Two Causes which Destroyed Rome – Baron de Montesquieu


Synopsis:

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.

Excerpts:

“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.

Philosophy and Progress – Seneca

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Synopsis:

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.

Excerpts:

“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.

The Secret History – Procopius

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Synopsis:

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.

Excerpts:

“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.

Military Institutions of the Romans – Vegetius

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Synopsis:

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.

Excerpts:

“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.

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 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.

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.

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.