In the debate among educators over what has been variously described as the "great books," the "core curriculum," or simply the "canon," there is at least one duly stamped Great Book that has gone unnoticed, useful neither as a brickbat for the reformers nor as a buckler for the defenders of tradition, its wide seat on the library shelf granted with nothing more than a yawn from anyone. Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire enjoys its unique security for the simple reason that no one any longer reads it. Indeed, it's unlikely that many people have ever read Gibbon's monumental treatment of the Roman empire's protracted expiration: with 2,400 pages, 8,342 footnotes, and over 1.5 million words arranged according to the most exacting standards of 18th-century literary elegance, The Decline and Fall was never calculated to excite a stampede of buyers. "Another damn thick square book!" was the Duke of Gloucester's response upon receiving the author's latest volume. "Always scribble scribble scribble, eh, Mr Gibbon?"
Gloucester's remark has endured because it typifies the response of most readers to Gibbon and his enormous creation. The Decline and Fall has always prompted a mixture of awe and derision, so great are its pretensions as well as its proportions, so elaborate its style, so obscure and apparently tedious its subject. Who would write such a book? Who would read it? Practically speaking, no one. Naturally historians avoid depending on a scholar who wrote before the development of modern historical methodologies; and the rest of the reading world has memorialized Gibbon as the patron saint of the Dull, and the title of his major work as a synonym for all that is pedantic, ponderous, and hopelessly highbrow. The phrase "decline and fall" has become a much-abused cliche. Mention Gibbon to a friend and he will understand you to be speaking of primates; read Gibbon on the el and you will find yourself untroubled by friends and strangers alike. Gibbon himself has declined and fallen into a desolate ruin.
Should you have the good fortune to break a leg, however, or find yourself beached on the cultural wasteland of Cancun, or simply grow weary of the historical ignorance displayed by most contemporary politicians and writers, you might find yourself more than pleasantly surprised upon opening The Decline and Fall. Only a few pages are required to realize that Edward Gibbon is a wonderfully gifted storyteller and his tale a matter of unique importance: nothing less than the destruction of the pagan world and its gradual reconstitution as the Christian nation states of modern Europe and the Islamic Mideast. Gibbon presents The Decline and Fall as a single sustained narrative of nearly miraculous complexity and scope, stitched together of innumerable smaller stories each with its own cast of characters, setting, and dramatic resolution. From Rome's zenith under the "five good emperors" of the second century to its final collapse in 1453 at Constantinople, Gibbon offers a judicious mixture of broadly painted background and vivid, usually violent narrative, never letting his reader bog down in detail or lack for substantive analysis. Without fail, just as the well-intentioned reader begins to tire of Gibbon's massive erudition (lavished upon topics as diverse as the Arian controversy, drinking habits among the Visigoths, the relative battle values of elephants and battering rams), the author turns to yet another episode in the frankly incredible history of Rome's emperors, soldiers, monks, courtesans, eunuchs, philosophers, and saints, all of them struggling with whatever means they had for the wealth and power of the Roman world. In other words, imagine something more like an 18th-century novel than what we normally consider history, authored together with Cecil B. De Mille or Thomas Hobbes, perhaps, and you will get a sense of the texture of The Decline and Fall. It was once remarked that Gibbon "lived out his sex life in the footnotes"; if that is true it says more about the passion of those notes than about any failing in the author.
Gibbon's magnum opus struck its contemporary audience as anything but tame. The initial volume, which appeared in 1776 when Gibbon was a reclusive bachelor just shy of his 40th birthday, "sold like a three-penny pamphlet on current affairs," according to its publisher; as Gibbon commented in his memoirs (with characteristically subtle ambiguity), "the historian was crowned by the taste or fashion of the day." Although subsequent volumes elicited a response more like the Duke of Gloucester's dismissal, Rome and the fate of empires was big news in a country about to lose its American colonies; and with their usual penchant for studying history as a moral primer, the English intelligentsia battened on the first books of Gibbon's chronicle with a hunger that must have surprised even its author.
Alas, they did not find the edifying story they anticipated. The Decline and Fall is rich in everything but simple lessons, moral or otherwise; Gibbon was a man constitutionally incapable of monocular vision, and his prose maintains a studied irony and ambivalence that today's posteverything reader will find congenial. Gibbon does not so much construct sentences as trace labyrinths of possible understanding: "The policy of the emperors and the Senate, as far as it concerned religion, was happily seconded by the reflections of the enlightened, and by the habits of the superstitious, part of their subjects. The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord."
