Philip! You’ve just taken part in the (now par for the course) Roman tradition of raising yourself to the imperial seat by hacking your way through your superiors, and you’ve thrown the launch party of a lifetime! What are you gonna do next?
Chapter 8 Part 1
Gibbon has held to a straight(ish) historical line in showing how Rome began to decay from the inside. The surrounding nations noticed these developments as they unfolded. Like vultures in the sky, they began to circle more closely as Rome’s weaknesses grew more apparent and its downfall more inevitable. We’re stepping back from the maelstrom that the imperial succession of Rome has become to zoom in on a different part of the ancient world map: the Persian Empire.
Get ready for some parkour with Jake Gyllenhaal.
The rise and fall of the whole Persian Empire is sketched in a handful of sentences, comprehending the Assyrians, Babylonians, Medes, Persians, Macedonians, Parthians, Seleucids, and Saracens. Whew. Props to Edward Gibbon for so severely curbing his tendency to wax eloquent on historical events. This detour could have turned into a six-volume overview instead of a six-sentence one.
We get a brief biography of a young soldier of Persian blood, Artaxerxes, whose skill at his job gets him exiled for being a perceived threat to the Parthian king Artaban … only for said king to die in battle and Artaxerxes’ friends to pronounce him their new ruler, in all the style of the ancient Persian emperors.
WHO’S LAUGHING NOW, ARTABAN?
Artaxerxes is super pumped to use this promotion to begin rebuilding Persia’s former glory. After a buildup like this, we’ve gotta be poised to embark on yet another thrilling tale of slaughter and skulduggery, recounted in the finest Gibbonian prose.
Psych again. We’re taking another detour, this time to talk about Zoroastrianism.
Before I read this chapter, my knowledge of this religion consisted of two things:
- a Pakistani girl I befriended during a semester abroad was from an active Zoroastrian family
- a Zoroastrian temple in Iran has kept an eternal flame going since 470 AD
After I read this chapter, I don’t know how much of Gibbon’s exposition on this religion is correct (more on why later), but I did learn that the chip on his shoulder about people of faith isn’t just directed at Rome’s nominal emperor worship or state-enforced Christianity. He spares plenty of sneers for the religion of the Magi as well.
As happens to any religion when humans get involved, competing denominations had arisen based on the Zendavesta in the years since Zoroaster (who was also called Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche and Richard Strauss). Each sect claimed that it had the correct translation of the original Avestan text and the most accurate understanding of Z’s life and mission. Artaxerxes knew that one of the best ways to unite a pious people under your government is to present a united front with their religious system, so he called an ecumenical council of all living Magi to try to narrow down some universal articles of faith. A Mere Zoroastrianism, if you will.
Imagine the looks on the caterers’ faces when eighty thousand dudes showed up.
(Now imagine the looks on Mary and Joseph’s faces if that many Magi had showed up to see Jesus. Though if they’d all brought some gold with them, Joseph never would have had to work again.)
Clearly Artaxerxes had not ordered enough lunch boxes, and the Galactic Senate chamber hadn’t been built yet, so he had to whittle the crowd down to a size that wouldn’t spend the whole conference in cries, shouts, and confusion. Gibbon sheds no light on how he did this. We just know that the number was ultimately cut from 80,000 to seven — I repeat, seven — “by successive operations.”
Next, they invoked another long-running tradition from the more shamanistic of the world’s religions, and provided a young member of these favored seven with some fine substances to ingest in hopes of receiving a divine vision. (While reminiscent of the hallucinogenic prophecies of Greek oracles, this also squares with Herodotus’ observation that the Persians would make sure an idea sounded good drunk and sober before they would act on it.) The results from this guy Erdaviraph’s dream journal became the basis of their articles of faith.
Gibbon thinks we his readers should be passingly acquainted with the foundations of Zoroastrianism in order to understand the Persians’ later interactions with the Roman Empire. He cites as sources both the Zendavesta and the Sadder, while acknowledging that his unfamiliarity with the culture of the era and the scholarly hazards of retranslated translations may impede his accuracy in giving us the following overview. Milman chimes in to let us know that Gibbon’s reliance on the Sadder, a text written centuries after the events he has just related, may throw his treatment of Zoroastrianism into further doubt.
The main idea is a sort of deistic dualism between the entities Ormusd and Ahriman, with a Book of Revelation-esque final battle for eternity in which good will triumph over evil and the followers of Ormusd will be vindicated after their long struggle. Overarching the contest between these two is an infinite proto-Being described as Time personified, within which/whom all other things exist.
Guizot clarifies a couple of points which Gibbon got from the Muslim-influenced Sadder, rather than the earlier Zendavesta:
- Gibbon describes Ormusd and Ahriman as equal and opposite, one good and one evil, from eternity past. Guizot contends that Ahriman was originally conceived as good himself, but became evil through his envy of Ormusd. Boy, that rings a bell.
