Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Edward Gibbon. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (New York: Modern Library,
circa 1940s [1787]) 3 Volumes

Reviewed by T. Hatch

In this epic metanarrative Gibbon caustically laments that virtue and veracity are not destined to triumph over the lethal combination of “pious fraud and credulity.” Instilling the proper enthusiasm for eloquence, arms, and a reverence for the civil law is, at best, a fleeting endeavor. The love of public virtue (we might call it patriotism these days) is easily subverted. Externally, subversion is perpetrated by those ubiquitous barbarians who lack the perspicacity to appreciate urban living, the arts, and a philosophical outlook on life that is rooted in rational intellectual inquiry. Internally, the “credulous multitude” is subject to myriad diversions and are especially susceptible to spectacle and various forms of ocular amusement. Clearly, engaging in licentious and dissolute mirth-making is no way to run an empire!

As a pragmatic and philosophical atheist Gibbon's abuse of Christianity is a salient feature of this magisterial narrative. It was the Christian's “inflexible obstinacy” and what he saw as their contempt towards mankind (“odio humani generis convicti”) that rankled Gibbon. In its last days the Roman empire was propagating the rule of the Caesars and the Christian gospels; what the Romans had won by the masculine force of arms the Church maintained through a series of effeminate frauds.

The glaring irony of an atheist being on the shortlist of the world's greatest ecclesiastical historians is not lost on this writer. Gibbon's sophistication is evident in his easy contentment and the recompense of the philosopher's smile balanced against the multitude's fanatic veneration of those objects which promised eternal life in paradise. As is evidenced by the early chapters of volume iii, when the Saracen Prophet is extensively abused, Gibbon was an egalitarian when it came to reviling what he saw as superstitious religious practices.

As a master of felicitous locution Gibbon's description of the final siege of Constantinople is magnificent.

The religious merit of subduing the city of the Caesars attracted from
Asia a crowd of volunteers, who aspired to the crown of martyrdom;
their military ardour was inflamed by the promise of rich spoils and
beautiful females; and the sultan's ambition was consecrated by the
presence and prediction of Seid Bechar, a descendant of of the pro-
phet, who arrived in camp, on a mule, with a venerable train of five
hundred disciples.(p.682 vol. iii)

With all due respect to Samuel P. Huntington (who is not fit to sharpen Gibbon's pencils) this is an authentic clash of the civilizations!

Burling has several editions of this work: Burling 1st floor DG311 .G5 1960; Burling 1st floor AC1 .G72; Burling 1st floor DG311 .G5 1960b; and for viewing in our Special Collections DG311 .G42 1787

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