Posted by: ken98 | March 17, 2010

Nemesis, Hubris, Incorrect Statues and Lethal Poetry

Day 187 – Ken here (W)(3-17-2010)
(DEF II, v.3, ch.30,31 pp.160-170)(pages read: 1260)

Still not feeling the best (that comment is as constant as the ticking of a clock in this blog, huh?), but glad to see yet another chapter under the belt, AND glad to be getting into the actual fall of the empire. The fall itself seems more accidental than pre-ordained; but I’m still wondering if it’s a fall at all, it looks much more like a metamorphosis – like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly (that’s how Peter Brown (Making of Late Antiquity) saw it, and it makes sense to me). We’ll see…

We finish chapter 30 and begin chapter 31 today. Gibbon ends chapter 30 with a brief tirade on the virtues of Stilicho (who has just been murdered in a political coup by Olympius), contradicting the obsequious histories of the time that nearly universally denigrate the memory of Stilicho. Gibbon ends with a 2 page critique of the Late Roman poet Claudian, a man who wrote in a time when poetry was often lethal.

Chapter 31 begins with a brief review of all the WRONG actions the Western empire is taking (getting rid of pagan barbarian troops, removing capable generals, killing the wives and children of barbarian troops held hostage, etc), in this, its last great crisis before it succumbs to Alaric and eventual barbarian rule (in various forms). Then a short description of Alaric and his movements into Italy, then (inexplicably) a long socio-anthropologic digression (which is actually refreshing) into the society of Rome – from Republic through Empire. This is Gibbon at his most interesting, and unusual – for a historian of the 18th century (and most revealing of his prejudices and political leanings).

The Story
 
The Murdered General Stilicho is Vilified
 
  • All of Stilicho’s family, married into the family of Honorius and Arcadius three times is slaughtered remorselessly (revenge of Olympius)
  • Stilicho – the last hope for Rome is widely described as a public enemy – who kept the East and West separate on purpose (a lie)
  • Stilicho was a secret pagan – an obvious lie as under Stilicho the Sybilline books were burnt, and his wife took the jeweled neckace off the statue of Vesta
  •  

    Lethal Poetry – Claudian and the Conseqences of Writing for Emperors and Generals
     
  • The Moral of the Story: praising princes is not for the weak of heart. Changes in power are generally lethal (during this period of the empire) to the praiser as well as the praised
  • Claudian wrote vociferously for Stilicho
  • On Stilicho’s death, he had to hide and write a letter asking for forgiveness from Olympius
  • Gibbon notes, contrary to what is reported, that Claudian is an Alexandrian, and an Egyptian (not a Spaniard, etc) who raised a Greek, wrote in fluent Latin
  •  

    Alaric Invades a Weakened Italy
     
  • Nemesis, or Invidia – the remorseless punishment of Hubris, the spirit of divine retribution against those who succumb to hubris (Extreme haughtiness or arrogance)
  • Western Rome kills it great general, and all its other capable generals in the treason slaughter after Stilicho’s death
  • Western Rome prohibits its non-Christians (western barbarian allied troops) from serving Rome. These are its best troops
  • Western Rome allows the killing of the barbarian hostages (wives, children) of troops serving Rome, thus driving the remaining barbarians loyal to Rome into Alaric’s hands
  • Western Rome refuses to pay the 4000 pounds of gold the Roman Senate offered Alaric to avoid Italy
  • Alaric decides to just come in and take what he wants – since the West has practically no army left and he has a very sizeable army (Oct-> 408)
  • Alaric uses the excellently maintained Roman highway system to move his armies quickly and easily across Italy
  • He sacks and pillages as he goes, leaving Ravenna (and the emperor, and Olympius) safe behind the marshes and swamps. He camps under the walls of Rome
  • The first time in 619 years a foreign army had camped on fields by Rome’s walls
  •  

    The Genealogy of Senators
     
  • Gibbon begins a long digression on Sociology, he starts with Roman society: the senatorial class
  • Gibbon shows his aristocratic tendencies – he characterizes the “new men” who have gained senatorial status in the last 400 years as “adventurers risint to eminence by their talents or vices
  •  

     

    The Avenging Angel Nemesis, a painting by Alfred Rethel (1837).  Nemesis was a deity that avenged overweening pride and arrogance.  She was very busy in the last decade of the 300's and the first decade of the 400's in the Western Roman Empire

