Anna’s Update 13: might makes right

Gibbon’s world detour continues, moving from the short-lived resurrection of imperial Persia to the untamed wilds of ancient Europe. The guiding theme of this trip remains the same: Gibbon’s stubborn belief in the inherent superiority of the Roman way of life — though he throws the future ancestors of the English a few more bones than most other ancient peoples have gotten from him.

He admits toward the end of the chapter that the constantly morphing sociopolitical makeup of the multiple tribes that loosely constituted early Germany is too complicated for him to keep up with in detail, so he refers to the culture as a whole whenever he spots a common trait. Out of necessity, I have partaken in the same error, as I know few of the individual Germanic tribes’ names and almost nothing of their unique cultures. Bear that in mind as you read.

(I just want you all to know before we continue that Gladiator was on tonight, but I steadfastly refused to turn it on so that I might give my entire focus to writing and editing this entry. Such is my dedication.)

Texan has already covered this chapter, due to yet another of my unpredicted absences — his take here.

Chapter 9 Part 1

Proud Anglo-Saxon that he is, Gibbon leads off by informing the audience that the proto-Germans, while not quite as cool as the Romans, are still way more interesting and important to our story than any old Persians. Technically, he’s not wrong. The time of the Persian Empire was already past by the time Rome became the hegemon (despite Artaxerxes’ best efforts), while the Germanic tribes were slowly rising to become the threat that would eventually break the Roman Empire in half.

Still, he promptly demonstrates how little he really thinks of the “wild barbarians” who sired medieval Germany by getting their geographical area wrong. Guizot has to swoop in with the correction that Scandinavia was not, in fact, considered German territory, even in Roman times. The inhabitants of that region were already ethnically and culturally distinct from the group that Julius Caesar and his successors called “the Gauls.”

Further in the footnote, Guizot gets into some of the weeds regarding the Eastern European peoples who were in the mushy middle between “clearly Gallia/Germania” and “clearly Roman Empire.” Not much from it will affect the rest of the chapter. I’ll just point out a couple things of note:

  1. The early Balkan/Caucasian/Russian peoples are referred to by the unique spelling of “Slaves” (for “Slavs”). This reminds the reader that the word “slave” exists in English specifically because of how these people were once perceived for centuries: as only fit to serve the surrounding nations — specifically, those that would later become Turkey and the Ottoman Empire.
  2. Guizot suggests that a seafaring German tribe, the Cimbrians, made it as far as Wales and established themselves there, which is why the Welsh came to call themselves the Cymru. I had never heard this theory before. Someday I must investigate whether modern historians still hold to it.

Gibbon also believes that the Baltic Sea was once much higher, and modern Scandinavia more underwater, than it was by the time of the D&F (suggesting a belief in an ancient warm period prior to the Roman Empire, followed by a cool period during it). He believes that this explains why some ancient writers referred to the far north as a group of “islands.” Milman refutes this theory, citing Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology. To be fair to Eddie G, though, Lyell’s most famous work came out over 30 years after Gibbon’s death and was considering groundbreaking at the time of its publication.

While Gibbon is a bit credulous concerning ancient Near Eastern speculations about Scandinavian geography, he pokes some gentle fun at their opinions of the weather, stating, “The general complaints of intense frost and eternal winter are perhaps little to be regarded, since we have no method of reducing to the accurate standard of the thermometer, the feelings, or the expressions, of an orator born in the happier regions of Greece or Asia.” However, he cites two particulars which excited the Romans’ wonder — the repeated freezing over of the Rhine and Danube rivers thickly enough for troops to cross, and Republic-era accounts of reindeer, which are normally confined to Finland and Siberia, roaming as far south as modern Poland — to support his assertion that the world had gotten hotter by Georgian times.

And just think, all this warming and cooling activity predated the Industrial Revolution.

Gibbon here grants the early Germans a point in which he considers them superior to the Romans: the harshness of their climate required them to be physically powerful and endurant just to survive daily life, much less fight wars; while the more comfortable average temperatures of southern Europe required the Roman armies to maintain Army Ranger levels of discipline in order to stay at a similar fighting capacity. He also credits these weather conditions with the taller average height of a German than an Italian, though … which has more in common with phrenology than ethnology, if you ask me.

Chapter 9 Part 2

“There is not anywhere upon the globe a large tract of country, which we have discovered destitute of inhabitants, or whose first population can be fixed with any degree of historical certainty.”

Gibbon seems to have made this profound statement primarily to thrash Tacitus’ use of the word indigenae, by which the Roman historian was allegedly implying that the first Germans grew directly out of the earth in the lands they were known to come from.

