January 20, 2013

Linquo (I quit)

The victory over the senate was easy and inglorious. Every eye and every passion were directed to the supreme magistrate, who possessed the arms and treasure of the state; whilst the senate, neither elected by the people, nor guarded by military force, nor animated by public spirit, rested its declining authority on the frail and crumbling basis of ancient opinion. The fine theory of a republic insensibly vanished, and made way for the more natural and substantial feelings of monarchy.
It's easy to draw parallels between the United States and the Roman Empire. Easier still to be concerned with that which brought down the last great world hegemon. Without discounting them entirely, I fear they are overblown. But I am getting ahead of the review corner.

I finished Volume I of Edward Gibbon's (2011-10-14). History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, It is very interesting, but I think I will find my inner Tyler Cowan and move on to some other material before tackling Vol. II.

I was concerned that it would be too dry. You know those 18th Century guys can go on sometimes. Rather, any difficulty is that he is too conversational and assumes too much background knowledge of the reader. Gibbon's 18th Century readers knew the emperors and key historical events. This allowed the author to comment and draw broad themes. Imagine somebody in 2325 figuring out the Clinton Impeachment from Hitchens's "No One Left to Lie To;" one could...

I enjoy old history books for the meta layer of how people at the time of authorship viewed the events. Carl Swisher's 1935 biography of Chief Justice Taney is pretty short of opprobrium for the Dred Scott v. Sandford decision. To read a contemporary of the Founders exegete on millennia old events is a great mental exercise. Kind of like playing video games at a Rave on Ecstasy.

The takeaway after one-sixth, however, is the Hobbesian cheapness of life. Tens of thousands are slain in battles. The whole Senate is poisoned (or was that a dream I had?). The Imperial purple is pretty much a death sentence. I wonder if a lot of the didn't go to battle for personal safety. There is the occasional 40 years of relative peace and safety if the dice come up two benevolent and sturdy monarchs in a row. But these patches seem awfully rare -- and include absolute slavery, a pervasive but not absolute caste system, foreign adventurism. Most every history book elicits an "I'm glad I didn't live then" out of me. But Ancient Rome: especially no thanks.

I chose to infer parallels between the Roman Empire and the USA more as universal truths than comparison of democracies. The franchise was so limited and temporal that I find it difficult to assess Rome as self-rule. Capricious monarchies controlled lives and fortunes more like the EPA than any system we would call "democratic." The near provinces enjoyed the services of government without paying their fair share. They financed services the old fashioned way: plundering neighboring lands.

The conquest of Macedonia, as we have already observed, had delivered the Roman people from the weight of personal taxes. Though they had experienced every form of despotism, they had now enjoyed that exemption near five hundred years;

Still, there are eternal truths. The first example of supply-side economics?
Constantine visited the city of Autun, and generously remitted the arrears of tribute, reducing at the same time the proportion of their assessment from twenty-five to eighteen thousand heads, subject to the real and personal capitation.40 Yet even this indulgence affords the most unquestionable proof of the public misery. This tax was so extremely oppressive, either in itself or in the mode of collecting it, that whilst the revenue was increased by extortion, it was diminished by despair: a considerable part of the territory of Autun was left uncultivated; and great numbers of the provincials rather chose to live as exiles and outlaws, than to support the weight of civil society.

Roots of the IRS?
About that time the avarice of Galerius, or perhaps the exigencies of the state, had induced him to make a very strict and rigorous inquisition into the property of his subjects, for the purpose of a general taxation, both on their lands and on their persons. A very minute survey appears to have been taken of their real estates; and wherever there was the slightest suspicion of concealment, torture was very freely employed to obtain a sincere declaration of their personal wealth.

Interesting and good clean fun. I think my time would be better served with a more modern, chronological, structured history of the period. Between Gibbon's loose style, and my ignorance about the people and places mentioned, this reads like a science fiction novel Illyricum/Alderon? Some place.

But I spent 2.99 and have five volumes left! Three-point-five stars.

Review Corner Posted by John Kranz at January 20, 2013 11:50 AM

Gibbon's writing is itself history and for that reason alone is worth reading.

Posted by: Steve D at January 22, 2013 3:21 PM

Indeed, SteveD. I would like to have a better handle on historical events, as I think his contemporary readers did. That would allow me to better appreciate Gibbon.

Posted by: jk at January 22, 2013 3:36 PM | What do you think? [2]