Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Jonathon Swift and his times

A quick summary of the dates to start with.(The entries marked with an asterisk* refer to Swift in person. Those with quotation marks" refer to his published writings)

1667 *Swift born; an orphan, brought up by his uncle
1686 *Graduates from Trinity College, Dublin
1688 *Leaves for England; enters service of Sir William Temple. The Glorious Revolution: James II deposed, William III King
1690 Battle of the Boyne; defeat of Catholic forces in Ireland
1691 Treaty of Limerick ends Irish war
1692 *M.A., Hertford College, Oxford. *Ordained Anglican priest
1693 National Debt established
1694 *Parish priest at Kilroot, Antrim. Triennial Act. Bank of England chartered
1696 *Returns to Englnd; begins to write many books and pamphlets
1699 *Death of Temple. *Returns to Ireland as vicar of Laracor, Meath
1701 Act of Settlement gives succession to Hanoverians. Death of exiled King James II; Louis XIV recognises his son, James Edward Stuart (The Pretender) as King
1702 Death of William III; accession of Anne. War of Spanish Succession begins: Britain, Austria and Holland against France *Doctor of Divinity from Trinity College, Dublin
1704 Tories sacked from govt. Marlborough-Godolphin-Harley triad in power.
Battle of Blenheim
“Battle of the Books” and “Tale of a Tub”, both written earlier
1706 Battle of Ramillies
1707 Act of Union with Scotland.
*Visit to London to press claims of Irish clergy
1708 Attempted French-Jacobite landing in Scotland. Battle of Oudenarde.
Harley sacked from government. Whig election victory
“Argument Against Abolishing Christianity”
1709 Allied defeat in Spain. Bloodbath at battle of Malplaquet
1710 *Begins to work for Harley. “Journal to Stella. Sacheverall trial. Whig ministers sacked. Harley forms Tory government; wins landslide election
1711 “Conduct of the Allies”. Marlborough dismissed; replaced by Ormonde.
Britain begins to pull out of the war
1713 *Scriblerus Club; with Pope, Gay and Arbuthnot
*Appointed Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin
Peace of Utrecht. Another Tory election win
1714 Tory ministers sacked. Death of Anne; accession of George I
*Returns permanently to Ireland
1715 Jacobite rising
1719 Declaratory Act for Ireland
1720 South Sea Bubble
1722 Atterbury Plot.
1724 “Drapier’s Letters”, attacking proposal known as ‘Wood’s Ha’pence’
1726 “Gulliver’s Travels”
1728 *Death of Stella
1729 “A Modest Proposal …”
1742 *Suffers a stroke; health never recovers
1745 *Swift dies

Jonathon Swift was born in Dublin in 1667. He was an orphan child, who would never have known either of his parents, but was fortunate enough to be brought up by an uncle, who financed his education at Trinity College Dublin, an entirely Anglican institution which was the only university in Ireland. In those days, the only way a young man of abilities but no money could fulfil his ambitions would be to enter the church and attach himself to a great man. Many did both, since most church patronage was controlled by the great nobility; and this was the path followed by Swift. He left Ireland in 1688, thus avoiding the violent conflicts there over the next few years, graduated from Oxford University, and was ordained a Church of England minister. He also joined the service of Sir William Temple, a retired diplomat with contacts at the very highest levels: through him, Swift was even able to meet the new King, William III. Equally important to Swift on a personal level was his position of tutor to a young girl called Esther Johnson, the fatherless daughter of a servant in Temple’s household. They remained the closest of friends for the next forty years: Swift called her “Stella” and wrote to her incessantly. There are even stories that they may have been married, but if so, they never lived together.

Thanks to Temple and other influential contacts, Swift was appointed a parish priest in County Antrim back in Ireland, and a few years later obtained a better living at Laracor in County Meath. Since there were hardly any Anglicans in Ireland, Swift’s parishioners numbered no more than about fifteen; so he was left with plenty of time to write his earliest pamphlets: “The Battle of the Books” and “The Tale of a Tub” were both composed at this period. He was also able to travel back frequently to England.

