Reading Gibbon with an eye on the Olympics
7 August 2012
As London prepared for the Olympics, the most that my friends there hoped was that they would not suffer inconvenience, at least not beyond the increased taxation that will no doubt soon be exacted in order to pay for the games. The worst report I have heard so far about the games impact on daily life is of the severe overcrowding at the Underground station at Earls Court, frantically busy at the best of times. But in the matter of the games, Gibbons Decline and Fall has some lessons. Writing of the Emperor Philip, the minister of a violent government, elected for the private benefit of the soldiers, he observes: On his return from the East to Rome, Philip, desirous of obliterating the memory of his crimes, and of captivating the affections of the people, solemnized the secular games with infinite pomp and magnificence.
History does not repeat itself except by analogy—and here, it is hard not to see an analogy between Philip and former prime minister Anthony Blair. Of course, we live, as Gibbon might have put it, in a politer age, when crimes have to be muted, untruths disguised by rhetoric, and the ruination of states performed by stealth rather than by personal extravagance and outright defalcation. Still, Blairs regime benefited only those who worked for it, and the Olympics, for which he lobbied hard, were his parting gift to the nation he had betrayed, a fitting memorial to a man with a soul of tinsel. In this connection, one cannot help but note Gibbons account of the Emperor Caracallas legacy: The prodigality of Caracalla had left behind it a long train of ruin and disorder; and if that worthless tyrant had been capable of reflecting on the sure consequences of his own conduct, he would perhaps have enjoyed the dark prospect of the distress and calamities which he bequeathed to his successors. Caracalla, of course, was killed; ours being an altogether gentler age, Blair is thinking of making a comeback.
Historical analogies do break down eventually. The barbarians were external to Rome, but they are internal to Britain. Still, could any seven words better describe the soul of the London rioters than those with which Gibbon described the rude Germanic tribes: They delight in sloth, they detest tranquillity? For that matter, Gibbons description of the summons to arms that brought the German barbarian to Rome also calls to mind the London rioter: It roused him from his uncomfortable lethargy, gave him an active pursuit, and, by strong exercise of the body, and violent emotions of the mind, restored him to a more lively sense of his existence. In the dull intervals of peace these barbarians were immoderately addicted to deep gaming and excessive drinking; both of which, by different means, the one by inflaming their passions, the other by extinguishing their reason, alike relieved them from the pain of thinking. Exchange trafficking for gaming, and drugs for drink, and the analogy is nearly perfect.
But let us return to the games. A little later in the fall of the Roman Empire, we read, uncomfortably for us: The only merit of the administration of Carinus that history could record or poetry celebrate was the uncommon splendour with which, in his own and his brothers name, he exhibited the Roman games of the theatre, the circus, and the amphitheatre. . . . But this vain prodigality, which the prudence of Diocletian might justly despise, was enjoyed with surprise and transport by the Roman people. As I said, no analogy is perfect. The uniqueness of the merit, yes; the prodigality, yes; but the surprise and transport, no—at least not if my straw poll and the empty seats in the stadia are any guide.
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