Hat tip to @apluswake for holding down the fort and my apologies for being a few weeks late. I also look forward to being able to work on my normal writing schedule from here out. May Snowmageddon ripple effects be gone!
Gibbon must’ve been a Rian Johnson fan. Totally. I mean, look at how he subverts our expectations!
First it was learning about the Persians and Zoroaster instead of Philip. Then it was learning about barbarian history instead of Persian nobles. Now? Gibbon opens Chapter 10 with the implication of a return to Rome and exploration of Philip’s rule… only to fast forward to his demise in the second paragraph. That’s right. After delaying discussion of Phillip for two entire chapters, he reduces his five year reign to a paragraph and a half.
Enter…. the Goths!
My general thoughts on Gibbon’s, um, dramatic storytelling:
But the goths are here, and they’re about to cover Rome in an uncomfortable and uneasy darkness, instilling dread, worry, and despair in the heart of the average Roman who must now contemplate mortality, death, and the bleakness of their frail human existence and choose, once and for all, whether they find that beautiful.
This is me, trying not to react to how many goth jokes I loaded into that sentence:
Yoric Philip, We Knew Him Well Barely
Gibbon opens the chapter with his own goth moment in his observations of the trials and tribulations of attempting an accurate historical account, but does state that it doesn’t take a genius to understand that the events chronicled over the first nine chapters have degraded Rome to a breaking point. Philip meets his demise in a manner very familiar to us by now: mutiny. The Mæsian legions proclaimed a fellow named Macrinus as the new emperor, but the senator Decius asserted that (1) the legions’ temper would boil over, (2) they’d kill Macrinus themselves, and (3) would calm down. When the legion did the first two but didn’t chill back out, he was dispatched to try to calm them down and was proven right on yet another one of his assertions: it would be dangerous to present them with a competent figure. Next thing Decius knew, he was given the choice to be killed or to accept their proclamation of being the new emperor.
Oh, um, uh, I wonder what he chose?
Philip was killed, and Gibbon laments the inability to know exactly how or where. Decius was the new emperor, whether he wanted to be or not. Decius was also going to get to do something else that he probably didn’t want to have anything to do with: respond to a Goth invasion.
Gibbon’s Gothic Surprise
Yep. He did it again. Just after dispatching Decius to the banks of the Danube, Gibbon smoothly pivots to the history of the Goths… which is the main topic for the rest of Part 1!
Subverts. Our. Expectations. We just need Admiral Purple Hair and Totally Dead Leia flying through space because reasons and we’ll be well on our way to a Rian Johnson disasterpiece. I guess we’ll just have to settle for the disaster that is about to happen to Rome. Yeah, that’ll have to do.
Gibbon jumps forward in time to decribe the Goth decedents as a people concerned enough about preserving their exploits for posterity that they set about getting their their history transcribed by Cassiodorus. Of course, these historical efforts constitute some significant hagiography and, making matters more complicated, these were only know to survive at Gibbon’s time in an abridged version by Jornandes. These writings attribute the point of Gothic origin in Scandinavia. Gibbon asserts that the Goths and the Swedes are cohabitant factions in Sweden who are consistently linked with one another over many centuries… with the Swedes always content to take credit for the Goth’s conquests. Guizot and Milman, though… they’re not convinced completely of Jornandes’ accuracy, noting that the Goths were not native to the Scandinavian lands. Gibbon, however, seems to proceed under the notion that the Goths originated in Scandinavia……… until he doesn’t. He shifts over later in the chapter to a position in agreement with Milman/Guizot (though I could be over analyzing him here to the point of inaccuracy).
Gibbon then traces the Goth and the Swede activities around Europe and begins to touch on Norse mythology… Odin, As-gard, etc. Depending on your sci-fi/fantasy/comic book background, one or both of these two things just came into your mind:
Interestingly, Gibbon spends a good bit of time parsing out the history of the Goths/Swedes (Vikings?) long beyond the time of the Goth invasion of Rome. His discussion dips as far forward in time as the 11th Century! But Milman chimes in about the sketchy accuracy of the history Gibbon shares, namely the “wonderful expedition of Odin” in which Odin leads the Goths from Prussia/Russia to conquer the Scandinavians.
