The eighteenth century political philosopher Montesquieu examines the constituent features of Roman culture which contributed to the collapse of the Roman Republic. Montesquieu argues that the increasing territorial, as well as material grandeur of the Roman Republic magnified already existing constitutional schisms, and that the primal bellicosity of the Roman people lingered as a tinderbox for civil strife long after external conflicts had ended.
“The reason why free states are not so permanent as other forms of government, is, because the misfortunes and successes which happen to them, generally occasion the loss of liberty; whereas the successes and misfortunes of an arbitrary government, contribute equally to the enslaving of the people.
“Authors enlarge very copiously on the divisions which proved the destruction of Rome; but their readers seldom discover those divisions to have been always necessary and inevitable. The grandeur of the republic was the only source of that calamity, and exasperated popular tumults into civil wars. Dissensions were not to be prevented, and those martial spirits, which were so fierce and formidable abroad, could not be habituated to any considerable moderation at home.
“Those who expect in a free state, to see the people undaunted in war and pusillanimous in peace, are certainly desirous of impossibilities; and it may be advanced as a general rule, that whenever a perfect calm is visible, in a state that calls itself a republic, the spirit of liberty no longer subsists.
“It must be acknowledged that the Roman laws were too weak to govern the republic: but experience has proved it to be an invariable fact, that good laws, which raise the reputation and power of a small republic, become incommodious to it, when once its grandeur is established, because it was their natural effect to make a great people, but not to govern them.
“Rome was founded for grandeur, and its laws had an admirable tendency to bestow it; for which reason, in all the variations of her government, whether monarchy, aristocracy, or popular, she constantly engaged in enterprises which required conduct to accomplish them, and always succeeded. The experience of a day did not furnish her with more wisdom than all other nations, but she obtained it by a long succession of events. She sustained a small, a moderate, and an immense fortune with the same superiority, derived true welfare from the whole train of her prosperity, and refined every instance of calamity into beneficial instructions… She lost her liberty, because she completed her work too soon.
*All excerpts have been taken from Considerations on the Causes of the Grandeur and Declension of the Roman Empire, Public Domain.
In letter #90, Seneca examines the purpose of philosophy in life. He fuses his own Stoic philosophy with ideas on the art-of-living, the development of government, and the pursuit of wisdom.
“If they had made philosophic knowledge also a common attribute and we were all born wise, then wisdom would have forfeited its principal quality, which is that it is not fortuitous.
“The natural measure which limited desires by essential requirements has retreated; to desire a mere sufficiency is now a mark of boorishness and wretchedness.
“Wisdom turns to the incorporeal and scrutinizes truth and its manifestations and determines the modes for distinguishing ambiguities in life or speech, for in both the false is mingled with the true.
“Virtue is not Nature’s gift; to become good is an art.
“Virtue can occur only in a soul trained and taught and raised to its height by assiduous exercise.
*All excerpts have been taken from The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca: Essays and Letters, W.W. Norton.
When comparing The Secret History with On Buildings it is almost unbelievable both were written by the same man: Procopius. On Buildings glorifies the preeminence of the emperor Justinian in all things, and The Secret History maligns Justinian in all things. Extracting the attainable truth from The Secret History is devilishly difficult, because it was clearly written when Procopius was out of favor. It was also ostensibly written following the plague years, and after the wars in the West as well as East of the Byzantine Empire had gone bad. Despite these dilemmas the work does bring forth the apparent emotional underpinnings of East Roman society near the end of Justinian’s reign.
“Theodora had at her disposal secret and absolutely secluded dungeons, so solitary and so dark that it was impossible to distinguish between night and day…to her no place ever was sacred or unassailable; and she thought nothing of violating the holiest of sanctuaries. The Christian priests and people were struck with horror at her impiety, but nevertheless yielded and submitted to her in everything.
“Belisarius, although none of the charges brought against him could be proved, was removed by the Emperor, at the instance of Theodora, from the command of the army in the East…As for his friends and the many people who had before served under him, Justinian forbade them to visit him. Thus was seen in the city a piteous spectacle which men could scarce believe to be real, that of Belisarius simply a private individual, almost alone, gloomy and thoughtful, ever dreading to be set upon and assassinated.