Wait. Did people actually think that? Apparently so, if you ask Edward Gibbon.

He then starts making fun of anyone naïve enough (in his view) to actually believe the Bible when it says that all peoples of the earth are descended from Noah’s sons after the landing of the Ark. He cites one Olaus Rudbeck, a Swedish professor who, Gibbon claims, was as convinced of his own country’s responsibility for everything impressive in the world as Pavel Chekov was of Russia’s.

Rudbeck purported to know for a fact that Noah’s descendants first populated Sweden, and from there spread throughout the entire world. (Kind of the exact opposite of the Yakub theory.) Rudbeck was an idiot, Gibbon clearly means us to understand. Thus, there is no way an educated person can believe Noah’s flood or the subsequent diaspora from Mesopotamia really happened.

Gibbon should have been a farmer, since he was so good at strawmen.

Not to worry, he’ll lay to rest any notion that Sweden in particular, or Germania in general, was the cradle of civilization with one decisive proof — they had no literary tradition. He administers some particularly spicy commentary about how people groups who only maintain an oral history are inferior to great nation-states in every way possible. Maybe he’s a little embarrassed about how freely he praised the Germanic tribes’ physical prowess a moment ago, so now he’s making up for it by slamming them as intellectually stunted morons.

“[T]he use of letters is the principal circumstance that distinguishes a civilized people from a herd of savages incapable of knowledge or reflection … and we may safely pronounce, that without some species of writing, no people has ever preserved the faithful annals of their history, ever made any considerable progress in the abstract sciences, or ever possessed, in any tolerable degree of perfection, the useful and agreeable arts of life.”

The anthropologists and linguists who specialize in the orature of pre-literate peoples may need a moment here.

Milman gently slides in to remind us that the Germans had a long history of the use of runes, so even though the earliest occurrence of writing in German society is debated, Gibbon’s assessment is not entirely correct. His description of the brain fog caused by the absence of reading and writing is more applicable to those who are taught to write and then prevented from doing so than to those who never learned in the first place.

The absence of literature, saith Gibbon, must be why the European tribes were also too dumb to build walled cities or cultivate any crops worth speaking of. When he’s not sneering at their nomadic lifestyle, though, his descriptions of their favored campsites, small round lodges, use of animal pelts as clothing, and heavily carnivorous diet are enticingly evocative. Several details already had me picturing the northeastern Native American tribes, even before I noticed Guizot’s footnote making the same comparison.

To resume his theme of Germans as backward and benighted, Gibbon invites us to point and laugh with him because their understanding of metalwork was practically nonexistent and they had no discernible monetary system. (This latter trait is one for which he will later turn around and praise them with the Fight Club-esque sentiment below. Our man is nothing if not consistent in holding contradictory opinions.) And just in case his tirade against letterless societies put any rebellious readers in mind of Incan quipu records, he interrupts himself to bring us his own footnote, as follows:

“It is said that the Mexicans and Peruvians, without the use of either money or iron, had made a very great progress in the arts. Those arts, and the monuments they produced, have been strangely magnified.”

I’ll give the guy half a pass, since quipus were banned as idolatrous in 1583 and not widely revealed to the modern world as record-keeping devices until 1912, so Gibbon may in fact have been totally ignorant of the existence of these or similar systems in the Americas. Archaeology in the Western Hemisphere was also largely neglected by Old World historians until the mid-1800s, so he likely had little or no knowledge of Central and South American architecture and stonework either.

But I digress.

Because the Germans possessed no great literary tradition, no School of Athens, and no engineering problems to solve by exploring new frontiers in mathematics, they had little else to do but get roaring drunk with their buddies and pick fights internally when there were no enemy armies to challenge externally. You can tell Gibbon doesn’t think much of their code of honor, which was tied to the payment of gambling debts. Their solution in times of scarcity was to emigrate rather than cultivate. As Gibbon points out, a society’s failure to maximize their arable land’s potential crop yield keeps population numbers low and dependent on the reproductive capacity of the local game herds. This is why he doubts the claims of his contemporaries that Europe was more heavily populated before the Middle Ages than after them — and why it is equally unlikely that those tribes native to North America whose main form of subsistence was hunting & gathering ever numbered in the “millions,” as it is currently fashionable to insist.

Milman appeals to Thomas Malthus in making the related observation that “these nations ‘were not populous in proportion to the land they occupied, but to the food they produced.’ They were prolific from their pure morals and constitutions, but their institutions were not calculated to produce food for those whom they brought into being.”

