Thursday, 28 February 2019

Review: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-88) by Edward Gibbon - Everyman's Library, 1993-4, 6 vols.

Edward Gibbon

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Everyman’s Library, Hardback [1993–94].
8vo. 6 vols. Based on the edition of J. B. Bury, 1896–1900.
Introductions by Hugh Trevor-Roper, 1993–94. Complete (almost) notes by Gibbon. Additional notes by Oliphant Smeaton, 1910; revised by Christopher Dawson, 1936. Bibliography and Chronology by David Campbell Publishers, 1993.

Vol. 1 cxxv+567 pp. Chapters I–XV. Contents of vols. 1–3 [ix-lii]. Introduction by Hugh Trevor-Roper [liii-xcvii]. Textual Note [xcviii]. Select Bibliography [xcix]. Authorities [c-ciii]. Chronology [civ-cxxv].
Vol. 2 xx+599 pp. Chapters XVI–XXV. Contents [ix-xx].
Vol. 3 xix+556 pp. Chapters XXVI–XXXVI. Contents [ix-xix]. Index to vols. 1–3 [531-56].
Vol. 4 lxviii+598 pp. Chapters XXXVII–XLVI. Contents of vols. 4–6 [ix-liii]. Textual Note [liv]. Introduction to vols. 4–6 by Hugh Trevor-Roper [lv-lxviii].
Vol. 5 xxiii+662 pp. Chapters XLVII–LVI. Contents [ix-xxiii].
Vol. 6 xxv+684 pp. Chapters LVII–LXXI. Contents [ix-xxv]. The Author’s Prefaces [647-55]. A Chronological List of the Roman Emperors [657-62]. Index to vols. 4–6 [663-84].

First published in 6 vols., 1776–88.
Edited by J. B. Bury, 1896–1900 [7 vols.].
First included in Everyman’s Library, 1910 [6 vols.].

[See Appendix for the Table of Contents.]


It’s easy to lose your head in figures when Gibbon’s masterwork is discussed. This is a blind alley, though. Whatever the importance of size in other human activities, it doesn’t matter at all in art. Wagner’s Ring is not a masterpiece because it is 14-15 hours long and took quarter of a century to compose. Neither does the value of Gibbon’s work lie in the fact that it covers 13 centuries, 3 600 pages, 8 000 footnotes and 15 years of toil (1772–87). The simple fact is that the Decline and Fall is a masterpiece because it was written by Edward Gibbon, an extraordinary man who happened to be an outstanding writer.

For years I have been trifling with Gibbon, occasionally reading a chapter here and there, sometimes not even until the end. Now that I have read the whole thing, I am certainly not the first to regret not having done so earlier. I urge you not to repeat my mistake. Reading the whole thing takes a great deal of time, but also much less effort than you might expect.

The single most surprising thing about Gibbon is that he is supremely readable. You wouldn’t believe how addictive he is until you try him en masse. You may well start the Decline and Fall thinking something like “Damn, I’ll die of old age before I finish this thing.” But you do finish it, you’re still alive, and you find yourself thinking something like “Damn, that was too short!”

Gibbon is a slow read simply because you don’t want him to end. But everything does have an end – in the end. The following bunch of random reflections is all I have to show, after the end.

Gibbon’s style may seem perplexing at first glance, but it does repay careful reading. Vast vocabulary and poetic imagery are merged into a perfectly lucid and surprisingly readable whole. It has rhythm and melody that are hard to resist. (I look incredulously when people tell me that prose does not have musical qualities. Of course it does, and they are mightily important for readability – at least as far as I’m concerned.) It is foolish to look askance at Gibbon’s elaborate sentences and sweeping rhetoric. The former is a function of the times and no harm thanks to his precise mind, while the latter is no mere affectation.

Gibbon is a man of letters par excellence. When he uses metaphors, conjures images or indulges in reflection, it is a safe guess that he does so with specific purpose in mind. He challenges your intelligence, imagination and experience. You cannot read Gibbon passively. You must participate actively in the process.

Gibbon’s style has fooled quite a few people. Somerset Maugham, a generally perceptive judge of style, was rather wide of the mark when he lumped together Gibbon and Dr Johnson as examples of “turgidity” and “pomposities”.[1] This may be true of Dr Johnson’s laboured elegance and heavy-handed humour. It is certainly not true of Gibbon. To my terribly limited experience, no writer has written more successfully in the grand manner than Gibbon, not even Sir Thomas Browne whose last chapter of Hydriotaphia (1658) Maugham praised as “a piece of prose that has never been surpassed in our literature”[2], certainly not Dr Johnson in his Preface to Shakespeare (1765). Compared to Gibbon’s fluent and sustained magnificence, Dr Johnson does indeed sound a little turgid and pompous.

I am rather amazed to read in some reviews that Gibbon is “dry”. I don’t really know what people mean by that. For me, “dry” means “humourless”, and this is what Gibbon consistently is not. On the contrary, his wit is omnipresent. I don’t know about other people, but I find it abundantly hilarious to read, in the very first chapter, that the Roman legionnaire carried, in addition to his weapons, kitchen furniture that “would oppress the delicacy of a modern soldier”, or that the conquest of Britain was “undertaken by the most stupid, maintained by the most dissolute, and terminated by the most timid of all the emperors”, or that the Caledonians retained “their wild independence, for which they were not less indebted to their poverty than to their valour.”

These examples can easily be multiplied. “In every art that he attempted his lively genius enabled him to succeed”, we read of emperor Gallienus, “and as his genius was destitute of judgment, he attempted every art except the important ones of war and government.” (X). Zenobia, the Queen of Palmyra, “was of a dark complexion (for in speaking of a lady these trifles become important)” but “equalled in beauty her ancestor Cleopatra, and far surpassed that princess in chastity” (XI). And, of course, the famous passage on the son of Gordian must be quoted yet again (VII):

Twenty-two acknowledged concubines, and a library of sixty-two thousand volumes, attested the variety of his inclinations, and from the productions which he left behind him, it appears that the former as well as the latter were designed for use rather than ostentation.

(A footnote informs us that “the younger Gordian left three or four children” by each of his concubines and that “his literary productions were by no means contemptible”.)

In any case, Gibbon’s perfect lucidity and narrative drive carry on page after page even when his humour is somewhat abated. The only “defect” of his style is that it’s dated. Many words (e.g. genius, revolution, seasonable, artificial) are used with meanings that are today obscure or obsolete. This is not, of course, Gibbon’s fault. It’s nobody’s fault. Language is a living thing. It lives, changes, dies. English is still very much alive: it simply has changed for the last 200 years. Let this not deter the prospective readers, especially if they are non-native speakers, from devouring the complete work. In the vast majority of cases, the context alone is sufficient to make clear Gibbon’s “dated” use of certain words. Trust me, you won’t need to bury yourself in dictionaries.

Gibbon’s research is vast and his method is thorough, but neither is the main reason to read him. Certainly, it is not his style, either. Gibbon is worth reading above all for the same thing as any other great writer, of non-fiction or fiction, it doesn’t matter. In short, his personality. This is powerful, complex and stamped on every page. It is not easy to think of another writer who combines so flawlessly compassion and cynicism. Gibbon has at once great affection and no illusions about humanity.

This makes him the perfect narrator of what is, after all, “little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind”, as he describes history (III).[3] He regards all original sources with a healthy dose of scepticism, for the voice of history “is often little more than the organ of hatred or flattery” (XI). And he is not afraid of judicious speculation (X):

The confusion of the times, and the scarcity of authentic memorials, oppose equal difficulties to the historian, who attempts to preserve a clear and unbroken thread of narration. Surrounded with imperfect fragments, always concise, often obscure, and sometimes contradictory, he is reduced to collect, to compare, and to conjecture: and though he ought never to place his conjectures in the rank of facts, yet the knowledge of human nature, and of the sure operation of its fierce and unrestrained passions, might, on some occasions, supply the want of historical materials.

One of Bertrand Russell’s criticisms of Gibbon was that “princes, wars and politics crowd out common men and economic facts”[4]. This is, to a large extent, true. For Gibbon great individuals, not dumb masses or vague social forces, drive history in whatever direction it seems to be heading. Today this may or may not be so, but in the times of Septimius Severus, Constantine, Julian, Belisarius, Gregory the Great, Athanasius, Attila and Mohammed it certainly was. The common man was then common indeed! Gibbon calls the Roman people “degenerate” (III), that is unable to govern themselves as a republic, and for my part there is nothing more to be said about them. Not that the emperors were any better (III):

It is almost superfluous to enumerate the unworthy successors of Augustus. Their unparalleled vices, and the splendid theatre on which they were acted, have saved them from oblivion. The dark unrelenting Tiberius, the furious Caligula, the feeble Claudius, the profligate and cruel Nero, the beastly Vitellius, and the timid inhuman Domitian, are condemned to everlasting infamy. During four-score years (excepting only the short and doubtful respite of Vespasian’s reign) Rome groaned beneath an unremitting tyranny, which exterminated the ancient families of the republic, and was fatal to almost every virtue, and every talent, that arose in that unhappy period.

Had the historian written fiction, he would have been one of the greatest novelists of all time. Gibbon’s characterisation is bold almost to the point of recklessness, masterfully rounded, and gloriously cynical. Vices and virtues are impartially bestowed and humorously tolerated. Unworthy motives are mercilessly exposed. To give but one random example, Severus generally protected “the poor and oppressed; not so much indeed from any sense of humanity, as from the natural propensity of a despot, to humble the pride of greatness, and to sink all his subjects to the same common level of absolute dependence.” (V). Your modern historian would squirm at such audacity, but Eddie Gibbon is less of a chicken. He studies the sources carefully, he arrives at the most balanced conclusion he is capable of, and he states it with clarity. That fabulous animal, the impartial historian, is anathema to him.

As a result, Gibbon’s Roman emperors are more complex, alive and believable than many creatures of fiction by writers who had much greater freedom. They often make quite a gallery (VII). One was “an effeminate Syrian”, another was a “Thracian peasant”, and a third “was an Arab by birth, and consequently, in the earlier part of his life, a robber by profession.” This is Gibbonian wit and word power. For Gibbonian empathy and compassion, consider his description of Commodus (IV):

Nature had formed him of a weak, rather than a wicked, disposition. His simplicity and timidity rendered him the slave of his attendants, who gradually corrupted his mind. His cruelty, which at first obeyed the dictates of others, degenerated into habit, and at length became the ruling passion of his soul.

Even though he deliberately skipped the sensational dozen of Suetonius, Gibbon still had plenty of fascinating characters to deal with. This is not the place to praise his incisive portraits and quote all memorable passages from them: this review would then become endless. But a few highlights must be mentioned.

Even minor characters enjoy lavish treatment that makes them memorable. Aurelian, for example, is hardly the most famous Roman emperor. He ruled for about five years between 270 and 275. But Gibbon paints him in heroic colours (XI). Aurelian strengthened the borders and brought a new measure of stability to the Empire by defeating the boisterous Palmyrenians in the east, the rebellious usurper Tetricus in the west (Gaul), and the Alemanni in the north (Pannonia). He died not of natural causes, of course, yet he died “regretted by the army, detested by the senate, but universally acknowledged as a warlike and fortunate prince, the useful though severe reformer of a degenerate state.” True to himself, Gibbon provides a complex portrait. We are not spared “the rigour, and even cruelty, of Aurelian”, but the author explains and understands, without empty moralising, the flaws of the emperor:

He was naturally of a severe disposition. A peasant and a soldier, his nerves yielded not easily to the impressions of sympathy, and he could sustain without emotion the sight of tortures and death. Trained from his earliest youth in the exercise of arms, he set too small a value on the life of a citizen, chastised by military execution the slightest offences, and transferred the stern discipline of the camp into the civil administration of the laws. His love of justice often became a blind and furious passion; and, whenever he deemed his own or the public safety endangered, he disregarded the rules of evidence and the proportion of punishments.

Another minor but memorable character is Majorian, “a great and heroic character, such as sometimes arise, in a degenerate age, to vindicate the honour of the human species” (XXXVI). He was one of the last Roman emperors in the West and he reigned for mere four years. Yet Majorian, from the little we know about him, initiated financial reforms which “tended to remove, or at least to mitigate, the most intolerable grievances” and campaigned not without success against the Vandals in Spain and Africa. Gibbon quotes at some length Majorian’s admirable epistle to the Senate on his accession to the purple and wittily concludes that the new emperor “must have derived those generous sentiments from his own heart, since they were not suggested to his imitation by the customs of his age or the example of his predecessors.” The historian is so impressed with this obscure emperor that he uses even the most unreliable anecdotes for praise (note the very neat point in the last sentence):

The intrepid countenance of Majorian animated his troops with a confidence of victory; and if we might credit the historian Procopius, his courage sometimes hurried him beyond the bounds of prudence. Anxious to explore with his own eyes the state of the Vandals, he ventured, after disguising the colour of his hair, to visit Carthage in the character of his own ambassador: and Genseric was afterwards mortified by the discovery that he had entertained and dismissed the emperor of the Romans. Such an anecdote may be rejected as an improbable fiction, but it is a fiction which would not have been imagined unless in the life of a hero.

Constantine (XIV, XVII, XVIII) is anything but a minor character. He is treated at proper length and so is the famous city he modestly named after himself (XVII). But Gibbon’s attitude to Constantine, if not to Constantinople, is more than usually ambiguous.

Constantine’s achievements are nothing if not impressive. He started modestly as a tribune of the first order in 305. He ended up as the sole ruler of the Roman Empire in 324. He was victorious in two massive civil wars with Maxentius and Licinius, quite possibly the most serious civil discord since the times of Caesar and Pompey. Gibbon is properly appreciative of Constantine’s subtle combination of audacity and prudence, both in diplomatic and military matters. Among other things, he abolished the Praetorian Guards (XIV): “a measure of prudence as well as of revenge.”

On the other hand (XIV): “The virtues of Constantine were rendered more illustrious by the vices of Maxentius.” (Licinius was no paragon of virtue, either.) “Though Constantine might view the conduct of Maxentius with abhorrence, and the situation of the Romans with compassion,” Gibbon writes with something much like disdain, “we have no reason to presume that he would have taken up arms to punish the one or to relieve the other.” But Maxentius was foolish enough to “provoke a formidable enemy whose ambition had been hitherto restrained by considerations of prudence rather than by principles of justice.” Gibbon is especially critical of the last fourteen years of Constantine’s reign (323–37), “a period of apparent splendour rather than of real prosperity” (XVIII):

In the life of Augustus we behold the tyrant of the republic converted almost by imperceptible degrees into the father of his country and of human kind. In that of Constantine we may contemplate a hero, who had so long inspired his subjects with love and his enemies with terror, degenerating into a cruel and dissolute monarch, corrupted by his fortune, or raised by conquest above the necessity of dissimulation. [...] A mind thus relaxed by prosperity and indulgence was incapable of rising to that magnanimity which disdains suspicion and dares to forgive. The deaths of Maximian and Licinius may perhaps be justified by the maxims of policy as they are taught in the schools of tyrants; but an impartial narrative of the executions, or rather murders, which sullied the declining age of Constantine, will suggest to our most candid thoughts the idea of a prince who could sacrifice, without reluctance, the laws of justice and the feelings of nature to the dictates either of his passions or of his interest.

Among many other vices and follies, the Emperor was responsible for the execution of Crispus, his eldest son, who was unjustly accused of plotting against his father (XVIII). The historian is amused at some of his colleagues who, eager to “palliate the guilt of a parricide”, invented “imaginary histories” and appealed to them with “unblushing confidence”. These claimed that Constantine, when he discovered his son’s innocence posthumously, mourned for forty days and erected a golden statue of Crispus with the inscription “To My Son, Whom I Unjustly Condemned”. Gibbon would have none of this nonsense. “A tale so moral and so interesting would deserve to be supported by less exceptionable authority”, he wisely observes about the fanciful Codinus. Going back to more ancient authors, he discovers that Constantine “atoned for the murder of an innocent son by the execution, perhaps, of a guilty wife.” Frustratingly little is known of Fausta, Constantine’s second wife and mother of three future emperors, but Gibbon seems to think well of her. He even quotes one obscure source according to which she outlived “the blind and suspicious cruelty of her husband”.

Gibbon is rather devastating on Constantine as a lawmaker (XIV). He especially disapproves of the law that punished rape with death, not because the offence doesn’t deserve the punishment, but because the emperor included among the guilty parties even artful (but gentle) seducers and willing maidens (willing to leave the house of their parents before their 25th birthday). If the former virgin declared that she had been carried away with her own consent, this only served to make her as guilty as her lover and share his fate. If the family of the “victim” tried to hide her crime, they were subjected to exile and confiscation. Gibbon quite rightly denounces this law as showing “very little indulgence for the most amiable weakness of human nature.” He concludes with all but hailing the reign of Constantine as one of the major symptoms of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire (XIV):

Such, indeed, was the singular humour of that emperor, who showed himself as indulgent, and even remiss, in the execution of his laws, as he was severe, and even cruel, in the enacting of them. It is scarcely possible to observe a more decisive symptom of weakness, either in the character of the prince, or in the constitution of the government.

Julian Apostate, even though he ruled for less than three years, has three full chapters dedicated to him (XXII–XXIV; plus much of XIX). They are every bit as compelling as Gore Vidal’s brilliant novelised biography (1964). I think this is the closest Gibbon ever comes to hero worship. He never does succumb to it, and his portrait of Julian, while sympathetic and even effusive, is not devoid of darker undertones.

The Apostate must have been a remarkable man indeed. A scholar and a philosopher who spent his formative years among Neoplatonists in cities like Pergamon, Ephesus, Nicomedia and Athens (names rich in romance!), Julian was made emperor quite against his will by the legions of Gaul who disobeyed the preposterous orders of Constantius. Julian had proven himself a capable commander in several campaigns against the Alemanni and the Franks, but he apparently had no purple ambitions. Once proclaimed emperor, though, he acted with commendable celerity towards the inevitable civil war. Julian’s march with 3 000 men from the sources of the Danube to Sirmium, partly through unknown lands and partly by the Danube itself, was an extraordinary achievement. It certainly surprised his enemies. Nobody expected him to show up so far away so soon.

Only the “seasonable death of Constantius” prevented the civil war. But Julian was already bitten by the Alexandrian bug for conquest and glory. Eight months or so later, he embarked on a great invasion in the east. Gibbon describes Julian’s massive Persian expedition (65 000 men) as “successful”, even though it cost Julian’s life, it didn’t capture the capital Ctesiphon, and it ended with a shameful treaty by Julian’s successor, Jovian. The Emperor’s decision to burn most of the Roman fleet in the Tigris was widely considered the act of a madman at the time. Yet Gibbon finds “some specious, and perhaps solid, reasons” that might have justified Julian’s decision. Recalling the similar cases of Agathocles and Cortez, he concludes wisely:

Had the arms of Julian been victorious, we should now admire the conduct as well as the courage of a hero who, by depriving his soldiers of the hopes of a retreat, left them only the alternative of death or conquest.

Julian was a voluminous and humorous writer, not entirely devoid of affectation, but able to have fun at his own expense. This alone must have endeared him to Gibbon as a fellow man of letters. The historian describes the famous Misopogon (“Beard Hater”) as “a singular monument of the resentment, the wit, the humanity, and the indiscretion of Julian” as well as “an ironical confession of his own faults, and a severe satire of the licentious and effeminate manners of Antioch.” The Caesars “is one of the most agreeable and instructive productions of ancient wit.” From a man of Gibbon’s sensibility, not to mention wit and style, this is high praise indeed. Even Julian’s Socratic death was literary and crowned with a funeral oration which, whether or not previously composed, justifies Gibbon’s extensive quote.

Julian as a personality was humane, chaste, modest, scornful of luxury almost to a fault, and insanely industrious. He was a regular workaholic: “by this avarice of time he seemed to protract the short duration of his reign”. Gibbon rightly wonders that only 16 months passed between the death of Constantius and the beginning of the Persian expedition which took Julian’s life. The Emperor did a great deal in this short time, and though not devoid of vanity and somewhat overzealous with his reforms (e.g. he cleaned the court in Constantinople from many worthless hangers-on but also from some valuable courtiers), Julian acted as a wise and just ruler. Quite an achievement for a man in his early thirties!     

Gibbon concludes by paying the biggest possible compliment. Julian might have been remembered even without the benefit of the purple. Most rulers would have been forgotten under such circumstances, but Julian, Gibbon thinks, could have distinguished himself in one way or another. He compares him, not unfavourably, to some of the most illustrious among the Roman emperors (XXII):

The generality of princes, if they were stripped of their purple and cast naked into the world, would immediately sink to the lowest rank of society, without a hope of emerging from their obscurity. But the personal merit of Julian was, in some measure, independent of his fortune. Whatever had been his choice of life, by the force of intrepid courage, lively wit, and intense application, he would have obtained, or at least he would have deserved, the highest honours of his profession, and Julian might have raised himself to the rank of minister or general of the state in which he was born a private citizen. If the jealous caprice of power had disappointed his expectations; if he had prudently declined the paths of greatness, the employment of the same talents in studious solitude would have placed beyond the reach of kings his present happiness and his immortal fame. When we inspect with minute, or perhaps malevolent, attention the portrait of Julian, something seems wanting to the grace and perfection of the whole figure. His genius was less powerful and sublime than that of Caesar, nor did he possess the consummate prudence of Augustus. The virtues of Trajan appear more steady and natural, and the philosophy of Marcus is more simple and consistent. Yet Julian sustained adversity with firmness, and prosperity with moderation. After an interval of one hundred and twenty years from the death of Alexander Severus, the Romans beheld an emperor who made no distinction between his duties and his pleasures, who laboured to relieve the distress and to revive the spirit of his subjects, and who endeavoured always to connect authority with merit, and happiness with virtue. Even faction, and religious faction, was constrained to acknowledge the superiority of his genius in peace as well as in war, and to con fess, with a sigh, that the apostate Julian was a lover of his country, and that he deserved the empire of the world.