Present-day readers may at first find Gibbon's fastidious style a trifle much--Hemingway he ain't, nor the daily Tribune--but after adjusting to the author's orotund periods one comes to appreciate a prose that is never labored or convoluted, though it's always complex. Gibbon is a writer of such unmarred clarity that his irony and double entendres often slip past the reader unnoticed. At first difficult, then seemingly straightforward, Gibbon's prose at last reveals itself as a many-faceted prism in which the history of Rome is offered to the reader with, in, and for a multitude of reflections.
Most dismaying to his 18th-century readers, Gibbon's irony extended even to matters of religion, as the lines quoted above might suggest. Gibbon studied as a young man in Switzerland, where his religious sensibilities were first confused (he converted from the Anglican to the Catholic faith and back again) and then permanently suspended by the influence of the French philosophes and his own arduous training in the Greek and Latin authors. Though he eventually styled himself a Deist, Gibbon brought to the study of Rome and Christianity a distaste for all metaphysics and an acute sensitivity to the folly of what he usually calls "superstition." As skeptical as Voltaire but a far better scholar, Gibbon was reticent about the claims of religion. His observations can sometimes sound chilling even to our agnostic ears, as when he carefully computes the probable number of Christian martyrs under the persecution of Diocletian in the second century, concluding that "the whole might consequently amount to about fifteen hundred; a number which, if it is equally divided between the ten years of the persecution, will allow an annual consumption of one hundred and fifty martyrs." Such irreverence might have cost Gibbon his life in a slightly earlier period; as it was, the author found himself widely abused for his dispassionate treatment of Christianity's rise and attacked on questions of scholarship by a gaggle of minor historians and clergymen. His critics could find precious few factual errors, however. While Gibbon's irony is always polyphonic, his learning is awesome and rigorously honest. The best thinkers in England and Europe readily admitted his genius.
Gibbon's real insult to the church was his quite sincere lack of interest in the truths of religion, except as changing perceptions of the latter contributed to the making and breaking of empires. It was empire--the cohesion of political power on a large scale--that exercised this "philosophical historian," as the author described himself. Gibbon treats the rise of Christianity, as he does the seventh-century appearance of the Islamic faith, in the context of the Roman empire's wobbly fortunes, as neither more nor less significant than any of several other systemic shifts in the Mediterranean world. As it happens, in Gibbon's opinion Christianity was an unfortunate ingredient in the empire's long decline, but he is far too subtle a historian to suggest that Christianity or any other easily isolated agent was the "cause" of Rome's decline. If pressed to abstract from Gibbon's work such a mythical beast, one would be forced to go back as far as the end of the Roman republic, when Julius Caesar, and then Augustus, put a stop to what Gibbon admiringly describes as the republican virtues of a free citizenship. Like ancient Athens and Renaissance Florence, Rome grew to power as a republic, its governing body composed mainly of wealthy aristocrats but also providing the common man some measure of representation; most signally, Rome was not a monarchy, and the relatively broad distribution of power ensured that its citizens took a personal (and often military) interest in the prosperity of their nation. Such virtues were not likely to continue under despotic emperors, and in the course of about three centuries Roman government devolved into little more than a series of military dictatorships holding absolute sway over a vast and indifferent populace. With the advent of religious schism and barbarian invasions, the end was not long in coming.
To construct such formulas, however, is quite out of keeping with Gibbon's intent; as he himself wrote, "instead of inquiring why the Roman empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it had subsisted so long." Reading The Decline and Fall one is overwhelmed by the riches of 15 centuries of world civilization, not lectured or bullied into accepting any theories or hobbyhorses. Which is not to say that Gibbon is absent from his work; on the contrary, few historians have ever made their presence felt as ubiquitously as Gibbon does in The Decline and Fall. Indeed, the book's enduring claim to greatness is not as a work of scholarship, because in many particulars Gibbon's scholarship has been surpassed by modern specialists, but as a record of sustained engagement between a great thinker and his vast, multifarious subject. Gibbon never pretends that history is the objective recording of events: history is written by living individuals, and the author of The Decline and Fall is delightfully aware that he is himself part of the story he tells. For what finally emerges from the meeting of this remarkable narrator and his momentous tale, above and beyond the more scholarly issues of cause and effect, republic and empire, religion and virtue, is a purely rapturous joy in the wonders and terrors of historical knowledge. That Gibbon felt such joy is evident on every page he wrote; it is too bad that his fearsome reputation continues to prevent readers from sharing his pleasure, particularly as we ourselves witness the decline and fall of at least one more empire.
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Random House, three-volume set at $15.95 per volume.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tom Herzberg.