On Rereading Gibbon

by WILLIAM HENRY CHAMBERLIN

1

I HAVE just been rereading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire for what may be anything from the tenth to the fifteenth time. The work has become so imbedded in memory and consciousness that I find myself instinctively looking ahead for the finest descriptive passages, the most sonorously phrased judgments, the frequent fine-edged ironical thrusts at bigotry and superstition.

This permanent fascination of Gibbon is not a matter of mere personal taste. Difficult as it may be to believe, in this age of “Mairzy Doats” and radio crooners, the Decline and Fall, in its stout, inexpensive two-volume Modern Library edition, is a best-seller.

Equally learned histories gather dust on the shelves. More specialized modern works on Roman and Byzantine history, containing material which, in some cases, was unavailable to Gibbon, fall far short of his wide popular appeal. What has marked out the work of the fat, unromantic-looking little Englishman who gave up a beautiful bride for a comfortable inheritance, and lived in epicurean comfort in Switzerland, for an audience so much larger than the ordinary historian can hope to reach?

There is, I suspect, no single explanation of Gibbon’s appeal. His popularity is rather to be attributed to a variety of qualities. There is the majesty of his style, so well suited to the tragic grandeur of his subject, a major civilization and political organism in decline. There is the vivid descriptive faculty that bridges vast gulfs of time and space and culture and makes living human beings out of the Byzantine Emperor, the barbarian chieftain, the Asiatic conqueror, the Mohammedan enthusiast. There is the rare gift of the telling phrase that often conveys so much in so little.

Gibbon’s gift of superb irony alone would win him many readers. And, although he sincerely tries to realize the ideal of the objective historian, his likes and dislikes are sometimes visible and make him a more human figure, in closer touch with his readers. It was a bad day for monks and passionate theologians when Gibbon took pen in hand. And he makes a gallant and not unsuccessful attempt to redeem the character of that interesting prince, Julian the Apostate, from the obloquy of ecclesiastical chroniclers.

Like all truly great historians, Gibbon is a philosopher. He is not content to be a mere collector of facts. He is in no sense a cheap popularizer of history. His scholarship is conscientious and profound. But he can always look beyond the mass of minute detail to perceive the larger forces that are working out in the rise of a faith or the fall of a dynasty.

He conveys much of the intellectual spirit of his own age as he reconstructs and comments on the events and characters of a remote past. He is one of the most persuasive voices of the eighteenthcentury Enlightenment, a spiritual kinsman of his contemporaries, Montesquieu and Voltaire, and also of Hume and Locke.

This eighteenth-century Enlightenment was a rationalistic interlude between the clashing religious fanaticisms of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the new storms of political and social passion that broke with the French Revolution. It was a time when absolute monarchs liked to pose as progressive philosophers. The exponents of the Enlightenment had freed themselves from the grip of theological dogma without feeling obliged to take a stand on either side of the intellectual barricades that arose all over Europe in response to the stern challenge of the slogan “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.”

So in Gibbon one finds eloquent expression of the values of an era in which reason and skepticism heavily outweigh faith and emotion. And I suspect that some of us, in this age of unusual and almost universal violence and change, this age of global wars and sweeping revolutions, look back with a certain nostalgic attraction to the period reflected in the pages of Gibbon. The deluge of the French Revolution had not burst, and wars were conducted with some of the elaborate ceremonial restraint of a minuet when an author could write:—

The laws and manners of modem nations protect the safety and freedom of the vanquished soldier; and the peaceful citizen has seldom reason to complain that his life or even his fortune is exposed to the rage of war.

The rest of the country and community (apart from professional soldiers) enjoys in the midst of war the tranquillity of peace, and is only made sensible of the change by the aggravation or decrease of the public taxes.

In the heat of disputes provoked by a global war that is sometimes interpreted as part of a still unfinished world-wide revolution, it is refreshing to cool off in the contemplation of this piece of eighteenth-century indifferentism: —

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.

Perspective is a gift that is especially appropriate to a historian. And Gibbon possesses this quality in full measure. Speaking of the neighborhood of Rome, he remarks that “on that celebrated ground the first consuls deserved triumphs, their successors adorned villas, and their posterity have erected convents.”

Here, in a pithy phrase, one catches the images of three far-removed historical eras, the heroic and luxurious periods of ancient Rome and the later time when Rome was a power in Europe not through its arms but through its religion.