This was an age of tremendous political turbulence and ferocious rivalry between the political parties, all played out against the greatest war Britain had fought for centuries. King William III had died in 1702, and was succeeded by his sister-in-law, Anne; but before his death William had forged a “Grand Alliance” of Britain, Holland, the Austrian Empire and various small states to resist the overweening ambition of Louis XIV of France in the War of the Spanish Succession. Now John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, was sent to the continent to command the allied armies, and was to prove himself the greatest general of the age. In 1704 Marlborough led his forces down the Rhine and across Bavaria to the Danube, where he annihilated the French at the battle of Blenheim. It is difficult nowadays to fully appreciate the impact of Blenheim: it was the first battle English armies had won on the continent since the Middle Ages, and the first defeat suffered by the French for a century. The myth of French invincibility was broken. Marlborough the returned to the Netherlands, where he won two more great victories over the French; at Ramillies in 1706 and Oundenarde in 1708. Queen Anne granted him the land and the money to build the gigantic palace in Oxfordshire that is named after his most famous achievement.

But on the political front things were not necessarily going smoothly. There were two political parties at the time: the Whigs and the Tories. Their original division had been over religious matters: the Tories were above all the party of the Church of England; hostile to any further concessions to the nonconformist churches: the Presbyterians, Baptists and Quakers; whereas the Whigs were the party of religious toleration. Now further divisions emerged. Originally all politicians except a few of the most extreme Tories had supported the war. Marlborough had commanded the armies, his brother-in-law Lord Godolphin, the Lord Treasurer, had raised the necessary funds, and a moderate Tory, Robert Harley, had managed the House of Commons. But as the war dragged on, doubts began to surface on the Tory side. It was not just a question of bloodshed, but also of money. Godolphin was financing the war with borrowed money, through the medium of two recent innovations: the Bank of England and the National Debt. An entirely new phenomenon emerged: the great money-men of the City of London, who were raising the money for the war. Soon the National Debt was running at over £50 million, thirteen times the government’s annual revenue from taxation; and this at a time when the entire non-military expenditure of the government was not more than £1 ½ million. The country squires who made up the Tory party in Parliament wondered how these debts could ever be settled. Should not a compromise peace be signed before the country became irretrievably bankrupt? Conversely the Whigs, with their enthusiasm for fighting to total victory, were seen as the party of the City wide-boys with their dubious financial practices. In 1708 Harley, sensing the mood of the country was changing, left the government and began to campaign against the war.

By 1709 the war party was in serious need of another Marlborough triumph to rally support. What they got instead was an appalling bloodbath at Malplaquet; the fourth and least satisfying of the Duke’s victories. It was a preview of a First World War battle, where the Allied armies slammed head-on into a strongly-defended French position. Almost 30,000 men were last in a single day, the majority being on the Allied side. At the same time Allied forces were expelled from Spain, leaving only Gibraltar in British hands. Now Queen Anne decided she had seen enough; she sacked her Whig ministers and appointed Robert Harley in their place, with the aim of negotiating a peace treaty. Next year the great Duke of Marlborough himself was sacked from command of the Allied armies, with a letter from the Queen that was so rude that he threw it on the fire. He spent the rest of the reign in exile, fearing prosecution for corruption.

All this sparked an unprecedented wave of political pamphleteering, involving the finest writers of the times. Daniel Defoe gave his services, Addison and Steele backed the Whigs, but it was Swift who proved himself the great master of propaganda. He was a Tory in sentiment, and he attached himself to Robert Harley. He wrote for, and for a while edited, a Tory periodical, “The Examiner”, denouncing the Whigs and revealing vicious hatred of Marlborough. His most famous pamphlet, “The Conduct of the Allies” was published in late 1711, and sold 11,000 copies in the first month. In it he denounced the stupidity of not making peace earlier, but instead continuing the futile war in Spain. He denied that Britain was gaining anything from the war; it was being fought purely for the benefit of the Austrians and particularly the Dutch, whom he especially despised. Undoubtedly this struck a chord in the country, and was enormously influential. He further served the cause with pamphlets like “The Public Spirit of the Whigs”, and with personal attacks on the Whig leaders. Swift was rewarded for his political services by being appointed Dean of St. Patrick’s cathedral in Dublin. He would have hoped for a Bishopric, but it is said that this was vetoed by Queen Anne, who was shocked by the scatological nature of much of Swift’s writing.

