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This webpage reproduces an article in the
Journal of Roman Studies
Vol. 10 (1920), pp103‑118

The text is in the public domain:
J. W. Mackail died in 1945.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

 p103  Ammianus Marcellinus
By J. W. Mackail, LL.D., F. B. A.

Ammianus Marcellinus has in this country long suffered undue and unfortunate neglect. No edition of him, so far as I know, has ever been produced in England. A translation executed between thirty and forty years ago by the late Professor C. D. Yonge, for Bohn's Classical Library, is, I think, not now readily accessible. Mr. Fisher, before he was called from the University of Sheffield to a larger and more laborious sphere,​a had bestowed much study on him; some of its results appeared in an article in the Quarterly Review for July 1918, which was last year republished in his volume of Studies in History and Politics. The Teubner text edited by Gardthausen in 1874‑5 has long been out of print. An American scholar, Professor C. U. Clark, brought out at Berlin in 1910 the first volume of a revised text, and the second volume, completing the text and apparatus criticus, appeared in 1917; but they are difficult to obtain. It is good news that a text and translation are now being prepared by Mr. Clark for the Loeb Series; and it is to be hoped that this publication will not be long delayed.

He was actually better known here in the seventeenth century than he is now. Philemon Holland, that miracle of industry who was called the translator-general of the Elizabethan age — best known now by his racy and delightfully readable version of Pliny's Natural History — translated Ammianus also, as well as Livy, Suetonius, Plutarch's Moralia, and Xenophon's Cyropaedia. His folio Ammianus (1609) must have had a large circulation, in view of the number of copies from old libraries which come into the market. One of its interests for us is the fact that Milton, who was born the year before its publication, undoubtedly read it while at Cambridge. Holland, who in 1609 was settled as a physician at Coventry, had recently become also usher, or second master, in the Free School there, of which he was afterwards head master. He dedicated his Ammianus to the Mayor and Corporation, 'for divers respects' as he says in his preface. One among these respects is interesting enough to quote, and might be a stimulus, or a lesson, to our local education authorities.

'Secondly, the affectionate love that ye have always borne to good literature, testified by courteous entertainment of learned men; by competent salaries allowed from time to time to such professors as have peaceably, and with discreet carriage, bestowed their talents  p104 among you; by exhibition given to poor scholars in the University; by erecting also of late and maintaining of a fair library, not exampled (without offence to others be it spoken) in many cities of the Realm.'

The Corporation of Coventry responded to this compliment by making Holland a grant of £4; the equivalent, perhaps, in purchasing power of £15 in 1914.1

It may not then be inappropriate to this time and place to invite fresh attention to Ammianus, and to attempt a partial sketch of the picture drawn by a contemporary of a period which not only is in itself of deep and tragic interest, but offers many striking analogies to our own day. The matter at issue was then, as it is now, nothing less than civilisation itself. The collapse of the Roman empire meant, partly as cause, partly as consequence, the collapse of the whole fabric of the ancient world. The joint process was irregular; it was neither a case of steady decay, nor of sudden extinction. But there was a turning point which was decisive; before which, hope was still possible; after which, there was no effective recovery. The visible and dramatic symbol of that point is the battle of Adrianople in A.D. 378. Within a single generation thereafter, the Roman world in its old sense had come to an end. Latin literature had finished its course. The Latin organisation of western Europe had ceased effectively to exist, and its provinces were being parcelled out in barbarian kingdoms. The reins of government in the eastern and western halves of the orbis Romanus, of which Theodosius was the last single ruler, dangled in the hands of his two children, one of whom was a puppet and the other an idiot. Rome had been stormed and sacked by Alaric's Goths with their Hun auxiliaries. St. Augustine had written, in the De Civitate Dei, the epitaph of the ancient world. Thenceforward, though the total darkness did not fall until the sixth century or even later, we are in the deepening twilight of the Dark Ages.

The few facts known about Ammianus, all or nearly all of which are derived from his own History, may be summarised in order to define him for the moment. He was of Greek birth and a native of Antioch. As a young man he was enrolled in the Protectores Domestici, a corps d'élite of the Imperial Guard. He served under Ursicinus, Master of the Cavalry, in the eastern provinces, in Italy and Gaul, and then again in the east from A.D. 350 onward. He took part in the Persian campaign of Julian, in which he narrowly escaped capture by the enemy. From his knowledge of machine-guns and the evident interest he takes in them, it seems that he may have acted as an artillery officer. He apparently retired from active service soon after, and settled down in a literary society at Rome, where he wrote  p105 his History. It ends with the year 378, and there is no allusion in it to any date later than 390,​2 when it was probably published.

