By Edward Gibbon, 1776-1789
An Excerpt From
“The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”
“If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.”
“As long as mankind shall continue to bestow more liberal applause on their destroyers than on their benefactors, the thirst of military glory will ever be the vice of the most exalted characters.”
“They preserved peace by a constant preparation for war.”
“Of all our passions and appetites, the love of power is of the most imperious and unsociable nature, since the pride of one man requires the submission of the multitude.”
“The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful.”
“When the promise of eternal happiness was proposed to mankind, on condition of adopting the faith and of observing the precepts of the gospel, it is no wonder that so advantageous an offer should have been accepted by great numbers of every religion, of every rank, and of every province in the Roman empire.”
“A state of skepticism and suspense may amuse a few inquisitive minds. But the practice of superstition is so congenial to the multitude that, if they are forcibly awakened, they still regret the loss of their pleasing vision.”
“The power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy, except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous.”
“The annals of the emperors exhibit a strong and various picture of human nature, which we should vainly seek among the mixed and doubtful characters of modern history. In the conduct of those monarchs we may trace the utmost lines of vice and virtue; the most exalted perfection and the meanest degeneracy of our own species.”
“(The reign of Titus) is marked by the rare advantage of furnishing very few materials for history; which is, indeed, little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.”
“The various tribes of Britons possessed valour without conduct, and the love of freedom without the spirit of union.”
On Marcus Aurelius: “War he detested, as the disgrace and calamity of human nature; but when the necessity of a just defence called upon him to take up arms, he readily exposed his own person to eight winter campaigns on the frozen banks of the Danube.”
On Commodus: “His simplicity and timidity rendered him the slave of his attendants, who gradually corrupted his mind. His cruelty, which at first obeyed the dictates of others, degenerated into habit, and at length became the ruling passion of his soul.”
“(The fall of the Roman empire) will ever be remembered, and is still felt by the nations of the world.”
By today’s historical standards, Gibbon’s judgments cannot invariably be regarded as accurate. For example, his remark, noted above, about the period “during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous” quite ignores the fact of pervasive slavery in the Roman Empire, although one might well ask, if not during the 90-plus years of which Gibbon speaks, has the human race ever been happy?
Gibbon’s history sold well in the 18th century. His readers were trained in the classics, knew the chronology and personalities, and were tuned to the author’s vocabulary, rhythms, and moral concerns. Reading him today requires considerable commitment (and perhaps a companion book or two) but it rewards effort. A good companion is “Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire” by Simon Baker (2006, accompanies a BBC miniseries, which is on YouTube).
This excerpt devotes considerable space to Emperor Commodus (161 to 192 CE). This is the man portrayed brilliantly by Joaquin Phoenix in the 2000 film “Gladiator.” Many fine actors have done first-rate work playing emperors and leaders of ancient Rome, including Rex Harrison (Julius Caesar) in “Cleopatra,” Jay Robinson (Caligula) in “The Robe,” Laurence Olivier (Crassus) and Charles Laughton (Gracchus) in “Spartacus,” Alec Guinness (Marcus Aurelius) and Christopher Plummer (Commodus) in “The Fall of the Roman Empire,” Peter Ustinov (Nero) in “Quo Vadis,” and the stellar casts of “I, Claudius” and “Rome.” – H.F.
In the second century of the Christian era, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized potion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valour. The gentle, but powerful, influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury. The image of a free constitution was preserved with decent reverence. The Roman senate appeared to possess the sovereign authority, and devolved on the emperors all the executive powers of government. During a happy period of more than fourscore years, the public administration was conducted by the virtue and abilities of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the two Antonines. It is the design of this and of the two succeeding chapters, to describe the prosperous condition of their empire; and afterwards, from the death of Marcus Antonius, to deduce the most important circumstances of its decline and fall: a revolution which will ever be remembered, and is still felt by the nations of the world.
The principle conquests of the Romans were achieved under the republic; and the emperors, for the most part, were satisfied with preserving those dominions which had been acquired by the policy of the senate, the active emulation of the consuls, and the martial enthusiasm of the people. The seven first centuries were filled with a rapid succession of triumphs; but it was reserved for Augustus to relinquish the ambitious design of subduing the whole earth, and to introduce a spirit of moderation into the public councils. Inclined to peace by his temper and situation, it was easy for him to discover that Rome, in her present exalted situation, had much less to hope than to fear from the chance of arms; and that, in the prosecution of remote wars, the undertaking became every day more difficult, the event more doubtful, and the possession more precarious and less beneficial. The experience of Augustus added weight to these salutary reflections, and effectually convinced him that, by the prudent vigour of his counsels, it would be easy to secure every concession which the safety or the dignity of Rome might require from the most formidable barbarians. Instead of exposing his person and his legions to the arrows of the Parthians, he obtained, by an honourable treaty, the restitution of the standards and prisoners which had been taken in the defeat of Crassus.
His generals, in the early part of his reign, attempted the reduction of Ethiopia and Arabia Felix. They marched near a thousand miles to the south of the tropic; but the heat of the climate soon repelled the invaders and protected the unwarlike natives of those sequestered regions. The northern countries of Europe scarcely deserved the expense and labour of conquest. The forests and morasses of Germany were filled with a hardy race of barbarians, who despised life when it was separated from freedom; and though, on the first attack, they seemed to yield to the weight of the Roman power, they soon, by a signal act of despair, regained their independence, and reminded Augustus of the vicissitude of fortune. (By the slaughter of Varus and his three legions. Augustus did not receive the melancholy news with all the temper and firmness that might have been expected from his character.) On the death of that emperor his testament was publicly read in the senate. He bequeathed, as a valuable legacy to his successors, the advice of confining the empire within those limits which nature seemed to have placed as its permanent bulwarks and boundaries; on the west the Atlantic Ocean,; the Rhine and Danube on the north; the Euphrates on the east; and towards the south the sandy deserts of Arabia and Africa.
Happily for the repose of mankind, the moderate system recommended by the wisdom of Augustus was adopted by the fears and vices of his immediate successors. Engaged in the pursuit of pleasure or in the exercise of tyranny, the first Caesars seldom showed themselves to the armies, or to the provinces; nor were they disposed to suffer that those triumphs which their indolence neglected should be usurped by the conduct and valour of their lieutenants. The military fame of a subject was considered as an insolent invasion of the Imperial prerogative; and it became the duty, as well as interest, of every Roman general, to guard the frontiers intrusted to his care; without aspiring to conquests which might have proved no less fatal to himself than to the vanquished barbarians. ●