Book Review: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Posted on November 9, 2011 by

The Book: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, by Edward Gibbon

The Gist: This was a massive, and I mean massive, set of books that chronicled several centuries of the Roman Empire from immediately before its apogee to the breakup into the short-lived Western empire and comparably longer-lived Eastern Empire. While Gibbon’s eighteenth-century prose was somewhat archaic, it was still quite readable as it drew an outstanding and detailed picture of life within the Roman Empire at the time, as well as cataloging the political and cultural forces that contributed to its rise and drove its fall from power. Rather than attempt to poorly encapsulate what Gibbon wrote, I will instead discuss some of the key take-aways I had from the book–takeaways that may speak more to my own preferences and prejudices than to the book itself, but no matter–and some of the other topics that I found interesting.

My first takeaway from Fall was the role that (im)migration and multiculturalism played in the demise of the Roman Empire. Whereas the Romans used their techniques of cultural and ethnic cleansing to great effect during the expansion of the empire, namely insisting that conquered peoples speak Latin (much culture is embedded in a language), utilize a Roman-style civil and military government, and no longer practice their religions, my sense was that Rome grew too large to effectively implement this course of action.* Indeed, if there was anything to conclude from Gibbon’s history, it was that, in the end, the far-flung roman empire collapsed under the weight of attempting to implement an e pluribus unum. The Greeks proved too proud to give up their language and culture, the Celts kept theirs due to the difficulty of the terrain they inhabited, the Egyptians too truculent, and the tribes of the Eastern Steppes were too different in skin tone and morphology to assimilate into a Southern European culture. It was diversity, it was multiculturalism that did them in:

multitudes of secret enemies, insolent from favor, or desperate from oppression, were introduced into the heart of the empire

and the sort of chauvinistic tribalism of the sort that we in the West are experiencing today precluded the cultural consensus that sustains a large empire, and ate out the substance of the Roman Empire from within.

* One advantage of Roman-style polytheism was that the Greek, the Roman, and the Barbarian all alike were easily convinced that they worshiped the same deities, just under a different name. This eased integration of conquered tribes and nations into the Roman fold and reduced the need for the sort of  forcible conversions so common in Egypt, Celtic Gaul, and in Scythia.

The second take-away from Gibbon’s tome was the corrosive effect that “arriving”, of achieving what it sought to achieve, has on a culture. At the apogee of their culture, their hunger sated by luxury, Roman citizens had settled back into a comfortable and languid existence, much to their detriment:

Long peace and uniform government of the Romans introduced a slow and secret poison into the vitals of the Empire. The minds of men were gradually extinguished, and even the military spirit evaporated. Their personal valor remained but they no longer possessed the public courage which is nourished by the love of independence, the sense of national honor, the presence of anger, and the habit of command

This “slow and secret poison” combined with the blessings of luxury, the hardships associated with the colonization of foreign lands, an aversion to marriage, increased acceptance of homosexuality, and what Gibbons called a “depravity of manners that interfered with procreation, birth, and the rearing of children”, served to depress birth rates and turn the minds of Romans away from the harder business of patriotism and toward voluptuous dissipation. In a similar manner the inclinations of the populace shifted too, away from the honor of public service to the State and toward more personal and commercial ends. Nowhere was this more obviously felt than in the military, a province which was once dominated by citizens who “had a country to love, property to defend, and some share in enacting the laws” and which it was the interest and duty of the citizen to maintain. Instead, just like today in the West, the upper classes came to shun military service, and as a result the military became more ‘democratized’, more plebeian, and more foreign, and thus the former strength of the empire became one of its greatest vulnerabilities:

The more polished citizens of the internal provinces were alone qualified to act as lawyers and magistrates. The rougher trade of arms was abandoned to the peasants and barbarians of the frontiers, who knew no country but their camp, no science but that of war, no civil laws, and scarcely those of military discipline. With bloody hands, savage manners, and desperate resolutions, they sometimes guarded, but much often subverted the throne of the emperors

Thinking it beneath them or not worth their time, the citizens gradually delegated their collective defense to the mercenary servants of despotic princes. They would come to regret having done so, once their liberties had long departed the land.

