January 12, 2008

The History of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume I, Edward Gibbon

And a final batch of snippets:


The sensual appetites of Maximin were gratified at the expense of his subjects. His eunuchs, who forced away wives and virgins, examined their naked charms with anxious curiosity, lest any part of their body should be found unworthy of the royal embraces. Coyness and disdain were considered as treason, and the obstinate fair one was condemned to be drowned. A custom was gradually introduced, that no person should marry a wife without the permission of the emperor, "ut ipse in omnibus nuptiis praegustator esset." Lactantius de M. P. c. 38.

Beginning of the myth?


As a very regular series of the Imperial laws commences about this period, it would not be difficult to transcribe the civil regulations which employed the leisure of Constantine. But the most important of his institutions are intimately connected with the new system of policy and religion, which was not perfectly established till the last and peaceful years of his reign. There are many of his laws, which, as far as they concern the rights and property of individuals, and the practice of the bar, are more properly referred to the private than to the public jurisprudence of the empire; and he published many edicts of so local and temporary a nature, that they would ill deserve the notice of a general history. Two laws, however, may be selected from the crowd; the one for its importance, the other for its singularity; the former for its remarkable benevolence, the latter for its excessive severity. 1. The horrid practice, so familiar to the ancients, of exposing or murdering their new-born infants, was become every day more frequent in the provinces, and especially in Italy. It was the effect of distress; and the distress was principally occasioned by the intolerant burden of taxes, and by the vexatious as well as cruel prosecutions of the officers of the revenue against their insolvent debtors. The less opulent or less industrious part of mankind, instead of rejoicing in an increase of family, deemed it an act of paternal tenderness to release their children from the impending miseries of a life which they themselves were unable to support. The humanity of Constantine; moved, perhaps, by some recent and extraordinary instances of despair, engaged him to address an edict to all the cities of Italy, and afterwards of Africa, directing immediate and sufficient relief to be given to those parents who should produce before the magistrates the children whom their own poverty would not allow them to educate. But the promise was too liberal, and the provision too vague, to effect any general or permanent benefit. The law, though it may merit some praise, served rather to display than to alleviate the public distress. It still remains an authentic monument to contradict and confound those venal orators, who were too well satisfied with their own situation to discover either vice or misery under the government of a generous sovereign.

The laws of Constantine against rapes [...] was applied not only to the brutal violence which compelled, but even to the gentle seduction which might persuade, an unmarried woman, under the age of twenty-five, to leave the house of her parents. [...] The virgin's declaration, that she had been carried away with her own consent, instead of saving her lover, exposed her to share his fate. [...] and if the sentiments of nature prevailed on [the parents] to dissemble the injury, and to repair by a subsequent marriage the honor of their family, they were themselves punished by exile and confiscation. [...] As the crime was of a public kind, the accusation was permitted even to strangers. The commencement of the action was not limited to any term of years, and the consequences of the sentence were extended to the innocent offspring of such an irregular union.

Apparently even Constantine couldn't bring himself to enforce that law consistently (the details are even more gruesome).


...it was unanimously affirmed, that those who, since the birth or the death of Christ, had obstinately persisted in the worship of the daemons, neither deserved nor could expect a pardon from the irritated justice of the Deity. These rigid sentiments, which had been unknown to the ancient world, appear to have infused a spirit of bitterness into a system of love and harmony. The ties of blood and friendship were frequently torn asunder by the difference of religious faith; and the Christians, who, in this world, found themselves oppressed by the power of the Pagans, were sometimes seduced by resentment and spiritual pride to delight in the prospect of their future triumph.

Resentment and pride exemplified by Tertullian, particularly against the secular games.


But while they inculcated the maxims of passive obedience, they refused to take any active part in the civil administration or the military defence of the empire. Some indulgence might, perhaps, be allowed to those persons who, before their conversion, were already engaged in such violent and sanguinary occupations; but it was impossible that the Christians, without renouncing a more sacred duty, could assume the character of soldiers, of magistrates, or of princes. This indolent, or even criminal disregard to the public welfare, exposed them to the contempt and reproaches of the Pagans who very frequently asked, what must be the fate of the empire, attacked on every side by the barbarians, if all mankind should adopt the pusillanimous sentiments of the new sect. To this insulting question the Christian apologists returned obscure and ambiguous answers, as they were unwilling to reveal the secret cause of their security; the expectation that, before the conversion of mankind was accomplished, war, government, the Roman empire, and the world itself, would be no more.

So the tactics have reversed completely -- in the case of some Christians only -- with the justification (and many of the reproaches) the same.


The community instituted by Plato is more perfect than that which Sir Thomas More had imagined for his Utopia. The community of women, and that of temporal goods, may be considered as inseparable parts of the same system.

Was it Engels, who, faced with this charge, commented that he knew women were human rather than chattels, however confused the bourgeois might be?


