Chapter 19 of The Spirit of the Laws Volume 3
The Grandeur of Attila and Why the Western Empire was overturned before the Eastern
September 30, 2021
Christianity was established when the empire was declining. The Christians reproached the Pagans for that decay. The Pagans retorted the charge on Christiantiy.
The Christians replied that Dioclesian ruined the empire, by associating his three colleagues because each emperor would be as expensive, and maintained as great armies as could have subsisted had there been but one sovereign.
As a consequence, those who furnished the contributions being unequally proportioned to the number of the receivers, the charges became so excessive that the lands were forsaken by the husbandmen, and for want of cultivation lay waste, and were covered with wild and barren forests.
The Pagans, on the other hand, were perpetually exclaiming against the strange innovations in religion, introduced by their adversaries, and never heard of till those days.
And as the overflowings of the Tyber, and other prejudicial effects of nature, were, in the flourishing state of Rome, ascribed to the displeasure of the gods; so the calamities of declining Rome were imputed to a religious novelty, and the subversion of the ancient altars.
Symmachus the prefect, in a letter to the emperors, relating to the altar of Victory, attacked the christian religion with arguments extremely popular, and consequently very seducing, and had art enough to set them off with all the plausibility invention could furnish.
The experience of our former prosperity can lead us more effectually to the knowledge of the gods. We should be faithful to such a series of ages, and pursue the same track followed by our fathers and their ancestors.
Those sacred institutions have made the universe obedient to my laws. These were the allies that chased Hannibal from my walls, and drove the Gauls in confusion from the capitol. We fervently ask peace for the gods of our country. We solicit it in the anguish of our souls, for our compatriot deities! We have no inclination to engage in disputes which are only proper for idle persons, and we would express ourselves in the language of supplication, and not of war.
Symmachus was answered by three celebrated authors. Orosius composed his history to prove there had always been calamities in the world, as great as those complained of by the Pagans.
Salvian likewise wrote his book, wherein he maintains, that the ravages of the Barbarians were to be imputed to the degenerate behaviour of the christians.
St. Austin demonstrates, that the city of heaven is very different from that city on earth in which the ancient Romans received, for a few human virtues, a recompence as vain as the virtues themselves.
Part of the politics of the ancient Romans consisted in dividing all the powers that gave them any umbrage; but that scheme was deseated in after times, and Rome could not prevent Attili from conquering all the northern nations= he extended his victories from the Danube to the Rhine, demolished all the forts and military works on the banks of those rivers, and made both the empires tributary.
"Theodosius with an insolent air, is descended from a father as noble as mine; but the moment I compelled him to pay tribute to me, he fell from the grandeur of his extraction, and became my vassal= and therefore it is unjust in him to act like a base slave, and endeavour to prejudice his master by treachery.”
“An emperor, said he, upon an other occasion, ought not to be a liar; he promised one of my subjects to give him the daughter of Saturninus in marriage; and I will immediately declare war against him, if he presumes to depart from his word; but if the disobedience of those about him puts it out of his power to be punctual, I will march to his assistance.”
## Attila the Hun
It is not to be imagined that Attila was induced by any moderation and lenity of temper, to let the Romans subsist; he only conformed himself to the genius of his nation, which prompted them to awe, and not to conquer foreign states.
Attila retired from the splendor of majesty to his mansion built of wood, according to the representation of Priscus, though at the same time he was lord of all the barbarous nations, and, in some degree, master of the chief part of those who were civilized, was one of the geeatest monarchs recorded in history.
Ambassadors from the eastern and western Roman empires were dispatched to his court to receive his laws and implore his favour.
Sometimes he commanded them to deliver up the Huns who had deserted from his armies, or the Roman slaves who had escaped from the vigilance of his officers. At other times, he would not be satisfied till some minister of the emperor was surrendered into his power. He charged the Eastern empire with a tribute of 200,000 of gold.
He received the yearly sum allowed to a Roman general and sent those he intended to reward to Constantinople, that they might be gratified to their utmost wish, making by these means a constant traffic of the apprehensions of the Romans.
He was feared by his subjects. But we have no reason to believe they entertained any aversion to his person= he was surprizingly fierce and impetuous, and at the same time exceeding politic and artful.
He appeared violent in his rage, but had a sufficient presence of mind to know when to pardon an offence, or deser a punishment as the circumstances were more or less agreeable to his interest.
War was never his choice, when he could derive sufficient advantages from peace. He was faithfully served even by the kings who were subordinate to his power, and had collected into his own conduct all the ancient simplicity of the northern manners.
In a word, we can never sufficiently admire this gallant sovereign of a people, whose very children were warmed with enthusiastic rage, at the relation of their father’s bravery; whilst those fathers shed manly tears, because they were incapacitated by age to imitate their martial children.
All the Barbarian nations, after his death, were divided into several independent bodies. But the Romans were then so weak, that the most inconsiderable people could molest them.
