Error and Ancient History

Edward Gibbon, A Vindication (§ 12):

After a short description of the unworthy conduct of those Apostates who, in a time of persecution, deserted the Faith of Christ, I produced the evidence of a Pagan Proconsul, and of two Christian Bishops, Pliny, Dionysius of Alexandria, and Cyprian. And here the unforgiving Critic remarks,

“That Pliny has not particularized that difference of conduct (in the different Apostates) which Mr. Gibbon here describes: yet his name stands at the head of those Authors whom he has cited on the occasion. It is allowed indeed that this distinction is made by the other Authors; but as Pliny, the first referred to by Mr. Gibbon, gives him no cause or reason to use them,” (I cannot help Mr. Davis’s bad English) “it is certainly very reprehensible in our Author, thus to confound their testimony, and to make a needless and improper reference.”

A criticism of this sort can only tend to expose Mr. Davis’s total ignorance of historical composition. The Writer who aspires to the name of Historian, is obliged to consult a variety of original testimonies, each of which, taken separately, is perhaps imperfect and partial. By a judicious re-union and arrangement of these dispersed materials, he endeavours to form a consistent and interesting narrative. Nothing ought to be inserted which is not proved by some of the witnesses; but their evidence must be so intimately blended together, that as it is unreasonable to expect that each of them should vouch for the whole, so it would be impossible to define the boundaries of their respective property. Neither Pliny, nor Dionysius, nor Cyprian, mention all the circumstances and distinctions of the conduct of the Christian Apostates; but if any of them was withdrawn, the account which I have given would, in some instance, be defective.

Thus much I thought necessary to say, as several of the subsequent misrepresentations of Orosius, of Bayle, of Fabricius, of Gregory of Tours, etc, which provoked the fury of Mr. Davis, are derived only from the ignorance of this common historical principle.

Another class of Misrepresentations, which my Adversary urges with the same degree of vehemence (See in particular those of Justin, Diodorus Siculus, and even Tacitus), requires the support of another principle, which has not yet been introduced into the art of criticism; that when a modern historian appeals to the authority of the ancients for the truth of any particular fact; he makes himself answerable, I know not to what extent, for all the circumjacent errors or inconsistencies of the authors whom he has quoted.

BBC206171 Portrait of Edward Gibbon (1737-94) c.1779 (oil on canvas) by Reynolds, Sir Joshua (1723-92)
Private Collection
English, out of copyright

Rejected Responsibility: A Real Riot

Rachel Bespaloff, The Comedy of the Gods (trans. Mary McCarthy)

The Iliad has its share of the comic spirit. It even has humor: the Olympians supply it. Zeus’s court plays much the same role that worldly society and Alexander’s satellites play in War and Peace. The absolute futility of beings who are exempted by fortune from the common lot achieves, in the Immortals, a kind of showy, decorative stateliness. The gods of the Iliad and the worldlings of War and Peace have that want of seriousness (and by seriousness I do not mean heaviness) that for Homer, as for Tolstoy, is the distinguishing mark of the subhuman; this is what makes them such exquisite comic figures. Everything that happens has been caused by them, but they take no responsibility, whereas the epic heroes take total responsibility even for that which they have not caused. The gods’ irresponsibility begins at home; they are not responsible for themselves. Where the free individual is not asserting himself against Fate, responsibility has nothing to grasp. Anger spills out in a burst of laughter that sanctions the triumph of incoherence. Thus the gods elude mortal classifications; both innocence and sin are beyond them. Agents provocateurs, smart propagandists, heated partisans, these belligerents do not mind the smell of carnage or the clash of tragic passions. Condemned to a permanent security, they would die of boredom without intrigues and war.

