The OF Blog: Leatherbound Classics: Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. I

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Leatherbound Classics: Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. I

He would have perished in this supine security had not two women, his eldest sister Fadilla, and Marcia the most favoured of his concubines, ventured to break into his presence.  Bathed in tears, and with dishevelled hair they threw themselves at his feet, and, with all the pressing eloquence of fear, discovered to the affrighted emperor the crimes of the minister, the rage of the people, and the impending ruin which in a few minutes would burst over his palace and person.  Commodus started from his dream of pleasure, and commanded that the head of Cleander should be thrown out to the people.  The desired spectacle instantly appeased the tumult; and the son of Marcus might even yet have regained the affection and confidence of his subjects.

But every sentiment of virtue and humanity was extinct in the mind of Commodus.  Whilst he thus abandoned the reins of empire to these unworthy favourites, he valued nothing in sovereign power except the unbounded licence of indulging his sensual appetites.  His hours were spent in a seraglio of three hundred beautiful women and as many boys, of every rank and of every province; and, whereever the arts of seduction proved ineffectual, the brutal lover had recourse to violence.  The ancient historians have expatiated on these abandoned scenes of prostitution, which scorned every restraint of nature or modesty; but it would not be easy to translate their too faithful descriptions into the decency of modern language. (p. 72)
For the first of a planned irregular series of reviews of certain classics I deem worthy enough of me spending a premium to acquire in leatherbound editions, I decided that I would start with Edward Gibbon's classic 18th century history, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  Published in six parts over a nearly twenty-year span, Gibbon's work is perhaps the most influential and enduring modern history ever published.  My thoughts in this brief review will deal solely with the first volume; other volumes will be read and reviewed in the next few weeks.

Before I ever really thought about the Internet and certainly well before I had any aspirations of being an online book reviewer, I was a historian in training.  Despite dropping out of graduate school after earning my Master of Arts degree in Modern European Cultural History, I still have maintained some interest in the origins and development of my original profession.  Too often I hear people speak of "History" (as opposed to "history") as being this sort of monolithic, judgmental entity that proclaims its sentences on past events, peoples, and actions.  Influenced as much by postmodernists as I am by neo-Marxists, I do find myself skeptical of such viewpoints.  History, for me, is a narrative of events whose retellings reflect as much the concerns of those recounting these stories as they do with matters of wie es eigentlich gewesen ist

Edward Gibbon's monumental narrative of the possible causes of the decline of the Roman Empire, from the days of the first Emperors to the fall of Trebizond in 1461, rightly is held up as a seminal work.  Even despite the advancements in methodology and epistemological approaches toward the study and interpretation of histories over the past two centuries, there are several qualities found in Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that make it worthy of being read and re-read by generations of readers to come.

Look at the passage I quote above in regards to the Emperor Commodus (180-192 CE/AD), the first of a string of bad emperors whose cyclical rise and swift descent plagued the Roman Empire until 284.  Rather than just dryly commenting on the atrocities committed by Commodus, as what a Historicist might have done a century later, Gibbon instead turns this recounting of this horrid emperor's twelve-year reign into a masterfully-written narrative that gives the reader much more to consider than just whether or not Commodus deserved the epithets that he received both during his reign and after his assassination at the hands of a common wrestler.  This is an erudite narrative, replete with numerous footnotes, but both the main narrative and the footnotes contain a wit about them that unfortunately still is rather uncommon in most histories today.

Gibbon does not follow a straight linear approach in this volume.  Instead, he has broken his chapters (and later, his six volumes) into thematic groupings that allow him to explore better issues of character, leadership, social mores, and (later, but not in this volume for the most part) religion.  An emperor such as Philip the Arab (reigned in the second half of the 240s) might be explored in terms of his character, temperament, and leadership skills in one chapter, while his religious policies might not be discussed until a succeeding volume, with a dozen more third century emperors being introduced in the interim.  While this might be frustrating to some modern readers, for those willing to approach The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as a historical narrative that treats with themes more than with straightforward explorations of events, this study will make for an instructive and entertaining read.

Gibbon is far from a neutral observer, as the quoted passage reveals.  He takes sides, provides interpretations (often in the form of asides on the mores of the subjects treated), and sometimes he relies upon unreliable sources.  For those who are influenced strongly by the Rankean Historicist position on the use of sources and the desire to eliminate biases whenever possible, Gibbon's work is fraught with errors in approach.  While I am somewhat sympathetic with that attitude (my graduate adviser trained under descendants of Ranke's original school and I imbibed some of those methodological approaches early on in my studies), I also believe that it would be a mistake to ignore Gibbon's crowning graces just because he fails to follow historical approaches developed decades later.

Gibbon's prose is beautiful to read.  Frequently, I am finding myself, nearly one hundred pages into the second volume, reading slowly and then re-reading several passages, just so I can soak in the intricate beauties of his writing, as well as Gibbon's sometimes sarcastic asides.  For those readers who are not intimidated from reading the Latinisms that dominated 18th century English writing, Gibbon's prose will offer so much to them that just is not found in later histories.  There is a definite sense of historia found within this history and when this brilliantly-constructed story is mated with interpretative schema that largely survive the vicissitudes of the last two centuries, a truly classic read awaits those intrepid readers willing to read about the calamities of the third century CE/AD.


Paula said...

I'm definitely more of a fiction reader. I've spent so much time pouring through journals and academic texts, that I rarely read nonfiction (well, except current events if that counts).

This collection interests me, as something I've always kept on saying, I'd like to read that someday. Do you think a non-historian would be able to read and appreicate these volumes? Would the footnotes provide enough clarification for me?


Lsrry said...

Yes, I think Gibbon's narrative here reads more like an interesting story (albeit one full of digressions, fascinating as most of them are) than like a dull academic treatise. I'm really appreciating this both as a historian (seeing how such narratives evolved) and as a general reader (for the stories, personages, events are told well).

Hélène said...

As you can read french, I can whole-heartedly encourage you to read "Guillaume le Maréchal" from Geoges Duby. He is a splendid WRITER (the only historian who can offer literary pleasure and accuracy). Through the story of Guillaume, he studied the whole concept of chivalry and the way of life in that century. All in the most astounding style.

oscar sanabria said...

aaah I see your fascination with History (the capital is for the profession not the juggernaut you were referring to in the review) has not ebbed away!

That is some really nicely written bit you have quoted.

My first books were mostly History books, I am enamored of the way people render what has been, thus Histories and Historical Novels were always at the top of my list(well, I love my fiction too, especially the realms of fantasy and sci fi)

Especially everything Roman, since well, their culture is still influencing our lives two thousand and some years later, even more so for Lawyers of the continental system - we still use plenty of institutions the romans perfected - your refview of this collection has been a treat for my History sweet tooth!

Gabriele Campbell said...

Ohh, that particular Gibbon edition makes me just a bit green in the face. It's so much prettier than mine. ;)

A very readable and thoroughly researched historical non fiction book is Golo Mann's Wallenstein. But I don't know if it a) has been translated, and b) in case it has, if the translation is any good.

That said, I have to read a lot of historical non fiction for my research, and I count it as blessing when a book /essay is competently written. Some academics like their convoluted style with looooong sentences (you can produce veritable monsterns in German) a bit too much; it's not always academic but sometimes just obstuse.

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