Gibbon’s unique combination of elegant style and jaundiced insight

Here are two brief passages from Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that I recently sent to a correspondent as examples of a type of writing I thought he would like. The first is the opening of Chapter 4. Gibbon is talking about Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic philosopher/emperor, the last of the four “good emperors” of the second century A.D., before things started to fall apart with the accession of his son Commodus:

The mildness of Marcus, which the rigid discipline of the Stoics was unable to eradicate, formed, at the same time, the most amiable and the only defective part of his character. His excellent understanding was often deceived by the unsuspecting goodness of his heart. Artful men, who study the passions of princes, and conceal their own, approached his person in the disguise of philosophic sanctity, and acquired riches and honors by affecting to despise them.

And this from a much earlier event, the response of the Senate to Augustus’ speech around 27 B.C. when he took absolute power under the genial disguise of preserving the (by then destroyed) Republic:

It would require the pen of Tacitus (if Tacitus had assisted at this assembly) to describe the various emotions of the senate; those that were suppressed, and those that were affected. It was dangerous to trust the sincerity of Augustus; to seem to distrust it was still more dangerous.

- end of initial entry -

James R. writes:

You wrote:

“the last of the four “good emperors” of the second century A.D.”

Traditionally the count is five, though (Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius).

Of course, there were actually more “good” emperors than that (allowing for the fact that none of them were saints, but neither were these five), but not in an extended stretch that followed a theoretically wise method of succession (adoption of a worthy successor rather than simple blood inheritance. But, by that, Marcus Aurelius, far from being the wisest and best, is the worst of these).

Nerva’s reign was brief, so perhaps you didn’t/don’t count him among the five.

LA replies:

The idea of four good emperors comes from the opening paragraph of Decline and Fall.

Correction: I have misread it or misremembered it for years, which I just realized after pasting in the below text and reading it again. Gibbon refers to five emperors:

In the second century of the Christian era, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valor. The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury. The image of a free constitution was preserved with decent reverence: the Roman senate appeared to possess the sovereign authority and devolved on the emperors all the executive powers of government. During a happy period of more than fourscore years, the public administration was conducted by the virtue and abilities of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the two Antonines. It is the design of this and of the two succeeding chapters to describe the prosperous condition of the empire, and afterwards, from the death of Marcus Antoninus, to deduce the most important circumstances of its decline and fall, a revolution which will ever be remembered and is still felt by the nations of the earth.

Ben W. writes:

The complete set of Gibbon’s “History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” can be freely downloaded here (volumes 1 to 6) in a variety of eBook formats.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at September 16, 2010 03:10 PM | Send

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