After singing my praises in the prior week… I must now return the compliment to @apluswake for holding the posting schedule down while I botched it this past week.
Welcome back to ancient Rom… wait.
If there is one thing Gibbon enjoys it is CONTEXT. Lots and lots of CONTEXT. Of course, context is important. Especially when you’re trying to understand the why and not just the how. It’s also important when you’re trying to trace back all the influences that led to the final result (as opposed to the obvious ones alone). And as any good Latin scholar will tell you, the key to making a good translation is the context that the words and various declensions, forms, etc. exist in. Now, as we have noted previously: I am not a good Latin scholar… please see Anna for your translation needs. But I am competent enough at making poor translations to know that “Caesar conquering the Gauls” and “Caesar convicting the Gauls” can be written with the same verb.
Behold, the color palette of Classical Christian Education!
Anyways, this Quest for Context™️ takes us on a journey to Persia, far beyond the borders of Rome. Actually, Rome is scarcely mentioned, save for some stories of Alexander Severus in the final pages of the chapter. This Quest for Context™️ takes us on an unexpected zigzag through history, giving us the first time that Gibbon does something this book is famous for: not presenting a purely linear narrative. So, without further ado, let us explore the great culture of Persia.
DO YOU LIKE TO HEAR OF ZOROASTRIANISM?
NEED TO KNOW ABOUT ARTAXERXES?
WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE MILMAN AND GUIZOT THRASH GIBBON FOR INACCURACY UP AND DOWN THE PRODUCE AISLE?
Well guess what?
Let’s take a Road Trip
Gibbon opens Chapter 8 with a bit of an important observation that gets lost when looking at the small picture details: through the entire history of the Empire to this point, Rome exclusively faced domestic enemies. No foreign threat was of any significance. It was no contest. Their luck, it seems, is about to run out. The fabric of Rome is now so totally gutted and deformed that the foreign enemies are becoming a threat.
This ominous open has serious Muppet Christmas Carol vibes.
Anyway, Gibbon heads to Foreign Enemies ‘R Us to get an opposing force. He comes back with the Persians. First he briefly jumps through some ancient history, doing the ultimate cliff notes version of the ancient Middle East that amounts to “Assyrians, Babylonians, skip a few, 99, 100.” This includes a brief cameo from Alexander the Great regarding his forays into Persia in order to seek revenge for their invasion and attacks on Greece. You know, THOSE attacks. You know. Oh, fine, I’ll do it:
NOW. Let’s get this mild confusion taken of the way, because this really, really, really threw me for a while. Gibbon waxes endlessly about “Artaxerxes,” who he says is also called “Ardshir.” While Artaxerxes is his name, it is actually his Greek name. This Artaxerxes is who we know today as the Persian King Ardashir I. So when I refer to Artaxerxes (as Gibbon does) know that he’s talking about Ardashir I and not Artaxerxes from the 400s B.C. who is referenced in Ezra and Nehemiah.
Know your Artaxerxes.
Artaxerxes is the guy who succeeded in stopping the otherwise unchallenged Parthians. Thus, a reborn Persian Empire takes root. At this point we get the first round of footnotes, though Milman merely wishes to add some references at this point. In a little bit, Milman will return with, how shall we say, much saltier footnotes. Anywho, Artaxerxes served first under the Parthian king Artaban. Gibbon offers some significant timeless truth in asserting “it appears that he was driven into exile and rebellion by royal ingratitude, the customary reward for superior merit.” Oof. After asserting a royal lineage, Artaxerxes started an uprising that destroyed Artaban and the entire Parthian kingdom and replaced it with a new Persian kingdom. After such a resounding success, he became fixated on restoring the greatness of ancient Persia: “pompous [royal] titles, instead of gratifying the vanity of the Persian, served only to admonish him of his duty”. Kind of like with the lifelike fake Santa Claus insists on actually executing the duties of Santa Claus in The Santa Claus 2.
As a part of the move to return to Persian greatness of yesteryear, Artaxerxes brought about an attempt to restore the old Zoroastrianism to its actual doctrine and undo the years of redefinition and modifications at the hands of the Parthians. It seems that the language was lost and there were different interpretations of what the Zendavesta actually said. Enter the Magi! Artaxerxes brought them in and they showed up willingly. As in 80,000 of them. So they had to whittle ‘em down.
They finally got it down to seven. From 80,000. That’s 0.00875%. What can I say: Simon Cowell is good at his job!
But Gibbon does not address whether Sanjaya made it to the final round or not.
I guess not.
After one of the seven remaining Magi drank some “soporiferous wine” and went to sleep, he woke and immediately told everyone of his trip to heaven and conversations with the Zoroastrian god. (Are they sure it was wine and not ayahuasca?). Whether his trip was a lie, a drug induced hallucination, or a demonic experience, who can say. But the result was that everyone took what he said as absolute truth and it solidified the single version of Zoroastrian doctrine. Milman again returns in footnotes to provide some additional detail and context regarding historical sources that offer differing accounts of the Zoroastrian elements of this history and the origins of the Zend.
