Gibbon, Part 6: The Rise of the Franks, and Assessing the Decline of the West

The Establishment of the Frankish Kingdom

Clovis was the illegitimate son of Childeric and the queen of the Thuringians. After his father died, he became chief of the Salian tribe. Clovis came to attract the different tribes of the Franks to unite under his banner through a combination of military genius and keen prudence. He then defeated Syagrius and the Alemanni. Initially, he was a staunch pagan, but his wife Clotilda, the niece of the king of Burgundy, was strongly Catholic and viewed it as her duty to make her husband see the light. In time, Clovis was persuaded by his wife, the bishop of Rheims, and seemingly divinely inspired military victories, to convert to Christianity. His baptism was performed in an elaborate ceremony with the baptism of 3,000 of his warriors. The nation of Franks was now officially Christian.

Clovis expanded his newfound kingdom, conquering the Armoricans in northern France, who initially fiercely defended their Roman ties, but eventually freely capitulated due to their attraction to the Christianity of the Franks, compared to the Arianism of the Gothic kingdom in the south. Burgundy, mired in a fraternal conflict between their king Gundobald and his brother Godegesil, was also defeated. Clovis finally drew the attention of the Gothic kingdom under Alaric II, son of Euric. An ostensibly friendly but deeply distrustful meeting between the two kings was held. But after he returned to his capital in Paris, Clovis became determined to conquer the Gothic kingdom. With the public support of Clotilda, he promoted it as a religious war between true Christianity and Arianism.

Initially, the forces of Clovis were much less in numbers than Alaric, but they were assisted by the local population, superstitious beliefs about seemingly fortunate occurences, and the disorganization and tactical errors of the Goths. The two forces met in a decisive battle near Poitiers, where Alaric was personally slain by Clovis in single combat. After this great victory, he went on south, conquering the province of Aquitaine: Bordeaux, the capital Toulouse, and even reaching the borders of Spain. But he was finally stopped at Arles, as Theodoric, the king of Italy, finally came to the rescue of the Visigoths, preventing their complete destruction.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Eastern emperor Anastasius looked favorably on the conquests of the Franks, conferring on Clovis the mostly-symbolic-by-then title of consul. Later, through a treaty with the empire under Justinian, the Frankish kingdom’s rule would be even more formally recognized. From the Franks would emerge the modern nation of France.

The Salic Laws and the Rise of Feudality

The Franks had a set of laws called the Salic laws, which were first codified by a group of their chiefs a long time before the rise of Clovis. However, Clovis and then his successor sons reformed them to reflect the new situation of the Franks as a Christian kingdom with Frankish, Gallic and Germanic subjects. These laws came to be established as a defining feature of the government of the new Frankish Kingdom. Thus a new, non-Roman school of jurisprudence was born. Gibbon regards the Salic laws as initially underdeveloped compared to Rome’s, though they did serve the conditions of the time:

In the Salic laws and the Pandects of Justinian we may compare the first rudiments and the full maturity of civil wisdom; and, whatever prejudices may be suggested in favour of Barbarism, our calmer reflections will ascribe to the Romans the superior advantages, not only of science and reason, but of humanity and justice. Yet the laws of the Barbarians were adapted to their wants and desires, their occupations, and their capacity; and they all contribute to preserve the peace, and promote the improvements, of the society for whose use they were originally established.
(Chapter XVIII)

The Salic laws refrained from enforcing a unified code for all the different nations that were under their rule; Romans, Gauls, and other barbarians were permitted to continue practicing their own laws and customs, although in a court battle between two different nations, the laws of the nation of the defendant would be followed, thus preventing one nation from dominating another. That being said, Franks were legally valued as higher than the Romans, as seen in the lesser amount of restitution required on the murder of the latter. The civil and military offices, separated under Constantine for the sake of stability, was once again united under the Franks, resulting in the rise of legal practices such as trial by combat. Large swathes of lands belonging to the Roman provincial subjects were seized for the benefit of the Franks. The legal superiority of the Franks over their subjects, continually bolstered by the acquisition of new indentured servants from their successful conquests, developed into the rise of lords and serfs, the precursors of the feudal system. The serfs were mostly conquered Romans who did not have any particular ability other than to cultivate the land and herds of the victorious Franks.

