The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Decline and Fall

Posted on | January 1, 2019 | Comments Off on Decline and Fall

Marcus Aurelius.

“I devoured Gibbon. I rode triumphantly through it from end to end and enjoyed it all. I scribbled all my opinions on the margins of the pages, and very soon found myself a vehement partisan of the author against the disparagements of his pompous-pious editor.”
Winston Churchill, My Early Life

A six-volume hardbound boxed set of Edward Gibbon’s classic Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire can be purchased for $68.46 from Amazon, but I don’t suppose many young people appreciate what a tremendous bargain that is. Our youth seem to have no interest in history, and would prefer playing video games to reading books. But I mention Gibbon because I’ve spent the past few weeks with the Decline and Fall as my bedtime reading. I purchased my old three-volume Modern Library edition secondhand about 25 years ago, and am now on my second or third re-reading. Gibbon begins his survey by recounting the condition of the Roman Empire at its peak, from the reign of Nerva (96 A.D.) through that of Marcus Aurelius (180 A.D.) when the empire “comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind.” Nothing like this had ever previously existed in human history, an empire that stretched from Scotland in the north to the African desert in the south, from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to Turkey and Syria in the east, encompassing the entirety of the Black Sea as far east as modern Tbilisi in the republic of Georgia.

What caused the fall of this mighty empire, in a word, was decadence.

Rome’s greatness was rooted in the hardy virtues of the Republic, where the citizen-soldier was expected to serve in the common defense, and where the highest offices were held by men who had distinguished themselves in military as well as civilian life. A sense of hereditary honor was deeply inculcated in Rome’s leadership caste — the patricians — who strove to deserve their patrimony by the performance of civic duty. The patrician spirit of service for the public good inspired respect among the common people of Rome — the plebeians — who saw that they also benefited from increasing power and prosperity of the Republic. The origins of the Empire in the Republic, and the civil wars that made Augustus (Octavian, heir of Julius Caesar) the founder of imperial rule, are a subject of history that preceded by some two centuries the period at which Gibbon begins his tale of how the Empire, which had survived and even expanded despite the misrule of Augustus’s successors, declined toward its division and collapse. And the cause was decadence.

Success is too often in history the predecessor to destruction. Rome made unprecedented advances in so many fields, including architecture, engineering and military science, and conquered so many distant nations, that the citizenry obtained a condition of luxury hitherto unknown by any large population anywhere in all human history. A system of well-built roads connected every part of the empire, the Roman fleet commanded the entire Mediterranean Sea, and the powerful legions guarded the frontier from the Antonine Wall in northern England, across the Rhine and the Danube to the Tigris on the frontiers of Persia.

The strength of this military power created the Pax Romana, which made possible the flourishing of commerce and the arts, but this peace and prosperity eventually produced decadence, and by 476 A.D. Rome was sacked by the Goths under Alaric. This history, as memorably chronicled by Edward Gibbon in 1776, was once familiar to every statesman — Churchill “devoured” it as a boy — but today, in our own far advanced condition of decadence, how many young people know anything at all about what happened to the Roman Empire? This disinterest in history, this willful disregard for our civilization’s accumulated knowledge, is itself symptomatic of decadence. Young fools prefer 5-Minute Daily Meditations by a gay fashion magazine editor to studying history.



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