We thought we were going to learn about Phillip, who just became emperor.
Gibbon had other ideas, so we learned about Zoroastrianism and Persians attacking Alexander Severus.
Then, we thought we were going to learn about Persian nobles going to war against Rome, to decidedly bad results for Rome.
Gibbon, again, has other ideas. This time, we learn about barbarians.
Next episode, Gibbon reveals that he is Christopher Nolan and that Hans Zimmer is providing the score and that the Protagonist is traveling backwards in inverted time while Rome travels forwards and Cobb inceptions Theodosius to get him to break up the empire. Oh yeah, and Michael Caine is in it.
Well, barbarians will have to do for now. Let’s throw some shrimps on the Barbie!
How much wordplay on “barbarian” can I cram into this post? Hmmm. Perhaps I’ll save this for later. We’ll have plenty of time to cover barbaric encounters in future chapters. Ye hath been spared… for now.
Part 1: So, how long does it take for Gibbon to get corrected by the editors this time?
Two sentences. Just. Two. Sentences.
Gibbon: “We shall occasionally mention the Scythian or Sarmatian tribes”
Milman: “The Scythians, even according to the ancients, are not Sarmatians. It may be doubted whether Gibbon intended to confound them”.
Guizot: *writes 300+ words on the genealogy and history to delineate the Scythians and Samartians*
Gibbon identifies the “warlike Germans” as the more substantial enemy and opponent of Rome when compared to the Persians, drawing some minor parallels between civilized Europe and the barbarians. Gibbon proceeds to assert the boundaries of Germany at this time, but Guizot immediately drops an 800+ word footnote to correct Gibbon.
*headdesk* (thankfully, this is the extent of the corrections in this chapter)
Gibbon does get to successfully assert that some researchers suspected ancient Germany to have been colder, though Germany is a colder and more rugged land whether such claims are correct or not. To create a vivid impression in the mind of the 18th century reader, he contends that Canada should be treated as analogous to ancient Germany.
But the power of cold weather… I never knew just how powerful it is. You see, the cold weather is responsible for how burly and strong the barbarians are. And also that women have more children in cold climates? “Olaus Rudbeck asserts that the Swedish women often bear ten or twelve children, and not uncommonly twenty or thirty; but the authority of Rudbeck is much to be suspected.”
Oh, and Gibbon also asserts the usefulness of reindeer.
Kids around the world second the motion.
Milman contends that evidence of reindeer in ancient Germany is insufficient.
Kids around the world object.
I shall make an executive decision: objection sustained, the reindeer stay.
Gibbon then contradicts himself in the closing moments of part one by asserting that a winter campaign was problematic for the Romans, who were used to the Mediterranean climate… but then says in a footnote “The Romans made war in all climates, and by their excellent discipline were in a great measure preserved in health and vigor.”
Well. Which is it, man?
Part 2: How do Barbarians think? Where do they do? Where do they come from?
Well, as to where they come from: they spring out of holes in the ground, like dwarves.
LOLOL you think I joke but LOLOL wait until you read Gibbon, who saw the future and realized someone might think that they spontaneously appeared from the ground and felt the need to explain how that isn’t possible: “To assert those savages to have been the spontaneous production of the earth which they inhabited would be a rash inference, condemned by religion, and unwarranted by reason.” Well, okay Gibbon, I guess they’re just nomads who congregated together. Take the fun out of, why don’t ya. Ugh.
Anywho, remember Rudbeck… the guy who said “cold weather = more kids” and Gibbon said “lol Rudbeck is entertaining but not very accurate”? He’s now expert #1 regarding where the descendants of Noah went, though Gibbon still only gives him credentials as “entertaining.” Huh? This particular section in the chapter morphs into a fairly strange paragraph, almost as if we get to watch Gibbon get distracted and go on a bit of a bunny-trail. He does eventually move on, trading the topic of where the Barbarians came from (without warning might I add) for the topic of their ability to read and write. Many modern education advocates would be thrilled by Gibbon’s clarity on this front:
“the use of letters is the principal circumstance that distinguishes a civilized people from a herd of savages incapable of knowledge or reflection. Without that artificial help, the human memory soon dissipates or corrupts the ideas intrusted to her charge; and the nobler faculties of the mind, no longer supplied with models or with materials, gradually forget their powers; the judgment becomes feeble and lethargic, the imagination languid or irregular. Fully to apprehend this important truth, let us attempt, in an improved society, to calculate the immense distance between the man of learning and the illiterate peasant. The former, by reading and reflection, multiplies his own experience, and lives in distant ages and remote countries; whilst the latter, rooted to a single spot, and confined to a few years of existence, surpasses but very little his fellow-laborer, the ox, in the exercise of his mental faculties.”
Dang. Gibbon gets an A+ for that alone.
Oh, and not only did the Germans not read and write, they didn’t build towns. Tacitus the historian said that these ancient Germans detested the cities of Rome as claustrophobic, imprisoning nightmares. They built small huts where it was convenient, wore animal skins, and had cows. No, not outbursts. Actual cows. I mean they had livestock. As for trade, those in proximity to Rome apparently had exposure to minted currency, but everyone else dealt in barter/trade transactions exclusively.
