Lycurgus of Sparta – Plutarch

Synopsis:

The life of Lycurgus the lawgiver of Sparta is mostly legendary in character – and Plutarch admits this much in his biography of him. Accordingly, Plutarch dedicates much of his biography of Lycurgus to the Spartan city-state and the constitution which Lycurgus created. In this way Plutarch keenly balances the mythical context with his own reflections on the enduring institutions which Lycurgus devised.

Excerpts:

“The Egyptians say that he took a voyage into Egypt, and that, being much taken with their way of separating the soldiery from the rest of the nation, he transferred it from them to Sparta, a removal from contact with those employed in low and mechanical occupations giving high refinement and beauty to the state.

“Amongst the many changes and alterations which Lycurgus made, the first and of greatest importance was the establishment of the senate, which having a power equal to the king’s in matters of great consequence, and, as Plato expresses it, allaying and qualifying the fiery genius of the royal office, gave steadiness and safety to the commonwealth.

“A third ordinance of Rhetra was, that they should not make war often, or long, with the same enemy, lest that they should train and instruct them in war, by habituating them to defend themselves.

“The senate, as I said before, consisted of those who were Lycurgus’s chief aiders and assistants in his plans. The vacancies he ordered to be supplied out of the best and most deserving men past sixty years old.

“Aristocrates, the son of Hipparchus, says that he died in Crete, and that his Cretan friends, in accordance with his own request, when they had burned his body, scattered the ashes into the sea; for fear lest, if his relics should be transported to Lacedaemon, the people might pretend to be released from their oaths, and make innovations in the government.

*All excerpts have been taken from Plutarch’s Lives – Vol. I, Modern Library.

Theodosius and the Antibarbarian Reaction – Alessandro Barbero

Synopsis:

The Battle of Adrianople in 378 often signals a key crossroad in the history of the late Roman Empire, but Alessandro Barbero lays out a somewhat different narrative in his book The Day of the Barbarians. Barbero examines the event within a three century context, and chronicles the cultural evolution of Roman civilization leading up to the battle – as well as the civilizational reaction following the final peace agreement with the Goths. As Roman power began to decline in the fifth century the long ignored aristocracy of Rome began to reassert itself by becoming the foremost voice of the anti-barbarian reaction.

Excerpts:

“In the dissatisfaction that the Greek East felt at the political and military hegemony of the Latin West lay the seeds of competition – if not hostility – between the two parts of the Roman Empire; those seeds would not fail to produce fruit, and soon.

“All the rhetoric about the universality of the empire, about its capacity for assimilation, was trotted out to demonstrate that Theodosius had made the right choice. And, to be clear, it wasn’t all empty rhetoric; to a certain degree, that capacity for assimilation genuinely existed.

“The army, which was a community, seemed like the perfect machine for handling this integration process. It absorbed barbarians, ground them down, and transformed them into Roman veterans, into the men whom emperors in their public discourses addressed as ‘comrades in arms’ and who constituted the real pillar of the empire.

“In certain regions of the empire, where the mercenaries had completely replaced the units of the regular army, the change was reflected in the language itself: In Syriac, starting at the end of the fourth century, the word for ‘soldier’ became Goth.

“Most people ultimately shared the assumptions about the empire’s ability to assimilate the barbarians but resisted granting them too much power too quickly and thereby abdicating the civilizing mission of the empire.

*All excerpts have been taken from The Day of the Barbarians: The Battle That Led to the Fall of the Roman Empire, Walker & Company.

On Living in Accordance with Nature – Cicero

Synopsis:

In Book One of On Duties Cicero examines the vital center of Stoicism – i.e. living in accordance with human nature. According to Cicero, human nature is underpinned by human action, and human action is supported by reason. Likewise, reason is balanced by virtue.

Excerpts:

“A salient characteristic of humankind is our quest for truth. When we are free from necessary care and labor, we long to see, hear, and learn, and we regard knowledge of hidden and marvelous matters as essential to a happy life.

“For whenever it’s impossible for the majority to excel, competition becomes so intense that it’s extremely difficult to maintain the sacred bond of social order.

“For it is appropriate to refer to the basic elements of justice I described at the outset: first, not to harm anyone; second, to be of service to the common good.

“Of the two sources of injury, force and fraud, fraud is fit for foxes, force for lions, and neither is at all suited to human beings.

“The Stoics are thus correct to define courage as virtue struggling on behalf of fairness. This is why a person who acquires a reputation for courage through treachery or foul play does not deserve praise. For nothing is honorable if it is devoid of justice.

*All excerpts have been taken from Cicero: On Living and Dying Well, Penguin Classics.

The Death of Persia, and the Death of Alexander the Great – Frederick the Great

Synopsis:

Frederick the Great devotes a small corner of his Anti-Machiavel to answer why the Persian Empire of Darius III did not rise again following the death of its conqueror – Alexander the Great. Rather than destroy the empire Alexander in a sense co-opted it, and used the institutions of the Persian Empire for his new Macedonian Empire. Frederick also keenly compares from a cultural/political context the nation-states of Europe in his own era with those of Alexander and Darius.

