Edward Gibbon. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Everyman’s Library. ca. 3590 pp. (Vol. VI: 650 pp.)
Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is a work that most people have heard of but which few have read. The former is due to the excellence of this literary achievement, known for the quality and irony of its prose and its rigorous use of primary sources; the later is due largely to the fact that Gibbon takes six volumes to cover the thirteen centuries of history from the Age of the Antonines to the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453. While I cannot do justice to Gibbon’s 3000+ page magnum opus in this review, I do hope to avoid doing it a great injustice. Note that while this review applies to the totality of the work, I will confine the specifics to the sixth volume as it is freshest in my mind and most thoroughly described in my notes.
Firstly, Gibbon was an excellent historian; he was very rigorous about resorting to the primary sources in Latin and Greek whenever possible. The many footnotes often contain information on both these sources and his secondary sources along with quotations therefrom. And though you can’t get the full effect of the notes unless you read Latin, Greek, and French, they are well worth perusing for Gibbon’s own comments, such as this epigram: “the true praise of kings is after their death, and from the mouth of their enemies” (120). In another note he takes to task the Hal Lindseys of his day: “The more pious antiquaries labour to reconcile the promises and threats of the author of the Revelations with the present state of the seven cities. Perhaps it would be more prudent to confine his predictions to the characters and events of his own times” (332). The editor of the Everyman edition also sometimes add clarifications of his own, especially in those few places where Gibbon’s own judgments were not born out by subsequent scholarship.
In addition to his writing ability and researching skill, Edward Gibbon brings his great wit and point of view to bear on his subject, remarking that history “is, indeed, little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.” After thirteen centuries and six volumes, the reader is inclined to agree. I never fail to be amazed how, time after time, in just a paragraph—or sometimes a mere fragment of a sentence—Gibbon announces that 130,000 people were killed by Arabs (16), or that 300,000 crusaders died before they even captured a single city (57), or that 70,000 Moslems were killed in Jerusalem (95)—all of which occur in just the first hundred pages of this one volume. Later (page 364) we learn that Tamerlane constructed a pyramid of 90,000 severed heads in Baghdad, just three pages after he had 4000 Armenians buried alive. Such statements do not, of course, include all of the literally countless deaths from all of the wars and massacres, only those for which the author could come by reliable figures; for instance, the victim’s of the Tartar’s rampage, whose severed right ears filled nine sacks, cannot be accurately enumerated since the size of the sacks was not specified. The reader may be relieved to still be capable of shock if he or she pauses, on page 374, as the deaths of one million Chinese people are announced. “So familiar, and as it were so natural to man, is the practice of violence, that our indulgence allows the slightest provocation, the most disputable right, as a sufficient ground of national hostility.” Gibbon is right: “the paths of blood … such is the history of nations.”
The specific murders and mutilations of individuals or small groups, usually at the direction of some emperor or other, are equally horrifying: despite involving smaller numbers they can be imagined with greater ease. For instance, 70 rebels were boiled alive by Genghis Khan, who had a harem of 500 wives and concubines (n.b. only half of Solomon’s total of 700 wives and 300 concubines). Elsewhere, a young Greek concubine is mutilated by having her lips and nose cut off. The Decline and Fall is so filled with murders, massacres, and mutilations that one almost laughs when given the opportunity to have the tension broken at the ridiculous contrivance of the Emperor Theodore, who sacrificed “the lives and fortunes, the eyes and limbs, of his kinsmen and nobles” to his own passions:
A matron … had provoked his anger by refusing to bestow her beauteous daughter on the vile plebeian who was recommended by his caprice. Without regard to her birth, or age, her body, as high as the neck, was enclosed in a sack with several cats, who were pricked with pins to irritate their fury against their unfortunate fellow captive. (248)
The matron’s ultimate fate is not recorded by Gibbon. One hopes that she survived the ordeal.
