Scaling Gibbon’s Everest

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Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (published in six volumes between 1776 and 1788) must rank among the best known of unread or partly read books. At over 3,000 pages it is written in the sometimes convoluted style of the eighteenth century and lingers over details which mean little now to most readers, not least disputes over the nature of the Holy Trinity. Yet this Everest of a book asks to be scaled and in the end retirement offered me leisure and the necessary oxygen to make the attempt.

Four months of page-turning were amply rewarded, thanks to Gibbon’s native wit and irony which make light work of his evidently serious theme. The opening paragraph itself entices the reader in with the author’s trademark tone of amused scepticism at the foibles of human nature. At its height during the second century AD , he writes, the Empire ‘comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind’ where the ‘peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury’ – a typical pairing (‘enjoyed and abused’) of contrasting terms which tell you that this author commands judgement but also detachment. Only three pages in, British readers find their own land on stage. Gibbon notes that the latest imperial acquisition was the province of Britain ‘after a war of about forty years, undertaken by the most stupid [Claudius], maintained by the most dissolute [Nero], and terminated by the most timid of all the emperors [Domitian]’. The Roman conquest was made easier, notes Gibbon in a remark which may apply beyond the period in question, by the behaviour of the various British tribes who ‘possessed valour without conduct, and the love of freedom without the spirit of union’. Our mountain guide, though taking us over challenging ground, does so with a sense of humour.

Gibbon’s vast narrative has been justly described as the bridge between the ancient

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Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (published in six volumes between 1776 and 1788) must rank among the best known of unread or partly read books. At over 3,000 pages it is written in the sometimes convoluted style of the eighteenth century and lingers over details which mean little now to most readers, not least disputes over the nature of the Holy Trinity. Yet this Everest of a book asks to be scaled and in the end retirement offered me leisure and the necessary oxygen to make the attempt.

Four months of page-turning were amply rewarded, thanks to Gibbon’s native wit and irony which make light work of his evidently serious theme. The opening paragraph itself entices the reader in with the author’s trademark tone of amused scepticism at the foibles of human nature. At its height during the second century AD , he writes, the Empire ‘comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind’ where the ‘peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury’ – a typical pairing (‘enjoyed and abused’) of contrasting terms which tell you that this author commands judgement but also detachment. Only three pages in, British readers find their own land on stage. Gibbon notes that the latest imperial acquisition was the province of Britain ‘after a war of about forty years, undertaken by the most stupid [Claudius], maintained by the most dissolute [Nero], and terminated by the most timid of all the emperors [Domitian]’. The Roman conquest was made easier, notes Gibbon in a remark which may apply beyond the period in question, by the behaviour of the various British tribes who ‘possessed valour without conduct, and the love of freedom without the spirit of union’. Our mountain guide, though taking us over challenging ground, does so with a sense of humour.

Gibbon’s vast narrative has been justly described as the bridge between the ancient and modern worlds. It tells the story of the Roman Empire from the zenith of its power in the second century AD, a moment of relative peace scarcely to be repeated, to the fall in 1453 of Constantinople, the city to which the seat of Empire had migrated a thousand years before.

Another way of describing the book is to say that it charts the emergence of the nations of Europe out of the debris of the Roman Empire. Along the way we witness relentless waves of ‘barbarian’ invasions, the growing political and religious split between the Eastern and Western empires, the titanic struggle of the Christianized Empire with Islam from the seventh century onwards, taking us through the crusades to the Muslim capture of Constantinople, and repeated but vain attempts along the way to restore the Empire’s former glories. But this is no mere narrative. Gibbon is always the analyst or ‘philosophic historian’ as well as the storyteller. The reflective, ironic strain in his history, rather than its sheer length and scope, is what makes it so compelling and important.

The question which has attracted most attention ever since the work was first published is the role that Gibbon ascribes to the rise of Christianity in the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Many early readers deplored Gibbon’s religious scepticism, manifest in his frequent use of the word ‘superstition’ to describe religious belief of all stripes. The reaction to his history in some quarters was such that, following publication of the first volume, Gibbon wrote an eighty-page vindication of his characterization of Christianity. He was not, he said, anti-Christian, only against the abuse of Christianity.

Actually, though Gibbon undoubtedly voiced the characteristic religious scepticism of the Enlightenment, it is misleading to focus excessively on this theme in the Decline and Fall. ‘The introduction, or at least the abuse, of Christianity, had some influence on the decline and fall of the Roman Empire’, he wrote, largely because in the spread of Christianity ‘the active virtues of society were discouraged’. In effect the Romans’ capacity to fight their enemies declined while religious zeal fomented internal disorder.

Beyond the influence of Christianity, the decline of Rome, Gibbon said, was ‘the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness’. As the appetite for expansion exceeded its reach, the Empire struggled to control its territories. Along with this went a chronic inability to establish a stable form of imperial succession. Although at various times and in various forms heredity and election were tried, no mechanism achieved legitimacy. A few emperors lived to a ripe old age and died in their beds but an alarming number were usurped, exiled, murdered or otherwise disposed of. Becoming emperor was a high-risk venture. Instability at the top was mirrored in the wider society where civil conflict was endemic. In short, the Empire was constantly wracked by internal strife as well as external attacks.

