Book Review: The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects

I found Giorgio Vasari through Burckhardt1 and Barzun. The latter writes: "Vasari, impelled by the unexampled artistic outburst of his time, divided his energies between his profession of painter and builder in Florence and biographer of the modern masters in the three great arts of design. His huge collection of Lives, which is a delight to read as well as a unique source of cultural history, was an amazing performance in an age that lacked organized means of research. [...] Throughout, Vasari makes sure that his reader will appreciate the enhanced human powers shown in the works that he calls "good painting" in parallel with "good letters." "

Vasari was mainly a painter, but also worked as an architect. He was not the greatest artist in the world, but he had a knack for ingratiating himself with the rich and powerful, so his career was quite successful. Besides painting, he also cared a lot about conservation: both the physical preservation of works and the conceptual preservation of the fame and biographies of artists. He gave a kind of immortality to many lost paintings and sculptures by describing them to us in his book.

His Lives are a collection of more than 180 biographies of Italian artists, starting with Cimabue (1240-1302) and reaching a climax with Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564). They're an invaluable resource, as there is very little information available about these people other than his book; his biography of Botticelli is 8 pages long, yet on Botticelli's wikipedia page, Vasari is mentioned 36 times.

He was a straight-laced man surrounded on all sides by wild and eccentric artists. While Vasari was a sober businessman, always delivering his work on time, the people he was writing about were usually tempestuous madmen who would take commissions and leave the work unfinished, or go off on the slightest affront and start hacking apart their own works. Even of the great Leonardo he writes that "through his comprehension of art, [he] began many things and never finished one of them".

The greater part of the craftsmen who had lived up to that time had received from nature a certain element of savagery and madness, which, besides making them strange and eccentric, had brought it about that very often there was revealed in them rather the obscure darkness of vice than the brightness and splendour of those virtues that make men immortal.

Many of them were undone by their love of food, drink, and/or women:

...when his dear friend Agostino Chigi commissioned him to paint the first loggia in his palace, Raffaello was not able to give much attention to his work, on account of the love that he had for his mistress.

Gwern's review of the autobiography of Cellini (which includes the words "aside from the demonology and weather-controlling") should give you a taste of what these guys were like.

Arnold M. Ludwig, The Price of Greatness: Resolving the Creativity and Madness ControversyArnold M. Ludwig, The Price of Greatness: Resolving the Creativity and Madness Controversy

Vasari's approach to the truth can be described as loose, if not gossipy. Many of the stories include fabricated elements, sometimes obviously so: I doubt anyone ever believed the story of Cimabue taking on Giotto as a pupil after seeing him scratch a painting on a stone. One of the most striking tales is the murder of Domenico Veneziano by Andrea del Castagno, but in reality Castagno actually died first. Vasari also damaged the reputation of some of his competitors, such as Jacopo da Pontormo, whom he portrayed as a paranoid recluse.

Vasari is also hilariously biased in favor of Florence: "in the practice of these rare exercises and arts—namely, in painting, in sculpture, and in architecture—the Tuscan intellects have always been exalted and raised high above all others". The story of his visit to Titian (a Venetian) is typical:

One day as Michelangelo and Vasari were going to see Titian in the Belvedere, they saw in a painting he had just completed a naked woman representing Danae with Jupiter transformed into a golden shower on her lap, and, as is done in the artisan's presence, they gave it high praise. After leaving Titian, and discussing his method, Buonarroti strongly commended him, declaring that he liked his colouring and style very much but that it was a pity artisans in Venice did not learn to draw well from the beginning and that Venetian painters did not have a better method of study.

Titian, Danae with Jupiter as a "golden shower"Titian, Danae with Jupiter as a "golden shower"

I read (as usual) the Everyman edition, but would not recommend braving the entire work unless you're a Renaissance art fanatic. The collection spans over 2000 pages, and can get tiresome and repetitive when you go through the 100th similar biography of some minor painter you've never heard of. I would, however, recommend the best chapters which I have picked out below (and which are freely available online):

  • Giotto (1267-1337), an early stepping stone between the medieval "Greek style" and the modern one.
  • Uccello (1397-1475), the pioneer of perspective.
  • Piero di Cosimo (1462-1522), an eccentric who was influenced by the Dutch and eventually fell under the sway of Savonarola.
  • Raffaello (1483-1520), a brilliant talent who died young.
  • Il Rosso (1495-1540), who travelled to France and painted for Francis I.
  • Il Sodoma (1477-1549), the name says it all. Had a pet monkey.

The Golden Present

Giorgio Vasari was one of the earliest philosophers of progress. Petrarch (1304-1374) invented the idea of the dark ages in order to explain the deficiencies of his own time relative to the ancients, and dreamt of a better future:

My fate is to live among varied and confusing storms. But for you perhaps, if as I hope and wish you will live long after me, there will follow a better age. This sleep of forgetfulness will not last forever. When the darkness has been dispersed, our descendants can come again in the former pure radiance.

To this scheme of ancient glory and medieval darkness, Vasari added a third—modern—age and gave it a name: rinascita.2 And within his rinascita, Vasari described an upward trajectory starting with Cimabue, and ending in a golden age beginning with eccentric Leonardo and crazed sex maniac Raphael, only to give way to the perfect Michelangelo in the end. It is a trajectory driven by the modern conception of the artist as an individual auteur, rather than a faceless craftsman.

The most benign Ruler of Heaven in His clemency turned His eyes to the earth, and, having perceived the infinite vanity of all those labours, the ardent studies without any fruit, and the presumptuous self-sufficiency of men, which is even further removed from truth than is darkness from light, and desiring to deliver us from such great errors, became minded to send down to earth a spirit with universal ability in every art and every profession.

This golden age was certainly no utopia, as 16th century Italy was ravaged by political turbulence, frequent plague, and incessant war. Many of the artists mentioned were at some point taken hostage by invading armies; Vasari himself had to rescue a part of Michelangelo's David when it was broken off in the battle to expel the Medici from Florence.

And yet Vasari saw greatness in his time, and the entire book is structured around a narrative of artistic progress. He documented the spread of new technologies and techniques (such as the spread of oil painting, imported from the Low Countries), which—as an artist—he had an intimate understanding of.

This story of progress is paralleled with the rediscovery (and, ultimately, surpassing) of the ancients. It would take until the 17th century for the querelle des Anciens et des Modernes to really take off in France, but in Florence Vasari had already seen enough to decide the question in favor of his contemporaries—the essence of the Enlightenment is already present in 1550. He writes about Donatello (1386-1466), who produced the first nude male sculpture of the modern era:

The talent of Donato was such, and he was so admirable in all his actions, that he may be said to have been one of the first to give light, by his practice, judgment, and knowledge, to the art of sculpture and of good design among the moderns; and he deserves all the more commendation, because in his day, apart from the columns, sarcophagi, and triumphal arches, there were no antiquities revealed above the earth. And it was through him, chiefly, that there arose in Cosimo de' Medici the desire to introduce into Florence the antiquities that were and are in the house of the Medici; all of which he restored with his own hand.

Similarly, he explains that Mino da Fiesole's (1429-1484) work was "somewhat stiff", yet it was nonetheless admired because "few antiquities had been discovered up to that time". The ancients created a new higher standard, which first created a thirst for imitation, then an impetus to outclass it.

...their successors were enabled to attain to it through seeing excavated out of the earth certain antiquities cited by Pliny as amongst the most famous, such as the Laocoon, the Hercules, the Great Torso of the Belvedere, and likewise the Venus, the Cleopatra, the Apollo, and an endless number of others, which, both with their sweetness and their severity, with their fleshy roundness copied from the greatest beauties of nature, and with certain attitudes which involve no distortion of the whole figure but only a movement of certain parts, and are revealed with a most perfect grace, brought about the disappearance of a certain dryness, hardness, and sharpness of manner...

It is curious that this competitive attitude seems to have disappeared in later eras. In the 18th century, for example, the English painter Joshua Reynolds said of the Belvedere Torso that it retained "the traces of superlative genius…on which succeeding ages can only gaze with inadequate admiration." The Italians of the Renaissance had such a civilizational confidence and such an individual lust for Glory that these fatalistic thoughts would never enter their minds. Take Raphael's School of Athens for example: imagine the self-confidence (if not presumption) necessary to paint Plato (portrayed by da Vinci) and Heraclitus (portrayed by Michelangelo) in the form of your friends and contemporaries! Imagine someone trying that today—Dennet as Plato, Gaspar Noé as...Diogenes?

What came first, the excellence or the confidence? Who can disentangle cause and effect? Braudel suggests an initial "restlessness" created the necessary conditions:

Perhaps if the door is to be opened to innovation, the source of all progress, there must be first some restlessness which may express itself in such trifles as dress, the shape of shoes and hairstyles?

Vasari certainly thought this ambition was a necessary ingredient for greatness. Commenting on Andrea del Sarto, he writes that he was excellent in all skills but "a certain timidity of spirit and a sort of humility and simplicity in his nature made it impossible that there should be seen in him that glowing ardour and that boldness which, added to his other qualities, would have made him truly divine in painting".

And one may ask: why is there no ancient Vasari? Pliny, describing the Laocoön, writes that it is "a work to be preferred to all that the arts of painting and sculpture have produced". Yet he is content to simply mention the names of the artists in passing: Agesander, Athenodorus, and Polydorus of Rhodes. There is not the slightest hint of curiosity about the lives of those most excellent men. Even worse, they were (highly-skilled) copyists, selling reproductions of Hellenistic works to wealthy Romans. The name of the original sculptor is lost to time.3

Aesthetic Value Over Time

You're probably familiar with the story of the Mona Lisa: it was unpopular until it was stolen in 1911, Apollinaire and Picasso were suspects in the case, and when it was finally returned two years later it had become the most famous painting in the world. I was surprised, then, to see that the Mona Lisa was singled out for effusive praise by Vasari. He even focuses on that famous smile:

For Francesco del Giocondo, Leonardo undertook the portrait of Mona Lisa, his wife, and after working on it for four years, he left the work unfinished, and it may be found at Fontainebleau today in the possession of King Francis. Anyone wishing to see the degree to which art can imitate Nature can easily understand this from the head, for here Leonardo reproduced all the details that can be painted with subtlety. The eyes have the lustre and moisture always seen in living people, while around them are the lashes and all the reddish tones which cannot be produced without the greatest care. The eyebrows could not be more natural, for they represent the way the hair grows in the skin—thicker in some places and thinner in others, following the pores of the skin. The nose seems lifelike with its beautiful pink and tender nostrils. The mouth, with its opening joining the red of the lips to the flesh of the face, seemed to be real flesh rather than paint. Anyone who looked very attentively at the hollow of her throat would see her pulse beating: to tell the truth, it can be said that portrait was painted in a way that would cause every brave artist to tremble and fear, whoever he might be. Since Mona Lisa was very beautiful, Leonardo employed this technique: while he was painting her portrait, he had musicians who played or sang and clowns who would always make her merry in order to drive away her melancholy, which painting often brings to portraits. And in this portrait by Leonardo, there is a smile so pleasing that it seems more divine than human, and it was considered a wondrous thing that it was as lively as the smile of the living original.

There are, however, one or two minor problems with his account. One of them is that Vasari never actually saw the Mona Lisa: he was about 6 years old when the painting was moved to France, and he never left Italy. Vasari also says that Leonardo left the painting unfinished, while the Mona Lisa is very much finished. So what's going on? Until the 20th century people simply thought he made it up based on sketches or second-hand accounts.

And then, in 1913, an art collector discovered a second Mona Lisa hanging in a house in Somerset. By all accounts it appears to be authentic, and it matches a sketch by Raphael. It's also a better match for Vasari's description, though he may not have seen this one either. If he thought this one was great, just imagine how he would have raved about the first Mona Lisa!

The Second Mona LisaThe Second Mona Lisa

This raises the question: do we venerate the same paintings as Vasari due to path dependency, or due to constancy in aesthetic judgment? Broadly, Vasari's taste is our own. He likes Raphael, da Vinci, and Michelangelo above all others. There are certainly those who argue that the influence and worship of Florentine artists is merely a historical accident, and if Vasari had been a Venetian the history of painting would have turned out rather different.

There are a few interesting points of difference. For example, Botticelli only gets a very short biography, and his Birth of Venus merits not more more than a passing comment: Vasari says "he expressed himself with grace". Another artist who was mostly ignored by Vasari and was later "reevaluated" is the highly erotic Antonio da Correggio.

Correggio, Jupiter and IoCorreggio, Jupiter and Io

Architecture?

YOU - Hold on, is architecture also art?

CONCEPTUALIZATION - Of course not, it's autism. Box-drawing. Masturbation with a ruler and a sextant or whatever they use.

Painters, naturally. Sculptors, of course. But...architects? Certainly no twenty-first century chronicler would collect the lives of painters, sculptors, and architects. In our own age architecture is little more than an exercise in applied misanthropy. It has gotten so bad even the commies can tell it sucks, and they're not exactly famous for their aesthetic discernment. And these Renaissance artists were not limited to constructing fancy villas or churches, they often got involved in military engineering as well!

Architects might try to defend themselves by appealing to specialization and saying that, as the science has progressed, an architect today requires far more specialized knowledge than they did in the 16th century. One cannot be both a painter and an architect at the same time. Yet I cannot help but notice that the Duomo and the Uffizi are still beautiful and still standing, while our contemporary concrete claptrap starts crumbling after a couple of years. Our segregation of these fields is both arbitrary and misguided. Perhaps education (and the way it commoditizes knowledge) is to blame.4

Human Capital, Power Laws, and Cluster Effects

Perhaps the reason these people were able to paint, sculpt, architect, and sometimes even do a bit of military engineering on the side, is that art was one of very few avenues available at the time for people to monetize their high human capital. A smart guy in 16th century Florence had limited options: he might go into law, try to be a scribe, or (if he had money) commerce. Science was not a profession, and there were no hedge funds or startups. Art offered a new avenue, open to all with talent.5

Art was also something of a winner-take-all market, with virtually unlimited upside for the select few who could make it to the top. Like modern athletes, the superstars were drowning in money while the average painter didn't make all that much. Time seems to have confirmed this power law in artistic excellence: nobody goes to a museum for the paintings of Bartolomeo Vivarini, while da Vinci draws millions every year.

Societies are broadly defined by how they allocate status and (by extension) how they allocate the scarce biological resources they have access to. Rome rewarded military leadership, so it got a lot of great generals (and civil wars). The kleptocrats of Renaissance Italy allocated talent to art; gold and fame attracted competence. At the time Vasari was writing, there were about thirty thousand men in Florence—roughly the same as the number of male citizens in Classical Athens, and also roughly the same as today's population of Dubuque, Iowa. Yet their achievements (to borrow a phrase from Gibbon) would excuse the computation of imaginary millions.

One might ask: where are all the Shakespeares? There are about 25x more literate men in England today than in 1564, how come we aren't producing 25x more Shakespeares? The answer is that our society does not allocate much of its human capital to playwriting. There are (potentially) great authors who spend 8 hours a day writing ads for cereal, or improving trading algorithms by 0.01%. Capitalism, for all its virtues, tends to instill a preference for mere optimization in its subjects; the shadow of utility blots out the impetus for Glory.

One of the starkest lessons from Vasari is the importance of clusters in artistic production. He highlights both the spur of competition and the virtues of learning through imitation. He documents how new techniques (oil, perspective, new approaches to color) spread like wildfire, and how the newly unearthed Roman statues provided both a lesson and a stimulus for improvement. The mentor-mentee relationship was extremely important; a young artist could destroy his entire career by choosing the wrong master.

There is an extensive literature in "economics"6 covering the influence of agglomeration in creative industries. Hollywood is an obvious example, but there also seem to be agglomeration gains in 18-19th century classical music, while a writer who moved to London in the 18th or 19th century ended up with 12% higher productivity. Renaissance Florence certainly seems to be another one of these (which suggests an element of path dependency).

A century ago a man like Ernest Hemingway could just travel to Paris, join a flourishing artistic community, and have lunch with the world's greatest author (James Joyce). Imagine some random guy flying to New York and trying to have a meal with Thomas Pynchon today. Global connectivity has made us more insular by removing the barriers that used to act as filters. The apprenticeship opportunities of the Renaissance do not exist any more, though the wealthy patrons are still around.

Yet new possibilities for cluster formation open up on the internet: group chats, forums, perhaps even twitter. But it is not easy to cultivate the right mix of competition and imitation, or the preconditions necessary for cultural confidence and a lust for Glory. Perhaps the closest analogy in our time would be Silicon Valley; a relatively small area which attracts talent in search of money and fame. It certainly has that culture of ambition.

I leave you with a final quotation from Vasari, on the motivations behind art and how they affect the ultimate product:

And, to tell the truth of the matter, those craftsmen who have as their ultimate and principal end gain and profit, and not honour and glory, rarely become very excellent, even although they may have good and beautiful genius; besides which, labouring for a livelihood, as very many do who are weighed down by poverty and their families, and working not by inclination, when the mind and the will are drawn to it, but by necessity from morning till night, is a life not for men who have honour and glory as their aim, but for hacks, as they are called, and manual labourers, for the reason that good works do not get done without first having been well considered for a long time. And it was on that account that Rustici used to say in his more mature years that you must first think, then make your sketches, and after that your designs; which done, you must put them aside for weeks and even months without looking at them, and then, choosing the best, put them into execution; but that method cannot be followed by everyone, nor do those use it who labour only for gain.

Giorgio Vasari, Self-portraitGiorgio Vasari, Self-portrait

  1. 1."And without Giorgio Vasari of Arezzo and his all-important work, we should perhaps to this day have no history of northern art, or of the art of modern Europe, at all."
  2. 2.The word "renaissance" was only popularized in the 19th century by Michelet.
  3. 3.There was a sculptor-biographer named Xenokrates of Sicyon but all his works are lost.
  4. 4.McKenzie Wark: "Education “disciplines” knowledge, segregating it into homogenous “fields,” presided over by suitably “qualified” guardians charged with policing its representations. The production of abstraction both within these fields and across their borders is managed in the interests of preserving hierarchy and prestige. Desires that might give rise to a robust testing and challenging of new abstractions is channelled into the hankering for recognition."
  5. 5.Michelangelo would undoubtedly have scored very well on the GRE.
  6. 6.All will be trampled under the steady imperial advance of the SPQE—the Senatus Populusque Economicus!



Against Caring About Individual Bad Studies

The idea of a personal "carbon footprint" is an oil company psyop. About 20 years ago, British Petroleum launched an ad campaign popularizing the notion and put out a website letting you calculate your "carbon footprint". They're still at it.

It's an idea with remarkable memetic power, both for individuals and brands. Displaying your concern about your personal carbon footprint lets you show off your prosociality and marks you out as someone virtuous, someone who takes personal responsibility. The idea also feeds into people's narcissistic tendencies, reassuring them that they're actually important and that their actions matter in the world.

Marketers love the concept, and any company trying to appeal to the nature-loving demographic can use and abuse it: Outdoor Brands Get Serious About the Carbon Footprint of Adventure: The North Face and Protect Our Winters unveil an activism-oriented CO2 calculator.

The problem with all of this, and the reason BP pushed the idea in the first place, is that your personal carbon footprint doesn't matter. You're 1 of about 7.6 billion people on earth, so your effect is about 1/7,600,000,000 ≈ 0.000000013%. Your personal carbon footprint is completely irrelevant to climate change. Global warming is a collective issue that requires collective solutions; framing it as a problem that individuals can tackle (and that individuals are responsible for) distracts from the public policy changes that are necessary. Environmentalist signaling is complete nonsense but also deadly serious.

The Parallel

Caring about individual bad studies is a bit like caring about your individual carbon footprint.

People occasionally send me shitty papers, and year or two ago I would care a lot, enjoying the shameful thrill of getting Mad Online about some fraud, or having fun picking apart yet another terrible study. It's an attractive activity, and performing it in public shows how much you care about Good Science. Picking out a single paper to replicate operates at the same level. What's the impact of all this?

In the idealized version of science, a replication failure would raise serious doubts about the veracity of the original study and have all sorts of downstream effects. In the real version of social science, none of that matters. You have to go on active memetic warfare if you want to have any effect, and even then there's no guarantee you'll succeed. As Tal Yarkoni puts it, "the dominant response is some tut-tutting and mild expression of indignation, and then everything reverts to status quo until the next case". People keep citing retracted articles. Brian fucking Wansink has been getting over 7 citations per day in 2021. So what exactly do you think a replication is going to achieve?

Walker

A couple years ago Alexey Guzey wrote "Matthew Walker's "Why We Sleep" Is Riddled with Scientific and Factual Errors", finding not only errors but even egregious data manipulation in Walker's book. Guzey later collaborated with Andrew Gelman on Statistics as Squid Ink: How Prominent Researchers Can Get Away with Misrepresenting Data.

What was the effect of all this? Nothing.

Guzey explains on twitter:

my piece on the book has gotten >250k views by now and still not a single neuroscientist or sleep scientist commented meaningfully on the merits of my accusations. [...] According to UC Berkeley, "there were some minor errors in the book, which Walker intends to correct". The case is closed.

The feedback loops that are supposed to reward people who seek truth and to punish charlatans are just completely broken.

...but a prominent neuroscientist did write to him in private to express his agreement.

Implicit Bias

It is so much harder to get rid of bullshit than it is to prevent its publication in the first place. Let's take a look at some of the literature on implicit bias.

Oswald et al (2013) meta-analyze the relation between the IAT and discrimination: "IATs were poor predictors of every criterion category other than brain activity, and the IATs performed no better than simple explicit measures." Carlsson & Agerström (2016) refine the Oswald et al paper, and find that "the overall effect was close to zero and highly inconsistent across studies [...] little evidence that the IAT can meaningfully predict discrimination".

Meissner et al (2019) review the IAT literature and find that the "predictive value for behavioral criteria is weak and their incremental validity over and above self-report measures is negligible".

Forscher et al (2019) meta-analyze the effect of procedures to change implicit measures, and find that the "generally produced trivial changes in behavior [...] changes in implicit measures did not mediate changes in explicit measures or behavior". Figure 8 from their paper shows the effect of changing implicit measures on actual behavior:

What was the effect of all this? Nothing.

Just within the last few days, the New Jersey Supreme Court announced implicit bias training for all employees of state courts, "Dean Health Plan in Wisconsin implemented new strategies to address health equity in maternal health, including implicit bias training for employees", the Auburn Human Rights Commission has "offered implicit bias training to supervisory personnel in Auburn city government, the Cayuga County Sheriff's Office, public schools and other local organizations", and California's Attorney General is making sure that healthcare facilities are complying with a law requiring anti-implicit bias training.

You can debunk, and (fail to) replicate all you want, but it don't mean a thing. Mitchell & Tetlock (2017) write:

once employers, health care providers, police forces, and policy-makers seek to develop real solutions to real problems and then monitor the costs and benefits of these proposed solutions, the shortcomings of implicit prejudice research will likely become apparent

But it didn't turn out that way, did it? Just as with the personal carbon footprint, the ultimate outcome is a secondary consideration at best.

Fin

Yarkoni (the British Petroleum of social science) says "it's not the incentives, it's you" but, really, it's the incentives. Before you can run, you must walk. Before you replicate, you must have a scientific ecosystem with reliable self-correction mechanisms.1 And before you build that, it's a good idea to limit the publication of false positives and low-quality research in general.

One of the key insights of longtermism is that if humanity survives in the long term, the vast majority of humans will live in the future, so even a small improvement to their welfare can have a huge effect. We might make a similar argument about longtermism in social science: the vast majority of papers lie in the future. If we can do something today to improve them even by a little bit, the cumulative impact would be enormous. On the other hand, defeating one of the 10,000 bad papers that will be published this year is not going to do much at all. Effective scientific altruism is systematically improving the future by 0.01% rather than putting your energy into deboonking a single study. Every dollar wasted on replication is a dollar that could've been invested in fixing the underlying collective problems instead. The past is not going to change, but the future is still malleable.

Ideally we'd proclaim the beginning of a new era, ban citations to any pre-2022 works, and start from scratch (except actually do things properly this time). Realistically that won't happen, so the second-best approach is probably a Hirschmanian Exit into parallel institutions.


  1. 1.I don't want to overstate the case here—some disciplines work pretty well, so it's not entirely hopeless. I would certainly hope that medical researchers still try to replicate the effects of drugs, and physicists replicate their particle experiments. But in the social sciences things are different.



Links & What I've Been Reading Q2 2021

Metascience

1. New Science is an attempt to construct a brand new, parallel research ecosystem without all the cruft of academia. Founded by Alexey Guzey and advised (among others) by Tyler Cowen and Andrew Gelman.

2. Observing Many Researchers Using the Same Data and Hypothesis Reveals a Hidden Universe of Uncertainty: 73 teams study the same hypothesis with the same data. Chaos ensues. "Each model deployed to test the hypothesis was unique".

3. Tal Yarkoni and Joe Hilgard have exited academia. Some notes on The Science Reform Brain Drain. "I didn’t believe then that scientific reform would just fizzle out, given the attention and passion it elicited. Now, seeing how tenure insulates older researchers and competition weeds out those who don’t play by their rules, I understand the cynicism better."

4. Please Commit More Blatant Academic Fraud "The problem with this sort of low-key fraud is that it’s insidious, it’s subtle. In many ways, a fraudulent action is indistinguishable from a simple mistake. There is plausible deniability [...] Let’s make explicit academic fraud commonplace enough to cast doubt into the minds of every scientist reading an AI paper. Overall, science will benefit."

5. Nonreplicable publications are cited more than replicable ones.

6. Atoms: smart contracts for science funding. "Implicit researcher duties are now made explicit with incentives. As a result, scientific roles can become both more specialized and more diverse. PIs can focus less time on writing grants and more time on conducting research. Or the PIs who enjoy and excel at raising funds can do so and even re-deploy it to the right scientists, akin to founders who become angel investors and venture capitalists."

7. Understanding and Predicting Retractions of Published Work Based on metadata + full text. Performs surprisingly well. "Individually, SJR, abstract, country give the best performance out of all metadata features."

8. Collison, Cowen & Hsu, What We Learned Doing Fast Grants. "64% of respondents told us that the work in question wouldn’t have happened without receiving a Fast Grant."

9. Elisabeth Bik is facing legal threats. This Didier Raoult character apparently has more than 3500 publications.

10. A Retrospective on the 2014 NeurIPS Experiment: a giant post on the consistency of the review process, based on 170 papers submitted to NeurIPS. The consistency is actually fairly high, though there is "no correlation between reviewer quality scores and paper's eventual impact".

Covid

11. On the role of scientific journals in shaping the narrative around the origins of covid.

Yet this is the same prestigious journal that published a now infamous statement early last year attacking “conspiracy theories suggesting that Covid-19 does not have a natural origin“. Clearly, this was designed to stifle debate. It was signed by 27 experts but later turned out to have been covertly drafted by Peter Daszak, the British scientist with extensive ties to Wuhan Institute of Virology. To make matters worse, The Lancet then set up a commission on the origins — and incredibly, picked Daszak to chair its 12-person task force, joined by five others who signed that statement dismissing ideas the virus was not a natural occurrence.

12. Who killed the lab leak hypothesis? (twitter thread).

Forecasting

13. Avraham Eisenberg: Tales from Prediction Markets

There was a market on how many times Souljaboy would tweet during a given week. The way these markets are set up, they subtract the total number of tweets on the account at the beginning and end, so deletions can remove tweets. Someone went on his twitch stream, tipped a couple hundred dollars, and said he'd tip more if Soulja would delete a bunch of tweets. Soulja went on a deleting spree and the market went crazy.

14. The Market Consequences of Investment Advice on Reddit's Wallstreetbets: "We find average ‘buy’ recommendations result in two-day announcement returns of 1.1%.[...] 2% over the subsequent month and nearly 5% over the subsequent quarter. [...] our findings suggest that both WSB posters and users are skilled." Or as /r/wallstreetbets put it, "a group of scientists checked our sub out and came to the conclusion that we are not complete morons".

Book Reviews

15. On Sarah Ruden's translation of the gospels: Do you know how weird the gospels are?

Plenty of good reviews came out of the SSC book review contest. My favorites:

16. Double Fold, on librarians and preservation.

17. On The Natural Faculties, a defense of Galen.

18. Down And Out In Paris And London, on Orwell's experiences as a tramp and menial worker.

The Rest

19. There’s no such thing as a tree (phylogenetically): a fantastic post on convergent evolution and the classification of 'trees'. "The common ancestor of a maple and a mulberry tree was not a tree. The common ancestor of a stinging nettle and a strawberry plant was a tree."

20. From the great new blog SLIME MOLD TIME MOLD: Higher than the Shoulders of Giants; Or, a Scientist’s History of Drugs. What if the productivity growth slowdown is due to the 1970s Controlled Substances Act? Come for the history of stimulants, stay for Tesla's views on chewing gum. Too many good quotes! Not entirely sure if it's serious or tongue-in-cheek, but that's part of the charm.

21. Toby Ord: The Edges of Our Universe

  • Many galaxies that are currently outside the observable universe will become observable later.
  • Less than 5% of the galaxies we can currently observe could ever be affected by us, and this is shrinking all the time.
  • But we can affect some of the galaxies that are receding from us faster than the speed of light.

22. Scott Alexander Contra Smith On Jewish Selective Immigration. The final paragraph is absolutely spot on: if the Ashkenazi advantage is cultural, then studying it is by far the most important question in the social sciences.

