Why does a book written 250 years ago, about an event that occurred 1600 years ago, still resonate today?
Consider how many stories have come out of the history of World War II, which lasted for six years – the history of the Roman Empire lasted for 2000 years. There are almost unlimited stories to tell, and each new generation uncovers or rediscovers them. But the one big story that endures, is why the Roman Empire collapsed: overrun firstly by Germanic tribes from its northern borders, and extinguished for good in 1453 AD (on the 29th May, to be precise) by the Ottomans in Constantinople (modern Istanbul), 1300 kilometres and 1200 years away from the glory that was Rome.
This isn’t a detailed review – the full six volumes run to several thousand pages (there was obviously no Netflix in 1776) – so much as an overview of Gibbons thesis and why his work is considered such a benchmark in the genre of history. Still, I will attempt to summarise the 600-plus pages of my abridged version.
Gibbon sums up his theory himself:
‘The victorious legions, who, in distant wars, acquired the vices of strangers and mercenaries, first opposed the freedom of the republic, and afterwards violated the majesty of the purple. The emperors, anxious for their personal safety and the public peace, were reduced to the base expedient of corrupting the discipline which rendered them alike formidable to their sovereign and to the enemy; the vigour of the military government was relaxed and finally dissolved by the partial institutions of Constantine, and the Roman world was overwhelmed by a deluge of barbarians.’
In other words, the Roman empire became too big, generals went rogue, emperors became indulgent and soft, Christian doctrine devalued the purpose of the military, and the barbarians invaded. Okay, so that is what happened. But history as a discipline is concerned with why things happened (or at the very least, proposing a theory of why it happened).
‘Decline and Fall’, to give it a more manageable title, seeks to understand the reasons for the collapse of the Roman empire (hint: look away now if you’re a Christian). According to Gibbon, despite Rome’s conquests of native peoples from Egypt to Britain, the Romans – being polytheists (worshipping many gods) themselves - were tolerant of local ‘pagan’ religious practices. What mattered ultimately to the conquerors was obedience to Rome. This deference was reciprocated through lavish expenditure on public works, so that soon many of the conquered cities began to rival Rome herself (though never quite) in opulence and prestige. There was pride in being ‘Roman’.
There are battles and murders and political intrigues – business as usual in the Roman world – until along comes a zealous sect from the far-eastern shores of the Mediterranean which promises fabulous rewards in the afterlife, no matter your status in this life. All that was required was a faith in the one god, and an unbending willingness to adhere to it, and only it. And this fanatical – even, at times, suicidal - adherence to and promulgation of monotheism was going to cause problems for the polytheistic Romans.
The new religion was of course at first tolerated, even if it was mocked and openly sneered at. But it was growing. From the bottom up. That was a concern.
‘…the new sect of Christians was almost entirely of the dregs of the populace…These obscure teachers are as mute in public as they are loquacious and dogmatical as they are in private. Whilst they cautiously avoid the dangerous encounter of philosophers, they mingle with the rude and illiterate crowd, and insinuate themselves into those minds whom their age, their sex, or their education has the best disposed to receive the impression of superstitious terrors.’
There is something of the modus operandi of fundamentalists and revolutionaries past and present in this observation. More on these parallels to contemporary issues later.
So, Christianity was persecuted. And yet still it grew. Then, in 312, the emperor Constantine (having attained that office via supposed divine intervention) converted to Christianity, and it soon became the official state religion.
‘As the happiness of future life is the great object of religion, we may hear without surprise or scandal that the introduction, or at least the abuse of Christianity, has some influence on the decline and fall of the Roman empire.’
And that, according to Gibbon, was the tipping point in the empire’s decline. The emphasis of Christianity on rewards in the afterlife effectively zapped the Roman Empire of its unity and conquering zeal and, in something of a fait accompli, it could only go downhill from there:
It’s not so much how Christianity developed which intrigues Gibbon – Christianity was just one religion amongst many – but rather, how it came to infiltrate and dominate the greatest empire in history. Gibbon details several reasons, and in his conclusions almost delights in noting the hypocrisy of the early church and its promotion of miracles, the anointing of saints and the veneration of relics, and the overall irony of employing such ‘pagan’ practices to spread the new religion:
‘…it must ingenuously be confessed that the ministers of the Catholic Church thereby imitated the profane model which they were impatient to destroy…The religion of Constantine achieved, in less than a century, the final conquest of the Roman empire: but the victors themselves were insensibly subdued by the arts of their vanquished rivals.’
