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Gibbon Meets Machiavelli

Gibbon Meets Machiavelli

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.


November 3, 2023

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

The October Quarterly Discussion merged two chapters from The Prince by Machiavelli with a chapter from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Of prime interest was the focus on the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus. Machiavelli presents him as a champion of the princely cause since he successfully tricked and killed his opponents, won the throne by deceit and terror, and then remained emperor for many years by a mix of fear and harsh rule. I have already noted that virtue, according to Machiavelli, meant something more akin to power or prowess. In this sense, Severus was definitely virtuous. He also excelled at two qualities that Machiavelli finds necessary for a prince: the ability to be both fox and lion. In other words, Machiavelli saw a need for two abilities: one, to smell a trap and be deceitful, much like a fox; as well as the strength and facility to crush opponents, much like a lion. Severus fits this map. At the conclusion of chapter XIX, Machiavelli writes, “Therefore a prince, new to the principality, cannot imitate the actions of Marcus, nor, again is it necessary to follow those of Severus, but he ought to take from Severus those parts which are necessary to found his state, and from Marcus those which are proper and glorious to keep a state that may already be stable and firm.” He means to say that one cannot easily model Marcus Aurelius without all of Aurelius’s perceived prestige and wisdom. Instead, to gain the throne, one must act more like Severus, decisive and ambitious at all costs.

This implies what is most obviously true, that any political change involves discomfort. For Roman Emperors, however, a change in state was absolutely precarious. While Machiavelli doesn’t condone Severus’s brutality, he definitely applauds his intelligent survival skills. In fact, Severus may have provided a virtuous service simply in allowing Rome to stabilize once again.

It is also important to note that Severus fought for and won the throne by defeating worthy adversaries, but his predecessor, Julian, purchased the throne from the Praetorian guards. The purchase of a throne is universally reviled. Up until Julian’s purchase, this was an unthinkable act. While the Praetorian guards desired Julian’s money, they quickly angered at his sloth, greed, and inability to rule. Once the guards lost interest in Julian’s money, it took little effort to dispose of him. Therefore, the Praetorian guards play a huge role in this succession and even in Severus’s success. In him, they found a militant, decisive leader. The Praetorian guards, therefore, found a champion worthy of the throne.

It is precisely this moment, however, which Gibbon claims as the downfall of Rome – not the sale of the empire necessarily, but the rising power of the bands of Praetorian guards. “The Praetorian bands, whose licentious fury was the first symptom and cause of the decline of the Roman empire,” he writes while also acknowledging that the first of these guards “derived their institution from Augustus.” In other words, according to Gibbon, Rome’s decline quickly followed on the heels of its heyday. Augustus, having been adopted by Julius Caesar, and witness to his assassination, felt vulnerable. Therefore, he created a band of loyal soldiers meant solely to guard the emperor. In other words, Augustus initiated his very own militia. Gibbon clearly feels that their presence signaled Rome’s downfall.

Perhaps even more surprising to me is the fact that Severus, though brutal and unjust, provided some sort of much-needed stability. For those who have been through a civil war, the stability could not have been dearer. Therefore, their threshold for justice greatly decreased. They opted for stability at nearly all costs. Gibbon does not mince words when he writes, “Falsehood and insincerity, unsuitable as they seem to the dignity of public transactions, offend us with a less degrading idea of meanness, than when they are found in the intercourse of private life. In the latter, they discover a want of courage; in the other, only a defect of power: and, as it is impossible for the most able statesman to subdue millions of followers and enemies by their own personal strength, the world, under the name of policy, seems to have granted them a very liberal indulgence of craft and dissimulation. Yet the arts of Severus cannot be justified by the most ample privileges of state reason. He promised only to betray, he flattered only to ruin; and however he might occasionally bind himself by oaths and treaties, his conscience, obsequious to his interest, always released him from the inconvenient obligation.”

Where Machiavelli found virtue, Gibbon clearly does not. In fact, Gibbon marks this moment in history as the beginning of the end. These pieces work really well together in discussion and I thoroughly enjoyed the comments from all participants.

To join January’s Quarterly Discussion, email as****@hm*.edu.

Photo credit: Casimiro PT/Shutterstock

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