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Intrusive Ideology

How pre-Modern ideologies have coloured our perceptions on Roman History

by Felix Paulinski

Gibbon and the Pessimism of Empire

“Every man of genius who writes History infuses it, perhaps unconsciously, the character of his own spirit. His characters, despite their extensive variety of passion and situation, seem to have one manner of thinking and feeling, and that is the manner of the author.” (Edward Gibbon, Mémoire sur la monarchie des Mèdes, quoted and trans. by Porter, 1988, 9).
Tackling the work of Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) is a task that often grows beyond his merits as a historian; interpretations of his work, which have been approached from a great multitude of angles, range from sociological models to the psycho-biographical – and I have to say absurd – Freudian elucidations: Buck (1980, 477-98), for instance, even goes as far to dub Rome a metaphor for Gibbon’s own unresolved Oedipal conflicts. Gibbon’s merits, as he himself puts it, ‘…have already been so frequently, so aptly, and so successful discussed, that it is now grown familiar to the reader, and difficult to the writer’ (D&F, IX, 201 – referring to the subject of Germania). With Gibbon being the focus of such colourful speculation, it is easy to lose sight of basic concerns such as ‘a’, his overall aim as a historian, and ‘b’, the how he can be placed into his own age. While both of these issues could indeed be the basis of extensive study, it is the aim of this paper to at least touch upon both: accordingly, issues surrounding ‘a’ shall allude to exploring how, in writing the Decline and Fall, Gibbon’s macroscopic pen-portrait of Rome’s demise changed when he made the transition from volume I (first published in 1776) to volumes II and III (published in 1781 – dates taken from Pocock, 1985b, 143), and how this subtle metamorphosis can be, in many respects, attributed to the highly significant historical events – with particular emphasis on the American Revolution – experienced by Gibbon himself during this transitional period; issues relating to ‘b’ shall be drawn upon by looking at the manner in which both the perceptions of Rome, as well as the socio-political theory of his age forged Gibbon’s interpretation of his history. In other words, in writing The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire could Gibbon really divorce himself from his ‘here and now’?

Before embarking on this, however, one thing that has to be noted about the Decline and Fall is its sheer density. With six volumes, a million and a half words and countless footnotes, this work was no small feat (Radice, 1983, 2). Drawing upon the sheer size of Gibbon’s colossal work is not in itself an astute observation; how this affects our consumption of his prose is, however, a different matter. From volume I-VI, the Decline and Fall spreads itself over a time span of almost a millennium and a half. Over the course of this time, it leads the reader across the Russian steppes, plunges him down the Nile and explores a world – albeit, at times, briefly – reaching as far as the Orient, New Zealand and the New World (Porter, 1988, 80). Gibbon thus has at his disposal a framework of time and space worthy of that bestowed upon Aeneas (Virgil Aeneid, I.278-80); a framework in which he could enlighten, entertain and reflect with his own panoramic narrative of causation. It is a framework to which Gibbon certainly adds colour, and in doing so, Gibbon’s causation is mixed-up in a narrative of the notable, but inconsequential. Despite being highly effective means of captivating the reader, the level of detail into which Gibbon divulges can often convolute his overall aim as a historian: its size, as Syme puts it (1977, 53), ‘[places Gibbon] in trouble from time to time.’

With this in mind, the task of extracting Gibbon’s over-arching aim as a historian is a complicated task indeed – not least, as we shall see, because of the shifting emphases of later volumes. But what of Gibbon’s initial aim in volume I? Gibbon certainly took into account the ‘metanarration’ and historical theorising of his day – a fine example being Montesquieu’s Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence (published 1731). This was one of the first works of history to steer away from the view, exemplified by monastic chroniclers, that human history adheres to a divine plan; instead Montesquieu attributes the principles governing the fall of Rome to sociological causes, both physical and moral (Grimsley et al, 1979, 43-4; Porter, 1988, 79). Nevertheless, Gibbon acknowledged this debt with a sense of aloofness, choosing instead to distance himself from abstract generalised theory. In fact, Gibbon, with inter-digressional breaks for the interesting but insignificant, distanced himself from his narrative, letting it flow before him, and in doing so, he lets history explain itself through history and by its interconnectedness of events (Porter, 1988, 80; Womersley, 1988, 46). To Gibbon, causation was a domino effect, which could only be explained by looking at the very beginning. Upon an initial viewing, therefore, both the sheer size of Gibbon’s magnum opus, as well as his generally ‘pragmatic’ approach to historical writing, present themselves as obstacles, standing in the way of the work’s cultural-historical context. This fairly detached view that Gibbon adopts is, however, merely superficial. In order to highlight this actuality, it is probably easiest to start from the beginnings of the Decline and Fall.

