IR Folks from Times Past

IR Folks from Times Past

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Scourge of God, Destroyer of Nations

William Robertson (1721-1793) was a distinguished eighteenth-century historian, on a par with David Hume and Edward Gibbon. This extract comes from the beginning of his History of the Reign of the Emperor Charles V (1769), entitled “A View of the Progress of Society in Europe: A Historical Outline from the Subversion of the Roman Empire to the Beginning of the Sixteenth Century." Before arriving at a delineation of “first rudiments of the policy and laws now established in Europe,” Robertson described the “general wreck of nations” that occurred during and after the fall of the Roman Empire. This was the period in human history “during which the condition of the human race was most calamitous and afflicted.” Contemporaries who beheld it, writes Robertson, “are at a loss for expressions to describe the horror of it.” But preparing the ground for these scourges, notes Robertson, was the Roman conquest itself, which laid waste the countries of Europe and left only a feeble remnant. Their recovery from this first conquest left them in a much diminished state, losing “not only the habit but even the capacity” to think for themselves: “the dominion of the Romans, like that of all great Empires, degraded and debased the human species.” (2851 words)

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Two great revolutions have happened in the political state, and in the manners of the European nations. The first was occasioned by the progress of the Roman power; the second by the subversion of the Roman Empire. When the spirit of conquest led the armies of Rome beyond the Alps, they found all the countries which they invaded, inhabited by people whom they denominated barbarians, but who were nevertheless brave and independant. These defended their ancient possessions with obstinate valour. It was by the superiority of their discipline, rather than of their courage, that the Romans gained any advantage over them. A single battle did not, as among the effeminate inhabitants of Asia, decide the fate of a state. The vanquished people resumed their arms with fresh spirit, and their undisciplined valour, animated by the love of liberty, supplied the want of conduct as well as of union. During these long and fierce struggles for dominion or independance, the countries of Europe were successively laid waste, a great part of their inhabitants perished in the field, many were carried into slavery, and a feeble remnant, incapable of further resistance, submitted to the Roman power.

The Romans having thus desolated Europe, set themselves to civilize it. The form of government which they established in the conquered provinces, though severe, was regular, and preserved public tranquillity. As a consolation for the loss of liberty, they communicated their arts, sciences, language, and manners, to their new subjects. Europe began to breathe, and to recover strength after the calamities which it had undergone; agriculture was encouraged; population encreased; the ruined cities were rebuilt; new towns were founded; an appearance of prosperity succeeded, and repaired, in some degree, the havock of war. 

This state, however, was far from being happy, or favourable to the improvement of the human mind. The vanquished nations were disarmed by their conquerors, and overawed by soldiers kept in pay to restrain them. They were given up as a prey to rapacious governors, who plundered them with impunity; and were drained of their wealth by exorbitant taxes, imposed with so little attention to the situation of the provinces, that the impositions were generally increased in proportion to their inability to support them. They were deprived of their most enterprizing citizens, who resorted to a distant capital in quest of preferment, or of riches; and were accustomed in all their actions to look up to a superior, and tamely to receive his commands. Under all these depressing circumstances, it was impossible that they could retain vigour or generosity of mind. The martial and independant spirit, which had distinguished their ancestors, became extinct among all the people subjected to the Roman yoke; they lost not only the habit but even the capacity of deciding for themselves, or of acting from the impulse of their own minds; and the dominion of the Romans, like that of all great Empires, degraded and debased the human species.

A society in this state could not subsist long. There were defects in the Roman government, even in its most perfect form, which threatened its dissolution. Time ripened these original seeds of corruption, and gave birth to many new disorders. A constitution, unfounded, and worn out, must have fallen in pieces of itself, without any external shock. The violent irruption of the Goths, Vandals, Huns, and other barbarians hastened this event, and precipitated the downfal of the Empire. New nations seemed to arise, and to rush from unknown regions in order to take vengeance on the Romans for the calamities which they had inflicted on mankind. These fierce tribes either inhabited the various provinces in Germany which had never been subdued by the Romans, or were scattered over the vast countries in the north of Europe, and north-west of Asia, which are now occupied by the Danes, the Swedes, the Poles, the subjects of the Russian empire, and the Tartars. Their condition, and transactions previous to their invasion of the Empire are but little known. All our information with respect to these is derived from the Romans; and as they did not penetrate far into countries which were at that time uncultivated and uninviting, the accounts of their original state given by them are extremely imperfect. The rude inhabitants themselves, destitute of science, and of records, without leisure, or curiosity to enquire into remote events, retained, perhaps, some indistinct memory of recent occurrences, but beyond these, all was buried in oblivion, or involved in darkness, and in fable.