Gibbon is unambiguous about the most famous, or notorious, fact in Julian’s biography. “The character of Apostate has injured the reputation of Julian”, he writes in the opening sentence of Chapter XXIII, “and the enthusiasm which clouded his virtues has exaggerated the real and apparent magnitude of his faults.” This is the dark side of Julian. He “did not escape the general contagion of the times.” Gibbon doesn’t mince his words:

He affected to pity the unhappy Christians, who were mistaken in the most important object of their lives; but his pity was degraded by contempt, his contempt was embittered by hatred; and the sentiments of Julian were expressed in a style of sarcastic wit, which inflicts a deep and deadly wound whenever it issues from the mouth of a sovereign.

To begin with, Gibbon makes a fine case that, from a philosophical point of view, paganism is no improvement on Christianity. Whatever its social or personal benefits (i.e. moderation and tolerance), it is metaphysically indefensible. It is often obscure and quite ridiculous. Julian, in his most impressionable age, was corrupted by the “the strange allusions, the forced etymologies, the solemn trifling, and the impenetrable obscurity” of his Neoplatonic masters.[5] The future emperor also imbibed a certain degree of fanaticism. When he exults in the extinction of the Epicureans and the sceptics, Gibbon rightly remarks in a footnote that “it is unworthy of a philosopher to wish that any opinions and arguments the most repugnant to his own should be concealed from the knowledge of mankind.” Unfortunately, this appeal for dispassionate rationality still sounds utterly utopian. Perhaps it’s asking too much from human nature.

Worse than these philosophical subtleties, Julian embarked on a large-scale persecution of the “Galileans”, as he contemptuously called the Christians. It was an “artful” persecution, as Gibbon notes, but it was still working, slowly yet surely, towards the same end as the more robust persecutions employed by the Christians in later centuries. The followers of Christ were most notoriously barred from teaching grammar and rhetoric as well as from important state positions. They were also compelled to restore the many pagan temples destroyed by themselves under Constantine and his devout successors. Julian’s plan to restore the temple in Jerusalem was not so much out of respect for the Jews and their religion as because they were anti-Christian, too. When provincial governors were overzealous in carrying out his anti-Christian edicts, Julian’s response was “gentle reproofs and substantial rewards”. In short:

It was undoubtedly the wish and the design of Julian to deprive the Christians of the advantages of wealth, of knowledge, and of power; but the injustice of excluding them from all offices of trust and profit seems to have been the result of his general policy, rather than the immediate consequence of any positive law.

Could Julian have succeeded? Gibbon gives no definite answer; he is certainly right that paganism was inherently weak (too tolerant, too lacking central organisation) and Christianity derived much strength from opposition. But I think the historian did fancy a positive reply to this speculative question. I certainly do. Had he been granted a long reign of a few decades, Julian might have changed history more profoundly than any other single man. For better or worse, it didn’t happen. Julian has remained, in the words of Gore Vidal, “something of an underground hero in Europe.”

“In retrospect”, Mr Trevor-Roper writes in his second introduction (vol. 4, p. lvi), “the age of Justinian appears as the Indian summer of the historic Roman Empire, and modern historians see the reign of Heraclius (610–41) as the beginning of a new age of distinctive ‘Byzantine’ history.” Appropriately, Justinian is the superstar of the fourth volume and the only emperor in the East (after the fall of the West) who can stand comparison with the best of his western colleagues since the Antonines. Gibbon quite agrees with that. Or does he?

Even though Justinian reigned for 38 years (527–65), Gibbon finds it “difficult to trace the character of a prince who is not the most conspicuous object of his own times”. He is certainly right that “the emperor is eclipsed by the names of his victorious generals” (XLIII).

Apart from his pious labours (XLVII; see below), Justinian has a single claim to immortality and that is his work as a legislator. Gibbon devotes a whole chapter (XLIV) on the “fair and everlasting monument” of Justinian’s CodePandects and Institutes. The subject is tricky, on the one hand “the most instructive portion of history”, yet on the other “interesting to few, and entertaining to none”. Gibbon makes it, as he does just about anything, compelling. He covers a great deal of ground, from filial piety and marriage to property and inheritance to contracts and loans, and he often goes back to Theodosius, Constantine and Augustus, even to Numa and Romulus.

In a period of thirteen hundred years, the laws had reluctantly followed the changes of government and manners; and the laudable desire of conciliating ancient names with recent institutions destroyed the harmony, and swelled the magnitude, of the obscure and irregular system. The laws which excuse, on any occasions, the ignorance of their subjects, confess their own imperfections: the civil jurisprudence, as it was abridged by Justinian, still continued a mysterious science, and a profitable trade, and the innate perplexity of the study was involved in tenfold darkness by the private industry of the practitioners.

Two names have become inextricably linked with that of Justinian. Indeed, they have all but overshadowed the Emperor. It seems fitting to finish this very brief survey of Gibbon’s characters with his unforgettable portraits of Theodora and Belisarius.

Theodora, “whose strange elevation cannot be applauded as the triumph of female virtue” (XL), was an actress, a stripper and a prostitute. By sheer force of character, she also became Justinian’s wife and, a little later, an Empress of the East. Gibbon spends little time on her, yet he managed to infuriate the prudes. Even Hugh Trevor-Roper, in his second introduction (vol. 4, p. lxiv), cannot resist the temptation to gossip:

Gibbon’s fame was now well established. Only the clergy continued their attacks, and indeed extended them; for they now found a new front against which to direct them. This was what even Gibbon’s defender, the Greek scholar Richard Porson, would describe as his ‘rage for indecency’: an indecency which was generally relegated to the footnotes and protected by ‘the obscurity of a learned language’. The most notorious of such notes described the strip-tease act of the Empress Theodora, the wife of Justinian, in her unreformed days as a prostitute on the stage. Gibbon leaves the quotation in the original Greek of the Byzantine historian Procopius, from which I shall not presume to release it. The clergy were perhaps particularly irritated by his comment, ‘I have heard that a learned prelate, now deceased, was fond of quoting this passage in conversation’. The prelate is said to have been William Warburton, Bishop of Gloucester, the swashbuckling literary tyrant whose pretentions to scholarship had once been punctured by Gibbon. The Bishop of Norwich was so shocked by this quotation that he went through the whole of Gibbon’s work extracting the indecent passages in order to hold them up for execration; but he was forestalled by the edition of The Gentleman’s Magazine, who published such a list, without comment, and was duly reproached by a correspondent for printing ‘filthy extracts from a silly book’. I am told that Cecil Rhodes was so stimulated by this note that he hired a classical scholar to translate all Gibbon’s Greek and Latin quotations, but was disappointed by the meagre result.

Gibbon’s prose is indeed chaste; the naughtiness is all in Greek or Latin (see “Note on the Edition” below). The passage in question comes from Part 2 of The Secret History by Procopius.[6] In a nutshell, Theodora, with nothing but a girdle on, performed a remarkable act on the stage. She lied on her back and let geese peck barley from her private parts. This sent the English clergy of the late 18th century into a paroxysm of rage. Whether or not the girdle interfered with the satisfaction of this ornithological appetite, Procopius doesn’t tell us. But he does provide plenty of details from Theodora’s naughty years far more explicit than this one. As for Warburton, Gibbon murdered him in another footnote, again in English but this time by name.

Gibbon’s portrait of Theodora, while concise, is typically complex. He describes her vices and virtues with precision, yet without an ounce of moralistic nonsense. She was vain, capricious and cruel; her spies and dungeons have become legendary, but their horrors may have been exaggerated (“darkness is propitious to cruelty, but it is likewise favourable to calumny and fiction.”) Once she became an empress, which she remained for 22 years, Theodora’s chastity was unimpeachable, “founded on the silence of her implacable enemies; and although the daughter of Acacius might be satiated with love, yet some applause is due to the firmness of a mind which could sacrifice pleasure and habit to the stronger sense either of duty or interest.” So are her charity and courage. The latter was especially remarkable during the so-called Nika sedition (532); the Emperor was terrified and ready to attempt a fatal flight, but his wife behaved heroically, changed his mind and saved their lives:

Justinian was lost, if the prostitute whom he raised from the theatre had not renounced the timidity, as well as the virtues, of her sex. In the midst of a council, where Belisarius was present, Theodora alone displayed the spirit of a hero; and she alone, without apprehending his future hatred, could save the emperor from the imminent danger, and his unworthy fears.

“If flight,” said the consort of Justinian, “were the only means of safety, yet I should disdain to fly. Death is the condition of our birth; but they who have reigned should never survive the loss of dignity and dominion. I implore Heaven, that I may never be seen, not a day, without my diadem and purple; that I may no longer behold the light, when I cease to be saluted with the name of queen. If you resolve, O Caesar! to fly, you have treasures; behold the sea, you have ships; but tremble lest the desire of life should expose you to wretched exile and ignominious death. For my own part, I adhere to the maxim of antiquity, that the throne is a glorious sepulchre.”

I stand corrected: Belisarius, not Julian, is the closest Gibbon ever comes to hero worship. This is not hard to understand. The achievements of Belisarius as a commander are stupendous, to say the least; the blitzkrieg in the West between 533 and 539 would have been enough to secure his place in history, if not indeed to make him “one of those heroic names which are familiar to every age and to every nation” (XLI):

He subdued Africa, Italy, and the adjacent islands; led away captives the successors of Genseric and Theodoric; filled Constantinople with the spoils of their palaces; and in the space of six years recovered half the provinces of the Western empire. In his fame and merit, in wealth and power, he remained without a rival, the first of the Roman subjects; the voice of envy could only magnify his dangerous importance; and the emperor might applaud his own discerning spirit, which had discovered and raised the genius of Belisarius.

Gibbon’s highly dramatic accounts how Belisarius reclaimed Africa from the Vandals and Italy from the Goths put all but the finest historical novels to shame. The siege of Rome by the Goths (537) lasted for more than a year, but after the enemy was repulsed for the first time, just eighteen days after the beginning, the whole thing “degenerated into a tedious and indolent blockade” (XLI). It was Belisarius who made the difference: “the whole plan of the attack and defence was distinctly present to his mind; he observed the changes of each instant, weighed every possible advantage, transported his person to the scenes of danger, and communicated his spirit in calm and decisive orders [...] each Roman might boast that he had vanquished thirty Barbarians, if the strange disproportion of numbers were not counterbalanced by the merit of one man.”

Belisarius was less successful in later years. When he was sent back to Italy to reclaim the province from the Goths (544–8), he had a mincing success. He was overshadowed by Narses the eunuch, “among the few who have rescued that unhappy name from the contempt and hatred of mankind”, who demolished the Italian Goths in 552–3. Even so, Gibbon is eager to vindicate Belisarius. He was the victim either of his cowardly generals or of Justinian’s ingratitude. Gibbon is clearly aware of his partiality, but he does his best to check it before it gets embarrassing (XLIII):

I desire to believe, but I dare not affirm, that Belisarius sincerely rejoiced in the triumph of Narses. Yet the consciousness of his own exploits might teach him to esteem without jealousy the merit of a rival; and the repose of the aged warrior was crowned by a last victory, which saved the emperor and the capital.

This last victory was against the Bulgarians (or their immediate ancestors) who made a nuisance of themselves in 559. It is probably an exaggeration to say that they seriously threatened the walls of Constantinople, but they did come close to them and rather frightened the capital.

Belisarius was apparently as great a general as he was a human being. He was not without disturbing overtones; for example, he was not above poisoning the water of a besieged city. Yet his loyalty to Justinian, however poorly repaid and sometimes sorely tempted, never wavered, and his magnanimity was remarkable for an age when conquered people were commonly massacred. In September 533, after he took Carthage from the Vandals, Belisarius made a speech to his soldiers that must have had much too few precedents in history (XLI):

Before he allowed them to enter the gates of Carthage, he exhorted them, in a discourse worthy of himself and the occasion, not to disgrace the glory of their arms; and to remember that the Vandals had been the tyrants, but that they were the deliverers, of the Africans, who must now be respected as the voluntary and affectionate subjects of their common sovereign. The Romans marched through the streets in close ranks prepared for battle if an enemy had appeared: the strict order maintained by the general imprinted on their minds the duty of obedience; and in an age in which custom and impunity almost sanctified the abuse of conquest, the genius of one man repressed the passions of a victorious army. The voice of menace and complaint was silent; the trade of Carthage was not interrupted; while Africa changed her master and her government, the shops continued open and busy; and the soldiers, after sufficient guards had been posted, modestly departed to the houses which were allotted for their reception.

Ironically, in the end of his life Belisarius was disgraced by accusations of plotting against Justinian. He was imprisoned in his own palace and his wealth was taken away. Eight months later (July 564), his freedom and fortune, not to mention his honour, were restored. Eight more months later (March 565), he died. No evidence is needed to prove the innocence of Belisarius. Gibbon destroys this silly accusation with sheer common sense (XLIII): “Posterity will not hastily believe that a hero who, in the vigour of life, had disdained the fairest offers of ambition and revenge, should stoop to the murder of his prince, whom he could not long expect to survive.”

Belisarius and Justinian had but one thing in common: venomous wives. The “fair and subtle Antonina, who alternately enjoyed the confidence, and incurred the hatred, of the empress Theodora” was hardly the patron goddess of conjugal fidelity. Whether Belisarius really surprised Antonina with one of her numerous lovers and “consented to disbelieve the evidence of his own senses” (XLI), he must have known of his wife’s loose adventures but chose to do nothing about them. Gibbon, in a rare fit of regrettable moralising, declares that “the fame, and even the virtue, of Belisarius, were polluted by the lust and cruelty of his wife; and that hero deserved an appellation which may not drop from the pen of the decent historian [...] contemptible is the husband who feels, and yet endures, his own infamy in that of his wife.”

It remains unclear what this “appellation” may be and why a husband should be contemptible if he doesn’t care about his wife’s naughty games. The case of Belisarius was further complicated by the support of Theodora which made his wife rather untouchable. Antonina persecuted even her own son from a previous marriage, one Photius, and there Belisarius could be blamed for making too feeble attempts to save the unfortunate youth from the clutch of his monstrous mother. The story of Photius, with its dark dungeons and daring escapes, would make an entertaining adventure novel (XLI):

After this fruitless cruelty, the son of Antonina, while his mother feasted with the empress, was buried in her subterraneous prisons, which admitted not the distinction of night and day. He twice escaped to the most venerable sanctuaries of Constantinople, the churches of St. Sophia, and of the Virgin: but his tyrants were insensible of religion as of pity; and the helpless youth, amidst the clamours of the clergy and people, was twice dragged from the altar to the dungeon. His third attempt was more successful. At the end of three years, the prophet Zachariah, or some mortal friend, indicated the means of an escape: he eluded the spies and guards of the empress, reached the holy sepulchre of Jerusalem, embraced the profession of a monk; and the abbot Photius was employed, after the death of Justinian, to reconcile and regulate the churches of Egypt. The son of Antonina suffered all that an enemy can inflict: her patient husband imposed on himself the more exquisite misery of violating his promise and deserting his friend.

Since history has a brutal sense of humour, Belisarius may well have owed his life to Antonina who “might wish to humble, but could not desire to ruin, the partner of her fortunes”. This would also provide a less noble, but perhaps more probable, explanation of his spousal submission.

Gibbon concludes Chapter XLI in a rather ambiguous way, inviting his readers, as he often does, to draw their own conclusions. It seems that after his second Persian campaign (541), Belisarius somehow incurred the displeasure of Theodora. She pardoned him in the most humiliating way. “I am not insensible of the services of Antonina”, the Empress loftily wrote. “To her merits and intercession I have granted your life, and permit you to retain a part of your treasures, which might be justly forfeited to the state.” Thus humiliated, Belisarius was sent to Italy on military business. Make what you will of Gibbon’s last words:

At his departure from Constantinople, his friends, and even the public, were persuaded that as soon as he regained his freedom, he would renounce his dissimulation, and that his wife, Theodora, and perhaps the emperor himself, would be sacrificed to the just revenge of a virtuous rebel. Their hopes were deceived; and the unconquerable patience and loyalty of Belisarius appear either below or above the character of a MAN.

Now let me disagree (again) with Bertrand Russell. Despite Gibbon’s unrivalled and probably still unsurpassed portraits of all those great individuals, he is by no means devoid of perceptive reflections on social issues and mass psychology. Several quotes would probably be a better illustration than any paraphrase: 

[On the perverse values of the masses, Ch. I:]
…as long as mankind shall continue to bestow more liberal applause on their destroyers than on their benefactors, the thirst of military glory will ever be the vice of the most exalted characters.

[On civil war, Ch. XI:]
Such, indeed, is the policy of civil war: severely to remember injuries, and to forget the most important services. Revenge is profitable, gratitude is expensive.

[On government and the army, Ch. VII:]
In the cool shade of retirement, we may easily devise imaginary forms of government, in which the sceptre shall be constantly bestowed on the most worthy, by the free and incorrupt suffrage of the whole community. Experience overturns these airy fabrics, and teaches us that, in a large society, the election of a monarch can never devolve to the wisest, or to the most numerous, part of the people. The army is the only order of men sufficiently united to concur in the same sentiments, and powerful enough to impose them on the rest of their fellow-citizens: but the temper of soldiers, habituated at once to violence and to slavery, renders them very unfit guardians of a legal or even a civil, constitution. Justice, humanity, or political wisdom, are qualities they are too little acquainted with in themselves, to appreciate them in others. Valour will acquire their esteem, and liberality will purchase their suffrage; but the first of these merits is often lodged in the most savage breasts; the latter can only exert itself at the expense of the public; and both may be turned against the possessor of the throne, by the ambition of a daring rival.

[On the effects of oppression on the people, Ch. VII:]
...the subjects of Maximin were reduced to that uncommon distress, in which the body of the people has more to fear from oppression than from resistance. The consciousness of that melancholy truth inspires a degree of persevering fury seldom to be found in those civil wars which are artificially supported for the benefit of a few factious and designing leaders.

[On the decline of the arts in the age of Constantine, Ch. XIV:]
The triumphal arch of Constantine still remains a melancholy proof of the decline of the arts, and a singular testimony of the meanest vanity. As it was not possible to find in the capital of the empire a sculptor who was capable of adorning that public monument, the arch of Trajan, without any respect either for his memory or for the rules of propriety, was stripped of its most elegant figures. The difference of times and persons, of actions and characters, was totally disregarded. The Parthian captives appear prostrate at the feet of a prince who never carried his arms beyond the Euphrates; and curious antiquarians can still discover the head of Trajan on the trophies of Constantine. The new ornaments which it was necessary to introduce between the vacancies of ancient sculpture are executed in the rudest and most unskilful manner.

[On Christianity and national characteristics, Ch. LIV:]
In the profession of Christianity, the variety of national characters may be clearly distinguished. The natives of Syria and Egypt abandoned their lives to lazy and contemplative devotion: Rome again aspired to the dominion of the world; and the wit of the lively and loquacious Greeks was consumed in the disputes of metaphysical theology. The incomprehensible mysteries of the Trinity and Incarnation, instead of commanding their silent submission, were agitated in vehement and subtle controversies, which enlarged their faith at the expense, perhaps, of their charity and reason.

[On our, to borrow a phrase from Bernard Shaw, “native barbarism”[7], most disturbing and most timeless, Ch. LVIII:]
So familiar, and as it were so natural to man, is the practice of violence, that our indulgence allows the slightest provocation, the most disputable right, as a sufficient ground of national hostility.

In fact, Gibbon’s curiosity is insatiable. It extends to geography, anthropology, linguistics and just about anything else. Chapter XXXI goes into substantial detail, mostly derived from the sarcastic pen of Ammianus Marcellinus, about Roman wealth and manners. It is dramatically positioned to precede the sack of Rome by the Goths in 410. Chapter XL contains fascinating discussions of the introduction of silk in the Roman Empire and the decline of Greek philosophy. Chapter XLIII contains some entertaining stuff on comets, earthquakes and plagues; Chapter LII on the Greek fire and the learning of the Arabs. Gibbon is more than a little charmed with science, for example entomology. He declares the “history of insects” to be “far more wonderful than Ovid’s Metamorphoses”. Later in the same chapter (XL), he describes the splendour of Hagia Sophia and concludes with this devastating remark: “Yet how dull is the artifice, how insignificant is the labour, if it be compared with the formation of the vilest insect that crawls upon the surface of the temple!” As for economics, the end of Chapter VI contains an illuminating digression on Roman finances.

Gibbon is most often insightful about the single social force which, unfortunately, has shaped history more than any other, namely religion. Christianity will be discussed at length later, but a few words about Islam may be said here. Gibbon spends plenty of space on the Prophet (L), the Islamic conquests (LI) and the Caliphate (LII). This is such a fantastic story that one finds it hard believe it is actually history. It is indeed his story.

