Why Did Ancient Civilisation Collapse? Richard Blake
In Chapter XXX of his Human Action, Ludwig von Mises says this about the collapse of ancient civilisation:
Knowledge of the effects of government interference with market prices makes us comprehend the economic causes of a momentous historical event, the decline of ancient civilization.
…The Roman Empire in the second century, the age of the Antonines, the “good” emperors, had reached a high stage of the social division of labour and of interregional commerce. Several metropolitan centres, a considerable number of middle-sized towns, and many small towns were the seats of a refined civilisation…. There was an extensive trade between the various regions of the vast empire. Not only in the processing industries, but also in agriculture there was a tendency toward further specialization. The various parts of the empire were no longer economically self-sufficient. They were interdependent.
What brought about the decline of the empire and the decay of its civilization was the disintegration of this economic interconnectedness, not the barbarian invasions. The alien aggressors merely took advantage of an opportunity which the internal weakness of the empire offered to them. From a military point of view the tribes which invaded the empire in the fourth and fifth centuries were not more formidable than the armies which the legions had easily defeated in earlier times. But the empire had changed. Its economic and social structure was already medieval….
…[I]n the political troubles of the third and fourth centuries the emperors resorted to currency debasement. With the system of maximum prices the practice of debasement completely paralysed both the production and the marketing of the vital foodstuffs and disintegrated society’s economic organisation. The more eagerness the authorities displayed in enforcing the maximum prices, the more desperate became the conditions of the urban masses dependent on the purchase of food. Commerce in grain and other necessities vanished altogether. To avoid starving, people deserted the cities, settled on the countryside, and tried to grow grain, oil, wine, and other necessities for themselves.
I would be most reluctant to cross swords with von Mises on economics. I also note his awareness that the barbarian invasions were at best secondary causes of what happened in the Western Provinces of the Empire. What I dispute is his claim that “socialism,” or economic intervention, had a substantial role in this.
We can reject the Polanyi/Finley claim that market behaviour is a modern and transitory development, and that ancient economies were so fundamentally different that they cannot be subjected to economic analysis in our own terms. Human nature is the same in all times and places, and only the objects of superficial desire are different. There were product and factor markets in the Ancient World, and these can be analysed with the same tools as we bring to market behaviour in our own world.
This being said, the Ancient World was institutionally different from ours. We have, during the past four hundred years, grown used to living with centralised, bureaucratic states, able to impose their will for all reasonable and many unreasonable purposes. The Roman State was able to collect enough taxes to pay an army to defend its frontiers most of the time. For all other purposes, it was vastly less competent than the English or French States of the seventeenth century. Its early effort to suppress Christianity was a miserable failure. Its late efforts to suppress Christian heresy were barely less miserable. Its civil courts had no means to compel the attendance of witnesses, and little to enforce their judgments. Its criminal courts were powerless to prosecute offenders who had any degree of local support.
The Empire was an agglomeration of communities which were illiterate to an extent unknown in Western Europe since about 1450. Even most officers in the bureaucracy were at best semi-literate. There was no printing press. Writing materials were very expensive – one sheet of papyrus cost about £100 in today’s money. Cheaper materials were still expensive and were of little use for other than ephemeral use. Central control was usually notional, and the more effective Emperors – Hadrian, Diocletian, et al – were those who spent much of their time touring the Empire to supervise in person.
The economic legislation of the Emperors was largely unenforceable. Some effort was made to enforce the Edict of Maximum Prices. But this appears to have been sporadic, and it lasted only between 301 and 305, when Diocletian abdicated. The Edict’s main effect was to leave a listing of relative prices for economic historians to study 1,500 years later.
As for inflation, it can be doubted how far outside the cities a monetary economy existed. This is not to doubt whether the laws of supply and demand operated, only whether most transactions were not by barter at more or less customary ratios of exchange. This being so, the debasement of the silver coinage would have had less disruptive effect than the silver inflation in Europe of the sixteenth century. Also, the gold coinage was stabilised over a hundred years before the Western military collapse of the fifth century. And the military crisis of the late third century was overcome while the inflation continued.
Nor is there any evidence that people left the cities in large numbers for the countryside. The truth seems to be that the Roman Empire was afflicted, from the middle of the second century, by a series of epidemic plagues, possibly brought on by global cooling, that sent populations into a decline that continued until about the eighth century. The cities shrank not because their inhabitants left them, but because they died. So far as they were enforced, the Imperial responses to population decline made things worse, but were not the ultimate cause of decline. Where population decline was less severe, there was no economic decline. Whenever the decline went into temporary reverse – as it may have in the fifth century in the East – economic activity recovered.
Von Mises is right that the barbarian invasions were not catastrophic floods that destroyed everything in their path. They were incursions by small bands. What made them irreversible was that they took place in the West into a demographic vacuum that would have existed regardless of what laws the Emperors made.
