The continued popularity and influence of Edward Gibbon’s classic work The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire represents something of a conundrum. Long included as part of the canon of great historical writing (if such a thing can be said to exist), it is hardly perfect; indeed, there are many reasons – superficially at least – why it should be disregarded by contemporary students.
It’s old, outdated, full of facts and assumptions which have fallen from favour or been proven to be false; and its style is orotund, with all too much interjection of the author’s opinion. Furthermore, Gibbon’s focus on national characterisations – which includes some fairly outdated stereotypes – rather undoes some of his more careful work in determining the influence of the individual (effeminate eastern eunuchs, if memory serves, make almost continual appearances when the historian describes Rome’s moral collapse). Furthermore, for all its scope and sweep, the work as it stood was remarkably inconsistent in many ways; the three volumes dedicated to 1,000 years of Byzantine history are just as weighty – and no more – than those volumes which focus on the final 300 years of the Western Roman Empire.
The question must therefore be asked: why is Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire such a landmark work of history, and why has it had such an outsized effect on historiography as a whole?
The first answer – one which is effectively unavoidable when dealing with this work in question – is the nature of its style, the way it was written and composed. Despite its slight impenetrability, there is no denying that Gibbon was a master of English prose. His sentences are gloriously well-balanced, beautifully constructed, and often a delight to read. The sheer joy Gibbon can inspire is captured in a passage from his Memoirs of My Life and Writings, in which he describes the intoxication of visiting the city of Rome:
But, at the distance of twenty-five years, I can neither forget nor express the strong emotions which agitated my mind as I first approached and entered the eternal city. After a sleepless night, I trod, with a lofty step, the ruins of the Forum; each memorable spot where Romulus stood, or Tully spoke, or Caesar fell, was at once present to my eye; and several days of intoxication were lost or enjoyed before I could descend to a cool and minute investigation.
Not only is that exceptionally well-written and excellently realised; it is also a truly effective communication of what is so exciting about history, and the ancient world more generally. Later on in the same work, he describes with real lyricism the source of the inspiration which gave him reason to write his history:
It was at Rome, on the 15th of October 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the bare-footed fryars 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.
This writing contains genuine beauty, and was something which inspired me when I visited Rome for the first (and so far only) time. The same can be said of the rest of his works, including his magnum opus. Though Martin Amis and Clive James seemed to agree that Gibbon’s meticulous eight-part sentences were not a style but a stylistic prison when they spoke about it years ago, I cannot help but disagree. It is difficult to escape Gibbon, certainly; it is difficult to overcome the majesty of his style – but it is hardly an unpleasant task.
Gibbon’s work was also pioneering in that it treated certain things – religion and morality, most notably – as though they were historical factors like any other. Rather than being sacred and inviolable events – where the received version was the only truth worth investigating – independent analysis was useful and even welcome; these things could be studied, and their effects could be measured.
It is notable when reading the initial reasoning behind Gibbon’s decision to write about the spread of Christianity that he does not do so in a hostile manner; he does not attempt to render the faith an entirely historical phenomenon.
Our curiosity is naturally prompted to inquire by what means the Christian faith obtained so remarkable a victory over the established religions of the earth. To this inquiry, an obvious but satisfactory answer may be returned; that it was owing to the convincing evidence of the doctrine itself, and to the ruling providence of its great Author. But as truth and reason seldom find so favourable a reception in the world, and as the wisdom of Providence frequently condescends to use the passions of the human heart, and the general circumstances of mankind, as instruments to execute its purpose, we may still be permitted, though with becoming submission, to ask, not indeed what were the first, but what were the secondary causes of the rapid growth of the Christian church.
He states that the notion that Christianity triumphed because it was true and just is not just reasonable, but is ‘obvious but satisfactory’. This does not sound like vicious iconoclasm. But it was perceived by some as such.
In a way this represented the beginnings of real history as we know it; without Gibbon and his apparent iconoclastic bent, some things may have remained off limits as regards historical enquiry for longer than we may like to admit. Indeed, like Joseph Priestly, whose laboratory was destroyed by a religious mob because of his dissenting from orthodoxy, Gibbon faced the hatred and animosity of many for his decision to treat the early Christianity of the Romans as though it were a subject like any other.
So vicious and wounding were these criticisms that Gibbon felt it necessary to respond in print, which occasioned the publication of A Vindication of Some Passages in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Chapters of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. This work, which was an effective rebuke in addition to being a general defence of the practice of history, had a tremendous effect. Though it served only to create more controversy during Gibbon’s own lifetime, the trenchant defence he offered has stood the test of time in its own right.
Another aspect of Gibbon’s writing which cannot be ignored is the way he marshalled his sources. Unlike many other historians of the same period and before (and certainly unlike the sort of Roman historians to which he was in effect mimicking) Gibbon had a thoroughly modern conception of how to interrogate and work with sources.
One of the reasons why the book took so long to appear in print was the method of its being written; and that, it seems, was largely predicated upon Gibbon doing a lot of the sort of hard work we expect of historians today. His reading was immense; his understanding was vast; and his capacity to sift out and arrange sources was both effective and useful. Gibbon’s use, for example, of footnotes littered with classical references prefigured in many ways the sort of writing we take for granted from modern historians. His use of primary sources in particular is of special value in this regard.
In many other ways Gibbon cleared the path for those who came after him. The Oxford History of Classical Reception in English Literature says so plainly and effectively: ‘Homer, Cicero, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Martial, and Juvenal are just a few of the sources that make the Decline and Fall a veritable trove of classical source material’. All of this emphasises another important aspect of Gibbon’s lasting value as a historian and a writer: his enduring popularity with readers. Because of its compelling style and strong opinions, Gibbon’s work has retained more than a specialist, niche popularity; he has brought much learning to a much wider audience, and this is certainly true when considering his use of sources more generally.
Even when Gibbon misinterpreted sources or was needlessly tendentious, he did so in such a way as to edify and enlighten. This is not an attribute unique to him, of course, but the effect he had is so positive precisely because it is more visible as a result of his vast popularity with readers ever since the first volume of Decline and Fall made its initial appearance.
In short, Gibbon’s work has had such an incredible effect on history and the nature of historiography because it is an exceptional book. Its pioneering use of primary sources; its wonderful, luminous prose; its author’s willingness to treat even sacred concepts as historical phenomena – all of this adds up, in addition to many other factors, to mean that Gibbon’s Decline and Fall exhibits a touch of true greatness. At the beginning of this piece I invoked a largely imagined historical canon. If one does exist, Gibbon’s work is guaranteed a place; and if it does not, perhaps this book alone is justification to develop one.