Excerpts:

“The same policy which carried the King’s ministers to the establishment of an absolute despotism to France, also taught them to distract the nation by using its lightness and inconstancy, to make it less dangerous: a thousand frivolous occupations, the trifles and the pleasures, was given in exchange for their rights and their power.

“France’s powerful armies, and a very large number of fortresses, ensure that the French Sovereign will possess the throne forever, and they do not have anything to fear now concerning internal wars or their neighbors invading France.

“The author (Machiavelli) considers these things from only one point of view. He does not discuss the structure each government has: he appears to believe that the power of the empire of Persia and the Turks was founded only on the general slavery of these nations, and on the single rise of only one man who is the absolute ruler. He is of the idea that a despotism without restriction, established well, is the surest means that a prince has to ensure reign without disorder, and resist its enemies vigorously.

“The difference of the climates, the peoples’ diets, and their level of education, establish a total difference between their way of living and of thinking – like the difference between an Italian monk and a Chinese scholar. The temperament of the English, stout-hearted but hypochondriacal, is completely different from the proud courage of the Spanish; and the French have as little resemblance to the Dutch as the promptness of a monkey-cry has with the phlegm of a tortoise.

“It was noticed from time immemorial that the custom of the Eastern people was a spirit of constancy in their practices and their old habits, of which they almost never depart. Their religion, different from that of Europeans, still obliges them in some way, for fear of trouble visiting their Masters, the company of not to consort with those which they call the infidel; and to avoid carefully all that could pollute their religion and upset the structure of their government. Here is what, in their countries, makes for security of the throne, rather than that of the monarch: the Emperors are often dethroned, but the empire is never destroyed.

*All excerpts have been taken from Anti-Machiavel, Newark Press.

Julian the Apostate in Gaul – Adrian Goldsworthy

Synopsis:

When Julian was elevated to the rank of Caesar by his cousin Constantius II it was for the purpose of countering continuous and destructive Germanic raiding into Roman Gaul. Julian had been brought up – and educated – in isolation in Cappadocia, and had survived the dynastic purges of the Constantinian dynasty by Constantius II. This reality made Julian the only option left for Constantius if he wished to have a member of his own dynasty raised to the position of Caesar – because Constantius had no sons.

Julian was an introverted intellectual with no military background, and was not intended to take on an active role within the campaign against the Germans – i.e. Julian was to act only as a figurehead for Constantius. Unexpectedly, Julian quickly took command of the campaign and achieved staggering battlefield successes in Gaul, as well as in Germany. Later, as sole Emperor of the Roman Empire Julian attempted to roll-back Christianity, and return to the primacy of Roman paganism – which earned him his famous cognomen of ‘the Apostate’ from Christian writers.

Excerpts:

“In the years before Julian’s appointment as Caesar the frontier along the Rhine and Upper Danube had been stripped of many of its garrisons as men were drawn off to fight in the civil wars. Roman weakness was confirmed when barbarian raiders were able to penetrate deep into the settled provinces and come back with plunder and glory.

“The army of the fourth century was geared towards warfare on a relatively small scale, an impression which Julian’s operations in Gaul confirm.

“In the third and fourth centuries many communities which had not felt the need of fortifications in the early Principate acquired walls. Simultaneously the army was putting far more effort into constructing strong ramparts and projecting towers around its bases. Defence was a much higher priority than it had been in earlier centuries.

“The Roman plan was to launch a major offensive against the Alamani, Julian attacking from the north and Barbatio from the south. Indirect pressure would also be put on the Alamanni by the Augustus’ own operations from Raetia on the Upper Danube.

“It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the soldiers of the fourth century were all too aware of their capacity to dispose of any general and replace him with an alternative of their own choosing, and as a result felt very free to express their opinion.

*All excerpts have been taken from In the Name of Rome: The Men Who Won the Roman Empire, Orion Publishing Group.

Ostrogothic Italy – J.B. Bury

Synopsis:

Born into the Ostrogothic nobility, but raised among the Roman aristocratic elite of Constantinople, Theodoric the Great embodies the synthesis of two disparate civilizations. Theodoric had been educated at the Pandidakterion in Constantinople, and was a Roman citizen. However, he captured fame as a Gothic warlord who united the fragmented Ostrogothic people under his rule, and was later directed to conquer the Italian peninsula by the Eastern Roman Emperor Zeno.

Ruling Italy as – officially – a viceroy of the Eastern Roman Emperor, Theodoric was in reality a Western Roman Emperor in all but name. Although nominally a barbarian by birth Theodoric’s reign in Italy had considerable continuity with the institutional mores of the Western Roman Emperors of the fifth century, and he expertly balanced Roman culture with Gothic culture to advance a calibrated fusion of both.

Excerpts:

“The formal relation of Italy to the Empire, both under Odovacar and under Theoderic, was much closer and clearer than that of any other of the states ruled by Germans. Although practically independent, it was regarded officially both at Rome and at Constantinople as part of the Empire in the fullest sense.