And it is the aftermath of this collapse that forms the background to my series of twelve novels set in the Byzantine Empire….
Edward Gibbon: Man of the Enlightenment by Richard Blake
Edward Gibbon (1737-94)
Edward Gibbon (1737-94) was born into an old and moderately wealthy family that had its origins in Kent. Sickly as a child, he was educated at home, and sent while still a boy to Oxford. There, an illegal conversion to Roman Catholicism ruined his prospects of a career in the professions or the City. His father sent him off to Lausanne to be reconverted to the Protestant Faith. He came back an atheist and with the beginnings of what would become a stock of immense erudition. He served part of the Seven Years War in the Hampshire Militia. He sat in the House of Commons through much of the American War. He made no speeches, and invariably supported the Government. He moved for a while in polite society – though his increasing obesity, and the rupture that caused his scrotum to swell to the size of a football, made him an object of mild ridicule. Eventually, he withdrew again to Switzerland, where obesity and his hydrocele were joined by heavy drinking. Scared by the French Revolution, he came back to England in 1794, where he died of blood-poisoning after an operation to drain his scrotum.
When not eating and drinking, and putting on fine clothes, and talking about himself, he found time to become the greatest historian of his age, the greatest historian who ever wrote in English, one of the greatest of all English writers, and perhaps the only modern historian to rank with Herodotus and Thucydides and Tacitus. The first volume of his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire astonished everyone who knew him. The finished whole was received as an undisputed classic. The work has never been out of print during the past quarter-millennium. It remains, despite the increase in the number of our sources and our better understanding of them, the best – indeed, the essential – introduction to the history of the Roman Empire between about the death of Marcus Aurelius and the death of Justinian. If you want to know how the glittering civilisation of the Ancient World declined, or was perhaps transformed, into that of the middle ages, you begin with Gibbon.
This being said, where to begin with a review of the Decline and Fall? It is a vast work. It fills six closely-printed volumes in most editions. The kind of review it deserves starts with ten thousand words and has no upper limit. And so I will confine myself to a brief overview of what I like about Gibbon. So far, I have read the work three times from cover to cover. It has haunted my imagination since I came, as a boy, across an abridgement. It has shaped my writing style more than any other author, including even Macaulay. Its general influence lurks in the background of all my historical fiction. The debt is most obvious in Sword of Damascus, which is shot through with echoes and near-quotations.
I last read him in 2015, while working on Game of Empires. I opened the first volume one Sunday afternoon in January, and closed the last volume early in March. During this time, almost every moment not reserved to earning a living or to the cares of married life was given up to reading Gibbon. I read him on railway trains and in the gaps between lessons. I read him in bed and once very furtively in the Church of St Mary le Bow. I read him sometimes with enthusiasm and sometimes with helpless envy. I read him sometimes with impatience. But always I read him in the knowledge that he was The Master.
The reasons for this judgement? Here are some of them
1. Greatness as a Writer and a Liberal
Decline and Fall Everyman Edition
I cannot understand the belief, generally shared these past two centuries, that the golden age of English literature lay in the century before the Civil War. I accept the Prayer Book and the English Bible as works of genius that will be appreciated so long as our language survives. I admire the Essays of Francis Bacon and one or two lyrics. But I do not at all regard Shakespeare as a great writer. His plays are ill-organised, his style barbarous and tiresome. I fail to understand how pieces like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet, with their long, ranting monologues, can be thought equal to the greatest products of the Athenian stage. I grant that Julius Caesar is a fine play – but only because Shakespeare stayed close to his ancient sources for the plot, and wrote in an uncharacteristically plain style. Perhaps I am undeveloped in some critical faculty; and I know that people whose judgements I trust have thought better of him. But I cannot see Shakespeare as a great writer or his age as the greatest in our literature.
For me, the golden age begins with Dryden and Congreve, and continues into the eighteenth century with Pope, Swift and Addison. It holds up until nearly the end of that century, after when there is a gentle decline towards the murkier style of the Victorians.
The strengths of the Augustans were clarity and balance in their writing, and their general dislike of enthusiasm. In Gibbon, these virtues are carried about as far as they can go. Granted, his style is often feline. Granted, he generally insinuates his theological views where he dares not assert them. Granted, his footnotes are littered with the most comic vanity that any historian ever displayed; and his readers are always aware of M. Pomme de Terre wandering up and down his study in his club wig and coat, composing those matchless sentences, and every so often glancing lovingly up at the portrait of himself hung just above the fireplace. But what matchless sentences they are, and how devastating they can be in the cause of enlightenment and humanity.
Take this, from Chapter II, in his overview of the Antonine Age:
The policy of the emperors and the senate, as far as it concerned religion, was happily seconded by the reflections of the enlightened, and by the habits of the superstitious, part of their subjects. The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord.
