“Unprovided with original learning, unformed in the habits of thinking, unskilled in the arts of composition, I resolved to write a book” Edward Gibbon
I am devoting a lot of space on this blog to the towering classic of history literature, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
The main reason for this is simply that I regard it as the best work of history that anyone has yet written. My reviews attempt to give the flavour of the book, and I hope when they are done that they will together give you the feeling that you have read the book yourself. Obviously, you can get an even stronger feeling of having read the book by actually reading it. I would encourage you to do so. But it is a very long book and it is in places hard going. If you don’t have the time to tackle the actual thing, I hope my reviews will be a good substitute.
What makes this book so special? I think that it is as much a product of the times that it was written in as of the author. Nowadays there is a clear distinction between popular history books, academic history books and general literature. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire falls into all these categories. It is still widely quoted in academic circles, and if you want to back up an argument a reference to Gibbon is as good as a reference to a primary source. I think the use of references in quite the way Gibbon did it was pretty innovative at the time, but it still an object lesson in how to make clear to your readers where the story you are telling is coming from. But nobody could mistake it for an academic treatise. It is nothing at all like a textbook. It is definitely intended to be picked up by the general reader and read for primarily for pleasure. And over two hundred years later the general reader can still pick up the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and get great pleasure from reading it.
Of course the world has changed since Gibbon’s time, and I don’t think it is possible to write such a work any more. There is no longer a single educated public to whom to appeal. There are still many of us who love history, but there are many different threads in that. I don’t think it is any longer possible to write a book that is intended to appeal to everyone.
Gibbon the Atheist
I first read Decline and Fall as teenager borrowing it from my local library. It was in three huge well thumbed volumes and looked old enough to have dated back to Gibbon’s times. Sadly I never looked at what edition it was but it must have been Victorian. Footnotes were placed at the foot of the relevant page, and I read them as religiously as the text itself. It was interesting that as soon as Gibbon got on to the subject of religion the editor would find a lot of commentary to put into the footnotes. Most of the footnotes were contradicting Gibbon’s attitudes or facts. This had the effect of drawing attention to something I would probably have taken much longer to pick up on. Reading such a long book you begin to get a really strong idea of the personality of the author. And one of the impressions you form is that he does not believe in any religion.
This is not a superficial dislike of certain aspects of certain doctrines. He simply doesn’t buy it. And more, he has rumbled it. Here from Chapter 8 he describes how religion succeeds in keeping hold of its adherents. It happens to be describing the rites of Zoroasterism, but they could apply to any faith.
Every mode of religion, to make a deep and lasting impression on the
human mind, must exercise our obedience, by enjoining practices of
devotion, for which we can assign no reason; and must acquire our
esteem, by inculcating moral duties analogous to the dictates of our
Richard Dawkins could get a whole book out of expanding on the details of just that paragraph. But it really is so true. Point it out and it is obvious, but you could easily go your whole life and miss it. The reason people adhere to a religion is simply that the rites and practises continually drum its truth into you. Your conscious mind gets overwhelmed by the habits and never gets the opportunity to question it. And if it does, the force of habit soon drags our reason back into line. And as to religion being a source of morality, it is so obviously the other way around. Religion appeals to our innate sense of morality to make us feel good about it.
Gibbon’s Sense of Humour
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is a serious and influential work of scholarship, and is often discussed in a very serious tone of voice. And so it is and so it should. But when you read it you don’t have to get very far before you get into the author’s sense of humour. It is certainly dry, but nonetheless it can have you laughing out loud. For example, he describes the Ukraine which the Goths have just conquered. It is a land full of opportunities for farming and trade. Or as he puts it, full of temptations for human industry. But as he says, the Goths managed to resist this temptation and carry on with looting and rapine.
Why did the Empire fall?
Gibbon’s opinion on why the Empire fell is often quoted. The trouble is exactly what his opinion is claimed to be varies. He is usually being quoted to support some viewpoint or other, so it is usual that Gibbon is being brought in to give some gravitas.
But what was Gibbon’s actual opinion? He pins down the point in time at which the decline starts pretty precisely. He traces it back to the reign of Severus and blames it pretty squarely on the policy of indulging the troops.
Structure of the Book
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was published in six volumes, and most editions keep the six volume structure. There are 72 chapters and mercifully for me, the chapter numbers are sequential throughout the book. The first volume is the most popular one taking us from the reign of Augustus to the accession of Constantine, and including the notorious chapter 15. Chapter 15 deals with the rise of the Christian Church, and was the bit that got Gibbon into trouble. There are very few references to Christianity in the preceding chapters, which obviously becomes more noticeable the closer we get to the reign of Constantine.