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Gibbon’s "Decline and Fall"

“It was at Rome, on the 15th of October, 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind.”

Scarcely a sentence from all the autobiographical literature of the world has been more often quoted, and hardly a historian of note in all the years since the publication of his great work but has written something of Gibbon, if no more than in a preface. It would be possible to fill a book with the wise things they have said and a sequel with the foolish ones. The most often repeated, the most vulgar but at the same time the most perceptive, is that, in his Autobiography, “he wrote of himself as if he was the Roman Empire.” The secret of Gibbon lies in the reverse of this proposition. He wrote of the Empire as if it had been himself.

The Decline and Fall has a hero–the man of reason. Its thesis is that the life of the man of reason in history is tragic by nature. It has been said again and again that Gibbon’s history is the perfect expression and fulfillment of the Age of Reason, the eighteenth century–greater than anything of Voltaire’s, greater than Tiepolo or Watteau, greater than any of the noble domestic architecture. Certainly Voltaire’s History of Charles XII does not stand comparison with any major connected narrative in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, much less with the work as a whole. The reason is simple. The Augustan intellects of the eighteenth century prided themselves on their aloofness. Voltaire is never overcommitted.

One of the greatest stories, true or fictional, in all literature is Gibbon’s account of the life and martyrdom of Boethius under the Ostrogoth Theodoric. Senator, poet, philosopher, man of reason, he was the last of his kind in all these categories. The story is an incomparable masterpiece of prose. From the opening sentence, “The Senator Boethius is the last of the Romans whom Cato or Tully could have acknowledged for their countryman,” Gibbon builds a mighty organ toccata. He always seems to see ahead to every echo and resonance and inversion of rhythm, through the idyllic description of The Consolation of Philosophy to the terrible climax–the philosopher garroted and clubbed to death in the last gloomy hours of Theodoric, followed by the swift cadence, and the coda of the martyrdom of his fellow Senator Symmachus–four crowded pages of the most solemn music. Each man speaks in his own style. Gibbon speaks with such sublimity because, sitting in his quiet study, he was totally involved in the defense of reason against the triumph of barbarism and superstition and the ruin of all bright things.

At the beginning of the fall of Rome, Saint Augustine wrote The City of God; and Gibbon, looking back in his book from the walls of burning Constantinople in the final fall, on the eve of a new age of enlightenment, is in fact committed to the same interpretation of history as Augustine. Against the destructive irrationality of circumstance and the folly of mankind stands the community of the elect. In Augustine it is the community of faith; in Gibbon the elect of reason, a society that transcends history. The ideal Rome that Gibbon describes in his opening chapters on the Antonines is a passing avatar of the enduring City of Enlightenment. This, after all, is the subject of all tragedy: the defeat of the ideal by the real, of being by existence.

Even more than Toynbee’s work, Gibbon’s is a judgment, but a judgment achieved by the presentation of an integral work of art, the magnificent progress of a great story and the scenic aspect of marvelous events. Although scholarly research, most especially in Byzantine and Islamic studies, has undergone several revolutions since Gibbon’s day, all but an insignificant few of his facts still stand. His carping critics have quarreled with his accuracy only as a cover for their objections to his dramatic thesis. In an age of scientific history when the art was turned over to committees of specialists, J.B. Bury–the editor of the Cambridge Medieval History volumes that cover the decline and fall of the Roman Empire and the history of the Byzantine Empire and the Christian heresies and councils and the rise of Islam–also edited The Decline and Fall and could find nothing in it to correct except trivial failures of information. The recent new edition of the Byzantine volumes of the Cambridge Medieval History are extraordinarily difficult reading, and they certainly supply little information that cannot be found in Gibbon. Laying aside the massive volumes, you know that no one of the committee of authors was personally involved.

The quarrel between history as art and history as science has often been interpreted as a matter of stylistic felicities. So for instance does C.V. Wedgwood in her essay on Gibbon. She is wrong. Why should not history be interpreted in terms of good and evil? She thinks the quarrel with the pure-science advocates is over inordinate attention to the embellishment of style. It certainly is not. The question is: is the historian a value-neuter investigator, as the physicist and the etymologist claim to be?

The great histories of the world–those of Thucydides, Su Ma Ch’ien, Gibbon, Ibn Khaldun, Tacitus, Livy, Herodotus–and those of lesser figures like Commines and Froissart or Hume and Macaulay have all been integral works of art. They have been so not because of their pretty prose but because of their objective dramatic presentation of the great truth that history, like life, is neither optimistic nor pessimistic but tragic. All values wear out at last or at once in the attrition of the passage of the world of facts. Gibbon’s millennium-long drama is a tragedy presented with a good humor peculiar to himself. His story is of the decay of civilization, with the loss of self-determination and control of the human environment. He presents it with a maximum of civilized determination and self-control.

Pedantic minds have found his Byzantine chapters the least interesting, although certainly the majority of his readers have liked them best. He is accused of depreciating the Byzantine achievement. Does he? Not as much as Procopius, or Anna Comnena, or Psellus. He is remarkably like the most urbane Byzantine historians who were his sources. Panoplied and ceremonial chaos, ideological warfare, and silken barbarity are described with balance and deliberation, with quiet wit and malice, and with devastating understated footnotes, where necessary “relegated to the decent obscurity of a learned language.”

In his own time, Gibbon’s Latinate antithetical style already sounded archaic, yet it is still today eminently suited to his solemn subject. How else is one to describe the beauty, lechery, and political malevolence of Theodora, or the economic folly of her husband, Justinian, than in a quiet language derived from the letters of Cicero, the most ironic passages of Thucydides, and the innuendos of Tacitus? For the Muse of History appears like the child Theodora in the arena, dancing naked on the head of a bear, more often than she appears as the noble goddess of Livy’s and Plutarch’s mythologies. What better response to the spectacle than the caustic caution and gentlemanly calm, the prudent incredulity Gibbon developed in meditation on a thousand years of the slow triumph of disorder–meditation by the orderly Swiss lake of Voltaire’s exile?

KENNETH REXROTH, a native of Indiana, became an icon of the San Francisco Beat movement. He was a political anarchist, poet, and gifted translator. Rexroth died in 1982. Many of his writings are available on the excellent Bureau of Public Secrets site.