Posted by: ken98 | November 5, 2009

Chinese Roman Legions and Headless Men with mouths in their stomachs

Day 55 – Ken here
(DEF v.1, ch.13, pp.370-380)

I’m back to writing late, late at night – not a good sign, as blogging after midnight tends to result in more length than content, but I’ll plunge right in.

The title? I know, I know. I just can’t help it – the text is there, Gibbon uses it. What am I supposed to do?

The Story

  • Maximian puts down revolts in Africa (including the Blemmyes) (296)
  • Diocletian takes rebelling Alexandria, levels cities of Coptos and Busuris, cements alliance with Nubians to guard Upper Egpyt (296->)
  • Brief digression into Alchemy, Gibbons is against it, reports Diocletian was too
  • Persian wars start, Diocletian sends Galerius to reprimand and conquer Narses (Persian king) (297)
  • Background of Persian wars (5 pages)
  • Tiridates the Armenian (educated from infancy in Rome, in exile from Armenia) granted the kingdom of Armenia by Diocletian (286)
  • Armenian rebels against Persians and join Tiridates (the Persians had thrown down the native gods of Armenia in favor of the one god AhuraMazda of the Perisans)
  • Strange tangent: story of Mamgo – an exiled Han Chinese Emperor (?) with his troops deserts to Tiridates from the Persians on a point of honor – Tiridates loses anyway
  • Persians under Narses support rival claimant to throne (Hormuz, brother of Tiridates), and easily retake Armenia as a satrapy for Persia
  • Diocletian sends Galerius to Persia (while D. waits in Antioch), Galerius soundly defeated at Carrhae (296)
  • Scolded by Diocletian, Galerius is sent out again next year, wins during a night attack on the Persians, sends Narses flying, leaving his wives and children behind (297)
  • Narses sues for peace through his ambassador Apharban(297)
  • Tiridates restored a second time

  • Famous Gibbon Quotes from these pages

    Blemmyes 12th-century Maastricht, with no head but a face in the chest instead

    Blemmyes 12th-century Maastricht, with no head but a face in the chest instead

    On the Blemmyes
    As any reader of medieval history would know (or someone who has read Umberto Eco’s Baudolino, the blemmyes are “Men said to have no head, their eyes and mouth being placed in the breast” per Brewer’s Dictionary. Gibbon comments on them and the myth of their absolute depravity and their rebellion against Diocletian/Maximian in Africa: “those barbarians, whom antiquity, shocked with the deformity of their figure, had almost excluded from the human species, presumed to rank themselves among the enemies of Rome” (DEF ch.13, p.371).

    Modern scholarship is much less sensational: this from Wiki: “The Blemmyes occupied a considerable region in current day Sudan. There were some important cities like Faras, Kalabsha, Balana and Aniba, and they were all fortified with walls and towers of a mixture of Egyptian, Helenic, Roman and Nubic elements.
    Their culture had also the influence of the Meroitic culture, and so, Blemmyes religion was centered in the temples of Kalabsha and Philae. The former being a huge masterpiece of Nubian architecture, where a solar lion like divinity named Mandulis was worshiped. Philae was a place of mass pilgrimage with temples for Isis, Mandulis and Anhur, and where the Roman Emperors Augustus and Trajan made many contributions with new temples, plazas and monumental works.”


    On Mamgo and the Chinese Legions of Rome
    Googling Mamgo, after reading the confusing story in Gibbon, just makes me more confused. I’m sure there’s a lot more to be uncovered, if I only had the time. It sounds like the last emperor of a Chinese dynasty escaped to the end of the world (the Persian empire). The new, winning dynasty asked the Persians through diplomatic channels to hand over the offending emperor with his troops, the Persians answered saying they would send him off the furthest reaches of furthest Persia to die there. They sent him to Armenia to help the Satrap (one of the furthest satrapies north and west for Persia, but of course, one of the furthest eastern/northern lands for europeans). Mamgo served the Persians until he deserted to Tiridates and the Romans in the first unsuccessful attempt to gain and hold on to Armenia as a Roman client state again. So, an exiled Chinese emperor with some of his troops ended up being enrolled in the legions of Rome under Diocletian. Strange, strange, strange.

    More Blemmyes - fourth from the left (with more creatures from Eco's Baudolino)

    More Blemmyes - fourth from the left (with more creatures from Eco's Baudolino)

    On the Zealotry of the Persians
    Gibbon foreshadows the great 15th chapter of this volume (which got him into so much trouble with christian hierarchies when he published it) with a brief description of the inability of Persian monotheism to allow dissenting religion: “The statues of the deified kings of Armenia, and the sacred images of the sun and moon were broke in pieces by the zeal of the conqueror, and the perpetual fire of Ormuzd was kindled and preserved upon an altar erected on the summit of mount Bagavan. It was natural that a people exasperated by so many injuries should arm with zeal in the case of their independence, their religion, and their hereditary sovereign.” (DEF, ch 13, p. 374). Gibbon was a child of the Enlightenment, and so regarded excess, unreasonable enthusiasm for anything as suspect in and of itself, but he absolutely despised intolerance based upon religion.

    Persians don’t fight at night
    Gibbon on Galerius successful 2nd campaign against the Persians: “A surprise, especially in the night-time, was especially fatal for a Persian army.” (DEF, ch.13, p.378). Who knew?

    Musings on the Appearance of Empire versus How an Empire actually Operates

    Diocletian divided the empire into halves, then into fourths during the first 10 years of his reign, all in the name of efficiency and rationality.  It functioned flawlessly during the 20 years he was in charge.

    I can remember the first time I read about dividing up the empire when I was in sixth grade and was shocked and dismayed. What were they thinking? Didn’t they see this was the beginning of the end? But I think it was something much more simple and much more complex than that.

    I think the popular image we have of the Roman Empire: universal laws, roads, cities, aqueducts, neatly delineated provinces, barbarians at the frontiers begin pushed back, peace, commerce, etc, did not exist at the times we think they should have existed.

    We think of the empire at its height (ex. early 100’s) as having these qualities, but actually the healthy empire was a very messy place, administratively, militarily, culturally, and economically. The law, as it applied to the empire really did not begin to be codified until the middle of the years of Crisis of the 3rd century (early-mid 200’s), taxes and citizenship were more traditional than rational, civil administration were partly in the hands of cities, partly in the Roman Senate, partly in the emperors hands. Stable bureaucracy and imperial administration were to be formalized a century or more later.

    The forms of the empire were standardized long after the vigor of the early empire had dissipated entirely.

    The orderly empire we think of when we think of the Roman empire was Diocletian’s empire – the Stalinist state that he erected to make sure the empire functioned and was protected. And it worked, its just that by regularizing and rationalizing the system of government and military, the beating heart of the empire (arts, commerce, culture) evaporated in the harsher rule of the “iron” emperors. I think, by growing into what they thought they should be, they lost what was meaningful and worthwhile in the first place.

    But maybe that’s the natural tendency of large masses of people – to tend towards more organization and more safety, and less individual freedom and less heterogeneity.

    Maximian - a coin  - notice the emperors wear a diadem now (sign of kingship) rather than a helmet or a wreath of leaves

    Maximian - a coin - notice the emperors wear a diadem now (sign of kingship) rather than a helmet or a wreath of leaves

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