Cribbin’ from Mr. Gibbon’s Decline and Fall: Hotel California and the Empire of Liberty

(Left) Detail from John Leech’s illustration “Tarquinius Superbus makes himself king” featured in The Comic History of RomeSource via (Right) Portrait of Edward Gibbon (1737–1794), Joshua Reynolds, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

- 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 — 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 It has been influential not just as a (now largely superseded) interpretation of the fall of an empire, but also as a literary trope.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 (1942–1993) about the decline and fall (and re-rise and re-fall) of a Galactic empire — wrote in doggerel verse

Grafton Books

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 (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 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.

Marble bust of George Washington first president of the United States of America.

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.

Gibbon’s Irony

Paul Cartledge has called Gibbon the first ‘modern’ among ancient historians. 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:

Last ‘Good’ Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Walters Art Museum by Wikimedia Commons

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:

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 , he points out that

Gibbon describes as

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 , Beard notes that . 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.

Coin — Aureus, Emperor Augustus, Museums Victoria / CC BY (Licensed as Attribution 4.0 International)

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 of Rome, he wrote, ‘


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

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

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 , Gibbon was very keen to exhonerate those he called ‘innocent barbarians’ (such as the Goths and Vandals) from blame for destroying the Western empire. he wrote, . 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 for his contemporaries. He returned to print to defend himself in — in which he insisted his history had been . 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.

By contrast, he was both sceptical, and scathing about Constantine. Once again Gibbon called attention to the contrast between image:

… and the reality of .

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).

The emperor Constantine founding Constantinople, Peter Paul Rubens, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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 — and yet another divergence between image and reality:

Gibbon’s philosophical goal in ‘ 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.

The emperor Constantine burning the Arian books: unknown, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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 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.

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, ’. 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 .

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: . 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 (1748) argued for the separation of the powers of government. Montesquieu also argued that republics needed to be small in size to safeguard liberties:

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 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

Dr Tim Dymond has PhD in History from the University of WA, where he was also sessional tutor and lecturer.

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