Mohammed outdid Alaric the Goth, Genseric the Vandal and Attila the Hun with a vengeance. Had he lived three centuries earlier, he would have ended the long agony of the Western Empire some one hundred and fifty years before 476. However glorious the deeds of these barbarians may have been, they ended with their lives; only their names have survived. The Mohammed Effect actually began at his death. It is still felt almost fourteen centuries later. When the Prophet met his Maker in 632, only the Arabian Peninsula had been converted to his new religion. Less than a century later, the Caliphate stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indus River!

The life of Mohammed is yet another adventure novel more engrossing than most adventure novels. The Prophet’s personality would surely delight every self-respecting novelist. Gibbon frankly admits he would have found it hard to do justice to that “extraordinary man” even if he had known him personally. Even his early years are riddled with contradictions. Gibbon rejects the Prophet’s plebeian origins (“an unskilful calumny of the Christians”), but he does embrace vigorously Mohammed’s illiteracy (“those who believe that Mahomet could read or write are incapable of reading what is written with another pen”). But how come a man from one of the most illustrious families in Mecca, the “hereditary guardians” of the sacred Kaaba, was not able to read and write? Not impossible, I guess, but somewhat unlikely.

The first two thirds of Mohammed’s life were quite conventional. He married a rich widow and enjoyed a simple life. He had always been deeply religious, each year in the month of Ramadan withdrawing from the world to the cave of Hera near Mecca where he “consulted the spirit of fraud or enthusiasm, whose abode is not in the heavens, but in the mind of the prophet.” But it was not until the age of forty that Mohammed came up with a brand new religion “compounded of an eternal truth, and a necessary fiction”, namely that there is only one God and Mohammed is his prophet. The rest, as they say, is history, here served with a generous dose of Gibbonian wit and wisdom:

The first and most arduous conquests of Mahomet were those of his wife, his servant, his pupil, and his friend; since he presented himself as a prophet to those who were most conversant with his infirmities as a man.

A prophet may reveal the secrets of heaven and of futurity; but in his moral precepts he can only repeat the lessons of our own hearts.

As you can see, Gibbon has plenty of fun at the expense of Mohammed. Consider his take on the Prophet’s private life: “Perfumes and women were the two sensual enjoyments which his nature required, and his religion did not forbid; and Mahomet affirmed, that the fervour of his devotion was increased by these innocent pleasures.” When we remember the “seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines of the wise Solomon, we shall applaud the modesty of the Arabian” who had 17 or 15, or maybe even only 11, wives that “enjoyed in their turns the favour of his conjugal society”. The perfumed womaniser was reportedly a man of exceptional virility. A true hormonal Hercules! To his credit, however, the Prophet “abstained from the right of polygamy” while his first wife was alive. He revered her memory and was harsh with his young wives when they dared insult “the venerable matron”:

After her death, he placed her in the rank of the four perfect women, with the sister of Moses, the mother of Jesus, and Fatima, the best beloved of his daughters. “Was she not old?” said Ayesha, with the insolence of a blooming beauty; “has not God given you a better in her place?” “No, by God,” said Mahomet, with an effusion of honest gratitude, “there never can be a better! She believed in me when men despised me; she relieved my wants, when I was poor and persecuted by the world.”

And yet, as in the case of Jesus, whose “patient and humble virtues should not be confounded with the intolerant zeal of princes and bishops, who have disgraced the name of his disciples”, Gibbon’s issue is not with Mohammed’s life and character but rather with Islam itself. He goes through its precepts, tenets and fables, and he doesn’t think much of them. Islam, in short, is derivative and by no means less absurd than Judaism or Christianity. Its sacred book, the Koran, accepted as the word of God verbatim, is dismissed as an “endless incoherent rhapsody of fable, and precept, and declamation, which seldom excites a sentiment or an idea, which sometimes crawls in the dust, and is sometimes lost in the clouds.” And last but not least, philosophically speaking, Islam has much the same problems like Christianity:

The doctrine of eternal decrees and absolute predestination is strictly embraced by the Mahometans; and they struggle, with the common difficulties, how to reconcile the prescience of God with the freedom and responsibility of man; how to explain the permission of evil under the reign of infinite power and infinite goodness.

The Islamic paradise as described in the Koran is Gibbon at his absolute finest. This is hilarious and at the same time profound. And it’s impossible to resist quoting it:

It is not surprising that superstition should act most powerfully on the fears of her votaries, since the human fancy can paint with more energy the misery than the bliss of a future life. With the two simple elements of darkness and fire, we create a sensation of pain, which may be aggravated to an infinite degree by the idea of endless duration. But the same idea operates with an opposite effect on the continuity of pleasure; and too much of our present enjoyments is obtained from the relief, or the comparison, of evil. It is natural enough that an Arabian prophet should dwell with rapture on the groves, the fountains, and the rivers of paradise; but instead of inspiring the blessed inhabitants with a liberal taste for harmony and science, conversation and friendship, he idly celebrates the pearls and diamonds, the robes of silk, palaces of marble, dishes of gold, rich wines, artificial dainties, numerous attendants, and the whole train of sensual and costly luxury, which becomes insipid to the owner, even in the short period of this mortal life. Seventy-two Houris, or black-eyed girls, of resplendent beauty, blooming youth, virgin purity, and exquisite sensibility, will be created for the use of the meanest believer; a moment of pleasure will be prolonged to a thousand years; and his faculties will be increased a hundred fold, to render him worthy of his felicity. Notwithstanding a vulgar prejudice, the gates of heaven will be open to both sexes; but Mahomet has not specified the male companions of the female elect, lest he should either alarm the jealousy of their former husbands, or disturb their felicity, by the suspicion of an everlasting marriage. This image of a carnal paradise has provoked the indignation, perhaps the envy, of the monks: they declaim against the impure religion of Mahomet; and his modest apologists are driven to the poor excuse of figures and allegories.

Nor is Gibbon impressed with the rapid dissemination of Islam. This is the obvious thing to be impressed by, and our historian is not fond of well-trodden paths. He actually shows more sympathy for Islam than for Christianity (LI):

More pure than the system of Zoroaster, more liberal than the law of Moses, the religion of Mahomet might seem less inconsistent with reason than the creed of mystery and superstition, which, in the seventh century, disgraced the simplicity of the gospel.

Many people might find this shocking even today, if anything more so than they did two centuries ago. Still, “the temporal and spiritual ambition of the clergy”, the worship of relics and images, the fierce sectarian disputes over idiotic trifles: the Prophet’s followers were spared all this Christian nonsense, at least. Perhaps most important of all: “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.” The same can hardly be said about Christianity. Certainly, it cannot be said of the vast majority of Christians throughout history.

What Gibbon is impressed with is the Islam’s permanence. By the time of writing, Mohammed’s invention was already almost twelve centuries old, yet it was virtually unchanged. This makes for another intriguing comparison with the six-centuries-older Christianity. And this one is not in Big Brother’s favour, either:

It is not the propagation, but the permanency, of his religion, that deserves our wonder: the same pure and perfect impression which he engraved at Mecca and Medina, is preserved, after the revolutions of twelve centuries, by the Indian, the African, and the Turkish proselytes of the Koran. If the Christian apostles, St. Peter or St. Paul, could return to the Vatican, they might possibly inquire the name of the Deity who is worshipped with such mysterious rites in that magnificent temple: at Oxford or Geneva, they would experience less surprise; but it might still be incumbent on them to peruse the catechism of the church, and to study the orthodox commentators on their own writings and the words of their Master. But the Turkish dome of St. Sophia, with an increase of splendour and size, represents the humble tabernacle erected at Medina by the hands of Mahomet. 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.

Gibbon does note “some practical disadvantage” of such immutable dogma, but it must be said that, two centuries later, this doesn’t seem to have had any effect. Today Islam is not only the second largest religion in the world, but by far the fastest growing one too. If the Pew Research Center is to be believed, Islam may overtake Christianity as the most popular religion in the world as soon as 2060. That’s rather a thought-provoking notion!        

The Islamic conquests form the longest chapter (LI) in the whole Decline and Fall. What a story that is! Like I said above, less than a century after Mohammed’s famous flight from Mecca (the so-called Hegira in 622, the beginning of the Islamic calendar), Persia (651), Syria (638), Egypt (655), Africa (709) and Spain (713) were subdued and “the caliphs were the most potent and absolute monarchs of the globe”. The dogged traveller needed two hundred days to traverse their dominions from east to west, “from the confines of Tartary and India to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean”.

How come? Fanaticism was the most important part, of course. Islam promised a Paradise more definite and more alluring than Christianity could offer. Either in this world by conquest or in the next by religion, the followers of Mohammed could do no wrong. But there was something else, too. We can appreciate that only too well with the benefit of fourteen centuries of hindsight. Islam came to the right people at the right time:

In the sloth and vanity of the palace of Damascus, the succeeding princes of the house of Ommiyah were alike destitute of the qualifications of statesmen and of saints. Yet the spoils of unknown nations were continually laid at the foot of their throne, and the uniform ascent of the Arabian greatness must be ascribed to the spirit of the nation rather than the abilities of their chiefs. A large deduction must be allowed for the weakness of their enemies. The birth of Mahomet was fortunately placed in the most degenerate and disorderly period of the Persians, the Romans, and the Barbarians of Europe: the empires of Trajan, or even of Constantine or Charlemagne, would have repelled the assault of the naked Saracens, and the torrent of fanaticism might have been obscurely lost in the sands of Arabia.

Gibbon’s narrative flair and keen eye for character have never been better demonstrated than in this chapter. It is chockfull of marvellous plots and characters: Amrou, the conqueror of Egypt who was taken captive and almost lost his life during the siege of Alexandria; Akbah, the “Mohammedan Alexander” who challenged the Atlantic itself; Tarik, whose blitzkrieg in Spain achieved in a few months what took the Romans two centuries; Musa, whose envy of Tarik’s success disgraced his late years; and so many others. There were some heroic women as well, ironically considering the low regard in which Muslims held (and continue to hold) them. For instance, the women from the tribe of the Hamyarites “were accustomed to wield the bow and the lance” and “in a moment of captivity had defended, against the uncircumcised ravishers, their chastity and religion.” Regular Muslim Amazons!

Chapter LII describes the decline and fall of the vast Arabian empire. This began almost as soon as the Caliphate had reached its greatest territorial expansion. By the middle of the 10th century, some two hundred years after its most glorious days, it was a shadow of its former greatness. It is quite beyond the scope of this modest review to discuss the subject in detail, but a few points must be mentioned.

Three major reasons can be given, with the proviso that they run in parallel: 1) military defeats; 2) internal discord; and 3) general decline of the spirit by excessive luxury. The Saracens, as Gibbon likes to call them, added Crete (823) and Sicily (827) to their dominions, but were defeated during their invasions in France (732) and Italy (849). This put an end to their dreams of European conquest. The Byzantine Greeks put the final touch with a series of defeats in Syria (963–75). Civil wars split the empire to three independent caliphates: “In the tenth century, the chair of Mahomet was disputed by three caliphs or commanders of the faithful, who reigned at Bagdad, Cairoan, and Cordova, excommunicating each other, and agreed only in a principle of discord, that a sectary is more odious and criminal than an unbeliever.” The Carmathians, a rebellious sect who denied the Prophet and created a lot of mischief in the early 10th century, as well as plenty of revolts caused by the “weight and magnitude of the empire itself”, further weakened the once mighty Caliphate. The third reason is by far the most speculative, but Gibbon makes no bones about it:

The luxury of the caliphs, so useless to their private happiness, relaxed the nerves, and terminated the progress, of the Arabian empire. Temporal and spiritual conquest had been the sole occupation of the first successors of Mahomet; and after supplying themselves with the necessaries of life, the whole revenue was scrupulously devoted to that salutary work. The Abbassides were impoverished by the multitude of their wants, and their contempt of economy. Instead of pursuing the great object of ambition, their leisure, their affections, the powers of their mind, were diverted by pomp and pleasure: the rewards of valour were embezzled by women and eunuchs, and the royal camp was encumbered by the luxury of the palace. A similar temper was diffused among the subjects of the caliph. Their stern enthusiasm was softened by time and prosperity. they sought riches in the occupations of industry, fame in the pursuits of literature, and happiness in the tranquillity of domestic life. War was no longer the passion of the Saracens; and the increase of pay, the repetition of donatives, were insufficient to allure the posterity of those voluntary champions who had crowded to the standard of Abubeker and Omar for the hopes of spoil and of paradise.

So much for “one of the most memorable revolutions, which have impressed a new and lasting character on the nations of the globe” (L). Gibbon was justified to spend a great deal of time on it. “If, in the account of this interesting people, I have deviated from the strict and original line of my undertaking”, he charmingly admits later (LV), “the merit of the subject will hide my transgression, or solicit my excuse.” The Caliphates hastened the decline and fall of the Eastern Empire more than anything else. One of them, the Ottoman Caliphate, actually put an end to it with the conquest of Constantinople in 1453. But that’s another story! The three Arabian chapters are all among the highlights in a work of monumental consistency.

Gibbon’s attitude to the Roman Empire, its western part at any rate, is on the whole positive. Far from perfect though it was even at the best of times, it brought peace and prosperity to provinces that would not have enjoyed them otherwise. He goes as far as calling “without hesitation” the time from the death of Domitian (96) to the accession of Commodus (180) “the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous” (III).

Mr Trevor-Roper, in his first introduction (vol. 1, p. lxxxvii), argues that Gibbon “does not, it should be noticed, necessarily endorse this view, which had been expressed by earlier writers […] and which he represents as a truism of the time.” I disagree. It is true that Gibbon doesn’t make the statement in the first person singular but in a rather more guarded and indirect way (“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…”), but I don’t think that is a convincing proof of his not being of the same opinion. If this is merely a matter of personal interpretation, Mr Trevor-Roper’s other argument is objectively fallacious:

For even if power is exercised by liberal rulers, there is always the danger of illiberal successors. A Marcus Antonius may be followed by a Commodus. For this reason, Gibbon, though he may praise the virtuous emperors, cannot praise the system; and he adds that, even under the ‘Antonine’ emperors, excellent rulers though they were, the inherent vices of the system were positively aggravated by ‘two peculiar circumstances’ which exposed the subjects of the Roman empire to a condition ‘more completely wretched than the victims of tyranny in any other age or country.’ These two circumstances were the memory of past freedom and the universality of imperial power.

This is all very well, but here Gibbon does not refer to the Antonines. He is quite clear the “two peculiar circumstances” accompanied “the reign of these monsters” whose “age or iron” preceded “the golden age of Trajan and the Antonines” (III). This is the same place where the passage about the “unworthy successors of Augustus” quoted above occurs. As for Gibbon’s remark, also adduced by Mr Trevor-Roper as an evidence of the author’s distrust of imperial power, that the “division of Europe into a number of independent states [...] is productive of the most beneficial consequences to the liberty of mankind” (III), I rather doubt Gibbon would have endorsed that view had he been able to witness modern European politics.

Gibbon knew all too well that golden ages are not only shorter than declines and falls, but much less glamorous. Commodus was not “the principal author of the decline of the Roman empire” (V), but Septimius Severus (193–211) is endowed with this prestigious title. He ushered the Empire into the tumultuous 3rd century from which it never recovered, not its western part anyway. There was only a brief period of relative stability, or a delusion of stability, under Diocletian (285–305) and Constantine (306–37). From then on, it was a steady downfall.

What were the reasons for the decline and fall of the Roman Empire? That question must have hovered at the back of Gibbon’s mind for at least 15 years. Granted it’s a question of enormous difficulty, it is still strange that the author never attempts to give it more or less a direct answer. The closest he comes to one, as far as I have noticed, is the end of Chapter VII during the reign of Philip the Arab (244–9). He seems to imply that the decline was a natural result of the vast dimensions of the Empire which gradually led to the original Roman spirit being “dissolved into the common mass of mankind and confounded with the millions of servile provincials, who had received the name without adopting the spirit of Romans.” Gibbon concludes the chapter thus:

The limits of the Roman empire still extended from the Western Ocean to the Tigris, and from Mount Atlas to the Rhine and the Danube. To the undiscerning eye of the vulgar, Philip appeared a monarch no less powerful than Hadrian or Augustus had formerly been. The form was still the same, but the animating health and vigour were fled. The industry of the people was discouraged and exhausted by a long series of oppression. The discipline of the legions, which alone, after the extinction of every other virtue, had propped the greatness of the state, was corrupted by the ambition, or relaxed by the weakness, of the emperors. The strength of the frontiers, which had always consisted in arms rather than in fortifications, was insensibly undermined; and the fairest provinces were left exposed to the rapaciousness or ambition of the barbarians, who soon discovered the decline of the Roman empire.

Gibbon confirms this in his “General Observations” after Chapter XXXVIII: “the decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness”. But he mostly evades the question: “instead of inquiring why the Roman empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it had subsisted so long.”

He does, however, give at least one reason more: “the introduction, or at least the abuse of Christianity, had some influence on the decline and fall of the Roman empire.” Bishops, monks and the like preached “the doctrines of patience and pusillanimity”, passive virtues which discouraged, and finally extinguished, the public spirit of the Roman Republic and the early Empire. But Gibbon insists this was a secondary reason. If not superstition, it would have been something else, wealth and luxury for instance; the Romans would have succumbed to fatal vices anyway. But paraphrasing Gibbon is a poor thing to do. Not even an epic poem, much less any prose equivalent, may improve on the original (the emphasis is mine; note in the end – again this beautiful balance! – that Gibbon doesn’t forget to mention the beneficial effect of Christianity):

The clergy successfully preached the doctrines of patience and pusillanimity; the active virtues of society were discouraged; and the last remains of military spirit were buried in the cloister: a large portion of public and private wealth was consecrated to the specious demands of charity and devotion; and the soldiers’ pay was lavished on the useless multitudes of both sexes who could only plead the merits of abstinence and chastity. Faith, zeal, curiosity, and more earthly passions of malice and ambition, kindled the flame of theological discord; the church, and even the state, were distracted by religious factions, whose conflicts were sometimes bloody and always implacable; the attention of the emperors was diverted from camps to synods; the Roman world was oppressed by a new species of tyranny; and the persecuted sects became the secret enemies of their country. Yet party-spirit, however pernicious or absurd, is a principle of union as well as of dissension. The bishops, from eighteen hundred pulpits, inculcated the duty of passive obedience to a lawful and orthodox sovereign; their frequent assemblies and perpetual correspondence maintained the communion of distant churches; and the benevolent temper of the Gospel was strengthened, though confirmed, by the spiritual alliance of the Catholics. The sacred indolence of the monks was devoutly embraced by a servile and effeminate age; but if superstition had not afforded a decent retreat, the same vices would have tempted the unworthy Romans to desert, from baser motives, the standard of the republic. Religious precepts are easily obeyed which indulge and sanctify the natural inclinations of their votaries; but the pure and genuine influence of Christianity may be traced in its beneficial, though imperfect, effects on the barbarian proselytes of the North. If the decline of the Roman empire was hastened by the conversion of Constantine, his victorious religion broke the violence of the fall, and mollified the ferocious temper of the conquerors.

This, at any rate, was the case in the West. The East was another matter.

Of course, Gibbon is perfectly aware of the barbarian invasions. He spends a good deal of space on them. But he seems to imply they merely hastened the inevitable end; they were a consequence rather than a cause. This seems sensible to me. If the Decline may be said to have started with Commodus, the Fall was initiated by Valens and his ignominious defeat (not to mention death) in the battle of Hadrianople (378) when the Goths simply wiped out the Romans (XXVI). Valens was a foolish fellow who let the people – “always brave at a distance from any real danger” – convince him to march against the Goths prematurely, thus the “vain reproaches of an ignorant multitude hastened the downfall of the Roman empire” [my emphasis]. The corrupting influence of increased luxury and the diminished military prowess of the legions, on which Gibbon spends the last two paragraphs of Chapter XXVII, may be accepted as causes – though minor ones – that contributed something to the Fall of the West after the death of Theodosius and the final split of the Empire in 395.

The “General Observations” also contain the most forceful expression of Gibbon’s European chauvinism, the only serious flaw in his attitude I can think of. With the benefit of hindsight, considering it was published just eight years before the French Revolution, it is rather ironic to read about “our general state of happiness, the system of arts, and laws, and manners, which so advantageously distinguish, above the rest of mankind, the Europeans and their colonies.” With the same benefit in mind, considering the World Wars of the 20th century and the European Union in the 21st, Gibbon’s optimism about “Europe as one great republic” seems rather misplaced.

On the other hand, some of Gibbon’s remarks are prescient indeed. The “General Observations” are some of the most fascinating ten pages among the 3 600 of the Decline and Fall. Here Gibbon writes, not as a historian, but as a contemporary philosopher.