His faults as a writer are such as might be expected in a retired officer, miles quondam et Graecus,​3 to quote his own concluding words, whose early education had been very incomplete. He had entered the service young, and Latin was an acquired language for him. He is capable of using it with extraordinary force and skill. He can be terse, he can be eloquent: in many vivid descriptive touches like dies umectus et decolor,​4 in not a few magnificent phrases like triumphaturas aquilas et vexilla victricia,​5 he recaptures the authentic Roman speech. But in his efforts at writing good Latin he constantly falls back on phrases he found in books; and he belongs to the Middle Ages in his habit not only of dragging in quotations from Cicero or Virgil at any opportunity — I have noted more than fifty of these — but of copying their language as nearly as possible instead of expressing his meaning straightforwardly. His flosculi Tulliani6 were no doubt greatly appreciated by his immediate circle, but they are a sore trial to the modern reader. Further, he is fond of making long and often quite irrelevant digressions. He was interested in what then passed for science, both physical and moral; and he will, on a very slight pretext, break off his narrative to discuss, on the one hand, the causes of earthquakes, pestilences, eclipses, rainbows and other celestial phenomena,​7 and on the other, the various kinds of divination, the doctrine of the daemon or tutelary spirit, or the existence of a power called Adrastia or Nemesis and operating from the circle of the moon.​8 A careful student of Livy, as his imitations, not always unsuccessful, of the Livian period prove,​9 he did not take to heart the weighty sentence in which his great predecessor had warned against this way of writing history: Nihil minus quaesitum a principio huius operis videri potest, quam ut plus iusto ab rerum ordine declinarem, varietatibus distinguendo opere ut legentibus velut deverticula amoena et requiem animo meo quaererem.10 The deverticula of Ammianus are not without some indirect value as throwing light on what modern jargon would call the mentality both of the historian and of his age. But they have done grave injury to his reputation.11

These faults are in the main superficial; they are those of what he modestly calls his mediocre ingenium.​12 His merits, which are fundamental, must be weighed apart from them. We may hardly go  p106 so far as to say with Henri Valois, his first competent and careful editor, mihi videtur summis quibusque historiae scriptoribus comparandus videtur. But we must agree with the grave and considered praise of Gibbon: 'sincere,' 'modest,' 'loyal to his superior officers,' 'copious and authentic,' 'an accurate and faithful guide, without the prejudices and passions which usually affect the mind of a contemporary.' His own words, 'miles et Graecus,' might be paraphrased without injustice by saying that he was an officer and a gentleman; and on deliberate judgment he may be given a place among the great Roman historians, of whom he was in any case certainly the last.

The extant portion of his History covers the twenty-five years from 353 to 378 A.D. The first thirteen books are lost; they began with the accession of Nerva, and thus covered more than 250 years. Much the greater part of that period must have only been treated in very brief summary; yet if the lost books were recovered, they would no doubt add materially to our knowledge of the long period for which we have to depend so much on the wretched authors of the Historia Augusta. We may follow his example by a rapid and cursory sketch of the change that had passed over the Roman world during the Middle Empire, starting from the majestic phrase which Gibbon made the title of the second chapter of the Decline and Fall, 'Of the Union and Internal Prosperity of the Roman Empire in the Age of the Antonines.' The spectacle there presented to us is of an organised empire extending from the Clyde to the Euphrates, from Hungary to the Sahara, based on broad foundations, civilised, prosperous, well administered, seemingly secure. Throughout it there was, with hardly an exception, profound internal peace. Agriculture, industry and commerce flourished. The population of the lands within Roman government exceeded anything reached afterwards until the nineteenth century. Wealth was lavished on public improvements and philanthropic institutions. The armies were well equipped and disciplined. Civil administration was in the hands of an able and highly-organised civil service. Education was being extended; provincial universities were founded and attended by crowds of students. The arts of sculpture, music, architecture, were at a high level. The Roman world had settled down to take its ease. External causes of collapse were distant. The intermittent Persian wars on a fluctuating frontier had little result, except indeed for the cumulative drain of men and money. The northern peril was always there in the background, as it had always been since the days of Herodotus.​13 But it was no greater than it had been in the times of Marius or Germanicus. No material impression was made on the empire by the barbarians during 250 years after the destruction by the Germans of the 17th, 18th and 19th legions. It was more than  p107 a century later before any Roman territory was formally ceded to an enemy.14

The causes of decay lay deep within. There was a gradual atrophy of intellectual energy and of public spirit. The instinct of self-government was lost. Free institutions withered away. The government of the Antonines rested on precarious foundations. The good emperors came to an end. In the third century there was a constant succession of civil wars and military mutinies. The cumulative drain and dislocation were immense — parabantur nihilo minus externorum atque civilium instrumenta bellorum15 — and alongside of this went an aggregation of the population in huge cities and exhaustion of the permanent sources of wealth. The first great shock came in A.D. 250 with the Gothic invasion of the Balkan peninsula. In the same year began the Black Death which raged for fifteen years and was said to have carried off half the population of the empire. A Jacquerie in Gaul, a revolt of the agricultural serfs, permanently crippled the west. Predatory bands of Franks and Allemanni wandered almost unchecked over Spain, north-west Africa, and Italy. The empire seemed going to pieces. It was saved by the great Illyrian emperors, Claudius and his successors. Aurelian re‑established the eastern frontier and organised the barrier-province of Dacia. Central Germany was effectually brought under control by Probus. At the triumph of Diocletian in 302 the strength and prosperity of the empire seemed fully restored, and the new monarchy created by him destined to a long and prosperous career. But it was far otherwise. Diocletian's triumph was the last ever celebrated in Rome;​b and his new monarchy was ill‑starred from the beginning.

