On Reading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

23 Jan

As a matter of fact I’m reading about Pirates and Buddhism at the moment (although not in the same book, obviously).

I suppose it’s worth asking why anyone would bother reading Gibbon’s epic, given that it was published between 1776 and 1788 and history has moved on a bit since then.

(Not only in the sense that we’ve actually had quite a bit more history since then, but also in the sense that the study of history itself has moved on, historians have developed new sources of information and they have also radically overhauled the ways in which they use their sources).

There is also the fact that Gibbon himself had his blind spots. He has been criticised for being too critical of the early Christians (Which probably means that he was simply insufficiently deferential for the tastes of some of his more pious contemporaries) and he has a definite prejudice against the Byzantine Empire.

If you’re a little unsure about Byzantium, which was basically the Eastern Roman Empire, don’t be too disheartened. I was about twenty-six when bought a second-hand book entitled The Byzantine Empire, partly because it was cheap, but mostly because I had no idea where or when the Byzantine Empire had actually been and I thought it was high time I found out.

(My book turned out to have been written by one Edward Foord and first published in 1911. This makes it a fascinating historical text, partly because of the information the Mr Foord intended to supply, but also because of the insight it gives into the thinking of an educated Englishman in the early years of the Twentieth Century. It really is remarkable how attitudes and perspectives have changed).

Gibbon’s prejudice in this matter would have had its origins in the accounts left by the Crusaders who generally misunderstood and mistrusted the Byzantine Emperor, in spite of the generous support provided by the Emperor Alexius Comnenus to the First Crusade.

Essentially it all boiled down to the schism between the Eastern Greek Orthodox form of Christianity and the Western Latin form of Christianity and the basic difference in orientation between the Normans, Franks and later German knights who thought the best way to resolve a dispute was at the point of a suitable sharp implement, while the general trend of opinion in the Byzantine Empire was that it was better to avoid war if possible, hence their policy of subsidies and creative diplomacy in order to deflect the aggression of their neighbours.

As a result of the success of Byzantine diplomacy the adjective ‘byzantine’ has been adopted in the English language to  describe behaviour that is devious, treacherous and duplicitous with the connotation of subtlety and complexity. (As opposed to the more straightforward forms of treachery and duplicity such as you would often find amongst the leadership of the First Crusade, for example).

Put very simply, anyone who relies solely on Edward Gibbon’s work for their view of Roman history will be left with a perspective on the subject that would be distinctive, to say the least.

Naturally, I don’t see this as a reason not to read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. To me, it’s just a reason to be sure to read other, preferably more modern, histories as well.

So what positive reasons would there be for reading it?

Well, the fact remains that there isn’t any other work that covers the same expanse of history, ie  from the age of the Antonines until the final fall of Constantinople, or roughly  98 CE (AD) to 1453 CE (AD). There are plenty of books that cover different aspects of Roman history or shorter periods of Roman history in much more detail but none of them, so far as I know have the same scope.

Another reason for reading it is that Gibbon was writing a work of literature as much as a work of history. Given that he was working long before the novel was fully developed as a literary form people often read history when they wanted some kid of prose narrative. (I still do, and as far as I’m concerned anything that happened after May 29th 1453 is simply recent).

Another reason for reading The Decline and Fall, and a large part of my reason for writing this in the first place, is the way that Gibbon’s prose makes you read.

What’s important to understand about Gibbon’s writing is that it was aimed at a readership who were not troubled, as we are, by the problem of how to pack all the things we need to do into the time we have available. Gibbon’s target readership were people who had the money to buy books, and the education and leisure to read them. The problem these people had wasn’t finding the time to do things, it was finding the things to do in the time they had.

As a result of this situation, and probably Gibbon’s own temperament, his style is discursive, perhaps a little pompous, although good humored and rather amusing, and laden with digressions, parentheses, sonorous rhetoric, and many, many footnotes. (Some of them pretty scurrilous).

What this means is that if you want to read Gibbon’s prose, you really have to let him dictate the pace. You just can’t rush through The Decline and Fall in a hurry the way you might read a modern novel, or even some modern histories. You have to take your time. (Try to think of it as a form of  ‘reading meditation’).

Maybe I’m just getting old, but I think that anything that makes you slow down a bit is probably a good thing.

PS Penguin do a rather handy single volume paperback version of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It abbreviates some of the less important material and it stops short at the fall of the Roman Empire in the West. (This is fair enough since Gibbon himself considering drawing to a halt at this point and in fairness the latter part of his work covering The Byzantine Empire, the rise of Islam and Crusades and the final end of the Empire in the East isn’t generally reckoned to be as good as the earlier parts).

I have a copy of this volume and I enjoyed it very much. Some time later, by means that were a little indirect, but entirely legal and reasonably ethical I managed to obtain an eight volume hard back edition of  the full text which looks very handsome on my bookshelf (one of them at least.) As a matter of fact, it makes the rest of the room look a bit shabby (not very difficult).

PPS If any of the above makes me seem like some sort of intellectual, I should point out that I only seem like an intellectual whenI’m not actually in the company ofthe genuine article. At such times, I try to keep my big mouth shut and look for a quick exit.


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