An ordinary historian would have been content with recording the facts of the sack of Damascus, the old Syrian city, by Timur, the builder of pyramids of human heads. But Gibbon notes that the savagery of the conqueror, in this case, was stimulated by an element of religious fanaticism. Timur wanted to avenge the death of an early Moslem martyr, Hosein, and Gibbon conveys a tragedy in a sentence: —

After a period of seven centuries Damascus was reduced to ashes, because a Tartar was moved by religious zeal to avenge the blood of an Arab.

2

THEDecline and Fall is a remarkable illustration of a grand theme treated in a grand style. Gibbon, like most educated men of his time, was steeped in the Greek and Latin classics. The eloquently compressed characterizations of Thucydides and Tacitus, the rolling periods of Cicero, the sharp epigrams of Juvenal, clearly helped to shape his own literary style. It is fortunate that the qualities of classical prose and verse are thus preserved, even at second hand, when Greek has almost disappeared from the American educational scene and Latin is in a state of serious decline.

There is no single date that accurately marks the “fall” of Rome. The Empire of the West succumbed to a gradual process of internal weakness and decay that reached a high point of catastrophic dissolution in the fifth century. But the sack of Rome by Alaric the Goth in 410 was perhaps the supreme tragedy; it marked the first fall of the city to a foreign conqueror. And Gibbon, after telling how the inhabitants were awakened by “the tremendous sound of the Gothic trumpet,” pronounces this impressive epitaph on the fallen capital: —

Eleven hundred and sixty-three years after the foundation of Rome, the Imperial City, which had subdued and civilized so considerable a part of mankind, was delivered to the licentious fury of the tribes of Germany and Scythia.

The correspondent who can find as good a lead for some climactic event of the present war should receive Pulitzer Prize consideration.

Still more vivid, because there is a personal hero in the tragedy, is the account of the siege and capture of Constantinople, the New Rome, by the Turks more than a thousand years later. The Byzantine Empire had been reduced to a shadowy fragment of its former proportions. When Sultan Mohammed II moved to the attack on the capital, little remained of the Empire beyond the walls of Constantinople.

But the last Emperor, Constantine XIII, displayed a devoted courage that was all the more striking because of the ignoble record of his many weak and vicious predecessors. Gibbon’s picture of this last Christian Emperor of the East fighting and dying under the walls of his doomed capital is one of the finest descriptive passages in historical literature. One can almost hear the last mournful cry of Constantine, whose one fear was to be captured alive: —

“Cannot there be found a Christian to cut off my head?”

The many flashing phrases of Winston Churchill stem from a classical tradition which Gibbon follows. And much of the appeal of this most familiar history of Old and New Rome is derived from the nervous vigor of its brief expressions. Gibbon possesses the rare gift of making a sentence, or even a conditional clause, express more than a page of involved narration. These few words convey an adequate character sketch of the Emperor Septimius Severus:—

He promised only to betray, he flattered only to ruin.

Here are a few phrases of the unmistakable Gibbon stamp, always forceful, often ironical, always calculated to fix and hold the attention: —

Two generals who indulged themselves in a very
false and favorable opinion of their own abilities.
A feeble and ineffectual murmur of profane reason.
He retired with an ample fortune and suspicious integrity.
The fearless confidence of intoxication.
A deplorable picture of the second childhood of human reason.
A state of premature and perpetual decay.
The vain security of ignorance.

This image of a carnal paradise 1 has provoked the indignation, perhaps the envy of the monks.

The Decline and Fall is an excellent refutation of the idea that a stately style is necessarily dull and pedantic. I first read it through when I was twelve years old. I would not wish to suggest that at that age — or now, for that matter — I felt entirely at home amid the intricacies of the Monophysite controversy and some of the other doctrinal disputes of the early Church. (Yet Gibbon’s chapter on the furious arguments, often leading to bloodshed and violence, which raged about the mystery of the Incarnation is one of the most lucid and impartial expositions of an arid subject; it begins with the skeptical reproach that the Christians, after the downfall of paganism, “were more solicitous to explore the nature than to practise the laws of their founder.”)

I may have cheated now and then, in reading through the history, by skipping some of the more detailed accounts of the laws of Justinian or the administrative innovations of Diocletian. A taste for law and theology develops late, if at all, in the average human being. But there is a very plentiful element of excitement and adventure and personal drama in Gibbon that can catch the attention and hold the interest of a young reader. He makes the most of the pageantry and color of the periods which he describes. He can rescue a courageous or generous figure from the obscurity of a dark and little-known period, and he can almost literally blast a contemptible ruler with a contemptuous phrase. So, referring to one of the decadent later Emperors, Valentinian III, whose principal achievement was the murder of his ablest minister, Aëtius, he says: —

The luxury of Rome seems to have attracted the long and frequent visits of Valentinian, who was consequently more despised at Rome than in any other part of his dominions.

