Another damned thick book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh, Mr. Gibbon?
- Attributed to the Duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh, 1781
Why read this book? It’s hard to be pithy about the eight folio volumes of Edward Gibbon’s ‘The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’ — one of the most idiosyncratic epics of historical writing ever produced. It has been influential not just as a (now largely superseded) interpretation of the fall of an empire, but also as a literary trope. Isaac Asimov, the author of the epic science fiction series ‘Foundation’ (1942–1993) about the decline and fall (and re-rise and re-fall) of a Galactic empire — wrote in doggerel verse
you’ll find that plotting is a breeze
With a tiny bit of cribbin’
from the works of Edward Gibbon
and that Greek, Thucydides
Gibbon’s reasons for the ‘decline and fall’ were revisionist and controversial in their day: particularly his laying the blame for much of it on the empire’s adoption of Christianity. The common view of the ‘decline’ of Rome was that pagan decadence and barbarian invasion were to blame. This view is still enthusiastically promoted by white supremacists who want to make spurious comparisons to immigration and multiculturalism.
Gibbon argues however that even without the ‘innocent barbarians’ (as he calls them) the empire would undoubtably have collapsed. It would have done so paradoxically because of the very elements that appeared to make it so strong: a single state authority, with triumphant legions, ruling over a vast, unified territory.
Imperial Image versus Roman Reality
The most valuable lessons that contemporary readers might draw from Gibbon’s ‘Decline and Fall’ concern the disparity between the empire’s image and the reality of how it worked.
- The formal appearance of Rome as a constitutional republic was undermined by the tyrannies of the Emperors — including the ‘good’ ones.
- The Legions were not only defenders of the state, but full political players. They effectively ran extortion rackets against both Caesars and the Senate.
- The Imperial territories became so vast that they were increasingly ungovernable from Rome itself. The resulting administrative divisions led to ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ empires that were increasingly distinct and seperate from one another.
‘Rome(s)’ of today
In the contemporary world plausible comparisons to Roman power are the United States of America, and the European Union (China, heir to an imperial system dating back to 221 BCE, has its own history from which to draw parallels).
The US Founding Fathers were keen to make parallels between themselves and the ancient Romans. George Washington was compared by his contemporaries to the Roman Consul and General Quinctius Cincinnatus, who ventured forth from his farm to fight for the republic. The framers of the of the US Constitution such as Jefferson, Madison, and Adams, looked to the Roman historian Polybius for ideas about the seperation of powers.
The European Union (EU), and its earlier versions such as the European Economic Community (EEC) might seem an unlikely comparison to ancient Rome. However it was founded by a Treaty of Rome in 1957, and the significance of that name was not lost on the signers from Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany. An aide to Belgian Foreign Minister Paul-Henri Spaak recalled the mood:
The former European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso remarked in 2007 that the EU was ‘the first non-imperial empire’ — built on the voluntary pooling of power by member states, not military conquest.
Paul Cartledge has called Gibbon the first ‘modern’ among ancient historians. ‘Decline and Fall’ was published in 1776, and predates many schools of historical analysis that have come and gone in the subsequent 250 years. Archeology, for example, was barely a factor for Gibbon beyond his observation of ruins from time to time. Contemporary historians of Rome are more likely to utilise preserved frescos and tombs to supplement literary sources, than rely on ancient writers such as Tacitus and Livy.
Gibbon is often credited with identifying the ‘Golden Age’ of Rome with the Antonine period of the ‘Five good Emperors’ (all pagans). In one of his most famous passages he writes:
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, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus. The vast extent of the Roman empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of virtue and wisdom. The armies were restrained by the firm but gentle hand of four successive emperors[to Nerva (reign 96–98 CE)], whose characters and authority commanded involuntary respect. The forms of the civil administration were carefully preserved by Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the Antonines [Antoninus Pius (138–161 CE), and Marcus Aurelius (161–180 CE)], who delighted in the image of liberty, and were pleased with considering themselves as the accountable ministers of the laws.
The sting in this praise is ‘image of liberty’ — (barely) disguising the reality of tyranny. The fine personal qualities of the Emperors themselves are what made the best days of the empire, because they made it look like the previous 500 year Roman republic, but Gibbon goes onto observe that:
Such princes deserved the honour of restoring the republic had the Romans of their days been capable of enjoying a rational freedom.
