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Gibbon and Christianity

March 13, 2011

Pages read: 657
Pages left to read: 2,648

Although I have been severely neglecting this blog (nearly 6 months since my last post!), I have not ceased my (slow) progress through the book.  It is now time to do a little catching up.

I have just finished the first of Gibbon’s six volumes.  This volume, published in 1776, takes us up to the accession of Constantine as emperor in the early 4th century.  It would be another five years until the next two were published.  Gibbon has been my frequent (not constant, I admit) companion for these last 8 months or so, and a pleasant one at that.  Never stuffy or pretentious, always clear and often eloquent, his writing absolutely stands the test of time.  I strongly encourage anyone remotely interested in either ancient history or 18th-century thinking to pick up a copy!

Volume one ends with two chapters (15 and 16) which focused specifically on the early history of Christianity and its relationship to Roman civilization, including the spread of Christianity and its persecution throughout the empire prior to Constantine’s conversion.  These chapters aroused heated controversy because of a perception of anti-Christian bias on Gibbon’s part.  Numerous tracts were published condemning and seeking to refute these two chapters, and Gibbon (who, according to Womersley’s introduction, did not at all expect the furious backlash), eventually felt compelled to publish a “Vindication” to answer his detractors.

Being aware of this, I was expecting to find in these chapters a ruthless evisceration of Christianity and its institutions.  However, they were surprisingly mild.  Gibbon says very little that would, by modern standards, be characterized as strongly anti-Christian.  In fact, chapters 15 and 16 are replete with statements that unequivocally-even ostentatiously-accept the premise of the absolute truth of Christian beliefs.  He does show a willingness to acknowledge some of the less admirable aspects of church history that resulted from the inevitable  collision of human ambitions, passions, and weaknesses with the ideals of this new religion.  As Gibbon himself put it:

“The theologian may indulge the pleasing task of describing Religion as she descended from Heaven, arrayed in her native purity.  A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian.  He must discover the inveitable mixture of error and corruption, which she contracted in a long residence upon earth, among a weak and degenerate race of beings.”

In Chapter 16, Gibbon also describes a careful analysis of primary sources with regard to the scope of the last large-scale anti-Christian persecution (under Diocletian) and estimates that over ten years, the number of Christians killed was “somewhat less than two thousand persons”, and that the number killed in prior persecutions was substantially less.  This constrasts with the current popular notion that huge numbers of Christians were slaughtered over broad swaths of time in the early centuries A.D. (most of them, in the popular imagination, as lion chow in the ampitheaters).  Evidently it also contrasted with popular notions, particularly amongst English clergy, or perhaps what ruffled feathers was the approach of going straight to primary sources to address these questions rather than relying on medieval church historians’ versions-An approach that is de rigeur for modern historians, but of which Gibbon was perhaps a pioneer.

One passage in chapter 15 bears quotation here.  It is interposed amidst a disquisition of the moral attitudes of early Christians, and consists of a single paragraph with the heading “Principles of Human Nature” (Gibbon could never have been accused of diffidence!):

“There are two very natural propensities which we may distinguish in the most virtuous and liberal dispositions, the love of pleasure and the love of action. If the former is refined by art and learning, improved by the charms of social intercourse, and corrected by a just regard to economy, to health, and to reputation, it is productive of the greatest part of the happiness of private life. The love of action is a principle of a much stronger and more doubtful nature. It often leads to anger, to ambition, and to revenge; but when it is guided by the sense of propriety and benevolence, it becomes the parent of every virtue, and, if those virtues are accompanied with equal abilities, a family, a state, or an empire may be indebted for their safety and prosperity to the undaunted courage of a single man. To the love of pleasure we may therefore ascribe most of the agreeable, to the love of action we may attribute most of the useful and respectable, qualifications. The character in which both the one and the other should be united and harmonised would seem to constitute the most perfect idea of human nature.  The insensible and inactive disposition, which should be supposed alike destitute of both, would be rejected, by the common consent of manking, as udterly incapable of procuring any happiness to the individual, or any public benefit to the world.”

