The time has finally come for the last part of the trio of Great Books volumes in our 5-year reading schedule for this semester: Edward Gibbon’s massive The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon’s tome is a monumental work in the history of historical writing. Although its scholarship might be outdated in some aspects by today’s standards, it is still considered one of the first modern, objective works of history. I won’t be reading it as a historian trying to objectively decide on what is the best theory that explains the decline and fall of the Roman empire, because doing so would require cross-comparison with multiple works written by other historians and also primary sources. Instead, I’m going to be reflecting if Gibbon’s arguments will stand based on their internal logic and evidence. More importantly, Gibbon’s work is peppered with comments on the general philosophy and science of ruling and running a government, and these can be compared in a broader context to what other authors in the GBWW corpus say about these topics.
I’m going to be posting recaps, reflections, and comments as I read through all 71 chapters of the unabridged version (obtained handily in a Kindle edition from the Modern Library Collection for my Kindle). While this seems daunting, it’s not much more than Augustine’s The City of God, and even just reading the first few chapters, it’s clear that Gibbon’s prose is much more beautiful, fluid, and readable than the clunky translation of Augustine I read.
Chapters 1-3: The Golden Age
Gibbon starts out by describing the status of Rome during its peak: the period of the Five Good Emperors in the second century AD – Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Titus Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius (96-180 AD). According to Gibbon, the Roman Empire spanned an area about 2000 by 3000 miles, “from the wall of Antoninus [in Britain] and the northern limits of Dacia to Mount Atlas and the tropic of Cancer”, and “from the Western Ocean to the Euphrates” (Chapter 1). The empire was secured by a core of Roman legions (consisting entirely of Roman citizens) supported by Roman cavalry (also entirely Roman) and Roman auxiliaries (consisting of many soldiers from the Roman colonies, including Gauls and other barbarians). The Roman military was the most advanced in the world, being a fully professional force that had high standards of discipline, equipment, and tactical ability. However, during this period, the empire had reached its greatest extent, and was concerned mainly with maintaining its existing boundaries. (Trajan briefly tried to expand further to the East to Parthia, but his efforts were short-lived.) This resulted in a long period of unprecedented peace and prosperity.
During the barbarian nations were drawn into friendship instead of subjugation: the greatest effort was made to “convince mankind that the Roman power, raised above the temptation of conquest, was actuated only by the love of order and justice” (Chapter I). In contrast to the enforced racial purity of Athens and Sparta, which ultimately led them to ruin, the Romans had an inclusive attitude:
The aspiring genius of Rome sacrificed vanity to ambition, and deemed it more prudent, as well as honourable, to adopt virtue and merit for her own wheresoever they were found, among slaves or strangers, enemies or barbarians.
Various religions were welcomed into the Roman fold. A large assortment of gods (including some deified past emperors) were worshiped by the population. Luxury goods were crafted using materials from all over the empire and bought by the upper classes. Hadrian in particular supported many projects elevating the arts. Greek philosophy and art had been thoroughly adapted by the educated Romans, although the Romans made a point to use Latin, not Greek, for all official communications. Despite this, Gibbon notes that while there was much transmission of existing works, there were comparatively few original writers coming from this period – only “cold and servile imitations.”
Law and order progressed in the modern sense of the word. Under the two Antonines (Pius and Marcus Aurelius), protections were extended to slaves. The result of all these efforts were that the conquered nations in the empire were somewhat successfully assimilated. They now viewed themselves as inextricably part of the Roman system, while retaining just enough hope that one day they would be independent again, enough to prevent them from becoming desperate and rebellious. But for Gibbon, the roots of decadence was already present in this long peace:
This long peace, and the uniform government of the Romans, introduced a slow and secret poison into the vitals of the empire. The minds of men were gradually reduced to the same level, the fire of genius was extinguished, and even the military spirit evaporated.
In short, the very conditions that made peace possible were also the seeds for the upcoming decline.