Gibbon returns to do something we really wanted: describe Zoroastrianism. In great detail. How detailed, you ask?
“The great and fundamental article of the system was the celebrated doctrine of the two principles; a bold and injudicious attempt of Eastern philosophy to reconcile the existence of moral and physical evil with the attributes of a beneficent Creator and Governor of the world. The first and original Being, in whom, or by whom, the universe exists, is denominated in the writings of Zoroaster, Time without bounds; a but it must be confessed, that this infinite substance seems rather a metaphysical abstraction of the mind than a real object endowed with self-consciousness, or possessed of moral perfections. From either the blind or the intelligent operation of this infinite Time, which bears but too near an affinity with the chaos of the Greeks, the two secondary but active principles of the universe were from all eternity produced, Ormusd and Ahriman, each of them possessed of the powers of creation, but each disposed, by his invariable nature, to exercise them with different designs. The principle of good is eternally aborbed in light; the principle of evil eternally buried in darkness. The wise benevolence of Ormusd formed man capable of virtue, and abundantly provided his fair habitation with the materials of happiness. By his vigilant providence, the motion of the planets, the order of the seasons, and the temperate mixture of the elements, are preserved. But the malice of Ahriman has long since pierced Ormusd’s egg; or, in other words, has violated the harmony of his works. Since that fatal eruption, the most minute articles of good and evil are intimately intermingled and agitated together; the rankest poisons spring up amidst the most salutary plants; deluges, earthquakes, and conflagrations attest the conflict of Nature, and the little world of man is perpetually shaken by vice and misfortune. Whilst the rest of human kind are led away captives in the chains of their infernal enemy, the faithful Persian alone reserves his religious adoration for his friend and protector Ormusd, and fights under his banner of light, in the full confidence that he shall, in the last day, share the glory of his triumph. At that decisive period, the enlightened wisdom of goodness will render the power of Ormusd superior to the furious malice of his rival. Ahriman and his followers, disarmed and subdued, will sink into their their native darkness; and virtue will maintain the eternal peace and harmony of the universe.”
Um… this is more complicated than the first chapter of The Silmarillion.
Guizot enters the chat: “This is an error. Ahriman was not forced by his invariable nature to do evil; the Zendavesta expressly recognizes (see the Izeschne) that he was born good, that in his origin he was light; envy rendered him evil”.
Oh. Well, okay then.
Also, Editors +1.
Part II: Further down the rabbit hole…
Gibbon doesn’t even blink. No dropped lines, no loss of concentration. He opens part 2 with, “The theology of Zoroaster was darkly comprehended by foreigners, and even by the far greater number of his disciples; but the most careless observers were struck with the philosophic simplicity of the Persian worship”. GIBBON. He addresses the perception that Zoroastrians are polytheists (which they insist is not so). Milman footnotes to hip the reader to Gibbon’s misses, including incorrectly identifying the Mithra.
But apparently Gibbon was correct in asserting that Zoroastrians got a special girdle, so there’s that.
But, yet again, Guizot drops in a footnote to correct Gibbon’s conflation of Zoroaster’s actual religious observances in relation to later Zoroastrian priests. In doing so, he makes a pertinent observation that is quite true and readily observed the world over: “This is the progress of all religions the worship, simple in its origin, is gradually overloaded with minute superstitions”. Just look at how various Christian denominations load their services with complications derived from various verbal traditions and hoop-jumping created and maintained by people who contort themselves into theological pretzels in order to justify them.
Mmm. Pretzels. Anyway, Editors +3.
Zoroaster did value hard work and being productive in life. In fact it became tradition of Persian monarchs to dialogue with the poors and commoners and proclaim the virtues and values of their labor. Gibbon immolates these performative gestures with the plasma heat of a millions suns that actually impresses me:
“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. Had Zoroaster, in all his institutions, invariably supported this exalted character, his name would deserve a place with those of Numa and Confucius, and his system would be justly entitled to all the applause, which it has pleased some of our divines, and even some of our philosophers, to bestow on it. But in that motley composition, dictated by reason and passion, by enthusiasm and by selfish motives, some useful and sublime truths were disgraced by a mixture of the most abject and dangerous superstition.”
Had Gibbon only roasted the moral turpitude, slavery, and persecution in Rome with the same voracity.
Gibbon’s moment of clarity takes a few steps back when he complains about Zoroaster’s demand for tithes in order to reach Zoroastrian heaven. Right on cue, Guizot arrives in the footnotes to lament Gibbon’s shoddy research. You can hear the exasperation as he writes (italic emphasis added), “The passage quoted by Gibbon is not taken from the writings of Zoroaster, but from the Sadder, a work, as has been before said, much later than the books which form the Zendavesta… It is remarkable that Gibbon should fall into this error”.
Milman joins in on the fun, emphasizing the “manifestly post-Mahometan” age of the sources Gibbon refers to as if they could speak contemporaneously of the ancient world.
Dang. Gibbon can’t catch a break. But he finally remembers the narrative he is working on and mentions Artaxerxes again, asserting that he banned all religions but Zoroastrianism, gutting the Parthian religion, Greek mythology/religion, and brought about egregious persecution of Jews and Christians all in the name of uniting the Persians under the new king.