From Diocletian the new monarchy passed, after a series of destructive civil wars, to the feeble and bloody house of Constantine. As the first Christian emperor, and as founder of the new Rome at the strategic centre of the Roman world, Constantine became crowned with a legendary halo. But his work was fatal to the empire and to what remained of the Roman tradition. Infirmator imperii, the phrase used of him by Dante,​16 is the exact truth. Bureaucratic tyranny became absolute. The armies were deliberately made inefficient as a safeguard against civil wars. Administration was barbarised by a criminal law of unexampled ferocity. From no rational conviction, and in no spirit of either faith or hope, Christianity was made the state religion. Government loaded itself with the weight of blood-stained theological controversy; and the Church in return took over the hideous inheritance of persecution from the savage penal code of the empire.

 p108  The reactionary policy of Constantine's nephew Julian was futile in its object and merely disastrous in its results. With him the house of Constantine became extinct. Under his successors, the joint-emperors Valentinian and Valens — the few months of the stop‑gap reign of Jovian are negligible — the beginning of the end came.

This is the period recorded in the extant work of Ammianus. He records it with a sincerity, an absence of prejudice or passion, which rise at points to a tragic greatness. He is still too often thought of as though he were merely the biographer of Julian: a misconception which is inherited from the time when the records of ancient civilisation were the province of Christian theologians, and civil was subordinated to ecclesiastical history. The story of Julian's career is only one episode in his picture of a whole age and its movement. It is elsewhere that he rises most conspicuously to the height of his argument: particularly in two episodes, almost at the beginning of the extant portion. This former is the vivid and dramatic story of the end of Gallus Caesar;​17 the net slowly closing round him, his arrest, his execution by night, and the wild ride of Apodemius from Pola to Milan carrying the scarlet shoes of the murdered man to lay before Constantius; with the two figures, to left and right as one might say in the piece, one sinister, the other innocently tragic: the eunuch Eusebius, Provost of the Bedchamber, the Eminence Grise who was the real master of the world, and the empress, in culmine tam celso humana.​18 It is an illuminating and unforgettable picture, seen as it were by a flashlight, of the household fury that tore into the entrails of the wretched imperial house.

The other is a scene on a larger canvas; the narrative of the great disaster of A.D. 378. Its structure is elaborately skilful. It opens with portents; the fides clara praesagiorum,​19 which impressed even this cool-headed and experienced official, sets the dramatic key‑note. Then follows a sketch of the loosening of the northern nations, urged on by vast movements and migrations in Central Asia, and of the new Mongol terror, the hordes of Alans and Huns who were pouring into Europe. From this, the historian leads us on to watch the imperial government making every possible blunder. A great Gothic host was forced into Thrace and supplied with Roman arms by the treachery and incompetence of the provincial orientals. The mining population of the province, oppressed and misgoverned, joined them by thousands. The old Cimbric and Marcomannic perils were renewed and outdone. Picked troops were drafted from all the provinces until the whole military strength of the empire was concentrated in one magnificent army. Then we have the account of the alarm and  p109 irresolution of Fritigern and the fatal decision of Valens to force a battle. On the morning of that burning August day, and even when, in the early afternoon, the Roman army came in sight of the great Gothic waggon-lager, a complete and crushing Roman victory was on both sides thought inevitable. Dis aliter visum. In a paroxysm of mingled terror and fury, the Gothic foot and the Hun horse swarmed out and flung themselves desperately on the imperial army, still partly in column of march, and flagging from heat and thirst. The flanking Roman cavalry was broken and swept away at the first charge, and the whole of the infantry, without time to deploy, was jammed into a helpless mass and, as at Cannae, stood to be slaughtered. When the hot moonless night fell, more than two‑thirds of that splendid army, the emperor among them, lay dead on the field. From Cannae, as earlier from the Allia, Rome had recovered herself; but Adrianople remained unavenged. 'The fall of the Roman empire,' Gibbon says, 'may justly be dated from the reign of Valens.'

The Roman empire fell; and outside of the Roman empire there was no home. It was to its inhabitants a lit house surrounded by black darkness; or, to those among them who hated it and would fain have renounced it, a prison out of which there was no escape. When the house collapsed, when the prison walls crumbled, it seemed to men, not to St. Augustine only, that the end of the world was surely near. The prestige and glamour of the world-empire, with all that it meant, were still overwhelming. The Germanic and Gothic nations regarded it with mixed fascination and fear — German troops had to be levied on the undertaking that they should not be sent south of the Alps​20 — but they kept being sucked by an irresistible fascination into the charmed circle. The Persian satrap of Corduene contemplated desertion to the Roman side, not as a traitor nor for material profit, but from his passion for western culture, dulcedine liberalium studiorum illectus: as a hostage in Syria in his boyhood he had tasted Graeco-Roman civilisation, and found he could not live without it.​21 The name of Rome remained magical. It was known through the world as the Eternal City:​22 and the name became even more prevalent after the transference of the centre of government to Milan and the foundation of the New Rome of Constantine. Rome was domina et regina, urbs venerabilis, caput mundi, victura cum seculis, urbs sacratissima, templum mundi totius.​23 No less in the wearers of the purple there remained a sense of imperial duty and mission.