Speaking of eyes, I was surprised at the great frequency with which men who had claims to the throne lose their eyesight (and/or ability to reproduce) at the hands of rivals, who are frequently their brothers or other relatives. Blinding, of course, makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the claimant to oversee (no pun intended) and administer the government, effectively removing him from contention for the throne. In this concluding volume Gibbon finally gives some information on how the operation was usually conducted by referring to “the brutal violence of tearing out the eyes,” though it was also sometimes down by destroying the optic nerve with a red-hot implement. In a footnote, Gibbon dryly lists some of the more violent methods of blinding devised by “ingenious tyrants” through the ages: “scooping, burning with an iron or hot vinegar, and binding the head with a strong cord until the eyes burst forth from their sockets.” Absolutely barbaric to us, but not to so many of the potentates who furnish Gibbon with his material, since “in the balance of ambition, the innocence or life of an individual is of small account.”
Despite the vast amounts of immorality that it records, the Decline and Fall is a profoundly moral work, deeply concerned with right and wrong, and the reader with an ear for irony can perceive Gibbon’s scathing condemnation of barbarity on most of the pages where such crimes and follies are recorded. His harshest criticism is reserved for organized religion in general and those claiming to be followers of Christ in particular. For instance, of the crusaders, who killed so many, he says “they neglected to live, but they were prepared to die, in the service of Christ.” When they capture Jerusalem and massacre those 70,000 Moslems Gibbon calls it a “bloody sacrifice [that] was offered by his mistaken votaries to the God of the Christians.” Elsewhere:
such was the pious tendency of the crusades, that they [one group of Crusaders] employed the holy week in pillaging the country for their subsistence, and in framing engines for the destruction of their fellow-Christians. (212)
Note that Gibbon is most certainly not saying that Christians who pillage and kill are being truly pious—just as he wasn’t calling those tyrants geniuses for coming up with new ways of blinding people—or that those are things prescribed by Christianity; he is being ironic, and one gets the distinct impression that Gibbon, who was irreligious, was a great admirer of the Nazarene but bitterly disappointed with his followers, a sentiment indicated where he writes that “the God of the Christians is not a local deity, and … the recovery of Bethlehem or Calvary, his cradle or his tomb, will not atone for the violation of the moral precepts of the Gospel” (47) or that “the spirit of persecution is unworthy of a Christian.” (459)
Some of what came from his pen seems like it could have come from Christopher Hitchen’s keyboard. Consider Gibbon’s comments on the Popes, who came
from the mode of education and life the most adverse to reason, humanity, and freedom. In the trammels of servile faith, he has learned to believe because it is absurd, to revere all that is contemptible, and to despise whatever might deserve the esteem of a rational being; to punish error as a crime, to reward mortification and celibacy as the first of virtues; to place the saints of the calendar above the heroes of Rome and the sages of Athens; and to consider the missal, or the crucifix, as more useful instruments than the plough or the loom. (614)
Or elsewhere, where he mocks the mystical experiences of the monks at Mt. Athos: “the production of a distempered fancy, the creature of an empty stomach and an empty brain.” (299) But such ridicule is not reserved for the Christian tradition alone; the whirling dervishes in Islam who “turn round in endless rotation” are called “fanatics [who] mistake the giddiness of the head for the illumination of the spirit.” (451)
Like many of today’s “new atheists” (a.k.a. “angry atheists”), Gibbon had a lot of anger towards Christians, never openly declared but easily detectable between the lines in his magnum opus. The depth of his feeling may be indicated by the fact that, less than a dozen pages after the quote on the popes above, he writes that “of the Christian hierarchy, the bishops of Rome were commonly the most prudent and least fanatic.” But the reader should keep in mind that Gibbon uses the term “Christian” for both people who truly follow the precepts of Christ and for those who only take his name for themselves. Thus he writes that “a Christian, a philosopher, and a patriot, will be equally scandalized by the temporal kingdom of the clergy,” referring to a true follower of Jesus.