He does note that war has been changed profoundly by “the invention of gunpowder; which enables man to command the two most powerful agents of nature, air and fire”. With the benefit of hindsight, this is a chilling thing to publish just a few decades before the Napoleonic Wars. He notes that education alone cannot produce a Homer, a Cicero or a Newton, but he does advocate widespread and thorough education – rather a progressive idea for the 1780s, I should think. He makes a fine case that Europe cannot succumb to barbarian invasions as the Roman Empire did, but he does warn that “unknown dangers may possibly arise from some obscure people, scarcely visible in the map of the world.” He gives as an example the Arabs who “had languished in poverty and contempt till Mahomet breathed into those savage bodies the soul of enthusiasm.” This, too, is a chilling thing to read considering the present deluge of refugees in Europe. He considers reversion to barbarism impossible, but he adds, ominously, “unless the face of nature is changed”. Today this can happen more easily than ever before in the case of global nuclear holocaust, and one needn’t go back to the Cold War hysteria to find the prospect horribly plausible. Finally Gibbon, who was something of a monarchist and praised Burke’s Reflections (1790) as a “most admirable medicine against the French disease”[8], even allows himself to express some qualification about the European monarchies which “have imbibed the principles of freedom, or, at least, of moderation”.

Gibbon’s European chauvinism extends to ancient times, for example to his treatment of the Persians whom he tends to present as “barbarians” far removed from the Greek and Roman civilisation. When he describes the destruction of Persian palaces by Julian (XXIV), he loftily observes that one “statue, finished by the hand of a Grecian artist, is of more genuine value than all these rude and costly monuments of barbaric labour”. Gibbon’s Persian knowledge seems to have been quite shaky. He didn’t know “Surena” was a name, not a title of a Persian general – a rare case of remarkable ignorance in Gibbon. Likewise with his casual racism when he writes about “negroes” and “the obvious inferiority of their mental faculties” (XXV).

It’s not worth making too much fuss about these things. Even the greatest genius, however ahead of his times in some respects, is very much from his times in others. It must be said that Gibbon’s accounts of the Turks and the Mogols by no means bigoted, and he was indeed ahead of his times when he mentioned the slave trade (XXV):

Sixty thousand blacks are annually embarked from the coast of Guinea, never to return to their native country; but they are embarked in chains; and this constant emigration which in the space of two centuries might have furnished armies to overrun the globe, accuses [i.e. demonstrates] the guilt of Europe and the weakness of Africa.

Gibbon’s treatment of Christianity and the Byzantine Empire has earned him persistent accusations of biased, unscholarly and altogether shameful attitude. I don’t know if he is guilty, but I do wonder if the accusers know better. They must know all of Gibbon’s sources at least as well as he knew them, and they have to resist the temptation to use modern research. In short, they must be superhuman. As Gibbon himself put it in one of his inimitable footnotes (XVIII, No. 46): “Those who will take the same trouble may acquire a right of criticising my narrative.”[9]

The chapters on the rise of Christianity – XV, XVI – are among the absolute highlights of the whole work. How come, Gibbon asks, that “a pure and humble religion gently insinuated itself into the minds of men, grew up in silence and obscurity, derived new vigour from opposition, and finally erected the triumphant banner of the Cross on the ruins of the Capitol”?

The theologian may indulge the pleasing task of describing Religion as she descended from Heaven, arrayed in her native purity. A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian. He must discover the inevitable mixture of error and corruption which she contracted in long residence upon earth, among a weak and degenerate race of beings.

Thus Gibbon artfully avoids theological tittle-tattle. To his “candid inquiry” how Christianity became so famous, “an obvious but satisfactory[10] 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 for Gibbon this answer is obviously quite unsatisfactory. He is interested in religion as a social and historical force. So he defines five “secondary causes of the rapid growth of the Christian church”:

I. The inflexible, and, if we may use the expression, the intolerant zeal of the Christians, derived, it is true, from the Jewish religion, but purified from the narrow and unsocial spirit which, instead of inviting, had deterred the Gentiles from embracing the law of Moses. II. The doctrine of a future life, improved by every additional circumstance which could give weight and efficacy to that important truth. III. The miraculous powers ascribed to the primitive church. IV. The pure and austere morals of the Christians. V. The union and discipline of the Christian republic, which gradually formed an independent and increasing state in the heart of the Roman empire.

The first three of these causes bring the Gibbonian sarcasm to its absolute heights. Unfortunately, it is impossible to give even the remotest idea of this. To paraphrase Gibbon is like recomposing Beethoven. You cannot improve perfection: you can only spoil it. Quotes out of the context are equally crass. I will nevertheless try, briefly, both methods. Here is one favourite quote about the miraculous powers of the early Christians:

At such a period, when faith could boast of so many wonderful victories over death, it seems difficult to account for the scepticism of those philosophers who still rejected and derided the doctrine of the resurrection. A noble Grecian had rested on this important ground the whole controversy, and promised Theophilus, bishop of Antioch, that, if he could be gratified with the sight of a single person who had been actually raised from the dead, he would immediately embrace the Christian religion. It is somewhat remarkable that the prelate of the first eastern church, however anxious for the conversion of his friend, thought proper to decline this fair and reasonable challenge.

Gibbon is unforgettable about the attempts of the early Christians “to guard the chastity of the Gospel from the infectious breath of idolatry”. They had an especially hard time during the numerous festivals and ceremonies. Pagan demons and rampant idolatry everywhere! “Even the common language of Greece and Rome abounded with familiar but impious expressions, which the imprudent Christian might too carelessly utter, or too patiently hear.” If a Pagan friend said “Jupiter bless you” after you sneeze, you were obliged, if you were a pious Christian, to protest against the divinity of Jupiter. Greek and Roman coins were rife with odious idols, but here, Gibbon adds in a footnote, “the scruples of the Christian were suspended by a stronger passion”. But, really, you have to read the whole thing for yourself.

In fact, Chapters XV and XVI ought to be required reading for anybody interested in the history of religion save the most zealous Jews and Christians. Gibbon’s sarcasm, however deadly and devastating, is never at the expense of substance. I don’t know if he put his causes in order of their importance, but I suspect he did. 

One might at first wonder why Gibbon explains at such length the fanatical, intolerant and bigoted nature of the Jewish religion, which “was admirably fitted for defence, but it was never designed for conquest”. Quite simply, because Christianity was derived from it in a very ingenious way, “armed with the strength of the Mosaic law, and delivered from the weight of its fetters”. Judaism was just as exclusive as Christianity was inclusive. The Jews kept themselves to themselves. They were the Chosen People, weren’t they? Why should they bother with the conversion of lesser mortals? The Christians, on the other hand, insisted on inflicting their dogma on everybody from the very beginning. Whatever sect the primitive Christian might have belonged to (Ebionites, Gnostics), he was equally intolerant towards other religions and equally pugnacious in preaching his own. This all-inclusive gung-ho attitude made Christianity the hottest stuff in the Roman Empire a few centuries after Christ:

The promise of divine favour, instead of being partially confined to the posterity of Abraham, was universally proposed to the freeman and the slave, to the Greek and to the barbarian, to the Jew and to the Gentile. Every privilege that could raise the proselyte from earth to heaven, that could exalt his devotion, secure his happiness, or even gratify that secret pride which, under the semblance of devotion, insinuates itself into the human heart, was still reserved for the members of the Christian church; but at the same time all mankind was permitted, and even solicited, to accept the glorious distinction, which was not only proffered as a favour, but imposed as an obligation. It became the most sacred duty of a new convert to diffuse among his friends and relations the inestimable blessing which he had received, and to warn them against a refusal that would be severely punished as a criminal disobedience to the will of a benevolent but all-powerful Deity.

Fairy tales like the immortality of the soul, eternal life and miracles also helped a great deal. They were all part from the divine favour. Gibbon wondered in the late 18th century how anybody could ever buy this stuff (the ancient Romans certainly didn’t, he is emphatic about that), but he understands that in the first centuries AD people at large were much more gullible. Divine blessing regardless of wealth or social standing was an offer few could refuse in those time – or today, for that matter.

Gibbon is less sarcastic about the last two causes, but he cannot suppress a few casual darts. For instance, describing the provincial synod, an institution that appeared towards the end of the 2nd century and played an important role in turning Christianity into an empire within the Empire, he remarks that “it was natural to believe that a liberal effusion of the Holy Spirit would be poured on the united assembly of the delegates of the Christian people.” He is relatively appreciative of the character of the early Christians: “even their faults, or rather errors, were derived from an excess of virtue”. On the other hand, “it was not in this world that the primitive Christians were desirous of making themselves either agreeable or useful.”

He explodes the myth that only the dregs of society embraced the new religion at first, but he does wonder why the likes of Marcus Antonius, Plutarch, Pliny, Tacitus and Seneca, who “adorn the age in which they flourished, and exalt the dignity of human nature”, hardly ever took notice of “the perfection of the Christian system”, much less did they convert to its tenets. Though he is fond of making fun of the early Christian apologists, most notably Tertullian (“the zealous African”) and Lactantius, Gibbon grants them some learning and erudition, even if they were often misused.

Last but, perhaps, not least, Gibbon examines the inherent weakness of polytheism. It was much too tolerant, for one thing. Except insofar as it threatened the social order, the Romans cared little about religion. Pragmatic atheists to the bone, for them gods and worship were nothing more than useful tools for ruling their vast empire. In a famous and often quoted passage, Gibbon describes all this in one of his exquisite sentences very early on (I):

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.

What’s more, when Christianity came on the stage, the decline and fall of polytheism had already begun. In one his many philosophic asides, Gibbon reminds us that the human animal is a credulous creature. Few are the (un)lucky people who can endure sceptical uncertainty. The vast majority must believe something, however nonsensical it may seem to the rational mind. Christianity was lucky to be born at the right time:

The decline of ancient prejudice exposed a very numerous portion of human kind to the danger of a painful and comfortless situation. A state of scepticism and suspense may amuse a few inquisitive minds. But the practice of superstition is so congenial to the multitude that, if they are forcibly awakened, they still regret the loss of their pleasing vision. Their love of the marvellous and supernatural, their curiosity with regard to future events, and their strong propensity to extend their hopes and fears beyond the limits of the visible world, were the principal causes which favoured the establishment of Polytheism.

In the end, Gibbon cautiously estimates that no more than one twentieth of the population of the Roman Empire were Christians at the time of Constantine. In other words, Christianity was not firmly established until it began to enjoy “the sunshine of Imperial favour”. He may be right indeed, considering all five causes together, to wonder that the progress of Christianity “was not still more rapid and still more universal.”

Chapter XVI deals with the official reaction to Christianity from Nero to Constantine. Again, Gibbon’s treatment seems remarkably fair to me, though I can imagine how it might make some passionate devotees angry. He does not deny there were persecutions. He merely argues they were exaggerated by the “ecclesiastical writers of the fourth or fifth centuries [who] ascribed to the magistrates of Rome the same degree of implacable and unrelenting zeal which filled their own breasts against the heretics or the idolaters of their own times.” Whatever anti-Christian crimes Nero, Domitian, Maximin and Decius might have committed, they were rather limited in space and time. Some Roman emperors (Constantius, Maxentius) were decidedly pro-Christian. Others were lenient, lazy or indifferent when it came to punishing Christians. On the whole:

...these transient persecutions served only to revive the zeal and to restore the discipline of the faithful; and the moments of extraordinary rigour were compensated by much longer intervals of peace and security. The indifference of some princes and the indulgence of others permitted the Christians to enjoy, though not perhaps a legal, yet an actual and public toleration of their religion.

Diocletian is a special case. Gibbon spends a good deal of time of his edicts and the Christian pogroms towards the end of his reign. He describes it all in lively and vivid way, certainly not sparing the Roman cruelties. When the first edict, which demanded demolition of churches and death sentence for secret worshippers, was “exhibited to public view” in Nicomedia, it was promptly torn down by a zealous Christian. Not quite so promptly, he “was burnt, or rather roasted, by a slow fire”. The closest Gibbon comes to excuse Diocletian is to claim that his spirit of moderation was compromised by the vile character of Galerius. Either way, Diocletian was an exception, not the rule.

Compromised sources are something of a leitmotif in this chapter. Even the great Eusebius, “the gravest of the ecclesiastical historians [...] indirectly confesses that he has related whatever might redound to the glory, and that he has suppressed all that could tend to the disgrace, of religion”. Gibbon quite rightly observes that this is violation of one of the fundamental laws of history.

Gibbon concludes this chapter with two points of some interest. First, he makes a tentative estimation of the number of Christian victims to Roman persecution. He comes up with the remarkably low number of 2 000 persons “on whom a capital punishment was inflicted by a judicial sentence”. This is, of course, a highly speculative number very much open to question.

But Gibbon’s second point is indisputable: “the Christians, in the course of their intestine dissensions, have inflicted far greater severities on each other than they had experienced from the zeal of infidels.” In “the ages of ignorance” that followed the fall of Rome, “the church of Rome defended by violence the empire which she had acquired by fraud”. Citing Grotius as his authority, he reminds us that in the Netherlands alone “one hundred thousand of the subjects of Charles V. are said to have suffered by the hand of the executioner”. Whatever the exact number, it is certainly far greater than all Christian martyrs taken together during the first three centuries of the primitive church in the whole of the Roman Empire. And if Grotius is unreliable, what makes you think Eusebius and Lactantius are better?

But if the improbability of the fact itself should prevail over the weight of evidence; if Grotius should be convicted of exaggerating the merit and sufferings of the reformers; we shall be naturally led to inquire what confidence can be placed in the doubtful and imperfect monuments of ancient credulity; what degree of credit can be assigned to a courtly bishop and a passionate declaimer, who, under the protection of Constantine, enjoyed the exclusive privilege of recording the persecutions inflicted on the Christians by the vanquished rivals or disregarded predecessors of their gracious sovereign.  

Christianity, of course, figures prominently in later chapters as well, most notably in XX, XXI, XXVIII, XXXVII and XLVII. These are, if anything, more uncompromising. It is not unfair to call them “The Decline and Fall of Christianity”.

Chapter XX makes a good deal of subtle fun at the expense of Constantine who is presented as a political opportunist who made Christianity the official religion because it encouraged meekness and submission to authority. Gibbon is rather amused at Constantine’s own conversion which he describes as the emperor succumbing to his own humbug late in life: “the specious piety of Constantine, if at first it was only specious, might gradually, by the influence of praise, of habit, and of example, be matured into serious faith and fervent devotion.” But Gibbon also makes a number of seminal points. Constantine’s conversion, even more than the Milan Edict (313), was truly one of the most decisive moments in history.

By the edicts of toleration he removed the temporal disadvantages which had hitherto retarded the progress of Christianity; and its active and numerous ministers received a free permission, a liberal encouragement, to recommend the salutary truths of revelation by every argument which could affect the reason or piety of mankind. The exact balance of the two religions continued but a moment; and the piercing eye of ambition and avarice soon discovered that the profession of Christianity might contribute to the interest of the present, as well as of a future life. The hopes of wealth and honours, the example of an emperor, his exhortations, his irresistible smiles, diffused conviction among the venal and obsequious crowds which usually fill the apartments of a palace. The cities which signalised a forward zeal by the voluntary destruction of their temples were distinguished by municipal privileges and rewarded with popular donatives; and the new capital of the East gloried in the singular advantage that Constantinople was never profaned by the worship of idols. As the lower ranks of society are governed by imitation, the conversion of those who possessed any eminence of birth, of power, or of riches, was soon followed by dependent multitudes.

The progress of Christianity thus became rapid and massive. The Roman Empire was infested with bishops, synods, councils and other such symbols of Christian piety. The growth was by no means restrained to size and complexity. The Catholic Church began to amass wealth and power in astronomic amounts, possibly unprecedented in history. And the power was not just spiritual, either. It quickly became temporal, too. Priesthoods had existed since the dawn of history, but now, for the first time, one of them became more powerful than kings and emperors. It was not hereditary or closed system but, quite on the contrary, it was open “to every ambitious candidate who aspired to its heavenly promises or temporal possessions”. The Church also enjoyed unheard-of privileges:

The whole body of the catholic clergy, more numerous, perhaps, than the legions, was exempted by the emperors from all service, private or public, all municipal offices, and all personal taxes and contributions, which pressed on their fellow-citizens with intolerable weight; and the duties of their holy profession were accepted as a full discharge of their obligations to the republic.

All this prepared “the triumph of the Roman pontiffs, who have trampled on the necks of kings” in the Middle Ages. And it all began in the 4th century. It took quite some time to blossom into the Crusades, one of the greatest abominations in human history, but finally it did.

Speaking of the Crusades, Gibbon condemns their fanatical folly without reservations. He has no illusions about the motives behind the First Crusade (LVIII): “Of the chiefs and soldiers who marched to the holy sepulchre, I will dare to affirm, that all were prompted by the spirit of enthusiasm; the belief of merit, the hope of reward, and the assurance of divine aid. But I am equally persuaded, that in many it was not the sole, that in some it was not the leading, principle of action.” Insatiable greed, thirst for adventure, escape from debts or serfdom, and official forgiveness of all sins: those were the chief motives in the minds of all crusaders (my emphasis). Quite a few simply followed their masters, so ignorant that they thought the East was full of “lands flowing with milk and honey, of mines and treasures, of gold and diamonds, of palaces of marble and jasper, and of odoriferous groves of cinnamon and frankincense.” This East never existed, of course. In fact, in the end of the 11th century, it was further from reality than ever. And the next crusades were even more ridiculous (LIX):

The enthusiasm of the first crusade is a natural and simple event, while hope was fresh, danger untried, and enterprise congenial to the spirit of the times. But the obstinate perseverance of Europe may indeed excite our pity and admiration; that no instruction should have been drawn from constant and adverse experience; that the same confidence should have repeatedly grown from the same failures; that six succeeding generations should have rushed headlong down the precipice that was open before them; and that men of every condition should have staked their public and private fortunes on the desperate adventure of possessing or recovering a tombstone two thousand miles from their country.

No quotation could convey the subtle sarcasm (if the oxymoron be allowed) of Gibbon’s narrative. He is by no means entirely negative; he does praise some of the leaders in the First Crusade (e.g. Godfrey of Bouillon) and he even finds a few good words to say about the “memorable institution” of chivalry (whose tournaments he prefers to the Olympic Games of the ancient Greeks). But, all the same, Gibbon is a crusader against the Crusades, and he makes his usually thorough case. The Second and the Third Crusade achieved very modest results from a pious point of view; the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh achieved no results at all, pious or not (LIX). They only intensified the rift between Latins and Greeks. Both were supposed to be fighting the Saracens together, but they were really fighting, as Christians are wont to do, each other. The Fourth Crusade (LX) was by far the most remarkable of all. It never did reach the “Holy Land”. Instead, in the year of our Lord 1204, the crusaders conquered and sacked – Constantinople. What a chapter that is! History is truly stranger than fiction.

Chapter XXI (to get back to Christianity) deals mostly with the Arian controversy. Christianity was no sooner established than it became the victim of intestine discord. Constantine comes off rather well here, at least in the beginning, when he tried to appease the theological quarrels by one “moderating epistle”. The Emperor humbly suggested that the whole controversy was much ado about nothing and it was really a shame that Christians should be divided by trifles like trinities and the like. Nobody paid much attention to him: he was not considered competent in the art of “theological warfare”. Anyway, “his ecclesiastical ministers soon contrived to seduce the impartiality of the magistrate, and to awaken the zeal of the proselyte.” Gibbon’s own attitude to the whole nonsense is beautifully expressed by a floral metaphor when he wisely refuses to go into detail about the 18 (!) Arian sects:

It will not be expected, it would not perhaps be endured, that I should swell this theological digression by a minute examination of the eighteen creeds, the authors of which, for the most part, disclaimed the odious name of their parent Arius. It is amusing enough to delineate the form, and to trace the vegetation, of a singular plant; but the tedious detail of leaves without flowers, and of branches without fruit, would soon exhaust the patience and disappoint the curiosity of the laborious student.

The highlight of this chapter, without any doubt, is the portrait of Athanasius. Gibbon is seldom if ever that effusive about a Christian theologian. Athanasius seems to deserve the accolades. Bishop of Alexandria for 46 years, he spent 20 of them “as an exile or a fugitive”. He was “expelled from his throne” on five separate occasions. He was a lifelong student of human nature and extremely astute in political matters: “He preserved a distinct and unbroken view of a scene which was incessantly shifting; and never failed to improve those decisive moments which are irrecoverably past before they are perceived by a common eye.”

Gibbon fully appreciated these qualities, and he apparently managed to separate them from the theological claptrap. Since the historian was neither a fierce defender of Trinitarism nor an implacable enemy of Arianism, it speaks much of his integrity that he could write thus about Athanasius:

Amidst the storms of persecution, the archbishop of Alexandria was patient of labour, jealous of fame, careless of safety; and although his mind was tainted by the contagion of fanaticism, Athanasius displayed a superiority of character and abilities which would have qualified him, far better than the degenerate sons of Constantine, for the government of a great monarchy. His learning was much less profound and extensive than that of Eusebius of Cæsarea, and his rude eloquence could not be compared with the polished oratory of Gregory or Basil; but whenever the primate of Egypt was called upon to justify his sentiments or his conduct, his unpremeditated style, either of speaking or writing, was clear, forcible, and persuasive. He has always been revered in the orthodox school as one of the most accurate masters of the Christian theology; and he was supposed to possess two profane sciences, less adapted to the episcopal character – the knowledge of jurisprudence, and that of divination. Some fortunate conjectures of future events, which impartial reasoners might ascribe to the experience and judgment of Athanasius, were attributed by his friends to heavenly inspiration, and imputed by his enemies to infernal magic.

