. While it can be argued that the quantity of knowledge a non- literate society can transmit is less than that of a literate society, there have been surprisingly advanced societies which were basically illiterate. The Incas, for example, had quipus but no general writing system. In any case, describing literate societies as civilized peoples, and illiterate societies as "herds of savages incapable of knowledge or reflection" is far too simplistic a view.
"The value of money has been settled by general consent to express our wants and our property, as letters were invented to express our ideas; and both these institutions, by giving a more active energy to the powers and passions of human nature, have contributed to multiply the objects they were designed to represent."
E: It is interesting that Gibbon draws a parallel between money and literacy. While we assume all our leaders are literate, and this was true in Gibbon's time also, I am reasonably sure that many of the emperors of the Western Empire were illiterate. (And perhaps that is part of Gibbon's point--that when the illiterates took over, things fell apart.)
"Female courage, however it may be raised by fanaticism, or confirmed by habit, can only be a faint and imperfect imitation of the manly valor that distinguishes the age or country in which it may be found."
E: Included without comment, except that it could be written only by a man.
"We read of the punishment of Lyons, but there is not any mention of the rewards of Autun. Such, indeed, is the policy of civil war; severely to remember injuries, and to forget the most important services. Revenge is profitable, gratitude is expensive."
E: This was true of ancient Rome, and so far as one can tell, is still true.
"The emperor Diocletian was indeed the author of that system, but during his reign, the growing evil was confined within the bounds of modesty and discretion, and he deserves the reproach of establishing pernicious precedents, rather than of exercising actual oppression."
E: In other words, Diocletian had laws passed that gave the Emperor far-reaching powers. He was restrained in his use, but those who followed him were not. One sees something like this in various attempts by Congress to pass rules changing the number of Representatives or Senators needed to accomplish some procedural matter, or various attempts to pass laws increasing or decreasing Presidential discretionary powers. What gets pointed out every time this arises is that while these changes may seem like a great idea to the party in control at the time, in two years, or four years, or six years, the other party may be the one wielding these powers.
"Some idea may be conceived of the abhorrence of the Christians for such impious ceremonies, by the scrupulous delicacy which they displayed on a much less alarming occasion. On days of general festivity, it was the custom of the ancients to adorn their doors with lamps and with branches of laurel, and to crown their heads with a garland of flowers. This innocent and elegant practice might perhaps have been tolerated as a mere civil institution. But it most unluckily happened that the doors were under the protection of the household gods, that the laurel was sacred to the lover of Daphne, and that garlands of flowers, though frequently worn as a symbol of joy or mourning, had been dedicate in their first origin to the service of superstition."
E: Hoo, boy, do I wish that all those Christians who claim that Christmas is a secular holiday and there is no reason why the government should not put up decorations to celebrate it would read this and discover who the first group to complain about that and get the same response were!
(Volume II of VI)
"The Jews were a nation; the Christians were a sect: and if it was natural for every community to respect the sacred institutions of their neighbors, it was incumbent on them to persevere in those of their ancestors. The voice of oracles, the precepts of philosophers, and the authority of the laws, unanimously enforced the national obligation."
E: In other words, the Rome (mostly) respected the Jews in the practice of their religion at this time, because they were being faithful to the "sacred institution" of their ancestors. But the Christians were rejecting their ancestors' sacred institutions, and this was a terrible sin to the Romans.
"By embracing the faith of the gospel, the Christians incurred the supposed guilt of an unnatural and unpardonable offense. They dissolved the sacred ties of custom and education, violated the religious institutions of their country, and presumptuously despised whatever their fathers had believed as true, or had reverenced as sacred."
E: As noted above, it was not the beliefs of the Christians per se that caused their persecution, but that they were so faithless as to turn their backs on their ancestors' beliefs and customs.
"In one of his laws he has been careful to instruct posterity, that in obedience to the commands of God, he laid the everlasting foundations of Constantinople and though he has not condescended to relate in what manner the celestial inspiration was communicated to his mind, the defect of his modest silence has been liberally supplied by the ingenuity of succeeding writers; who describe the nocturnal vision which appeared to be the fancy of Constantine, as he slept within the walls of Byzantium."
E: Gibbon has little respect for organized religion, and clearly does not believe that Constantine was personally instructed by God.
"As soon as the emnity of Julian deprived the clergy of the privileges which had been conferred by the favour of Constantine, they complained of the most cruel oppression; and the free toleration of idolators and heretics was a subject of grief and scandal to the orthodox party."
E: This is another "teaching passage": a group who has special privileges and then loses them calls this "leveling of the playing field" oppression. So (for example) when Christians are told that the public schools (which never celebrated any non-Christian religious holidays) cannot celebrate Christian holidays either, they start calling this discrimination against Christians, persecution, etc.
"A simple, naked statue, finished by the hand of a Grecian artist, is of more genuine value than all these rude and costly monuments of Barbaric labour; and, if we are more deeply affected by the ruin of a palace than by the conflagration of a cottage, our humanity must have formed a very erroneous estimate of the miseries of human life."
