History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (by Edward Gibbon)
It has become a sort of fashion to assert that knowledge which is not derived from original study is worthless, that ordinary histories are little more than handbooks or abridgments, and that those who are not in a position to carry their studies beyond such works will never obtain any knowledge worth having. The best answer to such observations is to be found in studying the books against which they are directed. The common sense of mankind has, as a matter of fact, adjudged to them a high rank in literature, and no competent reader can fairly give his mind to them without perceiving that the common sense of mankind is right.
Gibbon's History is, perhaps, the greatest work of the kind that ever was written. When the vastness of the plan, the nature of its execution, and the sort of instruction which it affords are all taken into account—and it requires more than one attentive reading of the whole book to form an adequate conception of them—the mind receives a deep impression of the importance of a great book, and of the effects which may be produced by the concentration upon one great object of powers which, though perhaps not extraordinary either in quantity or quality, were certainly considerable, and were used with consummate judgment.
The first point which attracts attention in the History of the Decline and Fall is its general plan.' It must, in all probability, have grown upon the author by degrees as the work itself proceeded; but it was a wonderful feat of that high form of imagination which is indispensable to the authors of scientific discoveries as much as to poets and painters, to see that such a work was possible, and to seize a point of view from which Christianity, Mahometanism, Roman Law, the irruptions of the different hordes of barbarians, and the politics of the Persian Empire might all be regarded as parts of one whole. There is hardly any important fact in the history of mankind, during the thousand years which constitute the period of transition from the ancient to the modern world, which does not enter more or less into the plan of Gibbon's work; yet, in reading it through, the mind is not made disagreeably conscious of any solution of continuity. Every chapter appears to fit into its proper place, and to stand in its due relation to the rest of the work. A few words will recall the principal features of this vast plan and show its general symmetry.
. The Roman Empire, as established by Augustus and extended by some of his successors, included all that part of the world of which the ancients had any definite knowledge. The political system which they established was in its full vigour in the time of Hadrian and the Antonines, and so continued, with interruptions and occasional internal and personal revolutions, for some centuries. Its rivals were Persia on the East, and the barbarians on the North; but the interruptions to the general tranquillity produced by these Powers were for a great length of time exceptional.
The most remarkable effect of its unity, and that which contributed most powerfully to its maintenance, was the system of Roman law. The existence of so vast a power, the uniformity of government and of sentiment which it produced, and the general intercourse between different parts of the Empire which it favoured, gave an opportunity to the Christian Church of forming a State within the State, upon its own principles, under its own laws and administered by its own officers. By degrees, the Church superseded the State, converted the Emperors, and indirectly caused the change of the seat of government to Constantinople; whilst the irruptions of horde after horde of barbarians into different provinces of the Empire, by breaking up the old political constitution, left the ecclesiastical constitution to ally itself with the new Governments, and ultimately to establish a spiritual dominion over them, animated to a great extent by the spirit of the old Roman Empire, and closely analogous to its form.
Whilst this process was calling into existence a new political system throughout the whole of the Western world, the Eastern branch of the Empire was continually being diminished by the attacks of its enemies—the barbarians and the Persian Empire. At last the Mahometan power arose, and added to the list of its antagonists the one under which it was finally to succumb. It substituted for its ancient Persian rivals an enemy far more enterprising and infinitely more dangerous. By degrees the inexhaustible hordes of the North and the desperate fanaticism of the South washed away province after province, till Constantinople alone, with a small amount of territory, stood for the Empire of the East. Its fall was for a time delayed by the Crusades, but at last, on the 29th of May 1453— it was stormed and taken by Mahomet II., and with it fell the last vestige of the Roman Empire, though a sort of parody of some of its titles was maintained by the Emperors of Germany till it was swept away by Napoleon.
This, in a few words, is the subject of Gibbon's great work. Of the way in which it is executed there is but one opinion. No book has been more eagerly criticised by more unfavourable judges, and in none have fewer serious mistakes been discovered. Considering the vast variety of subjects which the work embraces—political and ecclesiastical history, theology, Roman law, the origin of the Mahometan religion, the Crusades, the history of barbarians of every description, from the Goths who invaded the Empire in the third century to Genghis Khan and Timour who were the terror of the thirteenth and fourteenth—this is a wonderful success.