The life of Athanasius also shows Gibbon as a master storyteller. The Bishop of Alexandria certainly provides plenty of material for a picaresque novel or a movie epic. Like all great historians, not to mention biographers, Gibbon is not averse to an occasional anecdote; if used carefully, it can be revealing. Athanasius was not just a bishop and a saint. He was also a man of the world:

His various adventures might have furnished the subject of a very entertaining romance. He was once secreted in a dry cistern, which he had scarcely left before he was betrayed by the treachery of a female slave; and he was once concealed in a still more extraordinary asylum, the house of a virgin, only twenty years of age, and who was celebrated in the whole city for her exquisite beauty. At the hour of midnight, as she related her story many years afterwards, she was surprised by the appearance of the archbishop in a loose undress, who, advancing with hasty steps, conjured her to afford him the protection which he had been directed by a celestial vision to seek under her hospitable roof. The pious maid accepted and preserved the sacred pledge which was intrusted to her prudence and courage. Without imparting the secret to any one, she instantly conducted Athanasius into her most sacred chamber, and watched over his safety with the tenderness of a friend and the assiduity of a servant. As long as the danger continued, she regularly supplied him with books and provisions, washed his feet, managed his correspondence, and dexterously concealed from the eye of suspicion this familiar and solitary intercourse between a saint whose character required the most unblemished chastity, and a female whose charms might excite the most dangerous emotions.

This was during the six-years-long exile which soured the last years of Constantius whose reign “was disgraced by the unjust and ineffectual persecution of the great Athanasius”. The Emperor declared the Bishop the most wanted man in the Empire. But Athanasius was like a ghost. He was hiding in obscure monasteries in the Egyptian desert, one more inaccessible than the other, and he had plenty of monks ready to die for him. He regularly came back to Alexandria, incognito of course, he criss-crossed the Mediterranean, and apparently even visited (again secretly) the councils in Rimini and Seleucia, and all the time he was writing furiously, mostly at the expense of the Emperor: “a weak and wicked prince, the executioner of his family, the tyrant of the republic, and the Anti-Christ of the church.” Constantius could hardly have enjoyed his well-deserved fame:

In the height of his prosperity, the victorious monarch, who had chastised the rashness of Gallus, and suppressed the revolt of Sylvanus, who had taken the diadem from the head of Vetranio, and vanquished in the field the legions of Magnentius, received from an invisible hand a wound which he could neither heal nor revenge; and the son of Constantine was the first of the Christian princes who experienced the strength of those principles which, in the cause of religion, could resist the most violent exertions of the civil power.

“May I presume to add,” Gibbon writes much later (LVI, 83), “that the portrait of Athanasius is one of the passages of my history with which I am the least dissatisfied?” Yes, Eddie, you may indeed!

Chapter XXVIII deals mostly with the final destruction of Paganism. The Christians played significant part in this: the ruin of many pagan temples, most of them ancient works of art, “still displays the ravages of those barbarians who alone had time and inclination to execute such laborious destruction”. The Christian emperors “violated the precepts of humanity and of the Gospel”, thus outdoing the comparatively feeble pagan persecutions of Decius and Diocletian. Gibbon is, yet again, nothing if not even-handed. He praises the moderation of Theodosius in regard to the pagans themselves. They were not persecuted in any way. But the edicts of Theodosius were designed to extinguish paganism itself. All of its ceremonies, sacrifices, etc. were prohibited. Gibbon explains why this was fatal with a profound observation as valid about paganism as about any other religion:     

The devotion of the poet or the philosopher may be secretly nourished by prayer, meditation, and study; but the exercise of public worship appears to be the only solid foundation of the religious sentiments of the people, which derive their force from imitation and habit. The interruption of that public exercise may consummate, in the period of a few years, the important work of a national revolution. The memory of theological opinions cannot long be preserved without the artificial helps of priests, of temples, and of books.

The chapter’s coda is about the worship of saints and relics which “corrupted the pure and perfect simplicity of the Christian model”. Gibbon has no patience with this “pernicious innovation”. With typically incisive irony, he speculates that even Tertullian and Lactantius, had they been raised from the dead, would have been offended by the miraculous pomp of Christianity in the early 5th century. Even the greatest “Fathers” played the game with gusto. The “grave and learned” St Augustine, “whose understanding scarcely admits the excuse of credulity”, was rather carried away. He enumerated more than seventy miracles (including three resurrections from the dead) in the space of two years and only in his own diocese. Had he been born a century later, Gibbon might have replied to this like Herodias from Oscar Wilde’s Salome (1891): “I do not believe in miracles. I have seen too many.”

The whole thing was complete sham, of course. The only miraculous thing about the Christian miracles is that they were believed for centuries. Far from seldom they were merely a smokescreen for atrocities. “At Minorca, the relics of St. Stephen converted in eight days 540 Jews;” the historian writes in a footnote (No. 84), “with the help, indeed, of some wholesome severities, such as burning the synagogue, driving the obstinate infidels to starve among the rocks, etc.”[11] Gibbon seldom misses a miracle without something hilarious; for example (XXXVIII):

The victorious king of the Franks proceeded without delay to the siege of Angouleme. At the sound of his trumpets the walls of the city imitated the example of Jericho, and instantly fell to the ground; a splendid miracle, which may be reduced to the supposition that some clerical engineers had secretly undermined the foundations of the rampart.

Chapter XXXVII is a scathing attack on monastic life. Gibbon is harsh with monks, people who “were inspired by the savage enthusiasm which represents man as a criminal, and God as a tyrant.” He describes their mortification of the flesh with distaste, to say the least, and their rapid progress and popular acclaim with incredulity. Blind obedience to dogma, or wilfully reducing man to beast for that matter, was anathema to Gibbon, and the monks brought this kind of perversity to unprecedented heights.

Speaking of heights, one simply must mention Gibbon’s description of Simeon Stylites and his “singular invention of an aerial penance”. Simeon deserted the impious life of a shepherd and spent thirty years on a column sixty feet high, apparently praying. How he received water and food and what area he occupied up there remain matters of conjecture, but never mind those details. Gibbon is ruthless evaluating the merit of this kind of religious experience – and monks in general:

The progress of an ulcer in his thigh might shorten, but it could not disturb, this celestial life; and the patient Hermit expired without descending from his column. A prince, who should capriciously inflict such tortures, would be deemed a tyrant; but it would surpass the power of a tyrant to impose a long and miserable existence on the reluctant victims of his cruelty. This voluntary martyrdom must have gradually destroyed the sensibility both of the mind and body; nor can it be presumed that the fanatics who torment themselves are susceptible of any lively affection for the rest of mankind. A cruel, unfeeling temper has distinguished the monks of every age and country: their stern indifference, which is seldom mollified by personal friendship, is inflamed by religious hatred; and their merciless zeal has strenuously administered the holy office of the Inquisition.

Gibbon notes with relish the contradictions that infested the monastic institution, if not from the very beginning in the early 4th century, certainly not much later than that. Monks were supposed to be humble folk, yet some were ambitious and hungry for temporal power, or simply vain in the extreme; so “the monasteries of Egypt, of Gaul, and of the East, supplied a regular succession of saints and bishops”. Together with a few “illustrious penitents”, the monasteries were filled with riff-raff “who gained in the cloister much more than they had sacrificed in the world.” Monastic orders were supposed to be poor, but the most famous of them quickly amassed enormous fortunes. In one of his delicious footnotes, Gibbon quotes Zosimus who was appalled at the wealth of the Eastern monks, yet this “was far surpassed by the princely greatness of the Benedictines.” In another note, one of the very few without any citation, Gibbon makes merciless fun of monkish hypocrisy:

I have somewhere heard or read the frank confession of a Benedictine abbot: “My vow of poverty has given me an hundred thousand crowns a year; my vow of obedience has raised me to the rank of a sovereign prince.” I forget the consequences of his vow of chastity.

Gibbon finds only one positive thing to note about the monks. Few of them occasionally busied themselves with copying the Greek and Roman classics. This is gratefully noted:

The monastic studies have tended, for the most part to darken, rather than to dispel, the cloud of superstition. Yet the curiosity or zeal of some learned solitaries has cultivated the ecclesiastical and even the profane sciences: and posterity must gratefully acknowledge that the monuments of Greek and Roman literature have been preserved and multiplied by their indefatigable pens. 

(All this is from the first half of Chapter XXXVII. The second half is less interesting but more important. It recounts the conversion of the barbarians to Christianity. Considering the scope it gives to persecution and cruelty, no wonder Goths and Vandals embraced the religion of Christ even swifter than the “civilised people” and improved greatly the history of its atrocities. The only point in their favour is the final destruction, after three centuries of controversy, of Arianism towards the end of the 7th century.)

After the extinction of paganism, the Christians in peace and piety might have enjoyed their solitary triumph. But the principle of discord was alive in their bosom, and they were more solicitous to explore the nature, than to practice the laws, of their founder. I have already observed, that the disputes of the TRINITY were succeeded by those of the INCARNATION; alike scandalous to the church, alike pernicious to the state, still more minute in their origin, still more durable in their effects. It is my design to comprise in the present chapter a religious war of two hundred and fifty years, to represent the ecclesiastical and political schism of the Oriental sects, and to introduce their clamorous or sanguinary contests, by a modest inquiry into the doctrines of the primitive church.

Thus begins Chapter XLVII. What a read the rest of it makes! “Religion was the pretence”, Gibbon quotes, and no doubt agrees with, one “contemporary saint” (Isidore of Pelusium), but “ambition was the genuine motive of episcopal warfare.” It is indeed a miracle how Christians can look back on the history of their religion and still regard it as divinely inspired. It is amazing, literally unbelievable, what atrocities were committed in the name of metaphysical subtleties. Greed, ambition and sheer lust for power are mightily important reasons, but they cannot be the whole explanation. There must be something else, something like the very definition of insanity.[12]

The two and a half centuries mentioned above include such epic events like the clash between Cyril and Nestorius, patriarchs of Alexandria and Constantinople, and the pious but persistent persecutions of Emperor Justinian in the first half of the 5th. The former would indeed make an entertaining movie, but today it can be only a farcical comedy. The latter is the last Gibbonian nail in the coffin of Justinian, here portrayed as a religious bigot if there ever was one. Towards the end of the chapter, while he describes the spread of obscure Christian sects, Gibbon roams in space to Persia, China, India, Egypt and Ethiopia and in time to the Middle Ages or even the 17th century.

I cannot resist quoting some examples of Gibbonian irony. The chapter, as you might guess, is full of them. The last two come from the footnotes (Nos. 64 & 15), and they illustrate Gibbon’s attitude to synods and dogmas (please note that the Valentinian doctrines are not notably more absurd than the official Christian mythology).

The name of CYRIL of Alexandria is famous in controversial story, and the title of saint is a mark that his opinions and his party have finally prevailed.

Humanity may drop a tear on the fate of Nestorius; yet justice must observe, that he suffered the persecution which he had approved and inflicted.

This second synod has been justly branded as a gang of robbers and assassins; yet the accusers of Dioscorus would magnify his violence, to alleviate the cowardice and inconstancy of their own behaviour.

While the Barbarians invaded the provinces, while the victorious legion marched under the banners of Belisarius and Narses, the successor of Trajan, unknown to the camp, was content to vanquish at the head of a synod.

But in the creed of Justinian, the guilt of murder could not be applied to the slaughter of unbelievers; and he piously laboured to establish with fire and sword the unity of the Christian faith.

Those who reverence the infallibility of synods may try to ascertain their sense.

The Valentinians embraced a complex and almost incoherent system. 1. Both Christ and Jesus were aeons, though of different degrees; the one acting as the rational soul, the other as the divine spirit of the Saviour. 2. At the time of the passion, they both retired, and left only a sensitive soul and a human body. 3. Even that body was ethereal, and perhaps apparent. – Such are the laborious conclusions of Mosheim. But I much doubt whether the Latin translator understood Irenaeus, and whether Irenaeus and the Valetinians understood themselves.

So much for Christianity! Of course there is a great deal more, for instance the final separation of churches in Rome and Constantinople (XLIX, LX) or the Paulicians as the spiritual fathers of the Reformation (LIV), but I will stop here. Suffice it to say in conclusion that Gibbon seldom misses an opportunity to have fun at the expense of popes and bishops, saints and martyrs, miracles and monks. He is certainly a very secular historian, all the better for that, and much less dated than his ecclesiastical colleagues. But to claim, as quite a few people have, that Gibbon was a bigoted anti-Christian who hailed Christianity as the major reason for the decline and fall of the Roman Empire is simply not true.

That Gibbon doesn’t think much of the Byzantine Empire is evident from the very preface to the very first volume:

…till the taking of Constantinople by the Turks, and the extinction of a degenerate race of princes, who continued to assume the titles of Caesar and Augustus, after their dominions were contracted to the limits of a single city; in which the language, as well as manners, of the ancient Romans had been long since forgotten.

This attitude is casually confirmed later. The Empire of the East lasted for more than a thousand years “in a state of premature and perpetual decay” (XXXII). If it was the most civilised community for most of that time, Gibbon seems to imply, it was because the West was in a shambles. The Romans may have lagged behind the Greeks in art and philosophy, but they certainly surpassed them in statecraft, civil engineering and military efficiency. Europe today, not to mention other parts of the world, is very much a child of ancient Greece and Rome. What is the legacy of the Byzantine Empire? Well, the word “Byzantine” as a euphemism of something arcane and complicated.

It is perhaps significant that much of the last 33 chapters, presumably dedicated to the fall of the East, are really about other things. They are relevant, of course, to the big picture, but sometimes Gibbon does seem reluctant to return eastward. The Crusades and the Islam have already been mentioned. Other notable digressions include Roman law (XLIV), various barbarians (XXXIX), the Turks (XLII, LVII, LXIV), the Lombards (XLV), the Bulgarians, the Hungarians and the Russians (LV), the Normans (LVI), and quite a bit of medieval history of Rome (see below).[13] Mr Trevor-Roper, in his second introduction (vol. 4, pp. lvi-lvii), has captured very well this change of pace and attitude as well as some of the highlights in the last two volumes:

Having reached this great turning-point [the reign of Heraclius and the rise of Islam], and observed the widening panorama before him, Gibbon conceived a new plan, which he would announce in the first chapter of the fifth volume (chapter XLVIII). With Byzantine history after Heraclius he had, he admitted, little sympathy, and he would have ‘abandoned without regret the Greek slaves and their servile historians’. But, he reflected, ‘the fate of the Byzantine monarchy is passively connected with the most splendid and important revolutions which have changed the state of the world.’ He therefore decided, while keeping the history of the Byzantine Empire as the central thread of his work, to divert his main interest, or at least his sympathy, to its external relations: to the pressure upon it, and the interaction with it, of the more dynamic ‘barbarian’ societies around it: in the East, its successive Muslim assailants; in the West, the Catholic ‘Franks’ and their high-priests, the Popes of Rome who, from the eighth century onwards, would challenge the authority of Emperor and Church in Constantinople, recognize a new Roman Empire in the West – the Germanic Empire of Charlemagne – and seek to impose their own rigid doctrines on the more sophisticated and flexible Christians of the East.

Indeed, it is the long, tortuous and bitter dialogue between the two Churches, rather than the political ‘decline’ of Byzantium, which will form the unifying theme of Gibbon’s last two volumes. In the six centuries after Heraclius ‘sixty phantom kings’ will ‘have passed before our eyes and faintly dwell on our remembrance’, but the contest with Rome, with its alternation of moods and intensity, will remain constant to the very end. His tale is thus a tale of two cities, and to them, after our excursions among the Arabs, the Bulgarians, the Magyars, the Russians, the Normans, the Mongols and the Turks, he will ultimately lead us back. Constantinople, in its final agony, will then make a positive, if still passive contribution to the most splendid and important of all revolutions, the rise of European civilization; and so we shall return ‘from the captivity of the new to the ruin of ancient Rome, and the venerable name, the interesting theme, will shed a ray of glory on the conclusion of my labours’.

So ambitious a plan demanded a vast range of knowledge. It also required a quickening of pace. Gibbon first four volumes had covered a little over four centuries. Now eight centuries had to be compressed into the two volumes which were all that he allowed himself for the completion of his work. The work was punctually completed as planned: an extraordinary feat of erudition and virtuosity. The historical sources were now less accessible, the path less trodden. After the sixth century he had to ‘take leave for ever’ from Tillemont, ‘that incomparable guide whose bigotry is over-balanced by the merits of erudition, diligence, veracity and scrupulous exactness’, and to rely, for much of the time, on tendentious evidence and his own judgement. However, he mastered the evidence and his judgement was seldom at fault. Of course he made some errors, but they are remarkably few; his critical spirit was always alert; and his narrative is always vivid. Some of his most brilliant passages are to be found in these last two volumes: his accounts of Mohammed and the rise of Islam, of the iconoclastic movement in Byzantium, and of ‘the long and disgraceful servitude’ of the Papacy in the ninth and tenth centuries; his narratives of the Norman conquest of Sicily and of the Crusades; his excursions into the history of the Mongols and the Turks; and his concluding chapters on the dramatic siege and conquest of Constantinople and on the changing fortunes of the medieval city of Rome.

(Note that Mr Trevor-Roper speaks of the last two volumes here. The fourth volume, which consists of Chapters XXXIX to XLVII and concludes with the reign of Heraclius, is much more similar in pace and tone to the first three volumes that comprise the fall of the West.)

Mr Trevor-Roper makes valiant attempts to excuse Gibbon’s Byzantine prejudice. I would rather defend it. What is the legacy of the Byzantine Empire, I’m asking again? Is it comparable to that of Rome or Athens? Positive answer to that question seems ludicrous. No doubt a few eccentric souls are delighted by Byzantine art. But the vast majority much prefers the Parthenon and the Coliseum. Everybody interested in ancient history reads Plutarch and Suetonius, Tacitus and Thucydides, and of course Herodotus; for all of their (grave) faults, they are indispensable. Who reads the Byzantine historians? Indeed, who are the Byzantine historians? Who are the Byzantine poets, playwrights and philosophers to rival Horace, Virgil, Aeschylus, Euripides, Plato and Aristotle? Where do you find Byzantine people of the calibre of Caesar, Cicero, Trajan or Marcus Aurelius? The Eastern Empire produced so little of lasting value for a thousand years, certainly much less than Rome for quarter of that time, that Gibbon’s somewhat offhand treatment seems entirely justified to me.

Chapter XLVIII, the first of the fifth volume as published in 1788, is the best illustration of Gibbon’s Byzantine contempt. He covers, roughly, 600 years and 60 emperors without the benefit of a single footnote. Not one! This is quite remarkable for a work which, on the average, contains more than a hundred footnotes per chapter. Gibbon gives no reason or explanation for this curious footnote apocalypse, but I surmise it was a deliberate insult on his part. If so, he was wrong; but I can understand his decision. He was certainly right, however, to adopt a less detailed approach than in the first four volumes. Byzantine intrigue is tedious, and pursued with the same thoroughness would not afford “an adequate reward of instruction or amusement”. Gibbon concludes this unique chapter, which contains ample material for several dozens of historical novels, with a philosophical reflection on the lust for kingly power:

Many were the paths that led to the summit of royalty: the fabric of rebellion was overthrown by the stroke of conspiracy, or undermined by the silent arts of intrigue: the favourites of the soldiers or people, of the senate or clergy, of the women and eunuchs, were alternately clothed with the purple: the means of their elevation were base, and their end was often contemptible or tragic. A being of the nature of man, endowed with the same faculties, but with a longer measure of existence, would cast down a smile of pity and contempt on the crimes and follies of human ambition, so eager, in a narrow span, to grasp at a precarious and short lived enjoyment. It is thus that the experience of history exalts and enlarges the horizon of our intellectual view.

And yet the Decline and Fall is no more a crusade against the Byzantine Empire than it is against Christianity. Gibbon is far from being completely unappreciative. If anything, he is too generous with the 60 or so emperors between Heraclius and the Latin Conquest. Most of them were nobodies: even the purple has not saved much more than their names from oblivion. Some of them were vile almost beyond belief: they brought human depravity to heights Nero, Caligula, Elagabalus and Caracalla could not have dreamt of. Gibbon’s conclusion is indeed generous:

To the greater part of the Byzantine series, we cannot reasonably ascribe the love of fame and of mankind. The virtue alone of John Comnenus was beneficent and pure: the most illustrious of the princes, who proceed or follow that respectable name, have trod with some dexterity and vigour the crooked and bloody paths of a selfish policy: in scrutinizing the imperfect characters of Leo the Isaurian, Basil the First, and Alexius Comnenus, of Theophilus, the second Basil, and Manuel Comnenus, our esteem and censure are almost equally balanced; and the remainder of the Imperial crowd could only desire and expect to be forgotten by posterity.

