We must consider how little history there is; I mean real authentick history. That certain Kings reigned, and certain battles were fought, we can depend upon as true; but all the colouring, all the philosophy, of history is conjecture.
pudgy man with a big head, double chin, and pursing mouth, under five feet tall, foppishly overdressed, stilted in conversation, Edward Gibbon was easily the greatest English historian and quite possibly the greatest historian the world has known. How did this preposterous little man—a snob with often ludicrous opinions who was known as he grew older and fatter as Monsieur Pomme de Terre—produce The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a panoramic work of roughly a million and a half words with some 8,000 footnotes, covering 1,300 years of history? More than two centuries after Gibbon wrote it, the entertainment value of his history is as great as it was when it appeared in three volumes between 1776 and 1788, its standing as literature as firmly fixed.
Psychotic tyrants, savvy eunuchs, cunning courtesans; brutal barbarian tribal chiefs; battlefields bedewed with blood and strewn with the white bones of human corpses; Byzantine luxuriance; Saracen leaders “never seen to smile except on a day of battle”; ragtag Roman crusaders no less fanatical than the forces they were recruited to fight; Russians, Hungarians, Persians, Moors all engaging in tortures of a rare exquisivity—cutting off noses, ears, tongues, hands; putting out eyes with needles; poisoning husbands; the rope, the rack, the axe all finding full employment—in Gibbon’s pages it all goes whirring by, leaving one in a state of nearly perpetual dazzlement.
Through it all there are the emperors, the central figures of the history—and what a rogue’s gallery they are! Caracalla “was the common enemy of mankind,” a “monster whose life disgraced human nature”; Elagabalus was no “rational voluptuary,” also a transvestite; Maximin, “though a stranger to real wisdom . . . was not devoid of a selfish cunning”; the reigns of Valerian and his son Gallienus, provided a 15-year period that “was one uninterrupted series of confusion and calamity”; Maxentius was “a tyrant as contemptible as he was odious”; Valens “was rude without vigor, and feeble without mildness”; Theophilus was “a bold, bad man . . . whose hands were alternately polluted with gold, and blood.” Gibbon writes: “Such was the unhappy condition of the Roman emperor . . . almost every reign is closed by the same repetition of treason and murder.”
One can’t really hope to take it all in; one follows instead the plangent tale over centuries in its broader lineaments. “The flow of his narrative, the clarity of his prose and the edge of his irony,” wrote C.V. Wedgwood, “still have the power to delight and, although seven generations of scholars have added to or modified our knowledge of the epoch, most of what Gibbon wrote is still valid as history.”
Aspiration is one thing, achievement quite another. What were the accidental determinants that made Edward Gibbon the majestic historian he turned out to be?
Is genius possible in the realm of scholarship? It can be if aligned to art. If the historian has the instinct of an artist, he will not confine himself to accurate recounting of facts, causes, and consequences, but will widen his view to personalities, the play of character on the outcome of events, and what all this conveys about human nature. In an early unpublished work, Gibbon wrote: “Every man of genius who writes history infuses into it, perhaps unconsciously, the character of his own spirit.”
Gibbon’s spirit was one of supremely detached skepticism, reinforced by common sense to a high power, with a masterly command of the rich irony that gave forcible expression to both. This spirit derived from the time in which he lived and the peculiar circumstances of his own life.
In his Memoirs of My Life, Gibbon noted, “I know by experience that from my early youth I aspired to the character of an historian.” Aspiration is one thing, achievement quite another. What were the accidental determinants that made Edward Gibbon the majestic historian he turned out to be?
Edward Gibbon was a bachelor. He may have been one of nature’s true bachelors, though not at first by choice. Gibbon spent his late adolescence and early adulthood in Lausanne, in French-speaking Switzerland. At the age of 21, he met, courted, and proposed to Suzanne Cuchord, the charming daughter of a Swiss clergyman, but a woman without a dowry. His father forbade the marriage. “I sighed as a lover,” Gibbon wrote in his Memoirs, “I obeyed as a son.”1
Nietzsche said that a married philosopher is a joke. A married historian, productive in the way Gibbon was, is not so much a joke but perhaps an impossibility. One can be the author of a vast historical work of the kind of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which was 20 years in the composing, or be happily married, but one is unlikely to bring off both.
