(This review is of the Penguin Classics abridged edition, edited and abridged by David Womersley, Professor of English Literature of the University of Oxford)
I love history. All of knowledge resolves to history. There is no way to understand any endeavor, any field of inquiry, without understanding how it developed, from whence it came. Political and economic history (perhaps the same thing) of various cultures and peoples has always been one of my favorites. And the history of the Roman Empire, living as I do in an empire that can trace its lineage in a very nearly straight line back to Rome, is especially interesting, and is immediately relevant for understanding things today. Iran’s saber rattling on the vanguards of the American empire today recalls the constant conflict between Persia and Rome a millennia before. America’s increasingly imperial presidency awaits a modern-day Caesar with his legions poised on the banks of the Rubicon to march on Washington and sweep away what remains of the power of the politically-inept Congress. Roman history is important and relevant to human affairs today. Every citizen of the American Empire, and anyone else directly or indirectly affected by it, which is to say, most of the rest of the world, should know and understand the examples set by the Roman Empire in solving the challenges of empire. Technological advancements may alter the method through which human and organizational impulses operating through empire are achieved. They don’t alter the impulses.
But The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire proved a huge disappointment. After reading it, and this may be the result of reading only an abridged version, I felt I knew Roman history no better than before I began. The book seems to be nothing more than an endless stream of anecdotes, void of any narrative that might conjoin apparently disparate events by tying together causes and effects. It has no real narrative or theme at all, except perhaps that the Roman Empire was worthy of study because it ultimately spawned, and perhaps presaged the fate of, the British Empire, of which Gibbon became a prominent subject, after the publication of his first volume of the Fall.
History is replete with ironies, and it is no small irony that Gibbon published the first volume at the same time the colonists in America were declaring their independence from the British Empire. Gibbon never really mentions it, but it was unthinkable during the era of Roman ascendancy (or for that matter, the Greek era before it) that a colony established by Rome would seek its independence from Rome. Before the decline, the provinces clamored to be included in the Empire, not to be set free. Maybe Gibbon understood that the colonists’ Declaration of Independence meant the British Empire had reached the limits of its growth and would soon begin its inexorable decline, and didn’t remark on the reality because touching on the subject would be intensely painful to his readers. Or, maybe he just didn’t get the analogy between the eras of imperial development. It would, however, seem profitable for him to have pondered what happens along the stages of imperial development that causes imperial provinces to disdain admission, and even seek independence. For some reason, America decided it would serve her interests best to be independent of Britain. I imagine the reason, whatever it is, holds a tight analogy with why the Western Roman Empire fragmented into oblivion by the end of the 6th century ad.
Gibbons writing style is to me, simply atrocious, recalling the old saw that the United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language, except of course, in this instance it is the print version of the language. Here’s an example in which Gibbon is writing on churches and palaces, specifically on the extant descriptions of the dome of St. Sophia, built during the reign of Justinian:
So minute a description of an edifice which time has respected, may attest the truth, and excuse the relation, of the innumerable works, both in the capital and provinces, which Justinian constructed on a smaller scale and less durable foundations.
What exactly is Gibbon trying to say? That because the dome of St. Sophia was so intricately described by historians of the age that the legend of Justinian’s smaller works is also believable? Is this the best route to such a proclamation?
Gibbon writes in a style that is simply not easily read by the modern reader (perhaps not by the reader of his age, either). More often than not, his subordinate clauses precede his main point, and there may be several subordinate clauses before the point is rendered. Unless the point is already known, it makes the reading quite slow and cumbersome, as the descriptions and qualifiers are likely ignored as incomprehensible, or forgotten as irrelevant, by the time the point of the passage is made, which then requires a rereading of the whole sentence. And Gibbon’s sentences rival Faulkner’s for length, punctuation and wordiness. He never uses a two-cent word when a ten-dollar word might be employed, while commas, colons and semi-colons seem to have been supplied to him free of charge, as liberal is his use of them.
Though accused of atheism and worse during his lifetime, Gibbon actually is quite moralistic in his tone. He sees civilization as good, indicative of man’s capacity for progress, and portrays the baser, more animalistic elements and motivations of the men and societies whose hearts he explores as evil. His only saving grace is that he refuses to attribute the former to God or the latter to demons or devils. In his stream of disjointed, opinionated anecdotes, which are only rarely and never quite clearly woven into a coherent narrative, he offers copious moralizations on the character of the actors and society he discusses, writing from the perspective of high-brow English imperialist that simply assumes everyone must agree that the natural and highest state of human affairs thus far attainable has been achieved and is exemplified by European, and particularly British, society and the peoples within it. An example of his moralizing attitude and perspective on the reasons for Rome’s fall:
Should these speculations be found doubtful or fallacious, there remains a more humble source of comfort and hope. The discoveries of ancient and modern navigators, and the domestic history, or tradition, of the most enlightened nations, represent the human savage, naked in both mind and body, and destitute of laws, of arts, or ideas, and almost of language. From this abject condition, perhaps the primitive and universal state of man, he has gradually arisen to command the animals, to fertilize the earth, to traverse the ocean, and to measure the heavens. His progress in the improvement and exercise of his mental and corporeal faculties has been irregular and various…Yet the experience of four thousand years should enlarge our hopes, and diminish our apprehensions: we cannot determine to what height the human species may aspire in their advances towards perfection, but it may be safely presumed, that no people, unless the face of nature is changed, will relapse into their original barbarism.
