Posted by: ken98 | October 10, 2009

Lies, Plagues, Murders, and the Mafia

Day 29 – Ken here

Meanwhile, back in Chapter 10…


Claudius II (Claudius Gothicus) (268 - 270) a good man, with a predictable fate

Claudius II (Claudius Gothicus) (268 - 270) a good man, with a predictable fate

During a rebellion by Aureolus in Milan, the current emperor Gallienus is killed by his legions (March 20, 268), and asks before he dies that Claudius take over for him.

Thirty Tyrants of the 200’s
Gibbon continues relying upon and relating the contents of one Augustan History book which affects to mimic the Thirty Tyrants of Athens circa 400 BCE. He treats the sub-empires (Gaul-Britain-Spain, and Asia-Egypt-Palmyra) as more usurpers and revolts, rather than legitimate attempts to create order out of chaos (which seems more likely to me).

National Disasters (besides invasion and civil war)
It just gets worse and worse, Gibbon relates 4 examples of the sorry state of the Mediterranean between 250 and 265.

1. The Slaves of Sicily Revolt, Island run by local Mafia

Peristyle (courtyard) of a sumptuous Sicilian villa from about this period

Peristyle (courtyard) of a sumptuous Sicilian villa from about this period

Sicily (a vast un-armed, expanse of corporate farms run on slave labor and owned by distant wealthy Roman slum-farm lords) rebels and is run by “banditti” (Gibbon’s word), or mafia (my word). These “devastations… ruined the agriculture of Sicily; and as the principal estates were the property of the opulent senators of Rome, who, often enclosed within a farm the territory of an old republic, it is not improbable, that this private injury might affect the capital more deeply than all the conquests of the Goths or thePersians.” (DEF x, p.292). Don’t you just love his precise and elegant prose? And he’s probably right.

2. Alexandria, the New York City of the Ancient World, Falls to pieces in Riots

Library of Alexandria, precursor to the Museum, Serapaeum

Library of Alexandria, precursor to the Museum, Serapaeum

Alexandria (the fabulous (in the literal sense of the word) Greek city founded by Alexander the Great 500 years before in the delta of Egypt) was in a perpetual state of riot for 12 years. Rife with factions and block-to-block warfare, it ruined itself and became the Beirut of late Antiquity. A Gibbonian example: The spacious and magnificent district of Bruchion, with its palaces and Musaeum, the residence of the kings and philosophers of Egypt, is described above a century afterwards, as already reduced to its present state of dreary solitude.” (DEF x, p.293). Later, the Serapeum, the Musuem (both inheritors/descendants of the Great Library of Alexandria burnt by Caesar) are burned by one of Claudius’ successors, Aurelian in 271 while putting down the “usurper” Queen of Zenobia and regaining Egypt as a Roman province.

3. Isaurians take out Asia Minor
This whole passage is about Trebellianus, one of the fictitious usurpers in the Augustan History.

4. Plague Reduces the Population by Half
Gibbon briefly describes the one of the famous plagues of Antiquity. In his ongoing fascination with number, which I heartily approve, he estimates from differences in Alexandrian bread-distribution headcount sheets between two dates that the Empire’s population decreased by half in this period of plague (about 15 years). You gotta love a guy who is helpless not to make calculations when the numbers are so easily within reach.

Augustan Histories
We are still deep in Augustan-History land, a land of fable, dastardly neer-do-wells, and desperate do-gooders (besides, as I have already mentioned, being generally an elaborate hoax and a long drawn-out comedy routine). It is unfortunate that Gibbon had to rely upon the Histories so much, significant parts of Chapters 9, 10, 11, and 12 lose their utility due to conclusions/observations based upon distortion and outright fabrication.

Examples abound. It’s all like a bad comedy routine – “No, no really, the Persians are horrid people, and especially that Sapor, he’s bad“. “How bad is he?” “He’s so bad that…” and so it goes on. “…Valerian, sunk under the weight of shame and grief, his skin, stuffed with straw, and formed into the likeness of a human figure, was preserved for ages in the most celebrated temple of Persia” (DEF x, p.286)(Gibbon quoting the Augustan Histories). Remember, the emperor Valerian was tricked into a meeting “mano a mano” with Sapor, arrested, then held captive for the rest of his life. Gibbon accepts the perfidy of Sapor when Sapor lies to Valerian and arrests him during a peace parley, but cannot accept the “mummification” and display of his body. His reasoning for accepting the first (the betrayal) was that it was natural human behavior – “The interview ended as it was natural to expect.” (DEF x, p.283) (perhaps revealing more of Gibbon than of Sapor). His reasoning for rejecting the second was that a royal person would never treat another royal person with such disrespect.

Perhaps it is a sign of the ethno-centricity of both the Romans reading the Augustan Histories (at the end of the 300’s, beginning of the 400’s) and Gibbons 18th century British prejudices about the despotic, degenerate East that make both conclusions so easy.

Tower of Silence - Bombay - No roof, so open to the elements, and not touching the sacred earth

Tower of Silence - Bombay - No roof, so open to the elements, and not touching the sacred earth

Actually, Zoraoasterianism considers fire and earth as pure things that can be defiled by contact with the impure. Dead things (including corpses, hair clippings, nail clippings) are not allowed to touch the earth, but are disposed of in places not touching the ground, and exposed to the elements (and/or animals) (see Towers of Silence). Another name for the Bad God (Ahriman – as opposed to the Good God Ahura Mazda) is the Lie. A Persian noble would probably not indulge in outright obvious falsification. The whole point of the Persian Empire spiritually was to embody the Good God’s Truth on earth. So, in both cases, (the betrayal by Sapor, and the mummification of a dead body) the actions described would have been as abhorrent to Persians as using a church altar as a urinal would be to christians.

Clever lies, but not clever enough, although maybe they got a standing ovation in Late Antiquity – well, they were preserved weren’t they? Makes you wonder what sort of material will still be around about the early part of the 21st century in the 3900’s? Comedy Central re-runs?

Also unfortuately, Gibbon writes 2 moving passages based upon presumably fictitious usurpers (Saturninus (DEF x, p.290), and Trebellianus (DEF x, p.293) see fictional usurpers in Usurpers of Gallienus) which somewhat spoils the effect. He’s a moving writer, and sincerely and genuinely affected by the turmoil of the breakup of the Empire in the 200’s, so it’s actually maddening to see him lied to by historian-entertainers from 1300 years before.

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