Speaking of the collective defense, the relationship of the military to the State and the form of State government is another take-away from Gibbon’s work. For it was Gibbon’s considered opinion that the lack of an orderly mechanism for the transfer of power, coupled with a mercenary army staffed by the ruder classes and by foreigners, opened the door to repeated military coups and the wars of succession that roiled the empire after the golden age of the Antoines. Gibbon again:

…the temperance of soldiers, habituated at once to violence and to slavery, renders them very unfit guardians of a legal, or even a civil constitution. Justice, humanity, or political wisdom are qualities they are too little acquainted with in themselves to appreciate them in others

It is against this backdrop that the elite Praetorian Guard, an elite cadre of military men who fancied themselves as guardians of the realm, caused much mischief during the Fall. For instance, because they rose through the ranks by merit, they thought themselves–nay, they deserved–to be the “true” representatives of the common people. For certain they were more representative of the Mob than the stuffy and privileged nobility, and this “popular mandate” of sorts led them to adopt the conceit that they alone were the entity best positioned to elect the chief of the Empire

[T]he meanest of mankind might, without folly, entertain a hope of being raised by valor and fortune to a rank in the army, in which a single crime would enable him to wrest the sceptre of the world from his feeble and unpopular master

Thus, for a people with no tradition of civil control of the military, a weak mechanism for the transfer of State authority from one ruler to the next, and whose upper classes had abandoned the military to proles and to barbaricum, the loss of the Republic quickly resulted in martial despotism.

The fourth take-away is that Roman society succumbed to pressure by more dynamic and vigorous cultures. Rome had the misfortune to peak just before the Volkerwanderung, or the “Great Migration”. Weak, tired, effete, and decadent, Rome was unable to defend her frontier provinces from the virile and martial Nordic and Eurasian hordes that pushed their way into the vacuum created by Rome’s decaying and retrenching political and economic power. That a once powerful and mighty culture would yield to a more masculine, a more martial, and more aggressive culture is a lesson repeated throughout history and we Westerners would do well to consider the application of such a take-away to our present lot.

I now adjust course slightly, and discuss not “take-aways” but rather subjects that I found merely interesting. For instance, many other authors interpret Gibbon’s barely concealed hostility toward Christianity–typical of Enlightenment-era thinkers–as an indicator that he attributes the rise of Christianity as a contributing factor to the Fall. I am not so sure that Gibbon did so. Sure Gibbon extolled the virtues of so-called pagan tolerance of Christianity, a claim easily refuted by considering the cruelties of pagan rulers toward their Christian subjects. But I think that Gibbon located the enfeebling of Roman virtues and corroding of Roman civic institutions prior to the arrival of Christianity; indeed, Rome was already on the downward slide when Christianity began to metastasize through the provinces. For sure, in some ways Christianity gave a teetering pagan Roman society a shove.  It degraded the legitimacy of polytheism (Gibbon relays the dilemma of Christian legionnaires prohibited by their faith from participating in pagan prayers and practices prior to battle…doesn’t take too much of that to erode unit cohesion), while the ranks of Christians swelled through the generosity of Christian alms “which paid less regard to the merit than to the distress of the object” and through the rescue and adoption of infants abandoned to the elements in the Bronze Age version abortion. Another factor Gibbon cited as contributing to the rapid spread of Christianity was its relatively favorable reputation when compared to another monotheistic religion originating from Palestine…Judaism.   In contrast to Jews, Christians were possessed of fewer onerous and strange habits, lacked the Jew’s conspicuous ethnic tribalism, and were other-oriented, whereas Judeans were famous for their inwardly focused insularity. In short, I think Gibbon saw the rapid spread of Christianity as a secondary symptom of a spiritually bereft people responding to the evangelistic zeal of the early Christians, rather than a primary cause of the sort of unmanly softness that make Rome so vulnerable to invasion.

I also found Gibbon’s description of the Germanic tribes to the north of the Alps to be quite interesting, if nothing for the study in contrasts that such a description provides. The Romans were a complex, hierarchical, agricultural society, and as such were technologically, socially, and culturally advanced. This level of civilizational advance stood in stark relief with the egalitarian primitiveness and rude condition of the barbaric cultures that Rome encountered to the West (Gaul), North (Germans, Danes, and Britons), and East (Scythians and Dacians). Gibbon:

If we contemplate a savage nation in any part of the globe, supine indolence and a carelessness of futurity will be found to constitute their general character. In a civilized state, every faculty of man is expanded and exercised; and the great chain of mutual dependence connects and embraces the several members of society. The most numerous portion of it is employed in constant and useful labor. The select few, placed by fortune above that necessity, can, however, fill up their time by the pursuits of interest or glory, by the improvement of their estate or of their understanding, but the duties, the pleasures, or even the follies of social life

Indeed, Gibbon characterized the character of Rome’s barbaric neighbors, especially that of their Germanic neighbors to the north, thusly:

The languid soul, oppressed with its own weight, anxiously required some new and powerful sensation; war and danger were the only amusements adequate to its fierce temper

The Germanic tribes to the north were particularly warlike in Gibbons’ account. Their system of governance was a sort of tribal democracy, where war chiefs were chosen from the ranks of warriors by popular election. The way to gain influence and power was to fight, and fight well, and the way that the German war chiefs garnered wealth was through the booty captured by raiding and/or subduing neighboring peoples. According to Gibbon, this social inclination, combined with a harsh climate, want of learning, arts, and laws, the Germanic notions of honor, gallantry, religion, fierce independence and sense of freedom, contributed to form a people to whom military heroism was a way of life.