“At the time when Leo occupied the imperial throne, three young husbandmen, of Illyrian birth, named Zimarchus, Ditybistus, and Justin of Bederiane, in order to escape from their utter poverty at home, determined to enlist in the army. They made their way to Byzantium on foot, with knapsacks of goat’s-hair on their shoulders, containing nothing but a few biscuits which they had brought from home. On their arrival they were enrolled in the army, and chosen by the Emperor amongst the palace guards, being all three very handsome young men.
“Justinian, by openly encouraging and provoking the Blue faction, shook the Roman Empire to its foundation, like an earthquake or a flood, or as though each city had been taken by the enemy. Everything was everywhere thrown into disorder; nothing was left alone. The laws and the whole fabric of the State were altogether upset, and became the very opposite of what they had been.
“He wrote decrees, without the slightest hesitation, for the capture of fortresses, the burning of cities, the enslaving of whole races of men for no crime whatever, so that, if anyone were to reckon all the calamities of this nature which have befallen the Roman people before his time, and weigh them against those which were brought about by him, I imagine that it would be found that this man was guilty of far more bloodshed than any ruler of previous times.
*All excerpts have been taken from The Complete Procopius Anthology, Bybliotech.
In The Outline of History H.G. Wells chronicles the metamorphosis of humanity from its earliest beginnings until the time of his own contemporary epoch. He maps the rise and decline of civilizations by describing the world historical individuals that were influential in setting the course of society. His biography of Alexander the Great offers his own keen insights, and exhibits the intellectual dispositions of the era in which Wells lived.
“Alexander was, as few other monarchs have ever been, a specially educated king; he was educated for empire. Aristotle was but one of the several able tutors his father chose for him. Philip confided his policy to him, and entrusted him with commands and authority by the time he was sixteen. He commanded the cavalry at Chaeronea under his father’s eye. He was nursed into power – generously and unsuspiciously. To any one who reads his life with care it is evident that Alexander started with an equipment of training and ideas of unprecedented value.
“The strong sanity he inherited from his father had made him a great soldier; the teaching of Aristotle had given him something of the scientific outlook upon the world. He had destroyed Tyre; in Egypt, at one of the mouths of the Nile, he now founded a new city, Alexandria, to replace that ancient centre of trade. To the north of Tyre, near Issus, he founded a second port, Alexandretta. Both of these cities flourish to this day, and for a time Alexandria was perhaps the greatest city in the world.
“…he was forming no group of statesmen about him; he was thinking of no successor; he was creating no tradition – nothing more than a personal legend. The idea that the world would have to go on after Alexander, engaged in any other employment than the discussion of his magnificence, seems to have been outside his mental range. He was still young, it is true, but well before Philip was one and thirty he had been thinking of the education of Alexander.
“We are too apt to consider the career of Alexander as the crown of some process that had long been afoot; as the climax of a crescendo. In a sense, no doubt, it was that; but much more true is it that it was not so much an end as a beginning; it was the first revelation to the human imagination of the oneness of human affairs. The utmost reach of the thought of Greece before his time was of a Persian empire Hellenized, a predominance in the world of Macedonians and Greeks. But before Alexander was dead, and much more after he was dead and there had been time to think him over, the conception of a world law and organization was a practicable and assimilable idea for the minds of men.
“For some generations Alexander the Great was for mankind the symbol and embodiment of world order and world dominion. He became a fabulous being. His head, adorned with the divine symbols of the demi-god Hercules or the god Ammon Ra, appears on the coins of such among his successors as could claim to be his heirs. Then the idea of world dominion was taken up by another great people, a people who for some centuries exhibited considerable political genius, the Romans; and the figure of another conspicuous adventurer, Caesar, eclipsed for the western half of the old world the figure of Alexander.
*All excerpts have been taken from The Outline of History, Norwood Press.
