Edward Gibbon, Historian of the Roman Empire

Part II: A Closer Look at the Decline and Fall

by Eugene Y. C. Ho, Hong Kong 
Tragic News: Mr. Ho died in July 1997, at the age of 37, after an accident in his home. See his home page at the Karl Popper web site. See also Two Part Invention in D Minor by the late Eugene Ho --- duration ~1 minute, Mr. Ho playing his own composition, first performed at the Hong Kong Arts Centre on 9 September 1994 ... for 14.4 kb/s modem: MP3 ... for 56 kb/s (streaming): MP3, RealPlayer, or Microsoft Media. (please let me know which of these formats work best for you ... all are from the same audio cassette tape sent to ^z by Eugene on 5 May 1997, shortly before his untimely death ... digitized & encoded by John Ferguson & Merle Zimmermann)

The following is in Eugene's own words: 

Author's Note: Originally published in Issue 31 (Jul - Sep 1994) of the Hong Kong intellectual journal Intellectus, the following essay -- the first of a two-part instalment -- was written to commemorate the bicentennial of the death of Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), author of A History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Click here for the first instalment. Readers who wish to read some specimens of Gibbon's masterpiece may visit either Dr. Zimmermann's web page (The "Best of" Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire) or mine (Passages from Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire). 

Some Major Themes of the Decline and Fall

As noted in the first part of this essay, Gibbon feels, thinks, and writes as a Republican Roman. When he praises or criticises someone or something, it is always from the standpoint of a contemporary Roman citizen. The following Table of Opposites will help us understand what Gibbon's likes and dislikes are:
                    civilisation - barbarism
                          vigour - enervation
                       manliness - effeminacy
                      simplicity - luxury
        (constitutional) liberty - despotic ruler/servile subjects
                            Rome - Byzantium/Asia/the Orient
                     sociability - unsociability
                      moderation - fanaticism/zeal/enthusiasm
               reason/philosophy - religion/superstition
The most fundamental of these contrasting concepts, the one which gives shape to the entire Decline and Fall, is that between civilisation and barbarism. "Civilisation" was a new word of the later 18th Century, brought originally from France. The sense of the need for such a term derived from the same complex of ideas which produced the notion of the progress of civil society (to which "civilisation" is almost an equivalent), and also the extensive currency of other words derived from the ancient Greek and Roman city or polis, for example, "civil", "polished", "polite", etc. They implied criteria of appraisal for morals and manners that were secular and social -- criteria that valued restrained but easy manners, as well as tolerant and agreeable social discourse. More comprehensively, these words suggested a way of judging and comparing whole societies not in religious or constitutional terms, but by the degree of their progress in the arts and sciences and in the improvement of reason, manners, and information, or in Gibbon's terminology, from "rudeness" to "cultivation" or "refinement".

This theme concerning the civilised state of the Roman Empire is announced at the very beginning of the first chapter of the Decline and Fall:

In the second century of the Christian era, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valour. The gentle, but powerful, influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed or abused the advantages of wealth and luxury. (Decline and Fall, Ch. 1; emphasis mine.)
[Image of frontispiece, 1808 edition] Notice that in the quotation, the words "enjoyed" and "abused" are used together, for it is Gibbon's perspicacity to see an ironic connection between the two: peace, prosperity, and civilisation, which inevitably lead to indulgence and corruption, are among the greatest dangers to the liberty and, in the long run, the safety of a state. Simply stated, a civilised society bears within itself the seeds of its own dissolution. As he puts it, "Prosperity ripened the principle of decay" (Ch. 38), and "the minds of men were gradually reduced to the same level, the fire of genius was extinguished, and even the military spirit evaporated" (Ch 2).

For Gibbon, luxury is always the consequence of prosperity and corruption, and the word "luxury", which abounds everywhere in the Decline and Fall, is always used in the bad sense. At one point (Ch. 2), he even labels it "odious". To be sure, Gibbon does not blame luxury as the prime cause of Rome's social decline; in his view, true responsibility lay with the despotism which stemmed from the ambitions of emperors and the opportunities afforded by military prowess to seize power. Thus, economic prosperity was less harmful. But he regards luxury as having brought harm to the mentality of the Romans, who, in Republican times, had been simple, patriotic, vigorous, and industrious. In one passage, he straightforwardly asserts that "luxury... is always fatal except to an industrious people" (Ch. 42).

