Mankind is Governed by Names

I have continued my reading of Gibbon, with his discussion of the Roman Constitution and the decline of the republic. The true and lasting origins of imperial power, we are told, lay not in the spectacular and short-lived dictatorship of Julius Caesar but in the carefully fabricated monarchical edifice of Caesar Augustus.

His tender respect for a free constitution which he had destroyed can only be explained by an attentive consideration of the character of that subtle tyrant. A cool head, an unfeeling heart, and a cowardly disposition, prompted him at the age of nineteen to assume the mask of hypocrisy, which he never afterwards lay aside.

Gibbon notes that during the bloody purge which followed Caesar’s assassination, Octavian (later Augustus) pardoned enemies who were friends of his allies while condemning friends, as demanded by political expediency. This included the beheading of the senator and philosopher, Marcus Tullius Cicero, who was Octavian’s former mentor. In time, Octavian even turned on his brilliant but erratic ally, Marc Antony (see related comments). Gibbon says of the future emperor:

His virtues, and even his vices, were artificial; and according to the various dictates of his interest, he was at first the enemy, and at last the father, of the Roman world. When he framed the artful system of the Imperial authority, his moderation was inspired by his fears. He wished to deceive the people by an image of civil liberty, and the armies by an image of civil government.

Such are the ambivalent origins of empire at the hands of a man who was a supreme opportunist yet prudent enough to understand the need for stability after decades of civil war. The irony is that the Romans had a hereditary detestation of “kingship” following the overthrow of the legendary Tarquins by republican rule; therefore, absolute power had to be cloaked by the respectable endorsement of a puppet Senate.

The title of king had armed the Romans against his life. Augustus was sensible that mankind is governed by names; nor was he deceived in his expectation that the senate and people would submit to slavery, provided they were respectfully assured that they still enjoyed their ancient freedom.

It is a perceptive and ironic insight typical of Gibbon. The tendency of people to be “governed by names,” though seemingly Orwellian, is as old as humanity itself. Over time some disparity between the grandeur of traditional appellations and the changing exigencies of life is inescapable. That said, there can never be a complete disconnect between the name and the reality of a thing, especially if labels (e.g. “democracy” or “tolerance”) are used in ways that undermine their stated intention while conferring false authority on those who exploit them in the interests of wealth and power. Such a facade cannot be maintained indefinitely, as the Romans themselves eventually discovered.

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