Chapter 7

A glorious start: the problem with he Roman Empire was that it wasn’t hereditary enough. (You would have thought that Commodus and Caracalla were fairly good counter-arguments, but there you go.)

Of the various forms of government which have prevailed in the world, an hereditary monarchy seems to present the fairest scope for ridicule. Is it possible to relate, without an indignant smile, that, on the father’s decease, the property of a nation, like that of a drove of oxen, descends to his infant son, as yet unknown to mankind and to himself; and that the bravest warriors and the wisest statesmen, relinquishing their natural right to empire, approach the royal cradle with bended knees and protestations of inviolable fidelity? Satire and declamation may paint these obvious topics in the most dazzling colours, but our more serious thoughts will respect a useful prejudice, that establishes a rule of succession, independent of the passions of mankind; and we shall cheerfully acquiesce in any expedient which deprives the multitude of the dangerous, and indeed the ideal, power of giving themselves a master.

In the cool shade of retirement, we may easily devise imaginary forms of government, in which the sceptre shall be constantly bestowed on the most worthy, by the free and incorrupt suffrage of the whole community. Experience overturns these airy fabrics, and teaches us that, in a large society, the election of a monarch can never devolve to the wisest, or to the most numerous, part of the people. The army is the only order of men sufficiently united to concur in the same sentiments, and powerful enough to impose them on the rest of their fellow-citizens: but the temper of soldiers, habituated at once to violence and to slavery, renders them very unfit guardians of a legal or even a civil, constitution. Justice, humanity, or political wisdom, are qualities they are too little acquainted with in themselves, to appreciate them in others. Valour will acquire their esteem, and liberality will purchase their suffrage; but the first of these merits is often lodged in the most savage breasts; the latter can only exert itself at the expense of the public; and both may be turned against the possessor of the throne, by the ambition of a daring rival.

The superior prerogative of birth, when it has obtained the sanction of time and popular opinion, is the plainest and least invidious of all distinctions among mankind. The acknowledged right extinguishes the hopes of faction, and the conscious security disarms the cruelty of the monarch. To the firm establishment of this idea, we owe the peaceful succession, and mild administration, of European monarchies. To the defect of it, we must attribute the frequent civil wars, through which an Asiatic despot is obliged to cut his way to the throne of his fathers. Yet, even in the East, the sphere of contention is usually limited to the princes of the reigning house, and as soon as the more fortunate competitor has removed his brethren, by the sword and the bowstring, he no longer entertains any jealousy of his meaner subjects. But the Roman empire, after the authority of the senate had sunk into contempt, was a vast scene of confusion. The royal, and even noble, families of the provinces, had long since been led in triumph before the car of the haughty republicans. The ancient families of Rome had successively fallen beneath the tyranny of the Caesars, and whilst those princes were shackled by the forms of a commonwealth, and disappointed by the repeated failure of their posterity, it was impossible that any idea of hereditary succession should have taken root in the minds of their subjects. The right to the throne, which none could claim from birth, every one assumed from merit. The daring hopes of ambition were set loose from the salutary restraints of law and prejudice; and the meanest of mankind might, without folly, entertain a hope of being raised by valour and fortune to a rank in the army, in which a single crime would enable him to wrest the sceptre of the world from his feeble and unpopular master. After the murder of Alexander Severus, and the elevation of Maximin, no emperor could think himself safe upon the throne and every barbarian peasant of the frontier might aspire to that august, but dangerous station.

Gloriously bigoted stuff. Note the way “prejudice” is presented as a positive thing.

Sadly we don’t get a very good idea of why Alexander was killed, though Maximin sounds like an impressive character, with a serious chip on his shoulder. He turns out to be greedy and incompetent, and it’s more surprising that the Empire survives his rule at all than that he gets overthrown.

A real laugh-out-loud moment when we get to the younger Gordian:

Twenty-two acknowledged concubines, and a library of sixty-two thousand volumes, attested the variety of his inclinations, and from the productions which he left behind him, it appears that the former as well as the latter were designed for use rather than ostentation.

Alas, he and his father get killed off pretty quickly. But by now Rome itself is in revolt, and we have Maximus and Balbinus as alternate emperors. Maximin is killed by his own troops, after much tension. Gibbon thinks he was a Bad Man because of his humble background.

But Maximus and Balbinus go the same way, leaving only the youngest Gordian as undisputed emperor. And he ends up by accident with a decent minister, Misitheus. This is OK until Misitheus dies, and his replacement, Philip, “was an Arab by birth, and consequently, in the earlier part of his life, a robber by profession.” Philip soon promotes himself to the top spot, and throws a big party for the people of Rome to make sure he stays there.

It’s been a dramatic chapter, with the Year of the Six Emperors (238 AD) central to the story. Gibbon concludes with more reflections on the overall problem:

The discipline of the legions, which alone, after the extinction of every other virtue, had propped the greatness of the state, was corrupted by the ambition, or relaxed by the weakness, of the emperors.

Which is all very well, except that he is arguing that the emperors were both too weak and too strong. Really the problem was that state institutions were not robust enough to cope with poor leadership.

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1 Response to Chapter 7

  1. ex_james_ni says:

    I think today toat would be spelled tote; it means to carry.

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