Malthus was, both in Milman’s time and today, a controversial figure, so it is encouraging to see that both Gibbon and Milman appear to favor more efficient means of food production as the answer to local population-related food shortages. The methods of population control preferred by Malthus, such as birthrate restrictions, can get very dark very quickly.

Another factor that kept the various Germanic tribes from banding together or becoming much of a force to be reckoned with early on is that their version of the social contract only allowed for village-sized governments, in which every warrior had an equal voice but had to fight constantly to maintain his respect by feats of bravery in battle. They had chieftains, but any authority figure was still subject to majority rule, especially in matters of warfare. Majorities were generally not in favor of long-term thinking or self-restraint.

“Barbarians accustomed to place their freedom in gratifying the present passion, and their courage in overlooking all future consequences, turned away with indignant contempt from the remonstrances of justice and policy, … [b]ut whenever a more popular orator … called upon his fellow-countrymen to assert the national honor, or to pursue some enterprise full of danger and glory, a loud clashing of shields and spears expressed the eager applause of the assembly.”

Generals were elected on a Cincinnatus basis and expected to retire promptly when the external threat was over — something the Romans would have understood from their republican days of time-limited dictators. Peacetime leaders were apparently just in charge of … yearly land redistribution.

Chapter 9 Part 3

That may be because having someone else tell you what to do wasn’t really the Germans’ thing. Depending on who you were, you knew what your tribe expected of you because of your role in society, but everyone maintained the polite fiction that doing what you were supposed to do had been your own idea anyway. Soldiers fought battles not because a general ordered it, but because their military philosophy was “you’ll shame your tribe if you don’t fight harder than the chieftain.” Dying for the chief was considered the most honorable way to repay him for letting you eat his food. Meanwhile, even if he maintained an excellent table and gave great gifts, a chieftain was no longer considered worthy of his position if he wasn’t a better fighter than his men.

Next we embark on a fascinating section concerning German female chastity and gender relations.

“Polygamy was not in use, except among the princes, and among them only for the sake of multiplying their alliances. Divorces were prohibited by manners rather than by laws. Adulteries were punished as rare & inexpiable crimes; nor was seduction justified by example & fashion.”

(Interesting tidbit: Gibbon only names punishments for *women* who committed adultery, and claims that no one was willing to marry a woman who had previously had an affair. No word on what punishment, if any, was administered to a man who cheated on his wife.)

If accurate, their reputation for faithfulness gave Tacitus a much more favorable impression of German wives than of the aristocratic ladies that surrounded him in Rome, for whom romantic intrigues were a notorious pastime.

(Overprocessing their hair in ridiculous styles until it fell out also appears to have been a hot trend, as one of the ways Rome inured the Germans to financial trade was to buy their women’s thick blonde hair for use in ladies’ wigs. The More You Know …)

Gibbon treats us to another of his long-winded musings on Society: this time proclaiming that the more luxury and leisure is available, the more opportunities there are for infidelity to be at once widespread and kept on the down low. Hard to disagree, tbh.

But wait, there’s more. Not only did the Germans have fewer affairs because they lived in tight-knit, dirt-poor, open-air communities, rather than sprawling palaces full of perfumed silks and deserted corridors, says Gibbon, but because — brace yourselves — German men held their wives in significantly higher regard than did your average Roman aristocrat. We’ve already seen what Metellus Numidicus, aka the original MGTOW, thought of marriage. Here are some more delightful quotes. All but the last one is from a fun little book called Latin Quips at Your Fingertips:

  • “Postumus, once you were sane; are you really taking a wife?” — Juvenal
  • “To have a good wife is charming, if there is any place one can be found.” — Plautus
  • “All the friends she had Lycoris has buried. I keep hoping she’ll befriend my wife.” — Martial
  • “When a woman is openly bad she at last is good.” — Syrus
  • “A dowry is a wonderful source of money. Only if it comes without the wife.” — Plautus
  • “When a woman speaks sweetly, she’s plotting mischief.” —Florus
  • “A Roman who divorced his wife was rebuked by his friends. ‘Was she not chaste? Was she not fair? Was she not faithful?’ In answer, the man held out his shoe and asked, ‘Is it not new? Is it not well made?’ His friends agreed that it was. ‘And yet,’ he admonished them, ‘none of you can tell where it pinches me.” — Plutarch

Even allowing for the fact that some of these were humorists … sheesh, guys.

By contrast, Gibbon reports that “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.” Additionally, the women and kids often came along as battlefield nurses on prolonged military campaigns. They were seemingly unbothered by the combat or the resulting wounds, and were prepared to choose suicide over captivity. Unfortunately, he concludes from this that the German women were probably not very attractive or affectionate, because they weren’t fainting-couch Fionas. His use of “most assuredly” and “must have” in asserting this view are what we call opinion markers.

