Our sarcastic scholar

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
June 30, 1995

Why does Edward Gibbon after 200 years remain, probably the most admired and certainly the most often-cited, historian writing in the English language? For many years his Decline and Fall was twinned with Macaulay's History of England as compulsory reading for those taking prelims in the the Oxford modern history school; but Gibbon has survived the demise of a canon of "great historians" in a way that Macaulay has not. Among academics he is less revered than F.R. Maitland; but Maitland's dry brilliance and technical virtuosity were never calculated to appeal to more than a tiny arcane minority. People do not read Township and Borough on trains, whereas - at least until a few years ago - you could pick up an Everyman Decline and Fall on any station bookstall. No historian nowadays has a mass popular readership in the way that was common in the Victorian era or the earlier part of the 20th century; but nevertheless, Gibbon remains part of the mental furniture of any reasonably literate person. Indeed, his reputation has been given a series of powerful shots in the arm by the rise of literary theory, the fashion for Europeanism, and the revival of academic interest in the history of civic humanist thought.

All this doubtless pleases Gibbon, languishing in that circle of the afterlife reserved for virtuous non-believers, very much indeed. But the reasons for Gibbon's continuing salience and popularity deserve further thought, and may tell us as much about our own culture as about Gibbon himself. Why does Gibbon continually surprise us by seeming so inexorably modern, whereas Macaulay, once the self-appointed prophet of modernity, sounds like a voice from beyond a very deep grave? The answer cannot lie in the quality of his scholarship (which was often faulty) nor in the authority of his historical judgement (which was often grotesquely biassed). It lies rather in Gibbon's style of writing, in the high drama and human interest of his subject matter, and in the fact that so many of the philosophic dilemmas which confront and engage him seem eerily familiar in the present day.

Much has been written about Gibbon's style, a theme that is explored at length in David Womersley's introduction to this new edition of the Decline and Fall (an edition that aims to give us a definitive reading of the multifarious drafts of Gibbon's text). Womersley argues that for Gibbon composition not merely embellished, but was an essential part of, the process of historical understanding. Gibbon's narrative therefore works upon us, not merely as an academic argument but as a form of art: an art which enables him to sustain over more than 3,000 pages an extraordinary combination of striking images and unforgettable character vignettes, in conjunction with grand philosophic, historical and sociological speculation. In Gibbon there is none of that dense, learned and impenetrable prose that characterises the grand masters of the social sciences. Instead we find the great cataclysms and subterranean forces of history delicately juxtaposed with, and illustrated by, the painful and ironic fates of individual human beings. Thus the emperor Diocletian, conqueror of the world, throws it all up to retire to his Dalmatian villa and grow cabbages. Athanasius, architect of the universal catholic faith, hides from his persecutors for six years - in the bed of a beautiful young virgin. Zenobia, queen of Palmyra, rides defeated in Aurelian's triumph, with a slave to support the golden chain round her neck, "almost fainting" under the intolerable weight of her jewels. Palmyra itself, once the cultural and commercial capital of the eastern world, gradually dwindles into "an obscure town, a trifling fortress", until by Gibbon's own day it is nothing more than a heap of ruins and miserable squatters' huts.

Another feature of Gibbon's style is his famous sarcasm. Appalling events are digested, disinfected and kept at a distance by studied understatement bordering on black humour. When the widow and daughter of Diocletian are hacked to death by the tyrant Licinius and their bodies thrown into the sea, "it remains a matter of surprise that he was not contented with some more secret and decent method of revenge". A shady, book-collecting, Egyptian bacon contractor imposes a poll-tax on the citizens of Alexandria, is lynched and stoned to death by the mob, and accidentally transformed into "Saint George of England, the patron of arms, of chivalry, and of the garter". A "surprising instance" is recorded of the Roman general Proculus, who ravaged 100 virgins in 15 days, ten of them in one night.

The same technique is employed against what Gibbon views as the gross superstitions of the early church and the obfuscations of patristic theology: "The great Athanasius himself has candidly confessed, that whenever he forced his understanding to meditate on the divinity of the Logos, his toilsome and unavailing efforts recoiled on themselves; that the more he thought, the less he comprehended; and the more he wrote, the less capable he was of expressing his thoughts . . .". St Martin of Tours, famous in Christian hagiography for giving his cloak to a beggar, is portrayed as a holy lunatic who rampaged over the empire smashing pagan temples and altars: he "once mistook (as Don Quixote might have done) a harmless funeral for an idolatrous procession, and imprudently committed a miracle". Donatists, Gnostics, Ebionites, Nestorians, Monophysites and Monothelites are all targets for Gibbon's wit (only Pagans and Arians are given some credit as the intellectual godfathers of 18th-century Deism).

It is not hard to see why such shafts and sardonic utterances are far more attuned to the scepticism and disenchantment of a late-20th century readership than the more cheerful and heroic style of Lord Macaulay. And, similarly, Gibbon's 3,000-page narrative of corruption and butchery, interspersed with occasional pockets of peace and stability, looks far more like the world as we know it than the constitutionalist triumphalism of the 19th-century Whig historians. There is much more to Gibbon, however, than mere malice and anecdote, entertaining and at times repellent as these may be. As Womersley's introduction makes clear, Gibbon shared the ambition of the philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment, not merely to narrate history but to make it intelligible. Throughout his life's work, his overarching aim was to discover the "secret causes" of Rome's decline and fall, and to deduce from those secret causes certain lessons and principles about the processes of history in general. Hence his interest, not merely in the high politics of great events, but in the conditioning influence of such factors as climate, demography, bureaucratic structures, size of political units, and mental and material culture.