There is one aspect of Chapters 15-16 that, sadly, is as remarkable for the lack of controversy it elicited as it is in its own right: virulent anti-semitism.  In describing the emergence of Christianity from the Jewish communities and traditions, Gibbon’s penned so many poisonous passages that I eventually stopped underlining them, but here’s a sample:

[In describing Jews’ appearance in Western society in the late centuries B.C.]: “The sullen obstinancy with which they maintained their peculiar rites and unsocial manners, seemed to mark them out a distinct species of men, who boldly professed, or who faintly disguised, their implacable hatred to the rest of human-kind.”

[Citing Jacques Basnage, the 17th-century cleric, as a source, with no hint of doubt or question]: “The wise, the humane Maimonides openly teaches, that if an idolater fall into the water, a Jew ought not to save him from instant death.”

Chapter 16, which deals with the persecution of Christians under the Roman Empire, opens with a discussion of the relations between the Empire and the Jews, from which community, of course, the Christians sprang.  In a footnote to a section titled “Rebellious spirit of the Jews,” Gibbon informs us that:

“From the reign of Nero to that of Antoninus Pius…humanity is shocked at the recital of the horrid cruelties which they committed in the cities of Egypt, of Cyprus, and Cyrene, where they dwelt in treacherous friendship with the unsuspecting natives; and we are tempted to applaud the severe retaliation which was exercised by the arms of the legions against a race of fanatics, whose dire and credulous superstition seemed to render them the implacable enemies not only of the Roman government, but of humankind.”

In a footnote, Gibbon notes that

“In Cyrene they massacred 220,000 Greeks; in Cyprus, 240,000; in Egypt, a very great multitude…The victorious Jews devoured the flesh, licked up the blood, and twisted the entrails like a girdle round their bodies.”

Gibbon’s stated source for the horrific accusations?  The history of Cassius Dio, a Roman statesman and historian of the early 2nd century A.D., writing of events in the reign of Trajan, a century earlier.  I’d say he was displaying a little credulousness of his own.


Eleanor Iselin Ain’t Got Nothin’ on These Political Moms

September 20, 2010

Pages read: 267
Pages left to read: 3,038

But moooooooom, I don't wanna be emperor!

Emperor Caracalla was a rather unpleasant fellow, and a worse administrator.  So, few mourned when, in 217 A.D., an assassin hired by his right-hand man Opilius Macrinus stabbed Caracalla to death while the emperor was answering a call of nature by the side of the road.  Macrinus was declared emperor by the army but was not destined to wear the purple for long. 

Macrinus made the mistake of trying to reform the army’s payment system, which was bankrupting the empire.  The army, by this time, was pretty much the sole determinant of who was declared emperor and how long he might reign, and their allegiance required ever-more-generous pay and special bonuses (“donatives”) on any and every conceivable occasion-A practice embraced by Caracalla who, for all his tyrannical tendencies, knew on which side his bread was buttered!  Under Macrinus’ reign, the army found itself pining for the generosity of Caracalla, and things were ripe for another contender to seize the imperial throne. 

That contender came from a trio of mothers connected to the old Caracalla imperial household: Julia Maesa, a native of Asia Minor (where the imperial household was located for much of Caracalla’s reign) who was the sister-in-law of the assassinated Caracalla, and her daughters Soaemias and Mamea.  Soaemias had a son, Bassianus, who was a high priest of a local (non-Roman) pagan sun-worshipping religion, and who, by all accounts, wanted nothing more out of life than to wear his priestly robes and make sacrifices to El-Gabal, his sun god.  But the moms in his family had other plans, aided by a fortunate (or unfortunate, depending on your perspective) physical resemblance between Bassianus and Caracalla.  No matter that Bassianus was not a blood relation of Caracalla…Julia Maesa and her daughters took care of that small problem by spreading the rumor that he was in fact the unacknowledged out-of-wedlock son of the late emperor and Soaemias, i.e. that Caracalla had fathered a child with his own niece.  The army, their affections lubricated by promises of huge “donatives” should Bassianus acceded as emperor, embraced the sun-worshipping priest and gave Rome its first Middle Eastern-born emperor.  After a brief military confrontation with a few loyal holdouts to Macrinus, the Senate in Rome made it official and “Elagabalus”, as Bassianus came to be known (after El-Gabal), spent the rest of his life trying (unsuccessfully) to get the entire Roman world to embrace his sun-religion.  The poor guy probably would have rather stayed in his temple.