Their shoulders held the sky suspended,

They stood, and earth's foundations stay.

 p110  Julian says when dying, Ubicunque velut imperiosa parens obiecit respublica, steti fundatus.24 We find the same feeling even in Valentinian, whose thin veneer of culture — scribens decore, says Ammianus, venusteque pingens et fingens — was overlaid on a brutal savage. He announces his purpose of associating Gratian in the imperial dignity with the grave and impressive words, in augustum sumere commilitium paro.​25 That commilitium, fellow­ship in service, was no mere phrase. The burden of empire was not lightly taken up or lightly carried. Its maintenance was still the highest and all‑inclusive duty. Even yet, prolonged periods of external tranquillity sometimes raised anew, like a phantom, the old tradition of the Pax Romana. Of one of these periods, in a striking phrase — the more notable for us because Milton transferred it almost bodily into his Nativity Ode — Ammianus says, Quievere nationes omnes immobiles ac si quodam caduceo leniente mundum.26 'No war, or battle's sound, was heard the world around . . . and kings sat still with awful eye, as if they surely knew their sovran lord was by.'

It is not by detached pictures, however vivid and tragic, nor is it by the reflections of an historian, that we can estimate the whole set and movement of an age. Both are but lights thrown on particular incidents or aspects of what is an immense and continuous organic life. What Napoleon named as the besetting sin of generals, réunir les faits pour en former des tableaux,​27 is equally true of historians. Ammianus' importance for our study rests very largely on the incidental — one might almost say, the accidental — information which he gives at a hundred points on the whole life of his age, both on its material and on its intellectual or spiritual side. Except in the unlucky digressions, he never theorises. He is almost as detached as Thucydides himself in the matter of drawing morals. This quality goes with, if it does not lie at the base of, his remarkable power of characterisation; he makes the figures in his history live, because he is himself a translucent medium. One may quote here the striking and, I think, just words of Seeck. After mentioning the faults and weaknesses of Ammianus, 'Dagegen besitzt er,' he goes on, 'in der Schilderung menschlicher Charaktere eine Meisterschaft welche in der ganzen antiken Litteratur kaum ihresgleichen hat, und ihn trotz seiner grossen Schwächen den ersten Geschichtschreibern aller Zeiten anreiht.'

A word must be said here on his attitude towards Christianity. In religious doctrine as such he appears to take little interest; in religious controversy he takes no side. Himself a pagan, he speaks of the Christian faith, religionem absolutam et simplicem,​28 with entire respect. He quotes, simply in the way of record, Julian's saying,  p111 Nullas infestas hominibus bestias ut sunt sibi ferales plerique Christianorum.29 But of Julian's sarcasm he yields no trace; and he departs so far from his usual detachment as to censure twice over the edict closing the schools of grammar and rhetoric to Christian teachers.​30 He records without any comment the Christian riots in Rome at the election of pope Damasus, when 137 dead bodies were taken out of a single church.​31 He deliberately pauses to note and praise the simple life of the provincial bishops.​32 His own standpoint, far in advance of his age, though very likely shared with him by the best of the trained and educated official class, was that of absolute religious toleration. It was not one recovered for many ages. 'Even the intellectual perception of the value of toleration had not yet dawned upon the world,' the historian of seventeenth-century England writes with a just insight.​33 It was a doctrine not formulated till the eighteenth century and hardly brought into practice before the nineteenth. Ammianus' ideal is the policy which he attributes to one of the so‑called Christian emperors: Inter religionum diversitates medius stetit, nec quemquam inquietavit, neque ut hoc coleretur imperavit aut illud.34 But this is not, as it was with Valentinian, mere opportunism, the attitude of 'Why can't you leave things alone?' For Ammianus is fundamentally religious. In one noble phrase, perpetuum numen verique eius cultores,​35 he includes both the old and the new faiths, and rises to a higher synthesis like that seen as in a vision by Akbar, that which inspired the great humanists, that in which many minds now find their anchorage.

The remarkable phrase seculi progressio,​36 once used incidentally by Ammianus, has been taken, pressing it rather beyond what it will bear, to mean that he held a doctrine of human progress in the modern sense.​37 Such a doctrine was unknown to the ancient world. It was developed in the eighteenth century from the hints given by earlier humanism, and was dominant during the greater part of the nineteenth. In its earlier inferential form it is perhaps most strikingly expressed by Gibbon (1781) in the celebrated sentence with which he concludes his 38th chapter: 'We may acquiesce in the pleasing conclusion that every age of the world has increased, and still increases, the real wealth, the happiness, the knowledge, and perhaps the virtue, of the human race.' Half a century later, the pleasing conclusion had passed into a dogmatic belief. It lay at the roots of Liberalism; it may be called the main motive force of the Victorian age. The phrase of Ammianus cannot be matched in classical literature, nor,  p112 I think, is there any trace before it of the belief or theory which it has been thought to imply, not even as a reaction against the common doctrine of progressive deterioration. But in the fourth century many new ideas and theories were in the air. It was a time, like the present, in which loss both of hard thinking power, and of imagination — which has been suggestively defined as the faculty of seeing and tra­cing consequences — was accompanied by intense receptivity and by a feverish pursuit of short-cuts alike in thought and in practice.