I like the antitheses. I like the epigrams. I like the implied scorn of religious or any other persecution. But rather than focus on what one of the more famous passages, let me turn to one of the later and less-frequented chapters – No. LI. The Arabs are said to have burned the Alexandrian Library on their conquest of Egypt – claiming that either its contents agreed with The Koran, and so were superfluous, or they contradicted it, in which case they were blasphemous. Gibbon doubts the testimony of the first historian to have mentioned the event. He continues in his smoothest and most reasonable manner:
The rigid sentence of Omar is repugnant to the sound and orthodox precept of the Mahometan casuists; they expressly declare, that the religious books of the Jews and Christians, which are acquired by the right of war, should never be committed to the flames; and that the works of profane science, historians or poets, physicians or philosophers, may be lawfully applied to the use of the faithful. A more destructive zeal may perhaps be attributed to the first successors of Mahomet; yet in this instance, the conflagration would have speedily expired in the deficiency of materials. I should not recapitulate the disasters of the Alexandrian library, the involuntary flame that was kindled by Caesar in his own defence, or the mischievous bigotry of the Christians, who studied to destroy the monuments of idolatry. But if we gradually descend from the age of the Antonines to that of Theodosius, we shall learn from a chain of contemporary witnesses, that the royal palace and the temple of Serapis no longer contained the four, or the seven, hundred thousand volumes, which had been assembled by the curiosity and magnificence of the Ptolemies.
Very smooth, very reasonable – a definitive summary of what we can know about the end of the Alexandrian Library. Then comes the flash of steel:
Perhaps the church and seat of the patriarchs might be enriched with a repository of books; but if the ponderous mass of Arian and Monophysite controversy were indeed consumed in the public baths, a philosopher may allow, with a smile, that it was ultimately devoted to the benefit of mankind.
I first read this passage in 1987, lying on my bed at about three in the morning. I nearly cried with laughter then, and I still laugh as I transcribe the sentence. One needs to know about the disputes over the nature of Christ that disgrace the Church between the reigns of Constantine and Justinian, to appreciate the full weight of Gibbon’s scorn; but the contrast between “library” and “repository of books”, between “patriarch” and “philosopher”, and the descent of time from the Antonines to Theodosius, tells us all that needs to be known of what he thought about Christianity.
2. His Scholarship
As said, this was not my first meeting with Gibbon. I was twelve when I found him in the abridgement by D.M. Low. As an undergraduate, I made use of him in the J.B. Bury edition up till the reign of Heraclius and the Arab conquests. In my middle twenties, I went through him again in a desultory manner, skipping chapters that did not interest me. But it was only as I approached thirty that I read him in the full and proper order, from the military resources of the Antonines to the revival of Rome under the Renaissance Popes. It is only by reading him in the whole, and by paying equal attention to text and footnotes, that he can be appreciated as a supreme historian.
Much of his greatness is seen by considering the materials he had available for his History, and the use he made of them. Much entertaining history of Antiquity was written in the eighteenth century – see Voltaire and Montesquieu, to give the most notable writers. The Enlightenment historians were not poor scholars, and they are often still worth reading. At the same time, they often based their narratives on a slender foundation. The scholars of the previous century had provided much more solid foundations. They had gathered up and printed everything they could find. Of equal importance, they had established a sound chronology of events. Before they began their immense labours, no one had known, for example, whether Stesichorus and Pythagoras and Phalaris were contemporaries, or when the Attic dialect became the standard literary language of Greece. By 1700, educated men were able to know more in some respects about the Ancients than they themselves had known. But Tillemont and Mabillon were men of limited ambition. Their concern with establishing the facts never reached as far as discussing what these facts might show. They were pedants. Frequently, they were religious bigots. It was almost a point of honour among the enlightened to ignore the heavy mass of their learning.
To write his History, Gibbon made full use of the seventeenth century scholars, and then of their sources. He judged everything and made further use of it in the full light of Economics and Anthropology and what we might as well call Sociology. He was, to use the terminology of his age, both érudit and philosophe.
We see his achievement most strikingly, I think, in his account of the later fourth and the fifth century. To the Battle of Adrianople he has at least one first rate historian to follow. Then, Ammianus Marcellinus falls silent, and he must instead look for his leading facts in a mass of ecclesiastical notices, and law collections, and coin evidence.
You see how he begins to press his sources for evidence near the beginning of Chapter XXVI. His notes grow longer and more diverse. You find no change of gear, though, in his main narrative. It goes smoothly on through chapter after chapter. It is like watching a motor car reach the end of a paved road and continue across country. You can see the frantic and irregular bouncing of the wheels – but the passengers feel nothing. They are aware that new territory has been entered, but, without paying close attention, can remain unaware of the sudden strain placed on the suspension or on the driver of the vehicle. Gibbon set new standards of historical scholarship, and remains, more than two centuries later, one of the masters of these standards.
