There is, perhaps, very little point in reviewing this book. Where would I even start? Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, written between 1776–89, is a monumental work of literature. Distilled: it is a monstrous explanation of the reasons Gibbon believed the Roman Empire fell from the giddy heights of the Republic, notably the period of the Caesars, to just after Constantinople being taken by the Ottoman Empire. Whether or not much of this period, pretty much from the 1st to the 16th Century, was entirely spent in decline, or simply how reliable and judgemental many of the accounts are, remains to be debated by proper scholars. So, instead of struggling to review this monster – which, even abridged, approaches 800 pages – here are 5 very casual observations:
Here be stories. In fact, some of the most stimulating and phenomenal stories a writer could possibly hope to exploit. From the towering and brutal Emperor Maximinus and his march on Rome, to the spread of Christianity and its possible role in the downfall of the Empire, to the sheer brutality of Atilla the Hun and his sharp shock to civilisation. Simply breathtaking exploits – and all of them real(ish). I don’t know why more fantasy writers don’t read history books.
Christianity again – fascinating to see its spread in the context of, and with an equal treatment to, the Roman pagan religions, Jupiter, Bacchus, and so on. I can only imagine how provocative this book was at the time of publication, to treat Christianity as any other religion and not something special, but without being disrespectful. This was all the more poignant for me, as I was casually watching the Christmas services on TV: to think that, with history going a different way, I could have been viewing blood sacrifices instead. Or even just observing the rituals of Christianity for what they were: rituals. This is a useless explanation for what I’m trying to say, but Gibbon’s treatment certainly left a lasting impression.
Belisarius. Why, why is there not more about this general in popular culture? And by more, I mean huge amounts of fiction, art, film, music, books, whatever. That entire age of Emperor Justinian, his wife Theodora, and his remarkable general, Belisarius who, after much of the Western Empire was lost over the decades, rolled his sleeves up and marched back to reclaim half of it. Gibbon paints a remarkable portrait of him, and I’ll certainly be reading more of this period. (Procopius’ Secret History; even the fiction of Robert Graves’ Count Belisarius.)
Power dynamics. There’s something awfully comforting reading about the ebb and flow of territories and empires. Nationalism seems pretty silly, ultimately. The power dynamics of various religions was impressive, too, as Gibbon writes about their origins and spread, and their ultimate importance as different rulers absorbed them into their own national fabric.
Civilisation is nothing new. While Britons were still scratching around in the dirt with their arses painted blue, Roman society had done things that would take us another thousand years to get close to (and even most of that was copied). Much of the contents of Gibbon’s book dealt with events that occurred well over a thousand years old. He depicted a society that, even in its decline, was far more advanced than we could imagine, and from them we’ve inherited nearly everything: from city plans to stadium design to political set-up. Yes, times were different. Yes, the concept of what was civilised is probably different. Yes, people were treated fairly brutally; not to mention appalling women’s rights – though we’ve taken thousands of years just to get to our own barely adequate state of equality. But the presence of such culture, and in such staggering quantities, is (and forgive the cliché) rather humbling, to say the least. We can understand this on a cerebral level, but it’s truly felt here.
So there we go. I’ve not done the book any justice whatsoever. The events, people, places all kind of wash over you. It’s a beautiful reading experience. It’s also a slow reading experience, because what Gibbon talks about requires attention. (Also, I wanted to keep googling what he was talking about, which led to twenty minute interludes while you looked up the various emperors or tribes.)
A thought–some entertaining soul needs to make a “Decline and Fall” app that combines the text of the book with reference materials, maps and other contexts to extend, explain and put the work in context.
That would be incredible. I’d certainly buy that. One thing I was thinking about, as I read this, is how useful a sort of online version would be so you could easily search it and navigate through it.
The rock-hard certainty of the reasonable person makes the conviction of
the fanatic look like a bubble’s wall; what makes Edward Gibbon at once
so fascinating, and so difficult, to read in the late Twentieth Century
is the fact that he provides a text which is entirely closed, though
hardly airless. Any subtext is there because he carpentered it in, and
most ambiguities are only apparent. He is rarely read in full, not
because of his length, but because of a tough- mindedness that is all
the more chilling for being clothed in urbane wit; we are no longer
comfortable with a dead white male so entirely sure of himself.
Gibbon takes it for granted that to think reasonably is to think
morally, that outcomes will be commensurate to the actions that bring
them about, if full attention is paid. This is a Newtonian, or more
precisely a Laplacian, view of history; a general sacks a city and the
consequences for a thousand years can be traced without a doubt. We can
gloat, if we choose, over fantasies of introducing Edward Gibbon to a
post-modern universe of quantum physics and non-directive
epistemologies, but only if we are prepared to make part of that fantasy
the job of convincing him that we are right and he is wrong.
His belief in narrative history as a scientific pursuit makes it further
possible for him to assume that the history of dynasties and wars leads
inevitably to a quantifiable ethical history. To think reasonably is to
think morally, and the reason why people in the past behaved so badly
is because they were not as well-versed as our fortunate selves. Gibbon
stalks the corridors of history slapping wrists and giving gold stars,
nor is it especially easy, from our standpoint of virtuously maintained
uncertainty to dispute the authority by which he does it; Gibbon’s is
not one of those moral poses at which it is easy to blow raspberries.