E: Two points here: First, we now know that that "simple, naked statue" was probably painted in fairly garish colors, so Gibbon's implied praise of simplicity is somewhat misplaced. His second claim *is* valid, though for a totally different reason. When a palace is ruined, the owner or resident almost definitely retains a large portion of the wealth, and probably has somewhere else to go, while when a cottage burns, the people who live in it probably lose everything they had. And of course Gibbon's other implication is that whatever loss of human life occurs, it is of equal importance in the cottage as in the palace. (In the case of the statue and the monuments, one might argue that the barbaric monuments, if not built with slave labour, at least provide employment to large numbers of people.)
"They urged, with persuasive eloquence, that, in all cases of treason, suspicion is equivalent to proof; that the power supposes the intention, of mischief; that the intention is not less criminal than the act; and that a subject no longer deserves to live, if his life may threaten the safety, or disturb the repose of his sovereign."
E: Replace "the sovereign" by "the country" and this situation sounds remarkably (and depressingly) modern. The suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War, the curtailment of freedom of speech and of the press during World War I, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the blacklisting of the 1950s, and the Patriot Act all seem to indicate that these claims get traction whenever any sort of menace--real or imagined--is detected.
"Whatever had been the determination of the emperor, he must have offended a numerous party of his Christian subjects; as the leaders both of the Homoousians and of the Arians believed, that, if they were not suffered to reign, they were most cruelly injured and oppressed."
E: Again, the dangers of binary thinking: a group who cannot impose their wishes on everyone else cries out that this is persecution and oppression.
"The inaction of the negroes does not seem to be the effect of either their virtue or of their pusillanimity. They indulge, like the rest of mankind, their passions and appetites; and the adjacent tribes are engaged in frequent acts of hostility. But their rude ignorance has never invented any effectual weapons of defence, or of destruction; they appear incapable of forming any extensive plans of government, or conquest; and the obvious inferiority of their mental faculties has been discovered and abused by the nations of the temperate zone. Sixty thousand blacks are annually embarked from the coast of Guinea, never to return to their native country; but they are embarked in chains, and this constant emigration, which, in the space of two centuries, might have furnished armies to overrun the globe, accuses the guilt of Europe, and the weakness of Africa."
E: That perhaps they did not want an extensive government, and did not desire conquest, seems not to have occurred to Gibbon. Nor does it occur to him that the Europeans' extensive governments and desire for conquest which in part led them to enslave 60,000 people a year does not make them less ignorant than the Africans. Indeed, many might argue quite the opposite.
"The urgent consideration of the public safety may undoubtedly authorize the violation of every positive law. How far that, or any other, consideration may operate to dissolve the natural obligations of humanity and justice, is a doctrine of which I still desire to remain ignorant."
E: This is an eternal problem; it is the question of when (if ever) wars are justified, when (if ever) torture is justified, and so on.
(Volume III of VI)
"Ambrose considers the toleration, as the persecution of the Christian, religion."
E: Here it is in a nutshell: As long as any other religion is tolerated, this constitutes persecution of Christians. So says Ambrose.
"The loss of armies, the destruction of cities, and the dishonour of the Roman name, ineffectually solicited the successors of Gratian to restore the helmets and the cuirasses of the infantry. The enervated soldiers abandoned their own and the public defence, and their pusillanimous indolence may be considered as the immediate cause of the downfall of the empire."
E: Oddly, you would have thought restoring defensive armor would be a sign of weakness, but I suppose that my the time this happened, the legions had grown so cautious and fearful due to their vulnerability than it was too late to restore their excellence as a fighting force.
"... it must be ingenuously confessed, that the ministers of the Catholic church imitated the profane model, which they were impatient to destroy. The most respectable bishops had persuaded themselves that the ignorant rustics. would more cheerfully renounce the superstitions of Paganism, if they found some compensation, in the bosom of Christianity. The religion of Constantine achieved, in less than a century, the final conquest of the Roman empire but the victors themselves were insensibly subdued by the arts of their vanquished rivals."
E: In other words, the Catholic Church adopted a lot of the customs, holidays, and so on of the pagans, and so although Christianity became the dominant faith, it ended up full of the very superstitions they had hoped to defeat. Icons, relics, and shrines were not part of Christianity, but all got adopted as a way of making conversion of the pagans easier.
"The court of Arcadius indulged the zeal, applauded the eloquence, and ignored the advice, of Synesius."
E: Again, some things never change. "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."
E: I think this is just another version of Hanlon's Razor: "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity."
"The Gothic prince would have subscribed with pleasure the edict which the fanaticism of Olympius dictated to the simple and devout emperor. Honorius excluded all persons, who were adverse to the Catholic church, from holding any office in the state, obstinately rejected the service of all those who dissented from his religion, and rashly disqualified many of his bravest and most skilful officers, who adhered to the Pagan worship, or who had imbibed the opinions of Arianism."
