Not just because we’re talking about the Goths (although we are), but because everything at home and abroad is continuing to disintegrate. Might as well dress for the occasion.
After two chapters of being studiously avoided, Emperor Philip finally scores a mention. We also get some more footnote wars, including one that basically amounts to the real-life Silmarillion. At least it does if you’re me and you can extract a Tolkien connection from just about any topic.
Chapter 10 Part 1
Poor Edward Gibbon sounds as dejected as we’ve ever encountered him: lamenting both the fragmentary nature of the primary historical sources from this period and the increasing frequency of border attacks against the beleaguered empire. He correctly summarizes the precarious situation of the throne: now that the army knows they can have a new emperor any time they want, the honor of such a position is almost meaningless and usually very short-lived.
Philip really ought to have predicted this, considering the way he became emperor himself. Alas, the poor fellow was going to have to learn the hard way that the allegiance you purchase from a people by entertaining them only lasts until the show’s over. The army soon found some rando named Marinus whom they liked better than Philip. The latter, afflicted with a massive case of “can dish it out but can’t take it,” sought advice from the Senate, which for some reason still existed.
However many senators may have recognized this latest revolution for the flash in the pan that it was, only Decius had the gumption to say so. Not being the one in danger, which enabled him to detach and survey the situation objectively, “he treated the whole business with contempt, as a hasty and inconsiderate tumult, and Philip’s rival as a phantom of royalty, who in a very few days would be destroyed by the same inconstancy that had created him.”
What do you know: that’s exactly what happened. The army got bored of Marinus and scratched him, and a relieved Philip promptly placed Decius in charge of the army. Like any good judge of human nature, Decius recognized his own inevitable demise in this promotion. His competence would either inspire resentment in the undisciplined mob of soldiers, and they’d kill him as soon as he was presumptuous enough to try to manage them; or it would give them the idea to try to replace Philip with him instead.
The second option is, again, exactly what happened. Fickleness, thy name is Legion.
Climbing back down from such a height was no longer possible, especially after the Praetorians had executed Philip and son; so Decius made the best of it and tried to rule as well as he could. We have little idea how long he might have lasted as a peacetime emperor. Only a few months into his tenure, the Goths made their first great invasion.
Pause for a swerve.
Gibbon begins to chide the medieval Goths for commissioning one Cassiodorus to write some blatantly revisionist history about their exploits in the centuries leading up to the fall of Rome.
“These writers [Cassiodorus and his translator/editor Jornandes] passed with the most artful conciseness over the misfortunes of the nation, celebrated its successful valor, and adorned the triumph with many Asiatic trophies, that more properly belonged to the people of Scythia. On the faith of ancient songs, the uncertain, but the only memorials of barbarians, they deduced the first origin of the Goths from the vast island, or peninsula, of Scandinavia.”
Gibbon grants the Goths a (peaceful?) coexistence with the Swedes in the far north of Europe since at least the beginning of recorded Roman history. Guizot is less convinced of this, pointing out that the Goths’ true ancestors, the Suebi, were known to have inhabited the northernmost border regions of modern Germany and Poland since before Tacitus. Milman steps in to mediate this disagreement somewhat. The Goths were both highly nomadic throughout prehistoric Europe and known to have inhabited Scandinavia at various times … whether instead of or alongside the early Swedes is less clear. He cites a Swedish historian who maintains that the Goths the Romans knew were moving south from Scandinavia.
Cassiodorus’ appropriation of some historical Scythian triumphs in his Gothic pseudohistory is interesting in light of Milman’s reference to philologist Franz Bopp, who saw Gothic as a linguistic link between Sanskrit and Teutonic. The southeastern borders of the area generally known as Scythia ran alongside India, where Sanskrit would have been spoken. If some of the ancestors of the Goths came north from any part of Scythia, that would explain the language association.
A hundred years after Bopp, another philologist named J.R.R. Tolkien developed such an aesthetic affinity for Gothic that many Tolkien scholars partly ascribe his creation of Quenya Elvish to his love of the (by then) dead language.
Does this have any bearing on our Gibbon reading? Probably not.
Am I suggesting that if the Goths had not conquered Rome, thereby ensuring the primacy of their own language above that of other German dialects, there might have been no Lord of the Rings?
Oh look, it’s time for another seemingly unrelated detour. Last time, Gibbon only hinted at the creepiness of German tribal religions. Now he comes right out and admits that by the time they had started building temples — notably the shared Swedish-Gothic Temple of Uppsala — they were regularly practicing human sacrifice to Odin, Freya, and Thor. Nice going, guys.