We thus enter the first volume of the Decline and Fall at a time of idealised virtue:
“During a happy period (A.D. 98-180) of more than fourscore years, the public administration was conducted by the virtue and abilities of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the two Antonines.”
This was to be the bedrock upon which he would set out the decline of Rome:
“It is the design of this, and of the two succeeding chapters, to describe the prosperous condition of their empire; and afterwards, from the death of Marcus Antoninus, to deduce the most important circumstances of its decline and fall; a revolution which will ever be remembered, and is still felt by the nations of the earth.” (Decline & Fall, I, 31)
Why Rome was idealised in such a way is perhaps grounds for assessing the manner in which Rome was perceived at the dawn of the Decline and Fall’s publication. This period, loosely going by many names – the Late Enlightenment, Georgian England and the Baroque Period – was very much a period in which the ‘classical education’ (the study Latin and Greek) held prominence within the education of the ‘English gentleman’ (Porter, 1988, 30); through this, they rationalised morals, manners and, more importantly, the contemporary status quo. In the process of doing so, it was Rome, not Greece that gained more prominence within the psyche of the elite – a subject to be discussed later in Chapter 2. For the Latin language had remained with England, in one form or another, since Rome’s departure from Britain. Although somewhat stunted as the country’s religious language after the Reformation, Latin continued to be the language of education for so time. In fact, submission of doctoral theses in Latin was still considered to commonplace in many educational institutions as late as the eighteenth century (Vance, 1997, 16).

Since the Renaissance, Rome had also secured a position of prominence in English life and politics (Vance, 1997, 11), and consequently, Latin was something that filtered through into the day-to-day activities of men of Gibbon’s class: despite being an age in which Shakespeare verse was superseding that of the Ancients (Vance, 1997, 28), Latin’s resonance throughout the House of Commons was still felt with profound effect; parliamentary giants could often be assimilated with the hero’s of the Classical World – a later example would be the wrangling between the Premier ‘Achilles’ Pitt and his rival James ‘Hector’ Fox (Porter, 1988, 31). Further, it was by no means considered pompous for MPs refer to themselves as ‘senators’ – indeed Gibbon himself referred to his time in parliament as his ‘senatorial life’ (Memoirs, 155). The perception of Rome in the English political sphere, as we shall see, was fundamental in Gibbon’s sculpting of Rome.

As with classical education, the so-called Grand Tour was another staple for the privileged. Ever since Edward Augustus, the Duke of York, became the first member of the English Royal Family to visit Italy as a tourist in 1763, travel to the old seats of the Ancients had reached a new epoch (Wilton et al, 1997, 33). And much in the same manner as the classical education, it was a fundamental driving force behind the English perception of the Roman Empire. Indeed, the early life of Gibbon was by no means exempt from such a frivolous tour; for it was during his time on his Grand Tour that Gibbon allegedly took it upon himself the task of writing the Decline and Fall:
“It was at Rome on the fifteenth of October 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capital, while the barefooted fryars [sic] were singing Vespers in the temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city started to my mind.” (Memoirs, 124)
In being physically close to Rome during these visits, the English elite had their attachment to the Eternal City reinforced.

Paradoxically, however, the age of Enlightenment was a time during which the merits of the Ancients were being put into question. Stemming from the famous ‘ancient versus modern’ argument taking place in France during the turn of the seventeenth century, the science, philosophy and politics of the Classical world were being place in a position which was making them less infallible (Vance, 1997, 3-23). Accordingly, direct parallels between Rome and the Europe of Gibbon’s age were sparser than they had been. Indeed European monarchs were still, and without shame, aligning their image in the direction of Rome – following Britain’s victory in the Seven Year’s War (1763), for instance, her monarchs were still being baptised in the fire of Rome; George II was christened George Augustus, and he and his successor were duly sculpted in the guise of the same princeps (Vance, 1997, 12) – yet direct parallels were employed with less frequency.