Chapters 4-10: Instability, Chaos, and Tyranny
While Marcus Aurelius is renowned as one Rome’s most thoughtful emperors, his good traits did not pass on to his son Commodus, who succeeded him as emperor. Instead of literature and the liberal arts, he was obsessed with martial arts and sports, being a great archer. He idolized first Hercules, then a famous gladiator, and even participated in actual gladiatorial matches in the arena. After a failed assassination plot, he became paranoid about the loyalty of the senate (although the plot was hatched by his own sister), and turned into a murderous tyrant who executed several innocent, virtuous politicians. He had corrupt and avaricious ministers (Perennis, then Cleander) who caused famine and incurred the wrath of the populace through their negligence and incompetence and had no qualms using violence to secure their positions, using the power of the Praetorian Guard, a special group of legionaries stationed inside the city of Rome itself. In the end, Commodus was murdered by a group of his closest associates, including his own favorite concubine, who can grown afraid of him.
Starting from the death of Commodus, the Roman empire went through a succession of weak, short-lived emperors, resulting in an extended period of outbreaks of instability or even civil war interspersed by longer periods of tyrannical and authoritarian emperors. After the death of Commodus, Pertinax, a senator and prefect of Rome, was chosen to replace him. Gibbon presents Pertinax as the complete opposite of Commodus, being a virtuous and selfless man who meant to utterly restore the Rome of the golden age. However, he was assassinated by the Praetorian Guard only a few weeks later, as they (according to Gibbon) could not bare the thought of a strong, upright emperor who was not susceptible to easy manipulation.
The growing, uncontrollable power of the Praetorian Guard became a deep-rooted problem for the next few decades. Under emperor Septimus Severus, who was an even severer totalitarian, the discipline of the Guard decreased while their pay was increased, leading them to become entitled to donations and flattery from the public. Severus’ policies became the seed for the corruption of the Praetorians; they subsequently became responsible for both murdering and appointing several of the next few emperors. Severus also prohibited senators from serving in the military, something which they gladly welcomed as by that time most senators no longer came from any sort of military tradition, a fact much lamented by Gibbon.
Throughout his lively chronological narrative of Rome under these precarious emperors, Gibbon strongly evinces his dislike for “effeminacy” on one hand and tyranny on the other. Examples of the former are Elagabalus (a grandson-in-law of Severus) and Aemilianus, emperors who did not come from a strong military background, preferred to enjoy sensual pleasures and were unable to command the respect of the army. Gibbon frequently blames effeminacy on cultural and geographic regions: for example Elagabalus’ vices are blamed to the “soft climate” of Syria. On the other hand there are one or two redeeming exceptions in the list of emperors that Gibbon esteems. A major example is Alexander Severus, another grandson of Severus on whom he spends a large chunk of Chapter 6. Alexander is described as a man virtuous both physically and mentally, being committed to both education and physical exercises and being able to impress the army with his firmness and bravery in the face of threatened sedition. But in the end, his efforts to gradually reform the military resulted in his own murder.
The succession of short-lived emperors and numerous instances of bitter, violent infighting resulted in the general weakening and desecration of the sanctity and power of the Roman throne. The senate and the army engaged in an extended power struggle where their own favorites were elected to the throne, only to be murdered a few years later. Most of the emperors came from humble backgrounds, often having started out as ordinary soldiers or even slaves, then ascending to high positions through their own personal merit. Despite their success in a meritocracy (as opposed to being hereditary monarchs), ultimately this is viewed negatively by Gibbon, to whom someone’s socioeconomic class and geographic origin indicated what virtues and vices they would have. But Gibbon’s own narrative betrays the fact that hereditary rule is often just as disastrous: the emperors who tried to have their sons succeed them only managed to create more instability through succession disputes or the radically different character of the son from the father. We have already seen in this in the example of Marcus Aurelius and Commodus; another is the Severan dynasty.
Gibbon also spends a chapter each describing the neighboring enemy forces of Rome which increasingly became a problem in the absence of a strong, stable Roman government. These are mainly the Persian empire to the East and various Frank and Germanic barbarian tribes. Gibbon evaluates Eastern government and culture as being more effeminate, luxurious and authoritarian (or “despotic”) at the same time, devoid of the Roman traditions of lawful order, justice and ostensible democracy (at least through the institution of the senate). On the other hand, the barbaric Germanic tribes are regularly denounced too freedom-loving, lazy, illiterate and focused on violence and war. (That being said, Gibbons speaks admiringly of the allegedly high standards of chastity among barbarian women, contrasted with free and often scandalous Roman sexuality). Unsurprisingly, ideal Roman culture is viewed as being in a Goldilocks zone, with the right balance of order and both martial and mental prowess. That being said, it would be wrong to dismiss Gibbon’s work and writing as primarily reflecting unjustified prejudices. Above all, his narrative focuses on telling facts and logical successions of events, even in the case of interactions with non-Roman cultures. This creates an end result that transcends more than simple and crude generalizations.
