The Decline of Roman Power in the West – J.B. Bury

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Synopsis:

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.

Excerpts:

“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 show 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.

Constantius II: Usurpers, Eunuchs, and the Antichrist – Peter Crawford

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Synopsis:

Following the passing of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Roman Empire was divided among his sons Constantine, Constantius, and Constans. Ultimately, Constantius would consolidate power under his exclusive authority. However, the religious schisms befalling the empire concerning the true nature of Christ between the Arians, Monophysites, and Catholics manifested a legacy as the anti-Christ for Constantius among the victorious Catholics, because of his alliance with the Arian cause.

In his book, Constantius II: Usurpers, Eunuchs, and the Antichrist historian Peter Crawford renders the contexture of the schisms of Christianity throughout the era of Constantius II. He also describes the considerable pagan rebellions, the war with the neighboring superpower Persia under Shapur II, as well as the dynastic civil war of Julian the Apostate, and the power politics which sculpted the complexion of the epoch that Constantius ruled over.

Excerpts:

“Not only was Sirmium now an increasingly important military position in the prefecture of Illyricum, the extended presence of emperors had seen the construction of many of the buildings required for an imperial residence: imperial and public palaces, mint, circus, arena, aqueduct, churches and villas. Indeed, so well-polished had Sirmium become that the hard-to-please Ammianus called it ‘a populous and famous metropolis.’

“And it was to prove as the subsequent Battle of Mursa on 28 September 351 was one of the bloodiest battles in Roman history; although even with such a status, information about the battle remains scant. Magnentius is said to have lost two-thirds of his force in this slogging match while the victorious Constantius lost half of his, equating to perhaps more than 50,000 casualties.

“Constantius’ record on the battlefield was almost impeccable. Losing control of his army at Singara is the only real blemish when he led men in person. He defeated armies of Persians, Sarmatians, Quadi, Limigantes, Alamanni and probably other tribes on top of the two large Roman armies of Magnentius; all of this achieved with an army that was in a transitional phase of its development not just from the reforms of Constantine but also the increasing regionalisation sparked by the divisions of the central field army between his sons.

“It was the potential strategic considerations behind the promotion of Sabinianus that represents the least popular aspect of Constantius’ military approach with his lack of offensive strikes and major battles against foreign enemies seen as un-Roman and cowardly. However, it is in this realm of military strategy that Constantius demonstrated a far greater insight into the abilities of the fourth century empire, its army, its officers and its opponents than many of his contemporaries, even if it was to the detriment of his own reputation.

“Throughout his reign, Constantius held a massive Persian army headed by perhaps the greatest Sassanid king at bay at a time of Roman military transition, imperial division, usurpation and barbarian invasion. During the 340s, he had even managed that with just a third of the empire’s resources at his disposal.

*All excerpts have been taken from Constantius II: Usurpers, Eunuchs, and the Antichrist, Pen and Sword.

The Vandalic and Berber Insurgencies – Procopius

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Synopsis:

Book IV of The Wars of Justinian by Procopius offers a narrative history of the immediate aftermath of the East Roman victory over the Vandal Kingdom in North Africa by the general Belisarius. Procopius was a witness to some of the events, and offers keen insights into the Vandal as well as Berber insurgencies that followed the departure of Belisarius. The insurgencies the Romans encountered were continuous and had flash-points of high intensity for about ten years.

Dispossessed of their country by the conquest of Belisarius the remaining aggrieved Vandal elite stirred mutiny within the Roman army in North Africa, and utilized puppet Roman commanders in an endeavor to reinstate an independent kingdom. Discerning the dichotomy in the Roman army the Berbers inaugurated their own rebellions, which escalated the atomized landscape. Ultimately, the East Roman army would be victorious and Byzantine North Africa would go on to become a citadel of order as well as prosperity in the following century for the empire.

Excerpts:

“And it came about during this year that a most dread portent took place. For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during this whole year, and it seemed exceedingly like the sun in eclipse, for the beams it shed were not clear nor such as it is accustomed to shed. And from the time when this thing happened men were free neither from war nor pestilence nor any other thing leading to death. And it was the time when Justinian was in the tenth year of his reign.

“In the Roman army there were, as it happened, not less than one thousand soldiers of the Arian faith; and most of these were barbarians, some of these being of the Herulian nation. Now these men were urged on to the mutiny by the priests of the Vandals with the greatest zeal.

“…when they had sailed into Carthage, Germanus counted the soldiers whom they had, and upon looking over the books of the scribes where the names of all the soldiers were registered, he found that a third of the army was in Carthage and the other cities, while all the rest were arrayed with the tyrant against the Romans.