It was on its military side that the progressio seculi was most obvious. The incomparable Roman infantry had ceased to exist. More and more reliance was placed on machinery. Field-fortification was developed; and Ammianus speaks, in terms which sound curiously familiar, of the German under­ground trench-fighting and its formidable difficulty.​38 Artillery had developed into an arm of great importance. To realise what this meant, it is legitimate or even necessary to think in modern terms of the military engines then used, making of course due allowance for the difference in range and destructive force between guns using only elastic or torsional force and those using explosives. These only came much later; gunpowder, or its equivalent, is spoken of as a new invention towards the end of the ninth century. Ammianus describes​39 the heavy guns, ballistae, each mounted on an ironclad barbette; the field-artillery, which could be moved, though with some difficulty, on the actual battlefield, and could be used effectively even against the ballistae; and the lighter machine-guns which were readily shifted from point to point. The scorpio could be trained in any direction by a single gunner, but was of such power that we are told of a man behind one of them being literally blown to bits by a mis‑fire. Incendiary bombs were largely used; also the malleolus or hand-trench-bomb with which we have in recent years become terribly familiar. The flame-thrower was a later invention, and seems to have been developed almost entirely for naval action. Fleets of the vehicula publica ordinarily employed in postal and passenger service were used on a large scale for hurrying up reinforcements, or even transferring a whole army from one front to another.​40 We read, under the year 361, of the institution of compulsory military training throughout the provinces, of immense efforts to accumulate equipment, and of the outcry that rose 'from every rank and profession' at the intolerable burden of re­quisitions for uniforms, arms, stores of food, draught-animals, and military engines.​41 Yet the military weakness of the empire tended to increase. The armies were manned and largely officered by barbarians. No national army in the modern sense was possible, because the sense of nationality had been lost. The New Empire was neither a nation nor a league of nations; it was international in  p113 name, anti-national in spirit, an administrative organism resting on a caste system, hostile to the instinct and practice of self-government, and held together by laws of frightful severity.

The two things, decay of self-government and cruelty of law, reacted on one another. As far back as the later Republic, popular government had completely failed in its task. It was set aside in the interest of efficiency. Efficiency was to a large extent secured; but government was launched on the slippery slope on which there was no stopping, still less any returning. Under the lesser Antonines, Septimius Severus and his son Antoninus Caracalla, trial by jury finally disappeared. That was a more important thing than it may seem. The abuses of corrupt juries were the reason or the pretext; and these abuses were real and grave. But the result was uncontrolled criminal jurisdiction of officials. Legal trial was superseded by administrative process. Death after torture could be inflicted for any crime; and the list of crimes was continuously lengthened. But beyond that list, the monstrous invention of stellionatus covered any act which was not legally criminal. Poena stellionatus nulla legitima est, cum neque legitimum crimen sit, are the words of Ulpian.​42 With dreadful monotony in Ammianus comes, every few pages, a sickening record of tortures and hideous deaths set down almost without comment. Burning alive was the common punishment. Flammis iussit exuri: vivus exustus est: ad interitum tortos incendit, is the summary record of innumerable cases.​43 There was no redress; de fumo in flammam,​44 in an awfully literal sense, was the probable event of any appeal. Two provincials who had ventured to carry complaints of extortion against the Count of Africa to the Imperial Court had their tongues cut out there.​45 A boy, the son of an officer of high rank, was sentenced to exile for dabbling in magic. He appealed to Valentinian in person. The result is told in three words: cecidit carnificis manu.46

These accusations of practising magic were an outstanding feature of the time. The craving to get into communication with the dead, and to force secrets out of dark unseen powers, ran like a fever through all classes, especially the intellectuals and the rich. It was condemned alike by the Church and by the civil authority, but it grew none the less; and it was held to be public policy to stamp it out by treating it as a capital offence. Such a policy lent itself at once to the trade of the informer. The reign of terror at Rome in 368, and in the cities of Syria in 371, can hardly be paralleled except by the records of the last months of the Revolutionary Tribunal.​47 Trials were an open farce; the batches of accused, herded in pestilential dungeons,  p114 were swept off indiscriminately to the scaffold. There were daily executions of prisoners already crippled by tortures. The word witchcraft had only to be spoken to rouse a frenzy of terror. Unde factum est per orientales provincias ut omnes metu similium exurerent libraria omnia.​48 Humane learning and inherited culture were crushed, never to be restored, in the capital of the east.