The new Tory government, with Harley (now Earl of Oxford) as Lord Treasurer, and another friend of Swift, Henry St. John (Viscount Bolingbroke) as Secretary of State, won huge majorities at two successive General Elections and set about negotiating peace with France, which finally bore fruit in the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, and set the European frontiers for a generation. But it was a murky business, for Britain’s allies were not consulted, and indeed their troops were left holding the front line against the French when the British army was secretly ordered to withdraw.
This created new problems for the ministers, because among the allies involved was George, Elector of Hanover, and he was furious. Queen Anne was now in poor health, and she had no surviving children. Under the Act of Settlement of 1701, George was heir to the English throne, which specifically laid down that under no circumstances could a Catholic become King; thus excluding James Edward Stuart, son of King James II who had been driven from the throne in 1689, and now a client of Louis XIV of France. James’s supporters were known as Jacobites (from “Jacobus”, the Latin version of James). The Tory party had always had a Jacobite wing, but James’s Catholicism had proved an insuperable obstacle to winning mass support. Now the ministers had every incentive to turn Jacobite, and secret overtures were made to James. Undoubtedly Swift knew nothing about this: he was never a Jacobite, and he hated Catholics. The plans came to nothing, for James refused to change his religion. The government began to disintegrate under the pressure, with the leaders trading public insults. Finally at the end of July in 1714 Queen Anne had had enough: she sacked her ministers, and moderate Whigs and neutrals were appointed in their place. Two days later the Queen died, and without any fuss George was invited to come to England and accept the crown. Next year, unsuccessful Jacobite risings in Scotland and northern England finally discredited the Tories.

The fall of the Tory government marked the end of any hopes Swift might have had for any further Church preferment. He returned to Ireland, to live “like a rat in a hole” as he sourly put it, and thenceforth seldom visited England. But he continued to write as vigorously as ever. Many of his later works specifically deal with the problems of Ireland, such as the “Drapier’s Letters” and the “Modest Proposal”; but of course there was also “Gulliver’s Travels”, published anonymously (like almost all his writings) in 1726. It was an immediate hit, being quickly translated into several languages, and was the only work which earned Swift any money. It is safe to predict that its fame will continue as long as books are read.

Swift must have been devastated by the death of his beloved “Stella” in 1728. His own health declined from the late 1730s, and his behaviour caused many people to think he had gone mad (he probably suffered from Meniere’s disease). He died in 1742, by which time he must have seemed a relic from a bygone age.

(The next Blog entry will examine some of Swift's writings)

Rousseau definitions

I have already dealt in an earlier post of the central concept of "The Social Contract" by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, which is the "General Will". But many of the terms used by Rousseau in explaining his ideas are confusing to us, because he employs words which have rather different meanings today. (Once again I am relying on the translation by Maurice Cranston, published by Penguin Books)


1. Sovereignty
For Rousseau, the whole body of the citizens is always the final sovereign authority, and its supreme function is the passing of major constitutional legislation. Such laws have no validity unless approved by the citizens. Rousseau envisages the citizens all assembled under a tree for this purpose, though he admits this is practicable only in very small states. He does not approve of the election of delegates (such as Members of Parliament) to carry out this function. The modern equivalent of Rousseau's sovereign authority would be the Annual General Meeting of a company or society. I suppose Rousseau today would approve of binding referendums being held on all important questions.



2. Laws and Republics
When Rousseau and his contemporary political thinkers talked about "laws", what they actually meant was what we would call "constitutions": the fundamental rules that regulate how a state, or any other organisation, is to be run. The key function of such laws was that they clearly laid down what the state could and could not do. Eighteenth century writers thus distinguished between states governed by "laws" and those governed by "arbitrary power", in which the government could do whatever it liked. It was the proud boast of English people that the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688-9 had made them a "free people", in a state governed by laws. Even King George III believed this, and spoke frequently of "our matchless constitution". Rousseau points out that constitutional laws would have to be drawn up by someone he calls a "lawgiver", who must be motivated by pure altruism rather than by the desire for personal gain. There can be no doubt that both Thomas Jefferson and Napoleon saw themselves as lawgivers in the Rousseauist mode. Rousseau calls any state governed by laws a "Republic", regardless of its form of government.


3. Government
In Rousseau's system we have a dual aspect: as citizens, we all have a share in making the laws, but as subjects, we have a duty to obey the laws. The government he sees as an intermediary body between subjects and citizens; enforcing the laws that the citizens have made. But this has nothing to do with sovereign authority, which always abides with the whole citizen body. He insists that we have no duty to obey the government as such; if the government breaks the constitutional laws and behaves in an arbitrary fashion, we no longer have any duty to obey. Rousseau follows Aristotle in dividing governments into three kinds, but as always his definitions seem unusual :-


4. Democracy
This means "government by the people", but Rousseau uses it to mean what would now be called "direct democracy", in which the whole people take all governmental decisions, as with the peasants in a village all meeting together under a tree. There is no doubt that Rousseau thinks that very small states are the best. He admits, however, that "A government so perfect is not suited to men".


