27th April 1737. Death of Empire.
Today in 1737 (in Old Style Dating), Edward Gibbon was born, later noted for his monumental history The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, inspired by his visiting Rome when he was 27.
It was while standing in the ruined Forum and seeing in his imagination the ghosts of Scipio, Caesar and Pompey and other heroes of the Republic, that later in a melancholy mood he wondered how the great empire had been reduced to rubble and phantasms, and decided to dedicate his life to what became his great masterpiece.(1)
For two centuries of Empire from Augustus to Marcus Aurelius was the principle civilizing force when its invincible legions united the Mediterranean in Pax Romana defending its frontiers, whilst a wise and moderate government established laws, protected commerce and encouraged the arts.
Gibbons was to argue that the collapse was attributable to the corrosive effect of Christianity on the institutions and character of Rome, with the Christian ethic aimed at the well-being of the individual not the community, discouraging obligatory military service through its pacifism, the family by preaching virginity, industry by preaching poverty, kindness by fanaticism, reason by faith.
Monasteries for many became the refuge from life developing an asceticism for a later glory, ‘based on a ridiculous fairy-tale, whilst all the time tribes beyond the Rhine grew larger, stronger and more ferocious, temples were shut and schools of philosophy were closed; the light of reason to be vanquished for a 1000 years’.
The Empire rested on the Roman character of the agrarian life, venerating the old gods, respecting law not man and when the state called they answered under a ruthless and farseeing aristocracy.
‘However the public virtues were gradually lost, the people fell into debt as grain of empire flooded into Italy causing a move to the city with its bread and circuses, and the once proud citizens of the Republic became the proles of Empire’.
Military service now voluntary saw the Empire increasingly relying on the mercenaries of the conquered barbarians, the aristocracy once swept away by the autocracy of the Caesars and the Praetorian Guard, the final bulwark, was destroyed itself by ecstatic mystic cults, above all by Christianity.
The dam broke in 406 CE when barbarian tribes stormed across the Danube. In the west, the hollowed-out, little more than name empire, fell in 476.
In the east the feeble Byzantine Empire awaited destruction at the hands of Islam. The Dark Ages awaited, the Glory Departed, in Britain as elsewhere.
(1) New Style Dating 6th May 1737. Gibbon (1737-1794).
partiallyexaminedlife.com.philosophy of history.edward gibbon.
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