    The Avenging Angel Nemesis, a painting by Alfred Rethel (1837). Nemesis was a deity that avenged overweening pride and arrogance. She was very busy in the last decade of the 300's and the first decade of the 400's in the Western Roman Empire

    Nemesis and Hubris – Hysterical Gyrations of a Dying Empire
     

    Gibbon describes in detail the irrational actions of courtiers and generals during the the last years of the independent Western Roman empire. Although the decline seems inevitable to us now, it probably was not. Both East and West had had periods of turmoil, usurpers, and pirate-generals in charge of various parts of the empire before, some for quite long periods. It did not have to end in total destruction, Rome could have recovered the provinces as she had done before, and folded them back into the empire proper. This time, however, the nobles, the elites in the West were rolling their dice with their last standing armies – something they should have been well aware of – and if they weren’t – automatically qualifies as hubris (excessive arrogance and pride). The result: annihilation of Western Rome.

    Any politician who would consciously bring down the state and destroy a country to prevent an opponent from political success must be characterized as mad. They are willing to cripple and eradicate rather than allow a contrary opinion to prevail. These people are not competitors, they are insane – the equivalent of suicide bombers within the state. Such were the higher authorities under the (probably) handicapped emperor Honorius, who removed essential leadership (killed), taunted a capable, powerful enemy (Alaric and the barbarian troops), and had no plan to deal with the result except total surrender (hide in Ravenna). Perhaps this is the way great empires pass away, sacrificed on the personal altars of self-centered politicians in charge.

    Circe Invidiosa - by John William Waterhouse.  The Romans called the angel Nemesis by the name Invidia - divine Envy.  This painting shows the sorceress Circe as the human representation of Divine Envy.  Nemesis punished the overproud - certainly the post-Stilicho empire appeared to be under the punishment of a god - what more could have gone wrong?

    Circe Invidiosa - by John William Waterhouse. The Romans called the angel Nemesis by the name Invidia - divine Envy. This painting shows the sorceress Circe as the human representation of Divine Envy. Nemesis punished the overproud - certainly the post-Stilicho empire appeared to be under the punishment of a god - what more could have gone wrong?

    This is Gibbon’s take on the madness of the first decade of the new century (400’s) in the West:

    Weakness of the court of Ravenna, A.D. 408, September

    The incapacity of a weak and distracted government may often assume the appearance and produce the effects of a treasonable correspondence with the public enemy. If Alaric himself had been introduced into the council of Ravenna, he would probably have advised the same measures which were actually pursued by the ministers of Honorius.

    The king of the Goths would have conspired, perhaps with some reluctance, to destroy the formidable adversary by whose arms, in Italy as well as in Greece (Stilicho), he had been twice overthrown. Their active and interested hatred laboriously accomplished the disgrace and ruin of the great Stilicho. The valour of Sarus, his fame in arms, and his personal or hereditary influence over the confederate barbarians, could recommend him only to the friends of their country who despised or detested the worthless characters of Turpilio, Varanes, and Vigilantius. By the pressing instances of the new favourites, these generals, unworthy as they had shown themselves of the name of soldiers, were promoted to the command of the cavalry, of the infantry, and of the domestic troops.

    The Gothic prince would have subscribed with pleasure the edict which the fanaticism of Olympius dictated to the simple and devout emperor. Honorius excluded all persons who were adverse to the catholic church from holding any office in the state; obstinately rejected the service of all those who dissented from his religion; and rashly disqualified many of his bravest and most skilful officers who adhered to the Pagan worship or who had imbibed the opinions of Arianism.

    These measures, so advantageous to an enemy, Alaric would have approved, and might perhaps have suggested; but it may seem doubtful whether the barbarian would have promoted his interest at the expense of the inhuman and absurd cruelty which was perpetrated by the direction, or at least with the connivance, of the Imperial ministers. The foreign auxiliaries who had been attached to the person of Stilicho lamented his death; but the desire of revenge was checked by a natural apprehension for the safety of their wives and children, who were detained as hostages in the strong cities of Italy, where they had likewise deposited their most valuable effects. At the same hour, and as if by a common signal, the cities of Italy were polluted by the same horrid scenes of universal massacre and pillage, which involved in promiscuous destruction the families and fortunes of the barbarians. Exasperated by such an injury, which might have awakened the tamest and most servile spirit, they cast a look of indignation and hope towards the camp of Alaric, and unanimously swore to pursue with just and implacable war the perfidious nation that had so basely violated the laws of hospitality.

