In Part I of this near-random collection of jottings, I remarked that Edward Gibbon, despite his near-obsessive concern with politeness and polish, tells you more about the sex lives of historical figures than virtually any modern historian. I also remarked that his modern-day fans, despite their frequently amazing levels of erudition and enthusiasm, studiously avoid the slightest mention of this aspect of his great work. Having done “Gibbon on Sex,” I decided to do “Gibbon on Everything Else” as well, which, for whatever reason, turned out to be more demanding than I expected. Today’s piece is the last of Edward. For the first six, listed, alas, in reverse order, go here.
When Gibbon reached 490 AD, with the “Reign of Odoacer, the First Barbarian King of Italy,” he had achieved the goal he had set for himself “amidst the ruins of the Capitol,” but, he discovered, he didn’t want to stop writing. Voltaire, with his enthusiasm for the arts, had declared that only four periods of human history really merited study: Periclean1 Athens, Augustan Rome, Renaissance Italy, and the France of Louis XIV.2 Gibbon, having finished off the “real” Roman Empire, evidently decided to write the history of “everything else,” or “how we got to where we are now”—the path that humanity, or at least “Europe”, followed from the decline of learning—or “letters”, as Gibbon would have it—to their revival with the Italian Renaissance. Since Constantinople did not fall to the Turks until 1453, Gibbon gave himself more than eight hundred years to play around with, writing about the Byzantine Empire until it got boring,3 and then writing about anything and everything that impinged upon it as long as he found it interesting, including Charlemagne, Mahomet, and Genghis Khan.
Until the sixties, which though they did not change everything, did change a lot of things, Gibbon was considered one of the very greatest of English authors, as securely on the top shelf as Shakespeare. His omnipresent irreligion, deeply felt and frivolously expressed, shocked the Victorians but they could not deny it, nor could they deny Gibbon’s greatness.4 His rationality offended the Romantics,5 but his authority was irrefutable, until the German scientific school unleashed an army of experts, besieging Gibbon as the Lilliputians besieged Gulliver, although in this case the Lilliputians were largely correct. So why read Gibbon today?
Gibbon represents a massive, if massively one-sided, attempt of the European mind to understand itself through historical narrative, though, to a remarkable extent, rather in the Enlightenment “tradition,” Gibbon doesn’t offer explanations as to why things turned out the way they did—why Europe, which for so long was on the “right” track, got off on the wrong one for even longer, and then suddenly got back on the right one again. Why did the Romans stop being “noble” and start being fanatics, or at least start allowing themselves to be ruled by them? Why did fanaticism rule men’s minds for so long, and why, having lasted so long—longer, really than Rome itself—did it ever stop? Why did “letters” revive when they did, and not sooner, or not at all? Hegel would provide answers—some fascinating, others laughable—but Gibbon did not. He was far more interested in character than causality,6 and his history presents an almost innumerable cast of characters, their vices and virtues—when such are present—carefully delineated with unwavering accuracy and diligence, the whole seen through that single, small, polished, gleaming lens.
What about the footnotes? Gibbon is famous for his footnotes, but I couldn’t figure out how to fit them in, other than in a footnote, which really wouldn’t be fair. In the passage I quoted on the Emperor Commodus, Gibbon footnotes his reckless statement regarding the long, bony neck of the ostrich with information drawn from the French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (aka “Buffon”) that the ostrich’s neck is three feet long and has seventeen vertebrae. In the next footnote, Gibbon notes that Commodus also killed a giraffe, which virtually no European had ever seen since the Romans stopped their exotic slaughter, describing it as “the tallest, the most gentle, and the most useless of the large quadrupeds,” though how a giraffe could be considered more useless than a hippopotamus or a rhinoceros I do not understand. Most of Gibbon’s footnotes are not so curious. He hides occasional witticisms there, but for the most part they are, sometimes consciously, a testament to his own enormous scholarship and industry and to that of the eighteenth century as a whole, which, despite its many limitations, sought to understand “the world” with less bias and greater discrimination than any civilization had done before.
Peter Heather may not be the modern Gibbon, but his The Fall of the Roman Empire (2006) is very good reading. Chris Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome covers the once-Roman world from 400 to 1000 CE. Charles Freeman’s The Closing of the Western Mind (2002) is an excellent modern guide to the naked power struggles that once wore the visage of Christ.
The most recent edition of Gibbon, available from Penguin in three very fat paperbacks, is edited by David Womersley, author of The Transformation of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which probably contains more eighteenth century minutiae than most people can bear, but I enjoyed it. Edward Gibbon and Empire, edited by Rosamund McKitterick and Roland Quinault, is probably too inside for most, but I enjoyed it as well. There’s a convenient web edition of The Decline and Fall here
Oh, yikes. Word doesn’t know how to spell “Periclean.” Bill Gates, you are so fucking ignorant. ↩
Voltaire is on record, somewhere, of saying that Isaac Newton was the greatest man who ever lived. How he smuggled him into Versailles I’ll never know. ↩
“Five centuries of the decline and fall of the empire have already elapsed; but a period of more than eight hundred years still separates me from the term of my labours, the taking of Constantinople by the Turks. Should I persevere in the same course, should I observe the same measure, a prolix and slender thread would be spun through many a volume, nor would the patient reader find an adequate reward of instruction or amusement. At every step, as we sink deeper in the decline and fall of the Eastern empire, the annals of each succeeding reign would impose a more ungrateful and melancholy task. These annals must continue to repeat a tedious and uniform tale of weakness and misery; the natural connection of causes and events would be broken by frequent and hasty transitions, and a minute accumulation of circumstances must destroy the light and effect of those general pictures which compose the use and ornament of a remote history.” [From the introduction to chapter 48] ↩
As I remarked in Part 1, Gibbon’s unembarrassed interest in sexuality—almost “scientific”—was ignored, and still is today, rather in the manner of Shakespeare’s occasional “cunt” and “fuck” jokes, which can be found in Act III, Scene 4 of Henry V, when Katherine, a French princess and Henry’s bride to be, is learning English, as well as in Hamlet’s line to Ophelia “Do you think I meant country matters?” (Act III, Scene 2) I have seen 13 versions of Hamlet, and in 1 of them has the actor playing Hamlet given a “correct” reading of this line. ↩
Coleridge hated Gibbon, but Shelley loved him. When Shelley lived in Rome, he would go to the Coliseum, which was heavily overgrown and entirely “unimproved” in those days, find a particularly bosky spot, and spend the day lying in the warm Italian sun reading Gibbon. It does sound a bit like heaven. ↩
It’s certainly inaccurate to say that Gibbon was not concerned with causality. He provides an elaborate discussion of the causes for Christianity’s success, but his compulsion for ridicule makes it difficult to know how seriously he takes his own arguments. He just has a hard time keeping a straight face when the topic is people who believe in talking snakes. Gibbon habitually assigns a great deal of emphasis to “character,” not only for individuals but for “races” and “peoples,” remarking, for example, on the place in the Roman empire of the Syrians and Egyptians: “The use of their ancient dialects, by secluding them from the commerce of mankind, checked the improvements of those barbarians. The slothful effeminacy of the former, exposed them to the contempt; the sullen ferociousness of the latter, excited the aversion of the conquerors.” Even after World War I, it was scarcely unusual for European historians to dismiss peoples and nations on the ground of effeminacy. ↩