E: This was not the first time, nor the last, that governments (and other organizations) would apply irrelevant criteria for jobs. The latest obvious version was the exclusion of gays from the United States military, which resulted in 1) getting a large number of Arabic interpreters dismissed just when they needed them, and 2) being openly hypocritical in that if someone scheduled to be deployed to Iraq revealed they were gay, they were deployed for their full tour and *then* dismissed because "their presence would be damaging to the cohesion of their unit"!!
"The ancients were destitute of many of the conveniences of life, which have been invented or improved by the progress of industry, and the plenty of glass and linen has diffused more real comforts among the modern nations of Europe, than the senators of Rome could derive from all the refinements of pompous or sensual luxury."
E: This is basically what Mark says when touring the great 18th and 19th century palaces of Europe--our small home in suburbia has comforts and amenities the residents of those palaces could only dream of, starting with central heating and indoor plumbing.
"The subjects, who had resigned their will to the absolute commands of a master, were equally incapable of guarding their lives and fortunes against the assaults of the Barbarians, or of defending their reason from the terrors of superstition."
E: We have heard versions of this throughout the years, that mindless obedience to authority does not produce people capable of defending themselves against either physical or psychological assault. Oddly, though, for most of that time, resigning one's will to the absolute rule of a master was considered the sine qua non of military service. It is only recently that "just following orders" has fallen into disrepute as an excuse.
"The subjects of Rome, whose persons and fortunes were made unequal and exorbitant tributes, retired from the oppression of the Imperial government, and the pusillanimous youth preferred the penance of a monastic, to the dangers of a military, life. The affrighted provincials of every rank, who fled before the Barbarians, found shelter and subsistence, whole legions were buried in these religious sanctuaries, and the same cause, which relieved the distress of individuals, impaired the strength and fortitude of the empire."
E: In other words, people figured if the government was going to tax them into penury, leading to starvation, one might as well become a monk and get one's food and shelter provided, as well as avoiding the dangers of conscription into the army.
"The freedom of the mind, the source of every generous and rational sentiment, was destroyed by the habits of credulity and submission, and the monk, contracting the vices of a slave, devoutly followed the faith and passions of his ecclesiastical tyrant."
E: This is a slightly modified version of the complaint a couple of quotations back. Basically, if one cannot, or does not, think for oneself, one is basically a slave.
(Volume IV of VI)
"An aspiring candidate may be tempted to build his greatness on the public confusion, but it is the interest as well as duty of a sovereign to maintain the authority of the laws. The first edict of Justinian, which was often repeated, and sometimes executed, announced his firm resolve to support the innocent, and to chastise the guilty, of every denomination and *colour*.
E: This policy has been re-affirmed by many governments established after the overthrow of tyrannies of privilege, but not always carried out. In Justinian's case, one must note that the "colour" here mentioned is not skin color, but faction color (i.e., blue versus green)!
"I am not insensible of the benefits of elegant luxury, yet I reflect with some pain, that if the importers of silk had introduced the art of printing, already possessed by the Chinese, the comedies of Menander and the entire decads of Livy would have been perpetuated in the editions of the sixth century."
E: This is the lament of the scholar, and I have to say I agree with it. One might extend this to current policies and suggest that while not being insensible of the benefits of extracurricular activities. if the time and money spent on them was dedicated to the actual education of students, we might be better off.
"... public discontent is credulous; private malice is bold; and a lover of truth will peruse with a suspicious eye the instructive anecdotes of Procopious. The secret historian represents only the vices of Justinian, and those vices are darkened by his malevolent pencil. Ambiguous actions are imputed to the worst motives; error is confounded with guilt, accident with design, and laws with abuses; the partial injustice of the moment is dexterously applied as the general maxim of a reign of thirty-two years; the emperor alone is made responsible for the faults of his officers, the disorders of the times, and the corruption of his subjects; and even the calamities of nature; plagues, earthquakes, and inundations, are imputed to the prince of the daemons, who had mischievously assumed the form of Justinian."
E: For "Justinian", write "Obama" and for "Procopius", write the name of any number of right-wing pundits, and this will sound eerily familiar.
"A magnificent temple is a laudable monument of national taste and religion; and the enthusiast who entered the some of St. Sophia might be tempted to suppose it was the residence, or even the workmanship, of the Deity. Yet how dull is the artifice, how insignificant is the labour, if it be compared with the formation of the vilest insect that crawls upon the surface of the temple."
E: Gibbon wrote after the Scientific Revolution and before Romanticism, but this passage seems to be of both: an understanding of science, yet a romantic or poetic view of it rather than merely a mechanistic one.
"Not a vestige can be found of the art, the knowledge, or the navigation, of the ancient Colchians: few Greeks desired or dared to pursue the footsteps of the Argonauts; and even the marks of an Egyptian colony are lost on a nearer approach. The rite of circumcision is practised only by the Mahometans of the Euxine; and the curled hair and swarthy complexion of Africa no longer disfigure the most perfect of the human race."
E: Well, if you had any doubt that Gibbon was bigoted, this passage would dispel it.
"The Decemvirs had neglected to import the sanction of Zaleucus, which so long maintained the integrity of his republic. A Locrian, who proposed any new law, stood forth in the assembly of the people with a cord around his neck, and if the law was rejected, the innovator was instantly strangled."