According to Gibbon, a luxurious society tends to lose its manly vigour. In the case of Rome, the age of the Republic and that of the early Empire were characterised by the Romans' virility and ardent involvement in public affairs, for example, in their participation in governing and defending their country. As luxury set in, decadence in thinking and lifestyle ensued:

The rich and luxurious nobles, sinking into their natural character, accepted, as a favour, this disgraceful exemption from military service; and as long as they were indulged in the enjoyment of their baths, their theatres, and their villas, they cheerfully resigned the more dangerous cares of empire to the rough hands of peasants and soldiers. (Ch. 10.)
And in the court, simple rites gave way to pretentious ceremonies:
The manly pride of the Romans, content with substantial power, had left to the vanity of the East the forms and ceremonies of ostentatious greatness. But when they lost even the semblance of those virtues which were derived from their ancient freedom, the simplicity of Roman manners was insensibly corrupted by the stately affectation of the courts of Asia. (Ch. 17; emphases mine.)
It is important to note that, in the Decline and Fall, the words "luxury", "effeminacy", "enervation", and "Asia" (or "the East") are always used negatively to denote those states of affairs which were diametrically opposite to the tenets (or the spirit) of Republican Rome.

As luxury gained an upper hand in Rome, the enjoyment of private affluence seduced the citizens from active participation in public life. In this manner, they became the acquiescent subjects or even the willing tools -- "slaves" -- of a despotic ruler. In the same way, liberty could be lost to an external conqueror when luxury subverted the military as well as the political virtues. Gibbon recalls that in Republican times, "the temperate struggles of the patricians and plebeians had finally established the firm and equal balance of the constitution, which united the freedom of popular assemblies with the authority and wisdom of a senate and the executive powers of a regal magistrate" (Ch. 38). Later, in the age of the Emperors, "The image of a free constitution was preserved with decent reverence: The Roman senate appeared to possess the sovereign authority" (Ch. 1). Yet, as the Roman Empire began its decline,

The distinctions of personal merit and influence, so conspicuous in a republic, so feeble and obscure under a monarchy, were abolished by the despotism of the emperors; who substituted in their room a severe subordination of rank and office, from the titled slaves who were seated on the steps of the throne, to the meanest instruments of arbitrary power. (Ch. 17.)
Naturally, Gibbon hates arbitrary power, which he equates with despotism. In his view, this form of rule resulted when the "intrepid and vigilant guardians" of a state failed to protect public liberty, and allowed it, though perhaps helplessly, to be abused by a single person. This is why he prefers Republican to Imperial Rome.

Even when he discusses Imperial Rome, Gibbon has his own preferences and prejudices. He shows a higher regard for the Western part of the Empire, and finds the Byzantian part uncongenial and contemptible, principally because it possessed all the negative characteristics mentioned above: uncivilised, corrupted, inactive, and effeminate. In his view, Byzantine history is nothing but "a tedious and uniform tale of weakness and misery" (Ch. 48), and in Chapter 53 of the Decline and Fall, he accuses the Eastern Empire of having bequeathed nothing to posterity.

Gibbon's Wit and Humour

Gibbon considers himself not only a historian, but also a philosopher, i.e., someone who is able to judge people and things from a lofty summit and therefore with detachment, and who can also correctly ascribe all historical events and phenomena to the proper chains of causes and effects. "Philosophic history" thus means to him the highest possible form of historiography: history written in a philosophic spirit. We have briefly discussed his analysis of Rome's decline, and shall now study, though again only cursorily, his philosophical judgment of men and human affairs. Often, these judgments are passed in the most witty and humorous manner.

The first one that comes to my mind is a derision of the Empire's rich nobles and their flatterers :

Whenever the rich prepare a solemn and popular entertainment, whenever they celebrate with profuse and pernicious luxury their private banquets, the choice of the guests is the subject of anxious deliberation. The modest, the sober, and the learned are seldom preferred; and the nomenclators, who are commonly swayed by interested motives, have the address to insert in the list of invitations the obscure names of the most worthless of mankind. But the frequent and familiar companions of the great are those parasites who practise the most useful of all arts, the art of flattery; who eagerly applaud each word and every action of their immortal patron; gaze with rapture on his marble columns and variegated pavements, and strenuously praise the pomp and elegance which he is taught to consider as a part of his personal merit. (Ch. 31.)
A few lines later, he laments that "the acquisition of knowledge seldom engages the curiosity of the nobles, who abhor the fatigue and disdain the advantages of study." How true and insightful these two comments are! Do we not observe the same thing in most of today's mammon-worshippers, socialites, and their train of bootlickers?

Concerning Man's weaknesses, here are two observations at which many of us would blush:

The most worthless of mankind are not afraid to condemn in others the same disorders which they allow in themselves; and can readily discover some nice difference of age, character, or station, to justify the partial distinction. (Ch. 6.)

We are always prone to impute our own sentiments and passions to the Deity. (Ch. 27.)