23. Shocks to human capital persist, shocks to physical capital do not: BOMBS, BRAINS, AND SCIENCE: THE ROLE OF HUMAN AND PHYSICAL CAPITAL FOR THE CREATION OF SCIENTIFIC KNOWLEDGE. Also interesting for the data on Jewish contributions to German science before the war: "While 15.0% of physicists were dismissed, they published 23.8% of top journal papers before 1933, and received 64% of the citations"! h/t @cicatriz

24. Social Mobility and Political Regimes: Intergenerational Mobility in Hungary,1949-2017. Social mobility rates ~the same during and after communism. Aristocrats still privileged after 1949. h/t @devarbol

25. No causal associations between childhood family income and subsequent psychiatric disorders, substance misuse and violent crime arrests: a nationwide Finnish study of >650 000 individuals and their siblings. A new study from Amir Sariaslan and colleagues, corroborating earlier results from Sweden. Perhaps the Scandinavian nations with their generous social spending are different from countries with greater inequality though?

26. The Lead-Crime Hypothesis: A Meta-Analysis. "When we restrict our analysis to only high-quality studies that address endogeneity the estimated mean effect size is close to zero." That's quite the funnel plot:

27. Better air is the easiest way not to die. On particles in the air, the harm they cause, and how to avoid them. "By all means, control your body-mass, eat well, and start running. Those are important, but they’re also kind of hard. You might fail to lose weight, but if you try to fix your air, you’ll succeed. You should put the stuff with the highest return on effort first, and that’s air."

28. On Fantastic Mr. Fox and Ted Kaczynski.

By the end of the movie Mr. Fox has pillaged and salted three of the country's largest industrial farms and set a small town on fire with acorn bombs. He got symbolically castrated, lost his home, almost lost his marriage, children, and destroyed the homes and businesses of 20 people who were lucky they didn't starve to death—but he's gotten people to read his column.

29. In 1989 there was an ecoterrorist attack on California, using an invasive species of fruit fly.

30. Viral Visualizations: How Coronavirus Skeptics Use Orthodox Data Practices to Promote Unorthodox Science Online. A seemingly-Straussian (but possibly not) paper on the social epistemology of covid skepticism. "Most fundamentally, the groups we studied believe that science is a process, and not an institution. [...] Moreover, this is a subculture shaped by mistrust of established authorities and orthodox scientific viewpoints. Its members value individual initiative and ingenuity, trusting scientific analysis only insofar as they can replicate it themselves by accessing and manipulating the data firsthand."

31. Robin Hanson: Managed Competition or Competing Managers? On how attitudes toward competition influence our judgments about things like evolution and alien civilizations. "This strong norm favoring management over competition helps explain the widespread and continuing dislike for the theory of natural selection, which explicitly declares a system of competition to be the largest encompassing system."

32. The Deep History of Human Inequality. Rousseau, Darwin, and Boehm on the question of evolution and inequality. "Going further, it could be that culture was essential for reversing polygyny. That’s because practising reverse dominance requires collective action. It’s only by working together that bachelors can depose the big boys."

33. Applied Divinity Studies on Stubborn Attachments, longtermism, progress studies, and effective altruism: The Moral Foundations of Progress. "If we stagnate now, we may be able to restart growth in the future. In comparison, an existential catastrophe is by definition unrecoverable. Given the choice, we ought to focus on stability."

34. A new essay from Houellebecq: The narcissistic fall of France.

No, we are not really dealing with a “French suicide” — to evoke the title of Eric Zemmour’s book — but a Western suicide or rather a suicide of modernity, since Asian countries are not spared. What is specifically, authentically French is the awareness of this suicide. [...] By refusing all forms of immigration, Asian countries have opted for a simple suicide, without complications or disturbances. The countries of Southern Europe are in the same situation, although one wonders if they have consciously chosen it. Migrants do land in Italy, in Spain and in Greece — but they only pass through, without helping to sort out the demographic balance, although the women of these countries are often highly desirable. No, the migrants are drawn irresistibly to the biggest and fattest cheeses, the countries of Northern Europe.

35. The Borderless Welfare State, a report from the Netherlands on the costs and benefits of immigration. Summary in English on p. 19. Scroll down for some great charts.

36. Learning to Hesitate: people tend to spend too much time gathering info on low-impact choices, and too little time gathering info on high-impact choices.

37. What if humans and chimpanzees diverged because of ticks? Hair loss as defense against ticks caused babies to be unable to cling to their mothers, which caused upright walking?! Obviously speculative, but I love this kind of speculation.

38. Wikipedia: Meteor burst communications "is a radio propagation mode that exploits the ionized trails of meteors during atmospheric entry to establish brief communications paths between radio stations up to 2,250 kilometres (1,400 mi) apart."

39. Niccolo Soldo interviews Marc Andreessen(?!?!) "I predict that we — the West — are going to WEIRDify the entire world, within the next 50 years, the next two generations. We will do this not by converting non-WEIRD people to WEIRD, but by getting their kids." His interview with "Unrepentant Baguette Merchant" PEG is also entertaining.

40. Everyone with an e-reader has run into public domain ebooks with horrible formatting/OCR errors on Amazon or Project Gutenberg. Standard Ebooks produces high-quality (and free) versions of public domain books.

41. AI-designed hardware. "We believe that more powerful AI-designed hardware will fuel advances in AI, creating a symbiotic relationship between the two fields."

42. ETH token fights back against frontrunning bots by trapping them in the position.

43. How I Taught The Iliad to Chinese Teenagers

44. On the virtues of frozen food.

45. Great non-fiction books under 250 pages.

Audio-Visual

46. DeepMind's AlphaGo documentary is quite good.

47. Doom on a holographic(?) display.

48. And here's Viagra Boys with Girls & Boys from Shrimp Sessions 2.

What I've Been Reading

Non-Fiction

  • The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects by Giorgio Vasari. Vasari was a painter and architect who lived in the first half of the 16th century and personally knew many of the greats (including Michelangelo). In this gossipy collection of biographies he covers more than 180 artists, starting with Cimabue and Giotto in the 13thC and ending with Michelangelo and others who were still alive at the time of writing (like Titian and Jacopo Sansovino). The ideas of progress and renaissance are front and center: the great ancients, the decline in the middle ages, and finally the triumphant rebirth of art in his own era. Parts of it are excellent, but it can get a bit dry and repetitive when he describes various minor artists, so I probably wouldn't recommend the full 2000+ page unabridged version. There's a good two-part BBC documentary called Travels With Vasari. Full review forthcoming.

  • Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution by Robert Boyd & Peter Richerson. I was curious to see if there was anything in B&R that Henrich failed to capture in his work, and the answer is broadly "no", but there are a few interesting differences: while Henrich is rather triumphalist, B&R take a much more skeptical view of cultural evolution (a Nietzschean perspective, though of course they don't cite him). Unfortunately most of the book is bogged down by a series of dull arguments against various opponents of cultural evolution. My recommendation would be to read The Secret of Our Success, then read just chapter 5 ("Culture is Maladaptive") in this one.

  • Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition by Ed Regis. A fun pot-pourri of hubristic futurist ideas (cryonics, space habitats, interstellar travel, and so on), and the wild eccentrics who come up with them (Bob Truax, Hans Moravec, Freeman Dyson). The subjects are fascinating, but the book is a bit disorganized and repetitive.

  • Essays and Aphorisms by Arthur Schopenhauer. Selections from Parerga und Paralipomena. Very funny, Schopenhauer would have been one hell of a twitter poaster. Surprisingly similar to the pragmatists in some respects. And a pessimistic inverse of Nietzsche in others: "Between the spirit of Graeco-Roman paganism and the spirit of Christianity the real antithesis is that of affirmation and denial of the will to live – in which regard Christianity is in the last resort fundamentally in the right." Will be tackling World as Will and Representation soon-ish.

  • Selected Writings by William Hazlitt. How pathetic the petty political polemics of the past appear to the present... I despise his style, especially in the political pieces: cheap bluster that aims only to dazzle, never to illuminate. The puffed-up rhetoric of a third-rate ochlagogue. The non-political writings are much better—they are merely unreadable rather than actively offensive.

  • The Literary Art of Edward Gibbon by Harold L. Bond. A fine, short overview. Not aimed at a general audience.

  • Fiscal Regimes and the Political Economy of Premodern States, edited by Andrew Monson & Walter Scheidel. I read the three chapters on Rome and skimmed the rest. If an edited volume on the taxation regimes of pre-modern states sounds interesting topic to you, check it out. Revenue sources, coinage, debt, trade, principal agent problems in collection, constraints to budget allocation, and so on. I should probably get to Scheidel's other works at some point.

  • The Viennese Students of Civilization: The Meaning and Context of Austrian Economics Reconsidered by Erwin Dekker. On the dry/academic side of things in terms of its style. Ultimately feels a bit superficial: this guy said this, the other guy said that...but we never get a critical examination of the substance of the arguments. The key take-away is that the "Austrian school" focused mostly on humbleness before evolved institutions, and emphasized the necessity of limits in order to have practical freedom.
  • Failure Is Not an Option: Mission Control From Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond by Gene Kranz. Fascinating subject, but written in a dry, militaristic, PR-conscious style. Even the story of Apollo 13 can become almost boring when told in this manner. Focused entirely on the mission control perspective. The most interesting aspect is how uncredentialed and inexperienced everyone was, and how quickly the space program moved. Reminiscent of Napoleon after the revolution. Feels like they really got lucky sometimes. Genius in hiring?
  • The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene. For some reason I read a bunch of "self-help"(-adjacent) books. This one is really anodyne compared to what I was expecting. It's mostly famous as a book read by ruthless rappers, but it's just a bunch of amusing historical anecdotes plus a boatload of confirmation bias. Greene likes the history of Japanese tea ceremonies, France during the Ancien Régime and the revolution, ancient Rome and Greece, and even takes several stories from Giorgio Vasari! Above all he likes Baltasar Gracián, whose The Pocket Oracle and Art of Prudence I can heartily recommend.
  • Influence: Science and Practice by Robert Cialdini. While 48 Laws of Power presents itself as a manual of manipulation and Influence presents itself more as a disinterested scientific study, the former is actually about airy stories of kings and courtiers while the latter is a cynical dark arts manual for manipulating your coworkers. Make of that what you will. Repetitive & overlong. Also, Cialdini loves to cite dubious social science papers—Milgram, Robber's Cave, etc. Still, the broad strokes are fairly convincing.
  • The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life by Erving Goffman. Class-signaling behaviors, profession-signaling behaviors, and so on, viewed through the lens of theatrical presentation. Rather one-sided, I feel it misses situations that can't be boiled down to actor-audience. Nothing really surprising, I think most people will have noticed most of this stuff. Also draws on many questionable historical examples (for example he repeatedly uses the Thugs to illustrate his points).
  • Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre by Keith Johnstone. The general observations on status, presentation, space, etc. are quite good, but when he gets into the specifics about theater and masks it's rather dull and fluffy. Would have preferred something a bit more solid.

Fiction

  • Uzumaki by Junji Ito. Horror manga. Starts with a simple idea: spirals are kinda creepy. From there it spins out in every direction, finally ending up in a bizarre post-apocalyptic Lovecraftian scenario. A virtuosic display of variations on a visual theme. Fantastic art, fantastically weird. Highly recommended. Lots of crazy body horror, not for the squeamish.

  • The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima. A great short novel about the sea, glory, death, and wanting to have sex with your mother. Somewhat autobiographical, in a symbolic way. Nihilism, tradition vs westernization, youth vs age, all in a lyrical and nautical style.

  • Mao II by Don DeLillo. Cults, mass media, a reclusive author. Love the style, very impressionistic. Lots of great sentences and great paragraphs, unfortunately they do not combine to form a Great Novel, the ideas never coalesce into anything solid. DeLillo revisits many of his typical themes here: American foreign policy, terrorism, cults, etc. Rather presciently written in 1991, very pessimistic on the potentials of mass action. "The future belongs to crowds."

  • Libra by Don DeLillo. A semi-fictionalized biography of Lee Harvey Oswald, based on the CIA/Cuban exiles conspiracy theory of the JFK assassination. Somewhat conventional in its style, and Pynchonesque in its attitude: conspiracies, axes of control and influence, strange coincidences, overeager pattern-matching, taking liberties with history. It's lacking the humor though. There's also a kind of meta parallel story of an FBI agent trying to piece together all the evidence, meticulously going through even the tiniest element (much like DeLillo). Pretty good, but The Names remains my favorite DeLillo.

  • The Pussy by Delicious Tacos. A collection of autobiographical vignettes about sex and relationships. Starts out extremely vulgar and extremely funny, ends up in deep ugliness and despair. A tragedy disguised as a comedy. Pure blackpill fuel: a dystopian vision of work, love, aging, and human connection in our society. Slightly longer review.

  • The Unnamable by Samuel Beckett. If you're interested in the extremes of experimental literature, this is a book for you. The novel at its most abstract and formless. Virtually no characters, plot, movement, imagery, dialogue, paragraphs, or really anything else you might normally associate with a novel. I wouldn't say it's a pleasurable read, but it's an interesting one at least. Isolation, existential loneliness, death.

  • How It Is by Samuel Beckett. It can't possibly be sparser and more formless than The Unnamable, you think. But it is! Beckett does away even with coherent, full sentences in this one. Nothing but a series of roughly sketched impressions, in a halting and disjointed language. Not really my jam.

  • Wasteland of Flint by Thomas Harlan. A fun space opera in a unique setting (an Aztec-Japanese space empire), focused on xenoarchaeology. Ancient aliens, some cool Solaris-like ideas, some really out-there imagery. Unfortunately it's mostly sequelbait and the sequels don't seem to be very good.

  • Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer (dropped it half-way through). Wat. My reaction to this book is just pure bewilderment. I love Ada Palmer's blog, but wtf is going on here? Am I supposed to be laughing at the terrible narrator and his horrifically bad similes? Is it for children? The magical boy protagonist and philosophy 101 stuff certainly seems to indicate so. Or maybe "young adults"? What's with the nonsensical worldbuilding (an SF/fantasy future that worships 18th century philosophers, with absurd coincidences piled on top of each other)? And apparently none of the plot is resolved by the end of the book! The whole thing reminded me of the "taxation of trade routes" stuff from the prequels, and this image kept popping into my head:




On the Pension Apocalypse

Aging populations, archaic pay-as-you-go systems, and undercapitalized pension funds will create huge problems for future retirees. Just how bad is it, and what should you do about it?

The Situation

In the past there were many workers and few retirees, so it seemed like a good idea to have the workers pay for old peoples' pensions and promise them the same in return. Thus the pay-as-you-go pension system was born.1 But people stopped having children, started living longer, and the worker:retiree ratio has been falling and will continue to fall precipitously. These problems will be coming home to roost over the next few decades.

To put things into perspective: simply maintaining the current prime:aged ratio would require 383 million additional prime aged people by 2050. The math is clear, and even if fertility tripled tomorrow morning there's a huge lag until that actually starts affecting the economy.

How much will it cost? It's hard to say exactly, the projections depend on fertility, longevity, immigration, growth, and the actual pensions. Plus there are non-pension expenses to take into account: government-funded healthcare spending on retirees is going to increase as well. On the low end some (including the EU) project an increase in spending of just ~3% of GDP, but I find that highly implausible. My own forecast would be around 10% of GDP for the average advanced economy by 2050.

For countries with relatively low government spending and good growth prospects like the US this might not be a problem. For European countries that already have government spending in the 55%+ of GDP range however, things look dire.2 Raising an additional 10% of GDP through taxation would result in a 20-25% cut in disposable income for the average worker for literally nothing in return. Combine that with low/zero growth and things start looking really bad.

Anyone under the age of 40 or so should expect to receive little in return for their pay-as-you-go pension system contributions. Is it unfair that today's workers slave away, are forced to give away all their money to the boomers, only to receive virtually nothing in return? Sure. Is there anything you can do about it? No. Welcome to democracy.

Regional Variation

There is enormous variation in pension systems both between and within countries. Places with relatively small pay-as-you-go systems and heavy reliance on private pensions are probably going to be fine. On the other hand there are municipalities in the US which have already started defaulting.

EU

By 2050, the German workforce is expected to shrink by about 10 million people while the number of retirees will increase by about 7 million people. Most European countries should expect little to no GDP growth in the coming decades, as workforce declines will offset productivity gains. And most of Europe isn't seeing any productivity gains anyway (though some countries, such as Germany, have been growing):


Even more terrifying is the fact that nobody really seems to care about growth in Europe. There's this idea that the EU is ruled by technocrats, but these "technocrats" seem more concerned with adding annoying popups to every website than the permanent collapse of economic growth in the European Union.

Japan has had zero GDP growth since 1995 (which was also when its workforce was at its highest point), and Europe should expect a similar future. Here's what the Nikkei 225 has looked like over the past 3 decades, by the way:

The pie is no longer growing; all that's left is the fight over who gets the biggest piece. Sam Altman is right when he argues that zero-sum economics create a toxic political environment.

In a system with economic growth, things can improve for everyone. In a system without growth, or even one with very little growth, that’s not the case—if things improve for me, it has to come at the expense of things getting worse for you. Without growth, we’re voting against someone else’s interest as much as we’re voting for our own. This ends with lots of fighting and everyone feeling screwed, broken into factions, and unmotivated. Democracy does not work well in a zero-sum world.

People either seem unaware or incapable of preparing for what is to come. Even in prosperous countries like Germany and France, median savings are below €100k. The wealthiest German cohort, those aged 55-64, have median net wealth of €180k, and the younger generations don't seem to be in a hurry to save for retirement. 42% of Europeans have less than three months’ take-home pay saved.

Japan

Despite being ahead of the curve on aging, Japan is actually in a pretty good position as it only spends ~10% of GDP on pensions. Compare that to 17% in Italy, 14.5% in France, and 10% in Germany even though those places have significantly smaller retired populations.3 How do they do it? It's a pay-as-you-go system that simply doesn't pay out very much: the average pension is only ~$2k per month for a married couple. Could you live on that budget? Despite this, they are cutting pensions, increasing the retirement age, and finding ways to get older people to keep working.

It's also worth mentioning, however, that they've been running deficits for 30 years and have a debt/GDP ratio of over 230%. Total government spending has been hovering around 40% lately, so it would seem that they have room to increase taxes if it becomes necessary.

China

China is in a nightmarish demographic position and needs to maintain rapid growth despite a declining workforce. Their age pyramid is time bomb that's about to explode:

In 2011, every pensioner was supported by 3.1 workers. By the end of 2017, that ratio had fallen to 2.8-to-one, and the Ministry estimates that by 2050, it will be just 1.3-to-one.

In 2016 the one-child policy became the two-child policy. In 2021, the two-child policy became the three-child policy. But it's too late.

How long can China keep up the "outgrow the debt" strategy with a declining workforce? And what happens when growth stalls? This seems like one of the likelier scenarios for the next global recession. Of course many have predicted this collapse before, and they were wrong. But the demographic problem is unavoidable.

The retirement age is quite low: 60 for men and 55 for women; we can probably expect this to change which will give them a bit of breathing room. But any such changes are wildly unpopular. On top of that, pension funds are already heavily reliant on additional funding from the central government.

USA

Given its low average age and strong growth, the US is in a decent position compared to the EU and China.

But there is a large amount of variation within the country: some local governments are doing perfectly fine, while others have serious problems with defined-benefit pensions for public employees. Politicians have been promising generous pensions without bothering to fund them (with the assistance of absurd return assumptions from the funds): pensions give them the ability to offer huge payouts to special interest groups without impacting the budget immediately. The logic of public choice is so clear that there is only one really serious question left, and that is why states haven't collapsed already.

As these pensions start taking up a larger percentage of state/local revenues, things will come to a head. In Illinois, for example, pensions took up about 4% of the budget in the 90s. Today it's 25% and growing. There are three alternatives, all painful: cut pensions, cut other services, or start raising taxes. How much of that will people tolerate before they start moving out?

If this were simply a horrific problem that we were trying to deal with, it would be bad enough. But it's a horrific problem that we are ignoring, and will continue ignoring until it blows up in our faces. In the middle of the longest bull market in US stock market history, pension deficits have ballooned:

Just imagine what a decade of weak stock market returns would do.

At the federal level, Social Security has about 15 years until they have to start cutting benefits, but it won't be that expensive to shore it up. And most importantly, the US is growing, and has a lot more room left for tax increases.

What Governments Can Do

How will governments respond to the pension apocalypse? All the alternatives seem bad: pension cuts, big tax increases, vast borrowing, inflation, unprecedented immigration. Nobody wants to do any of these things, but the math must eventually balance out. In the end something's gotta give. This survey of Europeans captures the heart of the problem:

When it comes to the measures required, even those respondents who acknowledge the threat of demographic problems appear to be fairly reluctant to endorse them: most of the reform proposals are refused by the majority.

Everyone understands that governments either need to tax more or pay out less, but people aren't ready to accept either solution. Just 46% support a system that combines basic public pensions with private savings! Even conservatives in America hate the idea of cuts: just 15% of Republicans support Medicare spending cuts, while 10% support Social Security cuts. And when you spend $2T on "stimulus" at a time when there is no AD shortfall, how are you going to close the taps later? With such large political costs (old people are sympathetic, numerous, and politically influential),4 few politicians are willing to take the necessary steps. And the worse the worker:retiree ratio, the more political power the retirees have—this is not a self-balancing problem.

The example of Japan shows that these problems are not insurmountable, as long as politicians are willing to make difficult choices (and the people accept those choices). The earlier reforms are enacted, the easier things will go, but in most places I expect it will be impossible until a breaking point is reached. Maybe in the end we'll just get a little bit of everything and the math will balance out. But someone is going to have to make sacrifices.

The biggest danger comes not from the pension apocalypse itself, but rather from the stupid things politicians might do to avoid addressing the pension problem head-on. Some possible scenarios:

  • Huge tax increases → mass emigration → death spiral
  • Central banks monetize debt → hyperinflation → economic crash
  • Central banks don't monetize debt → debt crisis → Greece 2.0

Grow

You can think of pension liabilities like debt: you can keep growing it forever without problem as long as you also grow your economy quickly enough. We can talk about progress studies as much as we want, but the practical reality on the ground is not encouraging when it comes to growth. Especially in Europe, it is more or less a distant dream rather than a real possibility. And things are slowing down even in the US.

China has no alternative, and so far it seems to be succeeding against all expectations (though the data is fake to some extent, see this and this). We'll see how long they can keep it up.

Pay Out Less

One possibility is, of course, a straight cut to pensions. But you have to keep in mind that old people tend to vote at higher rates than young people, and that due to demographic collapse the old people will be the most powerful voting block in these countries. People get angry when you cut spending.5 They get especially angry when they have paid in quite a lot of money to the pension system and will not see much in return. Even the best-managed systems (like the Dutch) will be running into trouble though.

Raise the Retirement Age

Instead of paying out less, you can try to raise the retirement age instead. This not only decreases the total amount you need to pay, but also props up the worker:retiree ratio. It also has the benefit of not affecting current retirees: bypassing that powerful bloc makes changes easier to implement from a political perspective. But people in surveys say they expect to retire around 63, so I don't know how politically viable this plan is going to be in practice.

For example, Denmark plans to raise the retirement age in step with increases in life expectancy. Under this model, a Danish worker born in 1990 can expect "early retirement" at 70 and normal retirement at 73!

To which I say: fuck off and die.

Edit: after some conversations I have decided that raising the retirement age might not be that bad. Lots of people are still able and willing to work in their 60s and 70s. The best solution would probably be a flexible system in which people can choose when to retire, and the benefits adjust accordingly (the earlier you stop working, the less you get).

Tax

Raising taxes is another possibility, but how much slack is there in income taxation given a declining base? The US (which is currently at <40% government spending/GDP) has a lot of wiggle room, and you could even say the same about China. But for Europe you have to figure that at some point they'll be hitting the downward slope of the Laffer curve. Emigration is easier than ever and the people with the greatest ability to work remotely also tend to be those who are most desirable from a fiscal perspective.

Immigration

The sheer number of people needed makes immigration a partial solution at best, and only a few countries use immigration in a way that actually helps. Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and Switzerland for example have fairly reasonable immigration policies that select for high human capital: Canada has the smartest immigrants in the world (average PISA math scores of 527, higher than the natives' and corresponding to an IQ around 103). But despite high population growth and productive immigrants, Canada still faces a shortfall in the near future.

Needless to say, immigration policies that select for low human capital (US: average 1st gen immigrant PISA math score 437, corresponding to an IQ around 91) only make the problem worse. In Europe, non-EU migrants are less likely to be employed and earn much less than Europeans when they are employed. You can't fill a fiscal hole by adding more fiscal burdens to your society.6

There is astonishingly little international competition for productive people, but I think that is going to change in the future. This process has already started, with some countries offering digital nomad visas, sometimes with tax incentives on top. In Italy some cities will pay half your rent. I imagine there will be calls for coordination to prevent a "race to the bottom", but I doubt there will be any kind of global agreement on the matter.

Debt

Hell, if zero rates persist you could just fund the whole thing with debt. Rising interest rate forecasts have been a complete meme for more than a decade now, maybe free money is the new normal. On the other hand, at high levels of debt/GDP it only takes a small rise in rates to create serious problems (and possibly trigger debt crises). But how long can this last? Perhaps the "solution" to rising rates will be inflation, just kicking the can even further down the road.

The Andrew Dobson Gambit

Inflate!

How much willingness for debt monetization is there among independent central banks? Probably not much (who knows though—remember "no bailouts"? lol) On the other hand, how long can CBs retain their independence against mounting political pressure? What's more unpopular, high inflation or pension cuts? This seems like a fairly unlikely scenario.

Transition to DC Plans

The countries that are best prepared have some combination of well-funded basic public pension system that makes sure old people don't starve, combined with defined-contribution pensions. Governments with large defined-benefit plans will either need to take serious pain, or start transitioning to defined-contribution plans. The problem with making this transition is that it's expensive immediately, and extremely difficult politically. They tried to do it in Illinois and it was shot down by the courts:

Under the Illinois Supreme Court’s 2015 precedent, a government worker’s pension benefits cannot be changed in any way after their first day working for the state.

If you thought pensioners were a powerful lobby, wait till you see what public employees get away with.

What You Can Do

First of all, understand that you need to save for retirement.

After that, just follow the standard boring investing advice. Right now is not a great time (high valuations after a 12-year bull market that quintupled the S&P500, near-zero bond yields), but I'm sure there will be good opportunities in the decades to come. The safe withdrawal rate (how much you can withdraw from your investments every year without running out of money before you die) is generally held to be around 3-4%. Suppose you can get by on $30k/year, you'll need $1m in investments. That number has to be adjusted for inflation: assuming you'll retire in 2060 and 2% inflation, that's $2.2m in 2060-dollars. Getting there isn't that difficult: saving $10k/year for 40 years with 7% annual returns will get you to $2m. The earlier you start the better.

Where to put the money? I'd go with some sort of global equity ETF, perhaps with a tilt toward the US. Beware home equity bias, unless you're American.

What happens if the political demands generated by the collapse of pension systems end up causing a hyperinflationary scenario? As long as you have the money in real estate or equities, you'll probably be fine. German stocks actually did fine in the Weimar hyperinflation era (but only if you held them through an 80% drawdown).

It's an absolutely terrible time for bonds, don't be misled by the incredible bull market of the last 40 years. 60/40 is going to look much worse in the future. Inflation goes up, you're screwed; rates go up, you're screwed. The Greek 10y bond is currently yielding 0.824%—this is a country with a debt/GDP ratio over 200%, a GDP 35% lower than it was 10 years ago, and a recent history of default. The bond market is absolutely nuts right now.

If things get bad enough you might want to protect against expropriation, which means international diversification. But I doubt things will get that bad.

Looking beyond investments, you could move to a cheaper country, which would allow you to get away with lower savings. There are nice places in SEA or South America that are both civilized and cheap. It's pretty easy for Norteamericanos and Europeans with some savings to get retiree visas. If you were retiring now, Argentina would be an interesting choice: very cheap due to the currency situation but still a safe & pleasant country. As long as your investments are in a stable currency, you can go wherever you want. On the other hand your home country might be unwilling to pay out even your meager pension if you don't actually live there, so plan accordingly.

You could also have more kids. The society-wide dependency ratio is going to be pretty bad, but if you have enough kids your family dependency ratio could be relied on instead. It's probably a bad idea to have kids as a retirement strategy, but if you're leaning in that direction already why not read Caplan's book and pop out another one?

What to Expect

Some countries have a political culture that allows for tough decisions to be made and accepted, but for everyone else I think the most likely course is to kick the can down the road and muddle along while the problems accumulate, until a crisis erupts.

Worst-Case Scenario

Weimar, then war? Probably not. Societies filled with old people don't do revolution or war. The age of bangs is over; we only have whimpers to look forward to. At worst we'll see a death spiral of stagnation, brain drain, expropriation, and perhaps devaluation/inflation. Think South America. They won't let you starve, but it won't be very nice either. If the catastrophe isn't global, and you manage to keep your portfolio out of their hands, you'll be fine.

Best-Case Scenario

Cheap fusion energy or friendly superhuman general artificial intelligence?7 If we get a significant increase in growth, the pension problems disappear.