When Nicephorus Phocas and John Zimisces smashed the Arabs in Syria, they did so with troops “on whom, at this moment, I shall not hesitate to bestow the name of Romans” (LII). This is one of the greatest compliments Gibbon could pay. It was admittedly a short period (963–75), yet Antioch was recovered, Euphrates crossed and Baghdad scared. Gibbon also notes the “revival in Greek learning” which he dates between the 9th and the 12th century. Inspired by the Arabs, “Constantinople was enlightened by the genius of Homer and Demosthenes, of Aristotle and Plato” (LIII). However, Gibbon’s ultimate verdict remains negative. And I still think it will be hard to refute:

But the Greeks of Constantinople, after purging away the impurities of their vulgar speech, acquired the free use of their ancient language, the most happy composition of human art, and a familiar knowledge of the sublime masters who had pleased or instructed the first of nations. But these advantages only tend to aggravate the reproach and shame of a degenerate people. They held in their lifeless hands the riches of their fathers, without inheriting the spirit which had created and improved that sacred patrimony: they read, they praised, they compiled, but their languid souls seemed alike incapable of thought and action. In the revolution of ten centuries, not a single discovery was made to exalt the dignity or promote the happiness of mankind. Not a single idea has been added to the speculative systems of antiquity, and a succession of patient disciples became in their turn the dogmatic teachers of the next servile generation. Not a single composition of history, philosophy, or literature, has been saved from oblivion by the intrinsic beauties of style or sentiment, of original fancy, or even of successful imitation.

The “passive contribution” mentioned by Mr Trevor-Roper is what Gibbon discusses in the end of Chapter LXVI, namely the revival of Greek learning in Italy and, later, in France and England. This began, not with the Latin Conquest of Constantinople in the first half of the 13th century as one might expect, but in a rather more obscure way a century later. It is indeed a sobering thought, and a fine subject for speculative fiction, that the Renaissance might have been deprived of the Greek classics. Gibbon is perhaps a little over-dramatic about this crucial moment in history, but he may well have a point:
The arms of the Turks undoubtedly pressed the flight of the Muses; yet we may tremble at the thought, that Greece might have been overwhelmed, with her schools and libraries, before Europe had emerged from the deluge of barbarism; that the seeds of science might have been scattered by the winds, before the Italian soil was prepared for their cultivation.

Some famous names were involved, most notably Petrarch and “Boccace”. (Gibbon is rather careless with names, which is amusing considering how often he accuses the ancients of corrupting them; “Boccace” is a travesty of Boccaccio; Petrarch is commonly used in English today, but the original is, of course, Petrarca.)

Petrarca was “the Platonic pimp of all posterity” according to Byron (Don Juan, V.1), but Gibbon is rather kinder to him (“the first of Latin scholars”). He makes a fine case that he and Boccaccio (“the father of the Tuscan prose”), never mind the sonnets to Laura and Decameron, “may aspire to the more serious praise of restoring in Italy the study of the Greek language.” They received a lot of help from eminent Greek scholars like Barlaam of Calabria and Leo Pilatus. The former knew Petrarca and met him on two historic occasions in Avignon (1339) and Naples (1342), the latter was for some time guest in the house of Boccaccio and had him to thank for an annual stipend from the Republic of Florence.

“But the faint rudiments of Greek learning”, Gibbon continues, “which Petrarch had encouraged and Boccace had planted, soon withered and expired.” Petrarca and Boccaccio died in 1374 and 1375 respectively, and it wasn’t until the last years of the 14th century that their work was resumed. Here Constantinople played a more prominent role. Manuel Chrysoloras was a nobleman who served the Byzantine Emperor on many diplomatic missions, including to the French and English courts. But he was also a learned scholar who taught Greek with great success in Florence, Pavia and Rome.

Then in the 15th century the Greek language and literature were spread in the whole of Italy and Europe, sometimes by obscure emigrants from the east, sometimes by the most notable natives of the West. Nicholas V, whose fame “has not been adequate to his merits”, was one of the latter. A native of the Republic of Genoa, he became one of the most enlightened popes. Though he enjoyed the Holy See for mere eight years (1447–55), Nicholas managed to stoke the Vatican library with 5 000 new volumes, many of them of considerably greater value than usual:

The Vatican, the old repository for bulls and legends, for superstition and forgery, was daily replenished with more precious furniture; and such was the industry of Nicholas, that in a reign of eight years he formed a library of five thousand volumes. To his munificence the Latin world was indebted for the versions of Xenophon, Diodorus, Polybius, Thucydides, Herodotus, and Appian; of Strabo's Geography, of the Iliad, of the most valuable works of Plato and Aristotle, of Ptolemy and Theophrastus, and of the fathers of the Greek church.  

The example was followed everywhere. The Medici founded the Platonic Academy in Florence, a short-lived but vital spark of the Renaissance. Janus Lascaris imported more than 200 manuscripts from the East, “fourscore of which were as yet unknown in the libraries of Europe”. In one of those marvellous footnotes, Gibbon casually remarks that “the research was facilitated by Sultan Bajazet II.” This is indeed “remarkable enough”! Around the same time, the very end of the 15th century, Greek language was introduced in the University of Oxford as well. Printing was exploding, too. Aldus Manutius established his press in Venice around 1494 and “printed above sixty considerable works of Greek literature, almost all for the first time”. The first Greek book in the West had already appeared in Milan (1476), an Homer printed in Florence (1488) “displays all the luxury of the typographical art”.

Gibbon concludes this absorbing “digression” with a shrewd observation about the initially stultifying but ultimately beneficial effect of the Greek classics (and the Roman ones, of course, which had never been forgotten in the West). This is relatively obvious when you reflect that Leonardo and Michelangelo came a century after Boccaccio and Petrarca, and Montaigne and Shakespeare still another century later. Indeed, such a lag should be expected from the nature of things. But who else but Gibbon could have written it like this, with that kind of splendid imagery and with such grasp which sweeps centuries together without being superficial?

Before the revival of classic literature, the Barbarians in Europe were immersed in ignorance; and their vulgar tongues were marked with the rudeness and poverty of their manners. The students of the more perfect idioms of Rome and Greece were introduced to a new world of light and science; to the society of the free and polished nations of antiquity; and to a familiar converse with those immortal men who spoke the sublime language of eloquence and reason. Such an intercourse must tend to refine the taste, and to elevate the genius, of the moderns; and yet, from the first experiments, it might appear that the study of the ancients had given fetters, rather than wings, to the human mind. However laudable, the spirit of imitation is of a servile cast; and the first disciples of the Greeks and Romans were a colony of strangers in the midst of their age and country. The minute and laborious diligence which explored the antiquities of remote times might have improved or adorned the present state of society, the critic and metaphysician were the slaves of Aristotle; the poets, historians, and orators, were proud to repeat the thoughts and words of the Augustan age: the works of nature were observed with the eyes of Pliny and Theophrastus; and some Pagan votaries professed a secret devotion to the gods of Homer and Plato. The Italians were oppressed by the strength and number of their ancient auxiliaries: the century after the deaths of Petrarch and Boccace was filled with a crowd of Latin imitators, who decently repose on our shelves; but in that era of learning it will not be easy to discern a real discovery of science, a work of invention or eloquence, in the popular language of the country. But as soon as it had been deeply saturated with the celestial dew, the soil was quickened into vegetation and life; the modern idioms were refined; the classics of Athens and Rome inspired a pure taste and a generous emulation; and in Italy, as afterwards in France and England, the pleasing reign of poetry and fiction was succeeded by the light of speculative and experimental philosophy. Genius may anticipate the season of maturity; but in the education of a people, as in that of an individual, memory must be exercised, before the powers of reason and fancy can be expanded: nor may the artist hope to equal or surpass, till he has learned to imitate, the works of his predecessors.

The revival of Greek learning in the end of Chapter LXVI is one the highlights of the whole Decline and Fall. It is as thought-provoking and engrossing as only the best history can be. It is also a fine proof, if any more is needed, that this History is a lot more than wars and politics. Ever sensitive to the dramatic potential of his narrative, Gibbon placed this interlude just before the two chapters describing the capture of Constantinople by the Turks and the fall of the Byzantine Empire (which had ceased to be an empire ages ago).

The last three chapters (LXIX to LXXI) are dedicated to the city of Rome during the Middle Ages. Gibbon’s original idea was to write a history of Rome from its putative foundation in 753 BC to the year 1765 when he visited the place himself and was mightily impressed by its ruins. The project gradually grew in magnitude and almost out of hand, as projects tend to do, but the original idea was never forgotten. “If I prosecute this History”, Gibbon admits in the middle (XXXVI, No. 43), “I shall not be unmindful of the decline and fall of the city of Rome – an interesting object, to which my plan was originally confined.”

Gibbon is as good as his word. Rome is never lost sight of. For instance, the end of Chapter XLV contains a vivid description of the city in the end of the 6th century, “the lowest period of her depression”, and an absorbing account of Gregory the Great, the pope who strengthened Christianity at the same time and thus probably saved Rome from the fate of Carthage and Babylon. “A vague tradition was embraced”, Gibbon writes with a touch of sarcasm (meanwhile taxing your classical and biblical knowledge), “that two Jewish teachers, a tent-maker and a fisherman, had formerly been executed in the circus of Nero, and at the end of five hundred years, their genuine or fictitious relics were adored as the Palladium of Christian Rome.” But his account of Gregory, for all of its delicious irony, is full of admiration for a pope who seems to deserve it:

The pontificate of Gregory the Great, which lasted thirteen years, six months, and ten days, is one of the most edifying periods of the history of the church. His virtues, and even his faults, a singular mixture of simplicity and cunning, of pride and humility, of sense and superstition, were happily suited to his station and to the temper of the times.

The first two of the final chapters are mostly dedicated to the Papacy. What Gregory the Great started in the 6th century, namely the temporal power of the popes – “Ambition is a weed of quick and early vegetation in the vineyard of Christ” (LXIX, that language!) – his colleagues from the 12th century found hard to emulate. Arnold of Brescia is rather obscure these days, but between 1140 and 1155 he was Papal Enemy No. 1 thanks to his ludicrous notion that the Church should deal only with spiritual matters. Naturally, he was burned at the stake “in the presence of a careless and ungrateful people; and his ashes were cast into the Tiber, lest the heretics should collect and worship the relics of their master.”

The Papacy did strike back in the 13th century when the conclave of cardinals was established (in 1274, until then popes were elected by the whole population of Rome), but that was hardly the end of discord. The 14th century saw the Holy See move to Avignon for some seven decades (the crowning shame for Rome!) and the Great Schism of the West when, for about forty years, there were two – or even three! – popes. It was only in the middle of the 15th century, it seems, that the Papacy established itself as a mighty temporal force (LXX): “Eugenius the Fourth was the last pope expelled by the tumults of the Roman people, and Nicholas the Fifth, the last who was importuned by the presence of a Roman emperor.” Thereafter the Pope ruled absolutely over an “ecclesiastical state” that stretched from the Tyrrhenian to the Adriatic seas and from Naples to the banks of the Po.

In view of its chequered history full of blatant power struggles, it is fantastic that the Papacy continues to be an object of veneration for a billion people. Gibbon is obviously right that the popes were, and still are, “the great masters of human credulity”. But were he alive today, would he still speak of the “modern times of religious indifference”?

Much of Chapter LXX is dedicated to the rise and fall of Rienzi, the last Roman tribune. He was one of the superstars of the 14th century, and his forgotten fame was revived with a vengeance by the Romantics of the 19th century in a Byron stanza (1818, Childe HaroldIV.114), a Bulwer-Lytton novel (1835) and a Wagner opera (1842). Nowadays he has again become profoundly forgotten.

Rienzi was a plebeian revolutionary who made a vain attempt to free Rome from the greedy noble families and restore the ancient Republic of the people and for the people. He actually achieved that for a few months in 1347, but his vanity, or rather his megalomania, led him from idealistic visions to absurd abuse of his power with knighthoods, coronations and other pomp like that: his downfall was almost as meteoric as his ascent. Rienzi’s late years were marked by exile all over Europe, humiliating return to Rome as a powerless senator, and an ignominious death when he was stabbed by the Roman multitude (1354). He was probably 41 years old. Gibbon describes Rienzi’s last hours with great vividness and drama, but not without compassion (LXX):

In the death, as in the life, of Rienzi, the hero and the coward were strangely mingled. When the Capitol was invested by a furious multitude, when he was basely deserted by his civil and military servants, the intrepid senator, waving the banner of liberty, presented himself on the balcony, addressed his eloquence to the various passions of the Romans, and laboured to persuade them, that in the same cause himself and the republic must either stand or fall. His oration was interrupted by a volley of imprecations and stones; and after an arrow had transpierced his hand, he sunk into abject despair, and fled weeping to the inner chambers, from whence he was let down by a sheet before the windows of the prison. Destitute of aid or hope, he was besieged till the evening: the doors of the Capitol were destroyed with axes and fire; and while the senator attempted to escape in a plebeian habit, he was discovered and dragged to the platform of the palace, the fatal scene of his judgments and executions. A whole hour, without voice or motion, he stood amidst the multitude half naked and half dead: their rage was hushed into curiosity and wonder: the last feelings of reverence and compassion yet struggled in his favour; and they might have prevailed, if a bold assassin had not plunged a dagger in his breast. He fell senseless with the first stroke: the impotent revenge of his enemies inflicted a thousand wounds: and the senator’s body was abandoned to the dogs, to the Jews, and to the flames. Posterity will compare the virtues and failings of this extraordinary man; but in a long period of anarchy and servitude, the name of Rienzi has often been celebrated as the deliverer of his country, and the last of the Roman patriots.

No wonder this character appealed to the Romantics, conditioned as they were by the turbulent times they lived through. The life of Rienzi is a classic cautionary tale, a mirror of many revolutions to come. It is amazing that there are still people who maintain that history doesn’t repeat itself. Of course it does! History is nothing more (or less) than human nature. This changes little through the centuries and has a far greater capacity for repeating old mistakes than learning from them.

The lyrical final chapter describes the decline and fall, or rather the ruin, of Rome. Comparing Tacitus in the early 2nd century, “Poggius”[14] (Poggio Bracciolini) in the early 14th century and an anonymous writer (ignorant but observant) two centuries before that, Gibbon does demonstrate “the vicissitudes of fortune, which spares neither man nor the proudest of his works, which buries empires and cities in a common grave”. He defines four causes for the physical decay of Rome:

After a diligent inquiry, I can discern four principal causes of the ruin of Rome, which continued to operate in a period of more than a thousand years. I. The injuries of time and nature. II. The hostile attacks of the Barbarians and Christians. III. The use and abuse of the materials. And, IV. The domestic quarrels of the Romans.

Gibbon predictably concludes that the barbarians were less destructive than the Christians. But neither could really compare with the Romans themselves. They are described as ignorant, credulous, barbarous, servile and quite indifferent to the ancient splendour of their city. The Romans, Gibbon observes brutally, “would demolish with their own hands the arches and walls, if the hope of profit could surpass the cost of the labour and exportation.” They nevertheless used the Coliseum as a quarry for ages. It didn’t become a sacred tourist attraction until the times of Benedict XIV – who died only seven years before Gibbon visited Rome.

(Fascinatingly enough, the Coliseum was used for what it was built at least until the early 14th century. Gibbon describes an extraordinary bullfight that took place there in 1332, admittedly drawn “from tradition rather than memory”, yet those obscure fragments are “deeply marked with the colours of truth and nature”. I cannot agree with him that bullfights are any improvement over gladiatorial fights, but his description of this little-known late spectacle in the Coliseum is downright magnificent.)

Gibbon strives to conclude the final chapter on a more cheerful note with the new splendour Rome acquired in the 15th and 16th centuries. For once, he fails. He is duly impressed with “the superior merit of Bramante and Fontana, of Raphael and Michael Angelo” which makes Julius II, Leo X and Sixtus V more important popes that they would have been otherwise. He is awed by the dome of St Peter: “the most glorious structure that ever has been applied to the use of religion”. And yet, “the beauty and splendour of the modern city may be ascribed to the abuses of the government, to the influence of superstition.” All those “pilgrims from the remote, and once savage countries of the north”, ought to visit devoutly “the relics, not of superstition, but of empire”. Gibbon, I feel, would have swapped the Vatican for the Forum any day. For all the pomp of circumstance of papal Rome, he seems to say, give me the marble of the Senate and the limestone of the Coliseum.

The last chapter of the Decline and Fall is signed “Lausanne, 27 June 1787”. The last three volumes were published together in May 1788. Gibbon must have felt quite lost and depressed after he had finished this mighty work, much more so when it was finally delivered to the public. No wonder he died less than six years later. I felt sad myself when I read the last page. I can’t imagine how Gibbon felt after he wrote it. Actually I can – we all can – because he described it beautifully in his Memoirs. The passage has been quoted a million times. It may be quoted once more:

It was on the day, or rather night, of the 27th of June, 1787, between the hours of eleven and twelve, that I wrote the last lines of the last page, in a summer-house in my garden. After laying down my pen, I took several turns in a berceau, or covered walk of acacias, which commands a prospect of the country, the lake, and the mountains. The air was temperate, the sky was serene, the silver orb of the moon was reflected from the waters, and all nature was silent. I will not dissemble the first emotions of joy on recovery of my freedom, and, perhaps, the establishment of my fame. But my pride was soon humbled, and a sober melancholy was spread over my mind, by the idea that I had taken an everlasting leave of an old and agreeable companion, and that whatsoever might be the future date of my History, the life of the historian must be short and precarious.

Last but not least, Gibbon’s footnotes are justly famous (and unfortunately not quite complete in this edition; see “Note on the Edition” below). Many of them are merely citations, but many also contain significant additional information, especially about the reliability of the original sources. Flashes of Gibbon’s wit and wisdom are not rare. Some examples have been mentioned already. I cannot resist quoting a few more (I give the numbers according to this online edition which appears to reprint the text of Everyman’s Library, but numbers the footnotes more conveniently per chapter):

[Ch. I, No. 3:]
Augustus did not receive the melancholy news with all the temper and firmness that might have been expected from his character.

[Ch. I, No. 87:]
M. de Voltaire […] unsupported by either fact or probability, has generously bestowed the Canary Islands on the Roman empire.

[Ch. XXI, No. 83:]
Those who press the literal narrative of the death of Arius (his bowels suddenly burst out in a privy) must make their option between poison and miracle.

[Ch. XXI, No. 111; on Philagrius, despised by Athanasius, praised by Gregory Nazianzen:]
For the credit of human nature, I am always pleased to discover some good qualities in those men whom party has represented as tyrants and monsters.

[Ch. XXIV, No. 52:]
The description of Assyria is furnished by Herodotus, who sometimes writes for children, and sometimes for philosophers...

[Ch. XXIV, No. 104:]
It appears from Procopius that the Immortals, so famous under Cyrus and his successors, were revived, if we may use that improper word, by the Sassanides.

[Ch. XI, No. 5:]
Gallienus describes the plate, vestments, etc., like a man who loved and understood those splendid trifles.

[Ch. XI, No. 26:]
Cantoclarus, with his usual accuracy, chooses to translate three hundred thousand [instead of forty thousand]; his version is equally repugnant to sense and to grammar.

[Ch. XXVII, No. 1:]
The poetical fame of Ausonius condemns the taste of his age.

[Ch. XXXII, No. 36:]
The ecclesiastical historians, who sometimes guide and sometimes follow the public opinion, most confidently assert that the palace of Constantinople was guarded by legions of angels.

[Ch. XXXVI, No. 58:]
Tillemont, who is always scandalised by the virtues of infidels...

[Ch. XXXVI, No. 78:]
Damascius, who lived under Justinian, composed another work, consisting of 570 preternatural stories of souls, daemons, apparitions, the dotage of Platonic Paganism.

[Ch. XXXVI, No. 79:]
In the poetical works of Sidonius, which he afterwards condemned [...], the fabulous deities are the principal actors. If Jerom was scourged by the angels for only reading Virgil, the bishop of Clermont, for such a vile imitation, deserved an additional whipping from the Muses.

[Ch. XLV, No. 69:]
The Lord’s Prayer consists of half a dozen lines; the Sacramentarius and Antiphonarius of Gregory [the Great] fill 880 folio pages...

[Ch. XLVI, No. 60:]
...and the lamentations of the monk Antiochus [...] whose one hundred and twenty-nine homilies are still extant, if what no one reads may be said to be extant.

[Ch. LVIII, No. 20:]
If the reader will turn to the first scene of the first part of Henry the Fourth, he will see in the text of Shakespeare the natural feelings of enthusiasm; and in the notes of Dr. Johnson, the workings of a bigoted, though vigorous mind, greedy of every pretence to hate and persecute those who dissent from his creed.[15]

[Ch. LXVII, No. 13, about Sultan Amurath II who twice renounced the throne for a private life of religious devotion:]
Voltaire [...] admires le Philosophe Turc: would he have bestowed the same praise on a Christian prince for retiring to a monastery? In his way, Voltaire was a bigot, an intolerant bigot.

[Ch. XI, No. 63, definitely my greatest favourite:]
Apollonius of Tyana was born about the same time as Jesus Christ. His life (that of the former) is related in so fabulous a manner by his disciples, that we are at a loss to discover whether he was a sage, an impostor, or a fanatic.
I used to joke that Gibbon makes any other writer feel a bit of a letdown. I joke no longer. For this has proved to be the simple truth. Gibbon’s unique combination of gifts – gorgeous writing, compulsive storytelling, sharp insight into human nature, perfect balance between sweeping strokes and minute details, sense of humour ranging from the subtlest irony to the bitterest sarcasm – can at best be equalled. It can never be surpassed.

Here’s the bottom line. If you have even the slightest interest in ancient history, you have to read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. Complete. No skipping. No abridged editions. Forget the gossip-mongers of antiquity that pass for historians. Gibbon is the real deal.