The empire was not ruined by any particular invasion. Instead, it sunk gradually under the weight of the several attacks on it. After that general assault it sustained in the time of Gallus. It seemed indeed, to be re-established, because none of its territories were dismembered from the main body; but it was stooping to its fall by several degrees of declension, till it was at once laid low in the reigns of Arcadius and Honorius.
In vain did the Romans chase the Barbarians from their settlements in the empire. that people, without any compulsion, would have retired to deposit their spoils in their own country. With as little success did Rome endeavour to exterminate that nation, since her cities were still sacked * , her villages consumed with flames, and her families either slaughtered or dispersed.
When one province had been wasted, the Barbarians who succeeded the first ravagers, meeting nothing for their purpose, proceeded to another. Their devastations at first were limited to Thrace, Mysia, and Pannonia. When these countries were ruined, they destroyed Macedonia, Thessaly and Greece. From thence, they expatiated to Noricum. The remaining lands which were not depopulated, was continually shrinking until Italy at last became the frontier.
### Plunder Policy
The Barbarians in the reigns of Gallus and Gallienus did not establish fixed settlements because the countries were worth plundering.
This is why the Normans ravaged France for several centuries. When they could find no more booty, they thought fit to accept of a depopulated province, and parcelled it into several properties.
Scythia back then laid in waste and was uncultivated. They frequently had famines and subsisted through their commerce with the Romans who furnished them with provisions from the provinces bordering on the Danube. They, in return, gave them the booty and prisoners they had taken, and the gold and silver which the Romans paid them for their friendship. But when the empire could no longer afford them a sufficient tribute for their subsistence ‡ , they were obliged to fix themselves in some settlement.
## The Fall of Rome
The western empire was destroyed before that in the East, for these reasons=
When the Barbarians passed the Danube, they found themselves blocked on the left by the Bosphorus of Thrace, the city of Canstantinople, and all the forces of the eastern empire.
This made it necessary for them to bend their march to the right, towards Illyria, and so proceed westward. That part of the country was crouded with a vast conflux of several nations; and, as the passages into Asia were the best guarded, the whole body of the people bore with a full tide into Europe; whereas the forces of the Barbarians were separated in their first invasion.
The empire was divided into two. The eastern emperors were then allied with the Barbarians and would not break it to assist the west.
Priscus says that this division of the administration was very prejudicial to the affairs of the West.
Thus the Eastern Romans refused those of the West a naval armament because they had entered into alliance with the Vandals.
The Visigoths, with Arcadius, entered the West. Honorius fled to Ravenna. Lastly, Zeno, to get rid of Theodoric, persuaded him to fall upon Italy, which had been already laid waste by Alaric.
There was a very strict alliance between Attila, and Genseric, king of the Vandals. The last stood in fear of the Goths he had married his son to a daughter of their king; and afterwards slitting her nose, had sent her back to her father.
For which reason he united with Attila. The two empires enslaved by these two potentates, had no power to shake off their chains. The situation of that of the West was more particularly deplorable= it had no forces at sea, they being all dispersed in Egypt, Cyprus, Phænicia, Ionia, and Greece, the only countries where at that time commerce subsisted. The Vandals and other nations attacked the West from all sides= an embassy came from Italy to Constantinople, says Priscus, representing that it was impossible they should keep their ground, unless peace was made with the Vandals.
Those that presided in the West were not mistaken in their politics. They judged it necessary to save Italy, which was in some respects the head, and in others the heart of the empire. They removed the Barbarians to the extremities, and settled them there The design was well laid, and as well executed.
These nations asked for nothing but subsistence= they gave them the plains, and reserved to themselves the mountainous parts of the country, the defiles, the passes over rivers, and the strong forts upon them, they kept in their own hands the sovereignty. It is probable these people would have been forced to have become Romans; and the facility with which these ravagers were themselves destroyed by the Franks, by the Greeks, and the Moors, is a proof of this conjecture. This whole system was overthrown by one revolution more fatal than all the rest= the army of Italy, composed of strangers, demanded that which had been granted to nations still greater strangers; it formed, under Odoacer, an aristocracy, which claimed the thirds of the lands in Italy; and this was the most fatal blow to the empire.
Amongst so many misfortunes it is natural to enquire, with a melancholy curiosity, after the fate of Rome= it was, we may say, without defence, and could easily be starved by an enemy.
The extent of its walls made it impracticable for its people to defend them. It was situated in a plain which let it be stormed easily. Besides this, no recruits were to be expected because the population had been extremely reduced that the emperors had to flee to Ravenna, a city once fortified by the sea as Venice is at this time.
The Romans were abandoned by their princes. They had to defend their safety by treaties.
Armorica and Brittany, seeing themselves forsaken, began to regulate themselves by their own laws.
Rome became so powerful because her former wars were done successively. By incredible luck, she was never attacked by one nation till another had been first destroyed. Rome herself was overpowered at last, because she was invaded at once by all the nations around her.