  1. 1.I believe the first such system was set up in Germany in 1889.
  2. 2.They could theoretically cut spending on other things to compensate, but good luck with that.
  3. 3.In Japan 28% of the population is >65 years old. That number is 23% in Italy and 21.5% in Germany.
  4. 4.When 30%+ of the population is retirees, nobody's getting elected without their vote.
  5. 5."Expenditure cuts carry a significant risk of increasing the frequency of riots, anti-government demonstrations, general strikes, political assassinations, and attempts at revolutionary overthrow of the established order. [...] Once unrest erupts, governments quickly reverse course and increase spending in the following year".
  6. 6.European immigration policy is such a mystery to me it might as well be a supranatural phenomenon. In the US at least you can explain it through the political motive. But what about Germany? Poor, unemployed migrants obviously don't vote CDU. If there is any intentionality at all behind European immigration policy (and there probably isn't) it must be based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how the welfare state works.
  7. 7.Or, you know...the JvNs.



Returns to Scale in Broken Windows

Everyone is familiar with Bastiat's broken window fallacy: breaking a window may seem to generate economic activity through its repair, but it's actually a loss once you take the opportunity cost into account. But what if there were positive returns to scale in breaking windows? There is a fascinating subgenre of economic research which involves looking at large-scale destruction, analyzing the long-term effects, and then concluding that the disaster was Good, Actually.

Let's take a look at some examples.

Raze the cities

You must be ready to burn yourself in your own flame; how could you rise anew if you have not first become ashes?

We'll start with Hornbeck & Keniston's Creative Destruction: Barriers to Urban Growth and the Great Boston Fire of 1872. The titular fire destroyed 776 buildings (about 1/10th of Boston's housing stock at the time), and caused ~$13 million in damages to real estate and ~$60 million in lost personal property. Thirteen people died.

After the fire, there was a significant increase in land value in the burned area, which the paper attributes to positive externalities from investing in new buildings. Prior to the fire, negative externalities from other, low-quality, buildings prevented high-quality development; the coordination problems were too difficult to overcome. Mass destruction and rebuilding let the areas settle at a higher equilibrium. Crucially, the value gain is estimated to be larger than the value of the destroyed buildings:1

The Fire is estimated to have increased land values by $5.3 million in the burned area, and by $9.0 million in the unburned area. The percent impact is greater in the burned area, but the level impact is greater in the unburned area because many more plots are affected. The estimated total impact is $14.3 million, or 1.12 times the 1872 value of buildings in the burned area.

(And you could argue that the value of the land doesn't fully capture the gains here.)

Importantly, there is no such land-value gain in situations where individual buildings burned down. It is only when destruction happens at scale that reconstruction can happen in new and more profitable configurations, because the limiting factor is externalities and coordination. Break one window and all you get is a broken window; break a ton of windows and all sorts of new possibilities emerge. The paper is not clear on the exact mechanism, but the authors speculate that it's some combination of combining plots into larger parcels, concentrating land ownership and reducing coordination costs, improved infrastructure, agglomeration gains from improved business locations, and displacement of businesses that caused negative externalities on neighbors.

Another paper along the same lines is Siodla's Razing San Francisco: The 1906 disaster as a natural experiment in urban redevelopment, which finds that the fire increased density by 60%. In a wildly prosperous city which used to be fast-growing but whose population has stagnated for the last 70 years, 60% is incredible. The key takeaway here is that mass destruction enables not just higher-value uses, but also very different forms of reconstruction.

After the fire, developers constructed much denser housing in razed areas relative to unburned areas where frictions were still in place. This result is consistent with the notion that the frictions associated with adjusting land use in cities are substantial, even in relatively free-market ones.

Whether the effect persists to this day or not is questionable: with the addition of various controls, it disappears by 1950, but I'm not sure which specification we should be looking at. Part of the issue is that modern-day redevelopment erases the positive effects of the fire.

As Christine Meisner Rosen puts it in The Limits of Power: Great Fires and the Process of City Growth in America,

Prior to the fire, the manner in which improvements had been erected on the land acted as a constraint to redevelopment. The razing of the extant buildings gave rise to the possibility that the burnt area could be redesigned as it was rebuilt.

Fire isn't the only way. Bombing offers similar benefits, as Dericks & Koster show in The Billion Pound Drop: The Blitz and Agglomeration Economics in London. I love everything about this paper, right from the first sentence which includes the golden words "exogenous variation from the Blitz bombings".

This one isn't about residential density, but rather about employment density and agglomeration effects. There are economies of scale external to individual firms: knowledge spillovers, labor market effects, possibilities for specialization along the supply chain, etc. All these make the tight clustering of economic activity valuable. Dericks & Koster show that bombed locations tend to have increased building height today, and that higher density leads to greater gains from agglomeration. They estimate that the blitz led to an increase in current-day per capita income of almost 10%! That's about £50 billion per year.

When people talk about the long shadow of history, I don't think London's employment density is exactly what they have in mind, but that just goes to show how little attention we pay to zoning relative to its importance. The implications for transaction costs are also rather shocking: the value unlocked by these disasters is enormous, yet Coasean bargains in normal times seem impossible.

How much of these effects can we blame on regulation? It's not clear, some of it is just organic externalities which are naturally difficult to coordinate against, so I think we would see similar situations even under a laissez-faire zoning regime. On the other hand, as zoning regulation has proliferated perhaps the positive effects of mass destruction would be muted today. That said, a controlled demolition would cause far less damage compared to unpredictable destruction from fires or bombs: people and movables would be safe, and only the buildings would be lost.

Natural remedies

Whoever must be a creator always annihilates.

What about floods, hurricanes, or earthqukes? Let's turn our eyes to Deryugina, Kawano & Levitt's The Economic Impact of Hurricane Katrina on Its Victims: Evidence from Individual Tax Returns. Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005 and destroyed over 200k homes, mainly from flooding as the levees failed. Hundreds of thousands of people were permanently displaced, and the damage was estimated to cost over $100 billion. Based on comparisons against a control group of 10 similar cities, they find that relative incomes initially decreased, but then quickly recovered and kept increasing beyond their original level.

The gap in income increases to about $2,300 in the following year but, remarkably, disappears just two years after the storm. By 2008, labor incomes are $1,300 higher among the New Orleans group; this difference exceeds $2,300 by 2013.

The income gains in this case (about $1.8b between 2005-2013) were not sufficient to make up for the losses due to the flooding, but again this is mainly due to the unpredictable nature of the destruction, and it shows that output is incredibly resilient to disasters. Others find, if not a stimulating effect, then at least a quick return to pre-disaster levels of output.

This rebound appears to be driven both by victims moving to stronger labor markets and by the strengthening of the labor market in New Orleans itself. What makes the strong economic recovery even more remarkable is that the storm struck without warning. In settings where economic agents have more time to prepare for adverse events (e.g., long-term climatic changes that make an area less habitable), the adjustment costs would be expected to be lower.

For a broader view of natural disasters, we have Skidmore & Toya's Do Natural Disasters Promote Long-Run Growth? which looks at cross-national data. It's not the most convincing paper in the world: they find that climatic disasters tend to promote growth, while geologic disasters tend to slow it down, and the proposed mechanism (greater disaster risk -> more human capital investment -> greater growth) strikes me as rather dubious.

Thus, physical capital investment may fall, but there is also a substitution toward human capital investment. Disasters also provide the impetus to update the capital stock and adopt new technologies, leading to improvements in total factor productivity.

Go to war, have a revolution

War has always been the grand sagacity of every spirit which has grown too inward and too profound; its curative power lies even in the wounds one receives.

While the previous cases have relatively clear mechanisms, war is a bit different. Its positive effects—if they exist—are more diffuse in their operation. Military R&D investments filtering down into the economy, efficiency improvements from the impetus of the war economy, and so on.

Ben-David & Papell look at 16 countries and find that growth following WWII more than doubled, even after GDP levels surpassed the pre-war path. Per-capita growth rates are 163% higher than the pre-break rates.

You don't even have to win the war to get the benefits.2

This study provides empirical evidence that, for nearly every one of the countries, the years that provide the strongest evidence for a trend break are associated with a sharp decline in GDP. These breaks are associated with World War II for most of the countries and either World War I or the Great Depression for the remainder. While countries do tend to exhibit relatively constant growth rates for extended periods of time, the occurrence of a major shock to the economy and the resultant drop in levels are usually followed by sustained growth that exceeds the earlier steady state growth.

Robert Gordon makes a similar argument in The Rise and Fall of American Growth, arguing that the necessity of the war effort forced TFP increases onto the entire economy, spilling out of the military and onto the civilian sector. Even Tyler Cowen has made arguments along these lines, writing that "the very possibility of war focuses the attention of governments on getting some basic decisions right — whether investing in science or simply liberalizing the economy. Such focus ends up improving a nation’s longer-run prospects." (Though he does not go as far as to say war is a net positive.)

On the revolution side there's Acemoglu et al's The Consequences of Radical Reform: The French Revolution. At this point you can probably guess what they found:

Areas that were occupied by the French and that underwent radical institutional reform experienced more rapid urbanization and economic growth [...] Revolution destroyed (the institutional underpinnings of) the power of oligarchies and elites opposed to economic change; combined with the arrival of new economic and industrial opportunities in the second half of the 19th century, this helped pave the way for future economic growth.

The success of the French reforms raises the question: why did they work when other externally-imposed reforms often fail? Most likely this is because the reforms were much more radical than is typically the case.

And then there's the Branko Milanovic thesis that communism was necessary for eventual capitalist development in Eastern Europe.

I mentioned Mancur Olson's Rise and Decline of Nations in the Gibbon review, and I have to bring him up again here. Olson's argument is that in the long run nations decline because they accumulate cruft in the form of rent-seeking special interest groups. The rest is downstream from the logic of public choice. A war or a revolution can wipe the slate clean and thus revitalize the economy. The Acemoglu paper fits into this framework very well, as Napoleon destroyed rent-extracting institutions like guilds.

Perhaps we should not simply raze the cities, but wipe out all our institutions as well. What we need is a big fat societal 'reset' button.3 Olson, of course, is equivocal:

Now that a gentler and more conventional policy prescription is close at hand, it may not frighten most readers away from the rest of the book to say that, yes, if one happens to be delicately balancing the arguments for and against revolution, the theory here does shift the balance marginally in the revolutionary direction.

In a way, we are converging on the orthodox Marxist view of the origins of the industrial revolution. Marx writes:

The revolutions of 1648 and 1789 were not English and French revolutions, they were revolutions of European significance. [...] the victory of the bourgeoisie meant at that time the victory of a new social order, the victory of bourgeois over feudal property, of nationality over provincialism, of free trade over the guilds, of subdivision of property over primogeniture, of landownership over the subordination of the owner by means of the land, of enlightenment over superstition, of the family over the family title, of industry over heroic idleness, of bourgeois right over mediaeval privileges.

But aren't we confusing cause and effect here? If these were bourgeois revolutions, weren't they only possible because the bourgeois had already gained sufficient power to achieve them? Olson in any case regards England as relatively stable.4 I leave the implications for the European Union as an exercise for the reader.

Wait a minute, this is completely insane!

Ah, well. Yes.

Maybe. Some of the arguments presented above are not exactly bulletproof. José Luis Ricón has a couple of good posts arguing against the idea that World War II caused an increase in growth. In The Productivity Impact of World War II Mobilization in the United States, Alexander Field argues that Gordon's estimates of growth from before the war are too low, and his estimates of growth after the war too high, so there's really no post-war boom at all.5 And with the increased destructiveness of modern warfare it is possible the calculus has changed completely.

Maybe it's just publication bias. There are thousands of destructive events; suppose 99% of them are genuinely bad, but we only get investigations of the remaining 1% because only the "good" ones can be turned into journal articles. One might argue that "destruction bad" doesn't get you published (though sometimes it does, eg terrorism bad for growth), while "destruction good" is exactly the type of contrarian bullshit beloved by academic economists the world over.

I'm not sure I buy that. Look, at least when it comes to destroying cities the mechanism isn't outlandish—there's path dependency that locks economic activity into suboptimal equilibria, and if you break out of them you can shift to more productive configurations. The power of agglomeration effects is extremely well-established. If you accept that (and you should), the only question left is whether the benefits actually exceed the costs. Now we're just haggling over the price, as Churchill said.

Scott Alexander is famously skeptical of systemic change and burning down the system. He writes:

Systems are hard. Institutions are hard. If your goal is to replace the current systems with better ones, then destroying the current system is 1% of the work, and building the better ones is 99% of it. Throughout history, dozens of movements have doomed entire civilizations by focusing on the “destroying the current system” step and expecting the “build a better one” step to happen on its own. That never works.

Yarvin responds to his fears by arguing that we can have bloodless systemic change and there's no need for fire at all. But the basic aversion to destruction goes unquestioned. "If all you have is a plan to “burn down the current system,” you do not actually have a plan at all", he says. I think they both underestimate the costs of being stuck in bad equilibria, and overestimate the pain caused by burning down the system. The problem with communist revolutions isn't the revolution, it's the communism.6

I started this essay with Bastiat, let's turn back to him again. In his famous essay, he contrasts that which is seen and that which is not seen: we observe the activity of the window repair, but not the opportunity cost.

To be ignorant of political economy is to allow ourselves to be dazzled by the immediate effect of a phenomenon; to be acquainted with it is to embrace in thought and in forethought the whole compass of effects.

What is seen is a disaster. What is not seen is the enormous damage caused every day by ossified structures that prevent economic activity from happening. Let us not be dazzled by the flames!

Samuel Hughes and Ben Southwood recently unveiled their policy proposal aimed at making Coasean bargains (for residential intensification) easier to realize, by distributing the gains to all local residents. The idea is to get everyone on a street together to agree to destroy it, then build up better and reap enormous profits. All I'm proposing is to do this at a slightly more ambitious scale.

Will it work? We won't know if we don't try. Let's start with a modest pilot program and tear down just one city, some place like Atlanta or Dallas. See what happens. Doesn't even have to be the whole metropolitan area, just a few key neighborhoods. You said you wanted progress studies, didn't you?


  1. 1.That is not to say that the fire was ultimately value-enhancing. The value of the lost goods is much greater. But those are simply incidental costs that could have been avoided had the fire been planned and controlled.
  2. 2.Or even be involved in it directly? Sweden got a similar growth boost despite remaining neutral. Perhaps this should make us doubt the idea that the war caused the post-war growth? Or maybe they just benefited from a global wave of post-war growth that started in the countries actually involved.
  3. 3.If the benefits of war are due to such as "reset", perhaps it's even preferable to lose a big war.
  4. 4.He writes: "The logic of the argument implies that countries that have had democratic freedom of organization without upheaval or invasion the longest will suffer the most from growth-repressing organizations and combinations. This helps to explain why Great Britain, the major nation with the longest immunity from dictatorship, invasion, and revolution, has had in this century a lower rate of growth than other large, developed democracies."
  5. 5.The differences in assumptions and their impact are neatly summarized in Table 3 on p. 49.
  6. 6.Post-war East and West Germany offer an instructive example.



Highlights from The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

[If you missed the review you might want to check it out before or after the highlights.]

I highlighted approximately 106,000 words (or more than 250 pages), far too much to share in a blog post. Instead I have selected some highlights², picking out a handful of events and persons that stood out (plus an assortment of shorter passages):

  • Julian the Apostate, the brilliant last pagan emperor whose LARPing and attempts at reform were tragically doomed.
  • The barbarian invasions of the 4th and 5th centuries, and the final fall of the Western Roman Empire.
  • Belisarius, the last of the last great Roman generals: a wildly successful military commander who suffered from an excess of loyalty, both to his wife and his emperor.
  • Heraclius, who came to power when it seemed like the end of the Eastern Empire was near, but managed to push the Romans for one last hurrah against the Persians.
  • Some episodes from the crazy fanaticism of the crusades.
  • The rise of Timur (or Tamerlane), the last great steppe conqueror.
  • And finally some highlights from the fall of Constantinople.

Assorted Quotes

It begins like this:

In the second century of the Christian æra, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valour. The gentle, but powerful, influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury. The image of a free constitution was preserved with decent reverence. The Roman senate appeared to possess the sovereign authority, and devolved on the emperors all the executive powers of government. During a happy period of more than fourscore years, the public administration was conducted by the virtue and abilities of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the two Antonines. It is the design of this and of the two succeeding chapters, to describe the prosperous condition of their empire; and afterwards, from the death of Marcus Antoninus, to deduce the most important circumstances of its decline and fall: a revolution which will ever be remembered, and is still felt by the nations of the earth.

Some of Gibbon's best dunks:

[On Charlemagne] Of his moral virtues, chastity is not the most conspicuous.

[On St Augustine] His learning is too often borrowed, and his arguments are too often his own.

This emperor, the first of the name of Leo, has been distinguished by the title of the Great, from a succession of princes who gradually fixed in the opinion of the Greeks a very humble standard of heroic, or at least of royal, perfection.

The meekness and resignation which had distinguished the primitive disciples of the gospel was the object of the applause rather than of the imitation of their successors.

[On the historian Gregory of Tours] His style is equally devoid of elegance and simplicity. In a conspicuous station he still remained a stranger to his own age and country; and in a prolix work (the five last books contain ten years) he has omitted almost everything that posterity desires to learn. I have tediously acquired, by a painful perusal, the right of pronouncing this unfavourable sentence.

The Cyropædia is vague and languid: the Anabasis circumstantial and animated. Such is the eternal difference between fiction and truth.

[Julian] was assisted by the eloquent Mamertinus, one of the consuls elect, whose merit is loudly celebrated by the doubtful evidence of his own applause.

The harem and library of Gordian:

Twenty-two acknowledged concubines and a library of sixty-two thousand volumes attested the variety of [Gordian's] inclinations; and from the productions which he left behind him, it appears that the former as well as the latter were designed for use rather than for ostentation.

The arch of Constantine:

The triumphal arch of Constantine still remains a melancholy proof of the decline of the arts, and a singular testimony of the meanest vanity. As it was not possible to find in the capital of the empire a sculptor who was capable of adorning that public monument, the arch of Trajan, without any respect either for his memory or for the rules of propriety, was stripped of its most elegant figures. The difference of times and persons, of actions and characters, was totally disregarded. The Parthian captives appear prostrate at the feet of a prince who never carried his arms beyond the Euphrates; and curious antiquarians can still discover the head of Trajan on the trophies of Constantine. The new ornaments which it was necessary to introduce between the vacancies of ancient sculpture are executed in the rudest and most unskilful manner.

Augustus vs Dicoletian:

Like the modesty affected by Augustus, the state maintained by Diocletian was a theatrical representation; but it must be confessed that, of the two comedies, the former was of a much more liberal and manly character than the latter. It was the aim of the one to disguise, and the object of the other to display, the unbounded power which the emperors possessed over the Roman world.

The fantastic story of the last 7 pagan philosophers of Greece:

The surviving sect of Platonists, whom Plato would have blushed to acknowledge, extravagantly mingled a sublime theory with the practice of superstition and magic; and, as they remained alone in the midst of a Christian world, they indulged a secret rancour against the government of the church and state, whose severity was still suspended over their heads. [...] Yet the golden chain, as it was fondly styled, of the Platonic succession, continued forty-four years from the death of Proclus to the edict of Justinian, which imposed a perpetual silence on the schools of Athens, and excited the grief and indignation of the few remaining votaries of Grecian science and superstition. Seven friends and philosophers, Diogenes and Hermias, Eulalius and Priscian, Damascius, Isidore, and Simplicius, who dissented from the religion of their sovereign, embraced the resolution of seeking, in a foreign land, the freedom which was denied in their native country. They had heard, and they credulously believed, that the republic of Plato was realized in the despotic government of Persia, and that a patriotic king reigned over the happiest and most virtuous of nations.

They were soon astonished by the natural discovery that Persia resembled the other countries of the globe; that Chosroes, who affected the name of a philosopher, was vain, cruel, and ambitious; that bigotry, and a spirit of intolerance, prevailed among the Magi; that the nobles were haughty, the courtiers servile, and the magistrates unjust; that the guilty sometimes escaped, and that the innocent were often oppressed. The disappointment of the philosophers provoked them to overlook the real virtues of the Persians; and they were scandalized, more deeply perhaps than became their profession, with the plurality of wives and concubines, the incestuous marriages, and the custom of exposing dead bodies to the dogs and vultures, instead of hiding them in the earth or consuming them with fire. Their repentance was expressed by a precipitate return, and they loudly declared that they had rather die on the borders of the empire than enjoy the wealth and favour of the Barbarian. From this journey, however, they derived a benefit which reflects the purest lustre on the character of Chosroes. He required that the seven sages who had visited the court of Persia should be exempted from the penal laws which Justinian enacted against his Pagan subjects; and this privilege, expressly stipulated in a treaty of peace, was guarded by the vigilance of a powerful mediator.89 Simplicius and his companions ended their lives in peace and obscurity; and, as they left no disciples, they terminate the long list of Grecian philosophers, who may be justly praised, notwithstanding their defects, as the wisest and most virtuous of their contemporaries. The writings of Simplicius are now extant. His physical and metaphysical commentaries on Aristotle have passed away with the fashion of the times; but his moral interpretation of Epictetus is preserved in the library of nations, as a classic book, most excellently adapted to direct the will, to purify the heart, and to confirm the understanding, by a just confidence in the nature both of God and man.

 

Julian the Apostate (331-363)

The chapter on Julian opens in medias res:

While the Romans languished under the tyranny of eunuchs and bishops, the praises of Julian were repeated with transport in every part of the empire, except in the palace of Constantius.

After setting the scene, Gibbon then circles back to the beginning. Constantius II was one of Constantine's sons, and when he came to power he murdered everyone else in his family to avoid any challengers. The only ones to survive were Julian (Constantius' half-nephew) and his half-brother Gallus, probably because they were so young. Constantius kept Julian locked up in one of the imperial estates until he was 24 years old (though he gave him a great education), and eventually let him out because he needed someone to lead the legions in the West.

At this point Julian is just a philosophy nerd with no real-world experience whatsoever, but he takes to command like a fish to water. He is outrageously successful at crushing barbarians for a few years, then also gets involved in civil administration.

The precarious and dependent situation of Julian displayed his virtues and concealed his defects. The young hero who supported, in Gaul, the throne of Constantius was not permitted to reform the vices of the government; but he had courage to alleviate or to pity the distress of the people. Unless he had been able to revive the martial spirit of the Romans, or to introduce the arts of industry and refinement among their savage enemies, he could not entertain any rational hopes of securing the public tranquillity, either by the peace or conquest of Germany. Yet the victories of Julian suspended, for a short time, the inroads of the Barbarians, and delayed the ruin of the Western empire.

His salutary influence restored the cities of Gaul, which had been so long exposed to the evils of civil discord, barbarian war, and domestic tyranny; and the spirit of industry was revived with the hopes of enjoyment. Agriculture, manufactures, and commerce again flourished under the protection of the laws; and the curia, or civil corporations, were again filled with useful and respectable members: the youth were no longer apprehensive of marriage; and married persons were no longer apprehensive of posterity: the public and private festivals were celebrated with customary pomp; and the frequent and secure intercourse of the provinces displayed the image of national prosperity.

But there's a war in the East, and Constantius is worried that Julian is a bit too successful, so he demands that he send over about half his troops. Julian obeys and commands the troops to move out, but the troops don't want to fight on the other side of the world, and instead choose to rebel and force Julian to take up the purple:

At the hour of midnight, the impetuous multitude, with swords and bowls and torches in their hands, rushed into the suburbs; encompassed the palace; and, careless of future dangers, pronounced the fatal and irrevocable words, JULIAN AUGUSTUS! The prince, whose anxious suspense was interrupted by their disorderly acclamations, secured the doors against their intrusion; and, as long as it was in his power, secluded his person and dignity from the accidents of a nocturnal tumult. At the dawn of day, the soldiers, whose zeal was irritated by opposition, forcibly entered the palace, seized, with respectful violence, the object of their choice, guarded Julian with drawn swords through the streets of Paris, placed him on the tribunal, and with repeated shouts saluted him as their emperor. Prudence as well as loyalty inculcated the propriety of resisting their treasonable designs and of preparing for his oppressed virtue the excuse of violence. Addressing himself by turns to the multitude and to individuals, he sometimes implored their mercy, and sometimes expressed his indignation; conjured them not to sully the fame of their immortal victories; and ventured to promise that, if they would immediately return to their allegiance, he would undertake to obtain from the emperor, not only a free and gracious pardon, but even the revocation of the orders which had excited their resentment. But the soldiers, who were conscious of their guilt, chose rather to depend on the gratitude of Julian than on the clemency of the emperor. Their zeal was insensibly turned into impatience, and their impatience into rage. The inflexible Cæsar sustained, till the third hour of the day, their prayers, their reproaches, and their menaces; nor did he yield, till he had been repeatedly assured that, if he wished to live, he must consent to reign. He was exalted on a shield in the presence, and amidst the unanimous acclamations, of the troops; a rich military collar, which was offered by chance, supplied the want of a diadem; the ceremony was concluded by the promise of a moderate donative; and the new emperor, overwhelmed with real or affected grief, retired into the most secret recesses of his apartment.

The grief of Julian could proceed only from his innocence; but his innocence must appear extremely doubtful in the eyes of those who have learned to suspect the motives and the professions of princes. His lively and active mind was susceptible of the various impressions of hope and fear, of gratitude and revenge, of duty and of ambition, of the love of fame and of the fear of reproach. But it is impossible for us to calculate the respective weight and operation of these sentiments; or to ascertain the principles of action, which might escape the observation, while they guided or rather impelled the steps, of Julian himself. The discontent of the troops was produced by the malice of his enemies; their tumult was the natural effect of interest and of passion; and, if Julian had tried to conceal a deep design under the appearances of chance, he must have employed the most consummate artifice without necessity, and probably without success. He solemnly declares, in the presence of Jupiter, of the Sun, of Mars, of Minerva, and of all the other deities, that, till the close of the evening which preceded his elevation, he was utterly ignorant of the designs of the soldiers; and it may seem ungenerous to distrust the honour of a hero and the truth of a philosopher. Yet the superstitious confidence that Constantius was the enemy, and that he himself was the favourite, of the gods, might prompt him to desire, to solicit, and even to hasten the auspicious moment of his reign, which was predestined to restore the ancient religion of mankind. When Julian had received the intelligence of the conspiracy, he resigned himself to a short slumber; and afterwards related to his friends that he had seen the Genius of the empire waiting with some impatience at his door, pressing for admittance, and reproaching his want of spirit and ambition. Astonished and perplexed, he addressed his prayers to the great Jupiter; who immediately signified, by a clear and manifest omen, that he should submit to the will of heaven and of the army. The conduct which disclaims the ordinary maxims of reason excites our suspicion and eludes our inquiry.

So once again there's civil war, and Constantine is tied up in the East. Here Julian shows some of his Julius Caesar-like qualities, as he moves decisively and above all extremely rapidly, taking everyone by surprise. He splits his army in three, sends the two other groups south through Italy, and:

For himself, Julian had reserved a more difficult and extraordinary part. He selected three thousand brave and active volunteers, resolved, like their leader, to cast behind them every hope of a retreat: at the head of this faithful band, he fearlessly plunged into the recesses of the Marcian or black forest, which conceals the sources of the Danube; and, for many days, the fate of Julian was unknown to the world. The secrecy of his march, his diligence and vigour, surmounted every obstacle; he forced his way over mountains and morasses, occupied the bridges or swam the rivers, pursued his direct course, without reflecting whether he traversed the territory of the Romans or of the Barbarians, and at length emerged, between Ratisbon and Vienna, at the place where he designed to embark his troops on the Danube. By a well-concerted stratagem, he seized a fleet of light brigantines, as it lay at anchor; secured a supply of coarse provisions sufficient to satisfy the indelicate, but voracious, appetite of a Gallic army; and boldly committed himself to the stream of the Danube. The labours of his mariners, who plied their oars with incessant diligence, and the steady continuance of a favourable wind, carried his fleet above seven hundred miles in eleven days; and he had already disembarked his troops at Bononia, only nineteen miles from Sirmium, before his enemies could receive any certain intelligence that he had left the banks of the Rhine.

Julian gains troops and territory but Constantius is still the favorite by far. At the start of the next season, however, just as he's coming West to fight, Constantius dies of an illness and the whole thing ends almost bloodlessly. Thus we arrive at the last pagan emperor.

He only lasts for about 18 months, but during that time he reforms the bloated bureaucracy, writes books, and in general lives like an ascetic while LARPing as a pagan philosopher-king. He is a man out of his time, writing letters to the "senate and people of Athens" as if they're still relevant, obsessed with his religion and the arts of divination. But he can put the LARPing aside to get shit done:

These sleeping or waking visions, the ordinary effects of abstinence and fanaticism, would almost degrade the emperor to the level of an Egyptian monk. But the useless lives of Anthony or Pachomius were consumed in these vain occupations. Julian could break from the dream of superstition to arm himself for battle; and, after vanquishing in the field the enemies of Rome, he calmly retired into his tent, to dictate the wise and salutary laws of an empire, or to indulge his genius in the elegant pursuits of literature and philosophy.