E: Well, that is one way of getting rid of lawmakers wasting time by suggesting laws they know will not pass for the sake of putting on a show for their constituents (or whomever). I will grant, however, it is a bit extreme.
"The rude jurisprudence of the decemvirs had confounded all hasty insults, which did not amount to the fracture of a limb, by condemning the aggressor to the common penalty of twenty-five asses [a unit of currency, not the animal]. But the same denomination of money was reduced, in three centuries, from a pound to the weight of half an ounce; and the insolence of a wealthy Roman indulged in the cheap amusement of breaking and satisfying the twelve tables. Veratius ran through the streets striking on the face the inoffensive passengers, and his attendant purse-bearer immediately silenced their clamors by the legal tender of twenty-five pieces of copper, about the value of one shilling."
E: Although here the problem seems exacerbated by either the abasement of the currency or the repeated dimunition of the fine designated by law, this highlights a more basic problem: In a society of people unequal in wealth, the use of fines as a method of punishment is not really fair. Consider a parking ticket in Los Angeles. In 2014, it cost $63. Now, if Donald Trump's limousine parks illegally and he gets a ticket, is he going to care? I don't think so. But if someone getting by on minimum wage (currently $72 for a 8-hour day before taxes in California) parks illegally, it costs her almost an entire day's pay. I don't know who Veratius was, but I'm guessing he was nowhere near as rich as Donald Trump.
"[One of the] nine crimes of a very complexion are adjudged worthy of death [included] Nocturnal meetings in the city; whatever might be the pretence, of pleasure, or religion, or the public good."
E: I have no idea what constituted a "meeting," or for that matter "nocturnal." Is it possible that one could not even have a party that went past sundown? This seems unlikely, so nocturnal may have meant after (say) midnight. The mention of "meetings" for pleasure does appear to indicate that parties did count. Note this is not the same as a curfew--people could travel at any time; they just could not meet.
"The Barbarous practice of wearing arms in the midst of peace, and the bloody maxims of honor, were unknown to the Romans; and, during the two purest ages, from the establishment of equal freedom to the end of the Punic wars, the city was never disturbed by sedition, and rarely polluted with atrocious crimes."
E: Though Gibbon earlier seemed in favor of the Second Amendment, here he makes an important qualification. Namely, that while the people may *possess* arms, they do not wear them in everyday life, either concealed or openly.
"Religion pronounces an equal censure against the infidelity of the husband [as of the wife]; but, as it is not accompanied by the same civil effects, the wife was never permitted to vindicate her wrongs..."
E: The religion here is Christianity, and Gibbon's point is that while the religion may treat men and women equally in the matter of adultery, the state did not, and women were severely punished, while men were not (unless the woman they committed adultery was married, in which case, they did (supposedly) suffer the same punishment.
"After the extinction of paganism, the Christians in peace and piety might have enjoyed their solitary triumph. But the principle of discord was alive in their bosom, and they were more solicitous to explore the nature, than to practice the laws, of their founder."
E: This is one of Gibbon's main theses--that the internal disputes of the Christians, such as whether Jesus was created by God, or *of* God ("begotten, not made"), and whether he was of the same substance ("homoousis") or a like substance ("homoiousis"). On the other hand, and as many people throughout the centuries have complained, Christians rarely seemed to follow to precepts Jesus laid down.
"A metaphysical religion may appear too refined for the capacity of the negro race: yet a black or a parrot might be taught to repeat the words of the Chalcedonian or Monophysite creed."
E: Yet another example that Gibbon's opinions are not to be entirely trusted.
"During his government of twenty-five years, the penalty of death was abolished in the Roman empire, a law of mercy most delightful to the humane theorist, but of which the practice, in a large and vicious community, is seldom consistent with the public safety."
E: It does seem as though this abolition would be "practicing the laws" of Christianity's founder in a way that Gibbon seemed to be promoting just a few pages earlier, but faced with the actuality of it, Gibbon must have decided it was not expedient.
(Volume V of VI)
"Houris, or black-eyed girls, of resplendent beauty, blooming youth, virgin purity, and exquisite sensibility, will be created for the meanest believer... Notwithstanding a vulgar prejudice, the gates of heaven will be open to both sexes; but Mahomet has not specified the male companions of the female elect, lest he should either alarm the jealousy of their former husbands, or disturb the felicity, by the suspicion of an everlasting marriage." E: I love Gibbon's analysis of why the details of Paradise for women has not be specified!
"Among the Arabian philosophers, Averroes has been accused of despising the religions of the Jews, the Christians, and the Mahometans... Each of these sects would agree, that in two instances out of three, his contempt was reasonable."
E: This sounds like some odd vote distribution used to prove some paradoxical result in a particular vote-counting system.
"... the absolute prohibition of divorce, concubinage, and interest for money, enslaves the freedom of trade and the happiness of private life."
E: While most people today would agree with Gibbon on divorce and the lending of money, his argument that concubinage is necessary for the happiness of private life would likely get far less support.
