My long growing concerns about where this nation is headed finally coalesced around my re-reading the book “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” by Edward Gibbon. I long ago knew that books came into my life according to rules that I did not understand and did not need to understand…they are a part of God’s plan for my life and my task is to do the best I can with the path that is laid before me. Books are a part of that. I first read “Decline & Fall” as it is usually referred to back in the 1970’s and still retain the copy I bought and read at that time. All I can say is that it left a lasting impression on me along with an underlying theme that the day would come when I needed to read it again. So to that end, I purchased a new copy some years ago. Not just any copy, but an old copy, in 8 individual volumns, printed in 1887, the way it was meant to be presented. The original was published in 1776…the year the United States got its start…there are no coincidences. When the time came, I knew that the book would call my name and be read again. I waited, the time has come.
My manner of reading requires me to make some notes for future reference (why?, not sure) so long ago I adopted a habit of placing a small dot on the margin of a page where something of interest was found. Only a dot…no underlining, no writing…just the dot. On a card, usually one of those smallish gift cards you might fine in a Hallmark store, I would enter the page number and a short (3-5 words) note of the content…just enough to jog my memory. These I have used to create the “reviews” that are found elsewhere on this site.
I decided that it was not reasonable to wait until I had read all 8 volumns to start the review so, while I am about half-way thru the second volumn, I decided to start my entry…and here goes. The numbers at the start of each entry indicate the volumn, then chapter and page associated with the entry. These will not be the same as found in any other version of the books…sorry about that. Also, I retain the original spelling and punctuation.
A few placeholders for comparison sake:
- The Romans had a strong sense of pride in their nation and their culture which they believed was superior to others
- They believed in borders and went to great effort to protect them
- One did not disrespect the icons of their nation, their Gods or the standards of the Legions. To do so would bring down severe punishment
- They knew that war was often necessary and respected their warriors
- They spoke plainly and the truth as they saw it, regardless of the consequences
1-1-145: “They preserved peace by a constant preparation for war”. This immediately brings to mind the quotation from our first President George Washington “There is a rank due to the United States among nations, which will be withheld, if not absolutely lost, by the reputation of weakness. If we desire to avoid insult, we must be able to repel it; if we desire to secure the peace, one of the most powerful instruments of our rising prosperity, it must be known that we are at all times ready for war.” I have no reason to believe that George read Gibbon’s first volumn, but the fact that they came to an identical conclusion is no accident. The concern for a “reputation of weakness” is particularly of concern as that is the path that we as a nation are on at this time.
1-1-153: “Active valour may often be the present of nature; but such patient diligence can be the fruit only of habit and discipline”. Strength may be a gift of nature and one’s genes, but the efficient and productive use of that talent or gift comes only with personal discipline. He was speaking of the Roman Legions at the time.
1-2-165: “And thus tolerance produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious accord.” One of the remarkable aspects of Roman culture was the fact that while there was a set/series/group of “official gods and goddesses” to whom the leaders paid homage, this was not a “State religion” in the sense that it excluded or frowned upon other religions. There seems to have been an understanding of sorts that all religions, regardless of their origin and source, they all were directed to the same “god”, the same “higher power” but in different aspects depending upon their source and the culture that evolved them. This is in many wasy comparable to Joseph Campbell’s “Hero with 1000 faces”. The result was that there was no religious dicord or competition…no religious wars as all were tolerated. The tolerance also meant that each strand of religious practice allowed for the existence and practice of all the others and the denial of none of them. That is, until the arrival of Christianity….which will come later.
1-2-179: “…a degree of population which possibly exceeds that of modern Europe.” Speaking of a rough calculation of the population of the Roman empire at the time of the emperor Claudius. Kep that in mind as we journey thru the years to the Dark Ages. There is a reason the word “decline” is in the title
1-2-180: There is a footnote, added by a later commentator, referring to the decline in the population that occurred “from the repugnance to marriage…and from the depravity of manners, which interferred with the procreation, the birth and the rearing of children.” No real explanation is provided but there is enough in the basic text to support the above.
1-2-181: “Most of these works were erected at private expense and almost all were intended for public benefit.” The wealthy class built all sorts of monuments and public accommodations at their expense…for the people.
1-2-182: “The stupendous bridge of Alcantara”. A modern picture:
This is a much repaired structure, having been damaged and rebuilt several times as a consequence of warfare.