The prodigious swarms which poured in upon the Empire from the beginning of the fourth century to the final extinction of the Roman power, have given rise to an opinion that the countries whence they issued were crowded with inhabitants; and various theories have been formed to account for such an extraordinary degree of population as hath procured these countries the appellation of The Storehouse of Nations. But if we consider that the countries possessed by the people who invaded the Empire were of vast extent; that a great part of these was covered with woods and marshes; that some of the most considerable of the barbarous nations subsisted entirely by hunting or pasturage, in both which states of society large tracts of land are required for maintaining a few inhabitants; and that all of them were strangers to the arts, and industry, without which population cannot increase to any great degree, it is evident, that these countries could not be so populous in ancient times as they are at present, when they still continue to be less peopled than any other part of Europe or of Asia.

But if these circumstances prevented the barbarous nations from becoming populous, they contributed to inspire, or to strengthen the martial spirit by which they were distinguished. Inured by the rigour of their climate, or the poverty of their soil, to hardships which rendered their bodies firm, and their minds vigorous; accustomed to a course of life which was a continual preparation for action; and disdaining every occupation but that of war; they undertook, and prosecuted their military enterprizes with an ardour and impetuosity, of which men softened by the refinements of more polished times, can scarce form any idea.

Their first inroads into the Empire proceeded rather from the love of plunder, than from the desire of new settlements. Roused to arms by some enterprizing or popular leader, they sallied out of their forests; broke in upon the frontier provinces with irresistible violence; put all who opposed them to the sword; carried off the most valuable effects of the inhabitants; dragged along multitudes of captives in chains; wasted all before them with fire or sword; and returned in triumph to their wilds and fastnesses. Their success, together with the accounts which they gave of the unknown conveniencies and luxuries that abounded in countries better cultivated, or blessed with a milder climate than their own, excited new adventurers, and exposed the frontier to new devastations.

When nothing was left to plunder in the adjacent provinces ravaged by frequent incursions, they marched farther from home, and finding it difficult, or dangerous to return, they began to settle in the countries which they had subdued. The sudden and short excursions in quest of booty, which had alarmed, and disquieted the Empire, ceased; a more dreadful calamity impended. Great bodies of armed men with their wives and children, and slaves and flocks, issued forth, like regular colonies, in quest of new settlements. People who had no cities, and seldom any fixed habitation, were so little attached to their native soil, that they migrated without reluctance from one place to another. New adventurers followed them. The lands which they deserted were occupied by more remote tribes of barbarians. These, in their turn, pushed forward into more fertile countries, and like a torrent continually increasing, rolled on, and swept every thing before them. In less than two centuries from their first irruption, barbarians of various names and lineage, plundered and took possession of Thrace, Pannonia, Gaul, Spain, Africa, and at last of Italy, and Rome itself. The vast fabrick of the Roman power which it had been the work of ages to perfect, was in that short period overturned from the foundation.

Many concurring causes prepared the way for this great revolution, and ensured success to the nations which invaded the Empire. The Roman commonwealth had conquered the world by the wisdom of its civil maxims, and the rigour of its military discipline. But, under the Emperors, the former were forgotten or despised, and the latter was gradually relaxed. The armies of the Empire in the fourth and fifth centuries bore scarce any resemblance to those invincible legions which had been victorious wherever they marched. Instead of freemen, who voluntarily took arms from the love of glory, or of their country, provincials and barbarians were bribed or forced into service. They were too feeble, or too proud to submit to the fatigue of military duty. . . .These wretched troops, however, were the only guardians of the empire. The jealousy of despotism had deprived the people of the use of arms; and subjects oppressed and rendered incapable of defending themselves, had neither spirit nor inclination to resist their invaders, from whom they had little to fear, because they could scarce make their condition more unhappy. As the martial spirit became extinct, the revenues of the Empire gradually diminished. . . . The limits of the Empire continued to be as extensive as ever, while the spirit requisite for its defence declined, and its resources were exhausted. A vast body, languid, and almost unanimated, became incapable of any effort to save itself, and was easily overpowered. The Emperors, who had the absolute direction of this disordered system, sunk in the softness of Eastern luxury, shut up within the walls of a palace, ignorant of war, unacquainted with affairs, and governed entirely by women and eunuchs, or by ministers equally effeminate, trembled at the approach of danger, and under circumstances which called for the utmost vigour in counsel as well as in action, discovered all the impotent irresolution of fear, and of folly.

In every respect, the condition of the barbarous nations was the reverse of that of the Romans. Among them, the martial spirit was in full vigour; their leaders were hardy and enterprizing; the arts which had enervated the Romans were unknown among them; and such was the nature of their military institutions, that they brought forces into the field without any trouble, and supported them at little expence. The mercenary and effeminate troops stationed on the frontier, astonished at their fierceness, either fled at their approach, or were routed in the first onset. The feeble expedient to which the Emperors had recourse, of taking large bodies of the barbarians into pay, and of employing them to repel new invaders, instead of retarding, hastened the destruction of the Empire. They soon turned their arms against their masters, and with greater advantage than ever: for, by serving in the Roman armies, they had acquired all the discipline, or skill in war, which the Romans still retained; and upon adding these to their native ferocity, they became altogether irresistible.