An Absurd Etymology for Dithyramb

Scholia to Lykophron’s Alexandra, Introduction

“In addition to these, here are the characteristics of prominent poets, the lyric ones who sing their songs to a lyre and who may have a chorus of fifty men set up in a circle, those who also used to take a bull as a prize. These features are shared with the dithyrambic poets. The dithyrambic poets are in the habit of composing their fine hymns do Dionysus and they used to take tripods [as gifts?]. These poems are called dithyramboi thanks to the “two exit doors” of Dionysus, Semele’s stomach and Zeus’ thigh. “

καὶ ταῦτα μὲν τὰ γνωρίσματα τῶν καλουμένων κατ’ ἐξοχὴν ποιητῶν, λυρικῶν δὲ γνωρίσματα τὸ πρὸς λύραν τὰ τούτων ἄδεσθαι μέλη καὶ χορὸς ἑστὼς κυκλικῶς ἄνδρας ἔχων πεντήκοντα, οἵπερ καὶ δῶρον ταῦρον ἐλάμβανον.

καὶ διθυραμβικοῖς δὲ τοῦτο κοινόν. οἱ διθυραμβικοὶ δὲ τῶν λυρικῶν εἶχόν τι πλέον τὸ πρὸς τὸν Διόνυσον πολυστρόφους πλέκειν τοὺς ὕμνους καὶ τρίποδας ἐλάμβανον διὸ καὶ διθύραμβοι ἀπὸ τοῦ Διονύσου ἐλέγοντο τοῦ διὰ δύο θυρῶν βάντος, τῆς τε γαστρὸς τῆς Σεμέλης καὶ τοῦ μηροῦ τοῦ Διός.

If you didn’t get the joke, it is because di-thura-ba- [here, duo-thuron-bantos; “two-doors-walking”] presents the essential sounds of dithyramb.  Byzantine etymological text repeats the origin and explains it a bit, not without adding another on its own.

 

Etymologicum Magnum, s.v. dithyrambos

“Dithyrambos: Dionysus. It is an epithet of Dionysus because he was raised in a cave with two doors in Nussê. This is also the hymn named for the god and dedicated to him.  It comes from “coming through two doors”, the womb of his mother Semele and Zeus’ thigh—since he was born twice: once from his mother, and once from Zeus’ thigh. This is how he exited the ‘door’ twice.”

Διθύραμβος: ῾Ο Διόνυσος. ᾿Επίθετόν ἐστι τοῦ Διονύσου, ὅτι ἐν διθύρῳ ἄντρῳ τῆς Νύσσης ἐτράφη· καὶ ὁμωνύμως τῷ θεῷ ὁ εἰς αὐτὸν ὕμνος. ῍Η ἀπὸ τοῦ δύο θύρας βαίνειν, τήν τε κοιλίαν τῆς μητρὸς Σεμέλης, καὶ τὸν μηρὸν τοῦ Διός· ἀπὸ τοῦ δεύτερον τετέχθαι, ἀπό τε τῆς μητρὸς, καὶ ἀπὸ τοῦ μηροῦ τοῦ Διός· ἵν’ ᾖ ὁ δὶς θύραζε βεβηκώς.

Dionysusbirth
Birth 2/2. The first was from Semele…

The Necessary Tools of Despotism

Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chp. V:

“The power of the sword is more sensibly felt in an extensive monarchy, than in a small community. It has been calculated by the ablest politicians, that no state, without being soon exhausted, can maintain above the hundredth part of its members in arms and idleness. But although this relative proportion may be uniform, the influence of the army over the rest of the society will vary according to the degree of its positive strength. The advantages of military science and discipline cannot be exerted, unless a proper number of soldiers are united into one body, and actuated by one soul. With a handful of men, such a union would be ineffectual; with an unwieldy host, it would be impracticable; and the powers of the machine would be alike destroyed by the extreme minuteness or the excessive weight of its springs. To illustrate this observation, we need only reflect, that there is no superiority of natural strength, artificial weapons, or acquired skill, which could enable one man to keep in constant subjection one hundred of his fellow-creatures: the tyrant of a single town, or a small district, would soon discover that a hundred armed followers were a weak defence against ten thousand peasants or citizens; but a hundred thousand well-disciplined soldiers will command, with despotic sway, ten millions of subjects; and a body of ten or fifteen thousand guards will strike terror into the most numerous populace that ever crowded the streets of an immense capital. The Praetorian bands, whose licentious fury was the first symptom and cause of the decline of the Roman empire, scarcely amounted to the last-mentioned number. They derived their institution from Augustus. That crafty tyrant, sensible that laws might color, but that arms alone could maintain, his usurped dominion, had gradually formed this powerful body of guards, in constant readiness to protect his person, to awe the senate, and either to prevent or to crush the first motions of rebellion. He distinguished these favored troops by a double pay and superior privileges; but, as their formidable aspect would at once have alarmed and irritated the Roman people, three cohorts only were stationed in the capital, whilst the remainder was dispersed in the adjacent towns of Italy.  But after fifty years of peace and servitude, Tiberius ventured on a decisive measure, which forever rivetted the fetters of his country. Under the fair pretences of relieving Italy from the heavy burden of military quarters, and of introducing a stricter discipline among the guards, he assembled them at Rome, in a permanent camp, which was fortified with skilful care, and placed on a commanding situation. “

Nameless Altars and Human Sacrifice

Diogenes Laertius, Vitae philosophorum 1.110 [Epimenides]

“Epimenides was known among the Greeks and was thought to be extremely beloved to the gods. For this reason, when the Athenians were once afflicted by a plague and the Pythian oracle prophesied that they should cleanse their city, they sent a ship along with Nikias the son of Nikêratos, summoning Epimenides.

He made it to Athens at the time of the 46th Olympiad [c. 596 BCE] and cleansed the city. He stopped it in the following manner. After obtaining white and black sheep, he led them to the Areopagos and then allowed them to go wherever they wanted there. He ordered the people following them to sacrifice the sheep to whichever god was proper to the place where each sheep laid down.

This is how the plague stopped. For this reason it is still even today possible to find altars without names in certain Athenian neighborhoods as a commemoration of that ancient cleansing. Some people report that Epimenides indicated the pollution from the Kylon scandal as the cause of the plague along with a resolution for it. For this reason, they killed two youths, Kratinos and Ktêsibios and the suffering was relieved.”

(110) γνωσθεὶς δὲ παρὰ τοῖς ῞Ελλησι θεοφιλέστατος εἶναι ὑπελήφθη. ὅθεν καὶ Ἀθηναίοις ποτὲ λοιμῶι κατεχομένοις ἔχρησεν ἡ Πυθία καθῆραι τὴν πόλιν, οἱ δὲ πέμπουσι ναῦν τε καὶ Νικίαν τὸν Νικηράτου εἰς Κρήτην, καλοῦντες τὸν Ἐπιμενίδην. καὶ ὃς ἐλθὼν ὀλυμπιάδι τεσσαρακοστῆι ἕκτηι ἐκάθηρεν αὐτῶν τὴν πόλιν, καὶ ἔπαυσε τὸν λοιμὸν τοῦτον τὸν τρόπον· λαβὼν πρόβατα μέλανά τε καὶ λευκά, ἤγαγεν πρὸς τὸν ῎Αρειον πάγον, κἀκεῖθεν εἴασεν ἰέναι οἷ βούλοιντο, προστάξας τοῖς ἀκολούθοις, ἔνθα ἂν κατακλινῆι αὐτῶν ἕκαστον, θύειν τῶι προσήκοντι θεῶι· καὶ οὕτω λῆξαι τὸ κακόν· ὅθεν ἔτι καὶ νῦν ἔστιν εὺρεῖν κατὰ τοὺς δήμους τῶν Ἀθηναίων βωμοὺς ἀνωνύμους, ὑπόμνημα τῆς τότε γενομενης ἐξιλάσεως. οἱ δὲ τὴν αἰτίαν εἰπεῖν τοῦ λοιμοῦ τὸ Κυλώνειον ἄγος σημαίνειν τε τὴν ἀπαλλαγήν· καὶ διὰ τοῦτο ἀποθανεῖν δύο νεανίας Κρατῖνον καὶ Κτησίβιον, καὶ λυθῆναι τὴν συμφοράν

