Anna’s Update 3: polite dinnertime conversation

Texan observed recently that a greater portion of this work than he had anticipated is footnotes. This week, I have more reason to agree than ever. Many of the notes are Gibbon’s, so we’re not too distracted by external commentary, but still. When the note is at least as long as the amount of regular text on the page, are you sure you couldn’t have found a way to just make it part of the text itself? At least as a parenthetical?

Anyway, pull up a chair, kids … we’re about to discuss a couple of completely light and non-controversial topics: religion and slavery.

Chapter 2 Part 1

Gibbon starts off by reminding us that geographical coverage alone does not greatness make – a lesson Hadrian had learned last time. A smaller land mass with a more unified people is, in his estimation, more impressive than the leagues of empty desert claimed by any Eurasian conqueror.

This apt assessment is unfortunately followed by a dash of Gibbon’s religiously motivated historical revisionism. I hope this is merely a mistaken first impression on my part, because he almost seems to be arguing that since most major civilizations of the ancient world had largely similar pantheons (just with different names for the members), they were all able to join hands and sing “there is more that unites us than divides us” instead of disagreeing about how any particular god should be worshiped.

Currently having war flashbacks to all of the Tumblr posts and Salon articles I’ve suffered through about how Africa and the Americas were glorious socialist feminist utopias until the Straight White Christian Male crashed in and ruined everything.

I’ve already been cautioned by my editors to expect that Gibbon doesn’t like Christians very much, so if he really goes there,

Milman interjects, cautiously at first, that the reader will find some better scholarly treatments of polytheism in other works, as well as a greater streak of intolerance in Greco-Roman religious governance than Gibbon has yet gotten into here. The editorial tone of this footnote is exceedingly restrained. I have no doubt my boy will start spitting fire later on in the unlikely event that Gibbon decides to go full Nikole Hannah-Jones.

Gibbon’s analysis of the philosophers’ response to the gods of their time is, however, quite good. It was obvious to anyone who stopped to think about it that the peoples of every nation had merely identified the forces of nature, then fashioned for each a personality in man’s own image. The inadequacy of philosophy lay in being unable to provide an acceptable alternative to this superstitious status quo. Thus, the skeptics themselves continued with external religious observances, “going along to get along,” while consoling themselves with the smug inward knowledge that at least they were too intelligent to really be taken in by such things.

The philosophically trained ruling class viewed religion as a tool for keeping the people happy and harmonious – an opiate of the masses, if you will. Gibbon’s reasoning for this is that the rulers knew a religious society is usually a more humane place to live than an irreligious one. I would suggest, in addition to, if not instead of, this theory, that they also couldn’t imagine any other way to live. Ancient governments all functioned under some concept of legitimacy via divine right. The idea that the state is powerful and must be obeyed simply because it is the state is entirely a post-Enlightenment idea (at least according to my knowledge of world history).

Milman chooses this interlude to slip in a borrowed footnote from Gibbon’s German translator, Wenck. As he points out, the absence of overt discrimination does not therefore mean that the overall religious situation of the whole society is just peachy.

“Gibbon, throughout the whole preceding sketch of the opinions of the Romans and their subjects, has shown through what causes they were free from religious hatred and its consequences. But, on the other hand the internal state of these religions, the infidelity and hypocrisy of the upper orders, the indifference towards all religion, in even the better part of the common people, during the last days of the republic, and under the Caesars, and the corrupting principles of the philosophers, had exercised a very pernicious influence on the manners, and even on the constitution.”

Rome garners some praise from Gibbon for its pragmatism in not being ethnically purist about citizenship. Absorb and adopt the virtues of every people group that joins the empire, not just those families who can trace their descent straight back to the time of the Tarquins. That’s how you achieve buy-in from people groups who would otherwise consider themselves the conquered. Feeling like a meaningful part of the club keeps them content.

Chapter 2 Part 2

However, even though anyone could become a “Roman citizen,” there were still some silent benefits to being part of the old guard, as there always are: family estates, tax breaks, a fast track to political power … no system is perfectly equitable.

Actually, one is.


My linguist heart is pleased by Gibbon’s digression into the unifying influence of the Latin language. It doesn’t just make a group of people more cohesive to get them all talking the same at home and in public. The values of the originating culture are so marinated into the language that the same values will, over time, seep into the mindsets of the people who come to speak it. This strikes me as the benevolent opposite of the phenomenon described in Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” – not to mention his Newspeak essay.

I am less than pleased by how dismissively he speaks of those peoples who did not fully or even primarily replace their own languages with Latin. The Greeks get off fairly easy, since their civilization was even more ancient and refined than Rome’s; but the remote mountain tribes are relegated in the text to the fringes of barbarian peasantry, while Gibbon ridicules Syrians for their “slothful effeminacy” and Egyptians for their “sullen ferociousness.” This grates on all kinds of modern sensibilities. I won’t lob the easy grenade of condemning Gibbon as any sort of supremacist, but he is too quick to brush off those who don’t fit his classically oriented, marble-and-magistrate concept of “civilized” peoples.

His relationship with slavery, meanwhile, is … complicated. He starts out by denouncing it in the strongest terms, then melts into a series of apparent admissions that the slaves of Rome didn’t really have it so bad, especially after laws regarding their treatment began to be enacted.

(Funny, you can find the exact same argument on Vox – which I won’t link to, because I don’t want to give it any credibility. Even while admitting how insanely brutal Rome’s treatment of slaves could be, the Vox author performs the gyrations necessary to assure the reader that American slavery was still somehow worse. Gibbon looks like he’s also drifting toward the “Roman slavery may not have been that terrible after all” stance, but for what reason, I can’t imagine.)

