Decline and Fall: history’s big bang

Richard Bosworth lauds a study of a complex and enduringly valuable work of scholarship

October 2, 2014

Some old men cling to their teddy bears. I, by contrast, hold sacred my 1910 Everyman edition of Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. My life companion gave it to me as a 21st birthday present in Sydney in 1964. It is the only book that I read and reread and read again. In my own prose, when at my most intrepid, I make feeble attempts to mimic the great 18th-century English writer. Gibbon is my comfort in times of trouble or nullity. In my mind, the energy of meanings and ambiguities sparked by his (un)balanced antitheses exceeds that unleashed by our generation’s physicists in the Large Hadron Collider.

Such a background may make me a frivolous reviewer. Charlotte Roberts’ Oxford University Press study is the product of a University of Cambridge PhD and a subsequent junior research fellowship. Its author uses words such as “coterminosity” and “polysyndeton” with aplomb. In its academic austerity, Roberts’ work is unlikely to compete with the latest celebrity memoir on those “tables” and “toilettes” that Gibbon contended that he reached. Yet Edward Gibbon and the Shape of History is a book well worth reading, no doubt by experts in Enlightenment phrasing and philosophy, but also by those less deeply inserted in the field.

In her exploration of Gibbon’s recurrent “intertextuality”, his musing on the meaning, purpose and ambivalence of history and of historians as they reported it, Roberts opens with a rebuttal of early and continuing attempts to turn Gibbon into a monument. Her Gibbon, she states by contrast, is “at once the master of the Decline and Fall’s grand design and the victim of its tensions, vagaries and contradictions”.

She follows with a wide-ranging and tightly argued first chapter that examines the historian’s construction of “identity and personhood”, warning again against simplicity. Gibbon’s key individuals, she maintains, are more likely to be “internally divided” than easy moral types. Her analysis then moves into chapters successively reviewing the first, second and third instalments of his book (volume 1; volumes 2 and 3; and then volumes 4, 5 and 6 – all published between 1776 and 1788) and finally the six extant versions of his memoirs, which were destined to be posthumously clarified or reduced and published by his patron, Lord Sheffield, in 1796.

In this process, Roberts skilfully explores Gibbon’s changing understanding of himself, his present and the past that he studied and made. Initially, Gibbon, as a man of his time, may have viewed himself as “a single, embattled historian”, armed with “ironic certainty”. But, Roberts contends, by the time he began to appraise Constantine and Julian the Apostate, he was breaking free from any philosophical theory of simple causes and underlining “the uncertainty and particularity of the past”.

Equally, Gibbon was palpably enjoying “the transgressive potential of figurative language in his own history” and hoping that not all his readers would be seduced into “an affable, but deceptive, compliance with his judgements”. The Decline and Fall, Roberts concludes challengingly, “is fashioned by a constant competition between the positions of the philosophe and the érudit, by the pressures and expectations of both innovative and traditional historiography, and most of all by Gibbon’s constant awareness of his own changing and inconsistent outlook”. Hadronic intellectual energy, power and contradiction, indeed.

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