File:3217 - Athens - Sto… of Attalus Museum - Kylix - Photo by ...
Kylix showing an armored youth offering a sacrifice. Ancient Agora Museum in Athens, around 480 BC

Reading Gibbon and His Naughty Footnotes

Winston Churchill, My Early Life:

“So I resolved to read history, philosophy, economics, and things like that; and I wrote to my mother asking for such books as I had heard of on these topics. She responded with alacrity, and every month the mail brought me a substantial package of what I thought were standard works. In history I decided to begin with Gibbon. Someone had told me that my father had read Gibbon with delight; that he knew whole pages of it by heart, and that it had greatly affected his style of speech and writing. So without more ado I set out upon the eight volumes of Dean Milman’s edition of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empre. I was immediately dominated both by the story and the style. All through the long glistening middle hours of the Indian day, from when we quitted stables till the evening shadows proclaimed the hour of Polo, I devoured Gibbon. I rode triumphantly through it from end to end and enjoyed it all. I scribbled all my opinions on the margins of the pages, and very soon found myself a vehement partisan of the author against the disparagements of his pompous-pious editor. I was not even estranged by his naughty footnotes. On the other hand the Dean’s apologies and disclaimers roused my ire.”

Who’s Your Favorite Historian, and Why Is It Tacitus?

Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (XVI):

“Notwithstanding it is probable that Tacitus was born some years before the fire of Rome, he could derive only from reading and conversation the knowledge of an event which happened during his infancy. Before he gave himself to the public, he calmly waited till his genius had attained its full maturity, and he was more than forty years of age, when a grateful regard for the memory of the virtuous Agricola extorted from him the most early of those historical compositions which will delight and instruct the most distant posterity. After making a trial of his strength in the life of Agricola and the description of Germany, he conceived, and at length executed, a more arduous work; the history of Rome, in thirty books, from the fall of Nero to the accession of Nerva. The administration of Nerva introduced an age of justice and propriety, which Tacitus had destined for the occupation of his old age; but when he took a nearer view of his subject, judging, perhaps, that it was a more honorable or a less invidious office to record the vices of past tyrants, than to celebrate the virtues of a reigning monarch, he chose rather to relate, under the form of annals, the actions of the four immediate successors of Augustus.

To collect, to dispose, and to adorn a series of fourscore years, in an immortal work, every sentence of which is pregnant with the deepest observations and the most lively images, was an undertaking sufficient to exercise the genius of Tacitus himself during the greatest part of his life. In the last years of the reign of Trajan, whilst the victorious monarch extended the power of Rome beyond its ancient limits, the historian was describing, in the second and fourth books of his annals, the tyranny of Tiberius; and the emperor Hadrian must have succeeded to the throne, before Tacitus, in the regular prosecution of his work, could relate the fire of the capital, and the cruelty of Nero towards the unfortunate Christians. At the distance of sixty years, it was the duty of the annalist to adopt the narratives of contemporaries; but it was natural for the philosopher to indulge himself in the description of the origin, the progress, and the character of the new sect, not so much according to the knowledge or prejudices of the age of Nero, as according to those of the time of Hadrian. Tacitus very frequently trusts to the curiosity or reflection of his readers to supply those intermediate circumstances and ideas, which, in his extreme conciseness, he has thought proper to suppress.”

Historical Wallpapers: Great Fire of Rome (Magnum ...