Julian turns his eyes toward Persia and is initially once again outrageously successful. He leads from the front, constantly putting himself in harm's way, and (through his personal valor) manages to impose some oldschool discipline. Ammian puts this striking speech in his mouth:

After the siege of Perisabor, the firmness of the emperor was exercised by the insolent avarice of the army, who loudly complained that their services were rewarded by a trifling donative of one hundred pieces of silver. His just indignation was expressed in the grave and manly language of a Roman. “Riches are the object of your desires? those riches are in the hands of the Persians; and the spoils of this fruitful country are proposed as the prize of your valour and discipline. Believe me,” added Julian, “the Roman republic, which formerly possessed such immense treasures, is now reduced to want and wretchedness; since our princes have been persuaded, by weak and interested ministers, to purchase with gold the tranquillity of the Barbarians. The revenue is exhausted; the cities are ruined; the provinces are dispeopled. For myself, the only inheritance that I have received from my royal ancestors is a soul incapable of fear; and, as long as I am convinced that every real advantage is seated in the mind, I shall not blush to acknowledge an honourable poverty, which, in the days of ancient virtue, was considered as the glory of Fabricius. That glory, and that virtue, may be your own, if you will listen to the voice of Heaven, and of your leader. But, if you will rashly persist, if you are determined to renew the shameful and mischievous examples of old seditions, proceed.—As it becomes an emperor who has filled the first rank among men, I am prepared to die, standing; and to despise a precarious life, which, every hour, may depend on an accidental fever. If I have been found unworthy of the command, there are now among you (I speak it with pride and pleasure), there are many chiefs, whose merit and experience are equal to the conduct of the most important war. Such has been the temper of my reign that I can retire, without regret, and without apprehension, to the obscurity of a private station.”

But his end comes quickly: Julian makes a fatal logistics error, gets stuck in the desert with no food, and finally dies in a bad battle after joining the fight with no armor. In the end the Persians impose a humiliating treaty, and then Valentinian (West) and Valens (East) take over and things start going bad very quickly. The Empire is permanently divided. Valentinian is the last emperor to properly beat the barbarians in the West, and Valens takes religious repression/witch-hunting to entirely new levels ("men of letters burned their whole libraries, lest some fatal volume should expose them to the malice of the informers and the extreme penalty of the law").

In Gibbon's time Julian was extremely popular among a certain crowd. Here's how one historian describes Voltaire's views:

Voltaire finds that Julian had all the qualities of Trajan without his defects ; all the virtues of Cato without his ill humour; all that one admires in Julius Cæsar without his vices; he had the continency of Scipio, and was in all ways equal to Marcus Aurelius, the first of men. Nay, more. If he had only lived longer, he would have retarded the fall of the Roman Empire, if he could not arrest it entirely.

Gibbon is positively predisposed to him, but he doesn't ignore his weaker aspects. Ultimately he sees Julian as a tragic figure who could never really accomplish what he wanted.

When we inspect, with minute or perhaps malevolent attention, the portrait of Julian, something seems wanting to the grace and perfection of the whole figure. His genius was less powerful and sublime than that of Cæsar; nor did he possess the consummate prudence of Augustus. The virtues of Trajan appear more steady and natural, and the philosophy of Marcus is more simple and consistent. Yet Julian sustained adversity with firmness, and prosperity with moderation. After an interval of one hundred and twenty years from the death of Alexander Severus, the Romans beheld an emperor who made no distinction between his duties and his pleasures; who laboured to relieve the distress, and to revive the spirit, of his subjects; and who endeavoured always to connect authority with merit, and happiness with virtue. Even faction, and religious faction, was constrained to acknowledge the superiority of his genius, in peace as well as in war; and to confess, with a sigh, that the apostate Julian was a lover of his country, and that he deserved the empire of the world.

The philosopher expressed a very reasonable wish that the disciple of Plato might have reposed amidst the groves of the academy: while the soldiers exclaimed in bolder accents that the ashes of Julian should have been mingled with those of Cæsar, in the field of Mars, and among the ancient monuments of Roman virtue. The history of princes does not very frequently renew the example of a similar competition.

 

4th-5th Century Invasions, Fall of the West

The turning point is probably Valens' loss against the Goths at the battle of Hadrianople in 378. The Goths then settle in the empire, and in the aftermath huge numbers of barbarians stream into the Roman world ( Vandals, Huns, Alans, Franks, Burgundians, and more). In the middle of this, the Romans just can't stop the civil wars. And they fight using mercenary armies filled with barbarians.

At a time when it was universally confessed that almost every man in the empire was superior in personal merit to the princes whom the accident of their birth had seated on the throne, a rapid succession of usurpers, regardless of the fate of their predecessors, still continued to arise. This mischief was peculiarly felt in the provinces of Spain and Gaul, where the principles of order and obedience had been extinguished by war and rebellion.

Simultaneously, Christianity achieves its final victory over paganism (which included the conversion of the invading barbarians).

At the start of the 5th century, the west was ruled by the comically incompetent Honorius, and his incredibly good half-Vandal general Stilicho.

His subjects, who attentively studied the character of their young sovereign, discovered that Honorius was without passions, and consequently without talents; and that his feeble and languid disposition was alike incapable of discharging the duties of his rank or of enjoying the pleasures of his age. In his early youth he made some progress in the exercise of riding and drawing the bow: but he soon relinquished these fatiguing occupations, and the amusement of feeding poultry became the serious and daily care of the monarch of the West, who resigned the reins of empire to the firm and skilful hand of his guardian Stilicho. The experience of history will countenance the suspicion that a prince who was born in the purple received a worse education than the meanest peasant of his dominions; and that the ambitious minister suffered him to attain the age of manhood without attempting to excite his courage or to enlighten his understanding. The predecessors of Honorius were accustomed to animate by their example, or at least by their presence, the valour of the legions; and the dates of their laws attest the perpetual activity of their motions through the provinces of the Roman world. But the son of Theodosius passed the slumber of his life, a captive in his palace, a stranger in his country, and the patient, almost the indifferent, spectator of the ruin of the Western empire, which was repeatedly attacked, and finally subverted, by the arms of the Barbarians. In the eventful history of a reign of twenty-eight years, it will seldom be necessary to mention the name of the emperor Honorius.

And so we come to Alaric, king of the Visigoths.

While the oration of Synesius and the downfall of the Barbarians were the topics of popular conversation, an edict was published at Constantinople, which declared the promotion of Alaric to the rank of master-general of the Eastern Illyricum. The Roman provincials and the allies, who had respected the faith of treaties, were justly indignant that the ruin of Greece and Epirus should be so liberally rewarded. The Gothic conqueror was received as a lawful magistrate, in the cities which he had so lately besieged. The fathers whose sons he had massacred, the husbands whose wives he had violated, were subject to his authority; and the success of his rebellion encouraged the ambition of every leader of the foreign mercenaries. The use to which Alaric applied his new command distinguishes the firm and judicious character of his policy. He issued his orders to the four magazines and manufactures of offensive and defensive arms, Margus, Ratiaria, Naissus, and Thessalonica, to provide his troops with an extraordinary supply of shields, helmets, swords, and spears; the unhappy provincials were compelled to forge the instruments of their own destruction; and the Barbarians removed the only defect which had sometimes disappointed the efforts of their courage. The birth of Alaric, the glory of his past exploits, and the confidence in his future designs, insensibly united the body of the nation under his victorious standard; and with the unanimous consent of the Barbarian chieftains, the master-general of Illyricum was elevated, according to ancient custom, on a shield, and solemnly proclaimed king of the Visigoths. Armed with this double power, seated on the verge of the two empires, he alternately sold his deceitful promises to the courts of Arcadius and Honorius; till he declared and executed his resolution of invading the dominions of the West. The provinces of Europe which belonged to the Eastern emperor were already exhausted; those of Asia were inaccessible; and the strength of Constantinople had resisted his attack. But he was tempted by the fame, the beauty, the wealth of Italy, which he had twice visited; and he secretly aspired to plant the Gothic standard on the walls of Rome, and to enrich his army with the accumulated spoils of three hundred triumphs.

The safety of Rome was entrusted to the counsels and the sword of Stilicho; but such was the feeble and exhausted state of the empire that it was impossible to restore the fortifications of the Danube, or to prevent, by a vigorous effort, the invasion of the Germans. The hopes of the vigilant minister of Honorius were confined to the defence of Italy. He once more abandoned the provinces, recalled the troops, pressed the new levies, which were rigorously exacted and pusillanimously eluded, employed the most efficacious means to arrest, or allure, the deserters, and offered the gift of freedom, and of two pieces of gold, to all the slaves who would enlist. By these efforts he painfully collected, from the subjects of a great empire, an army of thirty or forty thousand men, which, in the days of Scipio or Camillus, would have been instantly furnished by the free citizens of the territory of Rome. The thirty legions of Stilicho were reinforced by a large body of Barbarian auxiliaries; the faithful Alani were personally attached to his service; and the troops of Huns and of Goths, who marched under the banners of their native princes, Huldin and Sarus, were animated by interest and resentment to oppose the ambition of Radagaisus. The king of the confederate Germans passed, without resistance, the Alps, the Po, and the Apennine, leaving on one hand the inaccessible palace of Honorius, securely buried among the marshes of Ravenna, and, on the other, the camp of Stilicho, who had fixed his headquarters at Ticinum, or Pavia, but who seems to have avoided a decisive battle, till he had assembled his distant forces. Many cities of Italy were pillaged, or destroyed, and the siege of Florence by Radagaisus is one of the earliest events in the history of that celebrated republic, whose firmness checked and delayed the unskilful fury of the Barbarians. The senate and people trembled at their approach within an hundred and eighty miles of Rome, and anxiously compared the danger which they had escaped with the new perils to which they were exposed. Alaric was a Christian and a soldier, the leader of a disciplined army; who understood the laws of war, who respected the sanctity of treaties, and who had familiarly conversed with the subjects of the empire in the same camps, and the same churches. The savage Radagaisus was a stranger to the manners, the religion, and even the language, of the civilized nations of the South. The fierceness of his temper was exasperated by cruel superstition, and it was universally believed that he had bound himself by a solemn vow to reduce the city into a heap of stones and ashes, and to sacrifice the most illustrious of the Roman senators on the altars of those gods who were appeased by human blood. The public danger, which should have reconciled all domestic animosities, displayed the incurable madness of religious faction. The oppressed votaries of Jupiter and Mercury respected, in the implacable enemy of Rome, the character of a devout Pagan; loudly declared that they were more apprehensive of the sacrifices than of the arms of Radagaisus, and secretly rejoiced in the calamities of their country which condemned the faith of their Christian adversaries.

Being a great general at this time did not work out very well.

Stilicho supported, with calm resignation, the injurious names of traitor and parricide; repressed the unseasonable zeal of his followers, who were ready to attempt an ineffectual rescue; and, with a firmness not unworthy of the last of the Roman generals, submitted his neck to the sword of Heraclian.

With Stilicho lost and Romans attacking the foederatio throughout Italy, there's a mass desertion to Alaric.

By the imprudent conduct of the ministers of Honorius, the republic lost the assistance, and deserved the enmity, of thirty thousand of her bravest soldiers; and the weight of that formidable army, which alone might have determined the event of the war, was transferred from the scale of the Romans into that of the Goths.

Alaric finally sets his sights on Rome.

During a period of six hundred and nineteen years, the seat of empire had never been violated by the presence of a foreign enemy. The unsuccessful expedition of Hannibal served only to display the character of the senate and people; of a senate degraded, rather than ennobled, by the comparison of an assembly of kings; and of a people to whom the ambassador of Pyrrhus ascribed the inexhaustible resources of the Hydra.Each of the senators, in the time of the Punic war, had accomplished his term of military service, either in a subordinate or a superior station; and the decree which invested with temporary command all those who had been consuls or censors or dictators gave the republic the immediate assistance of many brave and experienced generals. In the beginning of the war, the Roman people consisted of two hundred and fifty thousand citizens of an age to bear arms. Fifty thousand had already died in the defence of their country; and the twenty-three legions which were employed in the different camps of Italy, Greece, Sardinia, Sicily, and Spain, required about one hundred thousand men. But there still remained an equal number in Rome, and the adjacent territory, who were animated by the same intrepid courage; and every citizen was trained, from his earliest youth, in the discipline and exercises of a soldier. Hannibal was astonished by the constancy of the senate, who, without raising the siege of Capua or recalling their scattered forces, expected his approach. He encamped on the banks of the Anio, at the distance of three miles from the city; and he was soon informed that the ground on which he had pitched his tent was sold for an adequate price at a public auction and that a body of troops was dismissed by an opposite road, to reinforce the legions of Spain.6 He led his Africans to the gates of Rome, where he found three armies in order of battle, prepared to receive him; but Hannibal dreaded the event of a combat from which he could not hope to escape, unless he destroyed the last of his enemies; and his speedy retreat confessed the invincible courage of the Romans.

From the time of the Punic war the uninterrupted succession of senators had preserved the name and image of the republic; and the degenerate subjects of Honorius ambitiously derived their descent from the heroes who had repulsed the arms of Hannibal and subdued the nations of the earth.

Eventually the gates are thrown open and a puppet emperor under Gothic control is installed, but the transition is relatively peaceful. Honorius is still hiding in Ravenna and the situation is really strange. The new emperor soon loses his position, Alaric seems to want to negotiate some sort of peace but it's not happening, there's an endless series of double backstabbings, etc. In the end Alaric turns back toward Rome again, this time with some serious plundering in mind.

The crime and folly of the court of Ravenna was expiated a third time by the calamities of Rome. The king of the Goths, who no longer dissembled his appetite for plunder and revenge, appeared in arms under the walls of the capital; and the trembling senate, without any hopes of relief, prepared, by a desperate resistance, to delay the ruin of their country. But they were unable to guard against the secret conspiracy of their slaves and domestics; who, either from birth or interest, were attached to the cause of the enemy. At the hour of midnight, the Salarian gate was silently opened, and the inhabitants were awakened by the tremendous sound of the Gothic trumpet. Eleven hundred and sixty-three years after the foundation of Rome, the Imperial city, which had subdued and civilized so considerable a part of mankind, was delivered to the licentious fury of the tribes of Germany and Scythia.

Whether fame or conquest or riches were the object of Alaric, he pursued that object with an indefatigable ardour, which could neither be quelled by adversity nor satiated by success. No sooner had he reached the extreme land of Italy than he was attacked by the neighbouring prospect of a fertile and peaceful island. Yet even the possession of Sicily he considered only as an intermediate step to the important expedition which he already meditated against the continent of Africa. The straits of Rhegium and Messina are twelve miles in length, and in the narrowest passage about one mile and a half broad; and the fabulous monsters of the deep, the rocks of Scylla and the whirlpool of Charybdis, could terrify none but the most timid and unskilful mariners. Yet, as soon as the first division of the Goths had embarked, a sudden tempest arose, which sunk or scattered many of the transports; their courage was daunted by the terrors of a new element; and the whole design was defeated by the premature death of Alaric, which fixed, after a short illness, the fatal term of his conquests.

Meanwhile in Gaul, there's an invasion of Goths, Franks, and Burgundians with similar effects.

Whilst Italy was ravaged by the Goths and a succession of feeble tyrants oppressed the provinces beyond the Alps, the British island separated itself from the body of the Roman empire. The regular forces, which guarded that remote province, had been gradually withdrawn; and Britain was abandoned, without defence, to the Saxon pirates and the savages of Ireland and Caledonia. The Britons, reduced to this extremity, no longer relied on the tardy and doubtful aid of a declining monarch. They assembled in arms, repelled the invaders, and rejoiced in the important discovery of their own strength. Afflicted by similar calamities and actuated by the same spirit, the Armorican provinces (a name which comprehended the maritime countries of Gaul between the Seine and the Loire) resolved to imitate the example of the neighbouring island. They expelled the Roman magistrates who acted under the authority of the usurper Constantine; and a free government was established among a people who had so long been subject to the arbitrary will of a master.

A bit later, Attila appears and crushes everything in his path, from Gaul into Italy.

The Huns might be provoked to insult the misery of their slaves, over whom they exercised a despotic command; but their manners were not susceptible of a refined system of oppression; and the efforts of courage and diligence were often recompensed by the gift of freedom. The historian Priscus, whose embassy is a course of curious instruction, was accosted, in the camp of Attila, by a stranger, who saluted him in the Greek language, but whose dress and figure displayed the appearance of a wealthy Scythian. In the siege of Viminacium, he had lost, according to his own account, his fortune and liberty; he became the slave of Onegesius; but his faithful services, against the Romans and the Acatzires, had gradually raised him to the rank of the native Huns; to whom he was attached by the domestic pledges of a new wife and several children. The spoils of war had restored and improved his private property; he was admitted to the table of his former lord; and the apostate Greek blessed the hour of his captivity, since it had been the introduction to an happy and independent state; which he held by the honourable tenure of military service. This reflection naturally produced a dispute on the advantages, and defects, of the Roman government, which was severely arraigned by the apostate, and defended by Priscus in a prolix and feeble declamation. The freedom of Onegesius exposed, in true and lively colours, the vices of a declining empire, of which he had so long been the victim; the cruel absurdity of the Roman princes, unable to protect their subjects against the public enemy, unwilling to trust them with arms for their own defence; the intolerable weight of taxes, rendered still more oppressive by the intricate or arbitrary modes of collection; the obscurity of numerous and contradictory laws; the tedious and expensive forms of judicial proceedings; the partial administration of justice; and the universal corruption, which increased the influence of the rich, and aggravated the misfortunes of the poor. A sentiment of patriotic sympathy was at length revived in the breast of the fortunate exile; and he lamented, with a flood of tears, the guilt or weakness of those magistrates who had perverted the wisest and most salutary institutions.

Then in the middle of the 5th century, Genseric and his Vandals sack Rome once again.

On the third day after the tumult, Genseric boldly advanced from the port of Ostia to the gates of the defenceless city. Instead of a sally of the Roman youth, there issued from the gates an unarmed and venerable procession of the bishop at the head of his clergy.

The spectator, who casts a mournful view over the ruins of ancient Rome, is tempted to accuse the memory of the Goths and Vandals, for the mischief which they had neither leisure, nor power, nor perhaps inclination, to perpetrate. The tempest of war might strike some lofty turrets to the ground; but the destruction which undermined the foundations of those massy fabrics was prosecuted, slowly and silently, during a period of ten centuries; and the motives of interest that afterwards operated without shame or control were severely checked by the taste and spirit of the emperor Majorian. The decay of the city had gradually impaired the value of the public works. The circus and theatres might still excite, but they seldom gratified, the desires of the people; the temples, which had escaped the zeal of the Christians, were no longer inhabited either by gods or men; the diminished crowds of the Romans were lost in the immense space of their baths and porticoes; and the stately libraries and halls of justice became useless to an indolent generation, whose repose was seldom disturbed either by study or business. The monuments of consular, or Imperial, greatness were no longer revered as the immortal glory of the capital; they were only esteemed as an inexhaustible mine of materials, cheaper and more convenient than the distant quarry.

The Vandals turn to piracy across almost the entire Mediterranean:

The Vandals repeatedly visited the coasts of Spain, Liguria, Tuscany, Campania, Lucania, Bruttium, Apulia, Calabria, Venetia, Dalmatia, Epirus, Greece, and Sicily; they were tempted to subdue the island of Sardinia, so advantageously placed in the centre of the Mediterranean; and their arms spread desolation, or terror, from the columns of Hercules to the mouth of the Nile. As they were more ambitious of spoil than of glory, they seldom attacked any fortified cities or engaged any regular troops in the open field. But the celerity of their motions enabled them, almost at the same time, to threaten and to attack the most distant objects which attracted their desires; and, as they always embarked a sufficient number of horses, they had no sooner landed than they swept the dismayed country with a body of light cavalry. Yet, notwithstanding the example of their king, the native Vandals and Alani insensibly declined this toilsome and perilous warfare; the hardy generation of the first conquerors was almost extinguished, and their sons, who were born in Africa, enjoyed the delicious baths and gardens which had been acquired by the valour of their fathers. Their place was readily supplied by a various multitude of Moors and Romans, of captives and outlaws; and those desperate wretches who had already violated the laws of their country were the most eager to promote the atrocious acts which disgrace the victories of Genseric.

Italy ends up as a weak Gothic kingdom under Odoacer, though the trappings of Rome are hard to shake off.

The laws of the emperors were strictly enforced, and the civil administration of Italy was still exercised by the Prætorian præfect and his subordinate officers. Odoacer devolved on the Roman magistrates the odious and oppressive task of collecting the public revenue; but he reserved for himself the merit of seasonable and popular indulgence.

Notwithstanding the prudence and success of Odoacer, his kingdom exhibited the sad prospect of misery and desolation. Since the age of Tiberius, the decay of agriculture had been felt in Italy; and it was a subject of complaint that the life of the Roman people depended on the accidents of the winds and waves. In the division and the decline of the empire, the tributary harvests of Egypt and Africa were withdrawn; the numbers of the inhabitants continually diminished with the means of subsistence; and the country was exhausted by the irretrievable losses of war, famine,100 and pestilence.

The Western Empire finally ends, the last emperor being Romulus Agustulus.

Royalty was familiar to the Barbarians, and the submissive people of Italy was prepared to obey, without a murmur, the authority which he should condescend to exercise as the vicegerent of the emperor of the West. But Odoacer had resolved to abolish that useless and expensive office; and such is the weight of antique prejudice that it required some boldness and penetration to discover the extreme facility of the enterprise. The unfortunate Augustulus was made the instrument of his own disgrace; he signified his resignation to the senate; and that assembly, in their last act of obedience to a Roman prince, still affected the spirit of freedom and the forms of the constitution. An epistle was addressed, by their unanimous decree, to the emperor Zeno, the son-in-law and successor of Leo; who had lately been restored, after a short rebellion, to the Byzantine throne. They solemnly “disclaim the necessity, or even the wish, of continuing any longer the Imperial succession in Italy; since, in their opinion, the majesty of a sole monarch is sufficient to pervade and protect, at the same time, both the East and the West. In their own name, and in the name of the people, they consent that the seat of universal empire shall be transferred from Rome to Constantinople; and they basely renounce the right of choosing their master, the only vestige that yet remained of the authority which had given laws to the world. The republic (they repeat that name without a blush) might safely confide in the civil and military virtues of Odoacer; and they humbly request that the emperor would invest him with the title of Patrician and the administration of the diocese of Italy.”

In the space of twenty years since the death of Valentinian, nine emperors had successively disappeared; and the son of Orestes, a youth recommended only by his beauty, would be the least entitled to the notice of posterity, if his reign, which was marked by the extinction of the Roman empire in the West, did not leave a memorable æra in the history of mankind.

 

Belisarius (500-565)

The last of the last great Roman generals, he began from a relatively humble position:

The silence of a loquacious secretary may be admitted to prove that the youth of Belisarius could not afford any subject of praise: he served, most assuredly with valour and reputation, among the private guards of Justinian; and, when his patron became emperor, the domestic was promoted to military command.

When Justinian rose to the throne, Belsiarius got a command in the war against the Persians and managed to distinguish himself. He also helped end the Nika Riots, cementing Justinian's power. His wife Antonina was extremely close to the empress Theodora, and seems to have had a lot of power over him (to the point where she was making significant military decisions).

His first great mission is against the Vandals in North Africa. The Byzantines no longer primarily fight with legions, but with cataphracts: armored mounted archers.

Five hundred transports, navigated by twenty thousand mariners of Egypt, Cilicia, and Ionia, were collected in the harbour of Constantinople. The smallest of these vessels may be computed at thirty, the largest at five hundred, tons; and the fair average will supply an allowance, liberal but not profuse, of about one hundred thousand tons, for the reception of thirty-five thousand soldiers and sailors, of five thousand horses, of arms, engines, and military stores, and of a sufficient stock of water and provisions for a voyage, perhaps, of three months. The proud galleys, which in former ages swept the Mediterranean with so many hundred oars, had long since disappeared; and the fleet of Justinian was escorted only by ninety-two light brigantines, covered from the missile weapons of the enemy, and rowed by two thousand of the brave and robust youth of Constantinople. Twenty-two generals are named, most of whom were afterwards distinguished in the wars of Africa and Italy; but the supreme command, both by land and sea, was delegated to Belisarius alone, with a boundless power of acting according to his discretion as if the emperor himself were present.

The experience of past faults, which may sometimes correct the mature age of an individual, is seldom profitable to the successive generations of mankind. The nations of antiquity, careless of each other’s safety, were separately vanquished and enslaved by the Romans. This awful lesson might have instructed the Barbarians of the West to oppose, with timely counsels and confederate arms, the unbounded ambition of Justinian. Yet the same error was repeated, the same consequences were felt, and the Goths, both of Italy and Spain, insensible of their approaching danger, beheld with indifference, and even with joy, the rapid downfall of the Vandals.

Belisarius crushes the Vandals despite having a much smaller force, takes Carthage, and returns North Africa to Roman hands. At this point Justinian decides to test his loyalty by offering him the choice between governorship of the province and returning to Constantinople for a triumph. Belisarius chooses the latter.

He's on a roll now and Justinian sends him to Italy against the Goths. They don't have much in the way of troops, but Belissarius makes the most of it. The campaign is incredibly exciting but far too long to include here. In short, Belisarius works his way north and after a couple years of successful warring he takes Rome unopposed, only to be stuck there as the Goths besiege him for more than a year. But his veterans defend the city admirably, the Goths take huge losses, and pressures from the North force them to retreat. The Franks see the chaos as an opportunity to invade and bring in a huge army over the Alps in order to pillage anything they can find. But things don't work out well for them:

If it were not a melancholy truth that the first and most cruel sufferings must be the lot of the innocent and helpless, history might exult in the misery of the conquerors, who, in the midst of riches, were left destitute of bread or wine, reduced to drink the waters of the Po, and to feed on the flesh of distempered cattle. The dysentery swept away one third of their army; and the clamours of his subjects, who were impatient to pass the Alps, disposed Theodebert to listen with respect to the mild exhortations of Belisarius. The memory of this inglorious and destructive warfare was perpetuated on the medals of Gaul; and Justinian, without unsheathing his sword, assumed the title of conqueror of the Franks. The Merovingian prince was offended by the vanity of the emperor; he affected to pity the fallen fortunes of the Goths; and his insidious offer of a federal union was fortified by the promise or menace of descending from the Alps at the head of five hundred thousand men. His plans of conquest were boundless and perhaps chimerical. The king of Austrasia threatened to chastise Justinian, and to march to the gates of Constantinople; he was overthrown and slain by a wild bull, as he hunted in the Belgic or German forests.

Thus the Byzantines regain control of the whole of Italy. This is how Gibbon summarizes Belisarius's achievement:

The spectator and historian of his exploits has observed that, amidst the perils of war, he was daring without rashness, prudent without fear, slow or rapid according to the exigencies of the moment; that in the deepest distress, he was animated by real or apparent hope; but that he was modest and humble in the most prosperous fortune. By these virtues he equalled, or excelled, the ancient masters of the military art. Victory, by sea and land, attended his arms. He subdued Africa, Italy, and the adjacent islands; led away captives the successors of Genseric and Theodoric; filled Constantinople with the spoils of their palaces; and in the space of six years recovered half the provinces of the Western empire. In his fame and merit, in wealth and power, he remained without a rival, the first of the Roman subjects; the voice of envy could only magnify his dangerous importance; and the emperor might applaud his own discerning spirit which had discovered and raised the genius of Belisarius.

After securing the West, he is sent east again. Meanwhile, Procopius reports that Antonina had multiple affairs, including one with Belisarius's godson Theodosius. Belisarius is the only man in the world unaware of that fact.

During their residence at Carthage, he surprised the two lovers in a subterraneous chamber, solitary, warm, and almost naked. Anger flashed from his eyes. “With the help of this young man,” said the unblushing Antonina, “I was secreting our most precious effects from the knowledge of Justinian.” The youth resumed his garments, and the pious husband consented to disbelieve the evidence of his own senses. From this pleasing and perhaps voluntary delusion Belisarius was awakened at Syracuse, by the officious information of Macedonia; and that female attendant, after requiring an oath for her security, produced two chamberlains, who, like herself, had often beheld the adulteries of Antonina. An hasty flight into Asia saved Theodosius from the justice of an injured husband, who had signified to one of his guards the order of his death; but the tears of Antonina, and her artful seductions, assured the credulous hero of her innocence; and he stooped, against his faith and judgment, to abandon those imprudent friends who had presumed to accuse or doubt the chastity of his wife. The revenge of a guilty woman is implacable and bloody: the unfortunate Macedonia, with the two witnesses, were secretly arrested by the minister of her cruelty; their tongues were cut out, their bodies were hacked into small pieces, and their remains were cast into the sea of Syracuse.

Eventually Antonina's son Photius alerts Belisarius and forms a conspiracy with him.

Enraged by his own wrongs and by the dishonour of his blood, he cast away in his turn the sentiments of nature, and revealed to Belisarius the turpitude of a woman who had violated all the duties of a mother and a wife. From the surprise and indignation of the Roman general, his former credulity appears to have been sincere: he embraced the knees of the son of Antonina, adjured him to remember his obligations rather than his birth, and confirmed at the altar their holy vows of revenge and mutual defence. The dominion of Antonina was impaired by absence; and, when she met her husband, on his return from the Persian confines, Belisarius, in his first and transient emotions, confined her person and threatened her life.

But the empress sides with Antonina, Belisarius does nothing and maintains his loyalty, while Theodosius is executed, and Photius is sent to the dungeons by his own mother.

At the end of the campaign, Belisarius was recalled; he complied, as usual, with the Imperial mandate. His mind was not prepared for rebellion; his obedience, however adverse to the dictates of honour, was consonant to the wishes of his heart; and, when he embraced his wife, at the command, and perhaps in the presence, of the empress, the tender husband was disposed to forgive or to be forgiven. [...] The grief of Antonina could only be assuaged by the sufferings of her son. A youth of consular rank, and a sickly constitution, was punished, without a trial, like a malefactor and a slave; yet such was the constancy of his mind that Photius sustained the tortures of the scourge and the rack without violating the faith which he had sworn to Belisarius. After this fruitless cruelty, the son of Antonina, while his mother feasted with the empress, was buried in her subterraneous prisons, which admitted not the distinction of night and day.