Whether it contributed to his distaste for organized religion or, more likely, followed from it, Gibbon did not believe in the supernatural or miraculous and, as one reviewer put it, he “treated the Christian church as a phenomenon of general history, not a special case admitting supernatural explanations and disallowing criticism of its adherents.” Miracles, Gibbon wrote, were difficult to disprove, “except by those who are armed with a general antidote against religious credulity” and “such is the progress of credulity, that miracles, most doubtful on the spot and at the moment, will be received with implicit faith at a convenient distance of time and space.” Perhaps the reader can divine something of Gibbon’s attitude towards superstition, and gain some appreciation for his prose, in the following anecdote which he relates, where two competing schools came together to settle their doctrinal dispute in a trial by fire:
In the confidence of fanaticism, they had proposed to try their cause by a miracle; and when the two papers, that contained their own and the adverse cause, were cast into a fiery brazier, they expected that the Catholic verity would be respected by the flames. Alas! the two papers were indiscriminately consumed, and this unforeseen accident produced the union of a day, and renewed the quarrel of an age. (259)
Gibbon is most certainly an iconoclast, but I think he gets a lot of stuff right and was headed in the right direction with his moralizing. The Roman Empire was a very barbaric place where a small number of very powerful people vied for power, wealth, and glory at the expense of their rivals and the people. The story of the empire is one of endless wars, massacres, and murders with anyone who gets in the way being murdered or mutilated and everyone else being ruthlessly exploited. Of course, “for every war a motive of safety or revenge, of honour or zeal, of right or convenience, may be readily found in the jurisprudence of conquerors” (353) and I’m sure such justifications may have helped them sleep better at night. But Gibbon says this about one empire builder: “Perhaps his conscience would have been startled if a priest or philosopher had dared to number the millions of victims whom he had sacrificed to the establishment of peace and order.” (378)
The overwhelmingly vast portion of those casualties are known but to God, but among them we must number the Roman Empire itself, whose end was caused and hastened by the wasting of the empire’s resources in combat with itself. One of the authors and victims of the calamity called civil war “the deadly heat of a fever, which consumes without a remedy the vitals of the constitution.” (292) Instead of using the wealth and strength that they’d inherited to further build up their society and their civilization, they used those resources against each other in a short-sighted and selfish attempt to grab more for themselves without regard for others and the whole. The Romans who did this were like
the Indian who fells the tree that he may gather the fruit, and the Arab who plunders the caravans of commerce, … actuated by the same impulse of savage nature, which overlooks the future in the present, and relinquishes for momentary rapine the long and secure possession of the most important blessings. (525)
Gibbon spent two decades of his life researching, contemplating, and writing about the Roman Empire and its decline and fall, a task he was inspired to undertake, as he famously put it, “at Rome on the 15th of October 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the temple of Jupiter, [when] the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started in my mind.” That inspiration launched one of the finest written works in the English language (one shudders to learn he’d initially planned penning it in French); the six volumes first appeared between 1776 and 1788. Gibbon, who had lifelong health issues, died only six years later. His works and their abridgments will undoubtedly remain in print for years to come—but not forever. As Gibbon himself muses, “the art of man is able to construct monuments far more permanent than the narrow span of his own existence: yet these monuments, like himself, are perishable and frail; and in the boundless annals of time his life and his labours must equally be measured as a fleeting moment.”
Indeed, that impermanence is one of the chief lessons of the Decline and Fall. It is perhaps most poetically and poignantly suggested in the 71st and final chapter of the whole, where Gibbon relays the observations of Poggius, a servant to Pope Eugene IV, as he looks out over the ruined city of Rome in the 15th century:
This Tarpeian rock was then a savage and solitary thicket: in the time of the poet, it was crowned with the golden roofs of a temple; the temple is overthrown, the gold has been pillaged, the wheel of fortune has accomplished her revolution, and the sacred ground is again disfigured with thorns and brambles. The hill of the Capitol, on which we sit, was formerly the head of the Roman empire, the citadel of the earth, the terror of kings; illustrated by the footsteps of so many triumphs, enriched with the spoils and tributes of so many nations. This spectacle of the world, how is it fallen! how changed! how defaced! The path of victory is obliterated by vines, and the benches of the senators are concealed by a dunghill.
Not only the ideas conveyed but the language used by Poggius is evocative of that five painting series by Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire, and I wonder if indeed that work was inspired by the passage in question. Either way, the whole monologue, and the concluding chapter itself, are well worth reading, so I link to the full text here.
Thus concludes my review of Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I hope that my review has communicated something of the greatness of the work in question, but even if my review were flawless, and its subject greater still… sic transit gloria mundi.