5. Aristocracy
Most political writers would call this "oligarchy": a system whereby governmental power is held by a small group of people. But how are this governing elite to be chosen? The worst system, Rousseau thinks, is to have a hereditary ruling group, and he uses several traditional arguments, going right back to Aristotle, to make this point. A much better system, he thinks, is to have an "elective aristocracy", in which the people choose their governors; but even this is less than ideal, since any ruling group will tend to give its own sectional interests priority over the good of the whole people. Rousseau would therefore call the British (or American) political system an "elective aristocracy": every few years we are able to choose which bunch of bosses we want to rule us, but this is the limit of our involvement in legislation. It is better than nothing, but, thinks Rousseau, it should not be confused with democracy. He makes this memorable comment on the British political system:-
"The English people believes itself to be free; it is gravely mistaken; it is free only during the election of Members of Parliament; as soon as the Members are are elected, the people is enslaved, it is nothing. In the brief moments of its freedom, the English people makes such a use of that freedom that it deserves to lose it". (Book III, chapter 15). I refrain from any comment!


6. Monarchy
To Rousseau, this is a sytem where all power is held by a single person. Rousseau might therefore describe Hitler, Stalin or Mao as "monarchs". He would surely also point out the hereditary character of the governments of, for instance, North Korea and Syria.


7. Dictatorship
As with "democracy", the word "dictator" was not current in Rousseau's day: they were terms used in classical antiquity which he revived. Rousseau's near-contemporary, the English radical John Wilkes, never uses either word in his writings, though he was, in our terms, denouncing royal dictatorship and demanding more democracy. It is therefore no surprise that Rousseau uses the word "dictator" in an entirely Roman sense: someone who is given extraordinary powers as a temporary expedient to deal with a grave threat to the state. Rousseau might therefore call Churchill in the Second World War a "dictator", without using the word in any condemnatory sense - and, in the true Roman style, Churchill surrendered his powers once the war was over, though in his case involuntarily, since he was heavily defeated in the 1945 general election.

8. Religion
To Rousseau,true religion is an intensely private thing: what I believe in my heart. He is totally opposed to any organised church which is separate from the state, and may be in opposition to it. He praises Tsarist Russia and the Turkish caliphate for having churches firmly under governmental control - but says this is useful as a mechanism for social control, just as long as we don't confuse it with true religion! What I choose to believe in my heart is no concern of the state: I am answerable only for my actions, not for my beliefs. He throws in the gratuitous comment, "Christianity preaches only servitude and submission: its spirit is too favourable to tyranny for tyranny not to take advantage of it" (Book IV chapter 8). We can easily understand why the book was condemned not only by Catholics in France but also by the Calvinists of Rousseau's native Geneva!

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Wroxeter

Wroxeter is in Shropshire, south of Shrewsbury. It was originally a legionary headquarters, and later became the fourth largest town in Roman Britain, by the name of Viroconium Cornoviorum. Its importance was as the main bridging-point across the River Severn. The Roman road of Watling Street, coming up from London, turned to the left near the modern town of Penkridge, north of Wolverhampton, and then ran due west to Wroxeter, on a line followed by the present A5. Looking south after crossing the Severn at Wroxeter, the Romans would see two lines of hills, Caer Caradoc and the Long Mynd, and they drove their next road directly towards these, down to Hereford and Monmouth. The course of the road can still be traced by the names of the present towns along its path: All Stretton, Church Stretton, Little Stretton; meaning "on the street" (see also, Stratford, etc)

There is an inscription dedicated to the Emperor Hadrian, dated 129-130 A.D. The only part of the town to survive is the baths, including a massive section of brick wall (see above) and the hypocaust system that provided the heating (see below).
There is also the foundations of what must have been a fine colonnade.

Otherwise the extent of the town is difficult to trace, because for centuries farmers removed stone for their buildings and walls. Even the nearby church includes a good deal of Roman stone.
Recently there was a television documentary in which a small Roman villa was built in a nearby field, using only Roman tools and building methods. The result looks very pleasant.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

The End of Ancient Rome: Part 3; Failed Restoration

Odoacer, the German mercenary who deposed the last Roman Emperor in the west, ruled Italy till 493, when Theodoric the Ostrogoth invaded with the encouragement of Constantinople, and defeated and killed him. Theodoric then reigned as King until his death in 526; nominally subject to the Emperor of the east, who recognised him with the title of “Patrician”.

