Review- Gibbon, “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” Vols 4-6


Edward Gibbon, “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” Vols 4-6 (1787) – I picked up volumes 1-3 in one of those little cases at a steep discount when Borders went out of business. I’m a lot more used to reading texts in old vernaculars since 2011, so I think I got more out of the second half. The first half dealt mainly with the fall of the western empire. The second deals with a sprawling range of things, but the main connecting thread is the Byzantine Empire, which like a lot of nerds I have a childhood affection for.

You don’t really read historians like Gibbon for the facts- there’s many many other books for that, with better research, efforts to be more objective and culturally sensible, weren’t written two hundred years ago, etc. So what do you read Gibbon for? Well, I mainly read it as something to read while on hold at work (I’m on hold a lot at work) that you can get online. But obviously there’s more to it than that. For one thing, for better or for worse, Gibbon was hugely influential not just on history, but on literature as well, from his characterizations and prose style to writers (especially scifi writers) straight up ripping off Gibbon’s descriptions of historical events as plots.

I enjoy Gibbon’s sentence-level writing more than I do that of most historians. I actually think a fair number of his word choices are better than their modern equivalents- like “insensible” for “gradual-” it makes sense, the process goes on without you sensing it. “Gradual” implies it goes by grades, which can actually be any size, etc. But of course, I’m in the minority that likes to have to think about the prose I’m reading, as long as it’s not too laborious, as opposed to having the prose stand out of the way. Different strokes, as they say. The farther you get from the sentences, the more the structure doesn’t look that great — a lot of poorly-differentiated tribes and leaders doing their respective things — but sometimes Gibbon makes those sing, too, especially his descriptions of the Byzantine-Sassanid wars and the early Lombards.

Historiographically, Gibbon stands at a turning point, but not one in which he fully partook. He was stuck between the two German words for history- “historie,” history as a set of interchangeable chronicles saying more or less the same stuff, and “geschichte,” history as the progressive unfolding of comprehensible processes, generally with some kind of meaningful endpoint- the ideal state, the abolition of class society, what have you. The Decline and Fall is an Enlightenment-era text that looks at the vanity of a geschichte that wasn’t- if Rome really was the height of civilization (a problematic assumption, I know), then what sort of historical purpose was served by its fall, and the extended “dark ages” of irrationality and fecklessness (his view) that followed in its former domains? This is especially fraught for Enlightenment figures like Gibbon, who did not see the rise of Christianity as a recompense for the fall of Rome (to say the least), and who had at least an inkling that things were getting better — or at least his country was getting powerful enough to have a pretense towards universalizing empire again.

So you have this sort of mishmash. Sometimes in Gibbon you see the kind of universalized and law-generating tendency we’re used to seeing from more confident 19th and 20th century history, typically centered around republican theorizing about liberty, constitutions, how they’re maintained or not, as well as Enlightenment-era stuff about the progress of “rational” or “humane” religion, etc. It hints towards the idea that there is some general system through which some of the exigencies of history could be mastered. But you also get the sort of recitation of chronicles, calculated to impute lessons within a fixed moral/political system, that one is used to seeing in work that assumes history isn’t going anywhere in particular. Sometimes it’s both- one thing I’ve been thinking a lot about recently is how seriously manners and affect were taken as historical topics, and how that wasn’t just a matter of a silly thing weird old people care about. In a pre-industrial age, that stuff would seem to be a real distinguishing factor between cultures and a contributor to the power and reach of the ruling elite of a given power. Methodologically, Gibbon also stands between old and new- relying mostly on chronicles collected by other scholars, but scrutinizing them critically and also attempting to use linguistic and other more subtle kinds of evidence.

So… reading Gibbon can be fun for people who like old, occasionally somewhat sententious narratives of empires and their wars, and can be good for historians who want insight into how history is made. Also, for people with boring temp jobs. ****

Review- Gibbon, “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” Vols 4-6

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