Gibbon holds religion with the contempt which characterises the Age of Enlightenment. He equates Christianity with superstition, and regards it as only suitable to the ignorant masses. He is especially critical of the monkish and the priestly professions, because of their unsocial and selfish nature, and also because of the hypocrisy sometimes associated with monastic life: vow of chastity created obsessions with sexuality and led virgins into compromising situations, while monastic poverty resulted in extremely wealthy monks and monasteries. Employing the technique of irony for which he is so well known, he writes that "By [some monks'] contempt of the world, they insensibly acquired its most desirous advantages" (Ch. 25). Elsewhere, he mentions that he has heard or read the candid confession of a Benedictine abbot -- "My vow of poverty has given me an hundred thousand crowns a year; my vow of obedience has raised me to the rank of a sovereign prince." Gibbon, who has a sharp eye for hypocrisy, cannot resist adding sarcastically, "I forget the consequences of his vow of chastity" (Ch. 37).

Sometimes, Gibbon likes to play with words in order to create a stylistic effect, as in the following two examples:

The disorder of his [Severus'] mind irritated the pains of his body; he wished impatiently for death, and hastened the instant of it by his impatience. (Ch. 6; emphases mine.)

Persuasion is the resource of the feeble; and the feeble can seldom persuade. (Ch. 68; emphases mine.)

Flaws in the Decline and Fall

The Decline and Fall was the result of careful research, and even the choice of words and phrases were the outcome of repeated trials and tests, as we can readily tell from the various quotations above. According to his recollection, "Many experiments were made before I could hit the middle tone between a dull chronicle and a rhetorical declamation: three times did I compose the first chapter, and twice the second and third, before I was tolerably satisfied with their effect" (Memoirs of My Life, B. Radice, ed. [1984], p. 158). He also reports that "it has always been my practice to cast a long paragraph in a single mould, to try it by the ear, to deposit it in my memory, but to suspend the action of the pen till I had given the last polish to my work" (Ibid., p. 161). Hence the splendid sonority of the Gibbonian sentence which echoes in the ear even when read silently. It would not, perhaps, be an exaggeration to say that no historian or prose author has ever written a work that matches the Decline and Fall in its sublime and beautiful prose style.

Having admitted the scholarship and literary grace of Gibbon's magnum opus, it is however necessary to point out that it was written before the birth of "scientific" Roman historiography, and therefore lacked some of the refinements of modern historiography and research. One thing which seems to be a serious blot in the work is that Gibbon's explanation of the decline and fall of Rome -- namely, "the triumph of religion and barbarism" -- is too simplistic. Against these two factors identified by Gibbon, modern historians have discovered, or think they have discovered, many others, some of which include climatic changes, the decline of population, lead poisoning, the destruction of military power in the Fifth Century, the debilitating influence of the East on the West, and a class struggle in which the army became involved on the side of the peasants. However, despite this myriad of reasons offered to explain the fall of Rome, no consensus has yet emerged, and historians may well multiply the variety of explanations many times over. Indeed, according to a modern historian (A. Ferrill [1983], p. 12), a book written in German and published in 1984 lists some 210 factors as being causes of Rome's fall!

But while historians fail to reach a consensus regarding the main reasons for the Roman débâcle, they concur in criticising Gibbon's prejudices against the Byzantine Empire. J. B. Bury, the editor of the best known edition of the Decline and Fall, judges that Gibbon "[fails] to bring out the momentous fact that [till] the twelfth century the [Eastern Roman] Empire was the bulwark of Europe against the East; nor did he appreciate its importance in preserving the heritage of Greek civilization" (quoted in W. Durant and A. Durant [1967], p. 807). Another editor of Gibbon, Christopher Dawson, laments that "even the greatest of our historians of the Eastern Empire -- Edward Gibbon -- shows a complete lack of sympathy for its culture" (quoted in E. J. Oliver [1958], p. 164).

Most of Gibbon's factual mistakes have already been corrected by his editors. However, there are a few concerning Chinese history which even they have failed to identify. The first mistake is in connection to the Sung Dynasty. Gibbon here discusses Genghis Khan's invasion of China:

Before the invasion of Zingis [i.e., Genghis Khan], China was divided into two empires or dynasties of the North and South; and the difference of origin and interest was smoothed by a general conformity of laws, language, and national manners. The Northern empire, which had been dismembered by Zingis, was finally subdued seven years after his death [in AD 1227]. After the loss of Pekin, the emperor had fixed his residence at Kaifong, a city many leagues in circumference, and which contained, according to the Chinese annals, fourteen hundred thousand families of inhabitants and fugitives. (Ch. 64.)
Admittedly, there were two Sung dynasties, the Northern and the Southern Sung. However, Northern Sung was not subdued seven years after Genghis Khan's death. It had ended 101 years earlier, in AD 1126. Nevertheless, there was an empire which the Mongols vanquished in AD 1234, seven years after the death of Genghis. It was the empire of the Nu-Chins. The text therefore shows Gibbon's confusion of the Northern Sung Dynasty with the empire of the Nu- Chins.