As a “by the way” regarding Odin, Gibbon mentions a real-life Germanic chieftain by that name who gained a loyal following in his lifetime as a powerful warrior and charismatic ruler. When his death approached, you would expect him to try to go out in a blaze of battlefield glory, like any good Northman, rather than submit to the humiliation of a “straw death.” But Odin the man took this practice a step further. He assembled his followers, told them he needed to get a head start on cooking the feast they could expect when they died, ceremonially wounded himself, and hit the door. Oh, and the alleged name of his hometown?
You’re probably starting to see where this part of the world’s belief in an eternity of fighting and feasting in Valhalla for warriors who died in combat may have come from.
One more gif of this money shot, just because it’s cool.
Gibbon relies on the ancient text of the Edda for his hypothesis that this Odin was a contemporary of Pompey and Caesar, and originally lived nearer to Rome, but led his people north when he saw that Roman expansionism would be too strong a force for them to resist for a few hundred years yet. As romantic as this tale is, it falls to the Reverend to squelch it. The more prosaic and more likely version of the story is that the historical Odin claimed to have been to Asgard and seen the gods, and his teachings led to the codification of Scandinavian mythology as we know it today.
Next we get a boatload of tribal and village names, as Gibbon explains how the main groups dispersed throughout northern Europe after crossing the Baltic Sea. Yawn. Because a picture is worth a thousand words, behold:
Meanwhile, of greater interest to yours truly is another Tolkien connection that this brings up. Check out Jornandes’ note on how the main band of Goths dispersed:
“The Ostro and Visi, the eastern and western Goths, obtained those denominations from their original seats in Scandinavia. In all their future marches and settlements they preserved, with their names, the same relative situation. When they first departed from Sweden, the infant colony was contained in three vessels. The third, being a heavy sailer, lagged behind, and the crew, which afterwards swelled into a nation, received from that circumstance the appellation of Gepidæ or Loiterers.”
If that don’t remind you of the sundering of the Elves, I don’t know what will. Especially the part where the Teleri showed up in Aman long after the Vanyar and Noldor did, because Ossë had used seaweed to tie the island that was carrying them to the ocean floor.
“To cross the Baltic was an easy and natural attempt,” says Mr. Gibbon. I agree. Call me when the Goths cross the Helcaraxë and I’ll be impressed.
Aaaaand I have officially lost everyone not in the Silm fandom. Let’s try to get this train back on the rails.
Once they were well entrenched in future Prussia, and then Ukraine, the Goths and their auxiliary tribes began inflicting their unwelcome presence on Dacia (future Romania). Gibbon is not really sure why they kept going south after they had stopped for a while on the southern shores of the Baltic Sea. “A pestilence or a famine, a victory or a defeat, an oracle of the gods or the eloquence of a daring leader,” could all be reasonable explanations; but their religious addiction to waging war ensured that their response to any civilizations they found along the way would not be the purchase of a nice split-level home and a membership at the community center.
Chapter 10 Part 2
Gibbon feels that our Freunde were not making the best use of the land they already had.
“The plenty of game and fish, the innumerable bee-hives deposited in the hollow of old trees, and in the cavities of rocks, and forming, even in that rude age, a valuable branch of commerce, the size of the cattle, the temperature of the air, the aptness of the soil for every species of grain, and the luxuriancy of the vegetation, all displayed the liberality of Nature, and tempted the industry of man. But the Goths withstood all these temptations, and still adhered to a life of idleness, of poverty, and of rapine. … the prospect of the Roman territories was far more alluring; and the fields of Dacia were covered with rich harvests, sown by the hands of an industrious, and exposed to be gathered by those of a warlike, people.”
The Goths here prefigure the soft communism of publicly educated American kids in 2021. Even in the midst of paradise, they’re still not satisfied. Why use the resources that surround you to work for what you need, when your neighboring people have already created their own wealth and you consider it yours for the taking?
The Dacians, having assumed that Rome’s authority still covered as much ground as it did in generations past, were quickly disabused of this incorrect notion when the few lazy Roman garrisons at their borders were insufficient to protect them from attack. The soldiers had grown difficult to motivate to train or fight, as we have seen in preceding chapters. However, their commanders’ authority to implement severe punishments for poor performance apparently still held enough terror that many Roman troops decided to defect and take their chances on the invaders’ side. The now-defenseless city of Marcianopolis elected to buy the Goths off instead of trying to fight. Newly enriched, the attackers withdrew, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Even then, they really thought appeasement would work.
“Intelligence was soon transmitted to the emperor Decius, that Cniva, king of the Goths, had passed the Danube a second time, with more considerable forces; that his numerous detachments scattered devastation over the province of Mæsia, whilst the main body of the army, consisting of seventy thousand Germans and Sarmatians, a force equal to the most daring achievements, required the presence of the Roman monarch, and the exertion of his military power.”