Gibbon found himself in Lausanne not by choice but under the lash of his father’s anger. While at Oxford, at 16, he converted to Catholicism. The conversion put paid to his career as a student, for the university did not allow Catholics; nor, at that time, could Catholics hold public employment or sit in Parliament. Gibbon’s father sent him off for reconversion—de-programming, we might call it today—to Switzerland and the successful if tepid recultivation of his Protestantism under a Calvinist clergyman.
The true subject of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is human nature, and, in Gibbon’s recounting, it’s a far from pretty picture.
Money, or rather the want of it, was another crucial ingredient in Gibbon’s life’s work. His grandfather had been a successful merchant, in textiles, who acquired a fortune, then lost it in the South Sea Company bubble, then recouped much of it. His father had neither the business sense nor the resilience of his grandfather, and through social ambitions, pretensions, and mismanagement, squandered much of what had been a considerable fortune. “His gay character and mode of life,” Gibbon, in mild understatement, wrote, “were less adapted to the acquisition than to the expenditure of wealth.” Gibbon was set free financially only after his father died in 1770 when Edward was 33 and came into a diminished inheritance. This short financial leash was his unexpected good fortune. As he wrote in his Memoirs, “I am persuaded that had I been more indigent or more wealthy, I should not have possessed the leisure or the perseverance to prepare and execute my voluminous history.”
Gibbon’s determination to undertake his great work came six years before his father’s death. He had first planned a life of Walter Raleigh, then a history of the liberty of the Swiss, then an account of the Republic of Florence under the Medicis. In 1763, he set out on the classic Englishman’s Grand Tour of Europe. In Rome on the evening of October 15, 1764, he later wrote, “as I sat musing in the Church of the Zoccolanti or Franciscan friars, while they were singing Vespers in the Temple of Jupiter2 on the ruins of the Capitol,” he decided to dedicate himself to a study of such ruins. Only later did he widen his compass and take on the fall of the entire Roman Empire. The first of his history’s six volumes appeared in 1776, the last in 1788.
Outwardly an account of the defeat of the Roman ideal, the true subject of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is human nature, and, in Gibbon’s recounting, it’s a far from pretty picture. He writes that the study of history proper is “little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.” It was ever thus, and part of Gibbon’s project is to convince his readers of that. “There exists in human nature,” he writes, “a strong propensity to depreciate the advantages, and to magnify the evils, of the present time.” The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire shows us just how wearily constant human nature has been through time. Gibbon makes his case for this through a series of aphoristic statements, among them:
Avarice is an insatiate and universal passion.
Fear had been the original parent of superstition.
How much swifter is the progress of corruption than its cure.
The most glorious or humble prospects are alike, and soon bounded by the sepulchre.
Of an earthquake:
The historian may content himself with an observation, which seems to be justified by experience, that man has much more to fear from the passions of his fellow-creatures, than from the convulsions of the elements.
Of the invention of gunpowder:
If we contrast the rapid progress of this mischievous discovery with the slow and laborious advances of reason, science, and the arts of peace, a philosopher, according to his temper, will laugh or weep at the folly of mankind.
The reigning tone of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is Olympian. The book is written as if by a god looking down on and recording the ambitions, grand or squalid, of human beings in their attempts, virtuous or vice-ridden, to achieve mastery over their destiny.
How today is one to read The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire? I recently did so at the rate of roughly 20 pages a day, early in the morning, over a five-month period. The greatest compliment I can pay it is to say that I regretted finishing it.
Early in his third volume, Gibbon writes:
There are few observers who possess a clear and comprehensive view of the revolutions of society; and who are capable of discovering the nice and secret springs of action, which impel, in the same uniform direction, the blind and capricious passions of a multitude of individuals.
Gibbon was one of those few. He describes military campaigns and discrete battles with impressive concision. (He himself served two years as an officer in the Hampshire militia, chiefly guarding French prisoners of war, which gave him a feeling for the military spirit; to a true writer, no experience is wasted.) No one who has read it will forget his capping sentence after describing the battle of Salice toward the close of the fourth century, where dead soldiers were left on the ground without burial: “Their flesh was greedily devoured by the birds of prey, who, in that age, enjoyed very frequent and delicious feasts . . . ” His hatred of war was genuine. “Military discipline and tactics,” he reminds us, “are about nothing more than the art of destroying the human species.”