His Fairness as an Historian
Even where he can be criticised for letting his prejudices cloud his judgement, Gibbon remains ultimately fair. He dislikes Christianity, and is convinced that it contributed to the decline of the Empire. His fifteenth and sixteenth chapters are one long sneer at the rise and progress of the Christian Faith. These excited a long and bitter controversy. There was talk for a while of a prosecution for blasphemy. But this was only talk. A man of Gibbon’s place in the social order was not to be taken into court like some hack writer with no connections.
Besides, he was careful. He begins Chapter XV thus:
A candid but rational inquiry into the progress and establishment of Christianity may be considered as a very essential part of the history of the Roman empire. While that great body was invaded by open violence, or undermined by slow decay, a pure and humble religion gently insinuated itself into the minds of men, grew up in silence and obscurity, derived new vigour from opposition, and finally erected the triumphant banner of the Cross on the ruins of the Capitol.
A fine and even pious opening – almost worthy of a true believer. He then continues through the next ten or twenty thousand words in a tone of inspired sarcasm. Never once does he let himself fall into open impiety. But what he really thinks comes through like water through a bed of gravel. It is a matter of how he balances his sentences, and of hesitations and implied doubts.
And there are his footnotes. Here is one from Chapter XVI:
Jerome, in his Legend of Paul the Hermit, tells a strange story of a young man, who was chained naked on a bed of flowers, and assaulted by a beautiful and wanton courtesan. He quelled the rising temptation by biting off his tongue.
By the time Gibbon wrote, Christianity had faced down militant Islam, and had torn itself apart more than once, but always recovered. It had quietly withdrawn from its unwise contest with the followers of Copernicus. It had shrugged off the attacks of vulgar blasphemers. It was hardly touched by the witty blasphemy of the philosophes. How to respond, though, to Gibbon? What reply to make to a man closely familiar with every work of ecclesiastical history and every work of polemical theology? How to deal with an instant and irreplaceable classic that bathes the history of the Church in the cold light of ridicule? In the next century, Byron wrote of him as “sapping a solemn creed with solemn sneer.”
And yet, see this, in Chapter XXXIX:
[b]ut the pure and genuine influence of Christianity may be traced in its beneficial, though imperfect, effects on the barbarian proselytes of the North. If the decline of the Roman empire was hastened by the conversion of Constantine, his victorious religion broke the violence of the fall, and mollified the ferocious temper of the conquerors.
Gibbon knows that paganism was a cruel and absurd religion. A man might accept it from civic or ancestral duty. No one but a fool could choose it over Christianity. Julian the Apostate was one of the heroes of the eighteenth century. Gibbon joins in the applause – but always mingles admiration with contempt. See past its fanaticism, and Christianity was manifestly a better religion. It was a religion of equality in salvation, and perhaps in worldly matters. After centuries of despotism checked only by regicide, it gave the Roman Empire the basics of a mixed constitution. And, when the Western Empire began to collapse under the weight of its own corruption, the Church remained, to keep up the best of the old civilisation, and to convert and humanise the barbarians.
I could pass to looking beyond his headline dislike of the Byzantine Greeks to a more subtle understanding of how they survived and what they achieved. But I will not. I have said enough. I will end this review with the hope that someone will read it who has not yet opened Gibbon, and who will now become acquainted with him.
Appendix: Selected Passages from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall
References in square brackets are to volume and page numbers in the Everyman edition.
The obvious definition of a monarchy seems to be that of a state, in which a single person, by whatsoever name he may be distinguished, is entrusted with the execution of the laws, the management of the revenue, and the command of the army. But, unless public liberty is protected by intrepid and vigilant guardians, the authority of so formidable a magistrate will soon degenerate into despotism. The influence of the clergy, in an age of superstition, might be usefully employed to assert the rights of mankind; but so intimate is the connection between the throne and the altar, that the banner of the church has has very seldom been seen on the side of the people. A martial nobility and stubborn commons, possessed of arms, tenacious of property, and collected into constitutional assemblies, form the only balance capable of preserving a free constitution against the enterprises of an aspiring prince. (CHAP III [1,58-9])
Of the various forms of government which have prevailed in the world, an hereditary monarchy seems to present the fairest scope for ridicule. Is it possible to relate, without an indignant smile, that, on the father’s decease, the property of a nation, like that of a drove of oxen, descends to his infant son, as yet unknown to mankind and to himself; and that the bravest warriors and the wisest statesmen, relinquishing their natural right to empire, approach the royal cradle with bended knees and protestations of inviolable fidelity? Satire and declamation may paint these obvious topics in the most dazzling colours, but our more serious thoughts will respect a useful prejudice, that establishes a rule of succession, independent of the passions of mankind; and we shall cheerfully acquiesce in any expedient which deprives the multitude of the dangerous, and indeed the ideal, power of giving themselves a master.
