Chapter 3 Part 1
Gibbon starts with a cheerful reminder that having too much power concentrated in one person is bad, throwing a little shade at religion while he’s at it. Wenck and Milman protest.
To be fair to Eddie G, he leaves religion alone after taking his one shot, and proceeds to make a persuasive case for how the national character of Rome was damaged by letting the emperor absorb more and more power unto himself while they triumphed at the downfall of their political enemies and anesthetized themselves with entertainment.
Wenck throws in a moderating comment to the effect that Augustus didn’t usurp so much of the Senate’s power as Gibbon supposed, since the Senate was not as powerful as he gave them credit for to begin with. Either way, Augustus managed to extricate himself from any (publicly expressed) suspicions of megalomania with a moving speech about how everything he had done was all for Rome, not himself, showing that he had really paid attention in his “Orate like Demosthenes” masterclass. Everyone who was reading the room realized that if they wanted any political future of their own, they’d better support him. He magnanimously agreed to stay in power only if the Senate would hold him to a 10-year term limit. The senators promptly agreed and then never brought it up again, except as a ceremonial formality.
The dissertation on the inexorability of Roman military discipline that Gibbon treated us to a couple chapters ago resurfaces here, as he explains how the use of the term “Imperator” for the head of state created a subtle shift in the people’s perception of their relationship to the emperor. Military generals were the only public figures who had enjoyed that title before. Gibbon explains,
“With regard to the soldiers, the jealousy of freedom had, even from the earliest ages of Rome, given way to the hopes of conquest, and a just sense of military discipline. … The most sacred rights of freedom, confirmed by the Porcian and Sempronian laws, were suspended by the military engagement. In his camp the general exercised an absolute power of life and death; his jurisdiction was not confined by any forms of trial, or rules of proceeding, and the execution of the sentence was immediate and without appeal.”
Makes American military justice sound downright cuddly.
By calling himself “Imperator,” and thereby establishing a precedent for his successors to do the same, Augustus was letting the people know (without being so crude as to say so) that their lives were in his hands now. But, ever the politician, he continued to insist that the senators retain command of their own legions and provinces, superseded only when he showed up somewhere in person.
To seem to be giving power away without actually doing so is the fastest way to win the trust of those with ambitions of their own but no drive to bring those ambitions to pass. Such figures are easily pacified if you let them be an empty suit with a high-flown title and a nice office. Augustus recognized this.
If Gibbon is to be believed, Augustus essentially quilted together the position of emperor by getting the Senate to grant him all of the various types of authority one could have in Rome. At the same time, he cajoled the people into letting him keep a standing army by professing to find military coercion too heavy-handed a source of power for his taste. He now held ultimate religious, judicial (with concessions to the Senate), diplomatic, financial, and military power. He might not want to use the army to enforce any of the official, formerly separate and time-limited, roles which he had now consolidated under his own name, but if he ever needed to … why, there they’d be.
Gibbon here has the insight to point out that while Augustus’ dissolution of public assemblies and elections meant that democracy was no more, it was a good move as far as imperial stability was concerned. Why? Because – say it with me – democracy only works when the pool of self-governing citizens is very, VERY SMALL. If you want to keep the politicians near enough to kick them, it helps when there are few enough of them that you know who they are and have personal relationships with them. Otherwise, you will eventually exchange your three thousand tyrants one mile away for one tyrant three thousand miles away, because government work will have become such a bloated mess that most people won’t want to bother with it, leaving only the worst and most power-hungry people to do it.
Hearkening back to his earlier comments about polytheistic syncretism and the usefulness of state religion, Gibbon briefly touches on the rise of the emperor-worship cults.
“A regular custom was introduced, that on the decease of every emperor who had neither lived nor died like a tyrant, the senate by a solemn decree should place him in the number of the gods: and the ceremonies of his apotheosis were blended with those of his funeral. This legal, and, as it should seem, injudicious profanation, so abhorrent to our stricter principles, was received with a very faint murmur, by the easy nature of Polytheism; but it was received as an institution, not of religion, but of policy.”
Our resident clergyman, of course, does have a few corrections to make. Rev. Milman goes meta by quoting Guizot, whose first sentence reads like the opening salvo of a Twitter smackdown (“This is inaccurate.”), then adds a correction of his own to the Frenchman’s conflation of posthumous apotheosis vs. adulation of a reigning emperor. Watching academics spar with each other is better than wrestling.
Gibbon takes a moment to school us on what parts of the emperor’s name were filled by “Caesar” and “Augustus,” and which were hereditarily vs. ceremonially communicable to later rulers. Meanwhile, Milman and Wenck appear to fall out for a second time, as they don’t agree on precisely how obscure Augustus’ family was prior to his adoption by Julius Caesar. Milman, of course, as the editor of this edition of the D&F, has the advantage of always getting the last word, so we’ll never know if Wenck would have deferred to his view of the matter after reading Milman’s answer to his own footnote.
This seems like a good time to take a gander at what ol’ HHM looked like.