Over this period of half a century, Italy was quite peaceful and well-ruled. Theodoric was an Arian Christian, but tolerated the Catholics. Ravenna remained the capital, and new churches were built there. The shadow of Roman civilization remained, declining only very slowly. In Italy, as in France and Spain, the Goths were always outnumbered by the earlier inhabitants, and did not mingle with them much. The new barbarian kings had to use Roman officials and Roman bureaucratic methods officials to keep their kingdoms going, so coins were issued with Latin inscriptions, and ranks like Senator, Consul etc still existed. In France, important legal documents were still written on imported Egyptian papyrus till the end of 7th century: the proper way of doing things! This slow decline can be seen by the way Latin was gradually transformed into dialects of Italian, French, Spanish and others. Only in Britain was there the onset of a “dark age”, when Latin, literacy and Christianity vanished. In Rome, Theodoric repaired public buildings and restored aqueducts: even chariot-racing revived. Villa life continued, as did the drift from the towns to countryside. The era even produced a major intellectual figure, Boethius, an important government official under Theodoric, who eventually fell from power and wrote “ The Consolations of Philosophy” while awaiting his gruesome execution in 523. This work became one of the best-known books of the later middle ages and the Renaissance, despite containing no mention of Christianity at all. All in all, this period might be considered something of a golden age for Italy; and was certainly much better than what followed!


In the East, Constantinople continued to flourish, though now the language was Greek, and henceforth the Empire is known as “Byzantine” to historians, though the people called themselves “Romans” till very end. The greatest Emperor of the period was Justinian, 527-565: by birth a peasant from present-day Croatia. His childless uncle Justin had risen to be Emperor through the army, and Justinian succeeded him, along with his strong-minded wife Theodora, formerly a dancer in the circus, and, according to the scandalmongers, a child-prostitute.



Justinian built the great cathedral of Santa Sophia and codified the laws of the Empire, but his great ambition was to recover the lost lands of the wesr and save them from the Arian heretics. Accordingly in 535 he sent his general Belisarius with an armada against the Vandals in north Africa; defeating them in a single campaign and reuniting Carthage with the Empire. Next, Belisarius invaded Italy, where his campaign was helped by a disputed succession and internal conflicts after the death of Theodoric. He took Rome, but was then besieged there for a year. The city suffered great destruction as the Goths cut the aqueducts and Belisarius demolished ancient buildings to get stone to repair the walls: even statues were broken up for catapult missiles! Rome held out, and Belisarius took Ravenna too, where new churches were then consecrated, with mosaics of Justinian that are today amongst the chief glories of the town (see above). But then the new Gothic king Totila struck back; Rome changed hands three times, and destruction was compounded by outbreak of plague in 543. Meanwhile in 539 the Burgundians took Milan, destroyed the city and slaughtered the entire population. Justinian came to be suspicious of Belisarius; his natural distrust no doubt boosted by reports that the Goths were so impressed by Belisarius’s qualities that they suggested he should join them and they would make him Emperor! Belisarius was recalled to Constantinople in disgrace, though the story that he was blinded and forced to beg on the streets is probably a mediaeval invention.
Justinian made an amazing choice as successor to Belisarius: an aged eunuch called Narses, who had never commanded an army in his life. Narses marched into Italy in 552, met Totila in battle and utterly defeated him: Totila was killed and the surviving Ostrogoths retreated over the Alps.

After 19 years of war, plague and destruction, Italy was now very weak. There was little resistance when in 568 a new people, the Lombards, migrated over the Alps; taking Pavia in 572 and making it their capital. The Lombards were much more barbaric than the Goths, and their kings never had much control over local chiefs. They never ruled all Italy: Venice remained loyal to Constantinople, and Rome was often menaced but never taken. But where could the Popes appeal for aid? Constantinople was no help: the city was itself besieged by the Persians in in the 620s and then by the Arabs in 717-718. Constantinople could even make things worse : in 709 the homicidal emperor Justinian II decided to pillage Ravenna, which was still part of his empire. He arrested all the leading citizens and executed them, except for the archbishop, who was merely blinded and exiled to distant monastery. Ravenna fell to the Lombards in 751; then only Sicily and a few bases on the mainland were still held by the Empire. Probably this was ultimate low point of Italy: the population was down to about 2 ½ million and Rome in ruins, with large areas inside the walls left uninhabited. Italy would not again be unified under a single government until the second half of the nineteenth century.

Who was the most responsible for this? Edward Gibbon blames Justinian, for his futile and destructive attempt to reconquer the old Empire:-
“The triple scourge of war, pestilence and famine afflicted the subjects of Justinian, and his reign is disgraced by a visible decrease of the human species which has never been repaired in some of the fairest countries of the globe”.
Modern historians would point to the great plague epidemic of 543, which caused the deaths of countless thousands in Constantinople and throughout the Empire. Another possibly linked fact is evidence of a gigantic volcanic eruption in Indonesia in 535, causing sulphuric acid peaks in the Arctic and Antarctic ice, and probably causing massive short-lived climate change, with consequent crop failures and starvation. Was this instrumental in bringing about the final collapse of the old Roman world?