"From the age of Charlemagne to that of the Crusades, the world (for I overlook the remote monarchy of China) was occupied and disputed by the three great empires or nations of the Greeks, the Saracens, and the Franks."
E: It is not at all clear why Gibbon decided to ignore China, unless he is implying by "remote" that China had no interaction with the other empires. But that is not true; China was interacting with the Saracens. And he completely omits the Maya Empire. (The Aztecs and Incas considerably postdate the Crusades to which Gibbon is referring.)
"In the system of modern Europe, the power of the sword is possessed, at least in fact, by five or six mighty potentates; their operations are conducted on a distant frontier, by an order of men who devote their lives to the study and practice of the military art: the rest of the country and community enjoys in the midst of war the tranquility of peace, and is only made sensible of the change by the aggravation or decrease of the public taxes. In the disorders of the tenth and eleventh centuries, every peasant was a soldier, and every village a fortification; each wood or valley was a scene of murder and rapine; and the lords of each castle were compelled to assume the characters of princes and warriors."
E: This is quite the reverse of how we usually perceive warfare. We look upon "total war" as an invention of the twentieth century, but it was certainly common in the Bronze Age and, as Gibbon indicates, recurred intermittently since then. (The Mongols are another example.) One might claim that the period that Gibbon lived in was merely a brief respite from the more common model of warfare as total warfare.
"The poets and orators were long imprisoned in the barbarous dialects of our Western ancestors, devoid of harmony and grace; and their genius, without precept or example, was abandoned to the rule and native powers of their judgment and fancy."
E: Gibbon has clearly been co-opted by the common prejudice of his time that Latin and Greek were beautiful languages, designed for poetry and rhetoric, while Anglo-Saxon, the Celtic languages, and so on were only slightly better than the grunts of a gorilla. The fact that he liberally footnotes his work with passages in Latin and Greek indicates that he assumes any educated person will know those, while the knowledge of those "barbarous dialects" was unknown to him or most of his readers. Strangely, almost any human language is quite suitable for poetry and rhetoric.
"But these advantages [if returning to a purer form of the Greek language] only tend to aggravate the reproach and shame of a degenerate people."
E: Okay, we can tell that Gibbon does not think much of the "Eastern Christians" or "Byzantines" or whatever term one wishes to apply to them.
"[The Latin Christians'] sole use of the gospel was to sanctify an oath, that the lawful owners had now secreted any relic of their inheritance or industry."
E: On the other hand, he does not think much of the "Western Christians" either. Indeed, the attitude of the Western Christians in general, and the Crusaders in particular, seemed to be that their religion was a good excuse for attacking and pillaging the Holy Land, while not following any of the less convenient precepts of their religion.
"[The Muslims attacked a temple of Ganesha in India] ... the walls were scaled; the sanctuary was profaned; and the conqueror aimed a blow of his iron mace at the head of the idol. The trembling Brahmins are said to have offered ten millions sterling for his ransom; and its was urged by the wisest counsellors, that the destruction of a stone image would not change the hearts of the Gentoos; and that such a sum might be dedicated to the relief of the true believers. 'Your reasons,' replied the sultan, 'are specious and strong; but never in the eyes of posterity shall Mahmud appear as a merchant of idols.' He repeated his blows, and a treasure of pearls and rubies, concealed in the belly of the statue, explained in some degree the devout prodigality of the Brahmins."
E: As we can see, Gibbon is pretty much an equal opportunity religion-hater: the Hindus here care about their "idol" only because it is filled with treasure. (Gentoos were residents of Madras who spoke Telugu.)
"But the triumph of the Koran is more pure and meritorious, as it was not assisted by any visible splendor of worship which might allure the Pagans by some resemblance of idolatry."
E: This is an odd claim, because although the Muslims were somewhat tolerant of Christians and Jews ("the People of the Book"), they were usually fairly relentless in "conversion by the sword" of pagans, so the notion that pagans needed to be lured inby splendor seems wrong.
"A crowd of pilgrims from the East and West continued to visit the holy sepulchre, and the adjacent sanctuaries, more especially at the festival of Easter; and the Greeks and Latins, the Nestorians and Jacobites, the Copts and Abyssinians, the Armenians and Georgians, maintained the chapels, the clergy, and the poor of their respective communions. The Harmony of prayer in so many various tongues, the worship of so many nations in the common temple of their religion, might have afforded a spectacle of edification and peace; but the zeal of the Christian sects was imbittered by hatred and revenge; and in the kingdom of a suffering Messiah, who had pardoned his enemies, they aspired to command and persecute their spiritual brethren."
E: This underlines the hostilities among the various sects within Christianity, which Gibbon returns to again and again.
"At the report of this sacrilege [the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre], the nations of Europe were astonished and afflicted: but instead of arming in the defence of the Holy Land, they contented themselves with burning, or banishing, the Jews, as the secret advisers of the impious Barbarian."
E: This is a classic example of a convenient scapegoat, although I have read elsewhere that the argument was not so much the (purported) current sins of the Jews, but the accusation that they had killed Jesus.