In the cool shade of retirement, we may easily devise imaginary forms of government, in which the sceptre shall be constantly bestowed on the most worthy, by the free and incorrupt suffrage of the whole community. Experience overturns these airy fabrics, and teaches us that, in a large society, the election of a monarch can never devolve to the wisest, or to the numerous, part of the people. The army is the only order of men sufficiently united to concur in the same sentiments, and powerful enough to impose them on the rest of their fellow-citizens: but the temper of soldiers, habituated at once to violence and to slavery, renders them very unfit guardians of a legal, or even a civil, constitution. Justice, humanity, or political wisdom, they are too little acquainted with in themselves, to appreciate them in others. Valour will acquire their esteem, and liberality will purchase their suffrage; but the first of these merits is often lodged in the most savage breasts; the latter can only exert itself at the expense of the public; and both may be turned against the possessor of a throne, by the ambition of a daring rival.
The superior prerogative of birth, when it has obtained the sanction of time and popular opinion, is the plainest and least invidious of all distinctions among mankind. The acknowledged right extinguishes the hopes of faction, and the conscious security disarms the security of the monarch. To the firm establishment of this idea, we owe the peaceful succession, and mild administration, of European monarchies. To the defect of it, we must attribute the frequent civil wars, through which an Asiatic despot is obliged to cut his way to the throne of his fathers. Yet, even in the East, the sphere of contention is usually limited to the princes of the reigning house, and as soon as the more fortunate competitor has removed his brethren, by the sword and the bow-string, he no longer entertains any jealousy of his meaner subjects. But the Roman empire, after the authority of the senate had sunk into contempt, was a vast scene of confusion. The royal, and even noble, families of the provinces, had long since been led in triumph before the car of the haughty republicans. The ancient families of Rome had successively fallen beneath the tyranny of the Caesars; and whilst those princes were shackled by the forms of a commonwealth, and disappointed by the repeated failure of their posterity, it was impossible that any idea of hereditary succession should have taken root in the minds of their subjects. The right to the throne, which none could claim from birth, every one assumed from merit. The daring hopes of ambition were set loose from the salutary restraints of law and prejudice, and the meanest of mankind might, without folly, entertain a hope of being raised by valour and fortune to a rank in the army, in which a single crime would enable him to wrest the sceptre of the world from his feeble and unpopular master. After the murder of Alexander Severus, and the elevation of Maximin, no emperor could think himself safe upon the throne, and every barbarian peasant of the frontier might aspire to that august, but dangerous station. (CHAP VII [1,163-4])
The dislike expressed by Diocletian towards Rome and Roman freedom was not the effect of momentary caprice, but the result of the most artful policy. That crafty prince had framed a new system of Imperial government, which was afterwards completed by the family of Constantine; and as the image of the old constitution was religiously preserved in the senate, he resolved to deprive that old order of its small remains of power and consideration. We may recollect, about eight yuears before the elevation of Diocletian, the transient greatness and the ambitious hopes of the Roman senate. As long as that enthusiasm prevailed, many of the nobles imprudently displayed their zeal in the cause of freedom; and after the successors of Probus had withdrawn their countenance from the republican party, the senators were unable to disguise their impotent resentment. As the sovereign of Italy, Maximian was intrusted with the care of extinguishing this troublesome rather than dangerous spirit, and the task was perfectly suited to his cruel temper. The most illustrious members of the senate, whom Diocletian always affected to esteem, were involved, by his colleague, in the accusation of imaginary plots; and the possession of an elegant villa, or a well-cultivated estate, was interpreted as a convincing evidence of guilt. The camp of the Praetorians, which had so long oppressed, began to protect, the majesty of Rome; and as those haughty troops were conscious of the decline of their power, they were naturally disposed to unite their strength with the authority of the senate. By the prudent measures of Diocletian, the numbers of the Praetorians were insensibly reduced, their privileges abolished, and their place supplied by two faithful legions of Illyricum, who, under the new titles of Jovians and Herculians, were appointed to perform the service of the Imperial guards. But the most fatal though secret wound which the senate received from the hands of Diocletian and Maximian was inflicted by the inevitable operation of their absence. As long as the emperors resided at Rome, that assembly might be oppressed, but it could scarcely be neglected. The successors of Augustus exercised the power of dictating whatever laws their wisdom or caprice might suggest; but those laws were ratified by the sanction of the senate. The model of ancient freedom was preserved by its deliberations and decrees; and wise princes, who respected the prejudices of the Roman people, were in some measure obliged to assume the language and behaviour suitable to the general and first magistrate of the republic. In the armies and in the provinces they displayed the dignity of monarchs; and when they fixed their residence at a distance from the capital, they for ever laid aside the dissimulation which Augustus had recommended to his successors. In the exercise of the legislative as well as the executive power, the sovereign advised with his ministers, instead of consulting the great council of the nation. The name of the senate was mentioned with honour to the last period of the empire; the vanity of its members were still flattered with honorary distinctions; but the assembly which had so long been the source, and so long the instrument of power, was respectfully suffered to sink into oblivion. The senate of Rome, losing all connection with the Imperial court and the actual constitution, was left a venerable but useless monument of antiquity on the Capitoline hill.