Yet Gibbon admired military valor, just as he admired civic virtue, freedom (“the first step to curiosity and knowledge”), honor, and rationality. The decline of Rome in his pages is marked by the falling away from these virtues through avarice, indulgent luxury, laxity, tyranny, barbarity, and religious intolerance. His otherwise dark history is relieved only occasionally by such admirable figures as Boethius (480–524 c.e.), author of The Consolation of Philosophy and “the last of the Romans whom Cato or Tully could have acknowledged as their countryman,” or the Emperor Majorian, who ascended to the eastern emperorship in 457 c.e. and “who presents the welcome discovery of a great and heroic character, such as sometimes arise in a degenerate age, to vindicate the honor of the human species.”
In his essay, “Gibbon’s Historical Imagination,” Glen Bowersock notes that Gibbon “treated the raw materials of ancient and medieval history much as a novelist treated the plot line.” Gibbon was a regular reader of novels. His admiration for Henry Fielding was unbounded. In Memoirs of My Life he refers to “the romance of Tom Jones, that exquisite picture of human manners [that] will outlive the palace of the Escurial and the imperial eagle of the house of Austria.” Gibbon never thought of writing fiction himself, yet, as Bowersock notes, he “shaped his truth as if it were fiction, preserving thereby the animation of human history and the art of the novelist.” As Simon Leys noted: “The novelist is the historian of the present and the historian the novelist of the past.”
The loss of Roman literature was in itself for Gibbon one of the signs of the degradation of Rome. After the 42-year reign of the Antonine emperors in the second century c.e., he writes: “The name of Poet was almost forgotten; that of Orator was usurped by the sophists. A cloud of critics, of compilers, of commentators, darkened the face of learning, and the decline of genius was soon followed by the corruption of taste.”
There is one towering exception in the almost unending horror of the imperial stream that followed, and that is Julian the Apostate, who lived for 32 years (331–363 c.e.) and ruled for eight (355–363 c.e.). Educated in Greece, philosophic by training and temperament, Julian “had an inflexible regard for justice, tempered by a disposition to clemency; [and possessed] the knowledge of the general principles of equity and evidence, and the faculty of patiently investigating the most intricate and tedious questions which could be posed for discussion.” Courageous in battle yet “prudent in his intrepidity,” he led and won decisive battles against the relentlessly encroaching barbarians. Quite as impressive as a governor, he ruled with “a tender regard for the peace and happiness of his subjects,” and staved off corruption whenever he discovered it. Gibbon quotes Julian on his own virtue as a ruler: “Was it possible for a disciple of Plato and Aristotle to act otherwise than I have done?” Julian could not stay the fall of Rome, though Gibbon applauds him for delaying it, however briefly.
Julian’s actual apostasy was not, for Gibbon, the least of his virtues. This apostasy was of course from Christianity—which, along with the unending onslaught of barbarians from both the east and west and the internecine quarrels among the Romans themselves, were, in Gibbons’s view, the chief forces that brought the Roman Empire to ruin. As the historiographer Arnaldo Momigliano notes, Gibbon’s great distinction resides in his setting center stage the central truth that “late antiquity meant the replacement of paganism by Christianity,” which was not something he celebrated.
He satirized religious truth as it was set forth in “the science, or rather the language, of Metaphysics” in its Christian version regarding the immortality of the soul.
Christianity per se was not Gibbon’s problem. Religious faith that brought intolerance or empty asceticism among its adherents was. Gibbon’s artful malice was set aflame by what he took to be ignorant superstition. The polytheism of pagan Rome, tolerant of other religions, was more to his taste, though he mocked this, too. The oracles at Delphi, he concluded, were wiser about lining their pockets than about the future. He was no more merciful on the subject of the Jews: “That singular people seems to have yielded stronger and more ready assent to the traditions of their remote ancestors, than to the evidence of their own senses.” He argued that Jews did not proselytize because they, “the descendants of Abraham, were flattered by the opinion, that they alone were the heirs of the covenant, and they were apprehensive of diminishing their inheritance, by sharing it too easily with the strangers of the earth.” Religious rites were to him merely comic: “Many a sober Christian would rather admit that a wafer is God, than that God is a cruel and capricious tyrant.” Priests and monks above all were to be distrusted. To a philosophic eye, Gibbon wrote, “the vices of the clergy are far less dangerous than their virtues.”