One of his German critics, Schlosser, has observed, apparently with the intention of depreciating his greatness, that Gibbon had wonderful dexterity in making use of the labours of others, and that much of his book is founded, not on original study, but on the compilations of others from the original authorities. This may very possibly be true. Gibbon's own journals show that hardly any kind of reading pleased him better than that of monographs, as they would be called in our days. The Memoirs, for instance, of the Academy of inscriptions was one of his favourite books. This, however, only shows that he possessed in a remarkable degree one of the most valuable gifts which can belong to an historian—the gift, namely, of forming a sound judgment as to the value of his authorities. If he had tried to make for himself all the collections which were required for his book, his life would not have been long enough for the purpose. The slight importance of the mistakes which have been discovered in it, shows with what judgment he availed himself of the researches of others. If it is a reproach to use them, it is difficult to see what is the use of making them.
No moderately competent critic would think of denying the general merits of Gibbon's history, but the question is sometimes asked, what, after all, can be learnt from it by those who are not going to use it as an index, which will enable them to turn to the authorities upon some one of the subjects to which it refers, and which they may want to study in detail? How is an ordinary reader substantially wiser than he was at first when he has read the whole story from the days of Augustus to those of Mahomet II.?
This is not altogether an idle question, for it must be owned that there are a considerable number of histories—for instance, the old Universal History— which, when they are read, leave on the mind no impression whatever except that of a directory somewhat enlarged, and filled with strange names, instead of familiar ones. What is the difference between the history which enriches the mind, and the almanack which merely fills it with the driest kind of sawdust? The answer can hardly be given in general terms, but it may be suggested by specifying a few of the chief reflections which Gibbon's history suggests, not to a professional historian or student, but to an ordinary reader.
The first, and perhaps the most obvious, of these observations is, that there is in many respects a strong analogy between the time in which we are now living, and the time when the Roman Empire was first consolidated, though there are many vital differences between the two. The process which has been carried on at a rapidly progressive rate since the French Revolution, of throwing the whole civilised world into one vast community, animated by much the same spirit, in search of the same or similar objects, and recognising on the whole the same moral standard, is very much like the process which moulded all the nations round the Mediterranean into a single great body, of which Rome was the heart.
Of course the independence of the different European nations at once establishes a vital distinction between modern Europe and the Roman Empire; but the obvious tendency of events is to diminish that difference, except in so far as it relates to the internal character of each separate nation.
The cant of the Peace Society, and of the sentimental writers who advocated its views, has fallen out of fashion, and this is one reason for insisting on the fact that there is every reason to believe that European wars will become rarer and rarer, and may at no very distant period be unknown. There are some outstanding quarrels to be fought out, and it would be rash indeed to guess how long the process may take, but Europe is evidently tending to a state of stable equilibrium. Indeed, its disturbances are composed with more ease, and excited with more difficulty, than was formerly the case; and during our long intervals of repose, the degree of intercourse between country and country is infinitely greater than it ever was in old times.
Suppose, for the sake of argument, that this state of things became permanent—that the great leading nations fixed upon forms of government suited to their wants and wishes, and that there was an unlimited degree of intercourse for all purposes between them— we should have come back to something very like the Roman Empire, that great historical tableland, on to which mankind by degrees emerged, after climbing up rough mountain sides in fifty different places.
No doubt the differences between our own state and theirs are both striking and profound. In the first place, Christianity was then struggling into existence. It has now been acting on the world for eighteen hundred years. We have infinitely more freedom and infinitely more knowledge than they, and thus there is every reason to suppose that the general standard of happiness in our times would, in any event, be far higher than it ever was under the Roman Empire; but it is not the less true that there is much general resemblance between the form into which our prospects appear to be falling, and that into which the prospects of, what was then the civilised world, actually did fall when the Empire was established.
