Why Edward Gibbon’s masterwork is still worth our time.
No matter who wins the 2016 election, the American political scene brings to mind Rome in the age of bad emperors. The days of a wise Trajan or Hadrian seem distant. The republican politics of a Cato or Cicero, long gone and barely recalled.
The dowager empress plots her triumphal entry and revenge. The man on the white horse makes impossible promises to the rabble in demotic language. Sclerotic bureaucracies and armed mercenaries overextended abroad; a restless client class; migrants with alien idea systems and languages moving in uninvited; collapsing verities, and related, indolence and unreason: all aboard for imperial decline.
To the good, U.S. politics do not yet match the days of the Emperor Elagabalus who ruled from 218 to 222 A.D. and who makes a memorable cameo appearance in Gibbon’s first volume. The next president will not be a teenage Syrian transvestite parading up Capitol Hill to worship a black conical meteorite as Sol Invictus. But the louche 2016 presidential election portends politico-cultural shifts as dramatic as the late Roman Empire’s. Who can imagine the Election of 2020?
As we look at the unfolding future, Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is a valuable point of reference. Gibbon documents the opportunistic triumphs of Rome’s rivals and invaders, its failing military machine, the bad governance and shifting allegiances built into the system by the third century. He criticizes the retreat from reason in favor of sybaritic pleasure. He records the rise and triumph of Christianity amid imperial failure.
Gibbon is generally well thought of — when he is thought of — but many readers find the Augustan language and six thick volumes intimidating. Moreover, Gibbon’s ideas about the human condition are sharply edged with pessimism. “The Decline and Fall instructs that human nature never changes, and that mankind’s predilection for faction, augmented by environmental and cultural differences, is what determines history,” Robert D. Kaplan wrote in 1997.
Decline and Fall has long been more venerated than read cover-to-cover. And today, Gibbon’s aristocratic prejudices are out of favor. Gibbon does not speak to populists, hedonists, pacifists, or universalists, let alone partisan Christians. “I have described the triumph of barbarism and religion,” Gibbon announces toward the end of his book. Gibbon would almost surely have judged Donald Trump to be part of the problem, not the solution, and at best a rising demagogue, the tribune of a frustrated, demoralized populace.
Published between 1776 and 1788, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall had immediate, lasting impact on how the English-speaking world thinks about classical antiquity. The volumes were a great critical success in London. Its ambitions were obvious to contemporaries. “Another damned thick, square book,” the Duke of Gloucester, brother of King George III, remarked affably when the second volume appeared. “Always, scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr. Gibbon?”
The early American reception was muted. For Americans before Gibbon, the story of the empire had been confined mainly to evil Caesar (military autocrat and enemy of the republic) and Nero (libertine and burner of Christian martyrs). Cato or Cicero, not Marcus Aurelius, was the exemplum virtutis. Gibbon’s covert antagonism to Christianity made him a heathen and atheist in the eyes of the faithful. The 18th- and 19th-century view of Gibbon aligned closely with religious disposition, from Unitarian (yes) to Roman Catholic (no).
As far as most Americans of that day were concerned, Rome really fell with the republic. They didn’t care for the empire, which is probably why they didn’t write much about what they thought of Gibbon. The fall of the empire was a far lesser concern to them than the fall of the republic. The Founders did read Gibbon’s classic, but exactly what they thought about it is not well known. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington owned the 1783 “New Edition.” Inclined toward deism, they would not contest that Christianity played a distinctive role in the fall of Rome.
Decline and Fall’s popularity in the U.S. grew steadily throughout the 19th century. The rise and fall of ancient civilizations — Egypt, Persia, Greece, and Rome — were of deep interest to Americans and Europeans. In 1857, the abridged Student’s Gibbon appeared, becoming a staple in U.S. libraries and classrooms for the next 75 years; several fine single-volume abridgements followed in the 20th century.
By the time of the Civil War, Americans thinking about the Roman Empire might channel Thomas Couture’s widely reproduced moral tableau, “Romans of the Decadence.” Edith Hamilton’s The Roman Way (1932) still recoiled at the evil empire, concluding with Juvenal’s acid satire of imperial depravity, a period that Gibbon celebrated “in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous.”
Gibbon was a political animal who served ten years in Parliament (1774-1784). Ironically, some historians point out, Gibbon secured his lucrative position on the Board of Trade (1779-1782), which allowed him to write his history, by putting aside his opposition to the coercion of the North American colonies. This meant that in order to be able to write his history of Rome, Gibbon was forced to support the policies that led to the decline of Britain’s American empire. The American Revolution was taking place as Gibbon wrote his masterwork. A New World republic modeled on old Roman virtues and law was being born as the United States of America.
Almost 250 years later, this republic endures as a global empire. An age of bad emperors has arrived, and with them, it is easy to suppose, further turmoil and political distress. “The kind of culture that can maintain reasonable human commitments takes centuries to create but only a few generations to destroy,” the late political scientist James Q. Wilson warned. “And once destroyed, those who suddenly realize what they have lost will also realize that political action cannot, except at a very great price, restore it.”
Gilbert T. Sewall has just completed a revision of Neoclassicism and America 1750-1900, a National Endowment for the Humanities digital humanities project.
Thomas Couture, Romans of the Decadence, 1847 (Wikimedia Commons)