Forget Spongebob. Milman should have been the face of this meme.
Chapter 3 Part 2
For a chapter named after “The Constitution” and “The Antonines,” it sure hasn’t said very much about either one yet.
Gibbon attributes Augustus’ stratagems and successes in politics to a cowardice-fueled case of Becoming the Mask.
How much of it was cowardice, and how much was simple self-preservation, might be called into question by the next paragraph. Augustus, in Gibbon’s view, was entirely aware of the sword of Damocles hanging above his head at all times, and knew that his best defense was in shoring up the mystique of the “IMPERATOR” while keeping the senators and people convinced that they still held more power than they actually did.
“The consul or the tribune might have reigned in peace. The title of king had armed the Romans against his life. Augustus was sensible that mankind is governed by names; nor was he deceived in his expectation, that the senate and people would submit to slavery, provided they were respectfully assured that they still enjoyed their ancient freedom. A feeble senate and enervated people cheerfully acquiesced in the pleasing illusion, as long as it was supported by the virtue, or even by the prudence, of the successors of Augustus. It was a motive of self-preservation, not a principle of liberty, that animated the conspirators against Caligula, Nero, and Domitian. They attacked the person of the tyrant, without aiming their blow at the authority of the emperor.”
Not even Caligula’s future depredations could fully rouse the people, as Gibbon illustrates:
“There appears, indeed, one memorable occasion, in which the senate, after seventy years of patience, made an ineffectual attempt to re-assume its long-forgotten rights. When the throne was vacant by the murder of Caligula, the consuls convoked that assembly in the Capitol, condemned the memory of the Caesars, gave the watchword liberty to the few cohorts who faintly adhered to their standard, and during eight-and-forty hours acted as the independent chiefs of a free commonwealth. But while they deliberated, the praetorian guards had resolved. The stupid Claudius, brother of Germanicus, was already in their camp, invested with the Imperial purple, and prepared to support his election by arms. The dream of liberty was at an end; and the senate awoke to all the horrors of inevitable servitude. Deserted by the people, and threatened by a military force, that feeble assembly was compelled to ratify the choice of the praetorians, and to embrace the benefit of an amnesty, which Claudius had the prudence to offer, and the generosity to observe.”
TL;DR: the Gussie Fink-Nottles in the Senate were like, “we’ve fallen so far from our former glory – this is our chance to recover it! Uh … I mean … if nobody minds,” and the Chads in the army were like, “dude, give us back our figurehead ASAP. Making our own decisions is exhausting. And my show just started streaming a new season.”
A POSSIBLE FUTURE FOR MY COUNTRY IS IN THIS PICTURE AND I DON’T LIKE IT.
We’ve gotten so lazy, and our ignorance of ACTUAL history is so pervasive (thanks a lot, Howard Zinn), that we’re too busy tyrant-spotting to recognize actual tyranny. This blog itself may ultimately turn out to be little more than a younger version of “old man yells at cloud.”
(This is the despair you were promised in our Twitter bio, just FYI.)
“The insolence of the armies inspired Augustus with fears of a still more alarming nature. The despair of the citizens could only attempt, what the power of the soldiers was, at any time, able to execute. How precarious was his own authority over men whom he had taught to violate every social duty! He had heard their seditious clamors; he dreaded their calmer moments of reflection. One revolution had been purchased by immense rewards; but a second revolution might double those rewards. The troops professed the fondest attachment to the house of Caesar; but the attachments of the multitude are capricious and inconstant. Augustus summoned to his aid whatever remained in those fierce minds of Roman prejudices; enforced the rigor of discipline by the sanction of law; and, interposing the majesty of the senate between the emperor and the army, boldly claimed their allegiance, as the first magistrate of the republic. … Augustus restored the ancient severity of discipline. After the civil wars, he dropped the endearing name of Fellow-Soldiers, and called them only Soldiers.”
AKA, holding off Skynet’s impending takeover by reminding it that you still have your hand on the power plug.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t work forever.
The early emperors also tried to stave off succession crises by letting their chosen heirs have just enough power during their lifetimes to prepare them for the throne while keeping them from getting too greedy. Vespasian, for example, kept Titus happy by giving him armies to lead … far away from Rome. To quote the Tisroc in Chapter 8 of The Horse and His Boy: “He had better cool his blood abroad than boil it in inaction here.”
The next several paragraphs cover the struggles of the emperors to maintain their legitimacy in the eyes of the people, and more importantly of the soldiers, as new dynasties fully transferred the name of Caesar from inheritance to symbolism. We skip a few to focus briefly on Vespasian, Nerva, Trajan, and Hadrian, and their various strategies for governing a vast territory and grooming a successor while keeping a handle on their PR management.
“Under [Hadrian’s] reign, as has been already mentioned, the empire flourished in peace and prosperity. He encouraged the arts, reformed the laws, asserted military discipline, and visited all his provinces in person. His vast and active genius was equally suited to the most enlarged views, and the minute details of civil policy. … The general tenor of his conduct deserved praise for its equity and moderation.”