To reach a stationary condition is the vision always before the eyes of philosophers in our days. For several centuries during the early part of the Roman Empire, considerable parts of Europe actually enjoyed a stationary condition. Nothing is more remarkable in Gibbon than the way in which large countries altogether fall out of history for great lengths of time. What, for instance, happened in Spain between the Christian era and the invasion of the Vandals in the early part of the fifth century? For the whole of these four hundred years we know nothing or next to nothing about it, and nearly the same may be said of such of the other provinces of the Empire as were protected by their situation from the misfortunes which afflicted the frontiers.
If we consider for a moment what a space of time four centuries is—if we remember that it includes in our own history the whole interval between Henry VI. and this 26th year of the reign of Queen Victoria, that it includes the whole of the periods of the Tudors, the Stuarts, the House of Brunswick and our own century—that it has seen the population of England increased at least five or six fold, and its riches increased perhaps five hundred fold—we get some sort of measure of the strange immobility which appears to have brooded over large portions of the civilised world during that portion of their history.
With unbroken peace, light taxation, and great internal resources, it would seem that population and wealth at all events must have increased in Spain during those four hundred years. Did they increase? If so, why did the fact leave so few traces behind it? If not, why not?
Somewhat similar questions suggest themselves as to our own country. It is clear enough that, whilst Britain was a Roman province, it was both populous and rich. It contained towns and roads. It had considerable commerce, yet we know literally nothing about its history. We do not even know that it had a history. Are we to suppose that during this long period human life underwent a sort of stagnation; and if it did, ought we to look forward to a similar result in our own time from the same tendency to a general state of equilibrium?
The moral and intellectual movement of the period in question took a direction by no means unlike that which some of our inquiries are taking in the present day. The great thing done by mankind during the long repose which the Roman Empire secured to them in certain respects, was the reduction of the Christian religion to the form into which it had to be thrown in order to take the command of the new world which was about to be born.
Though no man had less sympathy than Gibbon for religion in any shape, it forms, after all, the great feature in his book—a feature all the more impressive because the author himself disliked it so much. Nothing can be more instructive than his speculations on the reasons why Christianity prevailed, or than his portraits—quietly spiteful as a rule, yet never shown to be founded on absolute perversions of fact—of the men who were the leaders in the development of Christian doctrine and the establishment of the Christian Church. His very dislike of the men, his obvious preference for the comparatively few persons distinguished in secular careers who sometimes appear upon the dreary stage, makes the true nature of the case more apparent.
To say, as some of Gibbon's opponents in the last century used to say, that nothing could account for the success of Christianity except the theory that the early Christians had all gone through the process of being converted by arguments like Paley's Evidences, is absurd. The truth obviously is, that the whole current of events had brought prominently before men's minds, and pressed on their attention, those great problems of which Christianity offers a solution. It was almost the only subject—-except, indeed, the practical art of government as embodied in law—in which they were disposed to take an interest under the circumstances in which they were placed.
The result of the wars and conquests by which the Empire was formed had been to bring the whole civilised world into one body politic, under a form of government which left little room for patriotism, and made apparently no demands on the affections of its subjects. The different provinces were closely connected by trade; no one of them had any such current history, so to speak, as to enlist the affections of the population; and the course of life, as it was regulated by the institutions of Rome, would seem to have been harsh and dry.
To people so situated, and filled with the eager passions which have always distinguished Europeans from Asiatics, the moral attractions of Christianity must have been irresistible. Except to that small minority which exists in all countries, and which has a pedantic love for existing laws and established institutions, Christianity was the only object which could win affection. The double attraction of an austere moral code and of a limited but powerful philanthropy was quite enough to win over all the more powerful and ardent minds, whilst it could impose its own terms on the lukewarm majority.
In order to understand the force of the appeal which Christianity made to men's feelings and understandings in those days, we must combine with the influences which it exercises at present something of that indignation against a whole world lying in wickedness, which gave so vehement an impulse and so strange a charm to the French Revolution. The imperfections, the occasional baseness, the dishonesty and onesidedness which Gibbon so skilfully and so carefully points out in many of the Fathers of the Church, show that the fascination lay in the doctrine, and not in the men.