Honorius, the feeble son of Theodosius, last ruler of a united empire, is dismissed with an anecdote extracted from some chronicle: —

The amusement of feeding poultry became the serious and daily care of the monarch of the West.

3

GIBBON’S grave irony was partly an expression of his temperament, partly a concession to the inhibitions of his time. Complete freedom of discussion of religious matters was not assured. A blunt statement of his skeptical attitude toward miracles, of his negative judgment on some of the saints of the Church, might have created difficulties for the publication of his work.

He attained his objectives by the indirect methods of sly innuendo, of indulging in calculated understatements, tempting the normally intelligent reader to look between the lines, of citing the testimony of unimpeachable ecclesiastical authorities for some of the less savory incidents of Church power politics. Some passages in his famous Fifteenth and Sixteenth Chapters, which deal with the rise of Christianity, might be recommended to a newspaperman about to face a stiff type of political censorship. One of the best examples of this ironical method is to be found in this passage, near the end of the Fifteenth Chapter: —

But how shall we excuse the supine inattention of the Pagan and philosophic world to those evidences which were presented by the hand of Omnipotence not to their reason, but to their senses? During the age of Christ, of his apostles and of their first disciples, the doctrine which they preached was confirmed by innumerable prodigies. The lame walked, the blind saw, the sick were healed, the dead were raised, demons were expelled, and the laws of Nature were frequently suspended for the benefit of the Church. But the sages of Greece and Rome turned aside from the awful spectacle and, pursuing the ordinary occupations of life and study, appeared unconscious of any alteration in the moral or physical government of the world.

The verbal camouflage here proved so effective that a well-meaning, simple-minded member of a sect which lays much emphasis on the possibilities of healing by spiritual means once triumphantly cited it as proof that even an infidel historian recognized the power of healing possessed by the primitive Church. The same quality of suave and worldly irony is to be found in many of Gibbon’s other references to ecclesiastical dogmas and disputes.

One can imagine the dry twinkle in his eyes as he writes that the early Church delivered over to eternal torture the far greater part of the human species. One can almost hear him chuckle as he gravely notes that Tours was probably not the only city where the bones of a malefactor were mistaken for those of a saint. Other examples of the ironical thrusts of Gibbon’s incorrigibly rationalist mind are as follows: —

Their secret reluctance to embrace the divinity of the Holy Ghost clouded the splendor of the triumph.

Ecclesiastical writers who, in the heat of religious faction, are apt to despise the profane virtues of sincerity and moderation.

Gibbon displays an implacable antipathy to the theory and practice of monastic life. Even when he feels obliged in fairness to record the courageous action of the monk Telemachus, who sacrificed his own life in order to stop the gladiatorial combats, he cannot repress the dig that the death of Telemachus was “more useful to mankind than his life.” And he hastens to add in a footnote that “no church has been dedicated, no altar has been erected to the only monk who died a martyr in the cause of humanity.”

He quotes with obvious zest the judgment of a “profane magistrate” that the monks are victims of disease or of a consciousness of guilt. In one of his more vivid phrases he speaks of “the swarm of monks who arose from the Nile, overspread and darkened the face of the Christian world. ” He notes with malicious satisfaction that “some savage saints of both sexes have been admired, whose naked bodies were covered only by their long hair” and that, in the sixth century, a hospital was founded at Jerusalem for “austere penitents who were deprived of their senses.”

He finds one of the most striking illustrations of the decline of Roman culture and civilization in the contrast which he draws between Cicero and Cato, on one side, and some fanatical monks, on the other. One of the latter was that curious figure, St. Simeon Stylites, who anticipated and surpassed our most inveterate “flagpole sitters” by spending a large part of his life on the top of a lofty column.

Eighteenth-century intellectualism, with its exaltation of reason and its contempt for “enthusiasm,” was very unreceptive to mystical impulses. Gibbon is perhaps unfair to monasticism, since he dwells on the excesses of some of the monks without taking full account of the appalling collapse of civilized life under the blows of the barbarians in the fifth century and the Saracens in the seventh and eighth.