"[The] Crusdaers were alternately exalted by victory or sunk in despair; either swelled with plenty or emaciated with hunger. A speculative reasoner might suppose, that their faith had a strong and serious influence on their practice; and that the soldiers of the cross, the deliverers of the holy sepulchre, prepared themselves by a sober and virtuous life for the daily contemplation of martydom. Experience blows away this charitable illusion; and seldom does the history of profane war display such scenes of intemperance and prostitution as were exhibited under the walls of Antioch."
E: As noted above, Gibbon repeatedly points out the impiety of the Christians in their pursuit of their "holy" Crusade. "The emperor Alexius, who seemed to advance to the succor of the Latins, was dismayed by the assurance of this hopeless condition. They expected their fate in silent despair; oaths and punishments were tried without effect; and to rouse the soldiers to the defence of the walls, it was found necessary to set fire to their quarters."
E: This seems an extreme example of the "stick" approach of management.
[Peter Bartholemy claimed that the head of the lance that pierced Jesus's side was buried under the Church of St. Peter in Antioch.] "The ground was opened in the appointed place, but the workmen, who relieved each other, dug to the depth of twelve feet without the discovering the object of their search. In the evening, when Count Raymond had withdrawn to his post, and the weary assistants began to murmur, Bartholemy, in his shirt, and without his shows, boldly descending into the pit; the darkness of the hour and of the place enabled him to secret and deposit the head of a Saracen lance; and the first sound, the first gleam, of the steel was saluted with a devout rapture."
E: Gibbon is definitely an unbeliever when it comes to miracles, relics, and all such things.
(Volume VI of VI)
"The merit of the true cross was somewhat impaired by its frequent division; and a long captivity among the infidels might shed some suspicion on the fragments that were produced in the East and West."
E: This is not exactly a new idea now, and probably was not even then, but Gibbon's ironic understatement does make one smile.
"Aristotle was indeed the oracle of the Western universities, but it was a barbarous Aristotle; and, instead of ascending to the fountain head, his Latin votaries humbly accepted a corrupt and remote version, from the Jews and Moors of Andalusia."
E: Gibbon's complaint (here, anyway) is not that the Jews and Moors were barbarous and corrupt, but rather than Latin speakers were working from a Latin translation of the Arabic (and Hebrew?) translations from the original Greek, rather than translating directly from the original Greek to Latin.
"The principle of the crusades was a savage fanaticism; and the most important effects were analogous to the cause. Each pilgrim was ambitious to return to return with his sacred spoils, the relics of Greece and Palestine; and each relic was preceded and followed by a train of miracles and visions."
E: Gibbon, as you might have deduced, was very negative on relics, and the miracles associated with them.
"... in human life, the most important scenes will depend on the character of a single actor."
E: So Gibbon comes down clearly on the side of "The Great Man" rather than "The Tide of History" theory.
"If we contrast the rapid progress of this mischievous discovery [gunpowder] with the slow and laborious advances of reason, science, and the arts of peace, a philosopher, according to his temper, will laugh or weep at the folly of mankind."
E: Of course, Gibbon is comparing a single invention with the entire fields of "reason, science, ad the arts of peace." If one looked at an individual invention in the latter (such as printing press), the speed would be similar (as Gibbon later implies).
"In the last four centuries of the Greek emperors, their friendly or hostile aspect towards the pope and the Latins may be observed as the thermometer of their prosperity or distress."
E: The schism between East and West Rome was not as much as between East (Communism) and West in our own times.
" ... the Greek, who must have confounded a modest salute with a criminal embrace. But his credulity and injustice may teach an important lesson; to distrust the accounts of foreign and remote nations, and to suspend our belief of every tale that deviates from the laws of nature and the character of man."
E: A healthy skepticism is certainly called for, but the lessons of the Holocaust, Pol Pot, and Rwanda, among others, may teach us a contradictory lesson: tales that deviate from the laws of nature and the character of man may, alas, be true.
"But an important distinction has already been noticed: the Greeks were stationary or retrograde, while the Latins were advancing with a rapid and progressive motion. The nations were excited by the spirit of independence and emulation; and even the little world of the Italian states contained more people and industry than the decreasing circle of the Byzantine empire."
E: One may, of course, argue that the decreasing circle of the Byzantine empire was one reason for the stagnation of it. As Gibbon notes, even a small region of the West was more populous (and covered more area) than the entire Eastern "Empire". The East also was surrounded by hostile or at least limiting powers, while large parts of the West had secure borders in the form of the Atlantic Ocean.
"... besides his native tongue it is affirmed that he spoke or understood five languages, the Arabic, the Persian, the Chaldaean or Hebrew, the Latin, and the Greek. The Persian might indeed contribute to his amusement, and the Arabic to his edification; and such studies are familiar to the Oriental youth. In the intercourse of the Greeks and Turks, a conqueror might wish to converse with the people over which he was ambitious to reign: his own praises in Latin poetry or prose might find a passage to the royal ear; but what use or merit could recommend to the statesman or the scholar the uncouth dialect of his Hebrew slaves?"
E: Let us just say that Gibbon was not a philo-Semite.
