And Now for the News

The disturbing freshness of Gibbon's Decline and Fall.

History of Roman Empire

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.

Gibbon's writing sets a standard for literary bravery. He sought no one's approval and was afraid of nothing. In his day the Church was a sacred cow; he was merciless in his exposition of its evolution. According to Gibbon, Christianity -- to use the words of the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper in his introduction to the Decline and Fall -- emerged from a "heretical Jewish sect" to become a "novel cult of virginity" and the most "persistent of the competing new Oriental superstitions," eventually to capture power as a "revolutionary ideology." Concerning the persecutions of the Christians, Gibbon concluded, after exhaustive documentation,

Even admitting, without hesitation or inquiry, all that history has recorded, or devotion has feigned, on the subject of martyrdoms, it must still be acknowledged that the Christians, in the course of their intestine dissensions, have inflicted far greater severities on each other than they had experienced from the zeal of infidels.

Not surprisingly, the publication of the Decline and Fall met with bitter controversy. Though the book was praised by the philosopher David Hume and others, attacks on Gibbon for his treatment of the Church were widespread and sustained: almost sixty denunciatory books about him were published in his lifetime. Bad reviews forced Gibbon to write a vindication of his first volume in 1779; he did it brilliantly. Attempts to undermine the Decline and Fall continued.

Rather than the embodiment of amoral despair, Gibbon revealed himself as the very flower of Enlightenment rationalism. He was a conservative along the lines of his contemporary Edmund Burke, who saw humankind's best hope in moderate politics and elastic institutions that do not become overbearing. Only rarely did imperial Rome or early Christianity display the necessary traits. Gibbon, like Burke, was shocked by the French Revolution. His Rome had also known violent mobs screaming noble platitudes in order to remove a tyrannical ruler, only to see another one set in his place. Gibbon's certainty that the tendency toward strife is a natural consequence of the human condition -- a natural consequence of the very variety of our racial, cultural, and economic experience, which no belief system, religious or otherwise, can overcome -- is reminiscent of James Madison in The Federalist. Madison, too, was convinced that a state or an empire can endure only if it generally limits itself to adjudicating disputes among its peoples, and in so doing becomes an exemplar of patriotic virtue.

To dip into the Decline and Fall is to know what not only writing but also reading used to be like. Gibbon's elliptical elegance is rare in an age when a surfeit of information, coupled with the distractions of electronic communication, forces writers to move briskly from one point to another. Rare, too, in an age of tedious academic specialty are Gibbon's sweeping yet valuable generalizations. When Gibbon describes everyday people in poor nations as exhibiting a "carelessness of futurity," he exposes one tragic effect of underdevelopment in a way that many more-careful and polite tomes of today do not. Our academic clerisy, I'm sure, could point out factual inadequacies, along with examples of cultural bias, throughout the Decline and Fall. Yet nothing on the shelves today will give readers as awe-inspiring a sense of spectacle as the Decline and Fall: of how onrushing events almost everywhere -- Europe, Africa, the Near East, Asia -- so seamlessly weave together. At a time of sound bites on one hand and 500-page yawns about a single issue on the other, here, blessedly, is something for the general reader.

Illustration by Mark Yankus

The Atlantic Monthly; March, 1997; And Now For The News; Volume 279, No. 3; pages 16-18.