Despite the indignities inflicted on the Romans, Gibbon appraises it as the logical outcome of a weak and indolent people being exposed to the ferociousness of the barbarians. The Franks never made a universal law to formally reduce the former Roman subjects to servitude or destruction, and “the great body of the Romans survived the revolution, and still preserved the property and privileges of citizens” (Chapter XXXVIII). In fact, through their legally limited monarchical system, ultimately the Franks “might have imparted the most valuable of human gifts, a spirit and system of constitutional liberty.” In contrast, in Briton, where the previously Germanic Saxons had invaded and conquered, the people were governed by a series of crude customs “which had been coarsely framed for the shepereds and pirates of Germany.” There, the provincial subjects of Rome were exterminated and the nation overrun by immigrant Germans, who would become the nation of modern-day Britain.

Gibbon Reflects on The Fall of the Western Empire

At the end of Chapter 38, Gibbon recaps and reflects on the final destruction of the Western Empire. The former greatness of Rome, according to Gibbon, was sustained through the religion and education of its subjects, who aspired to honor and faithful emulation of the glory of their ancestors rather than sensual pleasures and luxuries. At its foundation lay the the “firm and equal balance of the constitution; which united the freedom of popular assemblies with the authority and wisdom of a senate and the executive powers of a regal magistrate.” Clearly delineated laws were a distinctive feature of the Roman army, which was highly organized and disciplined, with professional soldiers who served for a fixed term. As the empire expanded, the subjects and soldiers traveled further away from home, becoming exposed to the contrasting practices of the foreign nations they conquered. Thus the original virtues that formed the core and essence of Roman military greatness became diluted. The decline and fall of Rome was the inevitable result of its own greatness:

But 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.

 

Gibbon attempts to refute the argument that the removal of the capital to Constantinople resulted in the decay of the Western empire. According to him, this merely introduced a division of power: the Eastern court was not much better than the West, being overrun by a love of luxury. At the same time, while the Western empire decayed, the Eastern empire would persist in repelling enemies for another thousand years. However, Gibbon’s argument is rather muddled here: he also states that the divide magnified the cultural differences between the Greeks and Latins, resulting in the Eastern court often revelling in the misfortunes and instability of the West, rather than promptly assisting it, which accelerated its decline. What one can glean from these seemingly contradictory arguments is that perhaps through sheer luck, or natural factors such as geography, or the lesser activity and ambition of the enemies in the East (Persians) compared to the West (Goths, Franks, Vandals, and other barbarians), the West’s final decline and fall was finished in a much shorter time frame.

Finally, Gibbon also imputes the decline of Rome to Christianity as well, which he views as corrupting the military spirit of the Romans, teaching them to be meek and patient and focused on the kingdom to come instead of the here and now. At the same time, as the barbarians were converted to Christianity as well, this also softened the series of events that contributed to the Empire’s destruction:

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.

Overall, through the narrative we’ve explored in these posts, we’ve seen that Gibbon’s work puts the personality, character, and actions of the emperors as central to the fortunes of the Empire. He has argued, implicitly and explicitly, that the success or failure of the Empire (or any other kingdom during this time, including that of the Goths, Vandals, or the Franks) was strongly influenced by whether the emperor personally adhered to the virtues of courage, discipline, military competence, and personal restraint, with appreciation of the liberal arts as an added bonus. His emphasis on the moral qualities of the emperor extends to that of the soldiers as well. The increasing numbers of barbarians in the Roman army was a direct security threat whenever neighboring barbarians would invade, as we saw in the Gothic war; but more importantly according to Gibbon, in the long run these foreign recruits were incapable of upholding the “true” spirit and essence of the Roman army which was foundational to the empire’s success in the first place.

Assessing Gibbon

It’s difficult to assess Gibbon from a purely historical point of view without consulting the primary historical sources from which he draws his narrative and argument, which is what we are trying to do here. What we can do is take apart the narrative which he has crafted in The Decline and Fall, and take a second look at whether his own conclusions follows from the events he has drawn attention to. Even if we take his emphasis on the primacy of the emperor in the narrative, a sort of Great Man theory of history, at face value, there are multiple factors working together which brought about the bouts of instability and chaos which continued to destabilize the empire over the centuries, dismantling it bit by bit.

