(Title quote by Norman Schwarzkopf.)
May I just start by saying how very much like a scholarly paper Texan’s first blog post was? Gosh. Come for my Buzzfeed articles, stay for his research mastery.
Chapter 1 Part 1
Gibbon kind of idealizes Augustus as an emperor. He had just the right temperament for the position, he was exceedingly wise in determining how far the empire should expand, happiness and sunshine followed wherever his advice was heeded … etc. etc. Since Augustus introduced a new era of non-expansionism after the aggressive military policy which so famously came to a head in Julius Caesar, I guess we can gather from Octavius’ insatiable greed for more territory in Night at the Museum that he was a pre-Pax Romana soldier. Or worked for Trajan. One of the two.
Gibbon had quite a different outlook on the Roman conquest of Britain than two others I had previously heard. One of these differing perspectives is from an episode in the comedy series “The Supersizers Eat” on the cuisine and culture of ancient Rome, wherein the hosts briefly detour to England so they can cover what the Roman armies would have eaten while on campaign.
“You know what I’m talking about! Get the Romans out!” — Boadicea, paraphrased
Their historian consultant alleges (in between bites of asparagus omelet) that the Romans lulled the various Briton tribes into submission through the civilizing/tranquilizing force of dinner parties. Gibbon, meanwhile, argues that despite the incompetence of the forces sent to subjugate the island after Caesar made his first inroad, it was the lack of discipline and unity among the tribes that led to their downfall. Historically (and modernly), I think this perspective is entirely credible. It was probably helped along by the enticement of chef-prepared food, though.
Side note: Gibbon waxes quite comical in his footnotes when considering Rome’s opinion of Britain as a whole.
“A hope is expressed by Pomponius Mela … (he wrote under Claudius) that, by the success of the Roman arms, the island and its savage inhabitants would soon be better known. It is amusing enough to peruse such passages in the midst of London.”
Further on in this section, Gibbon only skims over a fact which is explored in much more depth in Fall of Civilizations’ amazing podcast episode on Roman Britain, featuring the second of the two alternative perspectives I referenced above regarding the British conquest. As soon as the invading generals started having steady success in this island on the outskirts of nowhere, according to FoC‘s researcher, they kept getting delusions of grandeur about attaining their own kingdoms, up to and including conquering Rome by force — never mind that it was the Cheyenne Mountain Complex of the Western world and they had to hack their way through several legions of loyal, lifelong-trained soldiers to get there.
(Spoiler alert: none of them succeeded.)
Their ill-fated campaigns left the British colonies that had been under their care half-established and undefended, while their subjects never felt like full citizens of the empire: more like disenfranchised hangers-on, struggling through life on a perilous frontier just to give the toffs back in Rome some bragging rights. Sort of how a cluster of colonies in the Western Hemisphere felt about their distant and largely unconcerned overlords, as they were similarly perched on the edge of an empire several hundred years later.
So, in the short term, the Romans were able to claim that they had successfully added the British Isles to their repertoire; but ultimately, as Fall of Civ points out, this project was doomed to failure because of the far-roving aspirations of its succession of leaders.
Gibbon may address this later on. I just wanted to throw it in now because we’re about to get to Hadrian, and you can’t hear Roman Britain mentioned without thinking of Hadrian’s Wall. And I can’t think of Hadrian’s Wall without thinking of Fall of Civilizations.
But first, there was Trajan. And he just had to be the one to break the streak of semi-peaceful non-expansion. Apparently reading the accounts of Alexander the Great gave him a temporary Don Quixote complex as he set out to conquer the lands beyond the Roman world. Fortunately, he understood that his advancing age was nature’s version of “quit while you’re ahead,” so he turned around in western Asia and came home instead of trying to get far enough to extort an oath of loyalty from the Kushan emperor.
Chapter 1 Part 2
Hadrian sounds like the embodiment of the motto esse quam videri (“to be rather than to seem”). He realized that while the addition of shiny new territories to Rome’s inventory might make the empire seem great, it was wiser in the end to cut loose those dominions where the army would have had to spread itself too thin trying to maintain order; thus being strong with a smaller land area rather than seeming strong by gobbling up nations just for the heck of it.
Anyone who has played Risk also knows this. Don’t try to conquer that enticingly unoccupied Emyn Muil with just two Elven archers and one Rider of Rohan when you’re bumping up against a Dead Marshes that’s guarded by a battalion and 3 cave trolls.
Wait, that’s just Lord of the Rings Risk. There are a couple of Roman Empire versions out there — one in Italian and one in Portuguese — if you really need to experience the thrill of building a Mediterranean hegemony for yourself.
Gibbon’s aside about Hadrian’s motives here is a rather insightful one:
“Censure, which arraigns the public actions and the private motives of princes, has ascribed to envy a conduct which might be attributed to the prudence and moderation of Hadrian. … It was, however, scarcely in his power to place the superiority of his predecessor in a more conspicuous light, than by thus confessing himself unequal to the task of defending the conquests of Trajan.”
