Chapter 2 Part 3
Once again, Gibbon leads by describing how utterly perfect the Roman empire was as a civil institution. I am of a similar mind as one of Texan’s observations last week: that Gibbon may have been trying to paint so rosy a picture of Rome that he was not above heavy whitewashing at times.
But, next, he goes on a tangent that I can totally get with – the importance of a powerful and generous private sector to public satisfaction.
The private sector is radically, hilariously, infinitely better at improving people’s lives in a lasting way than the gub’mint is. Even if corruption and waste were not as ineradicably baked into public-sector aid as they are, the simplest fact is that when the government starts providing money to an organization or project, they now have an inroad to dictate how that money is used.
This only makes sense — if I were funding an organization or project, that would also give me a right to a greater say in how they used my money. However, as an individual, I am a bit easier to reason with than a faceless bureaucracy that can keep you mired in a labyrinth of phone menus forever. I am also more likely to be benevolent, because it’s easier to hold accountable one identifiable individual than a whole army of office staff reciting reams of policies that it takes an act of God to modify.
To prove his point, Gibbon introduces us to Herodes Atticus, apparently the Andrew Carnegie of the early empire. He indulges in a little nepotism by buying his son a government post, then redeems himself by footing the bill for a massive public works project that gave the water-poor city of Troas within his son’s territory its own aqueduct. Gibbon is quite fond of aqueducts (with good reason!) and returns to this theme when describing the magnificence of the empire’s more distant possessions a little later.
(digression: considering the etymology of nepotism, can you really call it that if the position you finagle is for your son, not your nephew?)
(second digression: for that matter, can you call it nepotism if you did it before popes existed?)
The whole story of how Atticus stumbled into the bulk of his wealth is gold, but Emperor Nerva’s recorded response to Atticus’ repeated attempts to surrender it to the state (seriously, what?) is my fave.
“The cautious Athenian still insisted, that the treasure was too considerable for a subject, and that he knew not how to use it. Abuse it then, replied the monarch, with a good-natured peevishness; for it is your own.”
Atticus, as we see in the next several accounts, went on to “abuse” his money by building all kinds of nice things for the populace to enjoy, entirely free of charge to themselves.
That short little exchange gives us a perfect miniature of everything we need to know about a healthy society. The citizen is aware of his own fallibility and doesn’t want to become corrupted by his wealth, which leads him to press the government to take it and spend it on the public good. (Imagine being able to trust your government to do that!) The ruler, in return, is aware of the citizen’s right to his own property and trusts him to manage his own affairs. (IMAGINE A GOVERNMENT – ok, I better stop.)
I shall instead pause to congratulate Gibbon on his impressive use of a wide range of primary and very close secondary sources. I’ve been watching him cite Suetonius, Tacitus, Polybius, Pausanius, Philostratus, and at least one occurrence of Josephus, to name only a few. I can’t give him full points for disinterested historical integrity, given how hard he puts his own spin on some things; but this trend of thorough documentation is more than praiseworthy.
Then, as now, citizens were not too keen on political elites’ use of the public coffers to glamorize their own residences and lifestyles. Emperors who converted formerly expansive royal properties into public gardens and assembly venues are the ones praised in the common histories. (And in Gibbon.)
After once again eulogizing the superior and salutary influence of Rome on her European and North African possessions, and contrasting it with the often-reduced circumstances of some of those former client states as independent countries (or disorganized nations) in his own time, Gibbon briefly indulges in his favorite theme of taking potshots at an ethnically Middle Eastern people. He pauses our tour group to again “contrast … Roman magnificence with Turkish barbarism” and opine that the native “Turks have ruined the arts” at Smyrna. I agree that the period between Ottoman and Republican Turkey was not the best time politically for the region, and the confused state of many territories formerly comprehended by the Ottoman empire was/is quite sad compared to Roman organization. I’m also like, “bro, have you ever seen Turkish tile work? Or kilim?” Don’t knock what they were good at, just because you personally prefer Ionic capitals and oil paintings.
If he keeps bagging on post-Roman Asia Minor, he may eventually nudge me to dabble in some research on exactly how bad it was there at the time he wrote. I shall summarize my findings if I do get sufficiently motivated to translate inclination into action.
Chapter 2 Part 4
Gibbon’s description of how Rome’s public road system had “little respect for the obstacles either of nature or private property” reminds me of Sally’s lament in Cars for the demise of small, circuitous highways as interstates bulldozed a straighter path through the land.
That makes me want to see a Cars version of the Decline & Fall.
Mater in a centurion costume. Ugh. I can’t.
I love how world-class roads were a Roman military invention that ended up benefiting the public even more than the military. Turns out, we’re not too bad at adopting our armed forces’ innovations for civilian uses either.
Also, how typical is it of human nature that the road houses and relay stations were all designated “FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY,” and then some well-connected businessman is like, “Oh please, your highness, my wife’s brother is sick,” and suddenly she’s given permission to borrow a team of Homeland Security horses “just this once” because she knows a guy. (Lookin’ at you, Pliny.)