That authority largely comes from his passionate desire to derive both
lessons and consolations from history; he is a freeborn Englishman and,
secure in that fact, wishes to ensure everyone else has the liberties
and the duties of a citizen. The lessons he teaches are about civic
responsibility first and foremost – Christians and barbarians broke the
empire because they were not good citizens, putting their souls or
ambitions ahead of public concerns. His impatience with a range of
offenders from Tertullian to Heliogabalus rests in their failure to fill
their historical roles with a commitment to high seriousness; he is as
hard on the bitchily condemnatory theologian as he is on the effete
debauchee – no more and no less.
Mohammed, meanwhile, is something of a different matter, and one of the
few points at which Gibbon is genuinely ambivalent. His Mohammed is at
times almost the first Protestant, impatient with Christian theologies
that confused rhetoric with logic and disturbed the public peace with
mass murder over abstrusely worded doctrinal points; having one god
without further refinements of multiple persons emanating or proceeding
from each other at least stops people arguing. Inasmuch as Mohammed’s
work eventually knocked the awful Byzantines on the head, Gibbon has a
soft spot for him, but no gentleman would go around being a prophet.
There is an interestingly fair-minded attempt to account psychologically for
the phenomenon of divine inspiration; Gibbon is inclined to acquit of
fraud and allow the founders of religions to plea-bargain wishful-thinking
with good intentions in mitigation. Here, as elsewhere, Gibbon pays
to the state religion the public allegiance the early Christians refused;
early critics were as certain as we are, though less pleased, that this
allegiance is largely token. His evasions are not frivolous, though,
because what he wishes to avoid is not merely personal consequences
but the disruption of the public peace.
It is possible, reading Gibbon, as most of us do, for the jokes to miss
the fact that his irony and sarcasm is admonitory rather than frivolous;
the mighty dead are brought in front of the class and made to look very
small – how better to instruct the rest of us? This particularly
applies to the Fathers of the Church, the Patriarchs and the Popes who
wander around the narrative conspicuously failing to set a good example;
Gibbon knows that making us laugh at hypocrites is a good way to keep
David Womersley’s new edition provides a sensible, if limited,
introduction, a clean text and an elegant binding. It was not perhaps
sensible of him to assume what Gibbon could, that citations and
footnotes in Latin and Greek are accessible to most of his likely
readers. It might also have been sensible to subject Gibbon to a little
bit of historiographical cross- questioning. Byzantinists dislike Gibbon
merely because he spends so much time pointing out that their chosen
subjects spent too much of their time blinding each other, and rioting
over horse races and Creeds, but there are serious objections to his
failure to, for example, understand fully the economic consequences of
Why are we reading Gibbon two hundred years later? The combination of
jokes and high moral purpose is part of the explanation, but few
historians survive so many shifts of intellectual paradigm. This is the
greatest of narrative histories in English simply because he manages to
combine so many things into a single huge story and vast cast – Nero and
Zenobia and Justinian and Theodora and Odin and Saladin and Genghis
Khan, together as never before.
The stately march of balanced sentences one expects from a gentleman amateur
of his time; the moralizing rebukes are softened by an elegiac cadence
or pushed to a climax that can only leave silence behind it. What is
less predictable was that he should have spoken so often to our local
taste as well – the first chapter of Book Five in which half an aeon
of Byzantine dynastic skulduggery is fast-forwarded in a sordid montage
of parricides and lynchings combines his usual sententiousness with
an amoral glee we know only too well. Gibbon would not have liked to
think so, but at such times he is, alas, our contemporary.
Thanks for sharing those epic views (I read them very carefully). I’m not sure I’m qualified to give any improved commentary, or even spar on the subject.
I rarely felt that Gibbon was as assured or admonishing, or quite as judgemental as many might say – though that could have been disguised heavily by his prose/wit as you say. His moralising, I felt, was gentler, and more detached than many might suggest; though I have nothing to compare it to from that period. Is this any worse than many narrative historians today, whose biases might not be explicit, but who have piggy backed on centuries of improvement in the art? I’m not so sure. I’ve read other criticisms of Gibbon’s book, but many of them seem reduced to the more superficial notions of whether or not an Empire can decline for centuries etc. Re: Byzantium – yes, I believe John Julius Norwich also shares those views, and I look forward to reading his histories of Byzantium. Unfortunately with the abridged version, it isn’t always clear just how much fast-forwarding there was.
I’ve read a Short History of Byzantium. Instead of fast forwarding, Norwich simply doesn’t go into as much of the massive detail he does in the three volume set.
If you want something less weighty on Byzantium, Lost to the West is also good.
I’ve got the individual volumes (well, the first one at least). Hopefully I’ll get onto it soon.
Lost to the West looks interesting too! One for the wish list… Thanks for the tip.
This is a bit of a cheat actually because it is a piece I published back in the bicentennial year. I’ve been thinking about the whole thing a lot though because of reading Nick Whyte’s liveblog and because Gibbon crops up as a minor character in the second volume of my novel. JJ Norwich is very good on Byzantium as is Runciman in his book on the Crusades and elsewhere.
Just found White’s blog – very interesting reading.