Note on the Edition

Compared to David Womersley’s exhaustively edited masterwork (Penguin Classics, 1995, 3 vols.), this edition is less scholarly but more convenient for reading: the volumes and the font are of the right size. One drawback is that the notes in the margins that accompany most paragraphs are omitted, or rather kept in the epic tables of contents where they came from in the first place. This makes navigation a bit more difficult, but it’s no great trouble. Spelling and capitalisation are modernised. The distribution of the chapters between the volumes does not follow Gibbon’s original layout (the split of the first two chapters on Christianity is especially stupid!), the maps are few and poorly done, and I don’t really see the point of printing the prefaces collected at the end, but let all that pass.

Contrary to the casual claim in “Textual Note”, Gibbon’s footnotes are not complete; neither is the Latin or Greek, much less the occasional French or Italian, in them translated. They are printed at the bottom of each page, which is convenient. But they are numbered anew on each page, which is very inconvenient for citations – or for spotting missing notes, for that matter.

Since the few missing notes I have noticed are among the naughtiest, I can only conclude that they offended Mr Bury’s decency and that’s why he omitted them. It remains a mystery why they were not restored for the new edition in 1993–94. Two fascinating examples come from Chapter IV. The first is about Faustina, the wife of Marcus Aurelius and a paragon of virtue according to nobody but her husband; the second is about the profligacy of Commodus[16]:

Faustinam satis constat apud Cayetam, conditiones sibi et nauticas et gladiatorias, elegisse. [‘It is fairly well-known that at Caieta, Faustina picked sailors and gladiators for her lovers.’] Hist. August., p. 30. Lampridius explains the sort of merit which Faustina chose, and the conditions which she exacted. Hist. August. p. 102.

Sororibus suis constupratis, ipsas concubinas suas sub oculis suis stuprari iubebat. Nec irruentium in se iuvenum carebat infamia, omni parte corporis atque ore in sexum utrumque pollutus. [‘He debauched his own sisters. He had his own concubines debauched in his presence. He went to the depths of submitting to the embraces of young men, defiling himself with both sexes in every part of his body, including his mouth.’] Hist. August. p. 47.
These footnotes are Nos. 2 and 29 for the whole chapter. In regard to the latter, the amused author observes that “ancient historians have expatiated on these abandoned scenes of prostitution, which scorned every restraint of nature or modesty; but it would not be easy to translate their too faithful descriptions into the decency of modern language.” If it is “very hard to be a gentleman and a writer”, as Somerset Maugham observed[17], I suppose it is impossible to be a gentleman and a historian.

Gibbon does, as often happens, achieve the impossible. But he is historian first and gentleman second. He spares neither Commodus, whose “hours were spent in a seraglio of three hundred beautiful women, and as many boys, of every rank, and of every province; and, wherever the arts of seduction proved ineffectual, the brutal lover had recourse to violence”, nor Faustina (“the amours of an empress, as they exact on her side the plainest advances, are seldom susceptible of much sentimental delicacy”) (IV). And he does provide the salacious stuff, if only in Latin. The modern editor has a duty to reprint and translate it. This is more important than correcting slips in Gibbon’s quotes and sources, which is done scrupulously in this edition.

By the way, note No. 4 from Chapter IV is missing, too. It contains only a reference to Meditations and Gibbon’s charming aside: “The world has laughed at the credulity of Marcus; but Madam Dacier assures us (and we may credit a lady), that the husband will always be deceived, if the wife condescends to dissemble.” It is at once funny and sad that even this comment was once considered too risqué. Theodora’s strip act in Chapter XL, however, is retained – in Greek, of course; and so is Mohammed’s astounding virility in Chapter L – and in Latin, of course.

The missing examples just mentioned, which I have spotted by chance, prompted me to make a serious study of the notes in different editions. I am pleased to report I have found only one other missing note in this edition, the first of Chapter XXXIII: just a reference to Chapter XXXI where you can refresh your memory about “the strange adventures of Placidia” (the Online edition also omits this note, but it does link Placidia’s name with the passage in question).

Beware of editions which mutilate the notes. The one by The Folio Society (8 vols., 1983; reprinted with new binding, 1995) is a sad example. Not only are at least half of the notes completely omitted, but from those retained many original sources are carefully excised. However beautifully printed, bound and illustrated, this edition is a travesty. It gives a completely erroneous idea of Gibbon’s research and annotation. The only thing to be said in its defence is that the Greek and Latin in the notes are retained and even translated.

The introduction by Hugh Trevor-Roper is more than twice shorter and correspondingly less ambitious than the impressive analysis by David Womersley. But it’s also more readable, less academically pretentious, and full of interesting details about Gibbon’s life, times, character and work (some of which, as I have shown above, make for stimulating perusal). Mr Trevor-Roper memorably describes the great historian growing in “an England of peculiar intellectual sterility”, spending some “disastrous” time at Oxford, and finally finding the perfect soil for his intellectual growth in Lausanne where (as well as in Geneva) the study of history was being revolutionised by the likes of Montesquieu and Voltaire. And did you know that the Decline and Fall might have been written in French but for the advice of one good friend and famous philosopher?

Deyverdun, whose friendship dated from Gibbon’s first stay in Lausanne, had now come to England in search of employment and in 1767 he and Gibbon collaborated in publishing a literary review, Mémoires Littéraires de la Grande Bretagne. The review run for two years and contained notices of new books: one of them being the Essay on the History of Civil Society by Adam Ferguson, one of the Scottish disciples of Montesquieu. The language of the review, though published in London, was French. Meanwhile, Gibbon wrote, also in French, the first section of his book on the liberty of the Swiss and submitted it, by the hands of Deyverdun, to the judge whom he most admired, David Hume. Hume wrote an appreciative judgment of it but urged Gibbon to write not in French but in English. French, he admitted, was the universal language of the polite world, but would its supremacy last? Hume had himself recently been employed in negotiating the treaty of Paris, which ended the Seven Years’ War and incorporated Canada in the British Empire, and he foresaw the ultimate prevalence of the English language. ‘Our solid and increasing establishments in America,’ he wrote, ‘promise a superior stability of the English language.’ It is curious to think that, but for this intervention by Hume, Gibbon might have written the Decline and Fall in French and thus deprived English literature of a great monument.
David Hume (another writer I have been trifling with for years; time to change this) was evidently a very perceptive fellow. I wouldn’t be surprised if he also predicted the United States, the Civil War and the Great Depression. One thing he certainly did predict was the outrage of religious bigots at Gibbon’s treatment of Christianity. Hume died only six months after the first volume of the Decline and Fall was published in February 1776. “I own I was a little curious to know”, Hume wrote to Gibbon in one of his last letters, “how you would extricate yourself from your last two chapters [XV, XVI]. I think you have observed a very prudent temperament; but it was impossible to treat the subject as not to give grounds of suspicion against you, and you may expect that a clamour will arise.” And it did! Gibbon reportedly said that this letter of Hume “overpaid the labour of ten years”. He paid a generous tribute to his Scottish friends in a letter to Adam Ferguson: “I have always looked up with the most sincere respect towards the northern part of our island, whither taste and philosophy seem to have retired from the smoke and hurry of this immense capital.”

Like I said, Mr Trevor-Roper’s introduction is a rich mine of information and speculation. Neither should be taken at face value, but both are well worth reading. I extract here a few quotes more for the benefit of the unknown reader.

Edward Gibbon is, in an important respect, the first modern European historian. That is, he is the first historian of the past whose work is still read not merely for pleasure but for instruction. The first volume of his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire appeared in 1776, the last in 1788. It was challenged at the time and has always aroused opposition in some quarters; but no criticism has ever been able to sink it. Its intellectual content remains valid today, and any discussion of the course and causes of the decline of Rome is still dominated by it. Of no other historian writing before 1830 can this be said. Both as an historical scholar in his mastery and judgment and use of the evidence, and as an historical interpreter in his examination of causes and effects, Gibbon is unique in his time.

Of course there are earlier historians whom we still read and enjoy – Froissart, Commines, Clarendon, St Simon. But these were chroniclers of their own time, and their value lies largely in the fact that they were contemporaries with the events they chronicled. They were irreplaceable eye- or ear-witnesses. But Gibbon did not write contemporary history. The durability of his work owes nothing to the advantage, or accident, of direct observation. In looking back on the Roman Empire he enjoyed no technical or adventitious advantage over us. Indeed, we may say, he enjoyed less than we do, for the intervening two centuries have vastly increased the evidence for such study. Nevertheless, this increase of evidence has not driven Gibbon, as it has driven every other eighteenth-century historian, out of the field. He remains modern, surprisingly modern. Later commentators may supplement or modify the detail of his work, but they very seldom detect an error. They cannot improve on the style, and they generally endorse the judgment.


Long afterwards Gibbon looked back to his removal from Oxford and his years at Lausanne as the formative experience of his life. ‘Whatsoever have been the fruits of my education,’ he wrote in his memoirs, ‘they must be ascribed to the fortunate banishment which placed me in Lausanne... If my childish revolt against the religion of my country had not stripped me in time of my academic gown, the five important years, so liberally improved in the studies and conversation of Lausanne, would have been steeped in port and prejudice among the monks of Oxford. Had the fatigue of idleness compelled me to read, the path of learning would not have been enlightened by a ray of philosophic knowledge. I should have grown to manhood ignorant of the life and language of Europe, and my knowledge of the world would have been confined to an English cloister.’ For Gibbon was convinced that, intellectually, he owed nothing to England, or at least to the England of his early years. Intellectually, it was Lausanne, not England, that had formed him. ‘Such as I am, in genius or learning or manners, I owe my creation to Lausanne: it was in that school that the statue was found in the block of marble.’ Without the experience of Lausanne there would have been no Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.


Johnson’s England was the England in which Gibbon was brought up until his removal from Oxford. It was an England of peculiar intellectual sterility. The greatest of English scholars, Richard Bentley, had died in 1742, the great antiquary Bishop Gibson in 1748. After them a ‘frivolous and superficial age’ of scholarship (as Mark Pattison would call it) was dominated by two clergymen: the swashbuckling bully William Wilberforce, Bishop of Gloucester, and his toady Richard Hurd, afterwards Bishop of Worcester – both of them resolute defenders of orthodoxy. In such an England Gibbon had no models, no preceptors. He read avidly, but his reading, he tells us, was ‘vague and multifarious.’ He devoured ‘crude lumps’ of history ‘like so many novels.’ Before he was sixteen, he ‘had exhausted all that could be learned in English of the Arabs and the Persians, the Tartars and the Turks.’ At Oxford he wished to learn Arabic but was discouraged by his tutor. Then, on his fall from grace, he carried this ‘indigested chaos’ of historical matter to Lausanne and there discovered, what he had hitherto lacked, an articulating cord.


The first volume of the History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was published on 16 February 1776. The publishers were Strahan and Cadell, Gibbon’s previous publisher having declined the book. At first Strahan agreed to print 750 copies; then he retreated to 500. But when he saw the finished text, he was so impressed by it that he doubled that figure. Even so, he soon found that he had underestimated the success of the book. It sold, he afterwards reported, like a threepenny pamphlet on current affairs. The entire edition had gone in a fortnight, and a second edition of 1500 copies was immediately printed. This too was sold out by the end of the year. Early next year a third edition of 1000 copies was published. Meanwhile a pirated edition had been printed in Dublin.

The instant success of the book surprised and delighted Gibbon, who heard, at first, nothing but praise of it. The praise was the more enthusiastic because no one had expected so remarkable a work. Gibbon himself was by this time well known in London, in literature, politics, and society. He had social tastes. He was a member of fashionable clubs. He was also a member of ‘the Club,’ the famous literary society, founded by Sir Joshua Reynolds, dominated by Johnson, and immortalized by Boswell. And he was a member, though a silent member, of Parliament, sitting, since 1774, as member for Liskeard in Cornwall, a ‘nomination borough’ controlled by his cousin, Edward Eliot of Port Eliot. His friends knew that he had been working on a Roman history; but the brilliance of the book, when published, took them all by surprise. ‘Lo, there is just appeared a truly classic work,’ Horace Walpole wrote to a friend, adding, of Gibbon, that he ‘is a member of Parliament and called a whimsical because he votes variously, as his opinion leads him. I know him a little, never suspected the extent of his talents: he is perfectly modest.’ Lord Camden, the great Lord Chief Justice, wrote to Garrick ‘in a transport’ about the book: ‘such depth – such perspicuity – such language, force, variety and what not!’ The immediate reviews were also uniformly favourable, and the world of fashion was united in its admiration with the world of literature and politics.


By the time the eager readers of the first volume had reached chapter fifteen, their initial harmony had dissolved and the initial chorus of unanimous approval was disturbed by a swelling murmur of dissent.

The tone of the ensuing attack had been set by ‘the Great Cham’ of English letters and pillar of Anglican orthodoxy, Dr Johnson. [...] Born in the reign of Queen Anne, his ideas had been fixed by the middle of the eighteenth century, and he was unwilling to receive or comprehend the new ideas of Montesquieu. He detested Hume as an infidel, affected to despise Robertson as a Presbyterian, and was prejudiced against both as Scots. Both he and Boswell disliked Gibbon personally. They could not see what he was seeking to do and could only see his ‘infidelity.’ On 20 March 1776, a month after the publication of Gibbon’s volume, Johnson and Boswell were at Oxford where, as they admitted, their orthodoxy was always rekindled by the sight of those venerable spires. ‘We talked,’ says Boswell,

of a work much in vogue at that time, written in a very mellifluous style, but which, under pretext of another subject, contained much artful infidelity. I said it was not fair to attack us unexpectedly: he should have warned us of our danger before we entered his garden of flowery eloquence, by advertising ‘spring-guns and man-traps set here’. The author had been Oxonian, and was remembered there for having ‘turned papist’. I observed that as he had changed several times – from the Church of England to the Church of Rome, from the Church of Rome to infidelity – I did not despair yet of seeing him a methodist preacher. Johnson (laughing) ‘It is said that his range has been more extensive, and that he has once been Mahometan. However, now that he has published his infidelity, he will probably persist in it.’

Unwary footsteps insensibly beguiled into an infernal snare... a garden of flowery eloquence secretly filled with spring-guns and man-traps... these were the regular charges made against Gibbon. Soon they would appear in print. Already, in June, Gibbon reported that the archbishop of Canterbury’s chaplain was ‘sharpening his goose-quill,’ and in the autumn the pamphlets started appearing. For some time Gibbon maintained a ‘respectful silence,’ but finally, in 1778, he was stung into by a particularly impertinent attack both on his scholarship and on his honesty. The author was H. E. Davies, a young man of Balliol College, and he too accused Gibbon of seducing ‘those readers who may heedlessly stray in the flowery paths of his diction without perceiving the poisonous snake that lurks in the grass.’

At this point Gibbon decided to strike back. Suspending work on his second volume, he wrote his Vindication of Some Passages in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Chapters of the History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It was directed against all the critics who had so far attacked him and was published in January 1779.

Gibbon’s Vindication is a devastating work. He wrote it unwillingly: he resented the interruption of his work which it entailed, and he was conscious the enemies were not worth his powder and shot. Victory over such opponents, he said, was humiliation enough. But once he had decided to counterattack, he decided also to annihilate. And he did annihilate. Abandoning, for once, his customary ‘grave and temperate irony,’ he let himself go, and, as Dean Milman afterwards put it, ‘with a single discharge from his ponderous artillery of learning and sarcasm, laid prostrate the whole disorderly squadron.’ When the smoke had cleared, he had no wish to commemorate the battle or set up a trophy. He asked that ‘as soon as my readers are convinced of my innocence, they would forget my Vindication.’ In order to help them to do so, he had caused it to be printed in octavo, so that it could not be bound with the History, which was in quarto. In fact, though his adversaries were forgotten, the battle was not: it had been too spectacular, too decisive. Nor was the Vindication: it contained too many magnificent Gibbonian phrases. It has often been reprinted, though Gibbon’s scholarship no longer needs its defence.

(Gibbon’s Vindication is regrettably not included in this edition. Read it here.)

The Chronology is very extensive and really amounts to a fairly detailed biography of Gibbon. It is nicely cross-linked with the literary and political scene. It should not be forgotten that Gibbon was contemporary with great names of the Scottish Enlightenment like David Hume and Adam Smith, formidable English men of letters like Dr Johnson, and some not altogether unimportant Frenchmen like Diderot, Voltaire and Montesquieu.

The additional notes by Oliphant Smeaton (1856–1914), printed in square brackets among Gibbon’s and signed “O.S.”, are neither extensive nor essential. He does correct some mistakes and he does elaborate on some issues, but these are tiny details of little importance. I have little patience with Mr Smeaton’s mighty discourses on Byzantine law or the Jerusalem wall.

It all looks a little pedantic. Sometimes it looks conceited, too. When Gibbon remarks, in the beginning of Chapter III, that “so intimate is the connection between the throne and the altar, that the banner of the church has very seldom been seen on the side of the people”, O.S. retorts in a footnote that “Gibbon’s remark here is wholly incorrect.” A little elaboration would have been appreciated. As a matter of fact, Gibbon’s remark, as always, is carefully worded and, in the context of the complete work, rather correct. But Mr Smeaton was a clergyman’s son and even considered career in the clergy himself, so it’s not hard to find the source of his prejudice.[18] The “Textual Note” calls his commentary “for the most part lucid, vigorous and concise.” This it is. It is also superfluous.

[1] The Summing Up (1938), Ch. XII.
[2] Ibid.
[3] This is a paraphrase of, and improvement on, Voltaire who left out the most important part, “follies”: “l’histoire n’est que le tableau des crimes et des malheurs”. See L’Ingénu (1767), Ch. X.
[4] “How to Read and Understand History”, reprinted in Understanding History and Other Essays, Philosophical Library, 1957. Russell continues to assert (pp. 21-2), astonishingly, that Gibbon’s “erudition, by modern standards, is inadequate” (true, but missing the point) and even that “his portraits of individuals are often disappointing” (utter nonsense, as far as I’m concerned).
[5] Gibbon didn’t think much of them, for sure. “The declining age of learning and of mankind is marked, however,” he writes in the very end of Chapter XIII, “by the rise and rapid progress of the new Platonists.” The likes of Ammonius, Plotinus, Amelius and Porphyry were “men of profound thought and intense application; but, by mistaking the true object of philosophy, their labours contributed much less to improve than to corrupt the human understanding.”
[6] In the translation of H. B. Dewing, it goes like this:
And often even in the theatre, before the eyes of the whole people, she stripped off her clothing and moved about naked through their midst, having only a girdle about her private parts and her groins, not, however, that she was ashamed to display these too to the populace, but because no person is permitted to enter there entirely naked, but must have at least a girdle about the groins. Clothed in this manner, she sprawled out and lay on her back on the ground. And some slaves, whose duty this was, sprinkled grains of barley over her private parts, and geese, which happened to have been provided for this very purpose, picked them off with their beaks, one by one, and ate them.
[7] It is only fair to add that Shaw used the phrase in passing in his musical criticism and in quite a different context. See his review in The World from 19 April 1893; reprinted in Shaw on Music [1955], ed. Eric Bentley, Applause, 2000, p. 82.
[8] Letter to Lord Sheffield, 5 February, 1791, as quoted in Wikipedia.
[9] He referred to the Gothic and Sarmatian wars in the time of Constantine which “are related in so broken and imperfect a manner” that he was obliged to consult a number of authors who “supply, correct, and illustrate each other.” The remark may well be applied to the whole Decline and Fall. One of the most disturbing leitmotifs in the whole work is how much of history is sheer speculation. Gibbon remarks countless times, including in the main text and much more often in the notes, how partial, corrupt or simply incomplete the original sources are. Sometimes even vital matters like geography and chronology – far from seldom the very events themselves, not to mention the motives behind them! – cannot be determined with precision or certainty. Gibbon is careful to note these speculative moments. He often uses words like “or” and “perhaps” when final judgment must be suspended, or perhaps simply enlarged.
[10] My favourite online edition has “unsatisfactory”, but it’s hard to find any reason for this emendation. The first edition (Volume the First, 1776, p. 450) has “satisfactory” and so do the three modern editions I have consulted: this one (vol. 1, p. 488), Womersley (Penguin Classics, 1995, vol. I, p. 447) and Lentin & Norman (Wordsworth Classics, 1998, p. 244). As for the meaning, Gibbon’s use of “satisfactory” is, of course, ironic.
[11] The online edition inexplicably changes “wholesome” to “unwholesome”, which ruins a wonderful example of Gibbonian sarcasm. The first edition (Volume the Third, 1781, p. 100), Womersley (vol. II, p. 95) and Everyman’s Library (vol. 3, p. 167) all have “wholesome”. Strangest of all are Lentin & Norman (p. 580). They simply skip the adjective: “some severities”. Go figure.
[12] Cf. Theodore Khan in Arthur Clarke’s 3001: The Final Odyssey: “There’s never been anything, however absurd, that countless people weren’t prepared to believe, often so passionately that they’d fight to the death rather than abandon their illusions. To me, that’s a good operational definition of insanity.”
[13] Much of this “additional” material is thoroughly compelling and remains little known to the present day. Robert Guiscard is not much remembered these days, is he? Yet he “enjoyed the glory of delivering the pope, and of compelling the two emperors, of the East and West, to fly before his victorious arms.” In Chapter LVI, Gibbon makes you wonder why this fantastic creature, the sole master of the south of Italy and one of the most powerful men of the 11th century, has not been the subject of numerous historical epics on the page, stage and screen. He deserves them.
[14] There is an error in the first sentence of the last chapter which remained unfixed by the indefatigable Mr Smeaton. Gibbon got the wrong pope. It should be Martin V, not Eugenius IV. He confirms this himself earlier when the same work of “Poggius” is mentioned (Ch. LXV, No. 51). I am indebted for this correction, not indeed to my own alertness, but to a note by the Rev. H. H. Milman quoted in the online edition of the Decline and Fall.
[15] Gibbon probably meant Dr Johnson’s remarkably simplistic justification of the Crusades:
The lawfulness and justice of the holy wars have been much disputed; but perhaps there is a principle on which the question may be easily determined. If it be part of the religion of the Mahometans to extirpate by the sword all other religions, it is, by the law of self defence, lawful for men of every other religion, and for Christians among others, to make war upon Mahometans, simply as Mahometans, as men obliged by their own principles to make war upon Christians, and only lying in wait till opportunity shall promise them success.
See Johnson on Shakespeare, ed. Walter Raleigh, Henry Frowde, 1908, pp. 113-4.
[16] For the translation of Gibbon’s Latin I am indebted to Lentin & Norman (pp. 87-88). They explain that the Latin word “conditio” also meant “a lover”. Both notes are confirmed by Womersley in his meticulous edition (vol. I, pp. 108, 116), though he doesn’t translate the Latin.
[17] Thanks to one of his finest first-person narrators. See Cakes and Ale (1930), Ch. XI.
[18] One is hardly surprised to find out that some of Mr Smeaton’s most copious, and most indignant, notes are those to Chapters XV and XVI. When Gibbon very carefully suggests that the fires in the palace of Diocletian might have been the work of some Christian arsonists, Mr Smeaton, apparently forgetting the immortal dictum that history is written by the victors, asserts that there is no evidence that the early Christians ever turned on their prosecutors, therefore Diocletian’s palace was set on fire (twice!) by lightning. The Christian apologist and annotator seems divided between his religious convictions and his admiration for Gibbon’s work. “Divest this whole passage of the latent sarcasm betrayed by the subsequent tone of the whole disquisition,” he remarks in the beginning of Chapter XV, “and it might commence a Christian history, written in the most Christian spirit of candour.” That’s a good one!