1-2-194: “Their personal valour remained, but they no longer possessed that public courage which is nourished by the love of independence, the sense of national honor, the presence of danger and the habit of command.”: Part of a section titled “Decline of courage” and an attempt to explain some of the causes of the decline of the empire. It is important to understand that an empire, and its rise or decline, is a product of the spirit of the people who make up that empire or nation. That is where the comparisons between the USA and the Roman Empire strike home. Forget the differences in technology…look to the people. Most, almost all, of the old empires fell with a single disaster or defeat. They were all held up by the strength of a single individual and when that individual passed away or was destroyed, the empire/nation he built fell, and fell quickly. Often leaving nothing but dust behind. The Romans were different. They suffered numerous disasters and defeats but they always rebounded in the end and won the wars. Even wars that took place in their own territory. There was a resiliency in the people that none before had had. That resiliency was a product of the personal traits he mentions above. When they decayed, the empire decayed with it.
The parts above that I bolded are, to me, the most salient. The USA was known for the love of independence of our people, almost to a fault. Now, we have lost that in a large percentage of the population. They have surrendered their independence for a handful of bread and coins. They have signed over their lives to a government that is supposed to take care of them. The more this entitlement state grows, so will the dependence and along with it, the love of freedom will diminish. When it is gone, the population will be slaves.
The “sense of national honor” speaks to me as the thought that we, in the USA are exceptional…for a number of reasons. We have been proud of our achievements and acknowledge our faults. Today, we find many that care only about the faults and forget the good things we have done. That sense of honor translates into the “shining city on the hill” that Reagan spoke of….the Americans are an exceptional people in an exceptional nation. Except that the leadership today takes the position that we are NOT exceptional….everyone is exceptional. Our own leader is telling us not to be proud of America. That is a prescription for decline. That pride was what kept the Romans coming back after defeats and what brought this nation back from Pearl Harbor.
And speaking of decline…I read a piece recently from Charles Krauthammer related to the final flight of the Shuttle. Read the piece here. It is an example of deliberate decline. A decision by the same leader to degrade the capability and pride of the nation.
Something about that sense of danger….threats and a dose of fear bring a bit of clarity to one’s actions. We were afraid of the Germans and Japanese some 60 years ago. And we were afraid of the Russians during the Cold War….now we’re not much afraid but rather complacent.
1-2-273: “…an honorable poverty.”: Speaking of the conditions of the soldiers. They were not wealthy and were not ashamed of their poverty.
Moving on to Volumn 2
2-19: “Such indeed, is the policy of civil war: severely to remember injuries, and to forget the most important services. Revenge is profitable, gratitude is expensive.” Civil wars are always the worst wars….
2-43: “They soon experienced that those who refuse the sword must renounce the scepter.” Lesson is clear…you cannot lead a people unless you are willing to handle the sword. Ask Jimmy Carter about that….and Barack O.
2-47: “The infrequency of marriage, and the ruin of agriculture, affected the principles of population, and not only destroyed the strength of the present, but intercepted the o=hope of future generations.” One of my favorite sayings, which I think I made up myself is: “Two things always win – gravity and demographics.” Reading this I think of the fate of Europe and Russia with their birth rates below, even well below, replacement levels and the fact that the only population growth in Europe is from the unfriendly Muslim population. It is already beginning to play out in the courts there.
2-73: ” The policy of Diocletian, which inspired the councils of his associates, provided for the public tranquility, by encouraging a spirit of dissension among the barbarians…” This same approach was used with equal effect by the European powers when they colonized Africa. A lesson they forgot when they colonized North America.
2-96: “The number of ministers, of magistrates, of offices and servants, who fill the different departments of the state, was multiplied beyond the example of former times; and (if we may borrow the warm expression of a contemporary), “when the proportion of those who received exceeded the proportion of those who contributed, the provinces were oppressed by the weight of the tributes. From this period to the extinction of the empire, it would be easy to deduce an uninterrupted series of clamors and complaints.” The comparison to the situation today is obvious. The Makers are outnumbered by the Takers. The consequences will be the same. Amazing how this was known at the time the USA was founded and has been forgotten…..it is so easy to take and so difficult to make.
2-142: “The horrid practice, so familiar to the ancients, of exposing or murdering their new-born infants, was becoming every day more frequent…” We have killed, what, 40-50 million unborn children since the law permitted it….
2-226: ” It is well known, and has already been observed, that Roman law viewed with the utmost jealosy and distrust any association among its subjects…” It is no accident that the freedom to associate was written into the US Constitution.
2-265: “Prosperity has relaxed the nerves of discipline.” Amen to that today.
7/13/2014 – I finished Volumn 3 and started 4…Comments on 3:
3-6: Speaking of laws…”But the operation of the wisest laws is imperfect and precarious. They seldom inspire virtue, they cannot always restrain vice. Their power is insufficient to prohibit all that they condemn, nor can they always punish the actions which they prohibit.”