“Now what about the highest office of all, that of Master of Soldiers? Under Odovacar we hear of Masters of Soldiers. But under Ostrogothic rule no Master of Soldiers is mentioned. The generals employed by Theoderic are not described by this title… The solution, as Mommsen has shown, is that Theoderic himself was the magister militum. He had, as we saw, received that title – magister militum praesentalis – from Zeno ten years before he conquered Italy; he bore it when he conquered Italy, and he continued to retain it while he ruled Italy. It is intelligible that he did not designate himself by this title, because his powers as ruler of Italy far exceeded the powers of the most powerful magister militum; but this does not mean that he gave the office up.

“The senate continued to exist under the Ostrogothic kings, and to perform the same functions as it had performed throughout the fifth century. It was still formally recognised as a sovereign body… The constitutional difference between a senator and the emperor was that the senator was under the law and the emperor was not. But only the senators of the highest class, the illustres, had the right of voting, and as this class consisted of men who held the highest state offices, and were appointed by the emperor, it was the emperor who nominated the senators. Such was the constitutional position of the senate: politically it had no power, and its functions were practically confined to the affairs of Rome.

“In Procopius, it is expressly stated by representatives of the Goths, that neither Theoderic nor any of the Gothic rulers issued a law. This statement involves the admission that the right of legislation was the supreme prerogative of the emperor. And there is no formal contradiction between this statement and the fact that ordinances of Theoderic exist. None of these ordinances are designated as leges. They are only edicta… In legislation, the position of Theoderic as an official of the empire is clear and unmistakable, and it is remarkable how loyally he adhered to the capitulations.

“The essential fact is that the constitutional system of administration which Theoderic adopted and observed was not a necessity to which he reluctantly or half-heartedly yielded; it was a system in which he was a convinced believer, and into the working of which he threw his whole heart and his best energies. His avowed political object was to civilise his own people in the environment of Roman civilisation.

*All excerpts have been taken from The Invasion of Europe by the Barbarians, Endeavour Press Ltd.

Abolition of the Philosophical Schools at Athens by Justinian – George Finlay

Synopsis:

George Finlay’s illustrious, and nuanced book on the history of the Greek people is a landmark triumph for Western civilization. He surveys the history of the Greeks from the time of the Roman conquest until his own time in the middle of the nineteenth century. Finlay examines cultural, political, as well as military metamorphoses in Greek civilization, and how these developments evolved over the centuries. He touches upon almost everything including the abolition of the philosophical schools at Athens by the Roman Emperor Justinian in the early sixth century.

The abolition happened early in Justinian’s reign – i.e. before the plague, and the wars – and for this reason has somewhat perplexed historians. Finlay finds fault with policy for the decision, which was rooted in Justinian’s conceivable wish to make the newly established University of Constantinople – i.e. the Pandidakterion – the premier intellectual institution in the Roman Empire. However, the decision may also have been influenced by Justinian’s campaign against crypto-paganism within the empire.

Excerpts:

“History tells us that Athens prospered, and that her schools were frequented by many eminent men long after the ravages of Alaric and the visit of Synesius. The empress Eudocia (Athenais) was a year old, and Synesius might have seen in a nurse’s arms the infant who received at Athens the education which made her one of the most accomplished ladies of a brilliant and luxurious court, as well as a person of learning, even without reference to her sex and rank.

“St. John Chrysostom informs us that, in the court of the first Eudocia, the mother of Pulcheria, a knowledge of dress, embroidery, and music, were considered the most important objects on which taste could be displayed; but that to converse with elegance, and to compose pretty verses, were regarded as necessary proofs of intellectual superiority.

“When the members of the native aristocracy in Greece found that they were excluded by the Romans from the civil and military service of the State, they devoted themselves to literature and philosophy. It became the tone of a good society to be pedantic. The wealth and fame of Herodes Atticus have rendered him the type of the Greek aristocratic philosophers.

“Antoninus Pius increased the public importance of the schools of Athens, and gave them an official character, by allowing the professors named by the emperor an annual salary of ten thousand drachmas. Marcus Aurelius, who visited Athens on his return from the East after the rebellion of Avidius Cassius, established official teachers of every kind of learning then publicly taught, and organized the philosophers into a university. Scholarchs were appointed for the four great philosophical sects of the stoics, platonists, peripatetics, and epicureans, who received fixed salaries from the government. The wealth and avarice of the Athenian philosophers became after this common subjects of envy and reproach. Many names of some eminence in literature might be cited as connected with the Athenian schools during the second and third centuries; but to show the universal character of the studies pursued, and the freedom of inquiry that was allowed, it is only necessary to mention the Christian writers Quadratus, Aristeides, and Athenagoras, who shared with their heathen contemporaries the fame and patronage of which Athens could dispose.

“At last, in the year 529, Justinian confiscated all the funds devoted to philosophic instructions at Athens, closed the schools, and seized the endowments of the academy of Plato, which had maintained an uninterrupted succession of teachers for nearly nine hundred years. The last teacher enjoyed an annual revenue of one thousand gold solidi, but it is probable that he wandered in a deserted grove, and lectured in an empty hall.

*All excerpts have been taken from Greece Under the Romans B.C. 146 – A.D. 716, Cristo Raúl.