Yet civilised life went on; and there is abundant evidence in Ammianus of its continued brilliance. Rome was still the great social centre. The elaborate account he gives of its wealth and luxury​49 is to be read with some reserve; it is rhetorical and artificial, and he exchanges the pen of the historian for the brush of the satirist. But certain facts incidentally mentioned by him are significant. Civic improvements continued to be made, like the clearing away of the shops clustered round temples or churches, and the erection of the great obelisk in the Circus.​50 The decoration and machinery of theatres were increasingly elaborate.​51 Public health was scientifically guarded; the precautions taken against infectious diseases, though they probably did not extend beyond the well-to‑do classes, read quite like those of modern times.​52 Music was much cultivated; and the manufacture both of organs and of stringed instruments comparable in size to pianos is particularly noted.​53 But the vast majority of citizens lived only for frivolity and excitement. The public libraries were closed for lack of readers, where they were not perishing from neglect or deliberately destroyed. Frivolous and immoral books on the one hand, spiritualistic and magical treatises on the other, were the only reading of the leisured and educated classes, detestantes ut venena doctrinas. Gambling and betting on races nihil serium agi Romae permittunt.54

Elsewhere than at Rome, similar wealth and luxury are mentioned, as also immense traffic and commerce. The streets of Antioch by night were as bright as day.​55 At Alexandria were great schools of music, mathematics and medicine.​56 Oribasius, the contemporary of Ammianus, is the last great name in the history of ancient medical science, and continued the high tradition of Galen in the age of the Antonines.​57 A caravan route from Bactria to China, in constant use, brought the Far East into touch with Europe.​58 The use of serica, Indian muslins, was common even among the lowest classes.​59 The embassies from Ceylon, ab usque Serendivis, sank into Milton's  p115 imagination and reappear in the most gorgeous passage of the Paradise Regained.​60 The great September fair at Batnae on the Euphrates was stocked with wares from India and China, and drew traders from all parts of the world.​61 No one who reads Ammianus, however cursorily, can fail to be struck by the number of references to the immense prestige which still, outside as well as inside the empire, surrounded the imperial person, the fabric of Roman administration, and the discipline and equipment of the armies.​62 His vivid picture of the state entry of Constantius into Rome in A.D. 356​63 — his single visit to the ancient capital — might be thought of as symbolic of that faded yet still imposing splendour.

But it was the brilliance that preceded dissolution. There was a steady loss of both intellectual and moral fibre. Civilisation, while it was being sapped by barbarian infiltration, and by an economic system which oppressed labour, drained capital, and hampered industry, was sick of a more inward and incurable disease. The virtue had gone out of it. Nerve and impulse failed. The caries vetustatis64 — perhaps the most striking single phrase used by Ammianus — had eaten it. Already the sombre words of Fredegar, actually written two centuries later in the heart of the Dark Ages, Mundus iam senescit,​65 might have been uttered. Nihil multa et nefanda perpessis hominibus praeter lacrimas supererat et terrores, ubi et praeteritorum recordatio erat acerba et exspectatio tristior impendentium.66

I have spoken of barbarian infiltration, not barbarian invasion. Invasions of the empire on a large scale had in fact hitherto been quite exceptional, and their results even when most disastrous had been transitory. But groups and even whole tribes kept continually trickling in; sometimes forcibly, sometimes by express or tacit agreement, often by actual invitation. Gradually the distinction between the orbis Romanus and the outer world became effaced. The empire was peopled throughout by mixed races which did not crystallise. The new blood helped to keep up fighting power. But for civil administration, on which all else finally rested, no new blood was to be had. By the same sort of instinct, which made them fear and avoid towns, ut circumdata retiis busta,​67 the northern races shrank from the complex mysteries of government. In 363, the Frank Malarich refused the offered command of Gaul and Illyricum on this express account.​68 Thus even when the western empire had ceased to be anything but a name, the Ostrogothic kingdom of Italy,  p116 the Vandal kingdom of Africa, the Visigothic kingdom of Spain, had no roots, no principle of growth, and went to pieces at a touch. 'Die letzte Phase des römischen Staats,' Mommsen wrote in 1885, 'ist bezeichnet durch dessen Barbarisirung und speciell dessen Germanisirung.'​69 Thirty‑six years later, the words are even more illuminating and impressive than they were then. One of the darkest facts which come out in the narrative of Ammianus is that the Roman word could no longer be trusted. Assassinations of hostile chiefs or princes under safe-conduct, even at banquets to which they had been invited as guests, wholesale massacres of forces which had surrendered under express assurances of safety, are chronicled over and over again as common incidents: sometimes without comment; clam quia non potuit aperte:​70 sometimes with uneasy and unconvinced excuses:​71 in one of the most shocking instances, with actual approval, as consilium prudens and efficacia salutaris et velox.​72 Such was the deplorable effect of lowered public conscience upon an officer and a gentleman.

'Public reason just,

Honour and Empire with revenge enlarg'd

Compels me now to do what I abhor':

So spake the Fiend, and with necessity

The Tyrant's plea, excus'd his devilish deeds.