Ah, I was right to expect Milman to go off. He finally does so, though mostly by reproducing a very long editorial contribution by Guizot which expresses exactly what he thinks of Gibbon’s tenuous relationship with the truth here. Milman, in Guizot’s words, chastises Gibbon for glossing over both the atrocities committed by the slave-owning class in the name of “necessity” and the influence of Christianity in bringing about more humane treatment for slaves, ultimately leading up to the abolition of the whole system. I’ll include his excerpt from another writer, Robertson, on Christianity’s effects at the end of the quotation section below because it’s just so good. It’s my blog entry and I’ll pander to my people if I want to.

“Some reflections of Robertson, taken from the discourse already quoted, will make us feel that Gibbon, in tracing the mitigation of the condition of the slaves, up to a period a little later than that which witnessed the establishment of Christianity in the world, could not have avoided the acknowledgment of the influence of that beneficent cause, if he had not already determined not to speak of it.”


And yet, Milman, ever the gentleman, assuages Guizot’s fervor a little by crediting Gibbon for accurately recognizing that some pro-slave reforms were introduced prior to Christianity’s gaining any traction in the empire. He gets even MORE generous with the following laudatio: “Gibbon, it should be added, was one of the first and most consistent opponents of the African slave-trade.”

Milman, you paragon of charitable discourse.

But even opponents of the slave trade can still look down on those whose freedom they are trying to achieve. How many times have we heard that about Abraham Lincoln, for example? (Though more balanced approaches are out there.) Gibbon describes the thought of a hypothetical Rome in which freed slaves were all immediately granted full citizenship as “a mean and promiscuous multitude.”

I’m getting whiplash from all of the shifts in tone Gibbon employs in reference to the slave class. Does he pity them? Does he disdain them? Is he indifferent? Is his head on a swivel?

(Side note: In describing how many generations usually had to pass before the descendant of a slave even had a shot at the positions normally only occupied by freeborn Romans, Gibbon drops the phrase “pride and prejudice.” I am not the only person who has noticed this. Some make more of it than others.)

“It was once proposed to discriminate the slaves by a peculiar habit; but it was justly apprehended that there might be some danger in acquainting them with their own numbers.”

Ya think?

(Fear of the subordinated classes learning their own strength is also a theme in The Hunger Games and the Red Rising Saga – two fictional worlds in which the influence of ancient Rome is some of the most blatant in recent literature.)

This part of Chapter 2 closes with some variously grounded speculations on the total population, slave and free, of the empire during this period. The number goes up and down according to whether Gibbon or his commentators consider the armies of slaves owned by the rich to be indicative of their average numbers all across the empire, or whether these over-the-top household sizes were mainly confined to a few large estates. Of equal concern to Milman at the end of his last footnote in this section is the question of when the population of Italy proper began to decline. I found his reference to a before-unmentioned author named Zumpt extremely interesting.

“Zumpt, in my opinion with some reason, takes the period just before the first Punic war, as that in which Roman Italy (all south of the Rubicon) was most populous. From that time, the numbers began to diminish, at first from the enormous waste of life out of the free population in the foreign, and afterwards in the civil wars; from the cultivation of the soil by slaves; towards the close of the republic, from the repugnance to marriage, … and from the depravity of manners, which interfered with the procreation, the birth, and the rearing of children.”


Not today, though.

Quotations that stood out to me:

“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.”

“We may be well assured, that a writer, conversant with the world, would never have ventured to expose the gods of his country to public ridicule, had they not already been the objects of secret contempt among the polished and enlightened orders of society.”

It’s literally always been a trait of elitism to reject religion, but to participate in it for show nevertheless.

“How, indeed, was it possible that a philosopher should accept, as divine truths, the idle tales of the poets, and the incoherent traditions of antiquity; or that he should adore, as gods, those imperfect beings whom he must have despised, as men?”

“Democratic states … are most jealous of communication the privileges of citizenship; monarchies or oligarchies willingly multiply the numbers of their free subjects.”

Why, I wonder, would that be? Why would the higher-ups in a society with concentrated power want more people to join the throng?

I wanted so badly to use a “Home Improvement” gif here, but I couldn’t find one.

Because they want more power. People who understand how democracy works understand that it only works when the pool of self-governing citizens is very, VERY SMALL.

“Nor did the Romans ever establish their language … in this island, as we perceive by that stubborn British tongue which has survived two conquests.”

Thank heck. Gaelic is gorgeous.

“While chains and slavery were the certain lot of the conquered, battles were fought, and towns defended with a rage and obstinacy which nothing but horror at such a fate could have inspired; but, putting an end to the cruel institution of slavery, Christianity extended its mild influences to the practice of war, and that barbarous art, softened by its humane spirit, ceased to be so destructive. Secure, in every event, of personal liberty, the resistance of the vanquished became less obstinate, and the triumph of the victor less cruel. Thus humanity was introduced into the exercise of war, with which it appears to be almost incompatible; and it is to the merciful maxims of Christianity, much more than to any other cause, that we must ascribe the little ferocity and bloodshed which accompany modern victories. … It is not the authority of any single detached precept in the gospel, but the spirit and genius of the Christian religion, more powerful than any particular command, which hath abolished the practice of slavery throughout the world. The temper which Christianity inspired was mild and gentle; and the doctrines it taught added such dignity and lustre to human nature, as rescued it from the dishonorable servitude into which it was sunk.”


 “Power nourishes [vice] in the great, [and] engenders oppression in the mean.”

Chapter 2 was so long, I only made it through half. Second half coming next time.

2 thoughts on “Anna’s Update 3: polite dinnertime conversation

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