Nameless Altars and Human Sacrifice

Diogenes Laertius, Vitae philosophorum 1.110 [Epimenides]

“Epimenides was known among the Greeks and was thought to be extremely beloved to the gods. For this reason, when the Athenians were once afflicted by a plague and the Pythian oracle prophesied that they should cleanse their city, they sent a ship along with Nikias the son of Nikêratos, summoning Epimenides.

He made it to Athens at the time of the 46th Olympiad [c. 596 BCE] and cleansed the city. He stopped it in the following manner. After obtaining white and black sheep, he led them to the Areopagos and then allowed them to go wherever they wanted there. He ordered the people following them to sacrifice the sheep to whichever god was proper to the place where each sheep laid down.

This is how the plague stopped. For this reason it is still even today possible to find altars without names in certain Athenian neighborhoods as a commemoration of that ancient cleansing. Some people report that Epimenides indicated the pollution from the Kylon scandal as the cause of the plague along with a resolution for it. For this reason, they killed two youths, Kratinos and Ktêsibios and the suffering was relieved.”

(110) γνωσθεὶς δὲ παρὰ τοῖς ῞Ελλησι θεοφιλέστατος εἶναι ὑπελήφθη. ὅθεν καὶ Ἀθηναίοις ποτὲ λοιμῶι κατεχομένοις ἔχρησεν ἡ Πυθία καθῆραι τὴν πόλιν, οἱ δὲ πέμπουσι ναῦν τε καὶ Νικίαν τὸν Νικηράτου εἰς Κρήτην, καλοῦντες τὸν Ἐπιμενίδην. καὶ ὃς ἐλθὼν ὀλυμπιάδι τεσσαρακοστῆι ἕκτηι ἐκάθηρεν αὐτῶν τὴν πόλιν, καὶ ἔπαυσε τὸν λοιμὸν τοῦτον τὸν τρόπον· λαβὼν πρόβατα μέλανά τε καὶ λευκά, ἤγαγεν πρὸς τὸν ῎Αρειον πάγον, κἀκεῖθεν εἴασεν ἰέναι οἷ βούλοιντο, προστάξας τοῖς ἀκολούθοις, ἔνθα ἂν κατακλινῆι αὐτῶν ἕκαστον, θύειν τῶι προσήκοντι θεῶι· καὶ οὕτω λῆξαι τὸ κακόν· ὅθεν ἔτι καὶ νῦν ἔστιν εὺρεῖν κατὰ τοὺς δήμους τῶν Ἀθηναίων βωμοὺς ἀνωνύμους, ὑπόμνημα τῆς τότε γενομενης ἐξιλάσεως. οἱ δὲ τὴν αἰτίαν εἰπεῖν τοῦ λοιμοῦ τὸ Κυλώνειον ἄγος σημαίνειν τε τὴν ἀπαλλαγήν· καὶ διὰ τοῦτο ἀποθανεῖν δύο νεανίας Κρατῖνον καὶ Κτησίβιον, καὶ λυθῆναι τὴν συμφοράν

File:3217 - Athens - Sto… of Attalus Museum - Kylix - Photo by ...
 Kylix showing an armored youth offering a sacrifice. Ancient Agora Museum in Athens, around 480 BC

Purchasing Political Power

Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (V):

“The Praetorians had violated the sanctity of the throne by the atrocious murder of Pertinax; they dishonored the majesty of it by their subsequent conduct. The camp was without a leader, for even the praefect Laetus, who had excited the tempest, prudently declined the public indignation. Amidst the wild disorder, Sulpicianus, the emperor’s father-in-law, and governor of the city, who had been sent to the camp on the first alarm of mutiny, was endeavoring to calm the fury of the multitude, when he was silenced by the clamorous return of the murderers, bearing on a lance the head of Pertinax. Though history has accustomed us to observe every principle and every passion yielding to the imperious dictates of ambition, it is scarcely credible that, in these moments of horror, Sulpicianus should have aspired to ascend a throne polluted with the recent blood of so near a relation and so excellent a prince. He had already begun to use the only effectual argument, and to treat for the Imperial dignity; but the more prudent of the Praetorians, apprehensive that, in this private contract, they should not obtain a just price for so valuable a commodity, ran out upon the ramparts; and, with a loud voice, proclaimed that the Roman world was to be disposed of to the best bidder by public auction.