But how shall we excuse the supine inattention of the Pagan and philosophic world, to those evidences which were represented by the hand of Omnipotence, not to their reason, but to their senses? During the age of Christ, of his apostles, and of their first disciples, the doctrine which they preached was confirmed by innumerable prodigies. The lame walked, the blind saw, the sick were healed, the dead were raised, daemons were expelled, and the laws of Nature were frequently suspended for the benefit of the church. But the sages of Greece and Rome turned aside from the awful spectacle, and, pursuing the ordinary occupations of life and study, appeared unconscious of any alterations in the moral or physical government of the world. Under the reign of Tiberius, the whole earth, or at least a celebrated province of the Roman empire, was involved in a preternatural darkness of three hours. Even this miraculous event, which ought to have excited the wonder, the curiosity, and the devotion of mankind, passed without notice in an age of science and history. It happened during the lifetime of Seneca and the elder Pliny, who must have experienced the immediate effects, or received the earliest intelligence, of the prodigy. Each of these philosophers, in a laborious work, has recorded all the great phenomena of Nature, earthquakes, meteors comets, and eclipses, which his indefatigable curiosity could collect. Both the one and the other have omitted to mention the greatest phenomenon to which the mortal eye has been witness since the creation of the globe. A distinct chapter of Pliny is designed for eclipses of an extraordinary nature and unusual duration; but he contents himself with describing the singular defect of light which followed the murder of Caesar, when, during the greatest part of a year, the orb of the sun appeared pale and without splendor. The season of obscurity, which cannot surely be compared with the preternatural darkness of the Passion, had been already celebrated by most of the poets and historians of that memorable age.

Much discussion in the footnotes; the apologists retreat (?) to the claim that in Jerusalem, in April, a cloud might be noteworthy even if it had "nothing contrary to the laws of nature".


The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. I; Project Gutenberg etext #731; try the HTML version, the footnotes upon footnotes are ill-served by this strictly plain-text one.

Posted by clew at 02:45 PM

The History of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume I, Edward Gibbon

More mere snippets, slightly annotated.

The true interest of an absolute monarch generally coincides with that of his people. Their numbers, their wealth, their order, and their security, are the best and only foundations of his real greatness; and were he totally devoid of virtue, prudence might supply its place, and would dictate the same rule of conduct. Severus considered the Roman empire as his property, and had no sooner secured the possession, than he bestowed his care on the cultivation and improvement of so valuable an acquisition.

Well, that's a nice thought, that a monarch should seek his "real" greatness; this follows closely on remarks on the dreadful Persian absolutism; presumably the whole is as close as one could safely get to admonishing any monarchs reading.


the officers of the revenue already began to number the Roman people, and to settle the proportion of the new taxes. Even when the spirit of freedom had been utterly extinguished, the tamest subjects have sometimes ventured to resist an unprecedented invasion of their property; but on this occasion the injury was aggravated by the insult, and the sense of private interest was quickened by that of national honor. The conquest of Macedonia, as we have already observed, had delivered the Roman people from the weight of personal taxes.

Julia Domna (for that was her name) deserved all that the stars could promise her. She possessed, even in advanced age, the attractions of beauty, and united to a lively imagination a firmness of mind, and strength of judgment, seldom bestowed on her sex. Her amiable qualities never made any deep impression on the dark and jealous temper of her husband; but in her son's reign, she administered the principal affairs of the empire, with a prudence that supported his authority, and with a moderation that sometimes corrected his wild extravagancies. Julia applied herself to letters and philosophy, with some success, and with the most splendid reputation. She was the patroness of every art, and the friend of every man of genius. The grateful flattery of the learned has celebrated her virtues; but, if we may credit the scandal of ancient history, chastity was very far from being the most conspicuous virtue of the empress Julia.

But when the last enclosure of the Roman constitution was trampled down by Caracalla, the separation of professions gradually succeeded to the distinction of ranks. 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 oftener subverted, the throne of the emperors.

If we credit what should seem the most authentic of all records, an oration, still extant, and delivered by the emperor himself to the senate, we must allow that the victory of Alexander Severus was not inferior to any of those formerly obtained over the Persians by the son of Philip. The army of the Great King consisted of one hundred and twenty thousand horse, clothed in complete armor of steel; of seven hundred elephants, with towers filled with archers on their backs, and of eighteen hundred chariots armed with scythes.

Armor of steel, so early? Even in Persia? ... But perhaps the whole thing was made up by a ruler who wished to boast of a victory where he had suffered a distant defeat:

Far from being inclined to believe that the arms of Alexander obtained any memorable advantage over the Persians, we are induced to suspect that all this blaze of imaginary glory was designed to conceal some real disgrace.

The Persian nobles (so natural is the idea of feudal tenures) received from the king's bounty lands and houses, on the condition of their service in war.