But once at least, following his own better nature and discarding his usual reticence, he calls on the Romans of old, si qua vita digressis est dolor, to mourn over the infamy of their descendants.73

The leaven was insufficient: it was overwhelmed by the brute matter. Rome could do, and did, wonders, but she could not really urbem facere quod prius orbis erat, incorporate and civilise the world. The task was too great for a nation which was losing both vital force and racial identity. The achievements of the Illyrian emperors were the last attempt made to do so. But the ground kept crumbling under their feet. A little later, the picking up of the pieces, colligere provincia fragmenta, is named as all that was possible in Gaul. A creeping paralysis came over the empire, and at last it succumbed.

This is not an occasion to labour the lessons to be drawn from the tragic and absorbing record of a period which has so many points in common with our own. But there are two points on which I may perhaps be permitted to say a word; for they do not, superficially at least, arise directly out of the sketch I have attempted to give, and they are both of great interest. I will merely state the questions, and not venture to supply answers to them.

 p117  The first is, Could education have saved the empire? It may be doubted. In the second century it had done all it could. If it be objected that the kind of education then organised, as we have it set forth in the Institution of Quintilian, was faulty or misdirected, the answer is that the best minds of the time did not think so. The object aimed at, the production of good citizens, is unchallengeable. The methods for attaining it are quite as much the subject of controversy now as they were then. Each age works according to its own nature; in education as in other matters, neither theory nor practice can be antedated. The theory and practice of the empire represent the problem and its provisional solution according to the knowledge available, and the strength of belief in it needed to convert it from theoretic doctrine into actual motive force. System is little more than the codification of usage. While it is true that supply tends, often powerfully, to create demand, there is no such thing as permanent undemanded supply. People get, on the whole, the sort of education they want. It is because they do not know what they want, or do not want it enough, that they are dissatisfied with what they get. Education is a function of the social organism; national education is, both in kind and in degree, the consequence rather than the cause of national vitality. But I will not pursue this subject further. I turn to the second question: What was the cause of the decay of the Roman empire?

In the lecture on Decadence by Mr. Arthur Balfour, recently republished in the volume entitled Essays: Speculative and Political, he reviews the sources which have been assigned for it. Chief among these he names:

(1) Depopulation. It is doubtful how far the fact of depopulation is established. What is clear is a relative depopulation of rural areas and small country towns, and an increasing aggregation in large cities. This means, as we need not go abroad to verify, that the equilibrium of civilisation becomes more precarious.

(2) The institution of slavery, the brutalities of the gladiatorial shows, the gratuitous distribution of food to urban mobs. These he dismisses, rightly I think, as inadequate causes, though they may have been and probably were contributory.

(3) The growth under bureaucratic pressure of a caste system, to which he justly assigns great importance, not only in itself, but as bringing about failure in the power of the social organism to assimilate alien elements, which, he adds, it became too feeble either to absorb or to expel.

In a note to the lecture, Mr. Balfour further lays stress on the evidence for a general degradation in the productiveness of the soil in the Mediterranean countries during the period under review, and suggests that this purely physical cause has been too much over­looked. Certainly it was to a purely physical cause, the desiccation of Central  p118 Asia, that the epoch of the invasions, from the fourth century onward, was immediately due.

But we may ask how far decay may have been due not to any or all of the causes usually assigned, but to something deeper and less under human control; namely, the exhaustion of a particular breed, and the disappearance with it of a vital element by infusion of which the Roman character and civilisation had been created. We know that throughout the sphere of organic life, alike in the vegetable and the animal world, strains of unique quality appear unaccountably and gradually die out or are reabsorbed. This reabsorption can be delayed, but cannot be altogether prevented by all that human ingenuity can do in selection of breeders and segregation of recessives. The history of the progeny of the Darley Arabian and his more famous descendant Eclipse, and of that of the Ribston apple-tree, are well-known instances of a general principle. Even in the inorganic world something analogous takes place. Not only does micro-photography reveal the 'fatigue' of metals, the breakdown of their crystalline structure whether through effects of external environment or the silent processes of internal strain, but metals themselves are in course of time degraded: silver becomes lead. It seems true of the human race that certain very subtle admixtures of blood, such as can neither be fully analysed nor purposely produced, are the condition of marked racial or national distinction. The determining element may be very small in amount and yet, like chromium in steel, may change the structure and quality of the whole resulting product, of the nation or race. Some such alloy, or some such hybridisation, seems to have produced the outstanding human breeds. The gradual loss of its virtue in any strain, whether by mere wastage or by progressive dilution, is an insensible and in the main an uncontrollable process. But definite events may visibly accelerate it. Among these are changes in the social structure to which a particular strain does not readily react. Among them also are prolonged and widespread epidemics. The two Black Deaths of A.D. 165‑170 and 250‑265 had a large share in bringing about the decay of the empire, not so much by actual and numerable depopulation as by exhaustion of the strain which gave its character to the Roman race. Each fresh rally became more laborious as the continual blood‑tax and brain‑tax of world-rule grew heavier. There were not Romans left to carry on the work of Rome.