- Gibbon indicates that the final fate of Ahriman and co. will be banishment to the Void, which may or may not indicate annihilation. Guizot points out that an earlier version of Ahriman’s fate had him witness the resurrection of the dead and the total destruction of all of his power and works, after which he would be redeemed and allowed to enjoy eternal bliss with Ormusd under the rule of the aforementioned eternal being.
Chapter 8 Part 2
Because of their association between virtue and light, the sun and fire were very important to the Zoroastrians. Hence the aforementioned eternal flame. Fire Nation Persia confirmed.
The role of Mithra[s] in all this is bandied about somewhat confusingly in the text and the footnotes. Gibbon then treats us to some more of his disdain for religious rituals, in utterances like this one:
“Every mode of religion, to make a deep and lasting impression on the human mind, must exercise our obedience, by enjoining practices of devotion, for which we can assign no reason … the grovelling or visionary schemes of superstition.”
Part of this attitude may come from the admittedly cumbersome series of rites that an observant Zoroastrian had to perform when he did almost anything. Guizot again interjects that the fifteen genuflections required when trimming one’s nails were a later development, again from the Sadder. The rites observed at and immediately after the time of Zoroaster were much simpler, with the Z himself placing a higher emphasis on being a good farmer than following fancy rituals.
One interesting custom that stemmed from this was the following ceremony:
“In the spring of every year a festival was celebrated, destined to represent the primitive equality, and the present connection, of mankind. The stately kings of Persia, exchanging their vain pomp for more genuine greatness, freely mingled with the humblest but most useful of their subjects. On that day the husbandmen were admitted, without distinction, to the table of the king and his satraps. The monarch accepted their petitions, inquired into their grievances, and conversed with them on the most equal terms. “From your labors,” was he accustomed to say, (and to say with truth, if not with sincerity), “from your labors we receive our subsistence; you derive your tranquillity from our vigilance: since, therefore, we are mutually necessary to each other, let us live together like brothers in concord and love.” Such a festival must indeed have degenerated, in a wealthy and despotic empire, into a theatrical representation; but it was at least a comedy well worthy of a royal audience, and which might sometimes imprint a salutary lesson on the mind of a young prince.”
Unfortunately, Zoroaster was of a more venal character when it came to the landholdings and financial compensation of his acolytes and successors, which restrains Gibbon from granting him unqualified praise for his performance as a religious founder. The whole religion developed over time into a works-based salvation system, with tithes to your local priest taking on the salvific importance of papal indulgences.
Next step in strengthening your government, after you’ve got all the people following the same ideology: ensure that their children’s education conforms to it.
“These convenient maxims of reverence and implicit faith were doubtless imprinted with care on the tender minds of youth; since the Magi were the masters of education in Persia, and to their hands the children even of the royal family were intrusted.”
Artaxerxes added governmental roles to the Magi’s existing pedagogical responsibilities, which raised their social status across the board. Then he outlawed any religion but Zoroastrianism and started stamping out some of the localized religions. Further comments by Gibbon indicate that the majority of the population was already Zoroastrian, so this seems a bit excessive to me. I guess when you’ve already disrupted a dynasty and claimed its throne on shaky genealogical grounds, there’s no kill like overkill. Milman cuts in with mitigating information that not all of the ensuing persecution was initiated by Artaxerxes, as Jews and Christians held pretty safe social positions for a while.
A more unifying choice by the new king was to visit each of his holdings in person. Many of them had grown to function in relative independence under the rule of satraps who pledged nominal allegiance to a faraway throne, but otherwise did what they wanted. Artaxerxes put a face to the Imperium and consolidated much of the provincial governors’ power under his own name. (Sound familiar?) Submissive local rulers got to see Artaxerxes’ happy face, while the resistant ones were less fortunate.
However, this new Persian empire fell prey to the temptation that Hadrian had recognized in his forebears and tried to remedy by shrinking his dependencies: the temptation to pad your numbers through expansion, just to be able to say you rule 40 million people, while ignoring more practical considerations like how is everyone in this largely desert realm with limited coastlines going to access enough water?
“As soon as the ambitious mind of Artaxerxes had triumphed over the resistance of his vassals, he began to threaten the neighboring states, who, during the long slumber of his predecessors, had insulted Persia with impunity. He obtained some easy victories over the wild Scythians and the effeminate Indians; but the Romans were an enemy, who, by their past injuries and present power, deserved the utmost efforts of his arms.”
Trajan, Marcus Aurelius, and Septimius Severus all gave the Persians a run for their money on the field. Macrinus, whom Gibbon brings back up to jibe for his “pusillanimous temper,” opted to buy them off instead. (Speaking of that unfortunate emperor, here’s a darkly amusing example of what he considered his magnanimous command style, which his men no doubt interpreted as contemptible weakness:)
Even though the border wars between Rome and Persia apparently went on forever, little gain was made on either side. Gibbon presents for our consideration two specific cases:
One of the above-mentioned Parthian possessions which functioned largely as an independent state was the city of Seleucia (aka Pamphylia, near Antioch). It was a well-fortified, self-contained city republic right on the coast. Even this delightful situation was not idyllic enough for the visiting Parthian royals, who often made camp at the nearby village of Ctesiphon so they could play at reliving “the pastoral life of their Scythian ancestors.” Which sounds exactly like the Paris > Versailles > Petit Trianon progression.