Thankfully, Gibbon begins to reel this bunny trail in, finally moving to establish where the Goths actually were prior to their invasion of Rome. We also get our first mentions of the Visigoths, the Ostrogoths, and the Vandals, though once again the great editors interject. Gibbon says that the Goths were around the “mouth of the Vistula”, which would put them in the vicinity of modern day Gdańsk in Poland. He then puts the Vandals to their west, and indicates that Visigoth, Ostrogoth, and the Gepidæ (completely new term to me) were subdivisions of Goth. Guizot observes that the Visi’s and the Ostro’s denoted their place of origin. Guizot, and Milman, however strongly object to Gibbon’s statement that “The distinction among the Vandals was more strongly marked by the independent names of Heruli, Burgundians, Lombards, and a variety of other petty states, many of which, in a future age, expanded themselves into powerful monarchies”. They get very microscopic in their reasoning, but it boils down to the fact that the Vandals and the Goths were essentially two large and differing tribes of one people.
Finally, after jumping centuries ahead and bouncing around Goth history via unclear timelines, we arrive fully back in the time we were expecting to be weaving through. Gibbon says that the Goths were still in Prussia during the rule of the Antonines, but were already encroaching and poking small holes in the Roman border by the time of Alexander Severus. The reason for the move? Gibbon posits any number of migration motivators from disease to famine to superstition to the greatest motivator of all: live in a better climate with better weather (the ex-Californian in me nods approvingly).
Gibbon reasserts some things he already addressed in his barbarian chapter, namely the Goths’ skill in combat, their sensibilities regarding councils and obedience to rulers, the appeal of achieving glory in combat. Finally, he addresses some distinctions between the Goths and the Samartians and other kingdoms.
And that means we’re ready for the fun to begin.
Its All Over But the Crying.
The Goths lived in the land of modern Ukraine, which Gibbon describes as a literal Eden. But despite the “game and fish, the innumerable bee-hives… 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… the Goths withstood all these temptations, and still adhered to a life of idleness, of poverty, and of rapine”. And since the neighbor Scythians had nothing to offer, they saw Rome and said, “I’ll have one of those.” So they went for it and started their invasion.
This invasion, of course, was made much easier by the degradation of Rome’s border security and the fact that people in Mæsia thought that they were too far from it to be at risk. It was also made easier because of the lax and degraded state of the Roman military… and the fact that the disgraced and incapable Roman soldiers concluded that they were better off going Goth than fighting to a pointless death or retreating to severe discipline for their failure. And when the response of Mæsia was to pay them a ransom, the Goths went home with the realization that, as Gibbon put it, Rome had turned into an “opulent but feeble country”.
Spoiler alert: the ransom didn’t keep them away. #SurpriseSurpriseSurprise
Indeed, they returned with a force of more than 70,000 which prompted an alert to Rome and a call for Decius to dispatch himself and the legions to address the incursion. Decius showed up while the barbarians seized Nicopolis and appeared to scare them off, so he and his forces started chasing them. But the Goths revealed that they set Decius up by doing a 180 and attacking the legions point blank: Decius and his forces got walloped. Gibbon levels a sick burn concerning this, emphasis added: “for the first time, their emperor fled in disorder before a troop of half-armed barbarians”. Ouch.
We now take a brief musical interlude that is apropos for this moment:
The barbarians took advantage of their win by laying siege to Philippopolis and eventually massacring about 100,000 people there. Then Decius took advantage of the time the Goths spent in their attack at Philippopolis to marshal his forces and plan a counterattack. Gibbon also writes that Decius had time to reflect on the state of Roman life and how the once unstoppable empire could reach such a tattered and fragile state. His conclusion?
“He soon discovered that it was impossible to replace that greatness on a permanent basis without restoring public virtue, ancient principles and manners, and the oppressed majesty of the laws.”
Decius proceeded to make a fellow by the name of Valerian the official Roman Censor and gave him power over… well, just about everything. In the truest sense, Valerian is 97% an emperor. But Gibbon is quite correct when he asserts the built-in fail point of this plan:
“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.”
Its quite remarkable how badly Rome looses this exchange. Rome corners the barbarians. The Goths are lower in numbers, their supplies are depleted, and overall they’re exhausted. In fact, they wanted out! They were happy to give up their captured people and riches in exchange for getting to head back to Germany no-questions-asked. BUT DECIUS DIDN’T WANT TO DO THAT. He had the perfect win-win: the invaders leave and you keep all your stuff! But nooooooooo. Decius decided to try and put an exclamation point on it. But the glory of war is ingrained in the barbarians, if you’ll recall… so they’d rather die than surrender.
