I can’t resist making a top-level post here.
Wayne has asked, “What are some examples, from the Roman or any other empire, of figures who attempted (either in vain or successfully) to slow the decline of their civilizations?”
Not surprisingly, my first thought is of Belisarius, the Last Roman, “the Africanus of new Rome” as Gibbon described him. So you don’t wanna hear more Gibbon? Don’t bring up, or provoke me to bring up, Belisarius, the namesake of my other blog ;-].
…the Roman armies were animated by the spirit of Belisarius; one of those heroic names which are familiar to every age and to every nation.
Belisarius is known to history as one of the great generals of all time. Thomas Edward Lawrence, of Arabian fame, lists in his magnificent Seven Pillars of Wisdom the five generals he studied at Oxford. The five, if memory serves (I don’t have a copy handy), were Hannibal, Napoleon, von Clausewitz, Marshall Foch, and Belisarius.
The great Pompey might inscribe on his trophies, that he had defeated in battle two millions of enemies, and reduced fifteen hundred cities from the Lake Maeotis to the Red Sea: but the fortune of Rome flew before his eagles; the nations were oppressed by their own fears, and the invincible legions which he commanded, had been formed by the habits of conquest and the discipline of ages. In this view, the character of Belisarius may be deservedly placed above the heroes of the ancient republics. His imperfections flowed from the contagion of the times; his virtues were his own, the free gift of nature or reflection; he raised himself without a master or a rival; and so inadequate were the arms committed to his hand, that his sole advantage was derived from the pride and presumption of his adversaries. Under his command, the subjects of Justinian often deserved to be called Romans…
Pompey, in other words, commanded a well-equipped and legendarily successful army; Belisarius was saddled with a poorly equipped and reviled force, and conquered largely through his own genius.
The Wikipedia points out that Belisarius was granted the last Roman triumph ever given for his defeat of the Vandal king Gelimer. His success, not surprisingly in an era of courtiers and flatterers, made a lot of enemies.
…flattery adheres to power, and envy to superior merit. The chiefs of the Roman army presumed to think themselves the rivals of a hero. Their private despatches maliciously affirmed, that the conqueror of Africa, strong in his reputation and the public love, conspired to seat himself on the throne of the Vandals. Justinian listened with too patient an ear; and his silence was the result of jealousy rather than of confidence. An honourable alternative, of remaining in the province, or of returning to the capital, was indeed submitted to the discretion of Belisarius; but he wisely concluded, from intercepted letters and the knowledge of his sovereign’s temper, that he must either resign his head, erect his standard, or confound his enemies by his presence and submission. Innocence and courage decided his choice; his guards, captives, and treasures, were diligently embarked; and so prosperous was the navigation, that his arrival at Constantinople preceded any certain account of his departure from the port of Carthage. Such unsuspecting loyalty removed the apprehensions of Justinian; envy was silenced and inflamed by the public gratitude; and the third Africanus obtained the honours of a triumph, a ceremony which the city of Constantine had never seen, and which ancient Rome, since the reign of Tiberius, had reserved for the auspicious arms of the Caesars. … Instead of ascending a triumphal car drawn by four horses or elephants, the modest conqueror marched on foot at the head of his brave companions; his prudence might decline an honour too conspicuous for a subject; and his magnanimity might justly disdain what had been so often sullied by the vilest of tyrants. The glorious procession entered the gate of the hippodrome; was saluted by the acclamations of the senate and people; and halted before the throne where Justinian and Theodora were seated to receive homage of the captive monarch and the victorious hero. They both performed the customary adoration; and falling prostrate on the ground, respectfully touched the footstool of a prince who had not unsheathed his sword, and of a prostitute who had danced on the theatre; some gentle violence was used to bend the stubborn spirit of the grandson of Genseric; and however trained to servitude, the genius of Belisarius must have secretly rebelled.
This is the signal achievement of Belisarius: not his generalship, the best for six centuries past and twelve centuries forward, but his citizenship, his belief that exhibiting the virtues of a Roman could provide an example for his fellow citizens that would redeem, at least in some measure, the empire to which his life was dedicated. Often he was exhorted to, as Gibbon says, “take up the standard”, that is, rebel against a vicious and small-minded emperor. But he refused. Not because he doubted the success of the venture, but because the venture was to his mind wrong.
It’s impossible in a reasonably short post to portray the amazing virtue of this man. If you want a complete picture, start with Gibbon’s Chapter 41.
I can’t close with anything better than Gibbon’s description of the reduction of the Gothic stronghold at Ravenna, by this time the capital of Italy.
The Goths retired with doubt and dismay: this peremptory refusal deprived them of the only signature which they could trust [that of Belisarius, the enemy general], and filled their minds with a just apprehension, that a sagacious enemy had discovered the full extent of their deplorable state. They compared the fame and fortune of Belisarius with the weakness of their ill-fated king; and the comparison suggested an extraordinary project, to which Vitiges, with apparent resignation, was compelled to acquiesce. Partition would ruin the strength, exile would disgrace the honour, of the nation; but they offered their arms, their treasures, and the fortifications of Ravenna, if Belisarius would disclaim the authority of a master, accept the choice of the Goths, and assume, as he had deserved, the kingdom of Italy. If the false lustre of a diadem could have tempted the loyalty of a faithful subject, his prudence must have foreseen the inconstancy of the Barbarians, and his rational ambition would prefer the safe and honourable station of a Roman general. Even the patience and seeming satisfaction with which he entertained a proposal of treason, might be susceptible of a malignant interpretation. But the lieutenant of Justinian was conscious of his own rectitude; he entered into a dark and crooked path, as it might lead to the voluntary submission of the Goths; and his dexterous policy persuaded them that he was disposed to comply with their wishes, without engaging an oath or a promise for the performance of a treaty which he secretly abhorred. … The submission of the capital was imitated in the towns and villages of Italy, which had not been subdued, or even visited, by the Romans; and the independent Goths, who remained in arms at Pavia and Verona, were ambitious only to become the subjects of Belisarius. But his inflexible loyalty rejected, except as the substitute of Justinian, their oaths of allegiance; and he was not offended by the reproach of their deputies, that he rather chose to be a slave than a king.
No. He chose to be a honorable man. What is greater than that?