Being a great general in these times was not a very nice position to be in. Too much success and the emperor inevitably saw you as a threat. Aëtius and Stilicho were in a similar position to Belisarius and both were killed. In return for his loyalty and vast conquests, all he got was a pathetic downfall:

In the succeeding campaign, Belisarius was again sent against the Persians: he saved the East, but he offended Theodora, and perhaps the emperor himself. The malady of Justinian had countenanced the rumour of his death; and the Roman general, on the supposition of that probable event, spoke the free language of a citizen and a soldier. His colleague Buzes, who concurred in the same sentiments, lost his rank, his liberty, and his health, by the persecution of the empress; but the disgrace of Belisarius was alleviated by the dignity of his own character, and the influence of his wife, who might wish to humble, but could not desire to ruin, the partner of her fortunes. Even his removal was coloured by the assurance that the sinking state of Italy would be retrieved by the single presence of its conqueror. But no sooner had he returned, alone and defenceless, than an hostile commission was sent to the East, to seize his treasures and criminate his actions; the guards and veterans who followed his private banner were distributed among the chiefs of the army, and even the eunuchs presumed to cast lots for the partition of his martial domestics.

When he passed with a small and sordid retinue through the streets of Constantinople, his forlorn appearance excited the amazement and compassion of the people. Justinian and Theodora received him with cold ingratitude; the servile crowd with insolence and contempt; and in the evening he retired with trembling steps to his deserted palace. An indisposition, feigned or real, had confined Antonina to her apartment: and she walked disdainfully silent in the adjacent portico, while Belisarius threw himself on his bed, and expected, in an agony of grief and terror, the death which he had so often braved under the walls of Rome. Long after sunset a messenger was announced from the empress; he opened, with anxious curiosity, the letter which contained the sentence of his fate. “You cannot be ignorant how much you have deserved my displeasure. I am not insensible of the services of Antonina. To her merits and intercession I have granted your life, and permit you to retain a part of your treasures, which might be justly forfeited to the state. Let your gratitude, where it is due, be displayed, not in words, but in your future behaviour.” I know not how to believe or to relate the transports with which the hero is said to have received this ignominious pardon. He fell prostrate before his wife; he kissed the feet of his saviour; and he devoutly promised to live the grateful and submissive slave of Antonina. A fine of one hundred and twenty thousand pounds sterling was levied on the fortunes of Belisarius; and with the office of count, or master of the royal stables, he accepted the conduct of the Italian war. At his departure from Constantinople, his friends, and even the public, were persuaded that, as soon as he regained his freedom, he would renounce his dissimulation, and that his wife, Theodora, and perhaps the emperor himself, would be sacrificed to the just revenge of a virtuous rebel. Their hopes were deceived; and the unconquerable patience and loyalty of Belisarius appear either below or above the character of a MAN.

 

Heraclius (575-641)

Heraclius comes to power about a decade into the Byzantine-Sasanian War of 602-28, and the situation is absolutely dire. The weakened Byzantines are incapable of resisting the Persian incursions and lose virtually everything in the middle east, and even some islands in the Aegean. To make things even worse, the Persians have allied with the Avars who are attacking the Byzantines from the North. It looks like the Eastern Roman Empire is nearing its end. Things are looking so bad that Heraclius decides to move out from Constantinople:

By these implacable enemies Heraclius, on either side, was insulted and besieged; and the Roman empire was reduced to the walls of Constantinople, with the remnant of Greece, Italy, and Africa, and some maritime cities, from Tyre to Trebizond, of the Asiatic coast. After the loss of Egypt, the capital was afflicted by famine and pestilence; and the emperor, incapable of resistance and hopeless of relief, had resolved to transfer his person and government to the more secure residence of Carthage. His ships were already laden with the treasures of the palace; but his flight was arrested by the patriarch, who armed the powers of religion in the defence of his country, led Heraclius to the altar of St. Sophia, and extorted a solemn oath that he would live and die with the people whom God had entrusted to his care.

And so Heraclius decides to take the field.

Of the characters conspicuous in history, that of Heraclius is one of the most extraordinary and inconsistent. In the first and last years of a long reign, the emperor appears to be the slave of sloth, of pleasure, or of superstition, the careless and impotent spectator of the public calamities. But the languid mists of the morning and evening are separated by the brightness of the meridian sun: the Arcadius of the palace arose the Cæsar of the camp; and the honour of Rome and Heraclius was gloriously retrieved by the exploits and trophies of six adventurous campaigns. It was the duty of the Byzantine historians to have revealed the causes of his slumber and vigilance. At this distance we can only conjecture that he was endowed with more personal courage than political resolution; that he was detained by the charms, and perhaps the arts, of his niece Martina, with whom, after the death of Eudocia, he contracted an incestuous marriage; and that he yielded to the base advice of the counsellors, who urged, as a fundamental law, that the life of the emperor should never be exposed in the field. Perhaps he was awakened by the last insolent demand of the Persian conqueror; but, at the moment when Heraclius assumed the spirit of an hero, the only hopes of the Romans were drawn from the vicissitudes of fortune, which might threaten the proud prosperity of Chosroes and must be favourable to those who had attained the lowest period of depression.

The plan was as simple as it was incredible: leave the Persians to occupy Anatolia; sail the Black Sea, cross the Caucasus, and strike behind their backs into the heart of Persia. "Since the days of Scipio and Hannibal, no bolder enterprise has been attempted", Gibbon writes. Like the emperors of old, Heraclius went out at the head of his army.

When the legions of Lucullus and Pompey first passed the Euphrates, they blushed at their easy victory over the natives of Armenia. But the long experience of war had hardened the minds and bodies of that effeminate people; their zeal and bravery were approved in the service of a declining empire; they abhorred and feared the usurpation of the house of Sassan, and the memory of persecution envenomed their pious hatred of the enemies of Christ. The limits of Armenia, as it had been ceded to the emperor Maurice, extended as far as the Araxes; the river submitted to the indignity of a bridge; and Heraclius, in the footsteps of Mark Antony, advanced towards the city of Tauris or Gandzaca, the ancient and modern capital of one of the provinces of Media. At the head of forty thousand men, Chosroes himself had returned from some distant expedition to oppose the progress of the Roman arms; but he retreated on the approach of Heraclius, declining the generous alternative of peace or of battle. [...] The rapid conquests of Heraclius were suspended only by the winter season; a motive of prudence, or superstition, determined his retreat into the province of Albania, along the shores of the Caspian; and his tents were most probably pitched in the plains of Mogan, the favourite encampment of Oriental princes.

The success continues over multiple seasons of fighting across the entire Middle East:

Amidst the glories of the succeeding campaign, Heraclius is almost lost to our eyes and to those of the Byzantine historians. From the spacious and fruitful plains of Albania, the emperor appears to follow the chain of Hyrcanian mountains, to descend into the province of Media or Irak, and to carry his victorious arms as far as the royal cities of Casbin and Ispahan, which had never been approached by a Roman conqueror. Alarmed by the danger of his kingdom, the powers of Chosroes were already recalled from the Nile and the Bosphorus, and three formidable armies surrounded, in a distant and hostile land, the camp of the emperor. The Colchian allies prepared to desert his standard; and the fears of the bravest veterans were expressed, rather than concealed, by their desponding silence. “Be not terrified,” said the intrepid Heraclius, “by the multitude of your foes. With the aid of Heaven, one Roman may triumph over a thousand barbarians. But, if we devote our lives for the salvation of our brethren, we shall obtain the crown of martyrdom, and our immortal reward will be liberally paid by God and posterity.” These magnanimous sentiments were supported by the vigour of his actions. He repelled the threefold attack of the Persians, improved the divisions of their chiefs, and, by a well-concerted train of marches, retreats, and successful actions, finally chased them from the field into the fortified cities of Media and Assyria. In the severity of the winter season, Sarbaraza deemed himself secure in the walls of Salban; he was surprised by the activity of Heraclius, who divided his troops and performed a laborious march in the silence of the night. The flat roofs of the houses were defended with useless valour against the darts and torches of the Romans; the satraps and nobles of Persia, with their wives and children, and the flower of their martial youth, were either slain or made prisoners. The general escaped by a precipitate flight, but his golden armour was the prize of the conqueror; and the soldiers of Heraclius enjoyed the wealth and repose which they had so nobly deserved. On the return of spring, the emperor traversed in seven days the mountains of Curdistan, and passed without resistance the rapid stream of the Tigris. Oppressed by the weight of their spoils and captives, the Roman army halted under the walls of Amida; and Heraclius informed the senate of Constantinople of his safety and success, which they had already felt by the retreat of the besiegers. The bridges of the Euphrates were destroyed by the Persians; but, as soon as the emperor had discovered a ford, they hastily retired to defend the banks of the Sarus, in Cilicia. That river, an impetuous torrent, was about three hundred feet broad; the bridge was fortified with strong turrets; and the banks were lined with barbarian archers. After a bloody conflict, which continued till the evening, the Romans prevailed in the assault, and a Persian of gigantic size was slain and thrown into the Sarus by the hand of the emperor himself. The enemies were dispersed and dismayed; Heraclius pursued his march to Sebaste in Cappadocia; and, at the expiration of three years, the same coast of the Euxine applauded his return from a long and victorious expedition.

Around this time,the Avars try to take Constantinople but are repulsed. And just like the Persians were allied with the Avars, Heraclius makes an alliance with the Turks against the Persians.

The war concludes with the Battle of Nineveh, but the sources leave something to be desired:

Deprived of his firmest support, and doubtful of the fidelity of his subjects, the greatness of Chosroes was still conspicuous in its ruins. The number of five hundred thousand may be interpreted as an Oriental metaphor, to describe the men and arms, the horses and elephants, that covered Media and Assyria against the invasion of Heraclius. Yet the Romans boldly advanced from the Araxes to the Tigris, and the timid prudence of Rhazates was content to follow them by forced marches through a desolate country, till he received a peremptory mandate to risk the fate of Persia in a decisive battle. Eastward of the Tigris, at the end of the bridge of Mosul, the great Nineveh had formerly been erected;78 the city, and even the ruins of the city, had long since disappeared;79 the vacant space afforded a spacious field for the operations of the two armies. But these operations are neglected by the Byzantine historians, and, like the authors of epic poetry and romance, they ascribe the victory not to the military conduct, but to the personal valour, of their favourite hero. [...] From the palace of Dastagerd, he pursued his march within a few miles of Modian or Ctesiphon, till he was stopped, on the banks of the Arba, by the difficulty of the passage, the rigour of the season, and perhaps the fame of an impregnable capital.

Among the spoils, the Byzantines recover 300 Roman eagles, as well as (what they believed to be) the True Cross which had been captured by the Persians. Chosroes is finally killed by his son who takes the sceptre, and the two great Empires strike a peace.

But this great fight has exhausted both combatants, which makes things very easy for what's coming from the East:

The loss of two hundred thousand soldiers who had fallen by the sword was of less fatal importance than the decay of arts, agriculture, and population, in this long and destructive war; and, although a victorious army had been formed under the standard of Heraclius, the unnatural effort appears to have exhausted rather than exercised their strength. While the emperor triumphed at Constantinople or Jerusalem, an obscure town on the confines of Syria was pillaged by the Saracens, and they cut in pieces some troops who advanced to its relief: an ordinary and trifling occurrence, had it not been the prelude of a mighty revolution. These robbers were the apostles of Mahomet; their fanatic valour had emerged from the desert; and in the last eight years of his reign Heraclius lost to the Arabs the same provinces which he had rescued from the Persians.

This is the final episode of the Eastern empire which Gibbon is really interested in. In this wonderful passage he denigrates the Byzantines and makes the case for liberty by comparing them to the Greeks of the classical era:

From the time of Heraclius, the Byzantine theatre is contracted and darkened; the line of empire, which had been defined by the laws of Justinian and the arms of Belisarius, recedes on all sides from our view; the Roman name, the proper subject of our inquiries, is reduced to a narrow corner of Europe, to the lonely suburbs of Constantinople; and the fate of the Greek empire has been compared to that of the Rhine, which loses itself in the sands before its waters can mingle with the ocean. The scale of dominion is diminished to our view by the distance of time and place; nor is the loss of external splendour compensated by the nobler gifts of virtue and genius. In the last moments of her decay, Constantinople was doubtless more opulent and populous than Athens at her most flourishing æra, when a scanty sum of six thousand talents, or twelve hundred thousand pounds sterling, was possessed by twenty-one thousand male citizens of an adult age. But each of these citizens was a freeman, who dared to assert the liberty of his thoughts, words, and actions; whose person and property were guarded by equal law; and who exercised his independent vote in the government of the republic. Their numbers seem to be multiplied by the strong and various discriminations of character: under the shield of freedom, on the wings of emulation and vanity, each Athenian aspired to the level of the national dignity; from this commanding eminence some chosen spirits soared beyond the reach of a vulgar eye; and the chances of superior merit in a great and populous kingdom, as they are proved by experience, would excuse the computation of imaginary millions. The territories of Athens, Sparta, and their allies do not exceed a moderate province of France or England; but, after the trophies of Salamis and Platæa, they expand in our fancy to the gigantic size of Asia, which had been trampled under the feet of the victorious Greeks. But the subjects of the Byzantine empire, who assume and dishonour the names both of Greeks and Romans, present a dead uniformity of abject vices, which are neither softened by the weakness of humanity nor animated by the vigour of memorable crimes.

 

Crusades (1095-1291)

There's chivalry and knights and everything is very picturesque and fantastical—the characters feel like they're pulled out of a novel with elves and orcs: brave heroes like Tancred, Bohemond, and Baldwin. The crusades (and especially the first one) were also really shambolic affairs, and gave Gibbon a chance to do battle against Christianity. Simply getting to the Holy Land was difficult and the crusaders were more of an unruly mob than a disciplined army.

Some counts and gentlemen, at the head of three thousand horse, attended the motions of the multitude to partake in the spoil; but their genuine leaders (may we credit such folly?) were a goose and a goat, who were carried in the front, and to whom these worthy Christians ascribed an infusion of the divine Spirit. Of these and of other bands of enthusiasts, the first and most easy warfare was against the Jews, the murderers of the Son of God. In the trading cities of the Moselle and the Rhine, their colonies were numerous and rich; and they enjoyed, under the protection of the emperor and the bishops, the free exercise of their religion. At Verdun, Treves, Mentz, Spires, Worms, many thousands of that unhappy people were pillaged and massacred; nor had they felt a more bloody stroke since the persecution of Hadrian.

In Hungary the crusaders get into fights with the (Christian) locals and lose. When they arrive in Byzantium they start to pillage indiscriminately until Alexius ferries them over the Bosporus and points them toward the Turks. Gibbon obviously exaggerates the numbers, but it was pretty bad.

Of the first crusaders, three hundred thousand had already perished, before a single city was rescued from the infidels, before their graver and more noble brethren had completed the preparations of their enterprise.

Eventually they gather a critical mass and start taking cities. First Nice, then onto Antioch:

In the slow and successive labours of a siege the crusaders were supine and ignorant, without skill to contrive, or money to purchase, or industry to use the artificial engines and implements of assault. In the conquest of Nice they had been powerfully assisted by the wealth and knowledge of the Greek emperor: his absence was poorly supplied by some Genoese and Pisan vessels that were attracted by religion or trade to the coast of Syria; the stores were scanty, the return precarious, and the communication difficult and dangerous. Indolence or weakness had prevented the Franks from investing the entire circuit; and the perpetual freedom of two gates relieved the wants, and recruited the garrison, of the city. At the end of seven months, after the ruin of their cavalry, and an enormous loss by famine, desertion, and fatigue, the progress of the crusaders was imperceptible, and their success remote, if the Latin Ulysses, the artful and ambitious Bohemond, had not employed the arms of cunning and deceit.

In the eventful period of the siege and defence of Antioch, the crusaders were alternately exalted by victory or sunk in despair; either swelled with plenty or emaciated with hunger. A speculative reasoner might suppose that their faith had a strong and serious influence on their practice; and that the soldiers of the cross, the deliverers of the holy sepulchre, prepared themselves by a sober and virtuous life for the daily contemplation of martyrdom. Experience blows away this charitable illusion; and seldom does the history of profane war display such scenes of intemperance and prostitution as were exhibited under the walls of Antioch. The grove of Daphne no longer flourished; but the Syrian air was still impregnated with the same vices; the Christians were seduced by every temptation that nature either prompts or reprobates; the authority of the chiefs was despised; and sermons and edicts were alike fruitless against those scandalous disorders, not less pernicious to military discipline than repugnant to evangelic purity.

Then onto Jerusalem, which falls after a protracted siege:

About four hundred and sixty years after the conquest of Omar, the holy city was rescued from the Mahometan yoke. In the pillage of public and private wealth, the adventurers had agreed to respect the exclusive property of the first occupant; and the spoils of the great mosque, seventy lamps and massy vases of gold and silver, rewarded the diligence, and displayed the generosity, of Tancred. A bloody sacrifice was offered by his mistaken votaries to the God of the Christians; resistance might provoke, but neither age nor sex could mollify, their implacable rage; they indulged themselves three days in a promiscuous massacre; and the infection of the dead bodies produced an epidemic disease. After seventy thousand Moslems had been put to the sword, and the harmless Jews had been burnt in their synagogue, they could still reserve a multitude of captives whom interest or lassitude persuaded them to spare. Of these savage heroes of the cross, Tancred alone betrayed some sentiments of compassion; yet we may praise the more selfish lenity of Raymond, who granted a capitulation and safe-conduct to the garrison of the citadel.66 The holy sepulchre was now free; and the bloody victors prepared to accomplish their vow. Bareheaded and barefoot, with contrite hearts, and in an humble posture, they ascended the hill of Calvary, amidst the loud anthems of the clergy; kissed the stone which had covered the Saviour of the world; and bedewed with tears of joy and penitence the monument of their redemption.

The next two crusades were basically the same thing over and over again.

However splendid it may seem, a regular story of the crusades would exhibit a perpetual return of the same causes and effects; and the frequent attempts for the defence and recovery of the Holy Land would appear so many faint and unsuccessful copies of the original.

There's a lot of back and forth with Islamic forces, Saladin and all that. If we fast-forward to Barbarossa and the third crusade in 1190, we are met with similar failures:

Forty campaigns in Germany and Italy had taught Barbarossa to command; and his soldiers, even the princes of the empire, were accustomed under his reign to obey. As soon as he lost sight of Philadelphia and Laodicea, the last cities of the Greek frontier, he plunged into the salt and barren desert, a land (says the historian) of horror and tribulation. During twenty days, every step of his fainting and sickly march was besieged by the innumerable hordes of Turkmans, whose numbers and fury seemed after each defeat to multiply and inflame. The emperor continued to struggle and to suffer; and such was the measure of his calamities that, when he reached the gates of Iconium, no more than one thousand knights were able to serve on horseback. By a sudden and resolute assault, he defeated the guards, and stormed the capital, of the sultan, who humbly sued for pardon and peace. The road was now open, and Frederic advanced in a career of triumph, till he was unfortunately drowned in a petty torrent of Cilicia. The remainder of his Germans was consumed by sickness and desertion, and the emperor’s son expired with the greatest part of his Swabian vassals at the siege of Acre. Among the Latin heroes, Godfrey of Bouillon and Frederic Barbarossa alone could achieve the passage of the Lesser Asia; yet even their success was a warning, and in the last and most experienced ages of the crusades every nation preferred the sea to the toils and perils of an inland expedition.

The stories about Richard Cœur de Lion are so unbelievable Gibbon questions whether he is writing history or fiction:

After his return to Acre, on the news that Jaffa was surprised by the sultan, he sailed with some merchant vessels, and leaped foremost on the beach; the castle was relieved by his presence; and sixty thousand Turks and Saracens fled before his arms. The discovery of his weakness provoked them to return in the morning; and they found him carelessly encamped before the gates with only seventeen knights and three hundred archers. Without counting their numbers, he sustained their charge; and we learn from the evidence of his enemies, that the king of England, grasping his lance, rode furiously along their front, from the right to the left wing, without meeting an adversary who dared to encounter his career. Am I writing the history of Orlando or Amadis?

This is how he sums up the whole enterprise:

The enthusiasm of the first crusade is a natural and simple event, while hope was fresh, danger untried, and enterprise congenial to the spirit of the times. But the obstinate perseverance of Europe may indeed excite our pity and admiration; that no instruction should have been drawn from constant and adverse experience; that the same confidence should have repeatedly grown from the same failures; that six succeeding generations should have rushed headlong down the precipice that was open before them; and that men of every condition should have staked their public and private fortunes on the desperate adventure of possessing or recovering a tomb-stone two thousand miles from their country.

And then there's my favorite crusade, the fourth. The crusaders hire the Venetians to take them over in their fleet, but when the time comes they don't have the money they promised to pay. So the blind 95 year old doge of Venice, Enrico Dandolo, proposes a deal: attack the Zarans (in modern Croatia) for us and pay what you owe from the spoils. There's a whole thing with the Pope, but the crusaders do it anyway. And in this mess, Alexius Angelus arrives and asks for their help to dethrone his uncle, the Byzantine emperor. Of course, they go for it. Thus the Latins end up conquering the remains of the Eastern empire, and Gibbon gives us the implausible image of the blind Dandolo storming the walls.

In the midst of the conflict, the doge, a venerable and conspicuous form, stood aloft, in complete armour, on the prow of his galley. The great standard of St. Mark was displayed before him; his threats, promises, and exhortations urged the diligence of the rowers; his vessel was the first that struck; and Dandolo was the first warrior on the shore. The nations admired the magnanimity of the blind old man, without reflecting that his age and infirmities diminished the price of life and enhanced the value of immortal glory.

The conquest is pretty brutal, the city burns, and then the Latins immediately start fighting between themselves. The Greeks resist, the Bulgarians invade, it's a complete clusterfuck. Ultimately Latin rule only lasts for about 60 years, at which point the Greeks take over again.

After some ages of oblivion, Greece was awakened to new misfortunes by the arms of the Latins. In the two hundred and fifty years between the first and the last conquest of Constantinople, that venerable land was disputed by a multitude of petty tyrants; without the comforts of freedom and genius, her ancient cities were again plunged in foreign and intestine war; and, if servitude be preferable to anarchy, they might repose with joy under the Turkish yoke.

 

Timur (1336-1405)

In the final couple of volumes, Gibbon ranges far and wide in order to avoid talking about the Byzantines. One of the most interesting subjects is Timur (or Tamerlane), the last great steppe conqueror. He was born in what is today Uzbekistan, into a Turkish/Mongol clan, and entered the raiding life at a very young age. Gibbon gives us what feels like a semi-mythical origin story:

From the twelfth year of his age Timour had entered the field of action; in the twenty-fifth, he stood forth as the deliverer of his country; and the eyes and wishes of the people were turned towards an hero who suffered in their cause. The chiefs of the law and of the army had pledged their salvation to support him with their lives and fortunes; but in the hour of danger they were silent and afraid; and, after waiting seven days on the hills of Samarcand, he retreated to the desert with only sixty horsemen. The fugitives were overtaken by a thousand Getes, whom he repulsed with incredible slaughter, and his enemies were forced to exclaim, “Timour is a wonderful man; fortune and the divine favour are with him.” But in this bloody action his own followers were reduced to ten, a number which was soon diminished by the desertion of three Carizmians. He wandered in the desert with his wife, seven companions, and four horses; and sixty-two days was he plunged in a loathsome dungeon, from whence he escaped by his own courage and the remorse of the oppressor. After swimming the broad and rapid stream of the Jihoon, or Oxus, he led during some months the life of a vagrant and outlaw, on the borders of the adjacent states. But his fame shone brighter in adversity; he learned to distinguish the friends of his person, the associates of his fortune, and to apply the various characters of men for their advantage, and above all for his own.

On his return to his native country, Timour was successively joined by the parties of his confederates, who anxiously sought him in the desert; nor can I refuse to describe, in his pathetic simplicity, one of their fortunate encounters. He presented himself as a guide to three chiefs, who were at the head of seventy horse. “When their eyes fell upon me,” says Timour, “they were overwhelmed with joy; and they alighted from their horses; and they came and kneeled; and they kissed my stirrup. I also came down from my horse, and took each of them in my arms. And I put my turban on the head of the first chief; and my girdle, rich in jewels and wrought with gold, I bound on the loins of the second; and the third I clothed in my own coat. And they wept, and I wept also; and the hour of prayer was arrived, and we prayed. And we mounted our horses and came to my dwelling; and I collected my people and made a feast.” His trusty bands were soon increased by the bravest of the tribes; he led them against a superior foe; and after some vicissitudes of war the Getes were finally driven from the kingdom of Transoxiana. He had done much for his own glory; but much remained to be done, much art to be exerted, and some blood to be spilt, before he could teach his equals to obey him as their master. [...] A fertile kingdom, five hundred miles in length and in breadth, might have satisfied the ambition of a subject; but Timour aspired to the dominion of the world; and before his death the crown of Zagatai was one of the twenty-seven crowns which he had placed on his head.

After gaining control of the Chagatai Khanate, he spends the next several decades campaigning incessantly, constantly expanding his empire. Anyone who tries to oppose him is crushed. One side-effect is to delay the conquest of Constantinople as the Turks are bound up in a war against Timur. His conquest tends to be extraordinarily brutal:

Abandoned by their prince, the inhabitants of Damascus still defended their walls; and Timour consented to raise the siege, if they would adorn his retreat with a gift or ransom; each article of nine pieces. But no sooner had he introduced himself into the city, under colour of a truce, than he perfidiously violated the treaty; imposed a contribution of ten millions of gold; and animated his troops to chastise the posterity of those Syrians who had executed or approved the murder of the grandson of Mahomet. A family which had given honourable burial to the head of Hosein, and a colony of artificers whom he sent to labour at Samarcand, were alone reserved in the general massacre; and, after a period of seven centuries, Damascus was reduced to ashes, because a Tartar was moved by religious zeal to avenge the blood of an Arab. The losses and fatigues of the campaign obliged Timour to renounce the conquest of Palestine and Egypt; but in his return to the Euphrates he delivered Aleppo to the flames; and justified his pious motive by the pardon and reward of two thousand sectaries of Ali, who were desirous to visit the tomb of his son.

I have expatiated on the personal anecdotes which mark the character of the Mogul hero; but I shall briefly mention that he erected on the ruins of Bagdad a pyramid of ninety thousand heads; again visited Georgia; encamped on the banks of Araxes; and proclaimed his resolution of marching against the Ottoman emperor. Conscious of the importance of the war, he collected his forces from every province; eight hundred thousand men were enrolled on his military list;30 but the splendid commands of five and ten thousand horse may be rather expressive of the rank and pension of the chiefs than of the genuine number of effective soldiers.31 In the pillage of Syria, the Moguls had acquired immense riches; but the delivery of their pay and arrears for seven years more firmly attached them to the Imperial standard.

During this diversion of the Mogul arms, Bajazet had two years to collect his forces for a more serious encounter. They consisted of four hundred thousand horse and foot,32 whose merit and fidelity were of an unequal complexion. We may discriminate the Janizaries, who have been gradually raised to an establishment of forty thousand men; a national cavalry, the Spahis of modern times; twenty thousand cuirassiers of Europe, clad in black and impenetrable armour; the troops of Anatolia, whose princes had taken refuge in the camp of Timour, and a colony of Tartars, whom he had driven from Kipzak, and to whom Bajazet had assigned a settlement in the plains of Hadrianople. [...] he returned on the wings of indignation to the relief of Angora; and, as both generals were alike impatient for action, the plains round that city were the scene of a memorable battle, which has immortalized the glory of Timour and the shame of Bajazet.

The territory he eventually comes to control is immense, and for his final campaign he turns his eyes toward China, where the Mongolians had recently been driven out.

From the Irtish and Volga to the Persian Gulf, and from the Ganges to Damascus and the Archipelago, Asia was in the hand of Timour; his armies were invincible, his ambition was boundless, and his zeal might aspire to conquer and convert the Christian kingdoms of the West, which already trembled at his name. He touched the utmost verge of the land; but an insuperable, though narrow sea, rolled between the two continents of Europe and Asia, and the lord of so many tomans, or myriads of horse, was not master of a single galley. The two passages of the Bosphorus and Hellespont, of Constantinople and Gallipoli, were possessed, the one by the Christians, the other by the Turks. On this great occasion, they forgot the difference of religion, to act with union and firmness in the common cause: the double straits were guarded with ships and fortifications, and they separately withheld the transports which Timour demanded of either nation, under the pretence of attacking their enemy.

But the fears and fancy of nations ascribed to the ambitious Tamerlane a new design of vast and romantic compass; a design of subduing Egypt and Africa, marching from the Nile to the Atlantic Ocean, entering Europe by the Straits of Gibraltar, and, after imposing his yoke on the kingdoms of Christendom, of returning home by the deserts of Russia and Tartary. This remote, and perhaps imaginary, danger was averted by the submission of the sultan of Egypt; the honours of the prayer and the coin attested at Cairo the supremacy of Timour; and a rare gift of a giraffe, or camelopard, and nine ostriches, represented at Samarcand the tribute of the African world. Our imagination is not less astonished by the portrait of a Mogul, who, in his camp before Smyrna, meditates and almost accomplishes the invasion of the Chinese empire.

Timur is well-prepared, but things don't go very well.

Before he evacuated Anatolia, Timour dispatched beyond the Sihoon a numerous army, or rather colony, of his old and new subjects, to open the road, to subdue the Pagan Calmucks and Mungals, and to found cities and magazines in the desert; and, by the diligence of his lieutenant, he soon received a perfect map and description of the unknown regions from the source of the Irtish to the wall of China. During these preparations the emperor achieved the final conquest of Georgia; passed the winter on the banks of the Araxes, appeased the troubles of Persia, and slowly returned to his capital after a campaign of four years and nine months.

