Category Archives: Notes on History

Greater than the Emperor

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In 390, the year after the first of the Theodosian Decrees was issued, he ran afoul of the church he was trying to make use of, and Ambrose excommunicated him—the first time that a monarch was ever punished by the Christian church for a political action.

The action was a fairly straightforward, if cruel, act of retaliation. Over in Pannonia, a Roman governor had run into troubles at a tavern; drinking late one night, he had “shamefully exposed” himself, and a charioteer sitting next to him at the bar had “attempted an outrage.”The routine drunken pass turned into an incident when the governor, embarrassed, arrested the charioteer and threw him in jail. Unfortunately, he was one of the most popular contestants in a chariot race to be run the next day, and when the governor refused to release him in time for him to compete, his fans rioted, stormed the governor’s headquarters, and murdered him.

Theodosius cracked down immediately and put to death everyone who had a hand in the riot—a purge that swept up a number of people who had simply been standing around watching. Ambrose was appalled by this injustice. When Theodosius next arrived in Milan to check on the affairs in the western part of his domain, Ambrose refused to allow him to enter the church either for prayer or for the celebration of the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, the rite that separated believers from unbelievers.

SThe Christian historians who record this merely say that Theodosius then confessed his sin, did penance, and was restored. But what passes almost as a footnote is the fact that it took Theodosius eight months to do so. Standing on the steps and looking at Ambrose’s unyielding face, Theodosius must have realized that his decrees were having an unintended consequence. The single, catholic church held his empire together because it was greater than the state, greater than any national loyalty, greater than any single man.

It was greater than the emperor.

Theodosius’s eight months of reflection were eight months in which, in all likelihood, the future of Christianity hung in the balance. Had Theodosius been able to think of any better strategy, he could simply have refused Ambrose’s demands. But in doing so he would have had either to turn his back on the Eucharist—which would have condemned his soul—or to deny Ambrose’s authority—which would have revealed that the Christian church was, in fact, not bigger than the emperor. “Educated as he had been in the sacred oracles,” concludes the Christian historian Theodoret, “Theodosius knew clearly what belonged to priests and what to emperors.”

References:

  1. Bauer, Susan Wise. The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010. Print. 69-70.
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One law for itself

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While Russian suspicions of the West are often unfounded as well as cynically manipulated by the government, they are not without foundation. Back in 1992, President George H. W. Bush declared in his State of the Union address that “by the grace of God America won the Cold War.” But Jack Matlock, the American ambassador during the breakup of the Soviet Union, argues that the end of the Cold War was no victory;  it was a delicately negotiated agreement that was supposed to benefit all sides and guarantee future cooperations. According to Matlock, the United States has all too often treated the new Russia as a loser, fomenting feelings of humiliation and revenge. Though no Putin apologist, he dares to argue that a lock of understanding of Russia and Russians could necessarily lead to a frigid cold war and a redemption of a nuclear arms race.

There was never any concrete promise that the West would not expand NATO, but there was a pledge not to take advantage of Russia’s weakness. Since then, Russians believe the United States, in particular, has done just that. The litany of Russian concerns include NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe when there was not longer a Cold War. Then there was NATO’s bombing of Serbia, a fellow Slav and Orthodox country, without UN Security Council approval; the approval of Kosovo’s independence from Serbia despite U.S. support for maintaining territorial sovereignty in other instances; and the U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and threats to station missile defenses in former Warsaw Pact countries. Russians also cite the invasion of Iraq without UN security Council approval; America’s participation in what they see as spurious democratic revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan; and talk of expanding NATO to Georgia and Ukraine, both of which border Russia.

Plenty of people in the West, and some in Russia dispute all of this and say the real problem is that Moscow is becoming increasingly totalitarian and returning to its former dreams of empire. Given Russia’s economic challenges and failure to modernize, they argue, Putin is seeking out enemies abroad to cover up problems at home.

In 2014, Putin found the enemies he was looking for. After the U.S. – backed Ukrainian opposition overthrew the country’s pro-Russian president, tensions rose. The Ukrainian parliament passed a law that would rescind the Russian language’s official status, and while the act was vetoed, Putin was already geared up to destabilize the new government.