The Byzantine Empire in the eleventh century was engaged in a power struggle between two parties. The court party was centered in the capital of Constantinople, and was composed of the courtiers, administrative bureaucrats, and urban aristocracy of the metropolis. Rivaling the court party was the military party, which was mostly the agrarian military aristocracy of Anatolia. The military party had been preeminent for about a century prior to the reign of the Emperor Basil II.
The elevation of Romanus IV Diogenes to the throne by the Empress Eudocia was an important victory for the military party, because Romanus was connected with most of the Anatolian military aristocracy, and considered an enterprising, able, and skilled general. Romanus was selected as the husband of Eudocia, because the eastern border of the empire was under grave threat from the Seljuk Turks, and even though her own son Michael had already been crowned as Emperor he was young with no military background. The court party preferred weak rulers because of the inbred corruption in the imperial bureaucracy, and for this reason supported Michael.
Michael Psellus was the personal tutor of Michael, and a leading member of the court party. Although a political enemy of the Emperor Romanus IV, Psellus does say some good things about him. However, most of the biography is dedicated to calumny against Romanus in order to justify his betrayal by the supporters of Michael at the battle of Manzikert, which would lead to the ascension of Michael as sole ruler.
“He affected contempt for the empress, completely despised the officers of state, refused advice, and – incurable malady of emperors – relied on no counsel, no guidance but his own, under all circumstances without exception.
“The fact is, he bore the whole brunt of the danger himself. His action can be interpreted in two ways. My own view represents the mean between these two extremes. On the one hand, if you regard him as a hero, courting danger and fighting courageously, it is reasonable to praise him; on the other, when one reflects that a general, if he conforms to the accepted rules of strategy, must remain aloof from the battle-line, supervising the movements of his army and issuing the necessary orders to the men under his command, then Romanus’s conduct on this occasion would appear foolish in the extreme, for he exposed himself to danger without a thought of the consequences. I myself am more inclined to praise than to blame him for what he did.
“He put on the full armour of an ordinary soldier and drew sword against his enemies. According to several of my informants he actually killed many of them and put others to flight. Later, when his attackers recognized who he was, they surrounded him on all sides. He was wounded and fell from his horse. They seized him, of course, and the Emperor of the Romans was led away, a prisoner…
“The picture they painted was by no means distinct, for each explained the disaster in his own fashion, some saying that Romanus was dead, others that he was only a prisoner; some again declared that they had seen him wounded and hurled to the ground, while others had seen him being led away in chains to the barbarian camp. In view of this information, a conference was held in the capital, and the empress considered our future policy. The unanimous decision of the meeting was that, for the time being, they should ignore the emperor, whether he was a prisoner, or dead, and that Eudocia and her sons should carry on the government of the Empire.
“The commander-in-chief of the enemy forces, when he perceived that the Roman Emperor had fallen into his hands, instead of exulting in his triumph, was quite overcome by his own extraordinary success. He celebrated his victory with a moderation that was beyond all expectation. Offering his condolences to the captive, he shared his own table with him, treated him as an honoured guest, gave him a bodyguard, loosed from their chains those prisoners he cared to name and set them free. Finally, he restored liberty to Romanus himself also, and, after making a treaty of friendship and after receiving from him assurances on oath that he would loyally abide by the agreements they had made, sent him back to Roman territory, with as numerous an escort and bodyguard as anyone could wish for.
*All excerpts have been taken from Fourteen Byzantine Rulers, Penguin Books.
Late antiquity engendered consequential institutional adjustments for Roman arms. The wealth of the state meant that Rome would always attract the best recruits to its standard, but commonly these recruits were foreign mercenaries. Although still effective the army over time became more and more challenging to control because of foreign preeminence.
The Western Roman Empire never solved the problem of the barbarianization of its army, but rather was taken over by it, and collapsed as a state in 476. On the other hand, the Eastern Roman Empire answered the institutional dilemma of barbarianization first by elevating the hard-bitten Isaurian Romans of Anatolia to supremacy over the formerly favored barbarian mercenaries, and later by establishing the militia thémata system.