As the saying goes:
First, the emperor’s son went down. And while the Romans knocked out the first 2 lines of Goth army… they decided to chase the Goths into a bog. This went about as well for the Romans as Napoleon’s winter campaign in Russia. The remaining Goths destroyed the Romans so soundly that they never found the body of Decius.
The legions were in shock long enough that the Senate actually got to pick the next co-emperors: Decius’ son Hostilianus (more commonly known today as Hostilian) and Gallus. Their first order of business is to get the Goths to leave so, in a flipped script moment, they tell the Goths to keep all of their spoils, all of their prisoners(!), that they’ll give them all the supplies they need, and that they’ll pay them off with gold every year if they won’t invade again. We go now to a live look at the Romans:
Yep. It seems they didn’t like the idea of paying the ransom, even if, as Gibbon suggests, it worked and saved Rome from a significantly worse and prolonged war with the Goths at that time. And the fact that year one of the Gallus/Hostilianus era was actually not to bad just made everyone all the more upset. Then Hostilianus died and everyone thought Gallus did it (no one knows for sure). And the Romans became even more irate when they realized that the conflict with the Goths and the massive payoff only revealed to the world what they somehow missed: Rome was an empire in decline, weak and decayed from the inside. So the barbarians came back.
Gallus wanted to be a pampered baby in Italy, so he sent a fellow named Æmilianus to lead the war where he and the legions absolutely schooled the Goths. And much like Decius before him, the appearance of competence only served to inflame the legions, who proclaimed him emperor. I’m sure the payout he gave the soldiers didn’t hurt. I’d hate to be the person who was dispatched to tell Gallus, “Well sire, there’s some good news and there’s some bad news…”
Gallus and his son rode out to meet the renegade legions led by Æmilianus.
Exit Gallus and his son.
The senate gave their blessing to Æmilianus, who promised to destroy the invaders with the effectiveness that he had just shown in combat. Four months later, he sent Valerian the censor to muster the legions in France and Germany. and like Decius and Æmilianus himself, the legions loved Valerian and proclaimed him emperor. But in a new twist, it was Æmilianus’ own troops who had just proclaimed him emperor that decided to bring about the survival of the fittest. Exit Æmilianus. Which makes Valerian the new emperor!
No, no, no… not that Valerian!
Valerian was loved by all. But rather than go down as one of the best, he made a boo-boo. “Consulting only the dictates of affection or vanity, [he] immediately invested with the supreme honors his son Gallienus, a youth whose effeminate vices had been hitherto concealed by the obscurity of a private station.” Burn.
Over the 15 years that Valerian and/or Gallienus reigned, Rome was a dumpster fire. Constant threats both foreign and domestic didn’t give anyone a moment of rest. Gibbon especially makes mention of the Franks, the Alemanni, the Goths, and the Persians as the key foreign enemies and provides a very academically written “keep reading to find out about the domestic ones” notice. In what feels like a bit of an afterthought/endnote, Gibbon tacks on a paragraph to indicate his admiration and awe of the Franks.
Everything went wrong at the worst possible time. They negotiated with the terrorists. They got too clever by half. They wouldn’t take a gift-wrapped win. But Decius has the key moment when he realizes that Rome is toast without better culture. It was that decay that led to the problems with the Goths and the inability and lack of fortitude to defeat them. It was also that decay that made a lot of Roman enemies smell blood and move in for the kill. It was the legions’ laxness, moral/ethical decay, and failure to remain prepared for combat that permitted the Goth incursion to begin with. Of course, we don’t have anything like that here.
*checks army/navy reading lists*
*sees the addition of climate change as a domestic threat*
*reads about a air base defending doing a drag show as an essential readiness activity*
*literally turns on TV*
This is the real crux of the cultural issues. Anyone who thinks a nation without a commonly agreed upon moral/ethical creed will survive needs a dose of Gibbon. And like Decius trying to fix the issue with a censor bandaid, attempts to implement political solutions here instead of spiritual ones will similarly prove to be a bandaid.
Rome was a culture in need of spiritual revival.
Ask yourself: Did they get that?
Now ask yourself: Did they survive?
By the way, did someone say Gdańsk?