3-19: Virgil & Jesus. A reference to the 4th Eclogue of Virgil which has been interpreted as a prediction of the birth of Jesus. I found the passage and it is rather vague but does bear some semblance to a quote from Isaiah in the Bible. The complete quote in question:
Now the last age by Cumae’s Sibyl sung
Has come and gone, and the majestic roll
Of circling centuries begins anew:
Justice returns, returns old Saturn’s reign,
With a new breed of men sent down from heaven.
Only do thou, at the boy’s birth in whom
The iron shall cease, the golden age arise?
Under thy guidance, whatso tracks remain
Of our old wickedness, once done away
Shall free the earth from never-ceasing fear.
He shall receive the life of gods, and see
Heroes with gods commingling, and himself
Be seen of them, and with his father?s worth
Reign o’er a world at peace.?
Interesting in several lights – it was used extensively by the early Christians to support their new religion, but, more importantly to myself, illustrates the near universal belief at the time that a “savior” was due to the human race. And considering the rawness and harshness of the times, is that not understandable?
3-32: “An absolute monarch, who is rich without patrimony, may be charitable without merit; and Constantine too easily believed that he should purchase the favor of Heaven, if he maintained the idle at the expense of the industrious; and distributed among the saints the wealth of the republic.”
Not too unlike out “generous” politicians today.
3-38: More of the same:
“The preachers recommended the practice of the social duties; but they exalted the perfection of monastic virtue, which is painful to the individual, and useless to mankind. Their charitable exhortations betrayed a secret wish that the clergy might be permitted to manage the wealth of the faithful, for the benefit of the poor.”
Simply substitute “the politicians” for “the clergy”……
3-138: The pagan religions:
“The weakness of polytheism was, in some measure, excused by the moderation of its claims; and the devotion of the Pagans was not incompatible with the most licentious scepticism. Instead of an indivisible and regular system, which occupies the whole extent of the believing mind, the mythology of the Greeks was composed of a thousand loose and flexible parts, and the servant of the gods was at liberty to define the degree and measure of his religious faith.”
Sorta reminded me of “the God of our understanding”…an AA principal.
3-140: Faith and revelation:
“The theological system of Julian appears to have contained the sublime and important principles of natural religion. But as the faith, which is not founded on revelation, must remain destitute of any firm assurance, the disciple of Plato imprudently relapsed into the habits of vulgar superstition; and the popular and philosophic notion of the Deity seems to have been confounded in the practice, the writings, and even in the mind of Julian.”
The key element here is that unless faith is founded upon some firm ground, firm and inflexible in its definition of good and evil, right and wrong, one is standing on nothing but shifting sands of popular wisdom (if one can find wisdom in popular opinion) and is feckless.
3-150: Of heaven and hell: An address to Julian
“The impious opinions of the Epicureans and sceptics deserve his abhorrence and contempt; but he should diligently study the systems of Pythagoras, of Plato, and of the Stoics, which unanimously teach that there are gods; that the world is governed by their providence; that their goodness is the source of every temporal blessing; and that they have prepared for the human soul a future state of reward or punishment.”
The idea of a consequence for our behavior in this life goes a long way back…as well as a belief in the human soul, go a long way back as a universal belief.
“The holy places were polluted with mountains of idolatry; and, either from design or accident, a chapel was dedicated to Venus, on the spot which had been sanctified by the death and resurrection of Christ. Almost three hundred years after those stupendous events, the profane chapel of Venus was demolished by the order of Constantine; and the removal of the earth and stones revealed the holy sepulcher to the eyes of mankind. A magnificent church was erected on that mystic ground, by the first Christian emperor; and the effects of his pious munificence were extended to every spot which had been consecrated by the footstep of patriarchs, of prophets, and of the Son of God.”
Granted that all this takes place about 300 years after the facts, but one has to wonder if the memory of people who lived there and then was not reliable. I know that it is fashionable to denigrate folk traditions in the intelligentsia but my personal work with the stories on mankind, over the entire planet, leads me to trust the cultural memory of humankind and disregard the skeptics as elitist unwilling to accept that ordinary people might be just as smart as they are. Now, as for the relics of that time, the huge volumn of wood attributed to the cross, for example, – no doubt these are products of the mischievous and greedy. While there is reason to trust the memories, there is no reason to believe that these artifacts had any reason to survive.
3-277: Racism on the part of the author.
I’m not going to sully these pages with the exact words used by the author but it is clear that he was racist toward blacks.
