Lady Summerisle (strange_complex) wrote,
Lady Summerisle

2. Edward Gibbon (1776), The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, volume I

Though obviously of relevance to my subject, I view this as part of my leisure reading. In August, nwhyte established reading_gibbon, an LJ community based around reading weekly chapters from Gibbon's magnum opus, and discussing them in a reaction post. I decided that this was a golden opportunity to get better acquainted with one of the seminal works of Ancient History as we know it today, so have been reading and commenting along as we've read. We intend to read all six volumes in due course (so there's still plenty of time to join us if you'd like!), but given that each volume was originally published sequentially as an independent instalment, I think it is reasonable enough to treat volume I as a 'book' and write up an overview reaction here.

My previous exposure to Gibbon has included a short selection of extracts (mainly from chapters 1-3) released as part of Penguin's 60s Classics series in 1995, and occasional choice extracts quoted by more modern scholars. A typical example of the latter tends to run thus:
"Famously, Edward Gibbon, inspired by the secularist thinking of the Enlightenment, blamed Rome's fall in part on the fourth-century triumph of Christianity and the spread of monasticism: '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'." (Bryan Ward-Perkins (2005), The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization, p. 40).
This had given me a rather warped idea of the nature of Gibbon's work, though. In a context like that, the quoted extract is bound to be one in which Gibbon is articulating an argument, but when I began reading him properly I was surprised to find that (in volume I at least) the ratio of argument to narrative in his prose is much lower than I was expecting.

This shouldn't really have been a surprise, though, if I'd thought about the state of Classical scholarship at the time when Gibbon was writing. A generation before him, people still didn't really see any point in trying to write narrative histories of the ancient world. They thought that, since ancient writers like Thucydides and Tacitus had already done that, then all you needed to do if you wanted to know what had happened was to read them. Instead, most publications about the ancient world tended to be uncritical compilations of what the ancient sources had to say on particular themed subjects, like Basil Kennett's The lives and characters of the ancient Grecian poets (1735), or (illustrated) encyclopedias like Bernard de Montfaucon's L'Antiquité expliquée, et représentée en figures (1719-24). This was antiquarianism, and its adherents were concerned to catalogue and admire the ancient world, but it had not yet occurred to them to criticise or analyse it.

Gibbon represents the emergence of a quite different approach. He is one of the first narrative historians, and as such takes a more critical view of his sources than his predecessors in an attempt to achieve a more or less comprehensive and reliable account of ancient actions and events. So of course his text needs to contain a great deal of narrative before he can get on to making any arguments, because nobody before him had really tried to write a continuous account of the period he was dealing with. He is doing that for the first time, and setting out to analyse the factors which gave rise to the behaviour and events which he is describing. It is a truly monumental achievement, especially when viewed in the context of the time when it was produced.

He is almost deceptively modern in his approach, in fact. Sometimes I found myself criticising him in our weekly discussion posts for taking sources at face value - but of course that is exactly what most of his contemporaries were doing, and I'm always quite happy to make due allowance for them because of the scholarly context in which they were writing. It is just that Gibbon is for the most part so far ahead of his contemporaries that I sometimes forget when he was writing, and expect him to meet standards which plenty of Classical scholars were still not meeting in the earlier half of the twentieth century. Some sources were not as easily available to him as they are to us now - there were no systematic catalogues of coins or inscriptions, for example. But considering the tools at his disposal, he was actually doing an amazing job. He tried to draw on coins and inscriptions when he could, and overall his use of literary texts is actually pretty thoughtful and perceptive.

Of course there are things which reflect the climate of his time, though. Like most white men of his day, Gibbon was both racist and sexist, in ways which also map very closely onto the attitudes he was encountering in his sources. He also clearly believes that it is possible to know exactly what happened in the past, as long as the sources are read carefully enough, since his prose lacks the phrases such as 'probably', 'may have', 'this suggests', etc. which modern historians use to signal the fact that they are merely offering a plausible interpretation, rather than a definitive and irrefutable account of events. But that too was a practice which was only seriously challenged in the 20th century, so it is no great surprise to find him subscribing to it.

Meanwhile, his overall prose style is, to me, the biggest reason for reading his work. He uses more commas than most modern readers will be used to, and some editions of his work (though not all) preserve antiquated spellings. But once you've got the hang of all that, his prose is rich, stylish and extremely readable. In particular, he has a brilliant line in very precise and biting sarcasm, as well as a rather amusing tendency to use his footnotes as a vehicle for snarks at contemporary fellow-scholars. Plenty of examples of both have been nicely picked out by nwhyte in the reading_gibbon community, so I will leave interested readers to browse through them there.

I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have made it through the entirety of this first volume without the weekly posts to keep me supplied with targets to aim for as I went along, so I'm very grateful to nwhyte for putting that system in place. Whether I'll make it through the entire six volumes, I don't know - I fear I may lose interest after the fall of the western empire. But I'm definitely staying on board for the time being.

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Tags: books, books read 2010, late antiquity, reviews, roman history

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