Friday, January 19, 2007

Aetius, the Last Roman

A preoccupation with a particular era of the past reveals a dread about something in our own times that no one dares openly express. We in America have always compared ourselves with ancient Rome. (Aptly, the first volume of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire went to the printer the same July month in 1776 as the founders met to sign the Declaration of Independence, and we have been fussing over our own percieved decline ever since.) Like the Romans, we started as a humble republic based on agriculture. Both we and they owed a profound cultural and political debt to other nations; they were beholden to the Greeks and the Etruscans, and we to the British and (to a lesser degree) to other Europeans. After the destruction of Carthage, Rome found itself owning an empire, much as we did after two bloody World Wars. Both America and Rome have become multicultural states in every sense of that recently coined word, both created powerful central governments, and both we and the Romans needed to be constantly entertained. We in America have not yet elected an emperor to govern us nor have we thrown convicts to the lions, but we so fret about losing the virtues and the religion of our ancestors that someone like Bill Bennet can make a living doing the fretting in public, exactly as old Livy once did. Who does not fear that mad emperors and ravenous lions await us not far in the future?
The Roman heroes we venerate today are those who fought against the long decline into empire and eventual decadence. Conservative scholars praise Cicero, the valiant lawyer who stood first against the conspiracy of Catiline and latter spoke out against the ambitions of Caesar and Marc Anthony. For his trouble, the brave man got his hands nailed to the Senate wall. Liberals venerate failed reformers like the Brothers Gracchi, who tried their hands at the redistrabution of land and were torn to pieces in seperate riots. Everyone praises the tragic last general Flavius Marcellus Aetius (396-454 A.D.), the man who somehow threw together an army in 451 and defeated Attila at Cholons, near modern Orleans. Here was a man who overcame the opposition of everyone else of any stature and did the impossible, and in his victory possibly saved Western Civilization from an even more dreadful Dark Age.
But closer examination shows how futile were the stuggles of these heroes. Cicero was in fact a moderate caught between the designs of wealthier and more ambitious men who rarely heeded him when he spoke truth to power, and when they did hear him, he succeeded only in making the ambitious angry. The Gracchi wanted to help the people, but they also wanted to grasp the absolute power of the state two generations before Caesar actually did, and they would have made themselves tyrants who would have ruled as ruthlessly as Augustus did, had they not been killed. Poor Aetius (of whom there are no less than six books printed over the past five years) lived in a time when the Roman Empire was a pastiche of temporary agreements made by powerful families and barabarian tribesmen. He himself had lived among the Huns and entertained barbarian sympathies. In his lifetime everything was either conspiracy or bloody outrage, and to no one's surprise, brave Aetius was eventually murdered by the Emperor Valentonian III who feared the general as a potential rival.
The point is, once a nation or a people decide to go down a cerain path, there is nothing well-meaning and courageous individuals can do to save it. I do not believe in inevitability or in any historical dialectic; I only believe that nations have a natural lifetime, just as men do, and once they have progressed from frontier society to republic (or kingdom) and then to empire, there is only once course left for it to take. This is the unspoken thing we know about Rome and about us, and it is why we think if are only brave and have right on our side, then we can make our outcome different. To think otherwise is to admit we are about to know a time of great, nearly unbearable sorrow.


Daniel Berman said...
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Daniel Berman said...

I must be one of the few hundred readers who read your book, and I want to just say how impressed I was, especially since I'm now taking a historiography course on the fall of Rome.

I think the main problem for the late empire was that the policies needed to run the empire were deeply unpopular, and the only magnates willing to support them were those directly threatened on the frontier. During the third century this was mitagted by the army raising its own emperors, and thereby neutralizing any Italian constituency, but restoration of a stable dynasty in 395 actually proved to be a disaster. Instead of restoring order it split the real power away from the office of Emperor towards the master of soldiers. This meant that you had a master of soldiers(ie. Aeitius, Stilicho, Aegidius, Flavius Constantius) running around holding things together, while a bored and resentful emperor sat around in Ravenna having hatred whispered into his ear by jealous senators. Its not random chance that all of the great Western figures of the fifth century had their power base in Gaul, and met their end in Italy.

R. C. A. O'Neal said...

The idea that the Empire fell because the necessary reforms were too un-popular is a very compelling concept, particularly as we face this same problem today. In EUrope and the United States people and governments are often completely unwilling to raise the taxes necessary to run a stable and wealthy society. In China they talk about the dynastic cycle. What is particularly of note is that, though the Chinese have seen many dynasties fall, they have managed to continue to be Chinese for four thousand years. Culture and society can out-live dynasty and government.

But I object to the notion that this cycle is permanent and immutable. decadence, greed, and failure are rooted in the short-sighted avarice of humanity. Once we learn to live without greed, or attain immortality, then the state can last forever.