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'Rome Groaned'
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon: Summation 3
© 2023 James LaFond
AUG/30/23
The 3rd chapter of Gibbon’s first book is a work of comparative genius. I have listened to it now seven times. The historian revisits the Pax Romana and the Five Good Emperors in some detail and reflects back to the Roman Republic, forward to the constitutional monarchy he lived under, and came to the conclusion that the Mass Roman Mind, and the individual enslaved as part of the mass collective was uniquely suited to suffer bondage more completely and exquisitely than slaves who had gone hence into oblivion or had yet to be born into suffering.
Pointing out that an objective view of history, to include the circumstances of Gibbon’s own time, would bring the observer to the obvious conclusion that that the best time and place for a person to be alive across that span of history, was during the height of the Roman Empire. Between the Reign of Nerva and Marcus Aurelius, a period of some 80 years, during which the monstrous state, with a military that could not be challenged and had presided over “an age of iron” between the death of Augustus and the intercession of the Flavians, was guided by wise stewards, by actual humanitarian executives.
The caprice of the Legions, of that unequaled military machine, which had evolved to serve The Commonwealth, and had then become self-aware and served as the instrument to usher in tyranny under the Triumvirate and again under Tiberius, is illuminated with a deft hand, a hand that does not neglect to inform the reader that the legions were “a blind instrument of oppression.”
Gibbon presents the case, that the republican history of Rome, presenting a Golden Age to the mass mind that had been culled down to its worst aspects by the slaughter of the best families of the Republic, gave the Roman a keen appreciation for his slavery. He describes slave societies of his day, being Muslim, the Turkish and the Persian empires as specific examples, as places where tyrants slaughtered people in their shared beds and one famous “slave of the sultan” the prime minister, always made certain to “ascertain if his head was still upon his shoulders when leaving the Sultan’s presence.” That such men were drawn from “miserable” Christian realms, such as Georgia and Circasia, where the parents of promising Christian children would sell the best and brightest to agents of Muslim sultans seeking administrative slaves to serve them in the oppression of their subjects, echoes the life of Thomas Pellow who was a sultan’s slave for 35 years, as well as Captain John Smith who suffered the same dubious honor. The case is made that the Asiatic mind, particularly in its Muslim evolution, is not prone to suffer in bondage so much as the mind of a person or collective who holds ancestral ideals of liberty and freedom.
“...they have done them a very ill office” comments Gibbon on European travelers who had in his time, “dispersed ideas of the mildness of western government rule among the slaves of the Persian Sultan.”
Not only did Rome have a storied history of civic agency, in which tyrants were not tolerated except in war, but also had a history of abuse by the emperors of the first century A.D., such as Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero and Vitellius, “a hog” who ate millions of dollars worth of food during his brief reign.
“Under the slavery of these monsters,” Rome had emerged through civil war and then prospered under executive stewardship that has not been matched in human history, in which the head of state, who held all power, delegated some, and refused to indulge in his hates and passions in the manner of sultans, dictators and other such creatures of power down through the ages.
The other aspect that made life under the Roman System particularly odious for the thinking person, [0] was that the Legions had been so successful, that all the portions of the Western World that could be civilized had been conquered. To escape Rome, one had to drown upon the limitless Ocean, burn in the ocean of sand that was the Sahara, seek shelter with some Asiatic despot whose slave you would then be, and who might well sell you back to your Roman master, or venture into the violent, tribal haunts of the northern barbarians.
The eminent historian senses that Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antonius and Marcus and those who enjoyed an equitable and prosperous and contemplative life under their rule must have dreaded that this accident of goodwill would be forever ruined by some passionate brat, that all that was required to draw down the curtain on the only known humanitarian phase of ancient life, was for the emperor to put aside his duty for his base humanity and permit the power of the tyrant to slip into the hands of a traditional successor. So, even as Antonius was chosen as heir by Hadrian on the condition that he adopt and leave the empire in the hands of Marcus, that physically frail and most humane of absolute rulers, passed his power along to his degenerate son, Comodus, a man so noxious as to provide a name for a toilet.
In Chapter 3, Gibbon charts the foretold doom of the nation that is more like the postmodern United States than any other nation in history. I am so fortunate to have this audio recording to listen to, as my Literary Guild collection of 8 volumes had to be given away before I was able to read them and my eyes are beyond such a task these days. So, even as the Roman citizen under the Roman Peace benefited materially and was better able to appreciate his moral peril, due to the unique place and time he occupied, so has the electronic media technology that made this man homeless, remained to keep him company and texture the shadows that would otherwise compound his ostracism with bewilderment.
Thank you, Editor. [1]
Notes
-0. I suggest that Gibbon was viewing history from his own keenly literate perspective and that his sufferer across ages and cultures was, like him, and us, literate and able to spend time in contemplation. For the slaves of Rome under Hadrian, to include his own abused slave Epictetus, suffered as cruelly as the neo industrial slaves of Gibbon’s own time.
-1. Gibbons footnotes are very entertaining. So, by way of aping him poorly, I should note that in ancient Rome, an editor was the sponsor of gladiatorial combats, very often the emperor himself, and that under modernity an editor shapes the final form of fictional and ideological discourse for the mass and individual mind.
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