    By the imprudent conduct of the ministers of Honorius the republic lost the assistance, and deserved the enmity, of thirty thousand of her bravest soldiers; and the weight of that formidable army, which alone might have determined the event of the war, was transferred from the scale of the Romans into that of the Goths.

    (DEF II, v.3, p.165-6)

    Alexander the Great's Sarcophagus (TODAY) - it was originally painted in bright, gaudy colors - something of which Gibbon DID NOT approve

    Alexander the Great's Sarcophagus (TODAY) - it was originally painted in bright, gaudy colors - something of which Gibbon DID NOT approve

     

    Detail of Alexander the Great's Sarcophagus, repainted in colors similar to those originally used when it was first created.  Quite a different experience from the classical purity (Renaissance on) associated with Greek sculpture.  Gibbon certainly would not have approved

    Detail of Alexander the Great's Sarcophagus, (RECONSTRUCTION) repainted in colors similar to those originally used when it was first created. Quite a different experience from the classical purity (Renaissance on) associated with Greek sculpture. Gibbon certainly would not have approved (repainting/reconstruction by Vinzenz Brinkman)

     
     
     

    Last Word…
    Quotable Gibbon and Execrable Taste in Statues (It’s Simply Not Done)
     

    Did you ever wonder why the highly-painted, highly-decorated Greek and Roman statues of the Roman world became the pure-white, pupa-like, marble ghosts we associate with classical statues today? In ancient times, you would carve a statue, then paint it with realistic colors to make it as life-like as possible, then dress it up (especially if it were a cult/god figure) to make it happy and wealthy, and beautiful. Statues were un-moving simulacrums of people, or gods shaped like people, and as such were treated like people with clothes and accessories.

    Gibbon does NOT approve of extraneous ornament in any fashion, and has strong opinions about statues in particular (and strong opinions about the “correctness” of the modern (18th century) view of the purpose and use of statuary). What Gibbon would make of the contents of a Modern Art museum in any major city today boggles the mind.

    However, be that as it may…

    This from Gibbon, in describing how intensely Christian Stilicho and his family actually were – in contrast to the histories composed after his death which conformed to the Olympius/Honorius party line that Stilicho was a closet-pagan (as usual the best bits are in the footnotes):

    The minister, whose fame and fortune depended on the prosperity of the state, was accused of betraying Italy to the barbarians, whom he repeatedly vanquished at Pollentia, at Verona, and before the walls of Florence.

    His pretended design of placing the diadem on the head of his son Eucherius could not have been conducted without preparations or accomplices, and the ambitious father would not surely have left the future emperor, till the twentieth year of his age, in the humble station of tribune of the notaries.

    Even the religion of Stilicho was arraigned by the malice of his rival. The seasonable, and almost miraculous, deliverance was devoutly celebrated by the applause of the clergy, who asserted that the restoration of idols and the persecution of the church would have been the first measure of the reign of Eucherius. The son of Stilicho, however, was educated in the bosom of Christianity, which his father had uniformly professed and zealously supported. Serena had borrowed her magnificent necklace from the statue of Vesta ; (112) and the Pagans execrated the memory of the sacrilegious minister, by whose order the Sibylline books, the oracles of Rome had been committed to the flames.

    The pride and power of Stilicho constituted his real guilt. An honourable reluctance to shed the blood of his countrymen appears to have contributed to the success of his unworthy rival; and it is the last humiliation of the character of Honorius, that posterity has not condescended to reproach him with his base ingratitude to the guardian of his youth and the support of his empire.

    and in the footnote:

    Note 112
    Zosimus, 1. v. [c. 38] p. 351 . We may observe the bad taste of the age, in dressing their statues with such awkward finery.

    (DEF II, v.3, p.161, fn. 112)

    An interesting blog entry on painted greek statuary here (100swallows.wordpress.com)
     
    The original Smithsonian Online Article from July 2008 is here with more interesting photos.
     

    More repainted Greek statuary - quite a contrast with lily white marble

    More repainted Greek statuary - quite a contrast with lily white marble (repainting/reconstruction by Vinzenz Brinkman)

     

    And more repainted Greek statues - an archer from the acropolis - much more realistic - but a little hard to get used to - I guess Gibbon has a point

    And more repainted Greek statues - an archer from the acropolis - much more realistic - but a little hard to get used to - I guess Gibbon has a point (repainting/reconstruction by Vinzenz Brinkman)

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