Gibbon Hoodwinked?

September 12, 2010

Ossian-Title Page, 1765

In Chapter VI, Gibbon’s narrative continues with the careers of Septimius Severus’ sons Caracalla and Geta, whose bitter rivalry was the bane of their fathers’ reign as emperor.  His efforts at evenhandedness towards them only extended the rift among them and their respective adherents until all of Rome’s power elite was aligned with one and inimical to the other.

Amidst this gloomy situation, in 208 A.D. came an invasion of the Roman-controlled Britain by Caledonians from the North (present-day Scotland).  Severus, along with his two sons, departed for the island province to crush the rebellion.  The rebels hung back until the Romans were well into their territory, hassled the Romans with guerilla-type attacks, and let a particularly harsh winter do the rest.  By Spring the Romans had lost more than 50,000 men, though they did ultimately force the Caledonians into a peace agreement (which the Caledonians ignored as soon as the Roman armies withdrew from the borderlands).

In any case, what’s interesting about Gibbon’s account of the war is his discussion of the poems of Ossian and how they constitute a dim reflection, in ancient Celtic legend, of the actual historical event.

“Ossian” was the (purported) author of a set of poems (purportedly) passed down through folklore that were (allegedly) discovered by Scotsman James Macpherson and published in 1765 to great acclaim and attention.  Macpherson’s “translations” of these poems, featuring the heroic feats of a hero named Fingal, were wildly successful and were translated into many languages.  They were also fake.  It is possible that Macpherson used some authentic sources e.g. Gaelic manuscripts and oral tradition of songs and stories, but most of the poetry, characters, and stories of “Ossian” were of his own composing.  Some of this controversy occurred during Mapherson’s lifetime, much of the challenge coming from Samuel Johnson, the famous English author and lexicographer, but at the time of the writing of volume one of the Decline and Fall, the work was still largely accepted as authentic.

Gibbon writes:

It is supposed, not without a considerable degree of probability, that [the war] is connected with the most shining period of British history or fable.  Fingal, whose fame…has been revived in our language by a recent publication, is said to have commanded the Caledonians in that memorable juncture, to have eluded the power of Severus, and to have obtained a signal victory…in which the son of the King of the World, Caracul, fled from his arms among the fields of his pride.

He does point out in a footnote, of the supposition that Ossian’s poems reflects a true ancient Caledonian account of the war with the Romans…

…yet the opinion is not without difficulty.  In the Caledonian war, the son of Severus was known only by the appellation of Antoninus; and it may seem strange, that the Highland bard should describe him by a nick-name, invented four years afterwards, scarcely used by the Romans till after the death of that emeror, and seldom employed by the most ancient historians.

Either Gibbon came extremely close to the realization that the whole Ossian thing was a complete fraud but just barely missed it, or it was obvious to him and his footnote is just his extremely subtle (and rather cheeky, given the disingenuous tone) way of saying so.  We’ll probably never know, but given the tone of the first quote, I think that Macpherson had Gibbon fooled along with most of the rest of the English-speaking world at the time.