Neither age nor the severity of the winter could retard the impatience of Timour; he mounted on horseback, passed the Sihoon on the ice, marched seventy-six parasangs, three hundred miles, from his capital, and pitched his last camp in the neighbourhood of Otrar, where he was expected by the angel of death. Fatigue, and the indiscreet use of iced water, accelerated the progress of his fever; and the conqueror of Asia expired in the seventieth year of his age, thirty-five years after he had ascended the throne of Zagatai. His designs were lost; his armies were disbanded; China was saved; and, fourteen years after his decease, the most powerful of his children sent an embassy of friendship and commerce to the court of Pekin.

Overall, Gibbon's assessment of Timur is negative: the widespread destruction and mass murder cannot be expiated by the positive aspects of his rule.

Timour might boast that, at his accession to the throne, Asia was the prey of anarchy and rapine, whilst under his prosperous monarchy, a child, fearless and unhurt, might carry a purse of gold from the east to the west. Such was his confidence of merit that from this reformation he derived excuse for his victories and a title to universal dominion. [...] If some partial disorders, some local oppressions, were healed by the sword of Timour, the remedy was far more pernicious than the disease. By their rapine, cruelty, and discord, the petty tyrants of Persia might afflict their subjects; but whole nations were crushed under the footsteps of the reformer. The ground which had been occupied by flourishing cities was often marked by his abominable trophies, by columns or pyramids of human heads. Astracan, Carizme, Delhi, Ispahan, Bagdad, Aleppo, Damascus, Boursa, Smyrna, and a thousand others, were sacked, or burnt, or utterly destroyed, in his presence, and by his troops; and perhaps his conscience would have been startled if a priest or philosopher had dared to number the millions of victims whom he had sacrificed to the establishment of peace and order.

And once again, the conquests of the Steppe warriors don't last very long:

Whatsoever might be the blessings of his administration, they evaporated with his life. [...] A fragment of the empire was upheld with some glory by Sharokh, his youngest son; but after his decease, the scene was again involved in darkness and blood; and before the end of a century Transoxiana and Persia were trampled by the Uzbeks from the North, and the Turkmans of the black and white sheep. The race of Timour would have been extinct, if an hero, his descendant in the fifth degree, had not fled before the Uzbek arms to the conquest of Hindostan. His successors (the Great Moguls) extended their sway from the mountains of Cashmir to Cape Comorin, and from Candahar to the Gulf of Bengal. Since the reign of Aurungzebe, their empire has been dissolved; their treasures of Delhi have been rifled by a Persian robber; and the riches of their kingdoms is now possessed by a company of Christian merchants, of a remote island in the Northern Ocean.

 

The Fall

After being gradually worn down, conquered by the Latins, retaken by the Greeks, then threatened by the Ottomans, and saved by the distraction of Timur's invasion, in 1453 the time has finally come. Mehmed II brings out his giant cannon, and the Byzantines struggle to find any men to defend the city.

In her last decay, Constantinople was still peopled with more than an hundred thousand inhabitants; but these numbers are found in the accounts, not of war, but of captivity; and they mostly consisted of mechanics, of priests, of women, and of men devoid of that spirit which even women have sometimes exerted for the common safety. I can suppose, I could almost excuse, the reluctance of subjects to serve on a distant frontier, at the will of a tyrant; but the man who dares not expose his life in the defence of his children and his property has lost in society the first and most active energies of nature. By the emperor’s command, a particular inquiry had been made through the streets and houses, how many of the citizens, or even of the monks, were able and willing to bear arms for their country. The lists were intrusted to Phranza; and, after a diligent addition, he informed his master, with grief and surprise, that the national defence was reduced to four thousand nine hundred and seventy Romans.

It still takes more than a month.

After a siege of forty days, the fate of Constantinople could no longer be averted. The diminutive garrison was exhausted by a double attack; the fortifications, which had stood for ages against hostile violence, were dismantled on all sides by the Ottoman cannon; many breaches were opened; and near the gate of St. Romanus four towers had been levelled with the ground. For the payment of his feeble and mutinous troops, Constantine was compelled to despoil the churches, with the promise of a fourfold restitution; and his sacrilege offered a new reproach to the enemies of the union. A spirit of discord impaired the remnant of the Christian strength; the Genoese and Venetian auxiliaries asserted the pre-eminence of their respective service; and Justiniani and the Great Duke, whose ambition was not extinguished by the common danger, accused each other of treachery and cowardice.

Finally, on the 29th of May, the Ottomans breach the city.

At daybreak, without the customary signal of the morning-gun, the Turks assaulted the city by sea and land; and the similitude of a twined or twisted thread has been applied to the closeness and continuity of their line of attack.45 The foremost ranks consisted of the refuse of the host, a voluntary crowd, who fought without order or command; of the feebleness of age or childhood, of peasants and vagrants, and of all who had joined the camp in the blind hope of plunder and martyrdom. The common impulse drove them onwards to the wall; the most audacious to climb were instantly precipitated; and not a dart, not a bullet of the Christians was idly wasted on the accumulated throng. But their strength and ammunition were exhausted in this laborious defence; the ditch was filled with the bodies of the slain; they supported the footsteps of their companions; and of this devoted vanguard the death was more serviceable than the life. Under their respective bashaws and sanjaks, the troops of Anatolia and Romania were successively led to the charge: their progress was various and doubtful; but, after a conflict of two hours, the Greeks still maintained and improved their advantage; and the voice of the emperor was heard, encouraging his soldiers to achieve, by a last effort, the deliverance of their country. In that fatal moment, the Janizaries arose, fresh, vigorous, and invincible. The sultan himself on horseback, with an iron mace in his hand, was the spectator and judge of their valour; he was surrounded by ten thousand of his domestic troops, whom he reserved for the decisive occasion; and the tide of battle was directed and impelled by his voice and eye. His numerous ministers of justice were posted behind the line, to urge, to restrain, and to punish; and, if danger was in the front, shame and inevitable death were in the rear of the fugitives. The cries of fear and of pain were drowned in the martial music of drums, trumpets, and attaballs; and experience has proved that the mechanical operation of sounds, by quickening the circulation of the blood and spirits, will act on the human machine more forcibly than the eloquence of reason and honour. From the lines, the galleys, and the bridge, the Ottoman artillery thundered on all sides; and the camp and city, the Greeks and the Turks, were involved in a cloud of smoke, which could only be dispelled by the final deliverance or destruction of the Roman empire. The single combats of the heroes of history or fable amuse our fancy and engage our affections: the skilful evolutions of war may inform the mind, and improve a necessary though pernicious science. But, in the uniform and odious pictures of a general assault, all is blood, and horror, and confusion; nor shall I strive, at the distance of three centuries and a thousand miles, to delineate a scene of which there could be no spectators, and of which the actors themselves were incapable of forming any just or adequate idea.

The number of the Ottomans was fifty, perhaps an hundred, times superior to that of the Christians; the double walls were reduced by the cannon to an heap of ruins; in a circuit of several miles, some places must be found more easy of access or more feebly guarded; and, if the besiegers could penetrate in a single point, the whole city was irrecoverably lost. The first who deserved the sultan’s reward was Hassan, the Janizary, of gigantic stature and strength. With his scymetar in one hand and his buckler in the other, he ascended the outward fortification; of the thirty Janizaries, who were emulous of his valour, eighteen perished in the bold adventure. Hassan and his twelve companions had reached the summit: the giant was precipitated from the rampart; he rose on one knee, and was again oppressed by a shower of darts and stones. But his success had proved that the achievement was possible: the walls and towers were instantly covered with a swarm of Turks; and the Greeks, now driven from the vantage-ground, were overwhelmed by increasing multitudes.

Constantine XI goes down fighting.

Amidst these multitudes, the emperor, who accomplished all the duties of a general and a soldier, was long seen, and finally lost. The nobles who fought round his person sustained, till their last breath, the honourable names of Palæologus and Cantacuzene: his mournful exclamation was heard, “Cannot there be found a Christian to cut off my head?” and his last fear was that of falling alive into the hands of the infidels. The prudent despair of Constantine cast away the purple; amidst the tumult, he fell by an unknown hand, and his body was buried under a mountain of the slain. After his death, resistance and order were no more; the Greeks fled towards the city; and many were pressed and stifled in the narrow pass of the gate of St. Romanus. The victorious Turks rushed through the breaches of the inner wall; and, as they advanced into the streets, they were soon joined by their brethren, who had forced the gate Phenar on the side of the harbour. In the first heat of the pursuit, about two thousand Christians were put to the sword; but avarice soon prevailed over cruelty; and the victors acknowledged that they should immediately have given quarter, if the valour of the emperor and his chosen bands had not prepared them for a similar opposition in every part of the capital. It was thus, after a siege of fifty-three days, that Constantinople, which had defied the power of Chosroes, the Chagan, and the caliphs, was irretrievably subdued by the arms of Mahomet the Second. Her empire only had been subverted by the Latins; her religion was trampled in the dust by the Moslem conquerors.

The city is plundered, and Gibbon has his eye on the lost manuscripts and their preservation for the future.

Perhaps, instead of joining the public clamour, a philosopher will observe that in the decline of the arts the workmanship could not be more valuable than the work, and that a fresh supply of visions and miracles would speedily be renewed by the craft of the priest and the credulity of the people. He will more seriously deplore the loss of the Byzantine libraries, which were destroyed or scattered in the general confusion: one hundred and twenty thousand manuscripts are said to have disappeared; ten volumes might be purchased for a single ducat; and the same ignominious price, too high perhaps for a shelf of theology, included the whole works of Aristotle and Homer, the noblest productions of the science and literature of ancient Greece. We may reflect with pleasure that an inestimable portion of our classic treasures was safely deposited in Italy; and that the mechanics of a German town had invented an art which derides the havoc of time and barbarism.




Book Review: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

When I begun my journey with Gibbon I knew two things: that he was one of the great stylists of the English language, and that he had a silly monocausal theory blaming Christianity for the fall of the Roman Empire.

Only one of those is true.

General Remarks

In the conduct of those monarchs we may trace the utmost lines of vice and virtue; the most exalted perfection and the meanest degeneracy of our own species.

Like the Iliad, like the pyramids, the Decline and Fall has an air of unreality. Even after experiencing these improbable productions at first hand, one still questions whether they really exist. Above all, the Decline and Fall is monumental—in size, scope, ambition, and style. It covers a singular subject, ranging over 14 centuries and half the globe, in a grand unified narrative centered around its main theme. Combining the features of the philosopher and the antiquarian, Gibbon can simultaneously present systematic theories of history, draw upon his vast knowledge to check them against the evidence, and impose order and coherence on an absurd amount of source material.

Why read something old and outdated when you can read contemporary historians? Gibbon did not have access to archaeological discoveries, placing him at a severe disadvantage. He was biased against Christianity and the Byzantines. And we have certainly gotten better at critically examining the sources:1 when Gibbon talks about armies of 400,000 on each side it is probably safe to divide those numbers by 10. But Gibbon isn't that outdated. His sources are our sources, he always went for the primary ones, and in the broad strokes he made no serious errors. In our age of specialization there is virtually nothing with the kind of scope and ambitious vision that are realized in the Decline and Fall.

Gibbon and his work are products of the Enlightenment in every way: liberty and reason, optimism, the "dark ages" and how they eventually set the stage for the modern world. Its main thesis is ultimately about the pernicious effects of tyranny on men and states—a triumphal victory lap for the freedom and science of the 18th century, as well as an investigation into their origins. It was produced in the middle of a golden age of British (and European) intellectual life: the first volume was published just three weeks before the Wealth of Nations! It would also not have been possible without continental thinkers like Voltaire and Montesquieu who heavily influenced Gibbon.

He had a solid foundation in the languages: excellent Greek, Latin, French, and English. As a young man he had already read all the great Roman literature, often more than once. To prepare for the Decline and Fall he acquired (at a cost of £3,000, approximately £230k in today's money) a personal library of some six or seven thousand volumes: every history book he could get his hands on, and many philosophical and theological tomes on top of that. This extraordinary erudition is displayed on every page, and is not limited to historians. Homer, for example, is mentioned 105 times (and Achilles 17).

The Decline and Fall is split into two parts: the first is tightly focused on the Romans and, despite moving at lightning speed, only manages to get to the year 640 by the end of volume 4. After that, Gibbon starts to roam freely to other peoples and skips over huge swathes of time (covering 8 centuries in 2 volumes), partly as a response to the degenerating quality of his sources. He tells a broader story about the external forces operating around the Byzantines (Islam, the crusades, the Mongols), the dark ages in Europe, and how they eventually led to the Renaissance. To explain Roman history, Gibbon has to explain the steppes. And to do that he has to go as far out as China.

Ultimately the focus is on the leaders, the wars, the grand events—spectacle. But the narrative is kept fresh and interesting with frequent digressions into theology, philosophy, jurisprudence, and anecdotes that illustrate national manners.

Style

Style is the image of character.

Gibbon

Style is the physiognomy of the mind.

Schopenhauer

Gibbon's style is monumental, active, Latinate, flamboyant, often epigrammatic.2 He is dense and rapid without being tiring, he is clever and amusing without degrading the dignity of his subject. He cannot be paraphrased. Gibbon has a love for spectacle, for the picturesque and the dramatic. Borges compares the Decline and Fall to a "crowded novel, whose protagonists are the generations of mankind, whose theater is the world". Nobody writes like him any more, which paradoxically makes the language feel both old and fresh.

His biggest influence was the grand and ironic Tacitus, who also wrote on the theme of decline, but unlike Tacitus Gibbon goes far beyond war and diplomacy. From his own time, he borrowed from Hume, William Robertson's History of Scotland, and above all Montesquieu. In fact the continental influence was so powerful that the Decline and Fall was almost written in French—this tragedy was prevented only by the intervention of David Hume, who convinced Gibbon to write it in English.3

Gibbon's sentences are long and balanced; his thought is dualistic and symmetrical, often based on comparisons or parallels between actions, characters, wars, and ages. He loves to expose contradictions within characters: Augustus is "at first the enemy, and at last the father" of Rome. He often goes for striking antitheses and juxtapositions, methods which allow him to instruct, pass judgment, and most importantly display the decline of the empire: he plays the old against the new, the particular against the general, the ideal against the pragmatic. Discussing the fall of Rome in 410, for instance, he starts with a very abstract contrast (depreciate advantages/magnify evils), then two historical comparisons, one backwards and the other forwards in time:

There exists in human nature a strong propensity to depreciate the advantages, and to magnify the evils, of the present times. Yet, when the first emotions had subsided, and a fair estimate was made of the real damage, the more learned and judicious contemporaries were forced to confess that infant Rome had formerly received more essential injury from the Gauls than she had now sustained from the Goths in her declining age. The experience of eleven centuries has enabled posterity to produce a much more singular parallel; and to affirm with confidence that the ravages of the Barbarians, whom Alaric had led from the banks of the Danube, were less destructive than the hostilities exercised by the troops of Charles the Fifth, a Catholic prince, who styled himself Emperor of the Romans.

At other times Gibbon likes to build up parallel clauses, from the small to the spectacular, from the general to the specific (or vice versa). Sometimes he ends with a jarring finale for surprise or humor:

The court of Arcadius indulged the zeal, applauded the eloquence, and neglected the advice of Synesius.

In this wonderful passage describing religion in the age of the Antonines, he uses an abccba ring structure for a triple juxtaposition, framing the discussion with the emperor and ending in a cynical arpeggio:

The policy of the emperors and the senate, as far as it concerned religion, was happily seconded by the reflections of the enlightened, and by the habits of the superstitious, part of their subjects. The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful.

"Every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future", Borges writes, and it is impossible not to think of him when reading Gibbon. Take this sentence on Timur, for example: "the amusement of his leisure hours was the game of chess, which he improved or corrupted with new refinements." Improved or corrupted! When motives are unclear, Gibbon will revel in the ambiguity, presenting two options (one noble, the other base) and letting the reader decide: "the piety or the avarice", "the gratitude or ambition".

Virtues and vices are anthropomorphized and given an objective, independent existence. Ambition, greed, hope, and valour direct monarchs as if they were puppets.

Vanity might applaud the elevation of a French emperor of Constantinople; but prudence must pity, rather than envy, his treacherous and imaginary greatness.

His [Alexius] prudence, or his pride, was content with extorting from the French princes an oath of homage and fidelity.

Perhaps the most amusing aspect of his style is the heavy use of irony (another similarity to Tacitus, though Gibbon claimed he learned it from Pascal's Lettres provinciales).4 It was particularly useful when writing about religious matters, as it allowed him to defend his writing as orthodox when it was actually mocking the church, especially on the question of miracles which Gibon pursued relentlessly:

The miraculous cure of diseases of the most inveterate or even præternatural kind, can no longer occasion any surprise when we recollect that in the days of Irenæus, about the end of the second century, the resurrection of the dead was very far from being esteemed an uncommon event.

It may seem somewhat remarkable that Bernard of Clairvaux, who records so many miracles of his friend St. Malachi, never takes any notice of his own, which, in their turn, however, are carefully related by his companions and disciples.

But how shall we excuse the supine inattention of the Pagan and philosophic world to those evidences which were presented by the hand of Omnipotence, not to their reason, but to their senses? During the age of Christ, of his apostles, and of their first disciples, the doctrine which they preached was confirmed by innumerable prodigies. The lame walked, the blind saw, the sick were healed, the dead were raised, dæmons were expelled, and the laws of Nature were frequently suspended for the benefit of the church. But the sages of Greece and Rome turned aside from the awful spectacle, and, pursuing the ordinary occupations of life and study, appeared unconscious of any alterations in the moral or physical government of the world.

There is also a second Gibbon, the Gibbon of the footnotes. He is freer, wittier,5 sometimes grotesque or obscene. Carlyle, in a letter to his future wife, recommended the book but warned her to never look at the notes, for "they are often quite abominable". The notes offer a great contrast, a refreshing oasis where one can take a rest from the main narrative, sit down next to Gibbon, and laugh along with him at the follies of men and empires.

He was not without his detractors though. Coleridge felt Gibbon got the causes completely wrong (he thought the key was the imperial character destroying the national character), and that the spectacle overwhelmed the more important but less exciting aspects of history:

He takes notice of nothing but what may produce an effect; he skips on from eminence to eminence, without ever taking you through the valleys between: in fact, his work is little else but a disguised collection of all the splendid anecdotes which he could find in any book concerning any persons or nations from the Antonines to the capture of Constantinople.

He's not entirely wrong, but it feels unfair that he wanted Gibbon to write a completely different type of history. As long as you don't go in expecting Braudel, you won't be disappointed.

Christianity

The fierce and partial writers of the times, ascribing all virtue to themselves, and imputing all guilt to their adversaries, have painted the battle of the angels and dæmons. Our calmer reason will reject such pure and perfect monsters of vice or sanctity, and will impute an equal, or at least an indiscriminate, measure of good and evil to the hostile sectaries, who assumed and bestowed the appellations of orthodox and heretics. They had been educated in the same religion, and the same civil society. Their hopes and fears in the present, or in a future, life were balanced in the same proportion. On either side, the error might be innocent, the faith sincere, the practice meritorious or corrupt. Their passions were excited by similar objects; and they might alternately abuse the favour of the court, or of the people. The metaphysical opinions of the Athanasians and the Arians could not influence their moral character; and they were alike actuated by the intolerant spirit which has been extracted from the pure and simple maxims of the gospel.

Gibbon's greatest innovation also drew the most fervent attacks: the choice to write a history of the church from a purely secular perspective. To do this, in the infamous 15th and 16th chapters of the first volume he put aside the "primary causes" of Christianity (the supernatural ones), and instead wrote only about the "secondary causes": persons, policies, battles between sects, the spread of the faith across the Roman populace.

Despite all the irony, the Decline and Fall is not an anti-religious polemic by any stretch of the imagination; while Gibbon was certainly an enlightenment skeptic, he was no extremist. Voltaire, he thought, "was a bigot, an intolerant bigot." In fact Gibbon's anti-Christian bias reveals itself in peculiar ways, like his strong pro-Islamic bias: where the Christians had corrupted the early religion with idols, saints, and incense,6 the Muslims maintained a purer faith, closer to the Deist ideas of the time.

Later volumes give more attention to the history of Christianity as it grows and eventually becomes the state religion following Constantine. We get to see the journey from a small cult of true believers, to the persecutions, to its final transformation into a corrupt organ tightly married to the state. And in all this, Gibbon delights in revealing the base motives hidden behind professions of Christian virtues.

There's also a lot of theological detail: Gibbon goes deep into controversies like Pelagianism, Arianism, and the Byzantine battles over icons (in a way, it was just a different form of civil war). He covers Christianity's philosophical connections to Platonism.7 Athanasius gets over 30 pages just for himself (and the role he played in the homoousion vs homoiousion battle): he led an eventful life, sometimes at the top of the world, widely admired and respected, at other times exiled (5 exiles by 4 different emperors) or hiding out in the middle of nowhere. In general the persecution of one sect of Christianity by another was a feature from very early on, and often brutal.

In line with his views on liberty and reason in the political sphere, what Gibbon disliked most about Christianity was the fanaticism that magnified the narcissism of small differences to apocalyptic proportions, exhausted the empire through yet more internecine conflict, and stultified the mind by the totalitarian enforcement of a doubtful orthodoxy.

Causes

Causality has always been a fraught topic. Today one often encounters historians making bizarre claims against counterfactuals and causal analysis while at the same time assigning "importance" to this or that factor. On the other hand you have economic historians and cliometricians who are doing quantitative big history with questionable causal models.

The debate was similar in the 18th century. The first thing Gibbon ever published was an essay titled Essai sur l'étude de la littérature (written at the age of 24). In it, he covers a bewildering array of topics, but it has two sections dedicated to historical theories which give us a window into his approach. On one side he places the "philosophic" historians (like Voltaire or Vico) who are enamoured with a single big idea to the detriment of the facts:8

The shining genius is dazzled by his own conjectures, and sacrifices his freedom to his hypotheses. From such a disposition do systems originate.

And on the opposite extreme we have those who credit only chance and contingency:

They have banished art from the moral world, and have replaced it by chance. According to them, weak mortals act only by caprice. An empire is established by the frenzy of a maniac; it is destroyed by the weakness of a woman.

Instead, Gibbon proposes to chart a middle course, taking into account both general causes and particular circumstances. He lays out an abstract plan for a grand work:

How vast a field lies open to my reflections! In the hands of a Montesquieu the theory of general causes would form a philosophic history of mankind. He would show us their dominion over the grandeur and fall of empires, borrowing successively the appearance , of fortune, prudence, courage, and weakness; acting without the concurrence of particular causes, and sometimes even triumphing over them. Superior to the love of his own systems, the wise man‘s last passion, he would easily perceive, that notwithstanding the wide extent of these causes, their effects are, nevertheless, limited, and that they are principally seen in those general events, whose slow but sure influence changes the aspect of the world without its being possible to mark the epoch of the change.

And that is exactly what he wrote. The Decline and Fall tends to foreground uncertainty over large, singular explanatory causes, while simultaneously trying to explain the "general events" behind the "revolutions of society", and trying to identify the "secret springs of action which impel the blind and capricious passions" of the people.

For my own tastes, I would say Gibbon erred on the side of too little systematizing, but by refusing to bet the whole work on a single idea he made it immortal. If the Decline and Fall was a thesis arguing for this or that specific cause, then our judgment of the work would hinge on the merits of that theory. By refusing to take a stand, Gibbon guaranteed his longevity.

The Fall of the Roman Empire

Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and, as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight. The story of its ruin is simple and obvious; and, instead of inquiring why the Roman empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it had subsisted so long.

At the highest level there are two types of causes behind the fall of the Roman empire: internal and external. The history of Europe over Gibbon's timeline is the history of a continuous stream of invasions from the North and the East, either repulsed by the superior organization of civilized states, or victorious due to their warlike nature. If I had to pick a contemporary companion to Gibbon (not in style but in content), it would be this quantitative history paper by Currie, Turchin, Turner & Gavrilets: Duration of agriculture and distance from the steppe predict the evolution of large-scale human societies in Afro-Eurasia. It's about the interplay between the steppe and the regions around it, and makes two basic claims: 1) the closer to the steppe, the greater the "imperial density", and 2) distance from the steppe became more important over time.

In the end, Gibbon treats the external danger as a kind of inevitable force of nature which the civilized societies must either defend against or perish. Which brings us to the internal causes.

Gibbon examines a wide variety of theories, but never brings everything together into a single coherent system. At the most abstract level he blames the tyranny of an overbearing and unstable monarchy. More specifically, there are two broad classes of causes, both of which are downstream from the imperial form of government: 1) the dynamics of the army, and 2) a broader societal decline caused by excess comfort and lack of freedom. But the factors all feed into each other and it's very difficult to separate the chickens from the eggs.

The initial dysfunction of the Empire is relatively clear: the emperors become dependent on the army which causes all sorts of trouble. As Romans are no longer willing to bear arms, the legions are filled with recruits from conquered provinces and the Empire is essentially conquered from the inside by Illyrians (starting with Decius in the mid-3rdC). The final event in this process was Constantine's army reforms, splitting the legions into mobile legions (comitatenses) and permanent garrisons (limitanei). On top of this you have an endless series of civil wars, which again have their source in the army (as well as the lack of clear succession): prospective Emperors could promise huge bribes, the troops felt no kinship with anyone else in the Empire, and the immense distances involved made central control extremely difficult.

As time went on, the Roman state tended toward the strategy of a stationary bandit, maximizing tax revenues and using them to pay the army and the bureaucracy. Scheidel estimates that the army took up 60% of expenditures, though at the same time low-level soldiers were not paid very well.9 By the 6th century, many Italians preferred the barbarians to being "liberated" by the Byzantines.

But this is perhaps putting too-rational a spin on things, as the state not only failed to provide security for its subjects but also for itself: the internal dysfunction ultimately destroyed both the bandit and his subjects. The system had no margins, no flexibility, limited possibilities for intertemporal substitution, and depended heavily on surpluses from mines in Spain and the wealthier provinces (Gaul, Syria, Egypt). It could only survive as long as conditions were stable and external pressures limited.10

Direct comparisons to our time and not worthwhile (the army taking over and paying itself 60% of revenues is unlikely today), but could be interesting if we look at it as an instance of a more general pattern in which states tend toward revenue maximization over the long run. As I was reading Gibbon I kept thinking of Mancur Olson's The Rise and Decline of Nations, in which he argues that states accumulate cruft in the form of cartelistic/public choice behaviors which inevitably grow too large and cause a collapse. I don't want to simplify this too much, as there are tons of factors going into it (for example, if principal-agent problems in tax collection are too bad, rulers might not want to maximize revenues), but I do think there's something to this idea. On the other hand perhaps the Republic offers a better parallel than the Empire.

There are also some theories supported by modern historians that Gibbon doesn't even consider. For example, some believe that the Plague of Justinian played a key role in the fall of Rome (though other modern historians disagree), while Gibbon barely mentions it. He pays scant attention to demographics, the falling output of Iberian silver mines, or the endless problems with debased (or non-existent) coinage.

Let's take a look at some specifics, in Gibbon's own words.

Army

Praetorians & non-Italian soldiers

Following the Year of the Five Emperors, Severus comes out on top; he rewards the troops copiously and remakes the Praetorians, who then effectively become the true power behind the emperor:

The Prætorians, who murdered their emperor and sold the empire, had received the just punishment of their treason; but the necessary, though dangerous, institution of guards was soon restored on a new model by Severus, and increased to four times the ancient number. Formerly these troops had been recruited in Italy; and, as the adjacent provinces gradually imbibed the softer manners of Rome, the levies were extended to Macedonia, Noricum and Spain. In the room of these elegant troops, better adapted to the pomp of courts than to the uses of war, it was established by Severus, that, from all the legions of the frontiers, the soldiers most distinguished for strength, valour, and fidelity, should be occasionally draughted, and promoted, as an honour and reward, into the more eligible service of the guards. By this new institution, the Italian youth were diverted from the exercise of arms, and the capital was terrified by the strange aspect and manners of a multitude of barbarians. But Severus flattered himself that the legions would consider these chosen Prætorians as the representatives of the whole military order; and that the present aid of fifty thousand men, superior in arms and appointments to any force that could be brought into the field against them, would for ever crush the hopes of rebellion, and secure the empire to himself and his posterity.

The command of these favoured and formidable troops soon became the first office of the empire. As the government degenerated into military despotism, the Prætorian præfect, who in his origin had been a simple captain of the guards, was placed, not only at the head of the army, but of the finances, and even of the law. In every department of administration, he represented the person, and exercised the authority, of the emperor. The first præfect who enjoyed and abused this immense power was Plautianus, the favourite minister of Severus. His reign lasted above ten years, till the marriage of his daughter with the eldest son of the emperor, which seemed to assure his fortune, proved the occasion of his ruin. The animosities of the palace, by irritating the ambition and alarming the fears of Plautianus, threatened to produce a revolution, and obliged the emperor, who still loved him, to consent with reluctance to his death. After the fall of Plautianus, an eminent lawyer, the celebrated Papinian, was appointed to execute the motley office of Prætorian præfect.

Army power

As the army grew more powerful, it extracted more and more concessions from the emperors; it also grew less disciplined and less capable of defending the empire.

