Review: A. Cameron, The Last Pagans of Rome (1)

18 June 2011

[This is the first part of a review of Alan Cameron’s The Last Pagans of Rome (2011)]

Cover

Bacurius was an officer in the Roman army of the fourth century AD. The church historian Rufinus calls him a Christian. He may be right: the two men had met in Jerusalem. Bacurius’ friend Libanius of Antioch, however, considered the officer a pagan. There may be an easy explanation, like conversion, but that’s not my point. Far more interesting than Bacurius’ religion is the question what modern historians would have thought if only Rufinus’ History of the Church had survived and Libanius’ letters were lost. I am quite sure that no one would have suspected that Rufinus’ information might have been incorrect. Bacurius would have been considered a Christian.

This example illustrates the central problem of the study of Antiquity: there are not enough sources. Researchers are not able to check whether their information is correct. The problem is sometimes identified with a proverb from Roman law: testis unus, testis nullus. Disagreeing sources are, therefore, any historian’s dream: finally a way to contrast evidence and check information.

Usually, ancient historians have only one source. Of course they ask – or should ask – which information might refute that one source, whether that information has ever been around, why that information no longer exists, and by which miracle the surviving source has come down to us. The ancient historian who believes that he has done his job by merely quoting a source, uses a method that is often called naïve positivism.

In the eighteenth century, this was the best historians could offer. Edward Gibbon was sometimes incredibly naïve when he wrote his Decline and Fall; uncritically, he accepted the information from the Historia Augusta, never realizing that this source was a hoax, never asking which sources were used by its author, never preferring that information to the Historia Augusta. In a sense, it is to be regretted that the master of irony is still in print, because it has led generations of amateur historians to believe that “telling a story based on the sources” is all a historian has to do.

[to be continued]


Gibbon on the happiest age of mankind

26 January 2011

Marcus Aurelius

I had to read a bit of Gibbon these days, and came across that famous line of his:

If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus. The vast extent of the Roman empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of virtue and wisdom. The armies were restrained by the firm but gentle hand of four successive emperors, whose characters and authority commanded involuntary respect. The forms of the civil administration were carefully preserved by Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the Antonines, who delighted in the image of liberty, and were pleased with considering themselves as the accountable ministers of the laws.

I must have read those words a dozen times, but only today did I realize that the historian does not share the judgment that “a man” was called to fix. After all, the main theme of his book is that the Roman Empire was bound to collapse because it lacked personal freedom. Its citizens had no interest in keeping it alive. If only the Roman Empire would have had a parliament!

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 privileges of the subject would have secured the throne of the monarch the abuses of an arbitrary administration might have been prevented, in some degree, or corrected, by the interposition of these representative assemblies; and the country would have been defended against a foreign enemy by the arms of natives and freemen. Under the mild and generous influence of liberty, the Roman empire might have remained invincible and immortal.

But the Roman Empire didn’t have a parliament, and therefore, it fell. This was different in Britain, where – according to Gibbon – the best part of the nation was represented in the House of Lords, and even the mere bourgeoisie was allowed a vote in the House of Commons. Therefore, there was no need to fear another “awful revolution”. The happiest age of mankind was, in Gibbon’s view, his own eighteenth century.


Common Errors (17): Frozen Rhine

28 June 2009
The river god Rhenus (Römisch-Germanisches Museum, Köln)

The river god Rhenus (Römisch-Germanisches Museum, Köln)

The German historician Alexander Demandt enumerates in his fascinating book Der Fall Roms (“The Fall of Rome”, 1984) no less than 210 factors that contributed to the collapse of the Roman Empire, arranged alphabetically from Aberglaube, “idolatry”, to Zweifrontenkrieg, “war on two fronts”. This illustrates a debate about the causes of the demise of the ancient world that has now lasted more than two, three centuries. It is unlikely that we will ever reach consensus.

All modern authors agree on one point, however: when the Vandals, Suebians, and Alans invaded the empire on the last day of 406, an event that must have played a role in the transformation from Antiquity to Middle Ages, they crossed a river Rhine that was frozen.

But how do we know? The subject has been debated at RomanArmyTalk, where it was shown that this little detail was not in our sources, and that it was probably invented by the British ancient historian Edward Gibbon (1737-1794). In 1781, he wrote in chapter 30 of his famous History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:

‘On the last day of the year, in a season when the waters of the Rhine were most probably frozen, they entered without opposition the defenceless provinces of Gaul.’

Why did he speculate that the river must have been frozen? Partly to explain why the barbarians didn’t meet any opposition, we’re tempted to think – and probably, we’re right. However, it may also be relevant that Gibbon used to live in Switzerland for some time, and may have seen how the upper reaches of the Rhine can indeed be covered by ice. And he certainly read the following lines by Herodian, who presents an account of extreme circumstances as if it is a description of an average winter. Gibbon, who had never seen the Middle and Lower Rhine, may well have been led astray by his excellent command of the sources – in this case, Herodian, Roman History, 6.7.6-8:

The Rhine in Germany and the Danube in Pannonia are the largest of the northern rivers. In summer their depth and width make them easily navigable, but in the cold winters they freeze over and appear like a level plain which can be crossed on horseback.The river becomes so firm and solid in that season that it supports horses and men. Then those who want drinking water do not come to the river with pitchers and bowls; they bring axes and mattocks and, when they have finished chopping, take up water without using bowls and carry it in chunks as hard as rock. Such is the nature of these rivers

<Overview of Common Errors>


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