3-404: The military and the decline…
“The effeminate luxury, which infected the manners of courts and cities, had instilled a secret and destructive poison into the camps of the legions; and their degeneracy has been marked by the pen of a military writer, who had accurately studied the genuine and ancient principles of Roman discipline. It is the just and important observation of Vegetius, that the infantry was invariably covered with defensive armor, from the foundation of the city, to the reign of the emperor Gratian. The relaxation of discipline, and the disuse of exercise, rendered the soldiers less able, and less willing, to support the fatigues of the service; they complained of the weight of the armor, which they seldom wore; and they successively obtained the permission of laying aside both their cuirasses and their helmets. The heavy weapons of their ancestors, the short sword, and the formidable pilum, which had subdued the world, insensibly dropped from their feeble hands. As the use of the shield is incompatible with that of the bow, they reluctantly marched into the field; condemned to suffer either the pain of wounds, or the ignominy of flight, and always disposed to prefer the more shameful alternative. The cavalry of the Goths, the Huns, and the Alani, had felt the benefits, and adopted the use, of defensive armor; and, as they excelled in the management of missile weapons, they easily overwhelmed the naked and trembling legions, whose heads and breasts were exposed, without defense, to the arrows of the Barbarians. The loss of armies, the destruction of cities, and the dishonor of the Roman name, ineffectually solicited the successors of Gratian to restore the helmets and the cuirasses of the infantry. The enervated soldiers abandoned their own and the public defense; and their pusillanimous indolence may be considered as the immediate cause of the downfall of the empire.
4-29: Service and exemptions
The citizens and subjects had purchased an exemption from the indispensable duty of defending their country, which was supported by the arms of barbarian mercenaries.”
4-39: Perspective of the ignorant
“Yet the people, and even the clergy, incapable of forming any rational judgement of the business of peace and war…”
4-135: A people and government
“If such an institution, which gave the people an interest in their own government, had been universally established by Trajan or the Antonines, the seeds of public wisdom and virtue might have been cherished and propagated in the empire of Rome.”
“The disregard of custom and decency always betrays a weak and ill-regulated mind.”
4-220: War and Peace
“It was the opinion of Marcian, that war should be avoided as long as it is possible to preserve a secure and honorable peace; but it was likewise his opinion, that peace cannot be honorable or secure, if the sovereign betrays a pusillanimous aversion to war.” (are you listening Obama?)
Tacitius: “Peace cannot be secured without armies, and armies must be supported at the expense of the people.”
4-402: Obligations of the citizen
“The fidelity of the citizens to each other and to the state was confirmed by the habits of education and the prejudices of religion. Honour, as well as virtue, was the principal of the republic; the ambitious citizens labored to deserve the solemn glories of a triumph; and the ardour of the Roman youth was kindled into active emulation as often as they beheld the domestic images of their ancestors. The temperate struggles of the patricians and plebeians had finally established the firm and equal balance of the constitution, which united the freedom of the popular assemblies with the authority and wisdom of a senate and the executive powers of a regal magistrate. When the consul displayed the standard of the republic, each citizen bound himself, by the obligation of an oath, to draw his sword in the cause of his country till he had discharged the sacred duty by a military service of ten years.”
Volumn 5 : Roughly the time period between 455 AD and 626 AD
Theodoric: “the child who has trembles at a rod would never dare to look upon a sword”
Boethius: Consolation of Philosophy…I need to read this
“The studies of philosophy and eloquence are congenial to a popular state, which encourages the freedom of inquiry, and submits only to the force of persuasion.” Try telling that to out latest generation of spoiled children who need their “safe space” and are traumatized by ideas they do not agree with.
Belisarius: Need his history in more depth
The line of “Amali”…not sure who this is
Comets: Venus changes it’s colors and shape; “a remarkable paleness of the sun”…and all before Global Warming…LOL
Roman Law – The Twelve Tablets…would like to know the content
Women: “Experience has shown that savages are the tyrants of the female sex, and that the condition of women is usually softened by the refinements of social life.”
“In the successive states of society, the hunter, the shepherd, the husbandman, may defend their possessions by two reasons which forcibly appeal to the feelings of the human mind: that whatever they enjoy is the fruit of their own industry; and that every man who envies their felicity may purchase similar acquisitions by the exorcise of similar diligence.” Try telling that to the Socialists….
A detailed description of the practice in these times and the penalties visited on the participants when they were caught.
5-367: Age & Virtue
“…the most grevious misfortune of life is old age without the remembrance of virtue.”…Nicely put.
Christianity…the finding of the True Cross. This has an interesting history and story.