The inexorable march of commerce followed the royal entourage to Ctesiphon and made it a cosmopolitan hub in its own right. Which sounds exactly like an early example of suburban sprawl. The onslaughts of Marcus Aurelius and Septimius Severus reduced Seleucia to a shell of itself, while Ctesiphon eventually bounced back from a siege and sack to maintain its status as the Persian rulers’ preferred winter resort.
“From these successful inroads the Romans derived no real or lasting benefit; nor did they attempt to preserve such distant conquests, separated from the provinces of the empire by a large tract of intermediate desert.”
Meaning, I guess, they conquered them just to say they could. Meanwhile, the Roman army was quietly subduing and fortifying a more useful Parthian possession:
Osrhoene had weaker ties to the Parthians (it must not have contained any exciting travel destinations), and the rising Roman Empire on their left scared them a lot more than the declining Parthian monarchy on their right.
The Romans were able to get a firm foothold there with multiple fortifications to hold their spot before Artaxerxes showed up with his dream to make Persia Cyrus the Great again. He sent Alexander Severus an eviction notice for all of the lands formerly held by the Persian Empire which the Romans were now occupying. This happened to comprise most of the current Roman Empire, so Alexander wasn’t too keen to comply.
“Such an embassy was much less an offer of negotiation than a declaration of war. Both Alexander Severus and Artaxerxes, collecting the military force of the Roman and Persian monarchies, resolved in this important contest to lead their armies in person.”
Alexander was fueled by the stories of his predecessors’ victories against Persia’s ancient territories, so he made sure the official reports of his own campaign against Artaxerxes were
“… dictated, as it too plainly appears, by the vanity of the monarch, adorned by the unblushing servility of his flatterers, and received without contradiction by a distant and obsequious senate. Far from being inclined to believe that the arms of Alexander obtained any memorable advantage over the Persians, we are induced to suspect that all this blaze of imaginary glory was designed to conceal some real disgrace.”
(Translation: he used the Ministry of Truth as his war correspondents. That’s real bad.)
Gibbon relies on Herodian for a more truthful, if less geographically exact, portrayal of Alexander’s three-pronged plan of attack. Embarassingly, both sides managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory; Artaxerxes withdrew because of heavy casualties, and Alexander because of his cold feet and his meddling mom.
Remember how Maximin and the army overthrew Alexander as the latter was preparing for a march against Germany? Those same troops that were being asked to embark on a multi-month, if not multi-year, campaign into Europe under the emperor’s leadership had just returned from Persia. And we’ve now seen how well that turned out.
That was a tactical error big enough to march a legion through. The fact that Alexander Severus thought his men would just go along with another one of his war plans after they’d seen his battlefield incompetence and his whitewashed reports for the folks back home was worse than naïve.
While Artaxerxes may have had the makings of a great conqueror, his son Sapor was decidedly more of a great inheritor. Gibbon praises the latter as “a son not unworthy of his great father,” but the lax discipline of his armies, and his poor judgment in believing that persecuting religious minorities would succeed in strengthening the state religion (that never works, btw), kept him from ever being more than that.
The noble families of Persia did not share in the incompetence of the main military body. Their youth were all highly trained in the arts of war as well as government. If the whole army had been subjected to the kind of drills that the noble kids and their cavalry units were (or that the Roman army used to be), the Caesars might have been in big trouble a lot sooner. However, Persia’s strength in numbers and proficiency in horsemanship, coupled with Rome’s own slide into negligence, ensured that the security of the eastern Roman border was becoming precarious.
Quotations that stood out to me:
“Followed, as it is said, by two millions of men, Xerxes, the descendant of Cyrus, invaded Greece. Thirty thousand soldiers, under the command of Alexander, the son of Philip, who was intrusted by the Greeks with their glory and revenge, were sufficient to subdue Persia.”
With this skillful use of italics, Gibbon circumvents the need to elaborate on the difference between trying to overwhelm your enemy with sheer numbers and making precision strikes with trained specialists. His rhapsodies on Roman military discipline in its glory days are well infused into our psyches by now. We vibe.
“Several of his sayings are preserved. One of them in particular discovers a deep insight into the constitution of government. The authority of the prince, said Artaxerxes, must be defended by a military force; that force can only be maintained by taxes; all taxes must, at last, fall upon agriculture; and agriculture can never flourish except under the protection of justice and moderation.”
It’s all connected.
“From the age of seven years they were taught to speak truth, to shoot with the bow, and to ride; and it was universally confessed that in the two last of these arts they had made a more than common proficiency.”
The SHADE. 😄