Basically they’re millennials doing the whole “live in a camper van” thing…
At this point, Gibbon ponders how a society without mined metals that could be made into money and tools could cease to be savages. And savages they were. The men drank and sat around and ate as a pastime. They were lazy. They were undisciplined. They were violent. They gambled their lives away. Literally.
“The desperate gamester, who had staked his person and liberty on a last throw of the dice, patiently submitted to the decision of fortune, and suffered himself to be bound, chastised, and sold into remote slavery, by his weaker but more lucky antagonist.”
These men weren’t very manly, actually. They were… wait for it… barbarians.
Oh, and their beer and wine were apparently disgusting. I have absolutely no way to qualify this cause I’m a complete total teetotaler, but it sounds like their bad wine wasn’t even a fraction as good as canned wine.
Even teetotalers know that canned wine is not ideal stuff.
NOW… Gibbon starts getting into some Deeper Thoughts™️.
“When the return of famine severely admonished them of the importance of the arts, the national distress was sometimes alleviated by the emigration of a third, perhaps, or a fourth part of their youth. The possession and the enjoyment of property are the pledges which bind a civilized people to an improved country. But the Germans, who carried with them what they most valued, their arms, their cattle, and their women, cheerfully abandoned the vast silence of their woods for the unbounded hopes of plunder and conquest.”
So basically, when the going got tough the tough got going… to somewhere else with greener pastures. BUT. Those that didn’t had nothing to bind them together, no common society that was really formed around a government, allegiance, or even common value. So, since they had nothing to protect in a conventional sense, such as a city, home, etc., they did that whole barbarian thing. Gibbon does observe that the state of these ancient Germans gave them an advantage in terms of a free society:
“Their poverty secured their freedom, since our desires and our possessions are the strongest fetters of despotism.”
Let’s read that again, cause dang Gibbon… that’s amaze.
“Their poverty secured their freedom, since our desires and our possessions are the strongest fetters of despotism.”
Gibbon gets right to the core of something that is certainly ingrained in American governance and founding philosophy: control of possessions is control of a nation. Private property is so firmly entrenched for many reasons, but one is to deter government. Problems start when it becomes the prevailing belief that a government’s provision of some good or service is better than retaining a right, which starts eroding freedom. That is the grand promise of socialism, after all: the loving and caring state will take care of yours needs. Well, in the barbarians’ case they avoided this trap. They simply had nothing, so there was nothing by which to erode their lives. Now, most of the Germans did have some form of democracy, per Gibbon, though there were pockets of other systems: there was at least one small monarchy found among the Suiones, where slaves were the soldiers. And their neighbors? Ooh, this is not very politically correct, now is it: “The neighbors of the Suiones, the Sitones, are sunk even below servitude; they obey a woman.” Fascinatingly, the tribes and groups that acknowledged some form of monarch were all to the north, leaving our author to ponder how “riches and despotism” would end up there. Notably, he fosters a strong association between the two.
Moving on to the next phase of his analysis, Gibbon lays out some seriously solid governmental philosophy for a second time:
“Civil governments, in their first institution, are voluntary associations for mutual defence.”
For the majority of barbarian tribes, their general response to this was to have a form of council which operated by voice vote: grumble for “no”, rattle your swords and shields for “yes.” Which was apparently important because if everyone didn’t show up with swords, then only some might show up with swords and also might be drunk and do stupid things while drunk.
Generally, these assemblies would appoint a general to lead a military campaign when needed, or a “prince” to be some form of civil official/magistrate. Each type of official got their own contingent of bodyguards.
“A people thus jealous of their persons, and careless of their possessions, must have been totally destitute of industry and the arts, but animated with a high sense of honor and independence”
Part 3: Barbarian Virtue, Religion, and – last but not least – is there anything about Rome in here?
On the context of virtue, Gibbon opens without much surprise. As expected, the glory of battle is important to the Germans and even the slightest personal failing was viewed as a total disgrace. Bravery was rewarded and it was viewed with extreme honor, however frugal the recognition was. Gibbon plays these concepts of virtue and honor straight into concepts of chivalry and, surprisingly to me, casts the barbarian society as one of high morals. It presents quite a contrast against the loose and flippant moral attitudes of the Romans, which is certainly not overlooked by Gibbon. Polygamy was exceedingly rare, divorce was uncommon, and adultery was basically a crime. In fact, the Germans valued women, and the women were of strong character and maintained a similar bravery as the soldiers. In fact, the women were known to kill all the kids and then commit mass suicide rather than be conquered.