It was this collapse that drove many individuals, by no means all crackpots or cowards, to flee from what seemed to be a dying world into the security and supposed salvation of the monastery or the hermitage. The case for the monks is presented by Charles Kingsley in his Hypatia, a mediocre novel, certainly, but an interesting sketch of life and thought in the chaotic fifth century.

4

ALONG with many elements of greatness there are defects and limitations in Gibbon. The lucid, penetrating skepticism that is an admirable corrective for dogmatic absurdities and pious frauds sometimes leads to a loss of the sense of proportion. The humanizing and democratizing aspects of Christianity are rather grudgingly recognized, when they are recognized at all.

The first half of the massive work is better designed than the second. The flow of narrative until the disappearance of the Empire in the West is unified and coherent. But the treatment of the Byzantine Empire is less satisfactory. Partly, perhaps, because of the historian’s profound contempt for the Byzantine spirit, and partly because of inadequate material, the picture of the Eastern Empire, in its phases of growth and decline, is somewhat, blurred and dim. The binding unity of the first part of the history is lost. The digressions, interesting as these often are in themselves, into the adventures of the Normans and the Crusaders and the conquests and wanderings of the tribes of Asia tend to expand the history beyond reasonable limits.

There have been numerous valuable archaeological discoveries since Gibbon’s death, and the science of deciphering and collating medals and inscriptions has made considerable progress. Gibbon gives to the social and economic institutions of the Roman and Byzantine Empires less attention than a modern historian would probably find appropriate.

Yet, when one has made every reasonable critical discount, the Decline and Fall, with its combination of scholarship and imagination, brilliant descriptive power, and delicate irony, stands on an eminence that few histories have reached. Henry Adams, who repeated Gibbon’s pilgrimage to the ruins of the Capitol, where the idea of the mighty work was conceived, suggests that even Gibbon did not truly explain the Fall.

This criticism is scarcely justified. Some of the subtler and more obscure causes of the collapse of Roman society may have escaped Gibbon’s attention. But he analyzes clearly and convincingly some of the major elements in the catastrophe. These were the atrophy of private energy and resourcefulness under the overshadowing power of an omnipotent state; the degeneration, first in discipline, then in courage and physical endurance, of the legions; the gradual shift in the balance of military strength to the side of the barbarians.

There was no single battle in which the Empire could be said to have met its doom. In the later period of its existence the Homan frontiers were defended as much as they were attacked by the strong arms of the barbarians. Migration and infiltration played as great a part in the disintegration as outright invasion and conquest. Gibbon repeatedly brings out the close association between the decline in military vigor and political independence and the increasing paralysis of creative thought and achievement in literature and the arts. Perhaps the Roman Empire was predestined to fall because it had become a static society. By the time of Augustus the natural frontiers of the realm had been attained. Further territorial expansion was at once too risky and too burdensome.

The outlet for energy which science and its application afford to the modern world was denied to the subjects of the Antonines. An all-powerful absolutism dried up the old sources of individual vigor. A process of accelerated dry rot from within, which rendered the Empire more and more vulnerable to attack from without, became almost inescapable.

Gibbon considers the age of the Antonines (A.D. 138-180) the happiest and most prosperous in the history of the world. It is true that there has never been a period, before or since, when so many people in Europe and in the adjacent sections of Africa and Asia lived in peace under the rule of able and benevolent sovereigns. But this well-being was fragile and precarious.

It depended too exclusively on the character of the absolute ruler. And Lord Acton’s dictum that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, found many gory illustrations in the lives of the degenerate Emperors who followed the noble Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius. While Marcus Aurelius read lectures on philosophy to his subjects, his stupid and bloodthirsty son Commodus hunted beasts in the arena and slaughtered many of the noblest and ablest of his father’s counselors.

The Commodus type always predominates over the Marcus Aurelius type in the annals of despotism. But even if this were not true, even if it had been possible to prolong the succession of “good Emperors” which came to an end with Marcus Aurelius, good intentions on the part of the absolute ruler could have been no substitute, over a long period, for the vital sap of self-government.

5

GIBBON’S work embraces a perspective of thirteen centuries. One of the causes of its popularity is certainly its almost prophetic relevance to modern events. Pius XII was following in the footsteps of many of his predecessors, notably Leo I and Gregory I, when he made every effort to save the city of Home from the devastation of war. Gibbon tells the story of the Ostrogoth chieftain Totila, appropriate hero of a Nazi propaganda play in the first years of Hitler’s regime. Totila conceived the idea of razing Rome and turning its site into a pasture for cattle. Fortunately he abandoned this plan. The Romans of the sixth century doubtless breathed more easily when Totila moved away to lose his kingdom and his life in an unsuccessful battle, just as the modern Romans must have felt a new sense of security when the last German soldiers disappeared.