This infamous offer, the most insolent excess of military license, diffused a universal grief, shame, and indignation throughout the city. It reached at length the ears of Didius Julianus, a wealthy senator, who, regardless of the public calamities, was indulging himself in the luxury of the table. His wife and his daughter, his freedmen and his parasites, easily convinced him that he deserved the throne, and earnestly conjured him to embrace so fortunate an opportunity. The vain old man hastened to the Praetorian camp, where Sulpicianus was still in treaty with the guards, and began to bid against him from the foot of the rampart. The unworthy negotiation was transacted by faithful emissaries, who passed alternately from one candidate to the other, and acquainted each of them with the offers of his rival. Sulpicianus had already promised a donative of five thousand drachms (above one hundred and sixty pounds) to each soldier; when Julian, eager for the prize, rose at once to the sum of six thousand two hundred and fifty drachms, or upwards of two hundred pounds sterling. The gates of the camp were instantly thrown open to the purchaser; he was declared emperor, and received an oath of allegiance from the soldiers, who retained humanity enough to stipulate that he should pardon and forget the competition of Sulpicianus.

It was now incumbent on the Praetorians to fulfil the conditions of the sale. They placed their new sovereign, whom they served and despised, in the centre of their ranks, surrounded him on every side with their shields, and conducted him in close order of battle through the deserted streets of the city. The senate was commanded to assemble; and those who had been the distinguished friends of Pertinax, or the personal enemies of Julian, found it necessary to affect a more than common share of satisfaction at this happy revolution. After Julian had filled the senate house with armed soldiers, he expatiated on the freedom of his election, his own eminent virtues, and his full assurance of the affections of the senate. The obsequious assembly congratulated their own and the public felicity; engaged their allegiance, and conferred on him all the several branches of the Imperial power. From the senate Julian was conducted, by the same military procession, to take possession of the palace. The first objects that struck his eyes, were the abandoned trunk of Pertinax, and the frugal entertainment prepared for his supper. The one he viewed with indifference, the other with contempt. A magnificent feast was prepared by his order, and he amused himself, till a very late hour, with dice, and the performances of Pylades, a celebrated dancer. Yet it was observed, that after the crowd of flatterers dispersed, and left him to darkness, solitude, and terrible reflection, he passed a sleepless night; revolving most probably in his mind his own rash folly, the fate of his virtuous predecessor, and the doubtful and dangerous tenure of an empire which had not been acquired by merit, but purchased by money.”

Didius Julianus

F**k Your Faulty Footnotes, Fool!

Henry Edwards Davis,

An Examination of the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Chapters of Mr. Gibbon’s History:

“The remarkable mode of quotation, which Mr. Gibbon adopts, must immediately strike ever one who turns to his notes. He sometimes only mentions the author, perhaps the book, and often leaves the reader the toil of finding out, or rather guessing at the passage.

The policy, however, is not without its design and use. By endeavouring to deprive us of the means of comparing him with the authorities he cites, he flattered himself, no doubt, that he might safely have recourse to misrepresentation; that his inaccuracies might escape the piercing eye of criticism; and that he might indulge his wit and spleen, in fathering the absurdest opinions of the most venerable writers of antiquity. For, often, on examining his references, when they are to be traced, we shall find him supporting his cause by manifest falsification, and perpetually assuming to himself the strange privilege of inserting in his text what the writers referred to give him no right to advance on their authority.

This breach of the common faith reposed in authors, is particularly indefensible, as it deceives all those who have not the leisure, the means, nor the abilities, of searching out the passages in the originals.”

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