Looking at the growth of Christianity from the merely human point of view, it might be described as the result of the efforts of the human race, after attaining to such material elements of prosperity as a vigorous police could supply, to rise to something higher, and to put into form those relations towards each other, and towards their Maker, which mere law can never effectually sanction.
Should we arrive at a solution of our political problems analogous to that which the Romans discovered for those of their day, a set of problems analogous to those of which they sought the solution in Christianity would present themselves to us. Indeed, they are already beginning to present themselves. Many people in these days, especially the more ardent and excitable part of the community, are beginning to ask, with more or less petulance, what is to be done with physical science and political freedom when we have got them? What is to be the use of civilisation? This is neither an empty nor an idle question. It is very like to the questions which were asked by the early Christians, though it is put in a different tone, and it is quite possible that the most interesting facts in the history of the world for centuries to come may be those which bear upon the answers gradually worked out for it.
One singular question is suggested by Gibbon, in connection with this matter, to which it would be highly important to get a satisfactory answer. There can be no doubt that Christianity exercised a most powerful moral influence over the Roman Empire— how came it not to arrest its fall? The monastic and ascetic view of religion goes some way towards answering this question; but all the Christians were not monks, and the mere improvement of morals ought to have had more effect, both on the numbers and on the courage of the people, than it would seem to have had in fact.
The answers given to this question by the great Christian writers, and especially by St. Augustine in the De Civitate Dei, involve an admission that the problem of seeing how the duties of a citizen are involved in those of a Christian, had not then been solved, even if they had occurred to those who should have solved them.
When the Roman Empire fell, Christianity had existed long enough to have done something considerable in this direction. In modern times, temporal prosperity has almost always attended the spread of Christianity, obviously because nothing has so strong a tendency to make people rich as industry and morality. Wesley, for instance, was grievously embarrassed by the prosperity of his congregations, and he could see no way out of the temptation to worldly habits which the growth of riches involved, short of enforcing it as a positive duty to give away in charity all one's superfluities.
Perhaps the most remarkable of the innumerable episodes which render Gibbon's History the richest of books, is his account of the rise and progress of Mahometanism. It is much to be wished that some one equal to the task would describe the subject in an adequate manner, and with a greater degree of collateral knowledge than Gibbon's plan required. Amongst the great events of history it stands next to the introduction of Christianity itself, and of the great religions which have permanently and deeply influenced the human race, it is the only one, except Christianity, of the origin and progress of which it is possible to give an authentic account.
Of the creeds of Brahma and Buddha we can tell very little, and the difference between ourselves and the races which profess those religions is so great that it is probable that, if we had an authentic history of them, we should not be able to enter into the feelings from which they sprang.
With Mahometanism it is otherwise. Its cardinal doctrine is also the cardinal doctrine of Christianity. Why did it burst out like a conflagration at that particular time and place? Why did it spread over vast regions in an incredibly short time? and why did it spread no farther? Why—and this is, perhaps, the most curious question of all—did it ally itself up to a certain point with science and civilisation, and then stop short and become the enemy of both?
All these are most curious questions, and though Gibbon's animated history prompts his readers to ask them, it gives them no satisfaction. One singular point in connection with this matter is, that Genghis Khan, the greatest of all conquerors, was a theist, pure and simple. 'His first and only article of faith was the existence of one God, the Author of all good, who fills by his presence the heavens and the earth which he has created by his power.'
It is curious that the very same creed which, in the case of Mahomet, was the source of endless wars, and the very symbol of conquest, should have been, in the hands of another great conqueror, a reason for universal toleration. Genghis conquered a wider region than Mahomet, but his principle was to interfere with no man's creed. Where did this faith, at once so simple and so refined, come from in these two cases—parallel in so many respects—and why did it produce, or accompany, such opposite results?
Gibbon's History is a mine of such questions. It is a comprehensive view of one great stage in the history of the world, and those who stand at the beginning of another stage, probably still more momentous, must contemplate the prospect which his work opens with endless interest and sympathy.
Saturday Review, May 30, 1863