Gibbon calls the empire ‘the republic’ for most of his history, which seems strange given that for the entire period he examines Rome was ruled by Emperors. However in describing how during ‘the second century of the Christian Æra, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind’, he points out that
The image [my emphasis] of a free constitution was preserved with decent reverence: the Roman senate appeared to possess the sovereign authority, and devolved on the emperors all the executive powers of government.
Gibbon describes ‘the system of the Imperial government, as it was instituted by Augustus’ as ‘an absolute monarchy disguised by the forms of a commonwealth’.
The masters of the Roman world surrounded their throne with darkness, concealed their irresistible strength, and humbly professed themselves the accountable ministers of the senate, whose supreme decrees they dictated and obeyed.
Contemporary historian of Rome Mary Beard has pointed out that, for all the historical prominence of the ‘First Emperor’ Augustus — we only have a hazy idea of what sort of political system he created, or the nuts and bolts of how it actually worked. In her ‘SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome’, Beard notes that ‘[e]ven at the time of his funeral, people were debating exactly what Augustus’ regime had been based on’. Augustus (then Octavian) came to power claiming he had saved the republic from the predations of Antony and Cleopatra, whom he accused of wanting to impose an ‘eastern’ style absolute monarchy. Octavian called himself Princeps (‘first citizen’) but also adopted the name Augustus (‘revered one’). So while he wanted to avoid being criticised for monarchical ambitions, he also wanted to be more than a temporary, emergency dictator. Augustus made an unprecedented effort (for the time) to propagate his own image throughout the empire through coins, statues, and busts; and to safeguard the succession to the Imperial office for his family. However he was always careful to ground his authority in that of the Roman Senate, even as he took on its powers for himself.
The decline and fall of the empire, according to Gibbon, came ultimately from the increasing disconnect between this republican image and imperial reality. Augustus, and the ‘five good emperors’, would make Rome great, but the decline of Rome, he wrote, ‘was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness’.
Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight.
… instead of inquiring why the Roman empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it had subsisted so long.
Robbery Under Arms
Gibbon emphasised the massive expense of maintaining a sufficiently large army to control the imperial realm. Far from romanticising the Roman Legions, he proposed that
… no State, without being soon exhausted, can maintain above the hundredth part of its members in arms and idleness.
And as the devil makes work for idle hands, so the Legions, particularly the elite Praetorian Guard based in Rome itself, became stronger players in Roman politics as the empire expanded and the Imperial office became more powerful. Gibbon concludes that
The victorious legions, who, in distant wars, acquired the vices of strangers and mercenaries, first oppressed the freedom of the republic, and afterwards violated the majesty of the purple. The emperors, anxious for their personal safety and the public peace, were reduced to the base expedient of corrupting the discipline which rendered them alike formidable to their sovereign and to the enemy; the vigor of the military government was relaxed, and finally dissolved, by the partial institutions of Constantine; and the Roman world was overwhelmed by a deluge of Barbarians.
Innocent Barbarians and Disputatious Christians
The mention of ‘the Barbarians’, and the first Christian Emperor Constantine the Great (reigned 306–337 CE), brings forth other revisionist aspects (for his time) of Gibbon’s history. Despite his racism against Jews, Africans, and Greeks being on full display thoughout ‘Decline and Fall’, Gibbon was very keen to exhonerate those he called ‘innocent barbarians’ (such as the Goths and Vandals) from blame for destroying the Western empire. ‘If all the barbarians conquerors had been annihilated in the same hour’ he wrote, ‘their total destruction would not have restored the empire of the West’. It was the internal vulnerabilities of the empire that caused its destruction, and much of the blame, Gibbon argued, lay with the adoption of Christianity as a state religion.
Gibbon’s critical treatment of Christianity as a negative historical development was the most controversial claim in ‘Decline and Fall’ for his contemporaries. He returned to print to defend himself in ‘A Vindication’ — in which he insisted his history had been ‘obliged to connect the progress of Christianity with the civil state and revolutions of the Roman Empire’. While the common view of Roman history was that its pagan period had been decadent, and its redemption by Christianity virtuous, Gibbon’s Enlightenment scepticism found much to admire in the pre-Christian order of Rome.
