He Promised Only To Betray

I’ve been reading “The Decline And Fall of the Roman Empire” by Edward Gibbon, which ironically was published in 1776 … it’s one of those books that’s highly regarded not just bc of the treatment of the subject matter, but also bc it’s written in a really articulate/eloquent (and occasionally snide/sarcastic) way that you usually don’t find in history books, and also has profound insights that apply to more than just that era.

Anyway, there’s lots of parallels all through history of course, with what’s happening now … this passage from that book is about the emperor Septimius Severus, who took over with mass adulation in about 200 A.D. … mostly by pandering to the mobs and lying through his teeth about everything, and getting away with it … it’s a little dense if not used to the language but it says a lot about how these things happen:

“Falsehood and insincerity, unsuitable as they seem to the dignity of public transactions, offend us with a less degrading idea of meanness than when they are found in the intercourse of private life. In the latter, they discover a want of courage; in the other, only a defect of power; and, as it is impossible for the most able statesmen to subdue millions of followers and enemies by their own personal strength, the world, under the name of policy, seems to have granted them a very liberal indulgence of craft and dissimulation. Yet the arts of Severus cannot be justified by the most ample privileges of state-reason. He promised only to betray, he flattered only to ruin; and however he might occasionally bind himself by oaths and treaties, his conscience, obsequious to his interest, always released him from the inconvenient obligation.”

i.e. We tend to let our public officials get away with insincerity and falsehoods much more than we’d tolerate the same things from someone we’re personally dealing with … possibly because we perceive that it’s unlikely that a statesman can govern just based on their own personal strength, and so we accept that there’s gonna be some craft and pretense involved. But even by those standards, this dude (Severus) was especially phony & disingenuous, & “promised only to betray, flattered only to ruin,” and no matter what he might pledge or swear the one day, could always justify going back on his word the next.

But the crowds loved him cause he indulged and entertained them … he (and his offspring) brought the place to ruin, after which the next 250 years or so were a continuous shitstorm of disasters, culminating in the fall of the (Western) Roman Empire in 476 A.D. … nice going Severus!!

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