Chapters 11-12: Militaristic Rule, Revolts, and Barbarian Invasions
A longer period of stability was only achieved by the ascension of a series of militaristic emperors from the region of Illyria: Claudius, Aurelian, Probus, and Diocletian. Claudius restored discipline into the army and led them to defeat the Goths, a confederation of barbarian tribes who had started invading the empire in Eastern Europe. He was succeeded by his general Aurelian, who was similarly strict, stern, and firm. doling out extremely harsh punishments for the smallest of infractions. According to Gibbon, this use of punishment as a deterrent worked effectively to curb their power. He finished expelling the invasion of the Gothic tribes, and wrested control of Gaul (modern-day France) from Tetricus, a renegade emperor who had been the rebel ruler of the Gallic regions of the empire, proclaimed as a result of instability and growing threat of outside invasion. Finally, Aurelian succeeded in also defeating the infamous queen of the Palmyrene Empire in Syria who led a ferocious revolt against the Empire, Zenobia. His success was grandly celebrated in a grand triumph, where animals, treasures, and captives from the defeated foreign rebel countries were paraded in Rome.
The reign of Probus followed a similar story of vanquishing barbarians, suppressing internal revolts and briefly uniting the empire. However, Probus finally met his doom as his armies revolted against the manual labor he had made them do to keep them from idleness and temptation to usurp power, as they had done multiple times throughout the last century. He was assassinated by one of his own troops, and succeeded by the Praetorian prefect Carus. Carus led a successful invasion against the Persian empire, advancing beyond the Tigris river. But being of old age, he died on the way and his two sons, Carinus and Numerian, were unable to take the opportunity to decisively vanquish Persia once and for all. Instead, Carinus was another incapable, luxurious and tyrannical emperor whose life also ended in assassination. His weak brother Numerian, who co-ruled with him, met a similar fate.
Unlike the previous emperors, these militaristic emperors showed a much more tempered use of violence. They frequently refrained from executing rebel rulers or previous enemies, often forgiving and even letting them hold posts inside the government. They also refrained from attempting to completely destroy the barbarians that had invaded Rome, readily accepting a peace treaty when it was offered. To weaken the power of the barbarian nations, Probus resorted to strategies such as enlisting them in the Roman army and dispersing them across the provinces to dilute their national unity. This was initially effective, but the tactic was repeated several times (with each barbarian invasion), including with Diocletian later. As a result the Roman legions slowly became increasingly dependent on these foreign contingents.
Chapters 13-14: Division of Power, the Rise of Constantine
Carinus and Numerian were succeeded by Diocletian, a tribune who according to Gibbon had a remarkably mild, sincere, and moderate character. He forgave and restored many of his former political enemies after ascending the throne, and appointed a colleague named Maximian to help him rule. First given only the lower title of Caesar, Maximian was eventually elevated to the full imperial title of Augustus. Thus Rome again had two emperors co-ruling together – an experiment which had failed several times in the last few decades, most notoriously in the civil war between the two sons of Septimus Severus after their father died, Caracalla and Geta. Caracalla was especially notorious for his extraordinary cruelty towards perceived enemies of the throne. Diocletian’s experiment had more success. Maximian and Diocletian’s qualities complemented each other well, the former being more militaristic and hard and the latter being more sophisticated and amiable. Maximian was made in charge of the western part of the empire (Italy and Africa) while Diocletian took charge of the eastern part (Thrace, Egypt, and Asia). This balance of power worked well to suppress the attacks from all sides experienced by the empire. The two emperors managed to suppress internal revolts and retake Britain.