Guess. What. Happens. In. The. Footnotes.
Milman: “It is incorrect to attribute these persecutions to Artaxerxes. The Jews were held in honor by him, and their schools flourished during his reign… real persecution did not begin till the reigns of Yezdigerd and Kobad… Sapor first persecuted the Christians.”
You guessed it: that’s all after Artaxerxes, with a lot of it coming several decades later.
Milman and Guizot to Gibbon:
I would argue that Gibbon’s detail on Artaxerxes’ military and motivational ability provides the more likely source of Persian unity under his reign: he rewarded the loyal and eliminated the disloyal. And it seems that he got Persian lands all on the same page with his rule, he turned is attention to foreign powers who dismissed Persia as a serious contender due to the ineffective and pointless dynasty that Artaxerxes ousted. Up until this point, Persia was little more than a surface nuisance that Rome repeatedly and easily brushed off. For Artaxerxes, Rome was the true goal and became the sole focus of his attentions after he “obtained some easy victories over the wild Scythians and the effeminate Indians” and I literally can’t even in terms of Gibbon’s disdain for cultures other than Rome. It’s among the most blatant slants of the book so far and, while there is much to lambast in many of the ancient societies we’re dealing with, Gibbon’s fallacy laden idolization of Rome and disregard for everyone else is somethin’ else.
Rome worked to conquer and maintain control of certain key cities, but really had no trouble maintaining control and order during the reign of Alexander Severus. And that’s where Artaxerxes comes in with an epic flex: he dispatches 400 of the hottest, tallest Persians he could find — with the best horses, attire, and pageantry, too — to deliver a message to Alexander Severus: he commanded Rome to surrender and leave his kingdom, or else.
But Rome, oddly, bungles it! Though in this case Rome’s bungle is still enough to win against Artaxerxes’ best. Despite Alexander Severus dying and majorly screwing up before doing so (as in, he kinda chickened out and left the battlefield), Persia can’t even capture Mesopotamia. After his death, Artaxerxes’ son Sapor becomes king and continues the laughable conquest to great failure. Gibbon then lays out what he really thinks of Persia’s military prowess:
“They were equally unskilled in the arts of constructing, besieging, or defending regular fortifications. They trusted more to their numbers than to their courage; more to their courage than to their discipline. The infantry was a half-armed, spiritless crowd of peasants, levied in haste by the allurements of plunder, and as easily dispersed by a victory as by a defeat. The monarch and his nobles transported into the camp the pride and luxury of the seraglio. Their military operations were impeded by a useless train of women, eunuchs, horses, and camels; and in the midst of a successful campaign, the Persian host was often separated or destroyed by an unexpected famine.”
More million degree plasma flamethrower from Gibbon.
HOWEVER. The nobles of Persia, different it seems than the nobles of Rome, were ready to go to war and possessed some combat skill and a lot of patriotism. Gibbon concludes this chapter with an indicator that these Persian nobles are about ready to cause Rome some serious, serious, serious problems.
Some observations, in no particular order:
And the moral of the story is: “not my expertise” is not an acceptable excuse when you are asserting expertise.
The further Gibbon strays from Rome and Roman history, the more inaccurate and unprepared he is. The editors chime in with corrections so frequently that it feels like a paper that would be an A+ paper had the student not procrastinated on part of it until the night before. But note how Milman and Guizot stop dropping anvils on him as soon as he returns to Persia’s connections to Rome and the Roman history narrative.
Perhaps it was poor knowledge of source material. Perhaps it was poor research advice or information from a third party. But if Milman and Guizot can find the right information, Gibbon should’ve been able to get it, too.
“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; and must acquire our esteem, by inculcating moral duties analogous to the dictates of our own hearts.”
On one hand: Gibbon is not wrong. This is the commonality of man-made religions across the world. The virtues they preach and seek to manifest are rooted in an earthly view of the world and those in it and the religious practices and prescriptions don’t hold up under scrutiny.
However, I’d like to hear him square this statement with his own professed Protestantism. Christianity stands unique to all other religions at its core because the moral duties are not “analogous to the dictates of our own hearts” and its Biblical practices are hardly lacking in reason. His apparent universal application of his statement, along with the lack of words devoted to the persecution of Christians in Rome in prior chapters… let’s just say that my curiosity is piqued regarding where Gibbon actually is in his views of Christianity.
“Persians are still the most skilful horsemen, and their horses the finest in the East”
I don’t know the state of their horses, but I do know this: Persian culture is an absolute joy. It is endlessly fascinating, engaging, and I am happy to say that one of the great gifts of living in LA was interacting with and learning from Persians. Despite the current state of things in Iran and the attempts by the regime to bury the past, traditions live on.
“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.”
So… let me get this straight. Government’s interest in serving the public is to preserve the flow of tax dollars required to fund the military forces needed to insulate the government from threats.
Pretty shrewd reasoning, Mr. Artaxerxes.
So many mentions of Scythians in this chapter means only one thing:
By the way – whatever happened to Sanjaya, anyway?