The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord.
By contrast, he was both sceptical, and scathing about Constantine. Once again Gibbon called attention to the contrast between image:
By the grateful zeal of the Christians, the deliverer of the Church has been decorated with every attribute of a hero and even of a saint
… and the reality of ‘a hero who had so long inspired his subjects with love and his enemies with terror, degenerating into a cruel and dissolute monarch’.
For Gibbon Constantine’s greatest sin was also his greatest political success and legacy: the full division of the empire between East and West. The latter had a mighty new capital that bore his name: Constantinople (now Istanbul).
Prior to Constantine, even ‘good’ Emperors such as Hadrian (reigned 117-138 CE) were forced to be constantly on the move through imperial territories to ensure good order. The Emperor Diocletian (reigned 284 to 305 CE) set up a ‘tetrarchy’ of sub-emperors with new capitals in places other than Rome such as Mediolanum (Milan in Italy) and Nicomedia (Iznik in Turkey). Roman Legions would often identify more with the places they were stationed such as the British Isles, rather than with a remote city that the legionaries themselves had never seen.
Gibbon acknowledged the administrative sense of dividing the empire, but regarded the need to do it at all as the ultimate demonstration of the problems of ‘immoderate greatness’ — and yet another divergence between image and reality:
The distinct view of the complicated system of policy introduced by Diocletian, improved by Constantine, and completed by his immediate successors, may not only amuse the fancy by the singular picture of a great empire, but will tend to illustrate the secret and internal causes of its rapid decay.
Gibbon’s philosophical goal in ‘Decline and Fall’ was to demonstrate the superiority of Enlightenment rationalism over superstition and religious obscurantism. The obscure (to contemporary eyes) theological clashes of early Christianity turned into major political conflicts in the later Christian Roman empire. Time and resources were expended arguing about the nature of the Trinity, while the imperial state continued to decline east and west.
Gibbon has great fun with the seemingly endless disputes about the exact relationship between Christ the Son and God the Father (even the ordering of that sentence would be a matter of controversy). These were not merely intellectual arguments. Being on the wrong side of a controversy from the Emperor could be dangerous, as the theologian Arius found out when Constantine ordered his writings burned (although Constantine may have been converted to the Arian version of Christianity on his deathbed). One such debate concerned whether Christ was ‘Homoousion’ — meaning in Greek the ‘same in essence’ — with God the Father, or ‘Homoiousian’ — meaning ‘similar in essence’ — with the Father (the view held by many Arians). The latter position was itself a compromise with ‘Homoianism’ — which in its extreme forms held that God the Father was so transcendent that he could not have anything in common with Christ the Son who walked the Earth. It’s impossible to do justice to the complex and lengthy story of theological conflict that Gibbon outlines, suffice to say he observes that ‘the profane of every age have derided the furious contests which the difference of a single diphthong excited between the Homoousians and the Homoiousians’. Indeed, while Gibbon’s histories are often cited as feeding stereotypes about the ‘clash of civilisations’ between Islam (those he calls Mahometans) and Christianity, he is complementary about Islam’s avoidance of obscurantist arguments.
The Mahometans have uniformly withstood the temptation of reducing the object of their faith and devotion to a level with the senses and imagination of man. “I believe in one God, and Mahomet the apostle of God,” is the simple and invariable profession of Islam. The intellectual image of the Deity has never been degraded by any visible idol; the honors of the prophet have never transgressed the measure of human virtue; and his living precepts have restrained the gratitude of his disciples within the bounds of reason and religion.
Why read Gibbon? Hotel California and the Empire of Liberty
So what does Gibbon offer the 21st century reader — beyond antiquarian study of the discipline of history itself? Gibbon’s emphasis on the dangerous divergence between image and reality in the Roman empire offers the strongest lessons for the modern ‘empires’ of the EU and USA.
Rome wanted to present the outward appearance of a constitutional republic, even as the Emperors became the prime decision makers. The Christian empire of the East called itself ‘Roman’ even while the city of Rome itself was no longer part of it. And while Christianity notionally united the empire, it was a constant source of sectarian division.