But at the same time there were glimmerings of hope for the future. Saint Benedict was born in the Umbrian region of central Italy around 480. It is said that met Totila, but more importantly amidst the savage fighting of the 540s he founded the monastery of Monte Cassino and drew up the Rule that formed the basis for European monasticism, with its triple emphasis on prayer, work and study. It was to be through the monasteries that the learning and literature of the ancient world would be preserved.

("The Secret History" by Procopius gives a splendidly scandalous account of Justinian and his court)

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

The End of Ancient Rome: Part 2; Collapse

The collapse of the Roman Empire in the west happened very suddenly, in the course of a single generation, and must have come as a devastating surprise to the inhabitants of a state which had survived all perils for over 400 years, and a city whose history went back in legend for more than a thousand.

In 375 the Emperor Valentinian died. He had been an effective ruler of the western half of the Roman Empire, which now went to his teenage son Gratian, while his much less able brother Valens ruled the east from Constantinople. In 378, the Visigoths crossed the Danube into modern Bulgaria. Originally Valens raised no objection; but when they ran out of food and started to cause trouble, he decided to teach them a lesson. Without waiting for reinforcements from the west, he attacked their encampment at Adrianople; where he and his entire army were slaughtered. This was undoubtedly one of the most decisive battles of European history, because afterwards the Goths could not be expelled from the Empire. The vast horde was perpetually on the move, though unable to take the walled cities. They did not seek to destroy the Empire, but their constant need for food caused devastation. The only remedy was to buy them off. Their presence on the border between the eastern and western halves of the Empire caused endless disputes and hostility as the different Emperors in Constantinople and Milan tried to get the Goths out of their territory.

The reign of Honorius in the west, 395-423, was the most disastrous in Roman history. He was proclaimed Emperor at the age of just 12, solely because he was the son of the great and powerful Emperor Theodosius; and proved to be an extremely feeble character, showing little interest in actually governing, but instead being totally reliant on his military commander, Stilicho the Vandal.
In 402 Alaric, King of the Visigoths, crossed the Alps into Italy, but was defeated by Stilicho near Turin and retreated. Honorius made his only visit to Rome to celebrate an undeserved Triumph, but then felt it prudent to move the capital from Milan to Ravenna, protected by marshes and with good sea links to Constantinople.

Meanwhile pressure was building up on the Rhine frontier, where the garrisons were barely holding the line of the river against the Germanic tribes. Then on New Year’s Day 406/7, the Rhine froze solid. Huge numbers of Vandals, Alamanni, Burgundians, Franks and others crossed the river, swept aside the defences and poured down through France and ultimately into Spain. They were probably desperately seeking food rather than conquest, and were eventually allowed to settle down as “foederati” acknowledging the sovereignty of the Emperor and supplying him with troops, but living under their own laws. These events led the Romans to abandon Britain entirely; Honorius telling the Britons to defend themselves in future as the last legions departed. The “Dark Ages” quickly engulfed Britain: for the next 200 years there are hardly any written records.

In 408 Alaric was in Italy again, threatening Rome itself. The Senate, urged by Stilicho, agreed to buy him off with an immense sum of gold, but Honorius suspected Stilicho of seeking to take the throne for himself and had him executed. Alaric probably had ambitions of replacing Stilicho as the Emperor’s warlord; but found that while Honorius couldn’t fight him, he wouldn’t negotiate, and still hadn’t paid the protection money! Disgusted with this double-dealing, and fed up with waiting, on August 3rd 410 Alaric’s Visigoths entered Rome and plundered it, meeting little resistance. It was a very mild plundering, lasting just three days: Christian churches were left untouched, though pagan temples were pillaged; there was no arson, and only one building was destroyed. But the psychological effect was enormous: no barbarians had taken Rome for over 700 years; and to many it must have seemed the end of civilization. Over in North Africa, Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo near Carthage, found that many pagans blamed the disaster on Rome’s abandonment of its old gods. He was moved to write his great masterpiece “The City of God”, trying to find the workings of God’s will in what had occurred.
Within a year, Alaric was dead, and his Visigoths resumed their wanderings, moving into Spain and driving out the Germanic tribes who had recently settled there. One group of these, the Vandals under Genseric, crossed over into north Africa and in 439 captured Carthage. There they built a fleet, threatening Mediterranean trade with their piracy and in particular disrupting the grain supply from Egypt, upon which Rome had long depended. This might in fact be the single most important cause of the collapse of the western Empire.

