CHAPTER XI. THE FALL OF THE EMPIRE.
[The settlement of the franks in Gaul.]
Gaul was divided among the Franks, the Burgundians, and the Visigoths, whose perpetual wars, and whose infant kingdom, it is not my object to present.
[The settlement of the Saxons in Britain.]
Britain was possessed by the Saxons, Spain by the Vandals, Suevi, and Visigoths, and Africa by the Vandals, while the whole eastern empire fell into the hands of the Saracens, except Constantinople, which preserved the treasures of Greek and Roman civilization, until the barbarians, elevated by the Christian religion, were prepared to ingraft it upon their own rude laws and customs.
It would be interesting to trace the various fortunes of these Teutonic tribes in the devastated provinces which they possessed by conquest. But this would lead us into a boundless field, foreign to our inquiry. It is the fall of Rome, not the reconstruction by the new races, which I seek to present. It would also be interesting to survey the old capital of the world in the hands of her various masters, pillaged and sacked by all in turn; but her doom was sealed when Alaric entered the gates which had been closed for six hundred years to a foreign enemy, and the empire fell, virtually, when the haughty city, so long a queen among the nations, yielded up her palaces as spoil. The eastern empire had a longer life, but it was inglorious when Rome was no longer the superior city.
[Reflections on the fall of the empire.]
The story of the fall of the grandest empire ever erected on our earth is simple and impressive. Genius, energy, and patience led to vast possessions, which were retained by a uniform policy which nothing could turn aside. Prosperity and success led to boundless self-exaggeration and a depreciation of enemies, while the vices of self-interest undermined gradually all real strength. Society became utterly demoralized and weakened, and there were no conservative forces sufficiently, strong to hold it together. Vitality was destroyed by disproportionate fortunes, by slavery, by the extinction of the middle classes, by the degradation of woman, by demoralizing excitements, by factitious life, by imperial misrule, by proconsular tyranny, by enervating vices, by the absence of elevated sentiments, by an all-engrossing abandonment to money-making and the pleasures it procured, so that no lofty appeal could be made to which the degenerate people would listen, or which they could understand. The empire was rotten to the core - was steeped in selfishness, sensuality, and frivolity, and the poison pervaded all classes and orders, and descended to the extremities of the social system. What could be done? There was no help from man. The empire was on the verge of dissolution when the barbarians came. They only gave a shock and hastened the fall. The empire was ripe fruit, to be plucked by the strongest hand.
Three centuries earlier a brave resistance would have been' made, and the barbarians would have been overthrown and annihilated or sold as slaves. But they were now the stronger, even with their rude weapons, and without the arts of war which the Romans had been learning for a thousand years. Yet they suffered prodigious losses before they became ultimately victorious. But they persevered, driven by necessity as well as the love of adventure and rapine. Wave after wave was rolled back by desperate generals; but the tide returned, and swept all away.
Fortunately, they reconstructed after they had once destroyed. They were converts of Christianity, and had sympathy with many elements of civilization. "Some solitary sparks fell from the beautiful world that was passed upon the night of their labors." These kindled a fire which has never been extinguished. They had, with all their barbarism, some great elements of character, and in all the solid qualities of the heart, were superior to the races they subdued. They brought their fresh blood into the body politic, and were alive to sentiments of religion, patriotism, and love. They were enthusiastic, hopeful, generous, and uncontaminated by those subtle vices which ever lead to ruin. They made innumerable mistakes, and committed inexcusable follies. But, after a long pilgrimage, and severely disciplined by misfortunes, they erected a new fabric, established by the beautiful union of German strength and Roman art, on the more solid foundations of Christian truth.
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The authorities for this chapter are not numerous. They are the historians of the empire in its decline and miseries. Gibbon's history is doubtless the best in English. He may be compared with Tillemont's Hist, des Emperors. Sheppard has written an interesting and instructing book on this period, but it pertains especially to the rise of the new barbaric states. Tacitus' chapter on the Manners of the Germans should be read in connection with the wars. Gibbon quotes largely from Ammianus Marcellinus, who is the best Latin historian of the last days of Rome. Zosimus is an authority, but he is brief. Procopius wrote a history of the Vandal wars. Gregory of Tours describes the desolations in Gaul, as well as Journandes. The writings of Jerome, Augustine, and other fathers, allude somewhat to the miseries and wickedness of the times. But of all the writers on this dark and gloomy period, Gibbon is the most satisfactory and exhaustive; nor is it probable he will soon be supplanted in a field so dreary and sad.