First, he annexed the Crimea, a historically Russian peninsula jutting out into the Black Sea that had been transferred to Ukraine in 1954. When Russia and Ukraine were part of one country, that move was largely symbolic, but once they parted ways, the status of Crimea rankled. The strategically critical Crimea has an overwhelming Russian population. Moscow was forced to rent facilities for its Black Sea Fleet, with the constant threat the lease would be revoked. This became a simmering flash point, and when Russia perceived that Kiev had become less sympathetic to it interests, with U.S. support, it acted quickly. After taking Crimea, Putin began sending weapons and troops to support Russian speakers in Ukraine’s industrial east who were looking for greater autonomy or secession…

…Those who came to Putin’s support, especially on the takeover of Crimea, composed a surprising range of people, including some who once called themselves “the opposition.” A member of the local elite I’ll call V is much more pragmatic than ferocious Russian nationalists like Irina Korsunova. He says yes to Crimea. Though he deems Putin’s interference in eastern Ukraine a disaster, he blames both Putin and President Obama  for setting the fire. In his view, the United States acted stupidly when it interfered in Ukraine without a nuanced approach and without any attention to how loaded the situation was. As he sees it, the United States supported a coup against an elected president. The president in question might have been corrupt and despicable, but such an action only strengthens the perception that the United States applies one law to itself and another to everyone else…Like the majority of Russians, he argues that impasse came about at least in part because the United States has perpetuated a security system in Europe that is based on the long-ago outcome of World War II, unnecessarily isolates Russia, and no longer fits today’s world. Well versed in current events in the United States, where his children study, he is still struck by American ignorance and arrogance, bristling at Washington’s readiness to condemn Russia for the same sins he believes America is known to commit.

References:

  1. Garrels, Anne. Putin Country: A Journey into the Real Russia. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016. Print. 34-36.

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No escape from the Roman Empire

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The empire of the Romans filled the world, and, when that empire fell into the hands of a single person, the world became a safe and dreary prison for his enemies. The slave of Imperial despotism, whether he was condemned to drag his gilded chain in Rome and the senate, or to wear out a life of exile on the barren rock of Seriphus, or the frozen banks of the Danube, expected his fate in silent despair. To resist was fatal, and it was impossible to fly. On every side he was encompassed with a vast extent of sea and land, which he could never hope to traverse without being discovered, seized, and restored to his irritated master. Beyond the frontiers, his anxious view could discover nothing, except the ocean, inhospitable deserts, hostile tribes of barbarians, of fierce manners and unknown language, or dependent kings, who would gladly purchase the emperor’s protection by the sacrifice of an obnoxious fugitive. “Wherever you are,” said Cicero to the exiled Marcellus, “remember that you are equally within the power of the conqueror.”

References:

  1. Gibbon, Edward, and Hugh Trevor-Roper. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993. Print. 94-95.

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Edward Gibbon on the failings of Imperial Rome

 

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The labours of these monarchs were over-paid by the immense reward that inseparably waited on their success; by the honest pride of virtue, and by the exquisite delight of beholding the general happiness of which they were the authors. A just but melancholy reflection embittered, however, the noblest of human enjoyments. They must often have recollected the instability of a happiness which depended on the character of a single man. The fatal moment was perhaps approaching, when some licentious youth, or some jealous tyrant, would abuse, to the destruction, that absolute power which they had exerted for the benefit of their people. The ideal restraints of the senate and the laws might serve to display the virtues, but could never correct the vices, of the emperor. The military force was a blind and irresistible instrument of oppression; and the corruption of Roman manners would always supply flatterers eager to applaud, and ministers prepared to serve, the fear or the avarice, the lust or the cruelty, of their masters.

These gloomy apprehensions had been already justified by the experience of the Romans. The annals of the emperors exhibit a strong and various picture of human nature, which we should vainly seek among the mixed and doubtful characters of modern history. In the conduct of those monarchs we may trace the utmost lines of vice and virtue; the most exalted perfection and the meanest degeneracy of our own species. The golden age of Trajan and the Antonines had been preceded by an age of iron. It is almost superfluous to enumerate the unworthy successors of Augustus. Their unparalleled vices, and the splendid theatre on which they were acted, have saved them from oblivion. The dark unrelenting Tiberius, the furious Caligula, the stupid Claudius, the profligate and cruel Nero, the beastly Vitellius, and the timid inhuman Domitian are condemned to everlasting infamy. During fourscore years (excepting only the short and doubtful respite of Vespasian’s reign), Rome groaned beneath an unremitting tyranny, which exterminated the ancient families of the republic, and was fatal to almost every virtue and every talent that arose in that unhappy period.