The victorious legions, who, in distant wars, acquired the vices of strangers and mercenaries, first oppressed the freedom of the republic, and afterwards violated the majesty of the purple. The emperors, anxious for their personal safety and the public peace, were reduced to the base expedient of corrupting the discipline which rendered them alike formidable to their sovereign and to the enemy; the vigour of the military government was relaxed, and finally dissolved, by the partial institutions of Constantine; and the Roman world was overwhelmed by a deluge of Barbarians.

Civil wars

The empire was extraordinarily difficult to control from the center, and both soldiers and ambitious generals abused that lack of control to launch civil wars. In the third century there was a new one almost every three years. The immense waste of resources and manpower naturally weakened the empire against external threats.

The rapid and perpetual transitions from the cottage to the throne, and from the throne to the grave, might have amused an indifferent philosopher, were it possible for a philosopher to remain indifferent amidst the general calamities of human kind. The election of these precarious emperors, their power and their death, were equally destructive to their subjects and adherents. The price of their fatal elevation was instantly discharged to the troops by an immense donative drawn from the bowels of the exhausted people. However virtuous was their character, however pure their intentions, they found themselves reduced to the hard necessity of supporting their usurpation by frequent acts of rapine and cruelty. When they fell, they involved armies and provinces in their fall. There is still extant a most savage mandate from Gallienus to one of his ministers, after the suppression of Ingenuus, who had assumed the purple in Illyricum. “It is not enough,” says that soft but inhuman prince, “that you exterminate such as have appeared in arms: the chance of battle might have served me as effectually. The male sex of every age must be extirpated; provided that, in the execution of the children and old men, you can contrive means to save our reputation. Let every one die who has dropt an expression, who has entertained a thought, against me, against me, the son of Valerian, the father and brother of so many princes.58 Remember that Ingenuus was made emperor: tear, kill, hew in pieces. I write to you with my own hand, and would inspire you with my own feelings.” Whilst the public forces of the state were dissipated in private quarrels, the defenceless provinces lay exposed to every invader. The bravest usurpers were compelled by the perplexity of their situation to conclude ignominious treaties with the common enemy, to purchase with oppressive tributes the neutrality or services of the barbarians, and to introduce hostile and independent nations into the heart of the Roman monarchy.

Constantine's army reforms

The biggest criticism Gibbon has for Constantine is not his toleration of and conversion to Christianity, but rather his reforms of the army.

the feeble policy of Constantine and his successors armed and instructed, for the ruin of the empire, the rude valour of the Barbarian mercenaries.

Of all the causes for the fall, this is the one Gibbon puts the greatest emphasis on, so I will quote him liberally.

The memory of Constantine has been deservedly censured for another innovation, which corrupted military discipline and prepared the ruin of the empire. The nineteen years which preceded his final victory over Licinius had been a period of licence and intestine war. The rivals who contended for the possession of the Roman world had withdrawn the greatest part of their forces from the guard of the general frontier; and the principal cities which formed the boundary of their respective dominions were filled with soldiers, who considered their countrymen as their most implacable enemies. [...] From the reign of Constantine, a popular and even legal distinction was admitted between the Palatines and the Borderers; the troops of the court as they were improperly styled, and the troops of the frontier. The former, elevated by the superiority of their pay and privileges, were permitted, except in the extraordinary emergencies of war, to occupy their tranquil stations in the heart of the provinces. The most flourishing cities were oppressed by the intolerable weight of quarters. The soldiers insensibly forgot the virtues of their profession, and contracted only the vices of civil life. They were either degraded by the industry of mechanic trades, or enervated by the luxury of baths and theatres. They soon became careless of their martial exercises, curious in their diet and apparel; and, while they inspired terror to the subjects of the empire, they trembled at the hostile approach of the Barbarians. The chain of fortifications which Diocletian and his colleagues had extended along the banks of the great rivers was no longer maintained with the same care or defended with the same vigilance. The numbers which still remained under the name of the troops of the frontier might be sufficient for the ordinary defence. But their spirit was degraded by the humiliating reflection that they who were exposed to the hardships and dangers of a perpetual warfare were rewarded only with about two-thirds of the pay and emoluments which were lavished on the troops of the court. Even the bands or legions that were raised the nearest to the level of those unworthy favourites were in some measure disgraced by the title of honour which they were allowed to assume. It was in vain that Constantine repeated the most dreadful menaces of fire and sword against the Borderers who should dare to desert their colours, to connive at the inroads of the Barbarians, or to participate in the spoil. The mischiefs which flow from injudicious counsels are seldom removed by the application of partial severities; and, though succeeding princes laboured to restore the strength and numbers of the frontier garrisons, the empire, till the last moment of its dissolution, continued to languish under the mortal wound which had been so rashly or so weakly inflicted by the hand of Constantine.

The same timid policy, of dividing whatever is united, of reducing whatever is eminent, of dreading every active power, and of expecting that the most feeble will prove the most obedient, seems to persuade the institutions of several princes, and particularly those of Constantine. The martial pride of the legions, whose victorious camps had so often been the scene of rebellion, was nourished by the memory of their past exploits and the consciousness of their actual strength. As long as they maintained their ancient establishment of six thousand men, they subsisted, under the reign of Diocletian, each of them singly, a visible and important object in the military history of the Roman empire. A few years afterwards these gigantic bodies were shrunk to a very diminutive size; and, when seven legions, with some auxiliaries, defended the city of Amida against the Persians, the total garrison, with the inhabitants of both sexes, and the peasants of the deserted country, did not exceed the number of twenty thousand persons. From this fact, and from similar examples, there is reason to believe that the constitution of the legionary troops, to which they partly owed their valour and discipline, was dissolved by Constantine; and that the bands of Roman infantry, which still assumed the same names and the same honours, consisted only of one thousand or fifteen hundred men. The conspiracy of so many separate detachments, each of which was awed by the sense of its own weakness, could easily be checked; and the successors of Constantine might indulge their love of ostentation, by issuing their orders to one hundred and thirty-two legions, inscribed on the muster-roll of their numerous armies. The remainder of their troops was distributed into several hundred cohorts of infantry, and squadrons of cavalry. Their arms, and titles, and ensigns were calculated to inspire terror, and to display the variety of nations who marched under the Imperial standard. And not a vestige was left of that severe simplicity which, in the ages of freedom and victory, had distinguished the line of battle of a Roman army from the confused host of an Asiatic monarch. A more particular enumeration, drawn from the Notitia, might exercise the diligence of an antiquary; but the historian will content himself with observing that the number of permanent stations or garrisons established on the frontiers of the empire amounted to five hundred and eighty-three; and that, under the successors of Constantine, the complete force of the military establishment was computed at six hundred and forty-five thousand soldiers. An effort so prodigious surpassed the wants of a more ancient, and the faculties of a later, period.

In the various states of society, armies are recruited from very different motives. Barbarians are urged by the love of war; the citizens of a free republic may be prompted by a principle of duty; the subjects, or at least the nobles, of a monarchy are animated by a sentiment of honour; but the timid and luxurious inhabitants of a declining empire must be allured into the service by the hopes of profit, or compelled by the dread of punishment. The resources of the Roman treasury were exhausted by the increase of pay, by the repetition of donatives, and by the invention of new emoluments and indulgences, which, in the opinion of the provincial youth, might compensate the hardships and dangers of a military life. Yet, although the stature was lowered, although slaves, at least by a tacit connivance, were indiscriminately received into the ranks, the insurmountable difficulty of procuring a regular and adequate supply of volunteers obliged the emperors to adopt more effectual and coercive methods. The lands bestowed on the veterans, as the free reward of their valour, were henceforward granted under a condition, which contains the first rudiments of the feudal tenures; that their sons, who succeeded to the inheritance, should devote themselves to the profession of arms, as soon as they attained the age of manhood; and their cowardly refusal was punished by the loss of honour, of fortune, or even of life. But, as the annual growth of the sons of the veterans bore a very small proportion to the demands of the service, levies of men were frequently required from the provinces, and every proprietor was obliged either to take up arms, or to procure a substitute, or to purchase his exemption by the payment of a heavy fine. The sum of forty-two pieces of gold, to which it was reduced, ascertains the exorbitant price of volunteers and the reluctance with which the government admitted of this alternative. Such was the horror for the profession of a soldier which had affected the minds of the degenerate Romans that many of the youth of Italy and the provinces chose to cut off the fingers of their right hand to escape from being pressed into the service; and this strange expedient was so commonly practised as to deserve the severe animadversion of the laws and a peculiar name in the Latin language.

The introduction of Barbarians into the Roman armies became every day more universal, more necessary, and more fatal. The most daring of the Scythians, of the Goths, and of the Germans, who delighted in war, and who found it more profitable to defend than to ravage the provinces, were enrolled, not only in the auxiliaries of their respective nations, but in the legions themselves, and among the most distinguished of the Palatine troops. As they freely mingled with the subjects of the empire, they gradually learned to despise their manners and to imitate their arts. They abjured the implicit reverence which the pride of Rome had exacted from their ignorance, while they acquired the knowledge and possession of those advantages by which alone she supported her declining greatness. The Barbarian soldiers who displayed any military talents were advanced, without exception, to the most important commands; and the names of the tribunes, of the counts and dukes, and of the generals themselves, betray a foreign origin, which they no longer condescended to disguise. They were often entrusted with the conduct of a war against their countrymen; and, though most of them preferred the ties of allegiance to those of blood, they did not always avoid the guilt, or at least the suspicion, of holding a treasonable correspondence with the enemy, of inviting his invasion, or of sparing his retreat. The camps and the palace of the son of Constantine were governed by the powerful faction of the Franks, who preserved the strictest connexion with each other and with their country, and who resented every personal affront as a national indignity. When the tyrant Caligula was suspected of an intention to invest a very extraordinary candidate with the consular robes, the sacrilegious profanation would have scarcely excited less astonishment, if, instead of a horse, the noblest chieftain of Germany or Britain had been the object of his choice. The revolution of three centuries had produced so remarkable a change in the prejudices of the people that, with the public approbation, Constantine showed his successors the example of bestowing the honours of the consulship on the Barbarians who, by their merit and services, had deserved to be ranked among the first of the Romans.81 But as these hardy veterans, who had been educated in the ignorance or contempt of the laws, were incapable of exercising any civil offices, the powers of the human mind were contracted by the irreconcilable separation of talents as well as of professions. The accomplished citizens of the Greek and Roman republics, whose characters could adapt themselves to the bar, the senate, the camp, or the schools, had learned to write, to speak, and to act, with the same spirit, and with equal abilities.

General Internal Decay

The idea that oppressive monarchies are unsuitable for the flourishing of genius recurs often.

This long peace, and the uniform government of the Romans, introduced a slow and secret poison into the vitals of the empire. The minds of men were gradually reduced to the same level, the fire of genius was extinguished, and even the military spirit evaporated. [...] They received laws and governors from the will of their sovereign, and trusted for their defence to a mercenary army. The posterity of their boldest leaders was contented with the rank of citizens and subjects. The most aspiring spirits resorted to the court or standard of the emperors; and the deserted provinces, deprived of political strength or union, insensibly sunk into the languid indifference of private life.

Decline in warlike nature of Romans

Which brings us to the fluffier factors. One of the most frequent leitmotifs in the Decline and Fall is a barbarian nation conquering civilized one, taking up their way of life, and quickly becoming weak and feminized. It happens to the Vandals, the Mongols, the Timurid empire, etc. Comfort, profit, city living, the arts, fine wine—little more than secret poisons, weakening civilizations and making them easy pray for the next round of barbarian invaders. Here is how Gibbon describes the Yuan dynasty:

The northern, and by degrees the southern, empire acquiesced in the government of Cublai, the lieutenant and afterwards the successor of Mangou; and the nation was loyal to a prince who had been educated in the manners of China. He restored the forms of her venerable constitution; and the victors submitted to the laws, the fashions, and even the prejudices of the vanquished people. The peaceful triumph, which has been more than once repeated, may be ascribed, in a great measure, to the numbers and servitude of the Chinese. The Mogul army was dissolved in a vast and populous country; and their emperors adopted with pleasure a political system which gives to the prince the solid substance of despotism and leaves to the subject the empty names of philosophy, freedom, and filial obedience. Under the reign of Cublai, letters and commerce, peace and justice, were restored; the great canal of five hundred miles was opened from Nankin to the capital; he fixed his residence at Pekin, and displayed in his court the magnificence of the greatest monarch of Asia. Yet this learned prince declined from the pure and simple religion of his great ancestor; he sacrificed to the idol Fo; and his blind attachment to the lamas of Thibet and the bonzes of China provoked the censure of the disciples of Confucius. His successors polluted the palace with a crowd of eunuchs, physicians, and astrologers, while thirteen millions of their subjects were consumed in the provinces by famine. One hundred and forty years after the death of Zingis, his degenerate race, the dynasty of the Yuen, was expelled by a revolt of the native Chinese; and the Mogul emperors were lost in the oblivion of the desert.

Something like that applied to the Romans, too.

The feeble elegance of Italy and the internal provinces could no longer support the weight of arms. The hardy frontier of the Rhine and Danube still produced minds and bodies equal to the labours of the camp; but a perpetual series of wars had gradually diminished their numbers. The infrequency of marriage, and the ruin of agriculture, affected the principles of population, and not only destroyed the strength of the present, but intercepted the hope of future, generations.

The nation is dissolved under the empire, which lacks the necessary bonds to hold it together.

The empire of Rome was firmly established by the singular and perfect coalition of its members. The subject nations, resigning the hope, and even the wish, of independence, embraced the character of Roman citizens; and the provinces of the West were reluctantly torn by the Barbarians from the bosom of their mother-country. But this union was purchased by the loss of national freedom and military spirit; and the servile provinces, destitute of life and motion, expected their safety from the mercenary troops and governors, who were directed by the orders of a distant court.

Farmers vs steppe pastoralists

From the spacious highlands between China, Siberia, and the Caspian Sea, the tide of emigration and war has repeatedly been poured.

Those barbarians have to come from somewhere, of course. They come from the pastoral tribes in the steppes, a way of life more conducive to the production of warriors.

The thrones of Asia have been repeatedly overturned by the shepherds of the North; and their arms have spread terror and devastation over the most fertile and warlike countries of Europe. On this occasion, as well as on many others, the sober historian is forcibly awakened from a pleasing vision; and is compelled, with some reluctance, to confess that the pastoral manners which have been adorned with the fairest attributes of peace and innocence are much better adapted to the fierce and cruel habits of a military life.

This is a purely subjective impression on my part, based on virtually no evidence whatsoever (though it fits in well with the Currie et al. paper I mentioned earlier), but it seems like the steppe nomads got much better over time. The Scythians were kinda scary, the Goths were a bit more dangerous but only won because the Romans didn't have their shit together, the Huns were hardcore, and then Gengis and Timur just steamroll everything in their path with barely any resistance. How much of this is just down to weaker states on the defensive side? And where does Islam fit into this? I'm not sure. In the end the cycle of steppe invasions was ended by gunpowder, so Timur was as bad as it got.

Abdicating the responsibilities of freedom

The Romans got too comfortable in their success, pacified by bread & circuses, and were happy to give up their power and responsibility, ultimately leading to decay in Roman institutions. Gibbon comments on a new institution dreamed up by Honorius in the early 5th century, a kind of republican assembly:

If such an institution, which gave the people an interest in their own government, had been universally established by Trajan or the Antonines, the seeds of public wisdom and virtue might have been cherished and propagated in the empire of Rome. The privileges of the subject would have secured the throne of the monarch; the abuses of an arbitrary administration might have been prevented, in some degree, or corrected, by the interposition of these representative assemblies; and the country would have been defended against a foreign enemy by the arms of natives and freemen. Under the mild and generous influence of liberty, the Roman empire might have remained invincible and immortal; or, if its excessive magnitude and the instability of human affairs had opposed such perpetual continuance, its vital and constituent members might have separately preserved their vigour and independence. But in the decline of the empire, when every principle of health and life had been exhausted, the tardy application of this partial remedy was incapable of producing any important or salutary effects. The Emperor Honorius expresses his surprise that he must compel the reluctant provinces to accept a privilege which they should ardently have solicited. A fine of three or even five pounds of gold was imposed on the absent representatives; who seem to have declined this imaginary gift of a free constitution, as the last and most cruel insult of their oppressors.

Christianity

Finally, Gibbon did (partly) blame Christianity for the fall. His criticisms mostly focused on 1) monasteries operating as brain drains, 2) the cultural effects, and 3) the fanaticism and internal divisions caused by warring sects.

As the happiness of a future life is the great object of religion, we may hear, without surprise or scandal, that the introduction, or at least the abuse, of Christianity had some influence on the decline and fall of the Roman empire. The clergy successfully preached the doctrines of patience and pusillanimity; the active virtues of society were discouraged; and the last remains of military spirit were buried in the cloister; a large portion of public and private wealth was consecrated to the specious demands of charity and devotion; and the soldiers’ pay was lavished on the useless multitudes of both sexes, who could only plead the merits of abstinence and chastity. Faith, zeal, curiosity, and the more earthly passions of malice and ambition kindled the flame of theological discord; the church, and even the state, were distracted by religious factions, whose conflicts were sometimes bloody, and always implacable; the attention of the emperors was diverted from camps to synods; the Roman world was oppressed by a new species of tyranny; and the persecuted sects became the secret enemies of their country. Yet party-spirit, however pernicious or absurd, is a principle of union as well as of dissension. The bishops, from eighteen hundred pulpits, inculcated the duty of passive obedience to a lawful and orthodox sovereign; their frequent assemblies, and perpetual correspondence, maintained the communion of distant churches: and the benevolent temper of the gospel was strengthened, though confined, by the spiritual alliance of the Catholics. The sacred indolence of the monks was devoutly embraced by a servile and effeminate age; but, if superstition had not afforded a decent retreat, the same vices would have tempted the unworthy Romans to desert, from baser motives, the standard of the republic. Religious precepts are easily obeyed, which indulge and sanctify the natural inclinations of their votaries; but the pure and genuine influence of Christianity may be traced in its beneficial, though imperfect, effects on the Barbarian proselytes of the North. If the decline of the Roman empire was hastened by the conversion of Constantine, his victorious religion broke the violence of the fall, and mollified the ferocious temper of the conquerors.

He viewed religious tyranny simply as a different type of loss of freedom, with the same effects. On the monasteries:

The freedom of the mind, the source of every generous and rational sentiment, was destroyed by the habits of credulity and submission; and the monk, contracting the vices of a slave, devoutly followed the faith and passions of his ecclesiastical tyrant. The peace of the Eastern church was invaded by a swarm of fanatics, incapable of fear, or reason, or humanity; and the Imperial troops acknowledged, without shame, that they were much less apprehensive of an encounter with the fiercest Barbarians.

Fin

In the end, is it worth the effort? Absolutely. I started reading the Decline and Fall on January 1, 2020. 363 days and nearly 4000 pages later I was sad to reach the end. I would gladly have kept going into the Renaissance and beyond. I recommend you follow a similar pace: 10 or 20 pages in bed every night, you don't want to rush through it. Gibbon will give you something new to talk about every day.

As always with these types of books, I recommend the Everyman's Library edition: fantastic quality and dirt cheap, especially if you get a used copy (my own set bears the library markings of the Kings of Wessex school in Cheddar, Somerset—apparently Gibbon is out of favor with schoolboys these days). The only downside is that you don't get the Piranesi illustrations which are included in some other editions (like the Heritage).

Highlights will come in a separate post in a few days.


  1. 1.Gibbon missed the train on the German source criticism that was taking off at the time.
  2. 2.Iggy Pop called it "rich and complete".
  3. 3.He argued that, thanks to the American colonies, English would outlive French like Latin outlived Greek!
  4. 4.Byron called him "the lord of irony" in his wonderful little poem on Gibbon and Voltaire:

    The other, deep and slow, exhausting thought,
    And hiving wisdom with each studious year,
    In meditation dwelt, with learning wrought,
    And shaped his weapon with an edge severe,
    Sapping a solemn creed with solemn sneer:
    The lord of irony,—that master-spell,
    Which stung his foes to wrath, which grew from fear,
    And doomed him to the zealot’s ready hell,
    Which answers to all doubts so eloquently well.
  5. 5.He was a contemporary of Samuel Johnson, after all.
  6. 6."The smoke of incense, the perfume of flowers, and the glare of lamps and tapers, which diffused, at noonday, a gaudy, superfluous, and a sacrilegious light."
  7. 7.Logos and its connection to Arianism.
  8. 8.Isaiah Berlin's "hedgehogs", basically.
  9. 9.There's an argument to be made that low pay for soldiers (combined with a lack of opportunities for plunder once expansion ended) contributed to the shift of army demographics from Italy to the provinces.
  10. 10.I like how Luttwak puts it: "The empire merely enjoyed modest economies-of-scale advantages, which were not large enough to compensate for much administrative inefficiency, internal strife, and bureaucratic venality. And because inefficiency, strife, and venality could not be sufficiently contained, the empire was losing its value to its subjects: it still demanded large tax payments but offered less and less security. In the end, as the empire’s ability to extract taxes persistently exceeded its ability to protect its subjects and their property, the arrival of the barbarians could even become some sort of solution."



Links & What I've Been Reading Q1 2021

Metasciencey Stuff

I tried to report scientific misconduct. How did it go? It's exactly as tragicomic as you expect. Hilariously blatant fraud, recalcitrant journal editors (though some did their job properly), and of course "A month after that, Southwest University cleared Dr. Zhang of all charges."

The clearest consequence of my actions has been that Zhang has gotten better at publishing. Every time I reported an irregularity with his data, his next article would not feature that irregularity.

Elisabeth Bik twitter thread on which journals are worst at responding to image duplication problems. "An old favorite, @Oncotarget. I flagged 161 of their papers (most reported a year ago), but only 2 retractions. They have been sending annoyed responses though, that I should look at other journals, and what my conflicts of interests are."

Gelman on me: My thoughts on “What’s Wrong with Social Science and How to Fix It: Reflections After Reading 2578 Papers”

I think that the vast majority of researchers think that they have strong theories, and they think their theories are “true” (whatever that means). It’s tricky, though: they think their theories are not only true but commonsensical (see item 2 of Rolf Zwaan’s satirical research guidelines), but at the same time they find themselves pleasantly stunned by the specifics of what they find. Yes, they do a lot of conscious p-hacking, but this does not seem like cheating to them. Rather, these researchers have the attitude that research methods and statistics are a bunch of hoops to jump through, some paperwork along the lines of the text formatting you need for a grant submission or the forms you need to submit to the IRB. From these researchers’ standpoint, they already know the truth; they just need to do the experiment to prove it. They’re acting in good faith on their terms but not on our terms.

On the Newton Hypothesis: is science done by a small elite? Plus good HN discussion.

Groundhog is a package that fixes one of the (many) great evils of R: the lack of reproducible scripts. It does so by getting old package versions from the time the script was written.

The influence of hidden researcher decisions in applied microeconomics: investigating the consequences of "researcher degrees of freedom" by doing seven independent replications of two studies. One of them ended up all over the place, the other relatively uniform. "The standard deviation of estimates across replications was 3-4 times the typical reported standard error." Twitter thread.

Ulrich Schimmack argues that psychology has improved in the past decade: Replicability Rankings 2010-2020. "...about 20% of [120 psychology journals] have responded to the crisis of confidence by publishing studies with higher power that are more likely to replicate." Plus some back and forth on the IAT.

Reactivation-Dependent Amnesia for Contextual Fear Memories: Evidence for Publication Bias. Look at these funnel plots:

 

Corona

Exploring the Supply Chain of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines. An exhaustive look into how vaccines are produced, distributed, and used. "I’ll start with the bad news: Nobody will be making an mRNA vaccine in their garage any time soon."

Lemoine contra lockdowns. Argues that estimates of the effect of lockdowns are confounded by changes in behavior due to a rise in cases, and that the small effect of lockdowns does not pass a cost-benefit analysis. The studies are indeed weak but I'm not 100% convinced.

Youyang Gu of covid19-projections.com: One Year Later. "The most frequent question I receive is how I was able to do what I did with no background in infectious disease modeling. [...] You don’t need decades of experience to be able to think critically and adapt to new information."

 

Forecasting & Experts

There's been a lot of interesting writing on credentials, expertise, and social epistemology lately. Here's a couple of good pieces:

Scott Alexander: WebMD, And The Tragedy Of Legible Expertise

When the Director of the CDC asserts an opinion, she has to optimize for two things - being right, and keeping power. If she doesn't optimize for the second, she gets replaced as CDC Director by someone who does. That means she's trying to solve a harder problem than Zvi is, and it makes sense that sometimes, despite having more resources than Zvi, she does worse at it.

Then Zvi's response to Scott: Why I Am Not in Charge.

The idea of Zeroing Out is that you can do better by taking a market price or model output as a baseline, then taking into account a bias or missing consideration. Thus, you can be much worse at creating the right answer from scratch, and yet do better than the consensus answer. [...] The true beauty of Zeroing Out is that I can take all the analysis of the CDC as given, find one place where they are biased or making a mistake or missing a piece of information, and then reliably do better than the CDC by otherwise taking the CDC’s answers.

Being an expert in biology is one thing. Being an expert in leadership or politics, or the politics of biologists, is another.

When the CDC issues its guidelines it seems very clear that those guidelines are designed to let those involved tell stories about being safe and following proper procedure, and they have at best vague bearing on whether things are actually safe. They’re certainly not even attempts to create a correct physical model of anything. They’re giving people a chance to avoid blame and to show adherence to power, while themselves avoiding blame and showing their adherence to power.

Vitalik on betting in the election prediction markets, great stuff as usual. "The amazing promises of what prediction markets could bring if they work mathematically optimally will, of course, continue to collide with the limits of human reality, and hopefully, over time, we will get a much clearer view of exactly where this new social technology can provide the most value."

metaforecast.org allows you to search for forecasts from Metaculus, PolyMarket, and a bunch of other sources through a single convenient interface.

What makes good forecasters good? The Bias, Information, Noise model.

Predictable Financial Crises:

Using historical data on post-war financial crises around the world, we show that crises are substantially predictable. The combination of rapid credit and asset price growth over the prior three years, whether in the nonfinancial business or the household sector, is associated with about a 40% probability of entering a financial crisis within the next three years.

 

AI

An excellent new science fiction short from Sam Hughes: Lena. (Inspired by Age of Em?)

OpenAI's DALL·E creates images from text.

OpenAI: Multimodal Neurons in Artificial Neural Networks. Lots of cool stuff, including the Stroop effect in ML models.

The National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (chaired by Eric Schmidt) has produced its "Final Report". 756 pages long, do read the executive summary and skim though. Strikes me as rather fantastically idealistic.

 

The Rest

A whirlwind tour of Ethereum finance. "Why should I care about this? For one thing, it's the coolest, most cypherpunk thing going." Plus Wrecking sandwich traders for fun and profit: "Being a DeFi degenerate is a lot of fun, but be careful in your trading - because this game is highly adversarial and we play for keeps."

One man's experience with early retirement. Keeping up with the Joneses is an underrated aspect of psychology and economic decision-making. Selection happens on relative fitness—so much of human behavior is downstream from that.

A chart from The Recent Large Reduction in Space Launch Cost. Note the logarithmic y axis. Also check out The New Space Race: What Took So Long, for an explainer of why this wasn't possible a few decades ago.

Tariana is a language spoken by about 100 people in the Amazon rainforest, and it has evidentiality baked into it, with different suffixes depending on whether you saw something, inferred it, or learned it from someone else. Here's a paper that goes into more detail. And it's not the only language with evidentiality features!

Joe Carlsmith on objecting to moral claims because their implications are too demanding. "In general, I think that the abstract arguments for very “demanding” forms of moral behavior are very strong (even for non-consequentialists). But I think that the fuzzier, harder-to-articulate heuristics, evidence, and forms of wisdom encoded in our hesitations about such behavior are important sources of information as well." Plus Alienation and meta-ethics (or: is it possible you should maximize helium?).

Can You Ever Be Too Smart for Your Own Good? Comparing Linear and Nonlinear Effects of Cognitive Ability on Life Outcomes. "We found no support for any downside to higher ability and no evidence for a threshold beyond which greater scores cease to be beneficial. Thus, greater cognitive ability is generally advantageous—and virtually never detrimental."

bmgarfinkel reviews Renaissance polymath Gerolamo Cardano's memoir The Book of My Life (1575). "Cardano kicks off the chapter “Things of Worth Which I Have Achieved in Various Studies” by reminding the reader that “there is practically no new idea which one may bring forward.”"

A mouse embryo has been grown in an artificial womb—humans could be next. "Hanna says to make such experiments more acceptable, human embryos could be altered to limit their potential to develop fully. One possibility would be to install genetic mutations in a calcium channel so as to prevent the heart from ever beating." (What a sentence!)

A Group of Orca Outcasts Is Now Dominating an Entire Sea. "Granny and her kin are considered part of the same species as transient killer whales, Orcinus orca. But residents and transients have lived separate lives for at least a quarter-million years. They generally do their best to avoid each other, and they don’t even speak the same language—the patterns and sounds they use to communicate are completely different. Over time, each type has established cultural traditions that are passed from generation to generation."

On the SawStop and the table saw industry. "The CPSC says table saws result in about $4B in damage annually. The market for table saws is about $200-400M. This is a product that does almost 10x in damage as the market size."

There were a few hundred pieces written about the NYT/Scott thing, most of them incredibly tiresome. @yashkaf produced the best take by just writing about the features of the mainstream narrative and how one ought to interact with it. "There are three main goals of engaging in argument: for truth, for power, for lulz."