The Author's Notes:

1 This figure is based on the conclusions reached by Professor Firth, Cromwell's Army, pp188‑9.

Thayer's Note: And £15 in 1914 corresponds to roughly $1435 in 2016.

2 XXVI.5.14.

3 XXXI.16.9.

4 XVI.2.10.

5 XVI.12.12.

6 XXIX.1.11.

7 XVII.7.9‑14; XIX.4; XX.3; XX.11.26‑30.

8 XXI.1.7‑14; XXI.14.2‑5; XIV.11.25.

9 Good instances may be found in the opening paragraphs of XIV and  XXIV. Others are frequent.

10 Liv. IX.17.

11 It is fair to observe — and the remark applies to all ancient writings — that nowadays such digressions would not be incorporated in the text of a history, but relegated to notes or appendices, where, whatever their value might be, they would at all events not be felt as irritating interruptions.

12 XVI.1.1; cf.  XXVII.11.1.

13 Herod. V.3.

14 XXV.9.9.

15 XXI.6.1.

16 De Monarchia, II.13.

17 XIV.11; XV.1.

18 XXI.6.4. She died soon after, 'as good as she was beautiful.'

19 XXXI.1.1.

20 XX.4.4.

21 XVIII.6.20.

22 It is so named eleven times in Ammianus.

23 XV.6.6; XIV.6.5; XIV.6.23; XXVI.1.14; XXVII.3.3; XVII.4.12.

24 XXV.3.18.

25 XXVII.6.6.

26 XXV.4.14.

27 Under date 23rd February, 1814.

28 XXI.16.18.

29 XXII.5.3.

30 XXII.10.7; XXV.4.20.

31 XXVII.3.13.

32 XXVII.3.14‑15.

33 S. R. Gardiner, vol. VII, p158 (under date of 1629)

34 XXX.9.5.

35 XXVII.3.15.

36 XVIII.7.7.

37 'He believes,' Professor Bury says, 'in progress and the enlightenment of his age.' But this obiter dictum, in a note to Gibbon, must be taken with some qualification; see in particular the introductory chapter of The Idea of Progress.

38 XVII.1.8.

39 XXIII.4; XIX.5.1; XXIV.4.17 and 28.

40 XXI.13.7.

41 XXI.6.1.

42 Digest, XLVII.20.3. 'There is no occasion,' he grimly adds, 'to enumerate instances.'

43 XXVII.7.6; XIV.7.17; XXIX.5.50. Dozens and scores of similar citations could be made. The accounts are almost too horrible to read.

44 XXVIII.1.26.

45 XXVIII.6.20.

46 XXVIII.1.26.

47 XXVIII.1; XXIX.1 and 2.

48 XXIX.2.4.

49 XIV.6.

50 XXVII.9.10; XVI.4.14‑15.

51 XIV.6.19‑20; XVI.12.57; XXVI.6.15.

52 XIV.6.23.

53 XIV.6.18, lyrae ad speciem carpentorum ingentes.

54 XIV.6.26; XXVIII.4.14.

55 XIV.1.9; XIV.8.8.

56 XXII.16.17‑18.

57 Through Arabic translations, his works had an important influence on medical science and practice in the rich civilisation of the Khalifat. Like Ammianus, he was an adherent of the ancient faith. It was he who brought back to Julian from Delphi the well-known lines announcing the extinction of the oracle, which may be called the swan-song of the old religion.

58 XXIII.6.60.

59 XXIII.6.67.

60 XXIII.7.10; P. R. IV.74‑6.

61 XIV.3.3.

62 For this last, see particularly XVI.12.12; XVIII.2.17; XXVII.2.5 and  5.3; XXVIII.5.3; XXIX.5.15; XXX.5.13; XXXI.10.9 and 14. In the phrase cited above, triumphaturas aquilas et vexilla victricia, the voice of Rome speaks.

63 XVI.10.4‑17.

64 XVI.2.1.

65 Scriptt. Rer. Franc. II.414.

66 XXV.4.25.

67 XVI.2.12.

68 XXV.8.11; 10.6.

69 Römische Geschichte, Band V, Buch VIII, 4 sub finem.

70 XXX.7.7; cf.  XXVII.10.4.

71 XXVIII.5.4‑7.

72 XXXI.16.8.

73 XXX.1.19; cf.  XXIX.6.5.

Thayer's Notes:

a The historian Herbert A. L. Fisher had been Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sheffield; he was tapped by Lloyd George to be the President of the Board of Education from 1916 to 1922. This paper was written during his tenure there.

b We may consider, if we wish, the last triumph held in Rome according to the ancient Roman ceremonial to have been that of Marcantonio Colonna, Dec. 4, 1571, for his victory in the battle of Lepanto two months earlier. It was a splendid pageant staged in self-conscious antiquarian imitation of the ancient Roman triumphs: see "L'ultimo trionfo navale di Roma" by Adm. Domenico Carro, either at (registration) or a generally accessible copy at (but marred by poor HTML rendering of the Italian).

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