"The Mahometan, and more especially the Turkish casuists, have pronounced that no promise can bind the faithful against the interest and duty of their religion; and that the sultan may abrogate his own treaties and those of his predecessors."
E: As we will see, this is not a trait limited to the Muslim or Turkish casuists. The Christians certainly seem to take the same position, especially the Eastern Christians in the instance noted below).
"Persuasion is the resource of the feeble; and the feeble can seldom persuade..."
E: This sounds a bit oxymoronic; I think the idea is that all the feeble can do is try to persuade, but their efforts are almost always doomed to failure.
"While Mahomet threatened the capital of the East, the Greek emperor implored with fervent prayers the assistance of earth and heaven. But the invisible powers were deaf to his applications; and Christendom beheld with indifference the fall of Constantinople, while she derived at least some promise of supply from the jealous and temporal policy of the sultan of Egypt."
E: So not only did Heaven ignore the pleas of the East, but so long as Egypt was still shipping grain to the West, the West had no interest in the pleas of the East either. One could substitute "oil" (or other natural resource) and specific countries for "East" and "West" and come up with a statement that perfectly describes the situation in the 20th century--or the 21st.
"In her last decay, Constantinople was still peopled with more than a hundred thousand inhabitants; but these numbers are found in the accounts, not of war, but of captivity; and they mostly consisted of mechanics, of priests, of women, and of men devoid of that spirit which even women have sometimes exerted for the common safety."
E: Again, Gibbon has a very negative opinion of women's military motivations.
"I can suppose, I could almost excuse, the reluctance of subjects to serve on a distant frontier, at the will of a tyrant; but the man who dares not expose his life in the defence of his children and his property, has lost in society the first and most active energies of nature."
E: While the goals of each side may have been clear-cut in 1453, many wars seem a lot less focused. So, for example, during World War I, both sides had to somehow motivate their populations to enlist and fight, because at some point it became clear that they were not fighting "in the defence of his children and his property," but for some more imperialistic goal.
"By the emperor's command, a particular inquiry had been made through the streets and houses, how many of the citizens, or even of the monks, were able and willing to bear arms for their country. The lists were intrusted to Phranza; and, after a diligent addition, he informed his master, with grief and surprise, that the national defence was reduced to four thousand nine hundred and seventy Romans."
E: So out of a population of 100,000, the emperor could get about 5,000, or 5%, volunteers. By comparison, while Lincoln got 75,000 volunteers at the very start of the American Civil War, out of a (Union) population of about 22,400,000, or only 0.3%, by the end of the war about 10% had served. (Many were, of course, drafted.) I admit it is not clear whether it is fair to compare these figures-- the increasing mechanization of warfare, even by the time of the Civil War, made the necessity of having a high proportion of the (male) population bearing arms less than it used to be. When Rome was founded, they expected basically a 100% participation rate. As time went on this decreased for many reasons, not all of them as negative as Gibbon paints it.
"The primitive Romans would have drawn their swords in the resolution of death or conquest. The primitive Christians might have embraced each other, and awaited in patience and charity the stroke of martyrdom. But the Greeks of Constantinople were animated only by the spirit of religion, and that spirit was productive only of animosity and discord."
E: In other words, the Greeks (meaning the eastern Romans) spent all their energies fighting each other, and had nothing left for fighting the Ottomans. They were not even willing to await martyrdom, but fought with each other up to the very end. Miyamoto Musashi said, "Only a fool fights in a burning house," and that pretty much sums up Gibbon's view of the eastern Romans (Greeks).
"On the twelfth of December, the two nations, in the church of St. Sophia, joined in the communion of sacrifice and prayer; and the names of the two pontiffs were solemnly commemorated; The names of Nicholas the Fifth, the vicar of Christ, and of the patriarch Gregory, who had been driven into exile by a rebellious people."
E: Well, apparently they did achieve some sort of unity between the Eastern and Western churches, although only four months before the start of the final siege (6 April 1453) and six months before the fall (29 May 1453).
"Their hasty and unconditional submission was palliated by a promise of future revisal; but the best, or worst, of their excuses was the confession of their own perjury. When they were pressed by the reproaches of their honest brethren, "Have patience," they whispered, "have patience till God shall have delivered the city from the great dragon who seeks to devour us. You shall then perceive whether we are truly reconciled with the Azymites."
E: As I noted above, Gibbon excoriates the Mahometans/Turks for believing that they did not have any obligation to keep a promise against the interest and duty of their religion, but clearly here the Eastern Christians made promises to the Latin Catholics that they had no intention of keeping.
"The emperor, and some faithful companions, entered the dome of St. Sophia, which in a few hours was to be converted into a mosque; and devoutly received with tears and prayers, the sacrament of the holy communion. He reposed some moments in the palace, which resounded with cries and lamentations; solicited the pardon of all whom he might have injured, and mounted on horseback to visit the guards, and explore the motions of the enemy. The distress and fall of the last Constantine are more glorious than the long prosperity of the Byzantine Caesars."
E: Clearly, Gibbon is unimpressed by the Byzantines.