But though from these, and many other causes, the progress and conquests of the nations which overran the Empire, became so extremely rapid, they were accompanied with horrible devastations, and an incredible destruction of the human species. Civilized nations which take arms upon cool reflection, from motives of policy or prudence, with a view to guard against some distant danger, or to prevent some remote contingency, carry on their hostilities with so little rancour, or animosity, that war among them is disarmed of half its terrors. Barbarians are strangers to such refinements. They rush into war with impetuosity, and prosecute it with violence. Their sole object is to make their enemies feel the weight of their vengeance, nor does their rage subside until it be satiated with inflicting on them every possible calamity. It is such a spirit that the savage tribes in America carry on their petty wars. It was with the same spirit that the more powerful and no less fierce barbarians in the north of Europe, and of Asia, fell upon the Roman Empire.

Wherever they marched, their rout was marked with blood. They ravaged or destroyed all around them. They made no distinction between what was sacred, and what was profane. They respected no age, or sex, or rank. What escaped the fury of the first inundation perished in those which followed it. The most fertile and populous provinces were converted into deserts, in which were scattered the ruins of villages and cities, that afforded shelter to a few miserable inhabitants whom chance had preserved, or the sword of the enemy, wearied with destroying, had spared. The conquerors who first settled in the countries which they had wasted were expelled or exterminated by new invaders, who coming from regions farther removed from the civilized parts of the world, were still more fierce and rapacious. This brought new calamities upon mankind, which did not cease until the north, by pouring forth successive swarms, was drained of people, and could no longer furnish instruments of destruction. Famine and pestilence, which always march in the train of war, when it ravages with such inconsiderate cruelty, raged in every part of Europe, and compleated its sufferings. If a man were called to fix upon the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most calamitous and afflicted, he would without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Theodosius the Great, to the establishment of the Lombards in Italy. [395 to 571 A.D.] The contemporary authors who beheld that scene of desolation, labour and are at a loss for expressions to describe the horror of it. The scourge of God, The destroyer of nations, are the dreadful epithets by which they distinguished the most noted of the barbarous leaders; and they compared the ruin which they had brought on the world, to the havock occasioned by earthquakes, conflagrations, or deluges, the most formidable and fatal calamities which the imagination of man can conceive.

But no expressions can convey so perfect an idea of the destructive progress of the barbarians as that which must strike an attentive observer, when he contemplates the total change, which he will discover in the state of Europe when it began to recover some degree of tranquillity towards the close of the sixth century. The Saxons were by that time masters of the southern, and more fertile provinces of Britain; the Franks of Gaul; the Huns of Pannonia; the Goths of Spain; the Goths and Lombards of Italy and the adjacent provinces. Scarce any vestige of the Roman policy, jurisprudence, arts, or literature, remained. New forms of government, new laws, new manners, new dresses, new languages, and new names of men and countries, were every where introduced. To make a great or sudden alteration with respect to any of these, unless where the ancient inhabitants of a country have been almost totally exterminated, has proved an undertaking beyond the power of the greatest conquerors. The total change which the settlement of the barbarous nations occasioned in the state of Europe, may, therefore, be considered as a more decisive proof, than even the testimony of contemporary historians, of the destructive violence with which they carried on their conquests, and of the havock which they had made from one extremity of this quarter of the globe to the other. . . .

When nations subject to despotic government make conquests, these serve only to extend the dominion and the power of their master. But armies composed of freemen conquer for themselves, not for their leaders. The people who overturned the Roman Empire, and settled in its various provinces, were of the latter class. Not only the different nations that issued from the north of Europe, which has always been considered as the seat of liberty, but the Huns and Alans who inhabited part of those countries which have been marked out as the peculiar region of servitude [by Montesquieu], enjoyed freedom and independance to such a high degree as seems to be scarce compatible with a state of social union, or with the subordination necessary to maintain it. They followed the chieftain who led them forth in quest of new settlements, not by constraint, but from choice; not as soldiers whom he could order to march, but as volunteers who offered to accompany him. They considered their conquests as a common property, in which all had a title to share, as all had contributed to acquire them. In what manner, or by what principles, they divided among them the lands which they seized, we cannot now determine with any certainty. There is no nation in Europe whose records reach back to this remote period; and there is little information to be got from the uninstructive and meagre chronicles, compiled by writers ignorant of the true end, and unacquainted with the proper objects of history.

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The History of the Reign of the Emperor Charles V is available online at Google Books. A short edition containing the "Progress," entitled The Progress of Society in Europe: A Historical Outline from the Subversion of the Roman Empire to the Beginning of the Sixteenth Century, with an introduction and historical notes by Felix Gilbert, was published by the University of Chicago Press in 1972. The "Progress," as Gilbert notes, was Robertson's most famous work and "deserves to be counted among the classics of European historical writing."

Image courtesty of Wikipedia.