Moreover, it was not "after the loss of Pekin" that the Sung emperor decided to move his capital to Kaifong. Instead, Kaifong had been the capital of Northern Sung since its founding in AD 960. When Northern Sung ended and Southern Sung began, Lin-An was chosen as the new capital.

Another mistake of Gibbon which concerns Chinese history has to do with Buddhism, and the passage is quoted below:

Yet this learned prince [Kublai Khan] declined from the pure and simple religion of his great ancestor: he sacrificed to the idol Fo; and his blind attachment to the lamas of Thibet and the bonzes of China provoked the censure of the disciples of Confucius. (Ch. 64.)
But the "Fo" to which Kublai Khan offered his sacrifices was none other than the Buddha! (The Chinese word for "Buddha" is pronounced in Mandarin as "Fo".) Besides, ever since its introduction into China in 2 BC, Buddhism had always been well accepted by the Chinese, who, though being disciples of Confucius, did not find it offensive.

[Image of the Roman Forum]

Gibbon and His History: An Overview

Admittedly, the Decline and Fall, as we have just seen, contains flaws, both conceptual and factual. On the conceptual level, one gravely doubts if only two factors, namely, the triumph of barbarism and that of Christianity, contributed to Rome's decline and fall. Furthermore, Gibbon's prejudice against the Eastern Empire prevents him from appreciating the positive sides of Byzantine civilisation. After all, when the Western Empire collapsed in AD 476, the Eastern Empire survived as a bulwark of Europe for over a thousand years!

On the factual level, past editors of Gibbon's History had all taken great pains to correct Gibbon's mistakes. And so have I, insofar as they concern Chinese history.

Something may also be said of Gibbon's rather narrow view of history. In his opinion, "wars, and the administration of public affairs, are the principal subjects of history" (Ch. 9). On another occasion, he judges it to be "indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortune of mankind" (Ch. 3). Thus, he excludes the history of art, science, and literature, and has nothing to say about Gothic cathedrals or Moslem mosques, about Arabic science or Christian literature. He crowns Petrarch, but passes Dante by, and he "[pays] almost no attention to the condition of the lower classes, the rise of industry in medieval Constantinople and Florence" (W. Durant and A. Durant, p. 807).

Let us nevertheless grant all these defects. But when they are allowed for, the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire may still be ranked as the supreme book of the 18th Century, to be appraised on a par with other 18th Century masterpieces such as Rousseau's Social Contract, Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, and Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. Ultimately, Gibbon's work transcends the details of the Roman Empire. It is a prose epic, as has been widely recognised, in which all historical experience is reviewed on a universal scale. And when we ask how Gibbon came to produce such a masterpiece, we perceive that it was the accidental combination of intellectual ambition with wealth, gentlemanly leisure, scholastic ability, and the literary climate of the age. Naturally one wonders how soon such a combination can be expected to re- occur. Never, in the conviction of another historian of Rome, the German Barthold Niebuhr (1776-1831): "Gibbon's work will never be excelled" (quoted in Ibid., p. 808). This seems to be also the conviction of many other historians. 

Selected References

BOND, Harold L. [1960], The Literary Art of Edward Gibbon. Oxford: At the Clarendon Press.

BOWERSOCK, G. W., CLIVE, John, and GRAUBARD, Stephen R., eds. [1977]: Edward Gibbon and the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

BURROW, G. W. [1985]: Gibbon. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

COCHRANE, C. N. [1942/1943], "The Mind of Edward Gibbon" (in 2 instalments), in The University of Toronto Quarterly, vol. 12 (Oct. 1942): pp. 1-17; (Jan. 1943): pp. 146-166.

DURANT, Will, and DURANT, Ariel [1967]: The Story of Civilization. Vol. X: Rousseau and Revolution. New York: Simon and Schuster.

FERRILL, Arther [1983]: The Fall of the Roman Empire: The Military Explanation. London: Thames & Hudson.

FUGLUM, Per [1953]: Edward Gibbon: His View of Life and Conception of History. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

GIBBON, Edward (Oliphant Smeaton, ed.) [undated]: A History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in 3 volumes. New York: Modern Library.

---------- (Betty Radice, ed.) [1984]: Memoirs of My Life. London: Penguin.

HO, Yue-Ching Eugene [1994]: "Edward Gibbon and his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." Written in Chinese and published in the 27th March 1994 issue of the local newspaper Hong Kong Economic Journal.

---------- [1994]: Notes for the Eight Lectures on "Edward Gibbon and his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire", given to members of the Hong Kong Institute of Economic Science.

OLIVER, E. J. [1958]: Gibbon and Rome. London: Sheed and Ward Ltd.

PORTER, Roy [1988]: Edward Gibbon: Making History. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: I am most grateful to my cousin, Miss Julie Tam, and her friend, Miss Sue Chow, both residents of Ontario, Canada, and students at the University of Toronto, for their assistance in securing for me a copy of the above two articles by C. N. Cochrane. 
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