In developing these themes what impresses in Gibbon’s writing is the sheer scope of his historical imagination which ranges not only over great swathes of time but also space. It is not too much to say that in taking on the history of the Roman Empire Gibbon was taking on world history (of the then known world). Not that at any stage, even at its height, the Empire controlled everything, but even at its weakest it was a factor in the doings of other major powers. Long after it had ceased to be the dominant force, the idea of the Roman Empire retained its potency, to such an extent that hundreds of years after the capital of the Empire moved east to Constantinople the emperors and their entourage, who were mainly Greeks, persisted in describing themselves as ‘Romans’.

The same aspiration to the prestige of Rome was visible in the many challengers to the Empire. With one hand they sought to destroy the Empire and with the other to emulate it. In many cases, especially up to the sack of Rome in AD 476 which ended the Western empire, Rome was able to face down its enemies through sheer military strength by means of its notorious phalanx. In other cases Rome co-opted challengers, using the armies of former enemies as mercenaries to defeat new enemies, and it also sought to neutralize challengers by buying them off. Each of these strategies had weaknesses. Outright defeat of an enemy, unless it destroyed a whole people, stoked resentments which led inevitably to renewed challenges. Co-opting foreign armies compromised or diluted the Romanness of the Empire, while buying off enemies could only be a temporary solution so long as the challengers retained the capacity to mount new attacks. Who were these challengers?

Among the earliest were various branches of Goths, who were nomadic Germanic peoples from eastern Europe, Vandals from the same region, and Huns who originated in central Asia and spread westwards from the fourth century onwards. The names of these barbarian hordes have become bywords for the destruction of civilization, yet once their nomadic existence came to an end they became a part of the fabric of the emerging civilization of Europe.

The Franks were likewise a Germanic people whose name first appears in the third century AD , occupying the area now formed by France and Germany, and who were an early thorn in the side of the Roman province of Gaul. Further afield the Romans were engaged in war with the Persians as early as the third century AD while the fearsome Scythians, distinguished as masters in the use of the horse in warfare, were renowned from ancient times ‘for their invincible courage and rapid conquests’; they preyed on Roman territories in the east while the western provinces were under attack by Goths and Huns.

Following the launch of Islam in the seventh century and its rapid spread in North Africa, the Middle East and Asia, the Empire was more or less continuously embroiled in conflict with the ‘Saracens’, as Christians in the Middle Ages described the peoples who had adopted Islam. In the eleventh century the Normans, transplanted Norse men who lived in northern France, established a kingdom in Sicily at Rome’s expense which endured in various guises till the early nineteenth century. The extraordinarily swift and destructive invasions of the Mongols from central Asia in the thirteenth century left the Roman Empire and many other powers reeling. ‘Since the invasion of the Arabs in the eighth century,’ Gibbon wrote, ‘Europe had never been exposed to a similar calamity.’ The above list offers a mere smattering of the blows received by the Roman Empire. If the story of Rome proves anything, it is that ceaseless change, often accompanied by unbridled violence, is the norm in human history.

In certain respects Edward Gibbon was an unlikely individual to embark on such a cosmopolitan undertaking. He was born in 1737 into a quintessentially English family of the middling sort. He could trace his family back to the reign of Elizabeth I when, as one biographer notes, the Gibbons were already ‘prosperous Kentish yeomen’. The family had become rich through investment in the South Sea Company and were fortunate to lose very little when the bubble burst in the early eighteenth century. Gibbon’s father was a poor manager of money but enough was left to provide Edward with an income for life. A voracious reader from a young age, Edward was nevertheless an undistinguished pupil at Westminster school. At 16 he was sent to Oxford where during his first year, to his father’s horror, he converted to Catholicism.

In short order Edward was packed off to Lausanne, a move which was the making of him as a historian. There he lodged with a strict Calvinist charged with the task of educating Gibbon out of Catholicism, but he also schooled his pupil in classical and modern authors. Gibbon emerged after five years of disciplined learning with the ambition to pursue a literary career. He also acquired sufficient fluency in French to enable him to write his first book in that language. Indeed his Swiss education was such a success, he noted, that ‘I had ceased to be an Englishman.’ Balance was restored on his return home when, during the emergency of the Seven Years’ War, he spent two years in the Hampshire militia, learned the rudiments of the military life and became an Englishman again. The experience, he noted, ‘was not useless to the historian of the Roman Empire’.

This was a retrospective judgement. As yet there was no thought of such a project. It was on a visit to Rome in 1764, while contemplating the ruins of the Capitol, that the idea came to him of writing about the decline and fall of the city. He was peculiarly well equipped by temperament and education to undertake the project. He talked of the ‘inexhaustible pleasures of study’ and in the twelve years it took to produce the first volume he developed formidable know-ledge of the sources which carried him through what turned out to be nearly twenty-five years of labour. Not least of Gibbon’s claims to eminence was that he was a pioneer in the critical approach to historical sources.

Industriousness is expected of a historian, a quality which Gibbon possessed perhaps to a fault. At times the detail becomes excessive and interest flags, but there is a dynamism and a sparkle in his writing which reward the attentive reader. He possessed a capacious imagination which makes remote events, places and people live on the page. His portraits of the emperors Constantine and Justinian, the prophet Mohammed, Genghis Khan and countless others display a graphic awareness of different minds and cultures. In this respect Gibbon was a true child of the Enlightenment, at once English and cosmopolitan, urbanely self-confident and endlessly curious about the world, an apostle of reason and a careful and witty analyst of unreason. Gibbon’s mountain is undoubtedly worth climbing for the view to be gained from the top.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 68 © Richard Crockatt 2020


About the contributor

Richard Crockett was Professor of American History at the University of East Anglia. He lives in north Norfolk where he sails and writes.

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