This didn’t stop our boy from traversing the length and breadth of the newly reduced empire in order to personally check on his dominions, or from engaging in some scrimmage with his own troops in order to keep them sharp. I love to see some royals who actually do something.
Gibbon describes the forty-three years presided over by Hadrian and Antoninus Pius as a “long period.” I guess when life expectancy is low and the rest of the world is almost constantly embroiled in skirmishes, 43 years of relative stability does seem like a good run.
Next we dive a little more into the measures employed to keep the troops under control and working well together, in contrast to the chaotic throngs they often had to fight. Gibbon opines that sterner measures of training, discipline, and outright cult worship of the golden eagle battle standards grew increasingly necessary, as the army grew from a small force of people who actually lived on the land they were defending to a trans-continental industry dedicated to keeping the empire duct-taped together by any mercenaries necessary.
(The description of the aquila just reminds me of the scene from the Nativity Story where the Roman soldiers ride into Nazareth to collect taxes. I don’t know that they would have carried their war standards into a one-horse Judean village just for IRS day, but it made a nice establishing shot.)
I would not have wanted to be subjected to Roman military exercises, no matter how well the average soldier got paid. I wouldn’t mind being protected by an army that had to do them, though …
The military historian will want to read Gibbon’s description of the armor and fighting styles of the legions just for enjoyment.
Chapter 1 Part 3
Roman troops are out here digging ditches and building walls every time they stop to camp, and we complain when we forget the motorized pump for the air mattress. Smh.
(Gibbon throws a little shade at the military of his own time, with the comment that all the accoutrements an average Roman foot soldier had to carry on a march “would oppress the delicacy of a modern soldier.”)
I find it very interesting that in the same sentence, Gibbon distinguishes Rome’s own Praetorian Guard as “the authors of almost every revolution that distracted the empire,” AND states that they differed from the regular army in having “a more splendid appearance, and a less rigid discipline.”
His detailed descriptions of how all the territories were subdivided would greatly benefit from a map (of which there are some at the top of the Project Gutenberg page; they’re just those old-style maps with all the place-names written all over each other. Lovely for decorating, less helpful for study). Here are some easier ones to read:
- Brilliant Maps (from a slightly later era than was covered in this chapter, but oh well)
- So many maps on Wikimedia
- This map from the University of Calgary is stylistically similar to the ones from Gibbon’s hard copy volumes, but it’s helpfully color coded, and zooming in makes it even better.
As promised in the editor’s preface, when Gibbon dismisses the region of ancient Israel as a negligible, sandy waste, Rev. Milman pipes up with his lengthiest footnote yet to describe how truly fertile and desirable the country is, and how well-equipped the seasons and soil are for self-sustenance. He accuses Gibbon of using such language simply to discredit the Biblical descriptions of that region as being fruitful and abundant, and throws in a denunciation of Voltaire’s similar statements for good measure. He’s passionate about this.
However, Gibbon reserves his true scorn for North Africa. He dispatches several barbs, like calling the areas known as modern Libya and Tunisia “feeble and disorderly,” and says that the English “condescend to style the Emperor of Morocco” the most powerful chief in that region. Gee, Edward, no need to pull your punches. He’s not too impressed with Egypt, either, relegating it to the status of the Middle East’s political football from the time of Roman dominance to that of England.
He raises a good point about how easy it was for the ancient Romans to act like their empire was the whole world, or at least, the whole part of the world that mattered. To me, this is a (perhaps unintended, but poignant) warning against the failure to travel or learn much that is useful about other nations. Pretending like nothing exists outside your borders is not the greatest long-term strategy, as Rome will learn when Alaric comes knocking.
Quotations that stood out to me:
“[A]s 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.”
“The terror of the Roman arms added weight and dignity to the moderation of the emperors. They preserved peace by a constant preparation for war; and while justice regulated their conduct, they announced to the nations on their confines, that they were as little disposed to endure, as to offer an injury.”
Or as they themselves might say: Si vis pacem, para bellum.
“In the purer ages of the commonwealth, the use of arms was reserved for those ranks of citizens who had a country to love, a property to defend, and some share in enacting those laws, which it was their interest as well as duty to maintain. But in proportion as the public freedom was lost in extent of conquest, war was gradually improved into an art, and degraded into a trade.”
Republican Rome sounds like more of a Faramir kind of place. Boromir, when driven by his worst impulses, would have thrived in Imperial Rome. Compare:
“I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.”
” … he did not seek glory in danger without a purpose.”
“Valour needs first strength, and then a weapon.”
” … taking no wife and delighting chiefly in arms; fearless and strong, but caring little for lore, save the tales of old battles.”
“Active valor may often be the present of nature; but … patient diligence can be the fruit only of habit and discipline.”
Fine, I’ll start doing my morning pushups again. No need to call me out.
And on that note, I close for this week. Chapter 2 awaits!