Despite this, the mystique that was Rome was still an alluring concept. As we have seen, its lingering ghost in society was certainly still felt in literature, politics, education and leisure. The manner in which Rome was utilised to rationalise the status quo could also be exploited to forge a different form of analogy, one which operated in a more subtle, if not just as anachronistic-sphere as that of the parallels of the previous years: that is, that Rome was also used as a means of projecting the concerns of the age. It is within this sphere that Gibbon certainly falls.

How exactly does Gibbon fall into this sphere? Certainly, the title of his work reflects the concerns of his time. From the early eighteenth century onwards, Enlightenment ideas, as discussed above, had secured the belief that civilisation was progressing beyond the achievements of the Classical World: a train of progress set into motion after the collapse of Antiquity, rising up through the Dark Ages and culminating in the Enlightenment (Trevor-Roper, 2005, 664). The belief that the Enlightenment was peak of human achievement was, however, a double-edged sword: surely if civilisation had reached the pinnacle of its development, the age could only be followed only by decline? Consequently the subject of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall not only falls into the notion of Rome’s lingering spirit in Enlightenment Europe, but is a reflection of a genuine concern of his time. For, although the overall aim of the Decline and Fall is convoluted by the size and scale of its undertaking, it can certainly be agreed that the theme of Decline is the thread that stitches together his narrative. In fact, in his ‘General Observations’ (D&F, XXXVIII) – which, according to Gibbon, was written before the publication of the first volume (memoirs, 129) – Gibbon contemplates whether or not Enlightenment Europe could fall into a political and cultural nadir. It must be noted that Gibbon concludes that the Europe of his time was less susceptible to the notion of decline than the Europe of the late Roman Empire, but this in itself, still highlights the contemporary notion of decline.

The issues with which Gibbon dealt in his great undertaking were intensely relevant to the political climate of eighteenth-century Britain – particularly those relating to the centralisation of government and autocracy. This is very much apparent in the opening chapters of Volume I (I-III) of the Decline and Fall. As we have seen, Gibbon painted this so-called ‘age of the Antonines’ with an idealised brush of ‘wisdom and virtue’ (D&F, III, 93). Yet this seems to only be skin-deep utopia; for behind this smokescreen lay the beginning of Gibbon’s historical causation of decline: namely the loss of Rome’s virtù (public spirit) – a process, in Gibbon’s mind, set into motion by the autocracy of the principate (Trevor-Roper, 2005, 669). For although Gibbon’s golden age of the Antonines is testament to his belief that unrestricted power in the hands of one individual could, in many circumstances, allow a good prince to display his virtue, Gibbon believed that despotism ultimately stagnated a society; without responsibility of a more inclusive forms of government, virtù could not exist; and without this, any sense of duty, which may have previously existed within a society, would be lost.