Kind of like those median breaks on country interstates that only first responders are supposed to use, but you’ve definitely used one to make a U-turn before.
Gibbon mounts his high horse just one more time to remind us all how much less civilized Europe was before Rome’s conquests … then dismounts it again in so dramatic a fashion, he might as well have pulled himself up short and stopped banging his coconut halves together. He announces, “It would be almost impossible to enumerate all the articles, either of the animal or the vegetable reign, which were successively imported into Europe from Asia and Egypt: but it will not be unworthy of the dignity, and much less of the utility, of an historical work, slightly to touch on a few of the principal heads.”
I could think of a lot of ways to describe a discussion of the foods people learned to eat so they could start enjoying a diet that included actual VITAMINS … but “unworthy of the dignity of an historical work” was not one I would have thought of. I can’t even read that sentence without doing a hoity-toity nasal voice in my head.
Seriously, though, I would have read an entire chapter just on the exchange of flora among the various regions of expanding Roman territory. Has someone written a book on this?
“It appears from the newly discovered treatise of Cicero de Republica, that there was a law of the republic prohibiting the culture of the vine and olive beyond the Alps, in order to keep up the value of those in Italy. The restrictive law of Domitian was veiled under the decent pretext of encouraging the cultivation of grain.”
INTERESTING. I would also love some followup on whether this export ban delivered the intended results.
Once your society has its food production on lock, as Gibbon so ably describes in his “uNdIgNiFiEd” yet highly interesting section on agriculture, cattle ranching, and commercial fishing, you have a bit of leisure time to start thinking about having nice things.
I’m just gonna copy a whole chunk here, because there’s no way I can improve on this selection of Gibbon’s prose with my frenetic witticisms. It’s too good.
“Agriculture is the foundation of manufactures; since the productions of nature are the materials of art. Under the Roman empire, the labor of an industrious & ingenious people was variously, but incessantly, employed in the service of the rich. In their dress, their table, their houses, & their furniture, the favorites of fortune united every refinement of conveniency, of elegance, & of splendor, whatever could soothe their pride or gratify their sensuality. Such refinements, under the odious name of luxury, have been severely arraigned by the moralists of every age; and it might perhaps be more conducive to the virtue, as well as happiness, of mankind, if all possessed the necessaries, and none the superfluities, of life. But in the present imperfect condition of society, luxury, though it may proceed from vice or folly, seems to be the only means that can correct the unequal distribution of property. The diligent mechanic, & the skilful artist, who have obtained no share in the division of the earth, receive a voluntary tax from the possessors of land; and the latter are prompted, by a sense of interest, to improve those estates, with whose produce they may purchase additional pleasures.”
This is why we can, in fact, have nice things.
(Timely reminder that if Communism is ever tried “for real this time” – which just means “is finally implemented in the free nations” – there will be no more nice things for anyone, except the ruling class. Enjoy vehicles that work while you can.)
I think I like Gibbon’s coverage of Rome’s yearly schedules and sources of luxury imports even better than his dissertation on crop adaptation. I like to read about nice things. I like to look at them too, which is the entire reason I watched Crazy Rich Asians despite having minimal interest in romcoms.
This phrase made me laugh: “Amber was brought over land from the shores of the Baltic to the Danube; and the barbarians were astonished at the price which they received in exchange for so useless a commodity.”
Anyone else think of the scene from “The Legend of Tarzan” episode where Disney’s No Historical Figures Were Harmed version of DeBeers diamond hunters try to convince Tarzan to help them find a diamond mine by showing him a diamond and explaining that everyone in England wants one?
*sniff sniff* … *taste* … “Why?”
The danger that Gibbon highlights at the end of this catalogue of glam is how the allure of prestige foreign trade weakens the comparatively boring but vitally necessary domestic market.
“The labor and risk of the voyage was rewarded with almost incredible profit; but the profit was made upon Roman subjects, and a few individuals were enriched at the expense of the public. As the natives of Arabia and India were contented with the productions and manufactures of their own country, silver, on the side of the Romans, was the principal, if not the only instrument of commerce. It was a complaint worthy of the gravity of the senate, that, in the purchase of female ornaments, the wealth of the state was irrecoverably given away to foreign and hostile nations.”
As he points out, poverty had not gotten nearly as far within the gates as the observers of the time supposed; but they were setting a bad precedent for their future economy.
Nope. Can’t think of any modern issues that would align with this concept.
Gibbon seems like he’s going to take his rhapsodies of Roman perfection right back up after this, but instead, he pulls a little switcheroo – quoting a handful of in-the-period historians who made such sweeping statements about their own surroundings, then reminding the reader in his own voice that decay had already begun to creep in under the surface of seeming perfection:
“It was scarcely possible that the eyes of contemporaries should discover in the public felicity the latent causes of decay and corruption. This long peace, and the uniform government of the Romans, introduced a slow and secret poison into the vitals of the empire. The minds of men were gradually reduced to the same level, the fire of genius was extinguished, and even the military spirit evaporated. The natives of Europe were brave and robust. Spain, Gaul, Britain, and Illyricum supplied the legions with excellent soldiers, and constituted the real strength of the monarchy. Their personal valor remained, but they no longer possessed that public courage which is nourished by the love of independence, the sense of national honor, the presence of danger, and the habit of command. They received laws and governors from the will of their sovereign, and trusted for their defence to a mercenary army. The posterity of their boldest leaders was contented with the rank of citizens and subjects. The most aspiring spirits resorted to the court or standard of the emperors; and the deserted provinces, deprived of political strength or union, insensibly sunk into the languid indifference of private life.”