Decius successfully interrupted the siege of Nicopolis, but only because the Goths had their eyes on a greater prize: Philippopolis. Cniva, who has the best name in this story, used the difficult terrain to his advantage and turned his perceived retreat into a ferocious rout of Decius’ troops. “The camp of the Romans was surprised and pillaged, and, for the first time, their emperor fled in disorder before a troop of half-armed barbarians.”
Needless to say, Philippopolis was taken, and the Goths set up their own “Roman emperor” to hold the city just because they could. Mirabile dictu, despite his defeat, Decius managed to restore enough morale to prevent any German reinforcements from reaching the city, build his own defenses back up, deploy a surveillance network, and start watching for the right moment to strike back. Meanwhile, he had time to think.
“He soon discovered that it was impossible to replace [Rome’s] greatness on a permanent basis without restoring public virtue, ancient principles and manners, and the oppressed majesty of the laws.”
So far, so good. His solution? Bring back the censors!
Decius reasoned that by phasing out these glorified hall monitors and taking over their duties, earlier emperors had helped to precipitate Rome’s fall from glory; so reviving the office of the censor should set the empire back on the right path, no? However wishful his thinking may seem to us in hindsight, the Senate agreed with him and unanimously voted for Valerian to be the first new censor since Emperor Titus.
“You will select those who deserve to continue members of the senate; you will restore the equestrian order to its ancient splendor; you will improve the revenue, yet moderate the public burdens. You will distinguish into regular classes the various and infinite multitude of citizens, and accurately view the military strength, the wealth, the virtue, and the resources of Rome. Your decisions shall obtain the force of laws. The army, the palace, the ministers of justice, and the great officers of the empire, are all subject to your tribunal. None are exempted, excepting only the ordinary consuls, the præfect of the city, the king of the sacrifices, and (as long as she preserves her chastity inviolate) the eldest of the vestal virgins. Even these few, who may not dread the severity, will anxiously solicit the esteem, of the Roman censor.”
As mentioned, the emperors who succeeded Augustus had gradually absorbed this position into their own. Decius’ above speech throws this fact into rather sharper relief. No wonder everyone’s been willing to kill for a shot at the throne lately. By re-separating the powers, Decius hoped to restore some accountability and dignity to the government.
Though Valerian shares a name with an herbal sleep aid that smells notoriously like a rotting corpse, his initial instincts appear to have leaned away from megalomania. This is a welcome change from the majority of politicians we’ve suffered through lately. Actually, the whole next paragraph is so eloquently worded that I’m just gonna reproduce it here:
“A magistrate, invested with such extensive powers, would have appeared not so much the minister, as the colleague of his sovereign. Valerian justly dreaded an elevation so full of envy and of suspicion. He modestly argued the alarming greatness of the trust, his own insufficiency, and the incurable corruption of the times. He artfully insinuated, that the office of censor was inseparable from the Imperial dignity, and that the feeble hands of a subject were unequal to the support of such an immense weight of cares and of power. … A censor may maintain, he can never restore, the morals of a state. It is impossible for such a magistrate to exert his authority with benefit, or even with effect, unless he is supported by a quick sense of honor and virtue in the minds of the people, by a decent reverence for the public opinion, and by a train of useful prejudices combating on the side of national manners. In a period when these principles are annihilated, the censorial jurisdiction must either sink into empty pageantry, or be converted into a partial instrument of vexatious oppression. It was easier to vanquish the Goths than to eradicate the public vices; yet even in the first of these enterprises, Decius lost his army and his life.”
Gibbon may not be the most impartial culture critic or the most accurate ethnographer, but by golly, if prose like this isn’t why we still read him.
The tide of war turned at the next battle, Forum Terebronii.
The Goths were prepared to fight to the last man, and Decius was happy to oblige them. Unfortunately, he lost his crown prince while taking out the first third of the German army. The second third proved less trouble. The last third was situated right across a swamp from the Romans, so Decius made the brilliant tactical decision to charge right into it and get himself and his whole army stuck. Way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, Your Majesty.
For some reason, the army stayed its hand during the selection of the next emperor — maybe they were still reeling from having just lost an emperor to enemy soldiers. The young Hostilianus and his regent, Gallus, once again opted to bribe the Germans to leave Illyria rather than driving them out. However, they went a step further than Marcianopolis had, and volunteered to send the Goths an annual tribute to encourage them not to attack again.
The Roman citizens were not fooled. They were accustomed to the time-honored tradition of sending expensive presents to foreign rulers as a mark of good will, not of obligation, but their new ruler had just saddled them with a huge financial burden that was not likely to be relieved any time soon. The people began to agitate against the emperor almost as soon as the immediate threat of invasion had receded, and Hostilianus met his end under mysterious circumstances that may or may not have been related to a disease outbreak around that same time.
Unfortunately, what had seemed like a good short-term solution to both the Marcianopolites and Hostilianus had only sown the seeds for a long-term problem: any aspiring invader now knew for sure that Rome had plenty of money, and that its soldiers were not inclined to fight. Hezekiah could have told them that showing your enemies the extent of your wealth is a very bad idea if you’re trying to discourage foreign conquest.