Gibbon mocked “those minds which nature or grace had disposed for the easy reception of religious truth.” He satirized that truth as it was set forth in “the science, or rather the language, of Metaphysics” in its Christian version regarding the immortality of the soul. The intolerance of the Christians, once in power, an intolerance of others and of deviationists among their own ranks, aroused his ire: “In the course of their intestine dissensions, [Christians] have inflicted far greater severities on each other, than they experienced from the zeal of the infidels.”
The obscurity of arcane Christian doctrine and the hypocrisy of popes and priests stimulated Gibbon’s irony, an irony he claimed to have learned from Pascal’s Provincial Letters. He mentions the monk Antiochus, “whose one hundred and twenty homilies are still extant if what no one reads may be said to be extant.” Of the trial of John XXIII (1370–1419 c.e.), the so-called anti-pope, Gibbon writes: “The most scandalous charges were suppressed; the Vicar of Christ was only accused of piracy, murder, rape, sodomy, and incest.” He attributes to Pope Innocent III “the two most signal triumphs over sense and humanity, the establishment of transubstantiation, and the origin of the inquisition.” G.M. Young, the 20th-century historian of Victorianism, claimed for Gibbon a victory over religion—for after Gibbon’s eviscerations, “no institution could ever again profess to be outside the empire of history and not subject to its laws.”
dd though it might seem to say of a book running to more than 3,000 pages, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is a work of great economy. Gibbon’s work is the reverse of that of the medieval historian Gregory of Tours, about whom he wrote: “In a prolix work (the last five books contain ten years) he has omitted almost everything that posterity desires to learn.” Gibbon notes that, to avoid tedium, which will result in neither amusement nor instruction, he is going to pass over discussion of documents (the “Eighteen Creeds,” for example) or years of uneventful rule (“later Turkish dynasties may sleep in oblivion since they have no relation to the decline and fall of the Roman Empire”). Remarking in a footnote on the tedious negotiations that succeeded the synod of Ephesus, he writes: “The most patient reader will thank me for compressing so much nonsense and falsehood in a few lines.” His method is to highlight only the significant. “When any extraordinary scene presents itself,” he writes, “we shall spare no pains nor paper to open it at large to our reader but if whole years should pass without producing anything worthy his notice we shall not be afraid of a chasm in our history but shall hasten on to matters of consequence and leave such periods of time totally unobserved.” The book’s only longueurs are found in those pages given to descriptions of ecclesiastical controversy over Christian doctrine.
Above all, there is the pleasure of Gibbon’s prose. Set out in confident cadences, many of these sentences end on a high note of drama, others in comical surprise.
Above all, there is the pleasure of Gibbon’s prose. As a stylist, he was unsurpassed in all of 18th-century English literature. Striking off sentences of high formality, often structured round powerful parallelisms, laced with innuendo-like irony—Byron called Gibbon “the lord of irony”—he composed with an easy mastery of epithet and a pungent sense of the dramatic. No one had a finer feeling for the architecture of a sentence. Set out in confident cadences, many of these sentences end on a high note of drama, others in comical surprise. Consider the following:
Julian was convinced that he had seen the menacing countenance of war; the council which he summoned, of Tuscan Haruspices, unanimously pronounced that he should abstain from action; but on this occasion, necessity and reason were more prevalent than superstition; and the trumpets sounded at the break of day.
Or this, of the Emperor Gordian the younger:
Twenty-two 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 latter as well as the former were designed for use rather than for ostentation.