“Solomon sailed to Carthage, and having rid himself of the sedition of Stotzas, he ruled with moderation and guarded Libya securely, setting the army in order, and sending to Byzantium and to Belisarius whatever suspicious elements he found in it, and enrolling new soldiers to equal their number, and removing those of the Vandals who were left and especially all their women from the whole of Libya. And he surrounded each city with a wall, and guarding the laws with great strictness, he restored the government completely. And Libya became under his rule powerful as to its revenues and prosperous in other respects.

“…the Moors did not think it advisable for them to fight a pitched battle with the Romans; for they did not hope to overcome them in this kind of contest; but they did have hope, based on the difficult character of the country around Aurasium, that the Romans would in a short time give up by reason of the sufferings they would have to endure and would withdraw from there, just as they formerly had done.

*All excerpts have been taken from The Complete Procopius Anthology, Bybliotech.

Reason and the True Good – Seneca

Synopsis:

In letter #124, Seneca engages the fountainhead of the ‘true good’ in human action. He concludes that virtue is the cradle of happiness, and the cradle of virtue is reason.

Excerpts:

“And what is this good? I will tell you: It is a free and upstanding mind which subjects other things to itself and itself to nothing.

“We assert that ‘happy’ is what is in accordance with nature, and what is in accordance with nature is directly obvious, just as wholeness is obvious.

“As far as perception of good and evil is concerned both are equally mature; an infant is no more capable of the good than is a tree or some dumb animal. And why is the good not present in tree or dumb animal? Because reason is not.

“Confusion is applicable only where non-confusion can also occur, as anxiety is applicable only where serenity can obtain. No man is vicious unless he is capable of virtue.

“Pronounce yourself happy only when all your satisfactions are begotten of reason, and when, having surveyed what men struggle for, pray for, watch over, you find nothing to desire let alone prefer.

*All excerpts have been taken from The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca: Essays and Letters, W.W. Norton.

Chronicle of the Fourth Crusade and the Conquest of Constantinople – Geoffrey de Villehardouin

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Synopsis:

In his Chronicle of the Fourth Crusade and the Conquest of Constantinople, Geoffrey de Villehardouin relates his first-hand account of the evolution of the Fourth Crusade from its original destination of Cairo in Egypt to its eventual conquest of the Christian city of Constantinople. Villehardouin served as a member of the high command of the crusade, and the narrative is written as an attempt to justify its actions. During this era in Byzantine history the population of Constantinople was perhaps 500,000 inhabitants or more, and Villehardouin recounts exceptional wonder at the magnitude as well as opulence of the city.

Excerpts:

“Now you may know that those who had never before seen Constantinople looked upon it very earnestly, for they never thought there could be in all the world so rich a city; and they marked the high walls and strong towers that enclosed it round about, and the rich palaces, and mighty churches of which there were so many that no one would have believed it who had not seen it with his eyes-and the height and the length of that city which above all others was sovereign. And be it known to you, that no man there was of such hardihood but his flesh trembled: and it was no wonder, for never was so great an enterprise undertaken by any people since the creation of the world.

“The Marquis Boniface of Montferrat rode all along the shore to the palace of Bucoleon, and when he arrived there it surrendered, on condition that the lives of all therein should be spared. At Bucoleon were found the larger number of the great ladies who had fled to the castle, for there were found the sister (Agnes, sister of Philip Augustus, married successively to Alexius II, to Andronicus, and to Theodore Branas) of the King of France, who had been empress, and the sister (Margaret, sister of Emeric, King of Hungary, married to the Emperor Isaac, and afterwards to the Marquis of Montferrat) of the King of Hungary, who had also been empress, and other ladies very many. Of the treasure that was found in that palace I cannot well speak, for there was so much that it was beyond end or counting.

“…And the other people, spread abroad throughout the city, also gained much booty. The booty gained was so great that none could tell you the end of it: gold and silver, and vessels and precious stones, and samite, and cloth of silk, and robes vair and grey, and ermine, and every choicest thing found upon the earth. And well does Geoffrey of Villehardouin the Marshal of Champagne, bear witness, that never, since the world was created, had so much booty been won in any city.

“So the host of the pilgrims and of the Venetians found quarters, and greatly did they rejoice and give thanks because of the victory God had vouchsafed to them for those who before had been poor were now in wealth and luxury…And well might they praise our Lord, since in all the host there were no more than twenty thousand armed men, one with another, and with the help of God they had conquered four hundred thousand men, or more, and in the strongest city in all the world – yea, a great city – and very well fortified.

“Well may you be assured that the spoil was very great, for if it had not been for what was stolen and for the part given to the Venetians, there would have been at least four hundred thousand marks of silver and at least ten thousand horses one with another. Thus were divided the spoils of Constantinople, as you have heard.

