It’s the time of year for predictions and, better yet, reviews of predictions past. The fun, of course, is in the schadenfreude, enjoying the embarrassment of pompous pundits preferably not of one’s political persuasion.
By chance this week, I found a prediction by an historian admired by almost all who’ve read him and millions who cite him: Edward Gibbon. His must rank among the all-time worst in the pre-eminent historian category.
In the first volume of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776), Gibbon suggests,
Under the reign of these monsters [Augustus through Domitian] the slavery of the Romans was accompanied with two peculiar circumstances…, which rendered their condition more completely wretched than that of the victims in any other age or country [:] …2. the impossibility of escaping from the oppressor [because of Rome’s conquest of the civilized world]. [Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776), David Womersley, ed. (London: Penguin Books, 1994), vol. I, chap. 3, p. 104.]
He then explains why Europeans of his day were so much better off, as subjects, than the Romans.
The division of Europe into a number of independent states, connected, however, with each other, by the general resemblance of religion, langauge, and manners, is productive of the most beneficial consequences to the liberty of mankind. A modern tyrant, who should find no resistance in his own breast, or in his people, would soon experience a gentle restraint from the example of his equals, the dread of present censure, the advice of his allies, and the apprehension of his enemies. The object of his displeasure, escaping from the narrow limits of his dominions, would easily obtain in a happier climate, a secure refuge, a new fortune adequate to his merit, the freedom of complaint, and perhaps the means of revenge. [Id., pp. 106-07.]
Thirteen years later came the French Revolution and its succession of unmoderated tyrants, capped by Napoleon. No need to wait for Mussolini, Stalin, Hitler or Franco.