The eastern Empire at Constantinople was now much stronger and more stable than the western, where the later Emperors at Ravenna were often mere puppets in the hands of German mercenary warlords. And now there was the problem of the Huns: a particular menace when Attila, “the scourge of God” became king of all the Hun tribes and assembled a mighty horde. These really were savages, unlike the Christian Goths and Vandals; a deadly menace and a common enemy to all. In 451 the Huns invaded across the Rhine, spreading panic and devastation. Facing them was General Aetius, “the last of the Romans”. He assembled a composite army, of Romans together with Franks, Alamanni and Visigoths, which fought the Huns to a standstill in a gigantic battle near Chalons. Following this, Attila retreated back into Germany, and the west was saved. This was the second decisive battle of the period, after Adrianople.
Next year, Attila invaded Italy; causing, according to tradition, terrified refugees to flee to the islands that became Venice. He approached Rome, but was somehow persuaded to withdraw by Pope Leo I. Months later Attila was no more, choked to death after a feast, and his empire fell apart; with the Huns withdrawing to the eastern Ukraine. In 454, the Emperor Valentinian III, jealous of Aetius, personally stabbed him to death. (“You have cut off your right hand with your left”, the Emperor was told).


Rome was now defenceless. In 455 Genseric’s Vandal fleet from Carthage descended on the once-mighty capital and plundered it for two weeks; doing a much more thorough job than the Visigoths a generation earlier. Genseric promised Pope Leo there would be no killing or arson, but the ancient palaces on the Palatine hill were completely ransacked, the gilded tiles were removed from the roof of the Temple of Jupiter, and the Menora, the great sacred Jewish candlestick seized from the Temple in Jerusalem by the Emperor Titus back in AD 70, was taken back to Carthage (The picture is of the relief on the Arch of Titus in the Forum in Rome. I’m not sure what happened to the Menora after this: it would seem to be a suitable subject for an Indiana Jones film)

There was now little reason for the Germanic peoples to prop up the Empire any longer. Rome was pillaged again in 472 by Ricimer, a German mercenary. Finally, in 476, another German mercenary, Odoacer, deposed the Emperor Romulus Augustulus, a mere boy, and informed the Emperor Zeno in Constantinople that there was now no emperor in the west. The western Roman Empire was finally at an end. It was almost a century since Adrianople, but in truth, for most of this time the Empire in the west had been little more than a feeble ghost of its former glory.

(The third and final part of this essay will describe the unsuccesful attempt by Justinian to rebuild the Empire in the west)

Thursday, 3 November 2011

The End of Ancient Rome: Part 1: Final Flowering

The Roman Empire reached its peak around 150 AD, with a population of perhaps 30 million, of which at least 1 million lived in the city itself and 8 million it Italy. But by 650 AD the population of Italy was down to an estimated 2 ½ million and Rome itself to a mere few thousand. How had this catastrophic decline happened?

Plague struck in the 160s and the population never recovered, leading to economic stagnation, decline of the towns, small farmers being replaced by huge slave or serf estates, massive government financial deficits and debasement of the coinage. About 95% of government income came from farming. By the 3rd century AD all free inhabitants of the empire were “citizens”; but instead there came to be a class division into rich and poor, the “honestiores” and “humiliores”. It is obvious, and significant, what modern words derive from these terms!

There were civil wars and government chaos, especially in the third century. Following the murder of the Emperor Alexander Severus in 235, Rome had 30 “recognised” emperors in the next fifty years, plus endless claimants and usurpers in the provinces. There were also new external enemies. In the east, a new Persian Empire fought endless wars with Rome over the next 400 years for control of Iraq, Syria, and Armenia. Around 240 came the first appearance of the Goths: Germanic herdsmen originally from the Baltic, who became divided into the Ostrogoths in the Ukraine and the Visigoths in Romania. They had to keep moving to find new pasture for their vast herds and flocks, and began raiding into the Balkans and across the Black Sea into what is now Turkey. Far to the east, vast tribal movements, possibly caused by climate change, led to the westwards migration of the Huns; Asiatic nomads. They reached the eastern Ukraine around 375, driving the Germanic peoples of central Europe up against the Roman Empire on its Danube and Rhine frontiers: not just the Goths, but also Franks, Vandals, Burgundians, Lombards, Alamanni and others. For the next thousand years, Europe would be terrorised by periodic irruptions of central Asian tribes; horse-archers of the steppe: Huns, Avars, Magyars, Turks and Mongols. The new dangers were shown by the erection of a new wall around Rome about 270: the Aurelian Wall.