Geography, history, and climate change (attributed to deforestations) -- because the Persians are fading, by this point in the narrative, and the Germanic tribes becoming irresistible:

Modern geologists have rejected this theory of the depression of the Baltic, as inconsistent with recent observation. The considerable changes which have taken place on its shores, Mr. Lyell, from actual observation now decidedly attributes to the regular and uniform elevation of the land. - Lyell's Geology, b. ii. c. 17 - M.]
Some ingenious writers have suspected that Europe was much colder formerly than it is at present; and the most ancient descriptions of the climate of Germany tend exceedingly to confirm their theory. The general complaints of intense frost and eternal winter, are perhaps little to be regarded, since we have no method of reducing to the accurate standard of the thermometer, the feelings, or the expressions, of an orator born in the happier regions of Greece or Asia. But I shall select two remarkable circumstances of a less equivocal nature. 1. The great rivers which covered the Roman provinces, the Rhine and the Danube, were frequently frozen over, and capable of supporting the most enormous weights. The barbarians, who often chose that severe season for their inroads, transported, without apprehension or danger, their numerous armies, their cavalry, and their heavy wagons, over a vast and solid bridge of ice. Modern ages have not presented an instance of a like phenomenon. 2. The reindeer, that useful animal, from whom the savage of the North derives the best comforts of his dreary life, is of a constitution that supports, and even requires, the most intense cold. He is found on the rock of Spitzberg, within ten degrees of the Pole; he seems to delight in the snows of Lapland and Siberia: but at present he cannot subsist, much less multiply, in any country to the south of the Baltic. In the time of Caesar the reindeer, as well as the elk and the wild bull, was a native of the Hercynian forest, which then overshadowed a great part of Germany and Poland.

on the east of the Tigris, the empire acquired the large and mountainous territory of Carduene, the ancient seat of the Carduchians, who preserved for many ages their manly freedom in the heart of the despotic monarchies of Asia. The ten thousand Greeks traversed their country, after a painful march, or rather engagement, of seven days; and it is confessed by their leader, in his incomparable relation of the retreat, that they suffered more from the arrows of the Carduchians, than from the power of the Great King. Their posterity, the Curds, with very little alteration either of name or manners, acknowledged the nominal sovereignty of the Turkish sultan.

The Kurds, isolate and intractable.


A secret but irrevocable sentence of death was pronounced against the usurper; he obtained only the same favor which he had indulged to Severus, and it was published to the world, that, oppressed by the remorse of his repeated crimes, he strangled himself with his own hands.

Is that exactly possible? ...maybe he had an accessory rope.


A numerous army of Italians was assembled under the lieutenants of Maxentius, in the plains of Turin. Its principal strength consisted in a species of heavy cavalry, which the Romans, since the decline of their discipline, had borrowed from the nations of the East. The horses, as well as the men, were clothed in complete armor, the joints of which were artfully adapted to the motions of their bodies. The aspect of this cavalry was formidable, their weight almost irresistible; and as, on this occasion, their generals had drawn them up in a compact column or wedge, with a sharp point, and with spreading flanks, they flattered themselves that they could easily break and trample down the army of Constantine. They might, perhaps, have succeeded in their design, had not their experienced adversary embraced the same method of defence, which in similar circumstances had been practised by Aurelian. The skilful evolutions of Constantine divided and baffled this massy column of cavalry.

The beginning of Western heavy cavalry? There's (at least one) extremely English book on the classical Roman roots of English horsemanship, with high medieval forms sort of assumed.

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. I; Project Gutenberg etext #731; try the HTML version, the footnotes upon footnotes are ill-served by this strictly plain-text one.

Posted by clew at 02:03 PM

January 05, 2008

Greatheart, Mary Ethel Dell

Somewhere in Dorothy Sayers, I think, reference is made to virtuous spinsters secretly devouring Ethel M. Dell novels; Sayers' character would have been speaking in the twenties or thirties, and this novel was published in 1918, so it was a fairly current taste.

In content, a romance without other plot; and worse, the drama of the romance mostly comes from the extreme ignorance and innocence of the heroine, and the timidity of the hero and heroine to admit to each other that they love each other until it is Almost Too Late. (It's obvious to everyone else.)

On the other hand, Dell writes with the straightforwardness that makes a story good anyway, rather as Edgar Rice Burroughs does but with opposite failings as to plot and character.

One of the pleasures is in the use of Apollo and Daphne as a structural trope -- the false 'good marriage' that the heroine almost makes, for glamour rather than love, is to a big tall good-at-everything man nicknamed for the god of the lyre. His brother, the true good marriage, is a little lame man; but not Hephaestus, as he would be if the literary metaphor were mechanically applied; rather, Great-heart, a Paul Bunyan figure of courage and protection.

Dell's Apollo is, like the original, frightening. For much of the novel we are not at all sure he isn't going to rape the heroine (in the belief that she will enjoy it eventually); he certainly holds her against her will; I wasn't even sure that Dell was not conflating sexual passion with the desire to be overmastered. None of this is heavyhanded allegory--rather, the metaphors are alive to the characters, they think with them and therefore act by them.

Greatheart, standing for Christianity, may be seen to conquer Apollo; but because these are characters, not allegories, it's more complicated than that. (I started reading Pilgrim's Progress again, because really I suppose one ought, but oh, it's dull.) Apollo is somewhat chastened, but not overthrown; by the end he is engaged to a woman who, in the first place, is called Aphrodite; and in the second, is clearly not afraid of him. Nor is passion abandoned; but it is rather a point that it's not healthy until Daphne initiates it herself.

There is a poem Great-Heart by Rudyard Kipling, also; written in memory of Theodore Roosevelt; not very memorable.

Project Gutenberg e-text #13497, Greatheart.

Posted by clew at 11:25 PM
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