"The example of sacrilege was imitated, however, from the Latin conquerors of Constantinople; and the treatment which Christ, the Virgin, and the saints, had sustained from the guilty Catholic, might be inflicted by the zealous Mussulman on the monuments of idolatry."
E: In other words, the Muslims did no worse in terms of sacrilege than did the Christians, e.g., the Catholics of the Fourth Crusade.
"We may reflect with pleasure that an inestimable portion of our classic treasures was safely deposited in Italy; and that the mechanics of a German town had invented an art which derides the havoc of time and barbarism."
E: Well, I suppose the first part is an excuse for England's taking archaeological treasures from all over the world. The second part is referring to the printing press, which 1) tends to prevent the loss of books that happens when there are only a few manuscript copies, and 2) makes it easier for many people to acquire knowledge from books.
"But the position of Rome was less favorable, the territory less fruitful; the character of the inhabitants was debased by indolence and elated by pride; and they fondly conceived that the tribute of subjects must forever nourish the metropolis of the church and empire. This prejudice was encouraged in some degree by the resort of pilgrims to the shrines of the apostles, and the last legacy of the popes, the institution of the holy year, was not less beneficial to the people than to the clergy."
E: Now even non-religious tourism has become a big source of income for some places. A thousand years ago, travel was much harder, but the incentive of a religious benefit was a great encouragement. If you could not actually travel to a shrine, making a donation to it was the next best thing.
"To the impatience of the popes we may ascribe the successive reduction [from one hundred] to fifty, thirty-three, and twenty- five years; although the second of these terms is commensurate with the life of Christ. The profusion of indulgences, the revolt of the Protestants, and the decline of superstition, have much diminished the value of the jubilee; yet even the nineteenth and last festival was a year of pleasure and profit to the Romans; and a philosophic smile will not disturb the triumph of the priest or the happiness of the people."
E: It is interesting that the popes started by adopting the Roman secular games (called that because they occurred once a "saeculum", or the length of a human life--100 or 110 years). However, once they realized what a good thing they had going, they did the same thing the ancient Roman emperors did--they found excuses to have them more often.
"The sabbatic years an jubilees of the Mosaic law; the suspension of all care and labor, the periodical release of lands, debts. servitude, &c., may seem a noble idea, but the execution would be impracticable in a profane republic; and I should be glad to learn that this ruinous festival was observed by the Jewish people."
E: Gibbon understands that rules designed for a small theocratic agricultural society may not work for a large democratic industrial one. The various Utopian societies that were founded in the nineteenth century discovered this; the only ones that survived were those founded as religious communities. The rest--those that accepted everyone--found that people showed up in the late fall after all the heavy farm work was done, got food and shelter all winter, and then left in the early spring before plowing. Enforcing the law against usury (lending money at interest) was discovered to stifle economic growth, so in some cases usury was redefined at lending money at *excessive* interest, and in others only non-Christians were permitted to lend money.
Indeed, many of the rules laid down in the Old Testament are difficult to follow in modern society. Using electricity is forbidden on the Sabbath (*not* because it is fire, but for a more technical reason), but as more and more of our lives become tied to electricity, what can one do. Door locks are electric, books are on a Kindle, library card catalogs are computerized, lights all over are on motion sensors, thermostats turn on air conditioning if your body heats the room enough, and so on.
However, Gibbon again shows his anti-Semitism by expressing the hope that following the rules of Jubilee will destroy the Jewish people. The best one can say for this is that he is not endorsing ay actions against the Jews, but rather that they (like the eastern Roman Empire) will manage to destroy themselves.
"After a dark series of revolutions, all records of pedigree were lost; the distinction of surnames were abolished; the blood of the nations was mingled in a thousand channels; and the Goths and Lombards, the Greeks and Franks, the Germans and Normans, had obtained the fairest possessions by royal bounty, or the prerogative of valor. These examples might be readily presumed; but the elevation of a Hebrew race to the rank of senators and consuls is without a parallel in the long captivity of these miserable exiles."
E: Again, Gibbon does not seem to mind too much that the Goths, Lombards, Greeks, Franks, Germans and Normans had achieved high standing in the Roman Empire, but the thought that Jews might achieve the same level just curdles his blood.
"[Rienzi] fell senseless with the first stroke; the impotent revenge of his enemies inflicted a thousand wounds; and the senator's body was abandoned to the dogs, to the Jews, and to the Flames."
E: Why the Jews?! I cannot find anything about how they fit into this story at all.
"The nice balance of the Vatican was often subverted by the soldiers of the North and West, who were united under the standard of Charles the Fifth: the feeble and fluctuating policy of [Pope] Clement the Seventh exposed his person and dominions to the conqueror; and Rome was abandoned seven months to a lawless army, more cruel and rapacious than the Goths and Vandals."
E: This refers to the sack of Rome in 1527, and the Charles V is the Holy Roman Emperor, not the French King or any other Charles V. The idea that the worst (by orders of magnitude) sack of Rome was under the authority of the "Holy Roman Emperor" is certainly ironic. The fact that Gibbon gives it only this single sentence is inexplicable.
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