Through Chapter 5

September 6, 2010

Pages read: 247
Pages left to read: 3,058

I have been remiss both in blogging and reading, the former more so than the latter.  148 pages into Gibbon’s writing, I am enjoying it immensely.  Gibbon’s style is eloquent without being fussy.  Despite his awe-inspiring scholarship, his writing is immensely readable and he is a wonderful storyteller.  I am sure that he has filled in some of the gaps in details with subjective speculation (or worse, romanticization of the “golden age” of the empire in the early 2nd century A.D.), and he definitely assigns to most of the characters in his history the role of hero or villain.  He also has a strong tendency to generalize (unflatteringly) the characters of entire swaths of humanity, as when he states, of Pannonia (a Roman province encompassing primarily parts of modern-day Hungary and Austria) “the climate [is] adapted…to the production of great bodies and slow minds” or refers (repeatedly) to the “effeminacy” of the nations of the modern-day Middle East and the “savagely independent…barbarians” of Bosnia.  But he certainly makes the history he relates coherent and riveting.  Last but not least, his language is plain-He makes little enough use of obscure words that it was not until page 68 that I had to make use of a dictionary (but there are a few Scrabble words in this blog posting; see below).

The topic of Gibbon’s sources is rather interesting.  In his preface he states “I have carefully examined all the original materials that could illustrate the subject which I had undertaken to treat”-A testament not only to his scholarly diligence but also to the lamentable paucity of primary sources in Roman history.  For most of the first five chapters (the last of which I have just finished) his footnotes refer to a handful of sources, such as the Historia Augusta or the history of Cassius Dion.  One cannot help but wonder whether the virtue of Pertinax or the degeneracy of Commodus, as they appear in Gibbon, are true to life, or the invention of a chronicler working a century later based on hearsay and legend.  Gibbon does on occasion show some of the instinct of a modern historian in interpreting the ancient chroniclers through the overall context of their work and that of their contemporaries, as where he points out, with regard to one of the ministers of the Emperor Commodus: “Dion gives a much less odious character of Perennis, than the other historians.  His moderation is almost a pledge of his veracity.”

It’s a bit hard to know what else to say about the 148 pages I’ve read so far and the 100-odd years of Roman history it covers.  For the latter, it is a pageant of savagery punctuated with brief moments of  nobility, too sweeping to say anything coherent about here.  I will try to make more frequent-and shorter-blog posts that focus in on individual events or personages as they come up in future reading.  It does, however, seem worth setting down a few memorable quotations that are very revealing of Gibbon’s overall attitude towards history and humanity:

As long as mankind shall continue to bestow more liberal applause on their destroyers than on their benefactors, the thirst of military glory will ever be the vice of the most exalted characters.

Caesar had provoked his fate, as much by the ostentation of his power, as by his power itself…Augustus was sensible that mankind is governed by names; nor was he deceived in his expectation, that the senate and people would submit to slavery, provided they were respectfully assured, that they still enjoyed their ancient freedom.

History…is, indeed, little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.

It is the part of a wise man, to forget the inevitable calamities of human life in the enjoyment of the fleeting hour.

The power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy, except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous.

One last thought.  I was struck by this passage (emphases are mine):

The wide extent of territory, which is included between the Inn, the Danube, and the Save; Austria Styria, Carinthia, Carniola, the Lower Hungary and Sclavonia, was known to the ancients under the names of Noricum and Pannonia.

Most of the “modern” place names cited by Gibbon are now obsolete.  How long will today’s national identities and boundaries remain, and what will replace them?

And now for this posting’s allotment of Scrabble words!

manumission: Formal release from slavery or servitude

celerity: Swiftness, speed; usually applied to the actions of humans rather than objects

tutelar: Synonym of “tutelary”, i.e. having the position of supernatural protector or guardian

lucubration: Literally, the act of working by artificial light; in common usage, the act of nocturnal study

More Scrabble words!

July 8, 2010

Pages read: 99
Pages left to read: 3,206

I have completed Womersley’s introduction to the Decline and Fall.  The introduction provides some insights into Gibbon’s approach to thinking and writing about history in the context of the various intellectual currents of his day.  One point he makes repeatedly is that Gibbon did not slavishly follow any of the fashionable philosophies that subjugated facts to preconceived notions of how history occurs.  Rather, he followed facts and reason wherever they led.  For example, he emphatically rejected the idea of the “noble savage”, unflinchingly relating the cruelty of the tribal societies of Europe that helped break down the Western Roman Empire, and yet also points out cases where the “barbarian” leaders improved the state of affairs in parts of the Empire they wrested away from the Romans.  By the same token, despite his very harsh criticism of the Catholic church; yet, he describes the papacy of Pope Gregory I with great admiration.  As Womersley puts it:

There could be no better illustration of the extent by which Gibbon’s thought exceeded, in intellectual honesty and historical precision, that of the freethinkers and atheists in whose company, in his own time and in ours, he has been indiscriminately placed.