Apparently there are bacteria that do photosynthesis from the infrared glow of hydrothermal vents deep in the ocean.

A fan-made visual effects demo for the unfilmed Shane Carruth script A Topiary.

And here is Wall of Voodoo's cover of Ring of Fire.

What I've Been Reading

  • A Masterpiece to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling, AKA The Travels of Ibn Battutah by Ibn Battutah. A few months back I read John Mandeville's fanciful travelogue; this is from the same time (mid 14th century), but completely different: grounded, realistic, and focused on the world of Islam. Ibn Battutah spent nearly 30 years traveling from Morocco to China and then back again, and he left us a wonderful book filled with adventure and ethnographic observations. Full review.
  • The Peregrine by J. A. Baker. 10 years of obsessive peregrine-watching distilled into 200 pure, intense, astonishing pages. An incredibly rich dish that you can only eat so much of before needing to take a break. Reflects and contains nature both in its form and content. I picked it up it because Werner Herzog recommended it and it is indeed very Herzogian. There's no green idealism here: the endless cycle of killing which sustains the peregrine is presented unapologetically. "Beauty is vapour from the pit of death."
  • The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade by Peter Weiss. Based on historical fact: Sade really did direct plays while held at the asylum of Charenton, and they were quite popular. This is one of those plays that's probably better seen than read, as it's filled with song and music and elaborate stage instructions. The movie by Peter Brook is good. In the afterword Weiss claims he's trying to reclaim Marat from the "bourgeois historians" but in those terms it's a complete failure. His Sade on the other hand evokes a delightful Lovecraftian cosmic nihilism. I also enjoyed the double historical irony, as the play is set at the height of Napoleon's reign ("For today we live in far different times / We have no oppressors no violent crimes / and although we're at war anyone can see / it can only end in victory").
  • Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar. Re-read, not quite as good as I remembered it. An experimental novel about a group of bohemians in Paris. The first half is excellent, the gimmick of the "expendable chapters" works well, and some moments are absolute perfection (in one chapter the main character writes a letter between the lines of a book, and we get to read both the letter and the book on alternate lines; then there's that unforgettable scene in the apartment). But the novel kind of disintegrates in the second half, when Oliveira gets back to Argentina.
  • Cognitive Capitalism: Human Capital and the Wellbeing of Nations by Heiner Rindermann. Skimmed. Mostly a retread of his papers. Final chapter with comparisons to Mokyr, Clark, Acemoglu, Diamond, Hanushek, etc. was interesting.
  • The Evolutionary Limits of Liberalism by Filipe Nobre Faria. A rather strange book, in which the focus is arguing against individualism in general and public choice theory in particular, based on their disregard for group selectionism. The idea is that groups of selfish rational agents lose to altruistic groups in the long run. A very abstract call for a morality that is pro-group cohesion, pro-altruism, anti-markets. Slightly longer review.
  • Molloy by Samuel Beckett. Beckett wrote it originally in French, "because in French it’s easier to write without style", then translated it into English. The resulting language fits perfectly into this captivating experimental enigma of a novel. Don't expect much in terms of plot, scenes, dialogue, or most of the usual trappings of the novel. Long stretches don't even bother with paragraphs. Decay, aging, disability, confusion, vagrancy, and all sorts of strange obsessions. Often funny, somehow. A double quest that may or may not be a parallel, a loop, or something completely different.
  • Malone Dies by Samuel Beckett. The second entry in the trilogy. Aging, misery, the process of dying. Molloy was already sparse, but Malone Dies goes even further, doing away with the humor and any semblance of linearity. Abstract and amorphous, like a novel dissolved in hydrochloric acid. Didn't capture me in the same way Molloy did.
  • Use of Weapons and Excession by Iain M. Banks. Both re-reads (first-time listens though). The audiobooks narrated by Peter Kenny are fantastic, he does different voices for every character and his style is perfect for space opera. Use of Weapons has two great characters at its core, but gets lost in a bazillion side-plots and flash-whatevers. Excession remains the best Culture book because of how ship-centric it is. I had completely forgotten the pointless subplot about the ditzy socialite, but luckily it doesn't ruin the rest of the book.
  • Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds. Re-read. The audiobook is nowhere near as good as the Culture ones, but this is top-tier space opera. The adventures of an egomaniacal xenoarchaeologist and the insane posthuman crew of an ancient spaceship, as they get into galactic-scale trouble. Really nails the scale. Not 100% hard SF, but the fantastical elements are not too outlandish. There's a new novel in the Revelation Space series coming out soon.
  • Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke. An incredibly silly relic from the cold war. Silly aliens, silly utopias, and a very silly resolution that literally involves a séance and a ouija board! Very pessimistic about the future of humanity. Tries to go for that epic space-is-giant, humans-are-tiny-and-irrelevant feeling but it really didn't work for me.
  • Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West by Stephen E. Ambrose. Ambrose has come under attack for his rather cavalier attitude toward plagiarism and telling the truth, but he's undeniably a great storyteller. And it's pop history after all, not an academic tome. Despite some distracting jingoism and fanboyism he does a great job of documenting Lewis & Clark's incredible adventure across the Rockies to the Pacific. It's almost unbelievable how peaceful their interactions with the Native Americans were, but you can also see the seeds of future conflict right away. Jefferson plays a big role and he was an incredibly cool figure. Not sure what to make of the pathetic and tragic ending to Lewis's life...



Two Paths to the Future

[[ ]] Level-1 or world space is an anthropomorphically scaled, predominantly vision-configured, massively multi-slotted reality system that is obsolescing very rapidly.

Garbage time is running out.

Can what is playing you make it to level-2?

The history of the world is a history of s-curves stacked on top of each other. Here's one of my favorite charts, showing growth in how much cutting edge could be produced from 1kg of flint during the stone age:1

Note the logarithmic y-axis—the growth is not exponential but hyperbolic! Of course what appears to be a singularity is really the lower half of an s-curve, but that was enough to trigger a paradigm shift to a new, higher curve: bronze. The stone-age singularity was the end of stone. Can what is playing you make it to level-2?

Where are we today? It's hard to say without the benefit of hindsight, but it sure feels like the upper half of an s-curve. Things are decelerating: economic growth is falling, fertility is cratering, and IQ shredders are quickly using up the finite biological substrate necessary to sustain our upward path. The world of 2020 is more or less the same as the world of 1920. We are richer, have better technology, but the fundamentals are quite similar: we're on the same curve. All we're doing is getting more blades from our flint.

The world of 2120 is going to be radically different. In exactly what way I cannot say, any more than a peasant in 1500 could predict the specifics of the industrial revolution. But it almost certainly involves unprecedented levels of growth as the constraints of the old paradigm are dissolved under the new one. One corollary to this view is that our long-term concerns (global warming, dysgenics, aging societies) are only relevant to the extent that they affect the arrival of the next paradigm.

There are two paths to the future: silicon, and DNA. Whichever comes first will determine how things play out. The response to the coronavirus pandemic has shown that current structures are doomed to fail against a serious adversary: if we want to have a chance against silicon, we need better people. That is why I think any AI "control" strategy not predicated on transhumanism is unserious.2

Our neolithic forefathers could not have divined the metallurgical destiny of their descendants, but today, perhaps for the first time in universal history, we can catch a glimpse of the next paradigm before it arrives. If you point your telescope in exactly the right direction and squint really hard, you can just make out the letters: "YOU'RE FUCKED".

Artificial Intelligence

Nothing human makes it out of the near-future.

There are two components to forecasting the emergence of superhuman AI. One is easy to predict: how much computational power we will have.3 The other is very difficult to predict: how much computational power will be required. Good forecasts are either based on past data, or generalization from theories constructed from past data. Because of their novelty, paradigm shifts are difficult to predict. We're in uncharted waters here. But there are two sources of information we can use: biological intelligence (brains, human or otherwise), and progress in the limited forms of artificial intelligence we have created thus far.4

ML progress

GPT-3 forced me to start taking AI concerns seriously. Two features make GPT-3 a scary sign of what's to come: scaling, and meta-learning. Scaling refers to gains in performance from increasing the number of parameters in a model. Here's a chart from the GPT-3 paper:

Meta-learning refers to the ability of a model to learn how to solve novel problems. GPT-3 was trained purely on next-word prediction, but developed a wide array of surprising problem-solving abilities, including translation, programming, arithmetic, literary style transfer, and SAT analogies. Here's another GPT-3 chart:

Put these two together and extrapolate, and it seems like a sufficiently large model trained on a diversity of tasks will eventually be capable of superhuman general reasoning abilities. As gwern puts it:

More concerningly, GPT-3’s scaling curves, unpredicted meta-learning, and success on various anti-AI challenges suggests that in terms of futurology, AI researchers’ forecasts are an emperor sans garments: they have no coherent model of how AI progress happens or why GPT-3 was possible or what specific achievements should cause alarm, where intelligence comes from, and do not learn from any falsified predictions.

GPT-3 is scary because it’s a magnificently obsolete architecture from early 2018 (used mostly for software engineering convenience as the infrastructure has been debugged), which is small & shallow compared to what’s possible, on tiny data (fits on a laptop), sampled in a dumb way⁠, its benchmark performance sabotaged by bad prompts & data encoding problems (especially arithmetic & commonsense reasoning), and yet, the first version already manifests crazy runtime meta-learning—and the scaling curves still are not bending!

Still, extrapolating ML performance is problematic because it's inevitably an extrapolation of performance on a particular set of benchmarks. Lukas Finnveden, for example, argues that a model similar to GPT-3 but 100x larger could reach "optimal" performance on the relevant benchmarks. But would optimal performance correspond to an agentic, superhuman, general intelligence? What we're really interested is surprising performances in hard-to-measure domains, long-term planning, etc. So while these benchmarks might be suggestive (especially compared to human performance on the same benchmark), and may offer some useful clues in terms of scaling performance, I don't think we can rely too much on them—the error bars are wide in both directions.

Brains

The human brain is an existence proof not only for the possibility of general intelligence, but also for the existence of a process—evolution—that can design general intelligences with no knowledge of how minds operate. The brain and its evolution offer some hints about what it takes to build a general intelligence:

  • Number of synapses in the brain.
  • Computational power (~1e15 FLOPS/s).
  • Energy consumption (~20 watts).
  • Required computation for the training of individual brains.
  • Required evolutionary "computation" to generate brains.

The most straight-forward comparison is synapses to parameters. GPT-3 has 1.75e11 parameters compared to ~1e15 synapses in the brain, so it's still 4 orders of magnitude off, and a model parameter is not a perfect analogue to a synapse, so this is more of an extreme lower limit rather than a mean estimate.

The brain also presents some interesting problems when it comes to scaling, as some aspects of human evolution suggest the scaling hypothesis might be wrong. While the human brain got bigger during the last few million years, it's only about 3-4x the size of a chimpanzee brain—compare to the orders of magnitude we're talking about in ML. On the other hand, if we look at individual differences today, brain volume and IQ correlate at ~0.4. Not a very strong correlation, but it does suggest that you can just throw more neurons at a problem and get better results.

How do we reconcile these facts pointing in different directions? Sensorimotor skills are expensive and brain size scales with body mass: whales might have massive brains compared to us, but that doesn't give them anywhere near the same intellectual capabilities. So what appears to be a relatively small increase compared to chimps is actually a large increase in brain volume not dedicated to sensorimotor abilities.

How much power will we have?

Compute use has increased by about 10 orders of magnitude in the last 20 years, and that growth has accelerated lately, currently doubling approximately every 3.5 months. A big lesson from the pandemic is that people are bad at reasoning about exponential curves, so let's put it in a different way: training GPT-3 cost approximately 0.000005%5 of world GDP. Go on, count the zeroes. Count the orders of magnitude. Do the math! There is plenty of room for scaling, if it works.

The main constraint is government willingness to fund AI projects. If they take it seriously, we can probably get 6 orders of magnitude just by spending more money. GPT-3 took 3.14e23 FLOPs to train, so if strong AGI can be had for less than 1e30 FLOPs it might happen soon. Realistically any such project would have to start by building fabs to make the chips needed, so even if we started today we're talking 5+ years at the earliest.

Looking into the near future, I'd predict that by 2040 we could squeeze another 1-2 orders of magnitude out of hardware improvements. Beyond that, growth in available compute would slow down to the level of economic growth plus hardware improvements.

Putting it all together

The best attempt at AGI forecasting I know of is Ajeya Cotra's heroic 4-part 168-page Forecasting TAI with biological anchors. She breaks down the problem into a number of different approaches, then combines the resulting distributions into a single forecast. The resulting distribution is appropriately wide: we're not talking about ±15% but ±15 orders of magnitude.

Her results can be summarized in two charts. First, the distribution of how many FLOPs it will take to train a "transformative" AI:

I highly recommend checking out Cotra's work if you're interested in the details behind each of those forecasts. This distribution is then combined with projections of our computational capacity to generate AI timelines. Cotra's estimate (which I find plausible) is ~30% by 2040, ~50% by 2050, and ~80% by 2100:

Metaculus has a couple of questions on AGI, and the answers are quite similar to Cotra's projections. This question is about "human-machine intelligence parity" as judged by three graduate students; the community gives a 54% chance of it happening by 2040. This one is based on the Turing test, the SAT, and a couple of ML benchmarks, and the median prediction is 2038, with an 83% chance of it coming before 2100. Here's the cumulative probability chart:

Both extremes should be taken into account: we must prepare for the possibility that AI will arrive very soon, while also tending to our long-term problems in case it takes more than a century.

Human Enhancement

All things change in a dynamic environment. Your effort to remain what you are is what limits you.

The second path to the future involves making better humans. Ignoring the AI control question for a moment, better humans would be incredibly valuable to the rest of us purely for the positive externalities of their intelligence: smart people produce benefits for everyone else in the form of greater innovation, faster growth, and better governance. The main constraint to growth is intelligence, and small differences cause large effects: a standard deviation in national averages is the difference between a cutting-edge technological economy and not having reliable water and power. While capitalism has ruthlessly optimized the productivity of everything around us, the single most important input—human labor—has remained stagnant. Unlocking this potential would create unprecedented levels of growth.

Above all, transhumanism might give us a fighting chance against AI. How likely are they to win that fight? I have no idea, but their odds must be better than ours. The pessimistic scenario is that enhanced humans are still limited by numbers and meat, while artificial intelligences are only limited by energy and efficiency, both of which could potentially scale quickly.

The most important thing to understand about the race between DNA and silicon is that there's a long lag to human enhancement. Imagine the best-case scenario in which we start producing enhanced humans today: how long until they start seriously contributing? 20, 25 years? They would not be competing against the AI of today, but against the AI from 20-25 years in the future. Regardless of the method we choose, if superhuman AGI arrives in 2040, it's already too late. If it arrives in 2050, we have a tiny bit of wiggle room.6

Let's take a look at our options.

Normal Breeding with Selection for Intelligence

Way too slow and extraordinarily unpopular.

Gene Editing

With our current technology, editing is not relevant. It's probably fine for very simple edits, but intelligence is a massively polygenic trait and would require far too many changes. However, people are working on multiplex editing, reducing the odds of off-target edits, etc. Perhaps eventually we will even be able to introduce entirely new sequences with large effects, bypassing the polygenicity problem. More realistically, in a couple of decades editing might be a viable option, and it does have the benefit of letting people have their own kids in a relatively normal way (except better).

Cyborgs

Seems unlikely to work. Even if we solve the interface problem it's unclear how a computer without superhuman general reasoning capabilities could enhance the important parts of human thought to superhuman levels. If, instead of relying on the independent capabilities of an external computer, a hypothetical brain-computer interface could act as a brain "expander" adding more synapses, that might work, but it seems extremely futuristic even compared to the other ideas in this post. Keep in mind even our largest (slowest, most expensive) neural networks are still tiny compared to brains.

Iterated Embryo Selection

The basic idea is to do IVF, sequence the embryos, select the best one, and then instead of implanting the embryo, you use its DNA for another round of IVF. Iteration adds enormous value compared to simply picking the best embryos: Shulman and Bostrom estimate that single-stage selection of 1 in 1000 embryos would add 24.3 IQ points on average. On the other hand, 10 generations of 1-in-10 selection would add ~130 points. On top of the IQ gains we could also optimize other traits (health, longevity, altruism) at the same time. This is the method with the highest potential gains, as the only limit would be physiological or computational. And IES wouldn't be starting at 100: if we use Nobel laureates, we've already got ~3 SDs in the bag.

How far can IES go? There are vast amounts of variation for selection to work on, and therefore vast room for improvement over the status quo. Selection for weight in broiler chickens has resulted in rapid gain of 10+ standard deviations, and I believe we can expect similar results for selection on intelligence. Chicken size is probably not a perfect parallel to intelligence, and I'm sure that eventually we will start hitting some limits as additivity starts to fail or physical limitations impose themselves. But I don't think there are any good reasons to think that these limits are close to the current distribution of human intelligence.

However, there are some problems:

  • IVF is expensive and has a low success rate.
  • Gametogenesis from stem cells isn't there yet (but people are working on it).
  • Sequencing every embryo still costs ~$500 and our PGSs7 aren't great yet.
  • The process might still take several months per generation.

None of these are insoluble. Sequencing costs are dropping rapidly, and even with today's prices the costs aren't that bad: gwern estimates $9k per IQ point. He says it's expensive, but it would be very easily worth it from a societal perspective. The biggest downside is the time it would take: say 5 years to make IES tech viable, another 5 years for 10 rounds of selection,8 and we're at 2050 before they're grown up. Still, it's definitely worth pursuing, at the very least as a backup strategy. After all there's still a good chance we won't reach superhuman AGI by 2050.

How likely is any of this to happen? Metaculus is very pessimistic even on simple IVF selection for IQ, let alone IES, with the median prediction for the first 100 IQ-selected babies being the year 2036. Here's the cumulative probability chart:

That seems late to me. Perhaps I'm underestimating the taboo against selecting on IQ, but even then there's a whole world out there, many different cultures with fewer qualms. Then again, not even China used human challenge trials against covid.

Cloning

I believe the best choice is cloning. More specifically, cloning John von Neumann one million times.9 No need for editing because all the good genes are already there; no need for long generation times because again, the genes are already there, just waiting, chomping at the bit, desperately yearning to be instantiated into a person and conquer the next frontiers of science. You could do a bunch of other people too, diversity of talents and interests and so on, but really let's just start with a bunch of JvNs.10

Why JvN? Lots of Nobel laureates in physics were awed by his intelligence (Hans Bethe said his brain indicated "a species superior to that of man"). He was creative, flexible, and interested in a fairly wide array of fields (including computing and artificial intelligence).11 He was stable and socially competent. And he had the kind of cosmic ambition that we seem to be lacking these days: "All processes that are stable we shall predict. All processes that are unstable we shall control." As for downsides: he died young of cancer,12 he was not particularly photogenic, and he loved to eat and thought exercise was "nonsense".

There are commercial dog- and horse-cloning operations today. We've even cloned primates. The costs, frankly, are completely trivial. A cloned horse costs $85k! Undoubtedly the first JvN would cost much more than that, but since we're making a million of them we can expect economies of scale. I bet we could do it for $200 billion, or less than half what the US has spent on the F35 thus far. Compared to the predicted cost of training superhuman AGI, the cost of one million JvNs is at the extreme lower end of the AI forecasts, about 5 orders of magnitude above GPT-3.

Let's try to quantify the present value of a JvN, starting with a rough and extremely conservative estimate: say von Neumann had an IQ of 18013 and we clone a million of them. Due to regression to the mean, the average clone will be less intelligent than the original; assuming heritability of .85, we'd expect an average IQ of 168. This would increase average US IQ by 0.21 points. Going by Jones & Schneider's estimate of a 6% increase in GDP per point in national IQ, we might expect about 1.26% higher output. If the effect was immediate, that would be about $270 billion per year, but we should probably expect a few decades before it took effect. Even this extremely modest estimate puts the value of a JvN at about $270k per year. Assuming the JvNs become productive after 20 years, affect GDP for 50 years, 2% GDP growth, and a 3% discount rate, the present value of a JvN is around $8.4 million. The cost:benefit ratio is off the charts.14

However, I think this is a significant under-estimate. Intuitively, we would expect that governance and innovation are more heavily influenced by the cognitive elite rather than the mean. And there is decent empirical evidence to support this view, generally showing that the elite is more important. As Kodila-Tedika, Rindermann & Christainsen put it, "cognitive capitalism is built upon intellectual classes." One problem with these studies is that they only look at the 95th percentile of the IQ distribution, but what we really care about here is the 99.9th percentile. And there are no countries with a million 170+ IQ people, so the best we can do is extrapolate from slight deviations from the normal distribution.

Another piece of evidence worth looking at is Robertson et al.'s data on outcomes among the top 1% within the US. They took boys with IQs above the 99th percentile and split them into four groups (99.00-99.25th percentile, etc.), then looked at the outcomes of each group:

Simply going from an IQ of ~135 (99th percentile) to ~142+ (99.75th percentile) has enormous effects in terms of income, innovation, and science. Extrapolate that to 168. Times a million. However, the only variable here that's directly quantifiable in dollar terms is >95th percentile income and what we're really interested in are the externalities. Undoubtedly the innovation that goes into those patents, and the discoveries that go into those publications create societal value. But putting that value into numbers is difficult. If I had to make a wild guess, I'd multiply our naïve $8.4 million estimate by 5, for a present value of $42 million per JvN.

That is all assuming a permanent increase in the level of output. A more realistic estimate would include faster growth. Beyond the faster growth due to their discoveries and innovations, the JvNs would also 1) help make genetic enhancement universal (even light forms like single-stage embryo selection would increase world GDP by several multiples) and, most importantly, 2) accelerate progress toward superhuman AI, and (hopefully) tame it. To take a wild guess at how much closer the JvNs would bring us to AGI: they would give us an order of magnitude more in spending, an order of magnitude faster hardware, and an order of magnitude better training algorithms, for a total increase in effective computational resources of 1000x. Here's how Cotra's average AI timeline would be accelerated, assuming the JvNs deploy that extra power between 2045 and 2055:

US GDP growth has averaged about 2.9% in the 21st century; suppose the JvNs triple the growth rate for the rest of the century:15 it would result in a cumulative increase in output with a present value of approximately $9 quadrillion, or $9 billion per JvN.16

At a time when we're spending trillions on projects with comically negative NPV, this is probably the best investment a government could possibly make. It's also an investment that will almost certainly never come from the private sector because the benefits are impossible to capture for a private entity.

Would there be declining marginal value to JvNs? It seems likely, as there's only so much low-hanging fruit they could pick before the remaining problems became too difficult for them. And a JvN intellectual monoculture might miss things that a more varied scientific ecosystem would catch. That would be an argument for intellectual diversity in our cloning efforts. Assuming interests are highly heritable we should probably also re-create leading biologists, chemists, engineers, entrepreneurs, and so on.17 On the other hand there might be o-ring style network effects which push in the opposite direction. There's also a large literature on how industrial clusters boost productivity and create economies of scale; perhaps there are such clusters in scientific output as well.

As for the problems with this idea: human cloning has about the same approval rating that Trump has among Democrats.18 We can expect the typical trouble with implanting embryos. We would need either artificial wombs or enough women willing to take on the burden. And worst of all, unlike IES, cloning has a hard upside limit.

A Kind of Solution

I visualise a time when we will be to robots what dogs are to humans, and I’m rooting for the machines.

Let's revisit the AI timelines and compare them to transhumanist timelines.

  • If strong AGI can be had for less than 1e30 FLOPs, it's almost certainly happening before 2040—the race is already over.
  • If strong AGI requires more than 1e40 FLOPs, people alive today probably won't live to see it, and there's ample time for preparation and human enhancement.
  • If it falls within that 1e30-1e40 range (and our forecasts, crude as they are, indicate that's probable) then the race is on.

Even if you think there's only a small probability of this being right, it's worth preparing for. Even if AGI is a fantasy, transhumanism is easily worth it purely on its own merits. And if it helps us avoid extinction at the hand of the machines, all the better!

So how is it actually going to play out? Expecting septuagenarian politicians to anticipate wild technological changes and do something incredibly expensive and unpopular today for a hypothetical benefit that may or may not materialize decades down the line—is simply not realistic. Right now from a government perspective these questions might as well not exist; politicians live in the current paradigm and expect it to continue indefinitely. On the other hand, the Manhattan Project shows us that immediate existential threats have the power to get things moving very quickly. In 1939, Fermi estimated a 10% probability that a nuclear bomb could be built; 6 years later it was being dropped on Japan.

My guess is that some event makes AI/transhumanism (geo)politically salient, which will trigger a race between the US and China, causing an enormous influx of money.19 Perhaps something like the Einstein–Szilárd letter, perhaps some rogue scientist doing something crazy. Unlike the Manhattan Project, in today's interconnected world I doubt it could happen in secret: people would quickly notice if all the top geneticists and/or ML researchers suddenly went dark. From a geopolitical perspective, He Jiankui's 3 year jail sentence might be thought of as similar to Khrushchev removing the missiles from Cuba: Xi sending a message of de-escalation to make sure things don't get out of hand. Why does he want to de-escalate? Because China would get crushed if it came to a race between them and the US today. But in a decade or two? Who knows what BGI will be capable of by then. It's probably in the West's interests to make it happen ASAP.

This all has an uncomfortable air of "waiting for the barbarians", doesn't it? There's a handful of people involved in immanentizing the eschaton while the rest of us are mere spectators. Are we supposed to twiddle our thumbs while they get on with it? Do we just keep making our little flint blades? And what if the barbarians never arrive? Maybe we ought to pretend they're not coming, and just go on with our lives.20

The race to the future is not some hypothetical science fiction thing that your grand-grand-grandkids might have to worry about. It's on, right now, and we're getting creamed. In an interview about in vitro gametogenesis, Mitinori Saitou said “Technology is always technology. How you use it? I think society probably decides.” Technology is always technology, but the choice is illusory. What happened to stone age groups that did not follow the latest innovations in knapping? What happened to groups that did not embrace bronze? The only choice we have is: up, or out. And that is no choice at all.


  1. 1.Meyer & Vallée, The Dynamics of Long-Term Growth.
  2. 2.I also suspect that enslaving God is a bad idea even if it works.
  3. 3.It comes down to hardware improvements and economic resources, two variables that are highly predictable (at least over the near future).
  4. 4."But Alvaro, I don't believe we will build AGI at all!" I can barely tell apart parodies from "serious" anti-AI arguments any more. There's nothing magical about either meat or evolution; we will replicate their work. If you can find any doubters out there who correctly predicted GPT-3's scaling and meta-learning performance, and still doubt, then I'd be interested in what they have to say.
  5. 5.How much could we spend? 0.5% per year for a decade seems very reasonable. Apollo cost about ~0.25% of US GDP per year and that had much more limited benefits.
  6. 6.This is all predicated on the supposition that enhanced humans would side with humanity against the machines—if they don't then we're definitely no more than a biological bootloader.
  7. 7.Polygenic score, a measure of the aggregate effect of relevant genetic variants in a given genome on some phenotypic trait.
  8. 8.Alternatively we could start implanting from every generation on a rolling basis.
  9. 9.If you can do it once there's no reason not to do it at scale.
  10. 10.And maybe a few hundred Lee Kuan Yews for various government posts.
  11. 11.He may even have been the first to introduce the idea of the technological singularity? Ulam on a conversation with JvN: "One conversation centered on the ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue."
  12. 12.Might not be genetic though: "The cancer was possibly caused by his radiation exposure during his time in Los Alamos National Laboratory."
  13. 13.That's about 1 in 20 million.
  14. 14.Should we expect a million von Neumanns to affect the level or growth rate of GDP? Probably both, but I'm trying to keep it as simple and conservative as possible for now.
  15. 15.A metaculus question on the economic effects of human-level AI predicts a 77% chance of >30% GDP growth at least once in the 15 years after the AI is introduced.
  16. 16.Of course this ignores all the benefits that do not appear in GDP calculations. Technology, health, lack of crime, and so on. Just imagine how much better wikipedia will be!
  17. 17.No bioethicists though.
  18. 18.How much of this is driven by people averse to rich people selfishly cloning themselves? Perhaps the prosocial and rather abstract idea of cloning a million von Neumanns would fare better. One clone is a tragedy; a million clones is a statistic.
  19. 19.Europe is (of course) not even a player in this game. I wouldn't trust Mutti Merkel and her merry band of eurocrats to boil a pot of water let alone operate a transhumanist program.
  20. 20.In Disco Elysium the world is quickly being destroyed by a supernatural substance known as the "pale": they don't know how much time they have left, but it's on the order of a few decades. Everyone goes on with their petty squabbles regardless. The more I think about it, it seems like less of a fantasy and more of a mirror. How long until the last generation?



Princeton Cemetery

Three men jump over the fence of Princeton Cemetery under the cover of a moonless night. They know where they're going and quickly reach their target. After a few minutes of methodical digging they hit the bones. It's the head they really want, but they take a few more just to be sure. As the van drives off, a thermite charge annihilates everything left behind. An hour later they reach the coast and take a dinghy out to meet the submarine that is going to take them back to Shanghai.

Within a week, geneticists have extracted the DNA and started implanting embryos in artificial wombs. Production quickly ramps up, and plans are made for additional cohorts. Two years later, doubts begin to emerge when the babies still have trouble walking. By the age of 3 there's no question: the children look like him but they're developmentally unremarkable.

Meanwhile, deep beneath the Nevada desert, an immense chamber fills with young boys as morning class is about to begin. Thousands of 5-year-old von Neumanns sit down at their desks and open their calculus textbooks.