The EU according to its Treaty, ‘is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities’. However while there is a European Parliament, there are also long standing complaints about the ‘democratic deficit’ within EU institutions. It is the EU Commission, appointed by member state governments, that acts as the Executive Branch. While appointments to it are confirmed by the Parliament, the elected body cannot legislate except on matters referred to it by the Commission itself. The EU is also in practice controlled by it largest (remaining) members: France and Germany. The latter in particular dominates economic policy. The Deutsche Bundesbank (German Federal Bank) is the most powerful of all European central banks. Indeed the European Central Bank for the Eurozone (the euro monetary union of 19 states) is based in the same city of Frankfurt as the Bundesbank.
The tensions between the EU’s ‘respect for democracy’ and reality became clear during the Greek sovereign debt crisis of the mid-2010s, during which EU made it abundantly clear to member states in the euro currency zone that ‘debts’ had to be paid regardless of how much their citizens were suffering from austerity budgets, or what they decided through elections or referendums. Greece’s ex-finance minister Yanis Varoufakis made the caustic observation that the Eurozone was ‘just like the Eagles song Hotel California — you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave’.
The USA was called an ‘Empire of Liberty’ in 1780 by one of its Founding Fathers Thomas Jefferson, who wrote to his fellow founder James Madison: ‘I am persuaded no constitution was ever before so well calculated as ours for extensive empire & self government’. From its outset US ‘liberty’ had its limits for both Indigenous people and slaves, however ‘empire & self government’ is itself a fundamental contradiction which Gibbon (a contemporary of the slaveholder Jefferson, though not a supporter of American revolution himself) might have recognised. ‘Self government’, an inherently small scale affair, cannot co-exist with ‘empire’ — as the subsumption of the Roman republican form into the Imperial reality made clear.
Gibbon was influenced all his life by Baron de Montesquieu whose ‘Spirit of the Laws’ (1748) argued for the separation of the powers of government. Montesquieu also argued that republics needed to be small in size to safeguard liberties:
It is natural for a republic to have only a small territory; otherwise it cannot long subsist. … In an extensive republic, the public good is sacrificed to a thousand private views; it is subordinate to exceptions, and depends on accidents. In a small one, the interest of the public is more obvious, better understood, and more within the reach of every citizen; abuses have less extent, and of course are less protected.
So the gap between image and reality in the ‘public interest’ could be overcome by keeping power decentralised. However both Montesquieu and the US Founding Fathers were aware that while small might be beautiful, it was also vulnerable. Montesquieu favoured a confederation of ‘petty republics’ — something that the US Constitution set out to achieve (although the ‘slave power’ Confederate States of America could also use Montesquieu to argue that they had to secede from the Union during the Civil War).
The US constitutional system was presented by its Founders as a way of avoiding the destructive power of ‘Faction’ working against the public interest, in reality it was also a way of ensuring that citizen majorities were unable to make major changes. In the 21st century the ‘counter-majoritarian’ aspects of this system have become increasingly apparent: the powers of Judicial Review by the Supreme Court; the Electoral College which advantages parties which do better with fewer voters in rural states; the power to gerrymander electoral districts for partisan gain; and the role of ‘big money’ in political life. The paradox is that, far from decentralising power — the system ensures that citizens themselves are disempowered by being unable to achieve democratic change.
Rome and today: post-truth
So what Gibbon’s ‘Decline and Fall’ offers the contemporary reader is an (extremely lengthy) lesson in the dangers of letting image and reality diverge in our political systems. The Roman empire’s decline took hundreds of years — so the problems of an empire that wanted to at first look like a republic, and later look like a united Christian realm, were not obvious at any given time. The 21st century is often described as ‘post-truth’: in which political performance is more important than objective facts. However Gibbon shows this situation is not new for human affairs — the Roman world was just as ‘post-truth’ as our own. As an Enlightenment thinker, Gibbon believed that critical inquiry therefore had to follow the truth where ever it led. That didn’t always make him correct, but without the willingness and ability to call out the image/reality gap, human history will remain, in Gibbon’s words ‘the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind’.