There is quite a bit to take umbrage with this passage, but effectively it boils down to this: History, properly understood, does not admit of a perspective of hope or despair as to the progress of mankind. It does not cast moral acclaim or aspersions on any particular means by which mankind has organized his affairs. It sees things as they are, not what sappy optimists might wish them to be. It seems that Gibbon is here attempting to assuage the fears of his contemporaries that what happened to the Roman Empire might also happen to theirs. This may be the proper perspective for a polemic advancing the cause of society and progress. It is not the perspective of a dispassionate, objective view of human history that simply wants to understand what happened and, so far as is possible to ascertain, why.
Gibbon has been accused of racism, and Euro-centrism, and rightfully so it seems. He traffics in stereotypes, whether discussing Oriental Byzantium or an Arab Muslim, etc., and seems quite comfortable with generalizations about character, attributes and general level of civilization and progress, as implicitly measured against the gold European standard. His generalizations are founded, at least in one instance, on incorrect facts. His observation, when estimating the population of the Roman Empire at roughly one hundred and twenty million persons at its height as a “…a degree of population which possibly exceeds that of modern Europe, and forms the most numerous society that has ever been united under the same system of government…” is patently wrong. The Chinese Empire, coalescing and taking shape at about the same time as ancient Rome’s, was populated by roughly 400 million souls at the time of Gibbon’s writing (during the Qing Dynasty), and likely had well over Gibbon’s estimate of Rome’s population throughout its history. But Gibbon’s is the perspective of an eighteenth century Englishman, marveling at its imperial and material progress, willfully ignorant of cultures unrelated to the destiny his empire was manifestly ordained to achieve. Ancient Indian empires likely had as great a population as Europe’s at the time of Gibbon’s writing, but the British had yet to fully and officially colonize and subjugate India (the British East India Company was already privately engaged in exploiting the sub-continent for profit) by then, so was also summarily ignored. While the Greeks, Hebrews, Indians and Chinese were busily teasing out new philosophical traditions discerning the nature of man and the universe, the ancient inhabitants of the British Isles and Western Europe were barbarically slaughtering themselves in roaming tribal bands that had not yet made the transition from nomadic wandering to sedentary agriculture, and were almost “destitute of language” yet for Gibbon, Europe is the more advanced civilization, and the one worthy of emulation. It is redundant to point out that discerning the proper focus of cultural and social emulation should hardly be the province of the dispassionate historian.
I decided upon Gibbon’s book as something of a late spring/early summer reading project. It proved quite a labor, as I slogged through anecdote after anecdote, some of which were arranged in a discernible chronological order, quite a few appearing wholly without context. It seemed all of my adult life I had heard of Gibbon’s “masterpiece” and wanted to know and understand what all the fuss over it was. I think, having admittedly only read an abridged version (but all the chapters were presented whole, with no editing), that The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is a book that everyone agrees is a masterpiece because no one has taken the time to read it. It sits in the library of every British cum American imperialist, collecting dust, as a necessary accoutrement of a good Anglo imperialist. I learned next to nothing insightful about Rome, her history, or the causes of her fall, and I believe it is because Gibbon didn’t care to understand much of anything he researched and wrote about. He wrote in order to secure his fame in English and European society, and to indelibly stamp the history of the ancient world with the ideas of the Enlightenment. Gibbon was no historian, except his work reveals a bit of the history and perspectives of his age. One can draw a straight line from Gibbon’s attitude of conceit and Euro-centrism in the Fall to the national conceit and hubris that overtook all of Europe by the next century in the race for empire in which all nations engaged. Gibbon’s Enlightenment-addled view of Roman history, accepted as it was by the European intelligentsia of the time, presaged the ultimate expression of mankind’s “progress”, the wholesale slaughter of millions on the European continent during the first half of the twentieth century.
Incidentally, at the same time I embarked on Gibbon’s “masterpiece” I began reading St. Augustine’s twenty-two volume tome, City of God, (indeed, I can be an intellectual masochist at times) which is an elaborate and spirited defense of Christianity against charges that it caused Rome’s downfall. Though originally written in about 400 A.D., and in Latin, the prose is remarkably readable—much more so than Gibbon’s work done only 250 years ago, which was written in English. More remarkable still is that the first several books of Augustine’s magnum opus offers a better history of Rome’s fall than the whole of what I read of Gibbon. Perhaps Enlightenment optimism is a dimmer prism through which to view history than is Christianity. Or perhaps, Augustine really was a genius for the ages, while Gibbon would have been long ago forgotten had the empire for which he wrote not survived more or less intact to the present day, if now led by a successor state to its originator.
My advice? If you fancy yourself a good American imperial capitalist and a rightful heir to America’s British heritage, buy yourself the hard-bound, three-volume set of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and place it prominently on your bookshelf, instructing the help to dust as necessary to keep up the subterfuge that it doesn’t just sit there. If anyone sees it and remarks on how great a book it is, heartily agree with their assessment, telling them you also loved it. Don’t worry, they won’t have read it either.