It also, as mentioned in the previous post, uses a lot of big words, or words that aren’t so much big as not heard in everyday conversation by those who don’t spend their lives with their nose in a book.  So here is another installment of great Scrabble words!

emplotment: The assembly  of a series of historical events into a narrative  with a plot (this one isn’t even in the OED; definition courtesy of

apothegm: A terse, pointed saying, embodying an important truth in few words.

stadial: Pertaining to or expressed in terms of a series of successive stages into which a culture or period can be divided

trope: A figure of speech which consists in the use of a word or phrase in a sense other than that which is proper to it; also, in casual use, a figure of speech

coping-stone: One of the stones forming the uppermost course of masonry or brickwork in a wall

metonymy: The substitution for a word or phrase denoting an object, action, institution, etc., a word or phrase denoting a property or something associated with it

homoousian: Of the same essence or substance; co-essential, consubstantial

immiseration: The act of making or becoming progressively more miserable; pauperization, impoverishment

proleptic: Predictive, prognostic

velleity: The fact or quality of merely willing, wishing, or desiring, without any effort or advance towards action or realization.

filiation: The fact of being descended or derived, or of originating from; descent, transmission from

caducity: Tendency to fall; quality of being perishable or fleeting; transitoriness, frailty

lenify: To relax, make soft or supple (some part of the body); to render (cider) mellow. Also, to mitigate (a physical condition)

Back to school!

June 30, 2010

 Well I’m about 1/3 of the way through David Womersley’s introduction to the Decline and Fall.  The bulk of the introduction is devoted to a very broad overview of the work with commentary on Gibbon’s main influences and evolution of his style and substance during the many years it took him to write his work.  The book was published in 6 volumes, in three installments over twelve years (1776, 1781, and 1778).  The first installment made quite a splash, mostly because of some rather strong criticism of the early Christian church, which engendered a large number of critical publications primarily by members of the English clergy.  Gibbon actually published a “vindication” in reply to his critics in 1779 addressing some of this criticism.  Womersley puts the whole affair in context by pointing out the anti-clerical tendencies in among European intellectuals around that time, the most prominent of whom was Voltaire.

 One thing I’ve found reading the introduction is that I have needed to pull out my dictionary for the first time in a long time!  Here are a few of the words that I had to look up, not knowing what they meant (definitions courtesy of the OED:

sedulous: Diligent, constant in application to the matter at hand

pyrrhonist: A follower or adherent of Pyrrho of Elis; an advocate of Pyrrhonism; a sceptic

risible: Capable of provoking laughter; laughable, ludicrous, comical

persiflage: Light raillery or mockery; bantering talk; a frivolous or mildly contemptuous manner of treating any subject

captious: Apt to catch at faults or take exception to actions; disposed to find fault, cavil, or raise objections; fault-finding, cavilling, carping

stochastic: Randomly determined; that follows some random probability distribution or pattern, so that its behaviour may be analysed statistically but not predicted precisely

So if I get nothing else out of reading this book, I will hopefully end up with a few good Scrabble words!

Last note for today…Womersley’s highly readable introduction is for the most part fairly matter-of-fact in tone but there are moments where some classic dry British wit pokes through, like this comment on Gibbon’s financial situation around the time of the publication of the first volume:

Because of an amiable tendency to regard luxuries as necessity, [Gibbon’s] expenditure comfortably exceeded his income.

Yanks don’t write like that, least not anymore…

Cleared for Takeoff!