Rome might have seemed doomed, but the Empire was saved and given another century of life by Diocletian (284-305), an illiterate peasant from the Balkans who rose to be Emperor through the army, and restored order at cost of setting up a totalitarian state. He divided the empire with a colleague, Maximian, an even rougher Balkan peasant; Diocletian ruling the east and Maximian the west. Maximian however established his headquarters not at Rome, but at Milan, being more central strategically. From this point, Rome ceased to be the capital and was seldom visited by the Emperors, though retained the senate and other trappings of a vanished authority.
The army doubled in size; but with falling population levels, more and more barbarian tribes were admitted into the Empire and given land in return for providing soldiers. Soon the army ceased to be Roman in any meaningful sense, with its manpower including large numbers of Germans or even Huns. Towards the end, the army was commanded by barbarian warlords; Goths, Vandals and others; who no longer even bothered to Latinise their names.

Diocletian introduced an “Emperor cult”; the Emperor was now to be treated as a semi-divine being: an innovation seemingly adopted from Persian traditions. He wore fantastically elaborate costumes on ceremonial occasions, his court was regulated by detailed ritual, and those approaching had to prostrate themselves in his presence. Christians naturally would not acknowledge the Emperor’s divinity, and so Diocletian conducted last great persecution of Christians for refusing Emperor-worship; though this seems to have been more severe in the eastern part of the Empire than in the west.
To safeguard trade and industry, unpopular jobs were made hereditary: thus a baker’s son must himself become a baker, and must marry a baker’s daughter. In some of the hardest jobs, such as mining or quarrying, men even branded, so they could be identified if they escaped. Running away from one’s job could even lead to execution. To safeguard tax revenue, towns were ordered to produce a fixed sum; and if this was not forthcoming, town councillors had to make up any shortfall from own pockets. With the towns in decline, this proved extremely unpopular: a little later, the Emperor Maxentius found an ingenious way of persecuting Christians,: namely, by compulsorily appointing them town councillors!

Art changed completely: statues of Diocletian were barbaric in style: when the Arch of Constantine was erected in Rome, bits from older monuments were cannibalized for the decoration: artists could no longer carve classical figures! (The example shown here, which is believed to depict Diocletian and his colleagues, is in Venice)


In 305 Diocletian and Maximian both abdicated (the latter very unwillingly) and retired: Diocletian to Split in present-day Croatia (where his villa can still be seen), and Maximian to Sicily
(in the centre of the island there is a villa with magnificent mosaic floors which may have been his). There then followed another round of civil wars, as Constantine rose to be sole emperor; defeating and his killing rivals Maxentius (his brother-in-law, and also the son of Maximian) and Licinius (his cousin’s husband). Constantine built a new capital on the Bosphorus; Constantinople; which soon became much the biggest city in the Empire.
Constantine famously tolerated and encouraged Christianity, though he himself was baptised only on his deathbed. His administrative involvement in the development of Christian doctrine was as important as his conversion. He found Christianity full of doctrinal disputes, and in 325 summoned the Council of Nicaea to sort these out. The most crucial matter to be resolved was the problem of Arianism; named after Arius, a theologian who maintained that Jesus, as the Son of God, must necessarily be later and lesser than God the Father. At Nicaea this theory was condemned as heretical, and the Athanasian Creed we have today (the Holy Trinity of equals: God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost) became the only official doctrine. This was actually very important, because around this time the Goths, Vandals and other tribes were converted to Christianity; but they mostly became Arians, as did many of the Imperial family. (There is a tradition that during the heated debates at Nicaea, the heresiach Arius was clouted in the face by a certain Nicholas, a bishop from Myra; but most authorities dismiss this as a legend without foundation: nor is it in any way connected with Nicholas’s later reincarnation as Santa Claus!)

Constantine’s dynasty ruled a reunited Empire until the family finally became extinct in 363; its survival not being helped by rebellions and executions within the family. Another soldier, Valentinian, was then chosen as Emperor by the army: but he divided the Empire again, ruling in the west himself and giving the east to brother Valens. After this, there were almost always two Emperors: one in Italy and one at Constantinople.

Thanks to the reforms of Diocletian and Constantine the Roman Empire gained a new lease of life, but the last few years of the fourth century brought about a dramatic collapse. This will be covered in the next blog entry.