Posted by: ken98 | October 8, 2009

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Day 27 – Ken here

Unfortunately, I think I’m coming down with something – at least it just got a lot harder to think – but then it’s past midnight too…

We continue in Chapter 10. Gibbon’s plan is to take the long series of disasters and approach them in a kind of ethnic order – chaos by race:

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

1. The Franks (or Free-men, in other words the (distant) ancestors of the modern French),
2. The Alemanni (a confederation of Germans from Lower Germany – All-Men),
3. The Goths, and
4. the Persians.


The Franks, or Free-men, were a confederacy something like the loosely-bound Swiss cantons. The same, but different as Gibbon explains: “An inconstant spirit, the thirst of rapine, and a disregard to the most solemn treaties, disgraced the character of the Franks.” (DEF x, p.270).

During Gallienus reign alone (253-268) during 12 years the Franks crossed the Rhine, devastated Gaul, crossed the Pyrenees, and plundered Spain (a country untouched by war for 300 years or more) (actually, for most of the empire, the last 300 years had been pretty peaceful, except for civil wars). Tarragona the capital was sacked and destroyed, and the province thoroughly plundered to the point that Orosius (writing in the late 300’s, early 400’s – that is 150 years later) found only “wretched cottages, scattered amidst the ruins of magnificent cities” (DEF x p.271).

My question – where was Gallienus during these 12 years of war?



The Alemanni, an agglomeration of tribes from Upper Germany, headed by the Suevi (an extremely fierce tribe of Germans) soon after the disastrous battle of Decius in 251, crossed the Alps and entered Lombardy as far as Ravenna. Valerian was in the East (in Persia), Gallienus on the Rhine, so the city of Rome itself sent out an army which caused a retreat (without battle) by the Alemanni back across the Rhine.

The Alemanni crossed again later, but were stopped (supposedly) (we are still relatively source-less during these troubled times) by the marriage of Gallienus with the daughter of a Suebian king of the Marcomanni – Pipa (a marriage apparently not recognized by Rome itself as she was referred to as his concubine).

Again, is this all Gallienus could do?

Again, we hit the Goths, and this time they mean business. The amazingly, move out of southern Sweden, down the Dneiper, take the Crimea and the Kingdom of the Bosporus for themselves (this was the limit of Roman influence into Russia, the Bosporus had been a province briefly, then a client kingdom for the last 250 years or so). In a way, this (with Dacia) were the 1st Roman pieces of territory to be irrevocably lost.

In quick succession, in the last part of Gallienus reign (262-267) the Goths launched 3 naval expeditions out of the Crimea. In an amazing turn of event, they systematically looted 1st the east coast of the Euxine Sea (Black Sea) down to Trebizond, the next year the west coast down to the Propontis, the next year (with 15,000 men) they ravaged all Greece, and threatened Rome itself (were they to come up through Illyria. Gallienus stopped them by recognizing Naulobatus, chief of the Herule as a consul – the majority of the horde fought its way overland back to the Black Sea, a small number took their boats back up.

Things were falling apart for Gallienus.

And the worst is yet to come.



So what is there to learn from all of this?

Global Warming
The world was a different place in the 260’s than it was just a hundred years earlier. Actually a case could be made that the unusual calm in the world of barbarians from say 100 BCE through the 160’s CE was extraordinary. It was like an inter-glacial period between 2 Ice Ages – a period when growth could occur unmolested, but unfortunately, not a “normal” state of affairs between the fluid North and the settled South.

At some point, like that point when an inter-glacial starts to shut down and the ice-caps begin to grow again, the North began to move, and enormous waves of people were thrown into motion. It had to happen at some point. So perhaps, it wasn’t the Romans fault at all.

How could this have happened? Gibbon makes the (predictable) complaint that it was degeneracy and laziness and lack of civic spirit which killed the pagan empire in the 200’s. Well, all well and good, but how would the modern citizens of St Louis deal with an assault by a hundred thousand armed and violent eskimos (not that eskimos would do that sort of thing)?

The basic engine that drives a society has to change between the frontier and the “inner” empire, between times when a society is young and expanding, and times when it is mature and stable. What works in an entreprenuerial start-up wreaks havoc in a well-established, large company. Small entities are about risk-taking and quick changes, large entities are about coordination and protection of resources/assets.

Perhaps (and this is personally what I think happened), Augustus’ decision to limit the extent of the empire and stop the growth, began (unwittingly) to change the very economic/social engines of the empire into a very different kind of engine. A kind of engine the world hadn’t seen before – a stable, western empire. The Romans were in the process of developing institutions to truly become a Roman “nation”, just when the barbarian invasions brought everything to a screaming halt.

The response was the military empire and evenutally the Dominate. Which, under Diocletian (285-305), became essentially a Stalinist state which assumed total control over its citizens and resources, and designed a rigid class structure created solely to combat the barbarians and ensure the survival of the state. It worked. Diocletian was right. But perhaps, if the Migration Period of the Northern people’s hadn’t begun quite so soon, the empire would’ve assumed a very different form and possibly have survived.

Gibbon had his own views of why Rome fell, and his were just as ethno-centric as mine. Both of us are talking about Rome, but thinking of Great Britain or the United States.

more tomorrow…

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