Table of Contents

Volume 1

Textual Note
Selected Bibliography

Chapter I: The Extent and Military Force of the Empire, in the Age of the Antonines

Chapter II: Of the Union and internal Prosperity of the Roman Empire, in the Age of the Antonines

Chapter III: Of the Constitution of the Roman Empire, in the Age of the Antonines

Chapter IV: The Cruelty, Follies, and Murder of Commodus – Election of Pertinax – His Attempts to reform the State – His Assassination by the Praetorian Guards

Chapter V: Public Sale of the Empire to Didius Julianus by the Praetorian Guards – Clodius Albinus in Britain, Pescennius in Niger and Syria, and Septimius Severus in Pannonia, declare against the murder of Pertinax – Civil Wars and Victory of Severus over his three Rivals – Relaxation of Discipline – New Maxims of Government

Chapter VI: The Death of Severus – Tyranny of Caracalla – Usurpation of Macrinus – Follies of Elagabalus – Virtues of Alexander Severus – Licentiousness of the Army – General State of the Roman Finances

Chapter VII: The Elevation and Tyranny of Maximin – Rebellion in Africa and Italy, under the Authority of the State – Civil Wars and Seditions – Violent Deaths of Maximin and his Son, of Maximus and Balbinus, and of the three Gordians – Usurpation and secular Games of Philip

Chapter VIII: Of the State of Persia after the Restoration of the Monarchy by Artaxerxes

Chapter IX: The State of Germany till the Invasion of the Barbarians, in the time of the Emperor Decius

Chapter X: The Emperor Decius, Gallus, Aemilianus, Valerian, and Gallienus – The general Irruption of the Barbarians – The thirty Tyrants

Chapter XI: Reign of Claudius – Defeat of the Goths – Victories, Triumph, and Death of Aurelian

Chapter XII: Conduct of the Army and Senate after the Death of Aurelian – Reigns of Tacitus, Probus, Carus and his Sons

Chapter XIII: The Reign of Diocletian and his three Associates, Maximian, Galerius, and Constantius – General Re-establishment of Order and Tranquillity – The Persian War, Victory, and Triumph – The New Form of Administration – Abdication and Retirement of Diocletian and Maximilian

Chapter XIV: Troubles after the abdication of Diocletian – Death of Constantius – Elevation of Constantine and Maxentius – Six Emperors at the same time – Death of Maximian and Galerius – Victories of Constantine over Maxentius and Licinius – Reunion of the Empire under the Authority of Constantine

Chapter XV: The Progress of the Christian Religion, and the Sentiments, Manners, Numbers and Condition of the Primitive Christians

The Roman Empire in 180 A. D.

Volume 2

Chapter XVI: The Conduct of the Roman Government towards the Christians, from the Reign of Nero to that of Constantine
Chapter XVII: Foundation of Constantinople – Political System of Constantine, and his Successors – Military Discipline – The Palace – The Finances

Chapter XVIII: Character of Constantine – Gothic War – Death of Constantine – Division of the Empire among his three Sons – Persian War – Tragic Death of Constantine the Younger, and Constans – Usurpation of Magnetius – Civil War – Victory of Constantius

Chapter XIX: Constantius sole Emperor – Elevation and Death of Gallus – Danger and Elevation of Julian – Sarmatian and Persian Wars – Victories of Julian in Gaul

Chapter XX: The Motives, Progress, and Effects of the Conversion of Constantine – Legal Establishment of the Christian, or Catholic Church

Chapter XXI: Persecution of Heresy – The Schism of the Donatists – The Arian Controversy – Athanasius – Distracted State of the Church and Empire under Constantine and his Sons – Toleration of Paganism

Chapter XXII: Julian is declared Emperor by the Legions of Gaul – His March and Success – The Death of Constantius – Civil Administration

Chapter XXIII: The Religion of Julian – Universal Toleration – He attempts to restore and reform the Pagan Worship; to rebuild the Temple of Jerusalem – His artful Persecution of the Christians – Mutual Zeal and Injustice

Chapter XXIV: Residence of Julian at Antioch – His successful Expedition against the Persians – Passage of the Tigris – The Retreat and Death of Julian – Election of Jovian – He saves the Roman Army by a disgraceful Treaty

Chapter XXV: The Government and Death of Jovian – Election of Valentinian, who associates his Brother Valens, and makes his final Division of the Eastern and Western Empires – Revolt of Procopius – Civil and Ecclesiastical Administration – Germany – Britain – Africa – The East – The Danube – Death of Valentinian – His two Sons, Gratian and Valentinian II, succeed to the Western Empire

Maps and Plans
Plan of Constantinople
The Roman Empire under Diocletian

Volume 3

Chapter XXVI: Manners of the Pastoral Nations – Progress of the Huns, from China to Europe – Flight of the Goths – They pass the Danube – Gothic War – Defeat and Death of Valens – Gratian invests Theodosius with the Eastern Empire – His Character and Success – Peace and Settlement of the Goths

Chapter XXVII: Death of Gratian – Ruin of Arianism – St. Ambrose – First Civil War, against Maximus – Character, Administration, and Penance of Theodosius – Death of Valentinian II. – Second Civil War, against Eugenius – Death of Theodosius

Chapter XXVIII: Final Destruction of Paganism – Introduction of the Worship of Saints, and Relics, among the Christians

Chapter XXIX: Final Division of the Roman Empire between the Sons of Theodosius – Reign of Arcadius and Honorius – Administration of Rufinus and Stilicho – Revolt and Defeat of Gildo in Africa

Chapter XXX: Revolt of the Goths – They plunder of Greece – Two great Invasions of Italy by Alaric and Radagaisus – They are repulsed by Stilicho – The Germans over-run Gaul – Usurpation of Constantine in the West – Disgrace and Death of Stilicho

Chapter XXXI: Invasion of Italy by Alaric – Manners of the Roman Senate and People – Rome is thrice besieged, and at length pillaged by the Goths – Death of Alaric – The Goths evacuate Italy – Fall of Constantine – Gaul and Spain are occupied by the Barbarians – Independence of Britain

Chapter XXXII: Arcadius Emperor of the East – Administration and Disgrace of Eutropius – Revolt of Gainas – Persecution of St. John Chrysostom – Theodosius II, Emperor of the East – His Sister Pulcheria – His Wife Eudocia – The Persian War, and Division of Armenia

Chapter XXXIII: Death of Honorius – Valentinian III. Emperor of the West – Administration of his Mother Placidia – Aetius and Boniface – Conquest of Africa by the Vandals

Chapter XXXIV: The Character, Conquests, and Court of Attila, King of the Huns – Death of Theodosius the Younger – Elevation of Marcian to the Emperor of the East

Chapter XXXV: Invasion of Gaul by Attila – He is repulsed by Aetius and the Visigoths – Attila invades and evacuates Italy – The Deaths of Attila, Aetius, and Valentinian the Third

Chapter XXXVI: Sack of Rome by Genseric, King of the Vandals – His naval Depredations – Succession of the Last Emperors of the West, Maximus, Avilus, Majorian, Severus, Anthemis, Olybrius, Glycerius, Nepos, Augustulus – Total Extinction of the Western Empire – Reign of Odoacer, the first Barbarian King of Italy

Europe (c. A. D. 456)

Index to Volumes 1 to 3

Volume 4

Textual Note
Introduction to Volumes 4–6

Chapter XXXVII: Origin, Progress, and  Effects of the Monastic Life – Conversion of the Barbarians to Christianity and Arianism – Persecution of the Vandals in Africa – Extinction of Arianism among the Barbarians

Chapter XXXVIII: Reign and Conversion of Clovis – His Victories over the Alemanni, Burgundians, and Visigoths – Establishment of the French Monarchy in Gaul – Laws of the Barbarians – State of the Romans – The Visigoths of Spain – Conquest of Britain by the Saxons

General Observations on the fall of the Roman Empire in the West

Chapter XXXIX: Zeno and Anastasius, Emperors of the East – Birth, Education, and first Exploits of Theodoric the Ostrogoth – His Invasion and Conquest of Italy – The Gothic Kingdom of Italy – State of the West – Military and Civil Government – The Senator Boethius – Last Acts and Death of Theodoric

Chapter XL: Elevation of Justin the Elder – Reign of Justinian – I. The Empress Theodora – II. Factions of the Circus, and Sedition of Constantinople – III. Trade and Manufacture of Silk – IV. Finances and Taxes – V. Edifices of Justinian – Church of St. Sophia – Fortifications and Frontiers of the Eastern Empire – VI. Abolition of the Schools of Athens, and the Consulship of Rome

Chapter XLI: Conquests of Justinian in the West – Character and the first Campaigns of Belisarius – He invades and subdues the Vandal Kingdom of Africa – His Triumph – The Gothic War – He recovers Sicily, Naples and Rome – Siege of Rome by the Goths – Their Retreat and Losses – Surrender of Ravenna – Glory of Belisarius – His Domestic Shame and Misfortunes

Chapter XLII: State of the Barbaric World – Establishment of the Lombards on the Danube – Tribes and Inroads of the Sclavonians – Origin, Empire, and Embassies of the Turks – The Flight of Avatars – Chosroes I. or Nushirvan King of Persia – His prosperous Reign and Wars with the Romans – The Colchian or Lazic War – The Aethiopians

Chapter XLIII: Rebellions of Africa – Restoration of the Gothic Kingdom by Totila – Loss and Recovery of Rome – Final Conquest of Italy by Narses – Extinction of the Ostrogoths – Defeat of the Franks and Alemanni – Last Victory, Disgrace, and Death of Belisarius – Death and Character of Justinian – Comets, Earthquakes, and Plague

Chapter XLIV: Idea of the Roman Jurisprudence – The Laws of the Kings – The Twelve Tables of the Decemvirs – The Laws of the People – The Decrees of the Senate – The Edicts of the Magistrates and Emperors – Authority of the Civilians – Code, Pandects, Novels, and Institutes of Justinian: – I. Rights of Persons – II. Rights of Things – III. Private Injuries and Actions – IV. Crimes and Punishments

Chapter XLV: Reign of the Younger Justin – Embassy of the Avars – Their Settlement on the Danube – Conquest of Italy by the Lombards – Adoption and Reign of Tiberius – Of Maurice – State of Italy under the Lombards and the Exarchs of Ravenna – Distress of Rome – Character and Pontificate of Gregory the First

Chapter XLVI: Revolutions of Persia after the Death of Chosroes or Nushirvan – His Son Hormouz, a Tyrant, is deposed – Usurpation of Bahram – Flight and Restoration of Chosroes II. – His Gratitude to the Romans – The Chagan of the Avars – Revolt of the Army against Maurice – His Death – Tyranny of Phocas – Elevation of Heraclius – The Persian War – Chosroes subdues Syria, Egypt, and Asia Minor – Siege of Constantinople by the Persians and Avars – Persian Expeditions – Victories and Triumph of Heraclius

Volume 5

Chapter XLVII: Theological History of the Doctrine of the Incarnation – The Human and Divine Nature of Christ – Enmity of the Patriarchs of Alexandria and Constantinople – St. Cyril and Nestorius – Third General Council of Ephesus – Heresy of Eutyches – Fourth General Council of Chalcedon – Civil and Ecclesiastical Discord – Intolerance of Justinian – The Three Chapters – The Monothelite Controversy – State of the Oriental Sects – I. The Nestorians – II. The Jacobites – III. The Maronites – IV. The Armenians – V. The Copts – VI. The Abyssinians

Chapter XLVIII: Plans of the last two [quarto] Volumes – Succession and Characters of the Greek Emperors of Constantinople, from the Time of Heraclius to the Latin Conquest

Chapter XLIX: Introduction, Worship, and Persecution of Images – Revolt of Italy and Rome – Temporal Dominion of the Popes – Conquest of Italy by the Franks – Establishment of Images – Character and Coronation of Charlemagne – Restoration and Decay of the Roman Empire in the West – Independence of Italy – Constitution of the Germanic Body

Chapter L: Description of Arabia and its Inhabitants – Birth, Character, and Doctrine of Mohammed – He preaches at Mecca – Flies to Medina – Propagates his Religion by the Sword – Voluntary or reluctant Submission of the Arabs – His Death and Successors – The Claims and Fortunes of Ali and his Descendants

Chapter LI: The Conquest of Persia, Syria, Egypt, Africa, and Spain, by the Arabs or Saracens – Empire of the Caliphs, or Successors of Mohammed – State of the Christians, etc., under their Government

Chapter LII: The Two Sieges of Constantinople by the Arabs – Their Invasion of France, and Defeat by Charles Martel – Civil War of the Omniades and Abbassides – Learning of the Arabs – Luxury of the Caliphs – Naval Enterprises on Crete, Sicily, and Rome – Decay and Division of the Empire of the Caliphs – Defeats and Victories of the Greek Emperors

Chapter LIII: State of the Eastern Empire in the Tenth Century – Extent and Division – Wealth and Revenue – Palace of Constantinople – Titles and Offices – Pride and Power of the Emperors – Tactics of the Greeks, Arabs, and Franks – Loss of the Latin Tongue – Studies and Solitude of the Greeks

Chapter LIV: Origin and Doctrine of the Paulicians – Their Persecution by the Greek Emperors – Revolt in Armenia, etc. – Transplantation into Thrace – Propagation in the West – The Seeds, Character and Consequences of the Reformation

Chapter LV: The Bulgarians – Origin, Migration, and Settlement of the Hungarians – Their Inroads in the East and West – The Monarchy of Russia – Geography and Trade – Wars of the Russians against the Greek Empire – Conversion of the Barbarians

Chapter LVI: The Saracens, Franks, and Greeks, in Italy – First Adventures and Settlement of the Normans – Character and Conquest of Robert Guiscard, Duke of Apulia – Deliverance of Sicily by his Brother Roger – Victories of Robert over the Emperors of the East and West – Roger, King of Sicily, Invades Africa and Greece – The Emperor Manuel Comnenus – Wars of the Greeks and Normans – Extinction of the Normans

Volume 6

Chapter LVII: The Turks of the House of Seljuk – Their Revolt against Mahmud, Conqueror of Hindostan – Togrul subdues Persia, and protects the Caliphs – Defeat and Captivity of the Emperor Romanus Diogenes by Alp Arslan – Power and Magnificence of Malek Shah – Conquest of Asia Minor and Syria – State and Oppression of Jerusalem – Pilgrimages to the Holy Sepulchre

Chapter LVIII: Origin and Number of the First Crusade – Characters of the Latin Princes – Their March to Constantinople – Policy of the Greek Emperor Alexius – Conquest of Nice, Antioch, and Jerusalem, by the Franks – Deliverance of the Holy Sepulchre – Godfrey of Bouillon, First King of Jerusalem – Institutions of the French or Latin Kingdom

Chapter LIX: Preservation of the Greek Empire – Numbers, Passage, and Event of the Second and Third Crusades – St. Bernard – Reign of Saladin in Egypt and Syria – His Conquest of Jerusalem – Naval Crusades – Richard the First of England – Pope Innocent the Third; and the Fourth and Fifth Crusades – The Emperor Frederick the Second – Louis the Ninth of France; and the two last Crusades – Expulsion of the Latins and Franks by the Mamalukes

Chapter LX: Schism of the Greeks and Latins – State of Constantinople – Revolt of the Bulgarians – Iaac Angelus dethroned by his Brother Alexius – Origin of the Fourth Crusade – Alliance of the French and Venetians with the Son of Isaac – Their Naval Expedition to Constantinople – The Two Sieges and Final Conquest of the City by the Latins

Chapter LXI: Partition of the Empire by the French and Venetians – Five Latin Emperors of the Houses of Flanders and Courtenay – Their Wars against the Bulgarians and Greeks – Weakness and Poverty of the Latin Empire – Recovery of Constantinople by the Greeks – General Consequences of the Crusades

Chapter LXII: The Greek Emperors of Nice and Constantinople – Elevation and Reign of Michael Palæologus – His false Union with the Pope and the Latin Church – Hostile Designs of Charles of Anjou – Revolt of Sicily – War of the Catalans in Asia and Greece – Revolutions and present State of Athens

Chapter LXIII: Civil Wars, and Ruin of the Greek Empire – Reigns of Andronicus, the Elder and Younger, and John Palæologus – Regency, Revolt, Reign, and Abdication of John Cantacuzene – Establishment of a Genoese Colony at Pera or Galata – Their Wars with the Empire and City of Constantinople

Chapter LXIV: Conquests of Zingis Khan and the Moguls from China to Poland – Escape of Constantinople and the Greeks – Origin of the Ottoman Turks in Bithynia – Reigns and Victories of Othman, Orchan, Amurath the First, and Bajazet the First – Foundation and Progress of the Turkish Monarchy in Asia and Europe – Danger of Constantinople and the Greek Empire

Chapter LXV: Elevation of Timour or Tamerlane to the Throne of Samarcand – His Conquests in Persia, Georgia, Tartary, Russia, India, Syria, and Anatolia – His Turkish War – Defeat and Captivity of Bajazet – Death of Timour – Civil War of the Sons of Bajazet – Restoration of the Turkish Monarchy by Mohammed the First – Siege of Constantinople by Amurath the Second

Chapter LXVI: Applications of the Eastern Emperors to the Pope – Visits to the West by John the First, Manuel, and John the Second, Palæologus – Union of the Greek and Latin Churches promoted by the Council of Basil, and concluded at Ferrara and Florence – State of Literature at Constantinople – Its Revival in Italy by the Greek Fugitives – Curiosity and Emulation of the Latins

Chapter LXVII: Schism of the Greeks and Latins – Reign and Character of Amurath the Second – Crusade of Ladislaus, King of Hungary – His Defeat and Death – John Huniades – Scanderbeg – Constantine Palæologus, last Emperor of the East

Chapter LXVIII: Reign and Character of Mohammed the Second – Siege, Assault and Final Conquest of Constantinople by the Turks – Death of Constantine Palæologus – Servitude of the Greeks – Extinction of the Roman Empire in the East – Consternation of Europe – Conquests and Death of Mohammed the Second

Chapter LXIX: State of Rome from the Twelfth Century – Temporal Dominion of the Popes – Seditions of the City – Political Heresy of Arnold of Brescia – Restoration of the Republic – The Senators – Pride of the Romans – Their Wars – They are deprived of the Election and Presence of the Popes, who retire to Avignon – The Jubilee – Noble Families of Rome – Feud of the Colonna and Ursini

Chapter LXX: Character and Coronation of Petrarch – Restoration of the Freedom and Government of Rome by the Tribune Rienzi – His Virtues and Vices, his Expulsion and Death – Return of the Popes from Avignon – Great Schism of the West – Reunion of the Latin Church – Last Struggles of Roman Liberty – Statutes of Rome – Final Settlement of the Ecclesiastical State

Chapter LXXI: Prospect of the Ruins of Rome in the Fifteenth Century – Four Causes of Decay and Destruction – Example of the Coliseum – Renovation of the City – Conclusion of the whole Work

Appendix I: The Author’s Prefaces
Appendix II: A Chronological List of the Roman Emperors
Index to Volumes 4 to 6