RECENTLY, in the course of packing books away for storage, I came across an old friend -- Edward Gibbon's . I decided to hold out three of the six volumes for yet another reading. As when I had read the Decline and Fall previously, I was deliciously overwhelmed. If I could have one voice in my ear as I traveled through the Third World, with its innumerable rebellions and migrations; through Europe, as nationalism impedes unification; or through the United States, as it tries to reconstitute itself for a transnational age, the voice would be Gibbon's, with its sly wit, biting irony, and fearless realism about an event that "is still felt by the nations of the earth." The collapse of Rome left in its wake the tribal configurations from which modern European states emerged, and I can think of no work that offers a shrewder historical perspective on today's foreign and domestic news than the three volumes of the Decline and Fall that cover Rome from its territorial zenith, in the early second century A.D., under Trajan (the first and last Roman general to navigate the Persian Gulf), to the dissolution of the western half of the empire, in A.D. 476. Those three volumes, published from 1776 to 1781 -- the years of the American Revolution -- offer, of course, more than the story of Rome's decline. Among other things, they constitute a general theory of history, a controversial interpretation of the birth of Christianity, an extended essay on military elites and the fickleness of public opinion, and an unequaled geographical and cultural primer on Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Beyond all else, though, the Decline and Fall is a page-turning narrative, driven by the most pointed of character sketches and anecdotes, without which, regardless of its other strengths, Gibbon's work would never have survived. Of the younger Gordion, who ruled Rome for little more than a month in A.D. 237, Gibbon wrote: "Twenty-two acknowledged concubines, and a library of sixty-two thousand volumes, attested the variety of his inclinations, and from the productions which he left behind him, it appears that the former as well as the latter were designed for use rather than ostentation." Following that is a footnote, in which Gibbon added, "By each of his concubines, the younger Gordion left three or four children. His literary productions were by no means contemptible."
Gibbon's Rome from the second through the fifth centuries offers a rich and riveting tableau of coups, countercoups, wicked savagery, ethnic and regional upheavals, and attempts at reform that either failed or, sometimes worse, succeeded, the success creating new problems that furthered Rome's decline -- as though an empire (or any large state) were a living organism "subject to decay," as Polybius would have it, from "its own internal evolution," good or bad.
The Decline and Fall instructs that human nature never changes, and that mankind's predilection for faction, augmented by environmental and cultural differences, is what determines history. In this Gibbon was influenced by the Baron de Montesquieu, who saw history not as mere politics and ideas but as a complex of cultural, social, and climatic forces. The brilliance of the Decline and Fall lies in Gibbon's ability to build a narrative out of individual agency and the surprises of history -- such as the empire's restoration in the third century under the able rule of Claudius, Aurelian, Probus, and Diocletian -- even as the sheer accumulation and repetition of events over centuries ultimately robs many an effective emperor (each with a distinct personality early in the story) of his identity in the reader's mind, and as the initially successful restoration flows into the larger movement of decline. Only patterns, rather than individuals, endure at the end of the three volumes.
For Gibbon the real changes were not so much the dramatic, "newsworthy" events as the insidious transformations: Rome moving from democracy to the trappings of democracy to military rule; Milan in Italy and Nicomedia in Asia Minor functioning as capital cities decades before the formal division of the empire into western and eastern halves, and almost two centuries before Rome officially ceased to be an imperial capital; the fact that the first fifteen "Christian" bishops of Jerusalem were circumcised Jews subscribing to a not yet formalized religion. It seems that the more gradual and hidden the change, the more historically important it turned out to be.
The similarities between Gibbon's Rome and the United States will be obvious to any reader -- they are two multi-ethnic polities founded on patriotic virtue, unified by gigantic highway systems, their middle classes occupying crassly uniform dwellings, and so forth -- but the Decline and Fall evokes other contemporary realities. Gibbon's catalogue of ancient authoritarian regimes also depicts places like Nigeria, Pakistan, Serbia, Nicolae Ceausescu's Romania, and mid-twentieth-century Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union -- without, of course, the mass organization and mass murder allowed for by industrialization. It was the peripatetic Emperor Caracalla, in the early third century, Gibbon tells us -- not Hitler or Stalin or even Attila the Hun -- who was the world's first worldwide tyrant. And when Gibbon wrote about the Crimean Chersonites, who, helped by the Romans, attacked the Goths in A.D. 335, he captured well the nearby Caucasus, where the Russians now pit one assemblage of clans against another. The Decline and Fall teaches that the tragedy for so much of the world is how, despite technological advancement, various societies are still in a political sense ancient; and how, despite the Enlightenment, many governments -- including ours -- remain corrupt and decadent because of the influence of money.