And, what is perhaps saddest of all to the lovers of literature, creativity in composition died. You were considered a skilled writer or speaker only if you could imitate the past as closely as possible. No one was interested in original underground stuff.
Maybe that’s the real reason that meeting down there helped so many Christians hide for so long.
It’s probably too early for this joke. We’re still several chapters away from catacomb Christians, but #worthit
Quotations that stood out to me:
“… inclined to rebellion, though incapable of freedom.”
Something about that turn of phrase just gets me.
“ … even the majestic ruins that are still scattered over Italy and the provinces, would be sufficient to prove that those countries were once the seat of a polite and powerful empire. … Many of those works were erected at private expense, and almost all were intended for public benefit.”
“The Odeum, designed by Pericles for musical performances, and the rehearsal of new tragedies, had been a trophy of the victory of the arts over barbaric greatness; as the timbers employed in the construction consisted chiefly of the masts of the Persian vessels.”
Lol. What a flex.
“In the commonwealths of Athens and Rome, the modest simplicity of private houses announced the equal condition of freedom; whilst the sovereignty of the people was represented in the majestic edifices designed to the public use.”
I feel myself warming up for another Hulk-out again. Let’s see if I can contain it.
This is such a powerful point about letting people alone to control their own resources and use them as they see fit, not as the government has undertaken to see fit for them. The incessant complaints we see today about the selfishness of the rich largely exist because the rich know they’ll be taxed right into oblivion if they don’t guard their money like Silas Marner. You still have some amazingly generous folks like Dan Price (whose voluntary business management choices are NOT socialism, whatever Twitter may say to the contrary), but I contend that scandals like the Panama papers would be a lot less common, and communities like the Fuggerei would be a lot more common, if our dear Mother State didn’t treat high earners like its own personal ATM.
As far as gorgeous public buildings that are free to access and use, I would contend that a public that doesn’t take care of its private stuff doesn’t deserve nice things for public stuff. Not to romanticize the past; I’m aware that things like graffiti and littering occurred in the ancient world, and that repairs and restorations are always needed just to repair the ravages of time, letting alone the ravages of other humans. But as a whole, ancient peoples took care of things, because the cost of replacing them was often too high. How well do we moderns take care of things?
One of the last times I went grocery shopping, I saw a little girl lose her grasp on a square milk carton. It took the impact of the fall on one of its corners and burst wide open when it hit the floor. Her dad looked over, saw the spreading milk puddle, saw people looking, grabbed her hand, and hustled her away from the scene without alerting any employees, or, better yet, grabbing the paper towels that were stored on a pole RIGHT NEXT TO HIM and showing her how to clean. I’ve worked food service and retail, too, and can’t tell you how many more times I’ve seen crap like that.
Yet we want everything nice to be turned into a free-access, “publicly owned” property if we care about “true equality.” Riiiiiiight.
“The veteran soldier contemplated the story of his own campaigns, and by an easy illusion of national vanity, the peaceful citizen associated to himself the honors of the triumph.”
This is funny, but not entirely inaccurate. In a way, by making the society one worth fighting for, the citizen DOES have some share in the victory – though the prime recognition for bearing up under the rigors of campaign definitely still belongs to the soldier.
“Whatever evils either reason or declamation have imputed to extensive empire, the power of Rome was attended with some beneficial consequences to mankind; and the same freedom of intercourse which extended the vices, diffused likewise the improvements, of social life.”
Every sword cuts both ways, fam. Kind of like how a road runs in two directions at once.
OOOOOOh, DID YOU SEE THAT TIE-IN COMING? NO YOU DIDN’T!
(Wow, how much caffeine did I ingest before writing this)
“… the apple was a native of Italy, and when the Romans had tasted the richer flavor of the apricot, the peach, the pomegranate, the citron, and the orange, they contented themselves with applying to all these new fruits the common denomination of apple, discriminating them from each other by the additional epithet of their country.”
I’m unreasonably amused by how the Romans couldn’t be bothered to call sweet fruits anything other than “apple.”
“… it may be observed, that those famines, which so frequently afflicted the infant republic, were seldom or never experienced by the extensive empire of Rome. The accidental scarcity, in any single province, was immediately relieved by the plenty of its more fortunate neighbors.”
Synergy, baby. (Overall world hunger is going down, btw. Just in case you needed a spot of good news.)
“A cloud of critics, of compilers, of commentators, darkened the face of learning, and the decline of genius was soon followed by the corruption of taste.”
Is that it?
Cool. We done.