The late Roman writer Vegetius sought to unravel the institutional riddle of the late Roman army by advancing the thesis of how the ideal Roman army ought to be organized. His work never reflected the reality of late antiquity, but would become influential in the medieval West.
“Victory in war does not depend entirely upon numbers or mere courage; only skill and discipline will insure it.
“Recruits in particular should be obliged frequently to carry a weight of not less than sixty pounds (exclusive of their arms), and to march with it in the ranks. This is because on difficult expeditions they often find themselves under the necessity of carrying their provisions as well as their arms.
“The courage of a soldier is heightened by his knowledge of his profession, and he only wants an opportunity to execute what he is convinced he has been perfectly taught. A handful of men, inured to war, proceed to certain victory, while on the contrary numerous armies of raw and undisciplined troops are but multitudes of men dragged to slaughter.
“Troops, defenseless and exposed to all the weapons of the enemy, are more disposed to fly than fight.
“To pretend to enumerate the different nations so formidable of old, all which now are subject to the Romans, would be tedious. But the security established by long peace has altered their dispositions, drawn them off from military to civil pursuits and infused into them a love of idleness and ease. Hence a relaxation of military discipline insensibly ensued, then a neglect of it, and it sunk at last into entire oblivion.
*All excerpts have been taken from Military Institutions of the Romans, Praetorian Press, LLC.
In The Invasion of Europe by the Barbarians, distinguished historian J.B. Bury offers a narrative account of the deluge of barbarian invasions, and mass migrations which afflicted the Roman Empire in the fifth century AD. He also chronicles the early evolution of the barbarian kingdoms in Western Europe throughout late antiquity.
The chapter Bury dedicates to the decline of Roman power in the western half of the empire centers on the institutional collapse of the state, and the ensuing snowball of barbarianization within the army. The barbarianization of the army thus allowed for the eventual consummation of an Italian kingdom under the rule of the barbarian warlord Odovacar.
“The contribution which the Vandals made to the shaping of Europe was this: the very existence of their kingdom in Africa, and of their naval power in the Mediterranean, acted as a powerful protection for the growth of the new German kingdoms in Gaul and Spain, and ultimately helped the founding of a German kingdom in Italy, by dividing, diverting, and weakening the forces of the Empire. The Vandals had got round, as it were, to the rear of the Empire; and the effect of their powerful presence there was enhanced by the hostile and aggressive attitude which they continuously adopted.
“He (Ricimer) became through circumstances an emperor-maker; and his difficulty was this. If he set up too strong a man, his own power would have probably been overridden; his own fall would have been the consequence; while on the other hand weak upstarts were unable to maintain their position for any length of time, since public opinion did not respect them.
“It is also to be noted that in the intervals between the reigns of the emperors whom Ricimer set up and pulled down, when there was no emperor regnant in Italy, it did not mean that there was no emperor at all. At such times the imperial authority was entirely invested in the eastern emperor who reigned at Constantinople, the Emperor Leo; and this, too, was fully acknowledged by Ricimer, who indeed selected two of his emperors by arrangement with Leo.
“Odovacar had statesmanlike qualities, and he decided against the system of Ricimer, which had proved thoroughly unsatisfactory and unstable. His idea was to rule Italy under the imperial authority of Constantinople, unhampered by a second emperor in Italy, whom recent experiences had shown to be worse than useless. There would have been no difficulty for Odovacar in adopting this policy, if there had existed no second emperor at the time; but Julius Nepos was still alive, and, what was most important, he had been recognized at Constantinople.
“Odovacar was not hampered, as Ricimer had been, by the nominal authority of a resident emperor; he was able to pursue his own policy without any embarrassment, and to act as an independent ruler. His policy was one of peace; he was entirely averse from aggression. It must be noted, too, that his position was much easier than that of Ricimer, because the Vandal hostilities had ceased. Gaiseric had died in 477; and two years before his death he had made peace with Rome, and Odovacar had induced him to restore Sicily in return for a yearly payment.
*All excerpts have been taken from The Invasion of Europe by the Barbarians, Endeavour Press Ltd.