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.
I am working through the chapters of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire translating the majestic sweep of the original narrative into modern English. There are times when this gets tough, and this is one of them. Gibbon is a great writer and this is one of his greatest sections. I will do my best, but please bear with me here. Right, on with the story.
This post will have to take the form of an open letter to David Withun. Hopefully it will make sense to other people as well.
The troubles in Italy and Gaul left Britain isolated. Its imperial forces had been withdrawn leaving low level garrisons to defend it from the depredations of the Picts and the seaborne Saxons. Being right at the bottom of the imperial todo list created a power vacuum in the province. There was a long tradition in Britain of providing usurpers to the throne, so it was sort of inevitable that a pretender to the purple should emerge.
Was the Catholic Church simply a new way for the Romans to rule their empire? The traditional conquest model didn’t work any more, so was this another way to keep control in the same hands? It is a thought that has occurred to more than one person over the centuries. If you were looking for evidence to support the idea you’d be off to a good start with the career of St Ambrose. His father was the governor of a large province in Gaul. Ambrose was educated in Rome with the intention of following in his father’s foot steps. And he started off doing exactly that, being the governor of a region including Milan. Rome was still the nominal capital, but Milan was where the emperors lived and so that was where the real power was.
Since the time of the first emperor. Augustus, there had been a rough equilibrium between the empire and the German tribes. The empire had been too big for the Germans to defeat, but too overextended to threaten their independence. But with the Huns now about to wipe out the Germans the position had changed. The equilibrium was wrecked. The Goths understood the change in the situation sooner than anyone else.
The origin of the Huns is obscure. Gibbon traces it back to early first century when they were known as the Tanjou and lived on the borders of China just north of the Great Wall. This was not a coincidence. The Tanjou were a force to be reckoned with. They had put together a vast coalition of steppe peoples via diplomacy, war and straight forward intimidation. They had become powerful enough that they threatened to overthrow the ruling dynasty in China itself. The first wall built by the Chinese was a specific response to this threat.
It is hard not to admire the way that the Jews have succeeded in maintaining their culture and identity for many thousands of years. This has been achieved in the face of some pretty big practical difficulties. They have rarely had the support of a state and have often been subject to some pretty severe persecutions.
For instance, when Julian became the last pagan to come to the throne they were going through one of their bad patches. The Christians had not that long ago broken away from the Jewish tradition and the two faiths had the kinds of issues that might be expected from a pair that had just been through a messy divorce. Prior to the rise of Christianity the Jews had fallen foul of several of the emperors as a result of a number of brave but not tremendously successful revolts. Hadrian had banned them from Jerusalem. The ban was still in force and on top of that Constantius had imposed extra taxes on them.
Constantine died in Nicomedia in 337 after a short illness. He had lived to 64, a good age for the time. The death of Constantine ended one of the longest reigns in the history of the empire. His death came just after he had celebrated his thirtieth year as emperor, something only Augustus had previously achieved. It was fitting that he was buried in Constantinople, the city he founded.
Eighteenth Century Britain was one of the main cauldrons in which the ideas of the Enlightenment were bubbling, and Gibbon was one of its leading figures. The enlightened view of the world that was being pioneered then is still with us, shaping how we think to this very day.