There are many reasons for reading the Decline and Fall of the Roman empire. For a start you get to know a lot about Roman history. You also learn a lot about 18th Century Britain. I hope, or at least aspire, to get these across to people who haven’t read the book itself. But one thing my paraphrasing can never get across is just how good a book it is simply from the point of view of style. Nobody writes like that anymore. I have already done quite a few quotes that hopefully give a flavour. But here is a passage that demonstrates Gibbon’s writing style extremely well and which stands alone as a piece of writing.
Hi, I’m Colin Sanders, this is the History Books Review and this episode covers the rise of monasticism as described by Edward Gibbon in Chapter 37 of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
Leo was an unlikely man to end up being called ‘the Great’. Emperors had become mere figureheads. Military strongmen of barbarian origin actually called the shots and decided who sat on the throne in Constantinople. Leo looked very much like a figurehead. He had no particular credentials for joining the imperial ranks, and only got the job as the frontman for the army chief Aspar.
Maximus had achieved almost nothing in his short reign. And certainly, setting up the most humiliating sack of Rome itself earns him pretty much the uncontested medal for the most unsuccessful holder of the purple. But his foreign policy did bear one fruit. He had sent the seasoned veteran politician Avitus to negotiate with the Visigoths. The negotiations went well and Avitus got the support of the Visigothic king Theoderic.
The death of Attila was greeted with enthusiasm and relief by most of the courts of Europe. It must have been like having a troublesome neighbour finally move away. But in Carthage there was one man who was sad to see him go. His alliance with Attila had been Genseric’s trump card which had prevented the long overdue reassertion of the empire’s authority over the fertile strip of northern Africa that the Vandals and their Alan allies had wrested from them.
Chalons was hardly a victory in the tradition of Rome. When you look at the Roman victory over the Dacians portrayed on Trajan’s Column you see a large professional organisation using technology to wipe out a brave but outmatched enemy. They display tactics, well drilled formations and sophisticated logistics. It is clear that the Romans are more advanced than the people they are fighting against. Three hundred years later we are in a world of tribal battles with both sides indistinguishable from each other. Individual feats of arms are important – so Thorismund the son of Theodoric becomes a hero by dint of his bravery. Men are inspired to great deeds by orations and martial music. Omens are sought and used to influence morale. It wasn’t really a Roman victory in anything other than name and certainly did not herald any kind of rebirth of Roman power in the west.
The Byzantine court during the reign of the ineffectual Arcadius in the late fourth century was run by two men. The emperor’s favourite at court was the corrupt and worldly Eutropius who ran the civil administration of the empire largely for his own benefit. The army was run by the Goth Gainas.
I am working my way through an extended review of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I have reached the point at which we can start thinking of this as being a history of the Byzantine Empire. The term Byzantine to describe the Eastern Roman empire wasn’t commonly used in Gibbon’s time, though he uses that adjective often enough. It is often said that Gibbon disliked and disparaged the Byzantines, and it is from the start of Chapter 32 that the quote most often used to justify this idea comes.
In fact it is the first sentence.
The reign of Constantine III was a precarious business. With the legions no longer holding the frontier of the Rhine and the Roman navy no longer in existence, the world was now one dominated by anyone who could pull together some effective mobile forces. The rule of the Caesars had been replaced by the rule of petty warlords. Constantine never had any solid power base he could draw from and was continually juggling alliances, bribes and trying to avoid being overrun by barbarians or killed by the representatives of the official Roman empire. You might have thought that nobody would want a job like that. But you’d be wrong, he had to face at least two major rebellions by people who wanted to replace him.
My extended review of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire continues, and we have now reached part 5 of Chapter 31 where we see Gaul and Spain fall to the barbarians in the aftermath of the sack of Rome.
The sack of Rome by Alaric was dramatic and important, but what happened in the immediate aftermath is important too.