Day 726 – Ken here (F)(9-9-2011)
(DEF II, v.4, Ch.46, pp.890-900)(pages read: 1950)
I really am having more and more difficulty making it through Gibbon – I sometimes suspect, although I am almost certain it is not true that Gibbon is starting his second childhood right in front of our eyes here in the last chapters of Volume 4.
I know it’s all a problem of sources – we are leaning on weak links/supports indeed – Theophylact repeats the most outrageous calumny about Maurice’s reign with a straight face – the most obvious Kindergarten-level, deep political analyses – well, I’m getting purple in the face and frothing at the mouth at the moment (not a pretty sight I can tell you).
I’ve been wondering why I was getting less and less and less, well, involved and excited about reading my 10 pages of Gibbonian wit on the Later Roman Empire – and it just struck me today I now know the reason why. Theophylact (our principal source for the emperor Maurice) is just BAD. Boringly, un-creatively, mind-numbingly-you-can-see-the-punchline-coming-a-mile-away BAD in a particularly infantile way. And Gibbon is just EATING THIS STUFF UP.
It just makes you wonder about the rest of the history Gibbon is writing.
Well, at least me.
And it’s hard, because I like Gibbon, in a kind of always-watching-my-back-for-the-Gibbonian-knife kind of way. I like him, and I don’t like watching him make a fool of himself.
I’ve ranted and raved enough in the introduction. I’ll just say a few words about the lowly work of a historian of Late Antiquity, and about the work of puzzling out the late 500’s and 600’s in particular.
Problems of Secondary Sources
First of all, your primary sources are everyone else’s secondary or tertiary sources – i.e. we almost never get evidence for a thing (except through archaeology, coins, seals, architecture, etc etc or some kind of virtuoso reverse-engineering of societal statistics out of Saint’s Lives or some other equally difficult feat) – i.e. we don’t have a Constitution, but we have copies of copies of copies of pieces of compilations of laws. Think about it for a second. There is absolutely no DIRECT EVIDENCE Alexander the Great ever lived. We have lots of secondary evidence – people who wrote about Alexander – and we do have the remains of cities way out in Central Asia that look like something a Greek would build – but mostly, we know about Alexander because people talked about him later. And that’s it. If they repeat lies, or if they repeat what they WANT posterity to think, or if they repeat what they themselves sincerely think (but have opinions that are garbage) then we, as historians are up a creek. Without a paddle.
And when the sources dry up and we end up with 2 or even 1 source for extended periods of time (so we can’t even cross-check the sources against each other and see what’s what – kind of like using both your eyes to triangulate on a single object and get it in focus) – when we can’t even do that – life becomes very difficult.
(Note – his=either his or hers in all of the following)
What you always have to do with secondary evidence is 1) look for the prejudices/perspectives of the historian/writer – his culture, his religion, his reason for writing the history, his nationality, his worldview, his understanding of what a history is,, etc and 2) sense what the story is he’s trying to tell – and here is where we are so helpless it almost makes you want to shout and spit and throw your fists up at the sky – no history is possible without some kind of “story” being told – and when the story is obvious, most of the important facts (well, important to US in the 21st cent) get hidden, obscured, deleted, or what’s worse transmogrified into something else.
We’ve already been through this before – during the Crisis of the Third Century (the 200’s) we LITERALLY HAVE NO HISTORY. A great deal of what we know, after the Severans and before Diocletian comes from a Roman comic book we now call the Augustan Histories. One way to tell how honest a Late Antique historian is – to himself, and to the people around him – is to CHECK ON HIS OPINION OF THE AUGUSTAN HISTORIES – a weak or less-than-honest historian will defend them (or the person could be from the 1950’s or before, at a time when the Augustan Histories weren’t generally considered SATIRICAL). Why? because their mentors in their graduate programs or grandfathers or who knows who believed in the Augustan Histories and all their ridiculousness and they cannot admit to having egg on their faces now. And there’s the problem that without them, we know next to nothing about the period – so we’re left HAVING TO USE SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE SKITS to reconstruct the breakdown of the Soviet Empire in the late 1980’s. Not a fun, nor easy thing/historical task to do. It’s much easier just to think the skits are history and take them at face value. Much easier. But dishonest. And incorrect.
Theophylact and Gibbon
Theophylact (our main source for Maurice) is obviously a Maurice-hater. All Maurice’s generals are fools. Maurice is a fool. It’s possible all this is true – it’s just that the empire was a very complex machine, politically and administratively, and the Roman Empire NEVER suffered fools gladly. I find it difficult to believe that so many stupid people were at the helm – and that so many people acted like they had the mental dexterity of First Graders. Its also hard to believe that Baian – King of the Avars – manages to run an empire much larger than Rome’s and yet acts like a spoiled 2 year old most of the time. Theophylact obviously had some axes to grind in his histories – I’m just shocked Gibbon doesn’t catch him out, with blade to the whetting stone so to speak.
But, enough of this – on to the rest of Chapter 46 in the coming week – it’s got to bet better, it’s just go to…