The Emperor Probus, in the third century of the Christian era, anticipated the Maginot Line by constructing a wall from the Rhine to the Danube, designed to prevent German invasions. Gibbon pronounced an unconscious judgment on the whole Maginot Line psychology when he offered the following comment on the undertaking of Probus: —

The experience of the world, from China to Britain, has exposed the vain attempt of fortifying any extensive tract of country. An active enemy, who can select and vary his points of attack, must in the end discover some feeble spot, or some unguarded moment.

One acquires a keen sense of the unchanging influence of geography when one learns from Gibbon that the Visigoths, in the fourth century, drew up a line of defense against the Huns, in Southeastern Europe, coinciding very closely with the line which the Germans took up after their retreat from the Ukraine in the spring of 1944.

The judicial methods of totalitarian regimes are foreshadowed in this reference to the fate of Licinius, one of the fallen rivals of Constantine:—

According to the rules of tyranny he was accused of forming a conspiracy, and of holding a treasonable correspondence with the barbarians; but, as he was never convicted, either by his own conduct or by any legal evidence, we may perhaps be allowed, from his weakness, to presume his innocence.

In the last period of the declining Empire the Roman general Aëtius formed an alliance with the Goths against the Huns, who followed the leadership of Attila, “the Scourge of God.” Attila’s progress was checked in the sanguinary battle of Châlons. Gibbon sums up the whole theory of the balance of power when he shows us Aëtius surveying the battlefield and “observing, with secret satisfaction, that the loss had principally fallen on the barbarians.” And a large part of the inhabited world today bears witness to the truth of Gibbon’s reflective observation: “Man has industriously labored for his own destruction.”

Apart from its wide intrinsic appeal, there are two characteristics of Gibbon’s masterpiece that make it especially significant for our time. The author possesses many of the mental qualities that will be most needed when the work of destruction gives way to the more complex task of restoration. Among these are a firm grasp of the great traditional laws that have governed statecraft and international relations, cool and temperate judgment, instinctive suspicion of extravagant, one-sided propaganda, capacity for taking the long view.

Moreover, the Europe of today, rent with national and social feuds, hungry and impoverished, threatened with plague and famine, is all too similar to the declining eras of Roman and Byzantine society which are the subject of Gibbon’s history. In one of his most interesting passages the philosophic historian discusses the possibility that his own contemporary European civilization might be submerged in a wave of barbarism.

He came to the conclusion — too optimistic, it would seem, in the light of our present-day knowledge — that “it couldn’t happen here.” “Europe,” he writes, “is secure from any future irruption of barbarians, since, before they can conquer, they must cease to be barbarians,” Gibbon here assumes too readily an identification of the humanistic aspects of civilization with the mechanical and scientific achievements which, in his time as in ours, were essential to success in war. He did not foresee the possibility that barbarism might conquer Europe not from without, but from within.

With the balance sheet of the present war still unreckoned in every sense, with its long-range consequences still unpredictable, one would need the support of a very robust optimism to assert as confidently as does Gibbon that “every age of the world has increased and still increases the real wealth, the happiness, the knowledge and perhaps the virtue of the human race.” This was probably true for Gibbon’s own century, the eighteenth; it was certainly true for the nineteenth. But can we yet be sure about the twentieth? Gibbon has worthily described what he calls “the greatest, perhaps, and most awful scene in the history of mankind.” Our appreciation of the tragedy of a civilization, of a vast continental area, should be quickened by what we have seen with our own eyes.

Many centuries of darkness and chaos had to pass before the cultural and material achievements of the Roman Empire were equaled, and surpassed, by the flowering of modern Europe that began with the Renaissance. Gibbon teaches us the lesson, hard but very applicable to our age, that the course of human development is not always forward and upward. In reading and rereading his incomparably instructive history, we may well hope that modern Europe, after an ordeal comparable with that of the declining Roman Empire, will not be compelled to wait equally long for a new Renaissance.

  1. For eighteen years a correspondent of the Christian Science Monitor in Russia, Japan, and France, and now a lecturer on Japan at the Harvard School for Overseas Administration, WILLIAM HENRY CHAMBERLIN has been rereading the Decline and Fall in a summer as fateful as any Gibbon ever knew.
  2. Gibbon bad been describing, with a mildly salacious touch, the sensual pleasures of the Mohammedan future life.