Glamourous Rags

The History Of The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire
by Edward Gibbon

Edited by David Womersley, Published by Allen Lane, £75

The rock-hard certainty of the reasonable person makes the conviction of the fanatic look like a bubble's wall; what makes Edward Gibbon at once so fascinating, and so difficult, to read in the late Twentieth Century is the fact that he provides a text which is entirely closed, though hardly airless. Any subtext is there because he carpentered it in, and most ambiguities are only apparent. He is rarely read in full, not because of his length, but because of a tough- mindedness that is all the more chilling for being clothed in urbane wit; we are no longer comfortable with a dead white male so entirely sure of himself.

Gibbon takes it for granted that to think reasonably is to think morally, that outcomes will be commensurate to the actions that bring them about, if full attention is paid. This is a Newtonian, or more precisely a Laplacian, view of history; a general sacks a city and the consequences for a thousand years can be traced without a doubt. We can gloat, if we choose, over fantasies of introducing Edward Gibbon to a post-modern universe of quantum physics and non-directive epistemologies, but only if we are prepared to make part of that fantasy the job of convincing him that we are right and he is wrong.

His belief in narrative history as a scientific pursuit makes it further possible for him to assume that the history of dynasties and wars leads inevitably to a quantifiable ethical history. To think reasonably is to think morally, and the reason why people in the past behaved so badly is because they were not as well-versed as our fortunate selves. Gibbon stalks the corridors of history slapping wrists and giving gold stars, nor is it especially easy, from our standpoint of virtuously maintained uncertainty to dispute the authority by which he does it; Gibbon's is not one of those moral poses at which it is easy to blow raspberries.

That authority largely comes from his passionate desire to derive both lessons and consolations from history; he is a freeborn Englishman and, secure in that fact, wishes to ensure everyone else has the liberties and the duties of a citizen. The lessons he teaches are about civic responsibility first and foremost - Christians and barbarians broke the empire because they were not good citizens, putting their souls or ambitions ahead of public concerns. His impatience with a range of offenders from Tertullian to Heliogabalus rests in their failure to fill their historical roles with a commitment to high seriousness; he is as hard on the bitchily condemnatory theologian as he is on the effete debauchee - no more and no less.

Mohammed, meanwhile, is something of a different matter, and one of the few points at which Gibbon is genuinely ambivalent. His Mohammed is at times almost the first Protestant, impatient with Christian theologies that confused rhetoric with logic and disturbed the public peace with mass murder over abstrusely worded doctrinal points; having one god without further refinements of multiple persons emanating or proceeding from each other at least stops people arguing. Inasmuch as Mohammed's work eventually knocked the awful Byzantines on the head, Gibbon has a soft spot for him, but no gentleman would go around being a prophet.

There is an interestingly fair-minded attempt to account psychologically for the phenomenon of divine inspiration; Gibbon is inclined to acquit of fraud and allow the founders of religions to plea-bargain wishful-thinking with good intentions in mitigation. Here, as elsewhere, Gibbon pays to the state religion the public allegiance the early Christians refused; early critics were as certain as we are, though less pleased, that this allegiance is largely token. His evasions are not frivolous, though, because what he wishes to avoid is not merely personal consequences but the disruption of the public peace.

It is possible, reading Gibbon, as most of us do, for the jokes to miss the fact that his irony and sarcasm is admonitory rather than frivolous; the mighty dead are brought in front of the class and made to look very small - how better to instruct the rest of us? This particularly applies to the Fathers of the Church, the Patriarchs and the Popes who wander around the narrative conspicuously failing to set a good example; Gibbon knows that making us laugh at hypocrites is a good way to keep us honest.

David Womersley's new edition provides a sensible, if limited, introduction, a clean text and an elegant binding. It was not perhaps sensible of him to assume what Gibbon could, that citations and footnotes in Latin and Greek are accessible to most of his likely readers. It might also have been sensible to subject Gibbon to a little bit of historiographical cross- questioning. Byzantinists dislike Gibbon merely because he spends so much time pointing out that their chosen subjects spent too much of their time blinding each other, and rioting over horse races and Creeds, but there are serious objections to his failure to, for example, understand fully the economic consequences of major plagues.

Why are we reading Gibbon two hundred years later? The combination of jokes and high moral purpose is part of the explanation, but few historians survive so many shifts of intellectual paradigm. This is the greatest of narrative histories in English simply because he manages to combine so many things into a single huge story and vast cast - Nero and Zenobia and Justinian and Theodora and Odin and Saladin and Genghis Khan, together as never before.

The stately march of balanced sentences one expects from a gentleman amateur of his time; the moralizing rebukes are softened by an elegiac cadence or pushed to a climax that can only leave silence behind it. What is less predictable was that he should have spoken so often to our local taste as well - the first chapter of Book Five in which half an aeon of Byzantine dynastic skulduggery is fast-forwarded in a sordid montage of parricides and lynchings combines his usual sententiousness with an amoral glee we know only too well. Gibbon would not have liked to think so, but at such times he is, alas, our contemporary.

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