It is, at this point, when Gibbon gets on an incredible soapbox. It is important to remember that this first volume was published in 1776. If only Gibbon could understand how this analysis hits 245 years later:
“Although the progress of civilization has undoubtedly contributed to assuage the fiercer passions of human nature, it seems to have been less favorable to the virtue of chastity, whose most dangerous enemy is the softness of the mind. The refinements of life corrupt while they polish the intercourse of the sexes. The gross appetite of love becomes most dangerous when it is elevated, or rather, indeed, disguised by sentimental passion. The elegance of dress, of motion, and of manners, gives a lustre to beauty, and inflames the senses through the imagination. Luxurious entertainments, midnight dances, and licentious spectacles, present at once temptation and opportunity to female frailty. From such dangers the unpolished wives of the barbarians were secured by poverty, solitude, and the painful cares of a domestic life. The German huts, open, on every side, to the eye of indiscretion or jealousy, were a better safeguard of conjugal fidelity than the walls, the bolts, and the eunuchs of a Persian harem. To this reason another may be added of a more honorable nature. The Germans treated their women with esteem and confidence, consulted them on every occasion of importance, and fondly believed, that in their breasts resided a sanctity and wisdom more than human.”
“Softness of the mind.” And this is what Gibbon thought of society in the 1700s! Yikes. If Gibbon could see what airs on TV, how isolated society is, and what all goes on without any apparent earthly consequence… if he thought enlightenment Europe offended the senses, he just wouldn’t know what to do with himself in today’s world: we live in a 24/7 licentious spectacle. There are numerous sayings about “idle hands” being a source of trouble and the issues that Gibbon lays out have only grown exponentially. How contrasted our society is from one where there’s understood value in community, home/family, and a true human value. For those who recall my rant from a few weeks ago about the Roman view of marriage, it’s stunning that the barbarians are, in some ways, less barbaric than the supposedly enlightened culture of Rome.
And after building up their virtue, Gibbon drops this casually in the next paragraph: they performed human sacrifice.
It seems these German barbarians engaged in a form of sun/moon and element worship. Gibbon essentially argues that the savage and uneducated nature made them more prone to superstition, which the religious priests capitalized upon to acquire influence and power. Cultic and ritualistic in nature, these superstitious and religious practices pervaded society.
“The only temples in Germany were dark and ancient groves, consecrated by the reverence of succeeding generations. Their secret gloom, the imagined residence of an invisible power, by presenting no distinct object of fear or worship, impressed the mind with a still deeper sense of religious horror”
Sounds like the kind of party that prompts you to come up with even the lamest excuses to get out of going. Yeah, I’d love to go to you religious horror ceremony but you see, I have to take my pet Komodo dragon to a house warming party because he knows the hosts really well. They met in the lawn and garden department at Lowe’s a few years ago and bonded over their love of gardening.
Anyways, as you can probably guess, these superstitions fueled the warlike tendencies and emphasized the concepts of bravery and honor that pervaded the Germans. Regardless of the personal and community makeup and behavior, all the barbaric tribes valued “a life spent in arms, and a glorious death in battle… the best preparations for a happy futurity, either in this or in another world”.
And here we have another plot twist. Gibbon repeatedly bashed both the barbarians’ lack of the arts and their complete lack of concern for the arts. But now, we find out that there were bards who would inspire, celebrate, and entertain through the oration of stories and poetry. So, they were completely destitute of the arts.
The Romans dreaded winter war, they were fine with it. The barbarians had virtue, they sacrifice humans. The barbarians did not have the arts, they had the arts.
Um… what about the Romans? Is there anything to do with Rome here?
Great question. Gibbon spent substantial paragraphs on the history of the barbarians, but left little room for any observations of Rome. He opts instead to merely set the stage for calamities to come. But of the information he provides, here is the short version: the barbarians were completely and totally outmatched by the Roman Legions until the discipline and skill of the legions had decayed to the point of failure and the barbarians gained training through some amount of inclusion into the legions. Though they could have posed a significant threat at anytime, the fractured and unaligned tribes and alliances meant that the German barbarians were not able to get it together. Gibbon identifies just one instance prior to the declining/falling time period of a large scale German/Samaritan alliance, which “terrified” Rome and required a full scale military response to a barbarian invasion. After significant fighting, the barbarians were defeated and whatever formed or prompted their alliance simply faded away.
Gibbon concludes the chapter by recognizing that he has provided a very wide-lens look at the Germanic tribes and commits to provide any clarifying details on specific tribes or regions when the historical narrative requires it. His final observation is that the consideration of the barbarians requires a different understanding than that of other societies. In a large and structured country like Rome, many people exist in the society who are not directly connected with the military or political power struggles, but with nomadic barbarian societies? These affairs encapsulate everyone.
“Modern nations are fixed and permanent societies, connected among themselves by laws and government, bound to their native soil by art and agriculture. The German tribes were voluntary and fluctuating associations of soldiers, almost of savages… The distinctions of the ferocious invaders were perpetually varied by themselves, and confounded by the astonished subjects of the Roman empire.”
So… where does that leave us?
Well, things are probably going to get dicey for Rome really soon. But at the rate that Gibbon is going, who knows what kind of chapter we’ll get next! Perhaps he’ll jump the tracks again and give us a chapter on French cheese making? *looks ahead* Darn it, back to Rome. I guess we’ll leave the bunny trail on cheese making to Herman Melville.
I saw this so now you have to:
Oh, and here’s some Doctor Who just because.