(Unless you were a Christian, lol.)
Since Hadrian, at least in Gibbon’s estimation, was occasionally the slave of his vacillating moods, and more likely to favor sexy people over capable ones, the relative peace of his two successors’ rules was more of a happy accident than the result of any accurate character judgments on his part.
“The two Antonines [Pius and Marcus Aurelius] (for it is of them that we are now speaking,) governed the Roman world forty-two years, with the same invariable spirit of wisdom and virtue. … Their united reigns are possibly the only period of history in which the happiness of a great people was the sole object of government.”
(Unless you were a Christian, lol.)
Sorry, getting ahead of Gibbon again. More on that later, I’m sure.
Even though I know what he did to my folks, I still love reading Marcus’ philosophical musings. Gotta give a guy credit when he has a brain.
“His meditations, composed in the tumult of the camp, are still extant; and he even condescended to give lessons of philosophy, in a more public manner than was perhaps consistent with the modesty of [a] sage, or the dignity of an emperor. … He was severe to himself, indulgent to the imperfections of others, just and beneficent to all mankind.”
Methinks he was an Enneagram 1. Maybe that’s why I like him.
“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. The vast extent of the Roman empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of virtue and wisdom. The armies were restrained by the firm but gentle hand of four successive emperors, whose characters and authority commanded involuntary respect. The forms of the civil administration were carefully preserved by Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the Antonines, who delighted in the image of liberty, and were pleased with considering themselves as the accountable ministers of the laws. Such princes deserved the honor of restoring the republic, had the Romans of their days been capable of enjoying a rational freedom.”
Back to the rose-colored glasses – though not without a subsequent dash of realism about the ultimate instability of concentrating the well-being of a whole empire in one person, or the decades of brutality and suffering that predated this period, in the persons of some of the most denounced emperors.
“The dark, unrelenting Tiberius, the furious Caligula, the feeble Claudius, the profligate and cruel Nero, the beastly Vitellius, and the timid, inhuman Domitian, are condemned to everlasting infamy. During fourscore years (excepting only the short and doubtful respite of Vespasian’s reign) Rome groaned beneath an unremitting tyranny, which exterminated the ancient families of the republic, and was fatal to almost every virtue and every talent that arose in that unhappy period. … Under the reign of these monsters, the slavery of the Romans was accompanied with two peculiar circumstances, the one occasioned by their former liberty, the other by their extensive conquests, which rendered their condition more completely wretched than that of the victims of tyranny in any other age or country. From these causes were derived, 1. The exquisite sensibility of the sufferers; and, 2. The impossibility of escaping from the hand of the oppressor.”
Gibbon proceeds to remind us very eloquently how educating a generation in the principles of freedom only does them any good if they’re prepared to act on those principles when necessary. Otherwise, you’re only grooming them to a higher degree of suffering when a dictatorship comes than those who grew up considering themselves fit only for subjugation would experience under the same circumstances.
After all, when Big Brother’s thumb is pressed down equally upon every destination you might have the means to reach … where do you go?
Quotations that stood out to me:
“The rich and polite Italians … enjoyed the present blessings of ease and tranquillity, and suffered not the pleasing dream to be interrupted by the memory of their old tumultuous freedom.”
The relatability is getting downright uncomfortable.
“It was dangerous to trust the sincerity of Augustus; to seem to distrust it was still more dangerous.”
This is when you know it’s game over. (Just in case you thought cancel culture was a recent invention.)
“[Augustus’] command, indeed, was confined to those citizens who were engaged in the service by the military oath; but such was the propensity of the Romans to servitude, that the oath was voluntarily taken by the magistrates, the senators, and the equestrian order, till the homage of flattery was insensibly converted into an annual and solemn protestation of fidelity.”
When you’ve had it beaten into your head not to think, just to serve and obey, because you serve the greatest city on earth, you’re ripe for manipulation by anyone who can convince you that he has the best interests of the city at heart.
“As long as the republic subsisted, the dangerous influence, which either the consul or the tribune might derive from their respective jurisdiction, was diminished by several important restrictions. Their authority expired with the year in which they were elected; the former office was divided between two, the latter among ten persons; and, as both in their private and public interest they were averse to each other, their mutual conflicts contributed, for the most part, to strengthen rather than to destroy the balance of the constitution. But when the consular and tribunitian powers were united, when they were vested for life in a single person, when the general of the army was, at the same time, the minister of the senate and the representative of the Roman people, it was impossible to resist the exercise, nor was it easy to define the limits, of his imperial prerogative.”
“The emperors, if we except those tyrants whose capricious folly violated every law of nature and decency, disdained that pomp and ceremony which might offend their countrymen, but could add nothing to their real power.”
Real power knows not to consume conspicuously.
“In elective monarchies, the vacancy of the throne is a moment big with danger and mischief.”
‘Murica: *sips Whiteclaw* “Ya think?”
“Wit and valor are qualifications more easily ascertained than humanity or the love of justice.”
The former ensure that your reputation will last; the latter ensure that your people will.