For as long as they held to other primitive practices, the German tribes worshiped the forces of nature as impulsive trickster gods who might accept sacrifices but could not be relied on. No surprise there. Forest groves were the preferred worship locations; the creepier the better. Temples and vaguely representative statues came later, as further contact with Roman settlements and military outposts brought with it the vanguards of more complex civilization.

For now, priests could exercise even more ruling power than the official rulers, if they proclaimed that a punishment or verdict against a person was the will of the god of war. More often, though, “the will of the gods” was used as an excuse to go attack somebody and give more warriors the glorious battlefield deaths that they had been raised to desire.

Whatever varying beliefs the tribes may have held about their destinies after death, the one form of immortality they could count on across their communities was that of commemoration in a heroic lay, if their deaths had been considered noteworthy enough for a bard to make up a new song. Showing up in one of those was like headlining your own Marvel movie. Gibbon notes how the ancient Greeks received similar, if less intense, enjoyment from their own epic poems; then moralizes, with the least sense of irony ever, “[m]uch learned trifling might be spared, if our antiquarians would condescend to reflect, that similar manners will naturally be produced by similar situations.”

Gibbon refrains from ever calling the Germans “effeminate,” as he loves to designate the fighting forces of other nations that are not Rome. What he does do is highlight their lack of wartime savvy by pointing out that one initial Zerg Rush comprised most of Germanic military strategy. Not the best plan if your enemy is able to regroup, and, unlike you, does not see surviving one’s battle wounds as a mark of shame.

Ominously, things begin to even out over time; on the one hand, the Romans grow fonder of peacetime entertainments than of camp drills, and on the other, the Empire begins hiring German mercenaries, who then go home and teach their people some Roman military maneuvers. One such figure, Civilis, was able to recruit enough other German-born and Roman-trained heavies into his own legion and conquer an entire territory for himself on Rome’s European frontier.

The Roman rulers were smart enough to realize that, as scattered and mercurial as the German population was, they would not be able to subdue it by force. After a rare pan-German confederacy arose to threaten the imperial outposts along the Danube during the reign of Marcus Antoninus, they were impressed by the necessity of keeping their enemies divided. Their best bet was to keep the tribes from ever banding together by sending strategic gifts to some chieftains while encouraging the internecine rivalries of others. As Tacitus correctly recognized even before the Pax Romana had ended, “We have now attained the utmost verge of prosperity, and have nothing left to demand of fortune, except the discord of the barbarians.”

Gibbon concludes the chapter with one last sweeping observation on how much harder it is to chronicle the military history of a society of independent tribes than of a monarchy. In the latter, you can ignore the common people, since they have no say, and just focus on what the courtiers are doing. In the former, there are a lot more players you have to keep track of, since every minor chieftain could demonstrate the potential for 15 minutes of larger-scale leadership at some point.

You can almost hear the “I say, what a bore” rolling lazily from his voice.

Quotations that stood out to me:

“The expressive conciseness of [Tacitus’] descriptions has served to exercise the diligence of innumerable antiquarians, and to excite the genius and penetration of the philosophic historians of our own times.”

Tacitus was evidently quite admired in Gibbon’s time for his writing style. Thomas Jefferson, a contemporary of Gibbon, also wrote letters recommending the study of Tacitus’ work as a model for developing sharper communication skills.


“The Cimbri, by way of amusement, often did down mountains of snow on their broad shields.”


“[The Germans’] poverty secured their freedom, since our desires and our possessions are the strongest fetters of despotism.”


“Civil governments, in their first institution, are voluntary associations for mutual defence.”


“Before the wives of the Teutones destroyed themselves and their children, they had offered to surrender, on condition that they should be received as the slaves of the vestal virgins.”

This is the detail that sold me on Gibbon’s claims regarding the high value German tribes placed on marital faithfulness and female incorruptibility. If the Roman ladies were at all famous for getting around, then the Germans, who considered any bound servitude a disgrace, would have scorned mistresses who refused to stay faithful to their marriages. At least the vestal virgins were expected to keep their oaths of chastity on pain of death, so they were probably the only females in Rome that a woman from a Germanic culture would respect.


“We may recollect how often … the more numerous party has been compelled to yield to the more violent and seditious.”

Or, to adapt Nassim Taleb, the most intolerant wins.


Follow for more shield surfing and obliviously self-referential uses of the word “antiquarian.”

One thought on “Anna’s Update 13: might makes right

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