Gibbon’s rumination on the limits of autocracy can, in many ways, be attributed to contemporary musings surrounding the same subject. With its origins in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and set in full motion by King George II’s cultivation of the office of Prime Minister, the Britain of the Enlightenment was rife with terms such as ‘tyranny’ and ‘despotism’. For many, the rise of the British Premier seemed like an un-checked extension of centralised executive power and accordingly, questions on legitimacy and the curtailing of power often stalked the issue – questions often thought to be embodied in works of the highly influential late seventeenth-century writer James Harrington (Porter, 1988, 24). As is apparent with Gibbon, Rome was used as a rostrum for these concerns, but this was also patent, with particular emphasis on the transition from republic to principate, in other capacities: through Harrington, political writers, ranging from controversialists (John Toland) to Whig politicians (John Trenchard), aimed to clinch their doctrines and analyses. As a popular journal of the time puts it:
“…comparisons may be drawn between the Roman state and our own: the fatal errors of party zeal, public corruption and popular licentiousness…we can thus find a means of remedying these problems.” (from the Monthly Review Journal, 1764, quoted in Porter, 1988, 25).
We can thus see that in its subject matter, the Decline and Fall observes Rome’s lingering presence through the lens of the Enlightenment. Another key influence, at least in my opinion, was the impact of historical ‘events’. What is interesting to observe is that, when Gibbon makes the transition from volume I to volumes II and III, his work is subject to a shift in emphasis; for when Gibbon makes the jump to the volumes II and III (1781), the role of civil disturbances seem to play a greater role in his prose. In his first volume (1776), Gibbon sidelines - even omits - any form of civil upheaval:
“Excepting only this short, though violent eruption of military license [AD 69], the two centuries from Augustus to Commodus passed away unstained with civil blood, and un-distilled by revolution.” (D&F, III).
It seems interesting that Gibbon should write this because in assessing the ‘two centuries from Augustus to Commodus’, Gibbon would have had many civil disturbances from which to choose (Bowersock, 1976, 64; cf Appendix 1.). Later on in volume I (D&F, X), Gibbon marginalizes the third-century political fragmentation imposed on the Empire by means of the ceding of both the Western (the so-called Gallic Empire) and Eastern states (under the rule of Zenobia of Palmyra).

Despite the frequency at which Gibbon’s interpretations are subject to scrutiny, he is a man rarely criticised for his factual inaccuracies (Bowersock, 1976, 63); consequently it seems rather curious that his work should be subject to such errors in the areas outlined above. An explanation for this, in my view, is quite simple: written before 1776, Gibbon’s judgement had not been clouded by any first-hand experience of civil disturbance. From 1776 onwards, however, Gibbon had a change of career. While he was still first and foremost a scholar, during the period between the publications of volume I and volumes II and III (1776-81), Gibbon was active under the North administration in the Board of Trade (Porter, 1988, 101). It was while he was operating in this capacity that Thirteen Colonies of America ceded from the British Empire, culminating in the humiliating British defeat at Yorktown (1781). The extent to which Gibbon’s dual role as a historian and MP operated in the same sphere is, considered by many, a debatable topic (Pocock, 1985b, 149). What is clear is the impact that the American Revolution left on Gibbon’s prose.

One need only look at the lingering presence of the ‘American issue’ in his letters to be presented with a picture of Gibbon’s own concerns. In at least forty percent of his formal letters from 1775-1783, Gibbon mentions the American conflict. In the same way, the prose of his third and second volumes have been coloured by the experience; in his narrative of Rome’s demise, civil disturbances were to now play a greater role. To take the most explicit example, the language and imagery used in his account of the fifth-century revolt of Armorica in modern day Bretton, can, as the region’s name rather conveniently suggests, be used as a parallel with America: ‘And so we hear of the Armoricans in a state of disorderly independence’ (D&F, XXXV); ‘…the slight foundations of the Armorican republic’ (D&F, XXXVIII). Gibbon even ties the disturbance with the Armoicans refusal to send customary tribute (D&F, XXXV). For many scholars, the coincidental iconography conjured up by Gibbon can often be written off as his irony (Clive, 1976, 30; Porter, 1988, 163); others have played down the impact of the American Revolution on Gibbon – Pocock (1985b, 149), for instance, seems to confuse the vast psychological blow, which hit Britain after Yorktown (cf Judd, 1996, 27-8), with the minimal long-term financial consequences of Great Britain’s loss of the Colonies (Judd, 1996, 6). Whether or not the loss of America was a vehicle for Gibbon’s humour, or just a mere fleeting reference, is irrelevant: the very fact that Gibbon makes such explicit reference to America is, in itself, a clear indication that his own personal experiences infiltrated his own prose.

While, as we have seen, Gibbon’s fairly sterile and detached framework for historical writing allows him to present the Decline and Fall as an immovable fortress. This notion can, however, can be quite easily dismantled. The above survey of the cultural, political and historical context of Gibbon’s magnum opus is testament to the fact that the notion of ‘past’ cannot escape the ‘present’.

back to the Introduction
continue with Chapter II

Dissertation Index:

  • Introduction
  • Chapter I
  • Chapter II
  • Chapter III
  • Conclusions
  • Discussion
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    Gibbon and the Pessimism of Empire - Related Topic: Roman History


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