The decline of Rome, he concluded, was in some sense an inevitable consequence of Rome's gigantic success: the very fact of Roman universal hegemony - brought about by Roman military valour, technical skill, and arts of government - generated the love of ease, privacy, and cosmopolitanism that led to disintegration and collapse. The very wealth of Rome meant loss of ancient republican virtue, as the rich retired to "their baths, their theatres, and their villas", while the plebs were tranquillised with free food, pantomines, sexual licence, and living off the social welfare payments of their wives and children. Ancient Roman patriotic identity was continually subverted by waves of incoming slaves and immigrants, each bringing with them the characteristic defects of their race - intemperate Gauls, cunning Greeks, savage and obstinate Egyptians and Jews, dissolute and effeminate Syrians and servile Asiatics.

Unemployed bands of "Gothic youth" disturbed the peace of cities and rampaged over many parts of Europe. The stern public piety of Roman religion gave way before the pacifism, privatism and other-worldliness of early Christianity. The result was not merely the capture of the city of Rome by successive northern invaders, but the eclipse of civilisation itself by long centuries of what Gibbon portrayed as stagnation, barbarism, superstition and moral decay.

Could such a collapse happen again, is the question that must pass through the reader's head sooner or later at some stage in the 3,000 pages. Gibbon himself thought not. In the original version of his "General Observations on the Fall of the Roman Empire in the West" (appended to book three in 1781) he obliquely compared some of the more effete Roman emperors to the reigning house of Bourbon. But this reference was removed after 1789; and in fact the underlying thrust of the "General Observations" was one of modest optimism about the future - as though human society during the course of Gibbon's own lifetime had turned a corner into a new kind of history. From the vantage point of the late 18th century, it appeared that the "benefits of law and policy, of trade and manufactures, of arts and sciences" were now so well-established as to be well-nigh irreversible. European civilisation was immensely strengthened by the fact that it was now spread across more than a dozen nation states, so that if any one of them collapsed the others would preserve "the system of arts, and laws, and manners, which so advantageously distinguish, above the rest of mankind, the Europeans and their colonies". Migratory movements had largely ceased, and advances in military technology meant that Europe was secure from "any future irruption of Barbarians; since, before they can conquer they must cease to be barbarous". Governments and rulers were in any case not that important; they might come and go, but the bedrock of human society, in the form of "each village, each family, each individual" pursuing the daily humdrum tasks of morality, economy and culture, would continue to flourish. Moreover, if per impossibile Europe should fall, "ten thousand vessels would transport . . . the remains of civilised society; and Europe would survive and flourish in the American world, which is already filled with her colonies, and institutions".

All this led Gibbon to infer that, although the history of the Roman empire was full of contemporary moral lessons - about good government, civic virtue, tolerance, and rationality - the experience of a wholesale collapse of civilisation could never be repeated. Decline and Fall thus signals a major turning point in the world-view of western intellectuals, from the "decadent" or "cyclical" interpretation of history that had characterised the previous two millennia, to the "upward linear progress" view that we tend to associate with the Victorians, and that has indeed been characteristic of much of our own century. From the vantage point of the 1990s, however, Gibbon's "General Observations" look increasingly precarious, and we are perhaps more likely to be struck by the relative pessimism and caution of his preceding narrative. Even in Gibbon's own terms, some of his caveats may now seem somewhat disturbing. Unlike Gibbon, we can no longer assume that mass global migration is a thing of the past, we can no longer assume that advanced weaponry could never fall into the hands of aggressive barbarians, we can no longer assume that there is a virtuous bolt-hole in North America, and we can no longer assume that Europe itself is by definition free from its own internal forms of barbarism. And, perhaps most depressingly, we can no longer assume that - no matter what happens to "civilisation" - the humdrum round of propagation and cultivation, human and productive relationships, "village, family and individual", will continue much as before. On the contrary, global "civilisation" now penetrates via mass media and market economy into the very roots of everyday life, in a manner inconceivable in ancient times or even in the relatively fast-moving society of Gibbon's 18th century.

All this makes Gibbon not irrelevant and out-of-date but peculiarly pertinent and disturbing. At the heart of his enterprise lies a thorny question that concerns us all; namely, how can the civic and personal virtues fostered by small, simple, kinship-based communities rooted in common historic experience be transported into large, complex, pluralistic, cosmopolitan ones? This is a question that no political philosopher has yet succeeded in answering, and, as Womersley's introduction shows, the multifarious routes by which Gibbon approaches the problem are of absorbing interest. This new edition will be invaluable for those interested not merely in reading Gibbon, but in mapping his place in European intellectual history. My one regret is that the volumes are so large and heavy. For Decline and Fall remains above all an enthralling read, far more exciting than most of the blockbusters for sale on paperback bookstalls. But for long-distance reading on train or plane the old pocket Everyman edition (first published in 1910) will remain indispensable.

Jose Harris is reader in modern history, University of Oxford.

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Volumes One, Two and Three

Author - Edward Gibbon
Editor - David Womersley
ISBN - 0 713 99124 0
Publisher - Allen Lane
Price - £75.00 boxed set
Pages - 1,114; 1,009; 1,352

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