*All excerpts have been taken from Chronicle of the Fourth Crusade and the Conquest of Constantinople, A Public Domain Book.

The Fall of the Seleukid Empire 187-75 BC – John D. Grainger

Synopsis:

In the final book of his three part series charting the rise and decline of the remarkable Seleucid Empire, John D. Grainger hammers out the pressing causes of the dissolution of the once great empire founded by Seleucus I Nicator. Among the many Hellenistic successor states established after the death of Alexander the Great the Seleucid Empire would most closely resemble the Empire of Alexander in geographical magnitude, and would maintain that integrity for most of its history.

Following the death of Antiochus III the empire slowly withered away amid uncontrolled internecine warfare. These wars were brought about by succession disputes that commenced after Antiochus IV usurped the throne. This event set forth a new succession norm – i.e. the only thing necessary to rule was a powerful army to back the claimant. These dynastic civil wars weakened the state enough to allow separatist movements on the edges of the empire to gradually snowball into legitimate states – e.g. Parthia, Bactria, and Armenia. Ultimately, the once great empire would shrink into a regional kingdom mostly encompassing Syria, and would remain this way until its conquest by the Romans.

Excerpts:

“Seleukid disintegration, it must be noted, was unique among the fates of the Hellenistic kingdoms. Only Macedon was broken up, by the Romans in 167, and this was reversed within twenty years, first by the rebellion of the Macedonians and then by Roman annexation of the whole and its conversion into a single Roman province. The Attalid kingdom’s main regions were taken over complete by Rome, with minor regions being awarded to allies, and Egypt fell as a complete unit to Rome in 30 BC.

“Rome, it seems clear, had no part in this disintegration. Occasional Roman visitors arrived for over a century and more, inspected the kingdom, and then went away. Occasional Seleukid claimants or enemies turned up in Rome, were heard, and received no help.

“Partly the disintegration which the Romans found was due to the sheer size of the original kingdom, so that breaking off fragments – Baktria, Parthia, Asia Minor – did not seriously damage the essential heartlands of Syria, Babylonia and Iran. And partly it was due to the inability of the Seleukid kings to maintain control over the more distant parts of a kingdom which was 2,000km long and more, and which could only be crossed at the speed of a marching soldier. Or to put it the other way around: it was due to the ambitions of governors installed by these Seleukid kings, who were able to develop a local interest network which enabled them to strike for independence and make themselves into kings at a time of central government weakness.

“Until 175 the royal succession had been reasonably clear: the king nominated his successor, who was always his eldest surviving son, a practice which, having been followed for a century, might be considered to be a rule. Antiochos IV’s ambition broke that sequence when he murdered his nephew and stepson; it then became clear that the kingship was available to whoever could seize it.

“…the kingdom was doomed from the start. By basing his power on a very narrow population base, Seleukos I had made it certain that the first succession dispute – and there was bound to be one – would begin the process of collapse. And yet unless he had based his power on the Greek and Macedonian settlers he would not have survived and there would have been no kingdom. Without the promise of land and cities to live in, the settlers would not have come; and without the settlers Seleukos and his successors would not have a kingdom to rule. The essential basis in the kingdom, the unifying element, was the king. When disputes about the occupation of the throne arose, disintegration happened. The kings made the kingdom, held it, and let it fall. In its origins was the kingdom’s ending.

*All excerpts have been taken from The Fall of the Seleukid Empire 187-75 BC, Pen and Sword.

Crowds – Seneca

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Synopsis:

In letter #7, Seneca grapples with the nature of crowds. He catechizes the influence crowds have on the human soul, and traces the remedies for its negative effects.

Excerpts:

“Contact with the crowd is deleterious; inevitably vice will be made attractive or imprinted on us or smeared upon us without our being aware of it. In every case, the larger the crowd with which we mingle the greater the danger.

“A single example of luxury or avarice works great mischief. A comrade who is squeamish gradually enervates us and makes us soft; a neighbor who is rich pricks up our covetousness; a companion who is malicious rubs some of his rust off upon us, however frank and ingenuous we may be.

“Retire into yourself, so far as you can. Associate with people who may improve you, admit people whom you can improve. The process is mutual; men learn as they teach.

“There is no reason why ambition to advertise your talents should lure you to the public platform to give popular readings or discourses. I should agree to your doing so if your wares suited such customers, but none of them can understand you. A solitary individual or two may come your way, but even him you will have to educate and train to understand you. ‘Then why did I learn all this?’ Never fear that you have wasted your effort; you learned for yourself.

“When asked the object of applying himself so assiduously to an art which would reach so very few people, he said: ‘For me a few are enough, one is enough, none is enough.

*All excerpts have been taken from The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca: Essays and Letters, W.W. Norton.