The oppressed had become the oppressors:
But it’s not all the fault of the Christians. In hindsight, and even before the spread of Christianity, the empire was already becoming weakened by the gradual adoption of the opulent and servile ways of the Persians court, such as the emperor’s wearing of a diadem, silk robes and gem-studded slippers. Bear in mind that rumours of Julius Caesar wishing to assume kingship had precipitated his assassination (see review Julius Caesar, this blog); the Romans had previously detested the notion of a ‘king’.
And that’s pretty much it, really. The rest of the book is concerned with events leading up to the fall of the eastern Roman (Byzantine) empire: the division of Italy into gothic kingdoms and city states; the rise of Islam; the Crusades; the Mongol invasion; the eventual fall of Constantinople. It’s only a lazy thousand or so years of history which preceded the rise of European dominance (facilitated by the reintroduction of Greek philosophy which had, somewhat ironically, been preserved by the Arab world).
But it’s the fall of the Western empire – the European portion of the empire - which received all of the attention, as it effectively marks the end of the age of classical antiquity, and the beginning of the (European) ‘Middle Ages’. And though no one can seem to agree of exactly when that fall was, Gibbon puts it at September 4th 476, when the barbarian Odoacer deposed the emperor and declared himself King of Italy.
Still, why does all of this matter? Why not read a more modern, less overwrought – not to mention less biased – account of Roman history? Firstly, Gibbon uses the ‘lessons’ of the decline and fall to detail why the causes which doomed the Western Roman empire cannot occur to the European ‘empire’ of his time.
‘This awful revolution may be usefully applied to the instruction of the present age.’
It’s a fascinating snapshot of the world he knew in 1776, and the modern reader, knowledgeable of what is, for us, history, can reflect upon Gibbon’s assured proclamations of the future with a degree of bemusement. (And see, after reading too much of him, one begins to write like him!).
It’s an historical game which continues today, as modern ‘empires’ attempt to spot the signs of their own demise. Here is Gibbon on the way in which the very structure of the Roman empire enabled the spread of Christianity:
‘The public highways, which had been constructed for the use of the legions, opened an easy passage for the Christian missionaries…nor did those spiritual conquerors encounter any of the obstacles which usually retard or prevent the introduction of a foreign religion into a distant country.’
Considering our own times, there is perhaps in this something of the concerns of the rise of similar religious fundamentalism via our own ‘highways’, physical or virtual.
Secondly, although Gibbons conclusions may be debated today, his style cannot: that wonderfully florid style of the 18th Century that seems so roundabout to modern readers is, upon close and deliberate reading, perfectly succinct. Gibbon’s prose is an iron fist inside a velvet glove. Even though I already had a decent knowledge of Roman history, I found myself reading his history for the sheer joy of his style.
Here is Gibbon on the rise of the Roman empire:
‘The arms of the republic, sometimes vanquished in battle, always victorious in war, advanced with rapid steps to the Euphrates, the Danube, the Rhine, and the Ocean [Atlantic]; and the images of gold, or silver, or brass, that might serve to represent the nations and their kings, were successfully broken by the iron monarchy of Rome.’
That about sums up the first 500 or so years of Rome. I love that phrase ‘iron monarchy’: precious metals count for little – it is from the iron of the legion’s swords that Rome derived its power.
Gibbon comparing two emperors of separate ages, and lamenting the demise of the office of emperor over 300 years:
‘Like the modesty affected by Augustus, the state maintained by Diocletian was a theatrical representation; but it must be confessed that, of the two comedies, the former was of a much more liberal and manly character than the latter. It was the aim of one to disguise, and the object of the other to display, the unbounded power which the emperors possessed over the Roman world.’
Gibbon on the overall causes of the decline of the empire:
‘But the decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight.’
And that, again, is wonderfully succinct. (There is also something of Hegel’s dialectic in Gibbon’s inevitability.)
I have previously reviewed for this blog SPQR, Oxford professor Mary Beard’s marvellous one-volume history of the Roman Empire. Yet the majority of Beard’s and Gibbons’ sources are the original Roman (and Greek) historians themselves. It is a wonderful privilege that we are also able to read them today, and a potent way of reinforcing the humbling and gratifying feeling of common humanity.
The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire | Understanding Edward Gibbons' Masterpiece