Diocletian also appointed two junior emperors with the title of Caesar, Constantius and Galerius, to further help with dividing up the empire into more manageable and defensible junks, and also in the long-run become their successors. Thus he created a tetrarchical system of government. After 21 years of reigning, in 305 AD Diocletian became the first ever Roman emperor to voluntarily abdicate his throne, and persuaded Maximian to do the same. The Caesars were promptly crowned the new Augusta, with Constantius in charge of the West and Galerius in the East. Constantine, the son of Constantius, and Severus, a “faithful servant” of Galerius, were elevated to the rank of Caesar, thus maintaining the tetrarchy. For a moment it seemed that Diocletian’s system was successful in maintaining stability of the empire.
Constantine is a name that Gibbon makes sure we would remember in the upcoming narrative. As usual, much praise is devoted to his personal virtues.
The figure of Constantine was tall and majestic; he was dexterous in all his exercises, intrepid in war, affable in peace; in his whole conduct the active spirit of youth was tempered by habitual prudence; and, while his mind was engrossed by ambition, he appeared cold and insensible to the allurements of pleasure.
Constantine was thus a worthy future successor to his father. This greatly worried Galerius, who had his own ambitions to unify the Empire once again. Being acutely aware of his precarious position, when Constantius died the next year in an expedition to Britain, Constantine quickly took steps to become the official successor of his father. He was easily supported by the troops and the people, and Galerius grudgingly accepted the result, although he then designated two of his favored men, Maximin and Severus as the new Caesars. Gibbon snarkily denounces them as “much better suited to serve the views of his ambition; and their principal recommendation seems to have consisted in the want of merit or personal consequence” (Chapter XV).
Galerius’ plan to take over the entire Empire was further destabilized by the rebellion of Maxentius, son of the retired emperor Maximian, in Italy and Africa. Maxentius successfully took over Rome, brought his father out of retirement, and executed Severus. He managed to convince the people and the Senate to legitimize his usurpation, and forced Maximian to retire again. In response, Galerius appointed one of his closest friends, Licinius, to replace Severus as Caesar, and so Rome was ruled by five emperors: the Augusta Galerius, Constantine, Maxentius, and the Caesars Licinius and Maximin. After the death of Galerius, a power struggle occurred between the remaining four emperors. Initially Licinius allied with Constantine and Maximin with Maxentius; but through his military genius and alacrity in response, Constantine eventually succeeded in defeating all the other emperors, finally becoming the sole Emperor again in 325 AD. This started an extended period of stability and restored greatness, a Silver Age if you will, that we will cover in our next post.
Reflections and Conclusion
Reading The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire has so far been an immense pleasure, far more than the long-winded, unreadable prose of Augustine (despite his own exhortations for writers to write succinctly), as Gibbon’s prose is beautiful and fluid, creating a vivid narrative that reads like a modern fiction novel. Gibbon has so far discussed the history of the Roman empire primarily in terms of its emperors, with several interjecting passages where he elaborates on the political, cultural, military, or economic structure of Rome and her neighbors. For Gibbon, the personal character of the emperor played the major role in defining the character of the age. As we have seen, emperors are divided into several rough archetypes: ideal and balanced (the Five Good Emperors, Pertinax and Alexander Severus), crude but strong and firm (the militaristic emperors starting from Aurelian), severe tyrants (Septimus Severus), and finally the worst kind: effeminate, weak, tyrannical, and luxurious (Commodus, Elagablus, and Aemilianus, anong others).
Gibbon attributes the particular character of the emperor to his geographic, cultural, or family origin if he can. But as plainly seen throughout history, there have been numerous exceptions where the son is much worse than the father, destroying any sort of possible explanation grounded in genetics. In that case Gibbon presents history just as it is. While Gibbon frequently highlights broad, slowly evolving tendencies that are ultimately responsible for the long-term decline of Rome: among others, the infiltration of foreign and barbaric nations into Roman society, dilution and weakening of the Roman military through the growing reliance on foreign soldiers, and the general growing luxurious lifestyles and effeminacy of the Roman people. But while these may constitute valid long-term factors, the mechanisms by which the decline and fall of the Empire occur are clearly driven by the lively succession of events in his narrative. The persistent instability of imperial succession, the dangerous growth of the power of the Praetorian Guard, the lack of virtuous, stable long-term emperors, the growing threat from neighboring nations – all of these clearly work together to gradually chip at the great edifice that had so beautifully shined in the second century AD.