The process started with the oppressive rules of tyrannical and/or luxurious emperors such as Commodus, Elagabalus, and Septimus Severus. But a bad emperor is not enough: the other ingredient is the increasingly uncontrollable military, which is what happened in the precarious Third Century. Note that at this time, the majority of the Roman army was still mostly Roman, not foreign, so Gibbon’s argument against foreign soldiers doesn’t apply. Now, as Gibbon points out, the growing power of the military is partially the fault of the shortsighted policies of the tyrannical emperors themselves, such as that of Severus, who empowered the Praetorian Guards to enforce his totalitarian rule. But another factor is that Rome had no tradition of division of the military and civil power: since the time of Augustus, the emperor and the supreme military commander were more often than not the same person. (The stability of the reign of Constantine, where the two realms were for the first time clearly divided, attests to the importance of this factor.) Combine this with the fact that Rome’s greatness was derived from continuous military conquest and subjugation of other countries. The quality and organization of its army was synonymous and emblematic of its overall greatness, so the fact that the power of the military grew over time is unsurprising. As the empire became larger, it became more difficult to conquer additional territory, as evidenced by the failure of Trajan to expand further eastwards. So the military’s attention was no longer occupied by external conquest, and they naturally started to turn its attention inwards.

Then we have the empire itself, with the emperor, a single person, being the focal point of a government ruling over the entirety of Europe. The emperor became a singular point of failure: if he was murdered, or if he happened to be incompetent, the entire empire was plunged into uncertainty and eventual chaos. Constantly surrounded by the restless and fickle army, it is no wonder that the empire underwent constant periodic convulsions. In the time of Diocletian, things became more interesting with the division of powers. The multiplicity of emperors decreased the effect of the failure of one of them. At the same time, the multiplicity itself resulted in inevitable power struggles and short bursts of civil war, which combined with the always-looming threat of barbarians at the borders further pressured the integrity of the Empire. That being said, these periods of instability often enforced a survival of the fittest, resulting in a few periods where one superior individual triumphed and temporarily united the two empires, such as in the case of Constantine and Theodosius.

Even with the occasional rise of such great emperors, the dependence on the personal qualities of one person guaranteed conflict and instability after their death. Multiple emperors attempted to establish a hereditary dynasty of emperorship through their sons. This is not surprising, and not necessarily negative, either: s we had seen during the Crisis of the Third Century, having a practically purely elective monarchy also invited instability: with each murder of the ruling emperor, the dignity and authority of the throne was further degraded. A hereditary monarchy provides an artificial aura of legitimacy to the throne. But the lacking qualities or youthful age of the sons of the great emperors always ended up destroying these dynasties within a few generations, as seen in the example of Constantine and Theodosius. Thus hereditary throne is thus a double-edged sword: while it might be mortally endangered by the incompetence of the appointed son, the hereditary aspect does give some additional, inherent legitimacy to the ruler, which was crucial in maintaining control over an empire so large, unwieldy and fragile.

 

To summarize, several factors worked together to cause the decline of Rome: incompetent emperors, growing influence of the military, a lack of separation of military and civil powers, and the whole risky idea of emperorship in the first place. These were magnified by barbarians constantly at the gates and perhaps the decay of the Roman spirit that Gibbon likes to focus on, resulting in a very fragile empire which was gradually cut away over the centuries. Would Rome have lasted longer if it had continued to be a Republic? Its government would be stabler, but it would probably not have been able to conquer such a large amount of territory – the empire was the product of the successive ambitions of dominant emperors, not that of a body people in the Senate. In time, it might have been conquered by the barbarians, either Franks or Goths or Vandals in time anyway. We must remember, like Gibbon does, that despite ending at the close of the 5th century, the Roman Empire in the West had lasted for almost 600 years (over a millennium if one counts the years of it as a Republic), far more than that of any modern state existing today.

Gibbon’s Final Vision

At the end of the chapter, Gibbon interestingly turns his attentions to contemporary times. He reflects happily on the development of technology, which resulted in more advanced nations easily establishing military superiority over barbaric ones. Now, any barbaric nation who wanted to conquer a civilized one had to become civilized themselves first to match their technology. Perhaps Gibbon’s Enlightenment vision is too optimistic; it is not inconceivable even today that a nation with slightly lesser technology might overrun a more advanced one with less manpower or military discipline, but it is also true that the relapse to complete barbarism of the Dark Ages that happened after the fall of the Roman empire is much more unlikely. For Gibbon, this meant that the human race was continually ascending upwards, even if it wasn’t necessarily England or Europe who were at the forefront:

From this abject condition, perhaps the primitive and universal state of man, he has gradually arisen to command the animals, to fertilize the earth, to traverse the ocean, and to measure the heavens…

We may therefore acquiesce in the pleasing conclusion that 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.

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