Furthermore, I found the role of women in German society, as described by Gibbon, to be interesting, if not instructive, study in the effects that sex roles have on the prosperity and living standards of the society (or lack thereof). Consistent with the role of women in hunter-gatherer civilizations, Germanic society at the time of the Roman Empire was quite egalitarian and featured a variant of fertility worship that ensured women were held in high esteem by the violent and hard warrior

The Germans treated their women with esteem and confidence, consulted them on every occasion of importance and fondly believed that in their breasts resided a sanctity and wisdom more than human

Like the German warrior male, the German woman was deeply concerned with honor, such that while male honor came from success on the battlefield, honor for the German woman was tied to her virginity upon marriage and fidelity thereafter. Moreover, prefiguring my contention that women are a civilization’s center of gravity, that the state of women in a society determines the direction of the society, Gibbon wrote similarly of German women in the Tribes some 2,000 years ago that

the sentiments and conduct of these high-spirited matrons may at once be considered as a cause, as an effect, and as a proof of the general character of the nation

Thus, similar in effect to the Spartan woman’s famous exhortation “return with your shield or on it”, did the German woman’s own example of honorable conduct, high social stature, and insistence that her man behave similarly, reinforce and sustain the warlike character of the aggressive German tribes. It also stalled civilizational advancement: In societies where women are egalitarian, are equal partners on par with men, and where their sexuality and fertility is an object of worship, persistent material poverty follows. In contrast, when inegalitarian sex role specialization characteristic of agrarian (or more advanced) societies takes root, the sort of wealth and high standard of living that comes with civilization accompanies.

Last, the below quote of Gibbon’s was attention-getting for me, as a fellow interested in the power dynamics between clergy, the State, and the people and the interaction of these three with freedom and liberty:

…so intimate is the connection between the throne and the altar, that the banner of the church has very seldom been seen on the side of the people. 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

While this viewpoint probably well reflects the post-Enlightenment, deist-bordering-on-atheist zeitgeist of the time in Britain (Gibbon’s work was published in 1776), I highlight it here as a civics lesson, passed down to us moderns from our forefathers.  Of course a mere cursory examination of history reveals evidence that Gibbon was correct on the tendency of the church/temple/synagogue/mosque to ally itself with the state in opposition to the people or liberty, rather than protect the people from state abuse.  Examples abound, and three that immediately come to mind are (a) the modern church of sec-humanism, where, riffing on Louis XIV,  l’etat, c’est Dieu, (b) the nexus of mainline “right hand of God” Protestantism and  Progressive statism in late 19th / early 20th century America, and (c) the entangling of the Roman Catholic Church with various princes throughout history, both pre- and post-Reformation, more recently in the Church’s comfortability with state force to accomplish “churchy” ends, such as un-Biblical welfare, or most recently in calls for a global, one-world government just last month.  Moreover, Gibbon’s mention of the natural rights of self-defense (“possessed of arms”) and property rights (“tenacious of property”) were fundamental, foundational rights upon which American-style Republicanism was founded.  Both are under progressively more intense Progressive attack, and both are in decline.  In a similar manner, Gibbon would be hard pressed to locate his martial nobility in modern-day America, the elite having long since abandoned military service, and his stubborn commons has mostly melted away into a more pliant mob.

In summary, Gibbon’s long tome was a worthwhile read, and my few excerpts here do not do his work justice. Gibbon seemed to attribute the Fall to multiculturalism, luxos, to upper class abandonment of service to the State (in favor of presumably commercial ends), and to the feminization of the culture. In addition, I found Gibbon’s characterization of the role that Christianity played in the Fall to be interesting, as well as the implications that the organization of barbarian Germanic tribal society have for us moderns, especially as it pertains to religion, to family structure, and to sexual role specialization in a culture.  Finally, Gibbon’s observations regarding the interaction of the church, the state, the elite, the commons, and natural rights such as the right to self-defense and the right to property remind us all of the fundamental tenets upon which Western civilization in general, and American society in particular, were founded.

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