When the Roman princes had lost sight of the senate and of their ancient capital, they easily forgot the origin and nature of their legal power. The civil offices of consul, of proconsul, of censor, and of tribune, by the union of which it had been formed, betrayed to the people its republican extraction. Those modest titles were laid aside; and if they still distinguished their high station by the appellation of Emperor, or IMPERATOR, that word was understood in a new and more dignified sense, and no longer denoted the general of the Roman armies, but the sovereign of the Roman world. The name of Emperor, which was at first of a military nature, was associated with another of a more sevile kind. The epiphet of DOMINUS, or Lord, in its primitive signification, was expressive not of the authority of a prince over his subjects, or of a commander over his subjects, but of the despotic power of a master over his domestic slaves. Viewing it in that odious light, it had been rejected with abhorrence by the first Caesars. Their resistance insensibly became more feeble, and the name less odious; till at length the style of our Lord and Emperor was not only bestowed by flattery, but was regularly admitted into the laws and public monuments. Such lofty epiphets were sufficient to elate and satisfy the most excessive vanity; and if the successors of Diocletian still declined the title of King, it seems to have been the effect not so much of their moderation as of their delicacy. Wherever the Latin tongue was in use (and it was the language of government throughout the empire), the Imperial title, as it was peculiar to themselves, conveyed a more respectable idea than the name of king, which they must have shared with an hundred barbarian chieftains; or which, at the best, they could derive only from Romulus, or from Tarquin. But the sentiments of the East were very different from those of the West. From the earliest period of history, the sovereigns of Asia had been celebrated in the Greek language by the title of BASILEUS, or King; and since it was considered as the first distinction among men, it was soon employed by the servile provincials of the East in their humble addresses to the Roman throne. Even the attributes, or at least the titles, of the DIVINITY were usurped by Diocletian and Maximian, who transmitted them to a succession of Christian emperors. Such extravagant compliments, however, soon lose their impiety by losing their meaning; and when the ear is once accustomed to the sound, they are heard with indifference as vague though excessive professions of respect.
From the time of Augustus to that of Diocletian, the Roman princes, conversing in a familiar manner among their fellow-citizens, were saluted only with the same respect that was usually paid to senators and magistrates. Their principal distinction was the Imperial or military robe of purple; whilst the senatorial garment was marked by a broad, and the equestrian by a narrow, band or stripe of the same honourable colour. The pride, or rather the policy, of Diocletian, engaged that artful prince to introduce the stately magnificence of the court of Persia. He ventured to assume the diadem, an ornament detested by the Romans as the odious ensign of royalty, and the use of which had been considered as the most desperate act of the madness of Caligula. It was no more than a broad white fillet set with pearls, which encircled the emperor’s head. The sumptuous robes of Diocletian and his successors were of silk and gold; and it is remarked with indignation that even their shoes were studded with the most precious gems. The access to their sacred person was every day rendered more difficult by the institution of new forms and ceremonies. The avenues of the palace were strictly guarded by the various schools, as they began to be called, of domestic officers. The interior apartments were intrusted to the jealous vigilance of the eunuchs; the increase of whose numbers and influence was the most infallible symptom of the approach of despotism. When a subject was at length admitted to the Imperial presence, he was obliged, whatever might be his rank, to fall prostrate on the ground, and to adore, according to the eastern fashion, the divinity of his lord and master. Diocletian was a man of sense, who in the course of private as well as public life, had formed a just estimate both of himself and of mankind: not is it easy to conceive that in substituting the manners of Persia to those of Rome he was seriously actuated by so mean a principle as that of vanity. He flattered himself that an ostentation of splendour and luxury would subdue the imagination of the multitude; and that the monarch would be less exposed to the rude licence of the people and the soldiers, as his person was secluded from the public view; and that habits of submission would insensibly be productive of sentiments of veneration. Like the modesty affected by Augustus, the state maintained by Diocletian was a theatrical representation; but it must be confessed that, of the two comedies, the former was of a much more liberal and manly character than the latter. It was the aim of the one to disguise, and the object of the latter to display, the unbounded power which the emperors possessed over the Roman world. (CHAP XIII [1,368-73])
The most worthless of mankind are not afraid to condemn in others the same disorders which they allow in themselves; and can readily discover some nice difference of age, character, or station, to justify the partial distinction. (CHAP VI [1,143-4])
LEARNING AND THE ARTS DECADENCE OF