June 26, 2010

Last night I finished Michael Grant’s “History of Rome”.  I highly recommend it if you are looking for a short (350pp.) overview of Roman history.  It has less detail than Boatwright et al. (see below), but it is written with more of the opinionated, subjective tone that is so helpful to a neophyte in wrapping one’s mind around the enormous scope of the topic.  Also, it goes a bit further-to the fall of the Western Empire in 476 A.D., while Boatwright stops with Constantine in the 4th century.

Fun fact: Did you know that the Roman Empire survived until 1453?  The Eastern Roman Empire, that is.  As early as 285 (with Diocletian), Roman emperors had appointed co-emperors for the Eastern part of the empire, recognizing that the empire was too large and complex for one man to command.  While the Western Roman Empire (whose capital was moved to Milan and then to Ravenna) fell to ruin at the hands of foreign invaders in the 5th Century, the Eastern Roman Empire persisted, based in Constantinople, expanding and contracting over time but mainly occupying what is now Turkey, Israel/Palestine, and Greece, and better known these days as…the Byzantine Empire.  Only in 1453, when Constantinople finally fell to the Ottomans, did the Roman Empire truly come to an end.

One other random observation: One of the most interesting chapters (to me) in Grant’s book is that on the spread of early Christianity, particularly the career of St. Paul.  He makes the point that the spread of Christianity from Palestine, north to Asia Minor then beyond to Greece, North Africa, and Italy itself, was greatly facilitated by the Roman system of roads, which had been developed to facilitate movement of Roman troops around the empire to maintain the status quo.  In fact, without Roman roads to make long-distance travel vastly more feasible, Christianity might never have become a world religion, withering and dying out as an obscure sect in the impoverished backwater of Palestine.   How ironic!  A technology, developed initially for military purposes, was exploited to facilitate communication and coordination of a new, subversive ideology, by a community deeply committed to it, to the detriment of the power structure from which the technology originated.  The parallels with our own time are striking.


So, nothing now stands between me and Gibbon’s masterwork (except David Womersley’s 110-page introduction, though I guess I would consider that part of the book itself).  I look upon this as a double adventure: A trip not only through the ancient and medieval world, but also through the mindset of 18th-century Europe, from which the book itself sprang.  This was the age of Voltaire and Rousseau, of Burke and Paine, of Handel and Rameau, of Fielding and Sterne.  An age with a thousand faults (like all of them!) but with so much to admire, above all the astounding intellectual achievements that breathed new life into Western civilization.

I expect the journey to last 2-3 years or so, and I plan not to rush.  There is so much I, and those around me, do in a hurry-out of necessity for the most part, but it gets to be a habit.  Like everyone else, in most things I don’t have the luxury of a measured pace, savoring each nuance of an experience.  But in reading this book I will take my time, reading each footnote, re-reading passages that on the first pass fail to yield the full blossom of their meaning, cross-referencing, making notes…and blogging.  Onward!

It has arrived!

May 21, 2010




I’m about 50 pages into Grant (see below) and couldn’t wait so I went ahead and ordered a used copy of Womersley’s edition of Gibbon, published in the U.K. by Allen Lane in 1994.  This week it arrived and a snapshot is above.  I feel like the moron who takes the bet that he can finish the 96-ounce steak…

I opened to a random page in volume 2 and read the following:

The Franks of Austrasia soon yielded to the persuasive eloquence of their king.  “Follow me,” said Theodoric, “into Auvergne: I will lead you into a province, where you may acquire gold, silver, slaves, cattle, and precious apparel, to the full extent of your wishes.”  By the execution of this promise, Theodoric justly forfeited the allegiance of a people, whom he devoted to destruction.

Wow-High drama in the low middle ages!  This should be fun…

Ambition and Selfishness at Actium

May 13, 2010

First, a quick status report.  I’ve finished Boatworthy et al., and I’m on to the second and final general history of Rome that I’ll be reading before taking on Gibbon: Michael Grant’s “History of Rome”.  Final verdict on Boatworthy?  It was a very good overview, solid, and apparently objective.  I think it serves as a decent reference but by the same token, I won’t be recalling quotations from it in twenty years’ time.  Grant’s work certainly has a more engaging writing style and a bit of subjective spark and wonder to it, though it appears to be based on less thorough cross-referencing of all available sources.  Today I finally ordered my copy of Gibbon, Womersley’s edition in 3 volumes published by Lane.  So hopefully within the next month or so I’ll be reading (and blogging on) Gibbon himself!