References:

  1. Gibbon, Edward, and Hugh Trevor-Roper. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993. Print. 90-91.

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Edward Gibbon on Marcus Aurelius

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The virtue of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus was of a severer and more laborious kind. It was the well-earned harvest of many a learned conference, of many a patient lecture, and many a midnight lucubration. At the age of twelve years he embraced the rigid system of the Stoics, which taught him to submit his body to his mind, his passions to his reason; to consider virtue as the only good, vice as the only evil, all things external as things indifferent. His Meditations, composed in the tumult of a camp, are still extant; and he even condescended to give lessons on philosophy, in a more public manner than was perhaps consistent with the modesty of a sage or the dignity of an emperor. But his life was the noblest commentary on the precepts of Zeno. He was severe to himself, indulgent to the imperfection of others, just and beneficent to all mankind. He regretted that Avidius Cassius, who excited a rebellion in Syria, had disappointed him, by a voluntary death, of the pleasure of converting an enemy into a friend; and he justified the sincerity of that sentiment, by moderating the zeal of the senate against the adherents of the traitor. War he detested, as the disgrace and calamity of human nature; but when the necessity of a just defence called upon him to take up arms, he readily exposed his person to eight winter campaigns on the frozen banks of the Danube, the severity of which was at last fatal to the weakness of his constitution. His memory was revered by a grateful posterity, and above a century after his death many persons preserved the image of Marcus Antoninus among those of their household gods.

References:

  1. Gibbon, Edward, and Hugh Trevor-Roper. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993. Print. 89-90.

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Edward Gibbon on Antoninus Pius

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Titus Antoninus Pius had been justly denominated a second Numa. The same love of religion, justice, and peace was the distinguishing characteristic of both princes. But the situation of the latter opened a much larger field for the exercise of those virtues. Numa could only prevent a few neighbouring villages from plundering each other’s harvests. Antoninus diffused order and tranquillity over the greatest part of the earth. His reign is marked by the rare advantage of furnishing very few materials for history; which is, indeed, little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind. In private life he was an amiable as well as a good man. The native simplicity of his virtue was a stranger to vanity or affectation. He enjoyed with moderation the conveniences of his fortune, and the innocent pleasures of society; and the benevolence of his soul displayed itself in a cheerful serenity of temper.

References:

  1. Gibbon, Edward, and Hugh Trevor-Roper. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993. Print. 88-89.

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Edward Gibbon on the consent of the soldiers

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The insolence of the armies inspired Augustus with fears of a still more alarming nature. The despair of the citizens could only attempt what the power of the soldiers was, at any time, able to execute. How precarious was his own authority over men whom he had taught to violate every social duty! He had heard their seditious clamours; he dreaded their calmer moments of reflection. One revolution had been purchased by immense rewards; but a second revolution might double those rewards. The troops professed the fondest attachment to the house of Cæsar; but the attachments of the multitude are capricious and inconstant. Augustus summoned to his aid whatever remained in those fierce minds of Roman prejudices; enforced the rigour of discipline by the sanction of law; and, interposing the majesty of the senate between the emperor and the army, boldly claimed their allegiance as the first magistrate of the republic.

During a long period of two hundred and twenty years, from the establishment of this artful system to the death of Commodus, the dangers inherent to a military government were, in a great measure, suspended. The soldiers were seldom roused to that fatal sense of their own strength, and of the weakness of the civil authority, which was, before and afterwards, productive of such dreadful calamities. Caligula and Domitian were assassinated in their palace by their own domestics: the convulsions which agitated Rome on the death of the former were confined to the walls of the city. But Nero involved the whole empire in his ruin. In the space of eighteen months four princes perished by the sword; and the Roman world was shaken by the fury of the contending armies. Excepting only this short, though violent, eruption of military licence, the two centuries from Augustus to Commodus passed away, unstained with civil blood, and undisturbed by revolutions. The emperor was elected by the authority of the senate and the consent of the soldiers. The legions respected their oath of fidelity; and it requires a minute inspection of the Roman annals to discover three inconsiderable rebellions, which were all suppressed in a few months, and without even the hazard of a battle…

…The good sense of Vespasian engaged him indeed to embrace every measure that might confirm his recent and precarious elevation. The military oath, and the fidelity of the troops, had been consecrated, by the habits of an hundred years, to the name and family of the Cæsars; and, although that family had been continued only by the fictitious rite of adoption, the Romans still revered, in the person of Nero, the grandson of Germanicus, and the lineal successor of Augustus. It was not without reluctance and remorse that the prætorian guards had been persuaded to abandon the cause of the tyrant. The rapid downfall of Galba, Otho, and Vitellius taught the armies to consider the emperors as the creatures of their will, and the instruments of their licence.

References:

  1. Gibbon, Edward, and Hugh Trevor-Roper. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993. Print. 83-86.

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