Gibbon is said to have composed while walking about his study, limning a full paragraph in his mind before sitting down to write it out. This is all the more remarkable considering that some of these paragraphs run 600 or 700 words or more. His diction was flawless and often charming; the music of his paragraphs came from his alternation of long and short sentences. Where he paraphrased others—Herodotus, St. Augustine—he often improved them by adding the luster of his own polished prose. A work of the length and breadth of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire would not be thinkable—or readable—if less handsomely written.
“Some fame, some profit, and the assurance of daily amusement” are the motives Gibbon gave for writing his history. He received £4,000 for the first three volumes of his history (about $750,000 in today’s money), and the same sum for the last three. He spent five drab years in Parliament, where he spoke rarely and never with distinction. He returned to Lausanne in 1783, where he completed his last two volumes. The history’s final sentence reads: “It was among the ruins of the Capitol that I first conceived the idea of a work which has amused and exercised near twenty years of my life, and which, however inadequate to my own wishes, I finally deliver to the curiosity and candour of the Public.”
Upon inscribing that splendid sentence, which he did on the night of June 27, 1787, between the hours of 11 and 12, Gibbon, after laying down his pen, “took several turns in a berceau, or covered walk of acacias, which commands a prospect of the country, the lake, and the mountains. The air was temperate, the sky was serene, the silver orb of the moon was reflected from the waves, and all nature was silent.” He was 47 years old. His immense satisfaction in the accomplishment is beyond imagining.
Although he received enough criticism for his chapters on religion to feel the need to publish a Vindication, or defense, of his methods and position, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was quickly recognized as a masterpiece, and Gibbon’s reputation was permanently established. His contemporary Horace Walpole wrote to a friend:
Lo, there is just appeared a truly classic work: a history, not majestic like Livy, nor compressed like Tacitus; not stamped with character like Clarendon; perhaps not so deep as Robertson’s Scotland, but a thousand degrees above his Charles; not pointed like Voltaire, but as accurate as he is inexact; modest as he is tranchant and sly as Montesquieu without being so recherché. The style is smooth as a Flemish picture, and the muscles are concealed and only for natural uses, not exaggerated like Michelangelo’s to show the painter’s skill in anatomy; nor composed of the limbs of clowns of different nations, like Dr. Johnson’s heterogeneous monsters. The book is Mr. Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
Even better was a letter to Gibbon from David Hume, one of his intellectual heroes, who would not live to read the last five volumes: “Whether I consider the dignity of your style, the depth of your matter, or the extensiveness of your learning, I must regard the work as equally the object of esteem, and I own that if I had not previously had the happiness of your personal acquaintance, such a performance from an Englishman in our age would have given me some surprise.” Gibbon’s response to the reaction of the Duke of Gloucester—“Another d-mn’d thick, square book! Always, scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr. Gibbon?”—is not known.
Gibbon next worked on his autobiography, which he never completed to satisfaction (and which was posthumously stitched together by his friend Lord Sheffield). With the aid of a younger historian named John Pinkerton, Gibbon had also planned to publish a chronicle of England from the fifth century to the beginning of the House of Tudor. But his health gave way. He had long suffered from gout in both legs, and he had an embarrassingly large hydrocele, or sac of serous fluid around the testicle, that badly disfigured him. He had three operations on it, and the third put him out of the game. He died in the winter of 1794, at the age of 57.
Thomas Carlyle, who published his history of the French Revolution in 1837, an even hundred years after the birth of Edward Gibbon, wrote of his predecessor: “Gibbon is a kind of bridge that connects the antique with the modern ages. And how gorgeously does it swing across that gloomy and tumultuous chasm of those barbarous centuries.” Through 20 years of solitary labor, this chubby little man also proved that the first, if not the sole, criterion for a great historian is to be a great writer.
1 Suzanne Cuchord went on to marry Jacques Necker, the chief financial minister of Louis XVI; and later, pleased by her husband’s wealth and position, lightly lorded it over Gibbon, who had earlier rejected her for want of her money and the ultimate courage of his ardor. If asked, Gibbon would doubtless have considered it a fair exchange: She found a rich husband who, until the French Revolution, wielded great power; he, Gibbon, ended up composing a masterwork. With Necker, Suzanne also gave birth to a daughter, Germaine, later Madame de Stael, the famous belletrist.
2 It was in fact in the Temple of Juno, an odd mistake for a historian to make.