In Edward Gibbon’s ‘History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,’ the real subject is good sense and decency in a losing battle with pride, greed and vice.
Ruins of the Basilica of Maxentius as depicted in one of the celebrated series of engravings of Rome by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1728). PHOTO: HERBERT ORTH/THE LIFE IMAGES COLLECTION/GETTY IMAGES
In the closet of Abdalrahman, eighth-century caliph of Spain, this note was discovered after his death: “I have now reigned above fifty years in victory or peace; beloved by my subjects, dreaded by my enemies, and respected by my allies. Riches and honours, power and pleasure, have waited on my call.…In this situation, I have diligently numbered the days of pure and genuine happiness which have fallen to my lot: they amount to fourteen: O Man! place not thy confidence in this present world.”
In a footnote to this item, in the fifth volume of “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” Edward Gibbon writes: “If I may speak of myself (the only person of whom I can speak with certainty), my happy hours have far exceeded, and far exceed, the scanty number of the caliph of Spain; and I shall not scruple to add, that many of them are due to the pleasing labour of the present composition.”
Begun when Gibbon was 33 in 1770, and published in six volumes between 1776 and 1788, Gibbon’s history combines astonishing erudition with endless entertainment. His readers, too, easily surpass the caliph’s budget of happiness in the time they spend reading this great work, which runs to more than 3,000 pages and covers some 1,600 years of history—from the rise of Augustus in Rome through the fall of Constantinople at the hands of the Ottoman Turks in 1453 and, following that, the endless partitioning of the empire by petty princes and disputatious popes. Gibbon tells a story of relentless struggles for power, sometimes won by authentically great, sometimes by heedlessly cruel, most often by rapacious and foolish men.
Gibbon’s true subject is good sense and decency in a largely losing battle with pride, greed, vice and religious fervor. A philosophical tone prevails. In his final volume, Gibbon writes that “of human life, the most glorious or humble prospects are alike, and soon bounded by the sepulchre.”
“If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous,” Gibbon writes, “he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian [96 AD] to the accession of Commodus [180 AD].” In that span, “the various modes of worship which [then] prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosophers as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord.”
A man of the Enlightenment, Gibbon finds religion as little more than superstition organized, and it is an unending target for his withering irony. The humor quotient in “The Decline and Fall” is even higher where religion isn’t entailed. Of the Emperor Gordian II, he writes: “Twenty-two acknowledged concubines and a library of sixty-two thousand volumes, attested the variety of his inclinations, and from the productions which he left behind him, it appears that the former as well as the latter were designed for use rather than ostentation.” Footnotes number in the thousands, and in them we learn that Voltaire casts “a keen and lively eye over the surface of history,” and that “an act of fraud is always credible when it is told of the Greeks.”
The hundreds of “characters,” as Gibbon refers to them, are not the least of the work’s marvels. The Emperor Elagabalus (203-222), is “a rational voluptuary”—also, we learn, a transvestite. The Emperor Honorius (384-423) “was without passions, and consequently without talents; and his feeble and languid disposition was alike incapable of discharging the duties of his rank or enjoying the pleasures of the age.”
Gibbon’s descriptions of battles are quick and precise. He keeps a sharp eye out for methods of torture used by tyrants. Constantius V had a “reign of long butchery of whatever was noble or holy, or innocent in his empire…and a plate of noses was accepted as a grateful offering.” When a matron of a noble family provoked the Emperor Theodore Laskaris II, he ordered “her body, as high as the neck…enclosed in a sack with several cats, who were pricked with pins to irritate their fury against their unfortunate fellow captive.”
As this parade of power and avarice, punctuated all too briefly by honorable rule, passes, Gibbon provides telling apothegms. He cites the Roman maxim that holds “every adulteress is capable of poisoning her husband.” “Fraud is the resource of weakness and cunning,” he notes. “In the field of controversy,” he adds, “I always pity the moderate party, who stand on the open middle ground exposed to the fire of both sides.”
A masterpiece that has held up as a work of scholarship for more than two centuries, “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” also happens to be, in the words of the historian John Clive, a work of “indisputable genius.” All that is needed to scope out its inexhaustible riches is time, patience and an attentive mind.
—Mr. Epstein’s forthcoming book is “Wind Sprints, Shorter Essays,” published by Axios Press next year.
A Princeton PhD, was a U.S. diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Central/Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. He has taught courses for many years at Georgetown University pertaining to propaganda and public diplomacy. He currently shares ideas on the theme "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" to Eurasian/European delegates participating in the "Open World" program.
Brown’s articles have appeared in numerous publications. A recent piece is “Janus-Faced Public Diplomacy: Creel and Lippmann During the Great War” (published in Nontraditional U.S. Public Diplomacy: Past, Present, and Future).
He is the author (with S. Grant) of The Russian Empire and the USSR: A Guide to Manuscripts and Archival Materials in the United States. He also served as an editor/translator of a joint U.S.-Soviet publication, The Establishment of Russian-American Relations, 1765-1815.