The love of letters, almost inseparable from peace and refinement, was fashionable among the subjects of Hadrian and the Antonines, who were themselves men of learning and curiosity. It was diffused over the whole extent of their empire; the most northern tribes of Britons had acquirwed a taste for rhetoric; Homer as well as Virgil were transcribed and studied on the banks of the Rhine and Danube; and the most liberal rewards sought out the faintest glimmerings of literary merit. The sciences of physic and astronomy were successfully cultivated by the Greeks; the observations of Ptolemy and the writings of Galen are studied by those who have improved their discoveries and corrected their errors; but if we except the inimitable Lucian, this age of indolence passed away without having produced a single writer of original genius, or who excelled in the art of original composition. The authority of Plato and Aristotle, of Zeno and Epicurus, still reigned in the schools; and their systems, transmitted with blind deference from one generation of disciples to another, precluded every generous attempt to exercise the powers, or enlarge the limits, of the human mind. The beauties of the poets and orators, instead of kindling a fire like their own, inspired only cold and servile imitation; or if any ventured to deviate from those models, they deviated at the same time from good sense and propriety. On the revival of letters, the youthful vigour of the imagination, after a long repose, national emulation, a new religion, new languages, and a new world, called forth the genius of Europe. But the provincials of Rome, trained by a uniform artificial foreign education, were engaged in a very unequal competition with those bold ancients, who, by expressing their genuine feelings in their native tongue, had already occupied every place of honour. The name of Poet was almost forgotten; that of Orator was usurped by the sophists. A cloud of critics, of compilers, of commentators, darkened the face of learning, and the decline of genius was soon followed by the corruption of taste. (CHAP II [1,37-8])
…the use of letters is the principal circumstance that distinguishes a civilised people from a herd of savages incapable of knowledge or reflection. (CHAP IX [1,212-3])
The practice of architecture is directed by a few general and even mechanical rules. But sculpture, and, above all, painting, propose to themselves the imitation not only of the forms of nature, but of the characters and passions of the human soul. In those sublime arts the dexterity of the hand is of little avail unless it is animated by fancy and guided by the most correct taste and observation. (CHAP XIII [1,381])
QUOTATIONS AND ALLUSIONS
It is a just though trite observation, that victorious Rome was herself subdued by the arts of Greece. (CHAP II [1,39])
The policy of the emperors and the Senate, so far as it concerned religion, was happily seconded by the reflections of the enlightened, and by the habits of the superstitious, parts of their subjects. The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord. (CHAP II – [1,29])
In the primitive church the influence of truth was very powerfully strengthened by an opinion which, however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity, has not been found agreeable to experience. It was universally believed that the end of the world, and the kingdom of heaven, were at hand. (CHAP XV [1,452])
But how shall we excuse the supine inattention of the Pagan and philosophic world to those evidences which were presented by the hand of Omnipotence, not to their reason, but to their senses? During the age of Christ, of his apostles, and of their first disciples, the doctrine which they preached was confirmed by innumerable prodigies. The lame walked, the blind saw, the sick were healed, the dead were raised, daemons were expelled, and the laws of Nature were frequently suspended for the benefit of the church. But the sages of Greece and Rome turned aside from the awful spectacle, and, pursuing the ordinary occupations of life and study, appeared unconscious of any alterations in the moral or physical government of the world. Under the reign of Tiberius, the whole earth, or at least a celebrated province of the Roman empire, was involved in a preternatural darkness of three hours. Even this miraculous event, which ought to have excited the wonder, the curiosity, and the devotion of mankind, passed without notice in an age of science and history. It happened during the lifetime of Seneca and the elder Pliny, who must have experienced the immediate effects, or received the earliest intelligence, of the prodigy. Each of these philosophers, in a laborious work, has recorded all the great phenomena of nature, earthquakes, meteors, comets and eclipses, which his indefatigable curiosity could could collect. Both the one and the other have omitted to mention the greatest phenomenon to which the mortal eye has been witness since the creation of the globe. A distinct chapter of Pliny is designed for eclipses of an extraordinary nature and unusual duration; but he contents himself with describing the singular defect of light which followed the murder of Caesar, when, during the greatest part of a year, the orb of the sun appeared pale and without splendour. This season of obscurity, which cannot surely be compared with the preternatural darkness of the Passion, had already been celebrated by the poets and historians of that memorable age. (CHAP XV [1,499-500])
…[W]e may remark, that of the first fifteen emperors, Claudius was the only one whose taste in love was entirely correct. (CHAP III footnote [1,76])
A very surprising instance is recorded by the prowess of Proculus. He had taken one hundred Sarmatian virgins. The rest of the story he must relate in his own language: Ex his una nocte decem inivi; omnes tamen, quod in me erat, mulieres intra dies quindecim reddidi [Of these, I laid ten during a single night. To all of them, however, I gave whatever was in me within fifteen days – tr SIG]. (CHAP XII footnote [1,325])
Character Development and Language in Historical Fiction: A Guide for Beginners Richard Blake
How do you develop characters in historical or any other fiction? How do you use language?