“The dangerous secret of the wealth and weakness of the empire had been revealed to the world. New swarms of barbarians, encouraged by the success, and not conceiving themselves bound by the obligation of their brethren, spread devastation through the Illyrian provinces, and terror as far as the gates of Rome.”
Gallus, who had stayed in power after Hostilianus’ untimely demise, was too busy enjoying the high life in Rome to notice the increasing attacks. It fell to a territorial governor named Aemilianus to raise the troops and disburse the wages necessary to drive out the invading armies from his provinces, which he accomplished with striking success. Guess which guy the army preferred as emperor after that.
Gallus dragged his few remaining forces to hold off Aemilianus at Spoleto; but when their respective armies had the opportunity to compare both putative leaders side by side, Gallus’ troops said “to heck with this” and walked over to join his opponent. A couple executions and senatorial nods later, Aemilianus was the sole emperor of Rome.
What he was about to discover was that once you have the title, you have to deliver on your campaign promises. Remember Valerian? While Aemilianus had been making grand soliloquies about delivering Rome from all her foes, Valerian had been out personally leading his troops in doing just that. Valerian had traveled farther and fought more battles than Aemilianus; furthermore, he was still loyal to the line of Decius. Once again, the armies mentally weighed both leaders and found Aemilianus wanting.
“[A]s they were now become as incapable of personal attachment as they had always been of constitutional principle, they readily imbrued their hands in the blood of a prince who so lately had been the object of their partial choice.”
RIP Aemilianus, emperor for four months. We hardly knew ye.
Valerian was at least 60 by now, making him a nursing home candidate by the standards of the ancient world; but in the people’s estimation, he was more than up for the job. He himself knew that he would need to start grooming a successor immediately. Gibbon has doubts about Valerian’s judgment, though. Remember, the emperorship was still not hereditary. Rather than hand-picking an heir of proven worth in all fields related to the administration of government, Valerian promoted his (here’s that word again) “effeminate” son.
Their reign was an almost unbroken string of wars and rumors of wars. Gibbon does us a solid by sorting the various foreign threats into four major groups: Frank, Alemanni, Goth, and Persian. “Under these general appellations, we may comprehend the adventures of less considerable tribes, whose obscure and uncouth names would only serve to oppress the memory and perplex the attention of the reader.” Appreciate that.
He also grandly asserts that with so many moving parts to keep track of, the next part of this work won’t worry about things like chronological order. Oh boy. Prepare for lots more skipping around. If you’ve ever wished that Doctor Who taught your World History course, this will probably be an analogous experience.
The terminal paragraph is a nearer examination of the origin, primary habitats, and national character of the Franks, including an unfavorable comparison of their social and governmental structure with that of Switzerland. This would seem to be setting us up to hear more about the Franks’ specific exploits in our next section. If Gibbon stays true to his previous style, though, I wouldn’t be surprised if our next stop was ancient Micronesia instead.
By the way, we never hear again from Priscus, the Goths’ puppet emperor in Philippopolis. Maybe after Decius got things back under control, he sneaked out of the city and started working as a farmhand somewhere under an assumed name.
Quotations that stood out to me:
“Surrounded with imperfect fragments, always concise, often obscure, and sometimes contradictory, [the historian] is reduced to collect, to compare, and to conjecture: and though he ought never to place his conjectures in the rank of facts, yet the knowledge of human nature, and of the sure operation of its fierce and unrestrained passions, might, on some occasions, supply the want of historical materials.”
We kinda figured this was Gibbon’s authorial philosophy. It does explain a lot.
“Besides the influence of a martial religion, the numbers and spirit of the Goths were equal to the most dangerous adventures. The use of round bucklers and short swords rendered them formidable in a close engagement; the manly obedience which they yielded to hereditary kings, gave uncommon union and stability to their councils;”
To be fair to Rome, if I saw these guys headed my way, my government was corrupt, my army was lazy, and my vineyards were poised to give me an excellent profit this year, my first resort might also be to see if they were interested in some of my nice gold jewelry.
“[T]he favor of the sovereign may confer power, but … the esteem of the people can alone bestow authority.”
Yes, did anyone order a one-sentence summary of the social contract? Here you go.
“A censor may maintain, he can never restore, the morals of a state. It is impossible for such a magistrate to exert his authority with benefit, or even with effect, unless he is supported by a quick sense of honor and virtue in the minds of the people, by a decent reverence for the public opinion, and by a train of useful prejudices combating on the side of national manners. In a period when these principles are annihilated, the censorial jurisdiction must either sink into empty pageantry, or be converted into a partial instrument of vexatious oppression.”
Repeating this because of reasons.