Now for the thought of the day (or the month, the way my blogging has been going-hope to remedy that soon).


Watch out for these two


One of the things that I love about ancient history is the opportunity to gain insights into different mindsets, worldviews, attitudes, etc.-To see the differences (and commonalities) in how the ancients thought about life, themselves, each other, and the world.  Sometimes these mindsets, triangulated with what can be understood about the different circumstances of the time, are fairly understandable.  Sometimes they are downright baffling-and scary.

The Battle of Actium took place in 31 B.C.  It was the denoument of the conflict between Mark Antony and Octavian (aka Augustus) in the civil war that followed Julius Caesar’s assassination in 44 B.C.  It marked the essential end of that civil war, and the start of Octavian’s reign as the first Roman emperor (though he never called himself by that title)-And the end of the 7-century-old Roman Republic.  How’s that for momentous?  Antony had combined forces with Cleopatra and their forces were concentrated at Actium, on the West coast of Greece.  Antony had actually been married to Octavian’s sister and jilted her for Cleopatra, big soap opera, lots of political intrigue, blah blah blah.  Look it up on Wikipedia if you want to know the details.  Basically these guys’ lives were all intimately intertwined and they were playing an enormously high-stakes game for control of the huge Roman Empire, acted out through ever-shifting alliances among the Senate and other power structures in Rome, and with massive military forces.

So here’s what happened.  Antony and Cleopatra, with their fleet and army, were holed up at Actium, being gradually, in skirmishes over a period of months, hemmed in more and more by Octavian.  Ultimately they decided to take their fleet back to Egypt to regroup and presumably re-engage with Octavian at a later date.  Octavian learned of this and moved his fleet in place to surround that of Antony and Cleopatra, which had to pass through narrow straits from the Gulf of Actium to reach the open sea.  Hundreds of ships on either side faced each other in two parallel arcs, and a raging battle ensued.  Although I’m oversimplifying somewhat, and not all accounts of the battle agree, it seems that Antony and Cleopatra, seeing themselves surrounded and with no hope of victory, had their ships on either side execute feinting maneuvers to draw Octavian’s fleet in two opposite directions, leaving a small gap in the center through which he and Cleopatra, on different ships, escaped, sailing onward to Egypt and leaving behind their fleet and army to utter devastation by Octavian.

What kind of person do you have to be to set yourself up as a would-be ruler of a vast empire,  assemble thousands of people around you, ready to die for your cause, and then desert them in a moment of danger?  What I can’t wrap my mind around is the contrast between the connectedness of this pair of undoubtedly charismatic, strong, public figures to the ones they led, and the personal, private selfishness of their escape.  The willingness to use an entire fleet of ships, with thousands of sailors upon it, as a decoy to effect their own escape, to be sacrificed for their personal benefit, is breathtaking.  I do not think I have ever heard of a more colossal act of personal selfishness.

What happened next is not susprising.  Antony’s remaining army largely fell apart due to widespread desertion.  Antony and Cleopatra’s own relationship  dissolved amid each one’s (unsuccessful) machinations to re-insert themselves into Octavian’s good graces and secure their individual safety.  Defeated by setback after setback, they each committed suicide, within two weeks of each other, less than a year after the fateful battle of Actium.


March 21, 2010

I am about 200 pages into Boatwright et al. I’ve read about the village of Rome, the draining of the Forum valley, the relations with the Etruscans, Campanians, the other Latins, the development of institutions of government and questors, praetors, tribunes, consuls, and senators, and wars, wars, wars, wars, wars.

And none of it really makes any sense. I don’t feel like I can yet get my arms around the whole scope of the thing.  How did a little village turn into a huge, complex society?  The facts are each individually comprehensible, but they slip, like grains of sand, through the fingers of my mind. Is this what it’s like to study history?