My answer to the first of these questions probably says as much about me as about the question. But here it is:
At all times, and in all places, interesting people are motivated by sex and power and money.
This is a partial truth, I agree. Ignore it, though, even in romantic fiction, and you will fail as a writer. The world is stuffed with nice people. The world would collapse without them. But hardly anyone wants to read about them. My advice is to stick to sex and power and money.
No doubt, the immediate objects and the means of pursuing them will depend on local circumstances. The Ancients, for example, saw boys as well as women as legitimate targets of their affections, and power and wealth were often achieved by religious means. This being said, there is no better way of generating five hundred pages of text than to start with the collision of two or more sets of very sharp elbows. A dash of morality comes in handy for the resolution. Readers like to see the very bad end badly and the comparatively good to end well. But it’s the nasty characters who get remembered. Count Fosco is easily the star of The Woman in White. Ayesha dominates She. The lights go out in Paradise Lost whenever Satan is off-stage.
So, if you are about to start a novel – especially a first novel – find yourself a protagonist who isn’t over-scrupulous, and then a villain who glitters with dark allure. Assuming you can turn out grammatical English and construct a plot, you will have trouble gong wrong.
I turn now to language – an associated problem that needs to be solved in all fiction, but that is central to historical fiction. Let me begin by showing how it shouldn’t be done. Take this:
The King rose up upon his couch. “Thou shalt, before this night is out,” he quoth, “mount upon thy trusty charger and bring me the head of the false Bobindrell.”
Whether people may once have spoken like this in England is beside the point. What matters is that it sounds ridiculous now, and it distances a reader from the characters in a novel.
Whether your novel is set in England c1550, or some other time and place, here is how I suggest it should be done:
Still smiling, the King leaned closer. “I want the fucker dead,” he breathed. “I don’t care how you do it. Just make sure none of the blame ever drifts my way.” He took another sip of wine and went back to watching the jugglers.
I’ve taken this from my novel The Devil’s Treasure. I could have quoted from any other competent practitioner – but why not from myself? The rule is that you avoid words and phrases and images that only make sense in our own civilisation. Suppose you are writing a novel set during the time of Queen Elizabeth, you avoid phrases like “He looked up: her words had switched on a light in his mind,” or “the temperature was dropping fast.”
Of course, you also avoid the fake archaism I’ve just parodied. My advice is to make a distinction between dialogue and description. For descriptive passages, you write in fully modern English, avoiding only those words and phrases and images that are unique to the past few hundred years. For dialogue, I suggest a slight tinge of the eighteenth century, which is the earliest age in which the writers speak directly to us – but whose language is also slightly distant.
Try this for a novel set in the European past:
“My Lord Bishop,” I sighed, “you really should consider how much you are pissing off our Imperial Lord and Master.”
Ignore anyone who writes in to say that “pissed off” came into use only after the Second World War. The phrase may shock an etymologist just as much as references to electric light or a thermometer. But it won’t jar with the average reader. And it’s the average reader who pays your bills.
Or suppose you are writing a novel set in the recent past in England – say 1910. I’ve never done this, but I think the same rules apply. Indeed, the formal language of 1910 remains part of our own register. So too most of the vulgar language. Here, the only problem is avoiding both obvious novelty and a stale pastiche of Wells and Galsworthy.
But I turn to my own case. Most of my novels are set in the early Byzantine Empire. Six of these are told in the first person. The guiding assumption here is that the narrator is writing in the educated Greek of the seventh century, with some regard to the conventions of the classical language, and that this has now been translated into modern English. This allows me more freedom than I might have if I were writing novels set during the Napoleonic Wars. Keeping within the rules already given, I can waver between a faintly or very Augustan English, and – depending on the education and intelligence of a speaker – a more or less competent archaism, and the frankly colloquial.
“What female dares invade this place of manly recreation?” Nicetas groaned in a deathly voice. He fell back into his chair and began a choking cough….
“If I were you, My Lord,” came the instant reply, “I’d get off my lazy, fat arse and kiss my son-in-law.”
It’s nearly the same with the other novels that are told in the third person. The only difference is that I am describing rather than expressing the thoughts and impressions of the protagonist. This allows greater freedom – though always within the rules already given.
These are, I agree, radically abbreviated answers to questions that may deserve a book. I have written a book in which I try to discuss them. You can have it for free. However, rather than beg you to download this, or to buy any of my other books, let me give my final advice. This is to go carefully through Patrick O’Brien’s Master and Commander, and through Gore Vidal’s Julian. If you haven’t read these, I can promise you a wonderful read. But don’t read for entertainment only. Pause over them. Mark them with a pencil. Look at how these writers handle the language of characters who lived and died a long time before we were born, and note how they make a convincing job of the effort.