A Reader’s Decline and Fall

Years ago, in the innocent haze of late youth, I lay in bed on a perfect, sun-lit spring afternoon, and drifted pleasantly to sleep as I read The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. You may be surprised that this is by way of a recommendation of the book, and not chiefly for its soporific qualities. Our memories are hardly continuous or sequenced narratives. Rather, they are dotted constellations of individual events, and this event stands forth as one of my most charming and pleasant recollections. As I fell asleep, setting aside that narrative of imperial corruption, I thought “this is life.”

Of all Dickens’ novels, my favorite apart from The Pickwick Papers (but is it even a novel?) is Our Mutual Friend. This aesthetic preference can no doubt be reduced to my fondness for the scenes in which Silas Wegg reads The Decline and Fall to Mr. Boffin:

Mr Boffin seemed a little unprepared for this conclusion, but assented, with the remark, ‘You know better what it ought to be than I do, Wegg,’ and again shook hands with him upon it.

‘Could you begin to night, Wegg?’ he then demanded.

‘Yes, sir,’ said Mr Wegg, careful to leave all the eagerness to him. ‘I see no difficulty if you wish it. You are provided with the needful implement—a book, sir?’

‘Bought him at a sale,’ said Mr Boffin. ‘Eight wollumes. Red and gold. Purple ribbon in every wollume, to keep the place where you leave off. Do you know him?’

‘The book’s name, sir?’ inquired Silas.

‘I thought you might have know’d him without it,’ said Mr Boffin slightly disappointed. ‘His name is Decline-And-Fall-Off-The-Rooshan-Empire.’ (Mr Boffin went over these stones slowly and with much caution.)

‘Ay indeed!’ said Mr Wegg, nodding his head with an air of friendly recognition.

‘You know him, Wegg?’

‘I haven’t been not to say right slap through him, very lately,’ Mr Wegg made answer, ‘having been otherways employed, Mr Boffin. But know him? Old familiar declining and falling off the Rooshan? Rather, sir! Ever since I was not so high as your stick. Ever since my eldest brother left our cottage to enlist into the army.’

Wegg and Boffin were familiar to me long before Gibbon was, and so I cannot help but wonder whether my general sense that this was an important book was set by casual reading as a teen.

My first experience of the book was an abridged Penguin Classics version which I held in my hands in the scene above. I saw a full (closely packed) set of the work for sale and purchased it in 2011, and made a few attempts at reading it through, but rarely found the time or hardihood to do it. Four summers ago, I cracked it open and gave it a fair amount of attention, but it was something of a struggle in my then-distracted state to get through all of it, but I at least finished. Last year, I found a deluxe version, edited by J.B. Bury with supplemental notes, maps, and indices (in seven volumes!) for only $50. A few weeks ago, I set out to read it, and – yes, dear reader – I gave it the heroic forced-march treatment, reading through all ~3,400 pages of it over the past three weeks. I don’t know why I decided to read through the book again, but it exercises over me something like the fascination of the ancient mariner’s eye, and I always find myself mysteriously drawn back to it.

The Decline and Fall is not fashionable today, and perhaps for good reason. Anyone who has read the book with a knowing eye can tell you that it is problematic in various ways. The treatment of various periods and figures is wildly uneven. Julian’s rise to power and brief tenure on the throne occupies a good chunk of a volume, while most of the Byzantine emperors after Heraclius are given the hyper epitome treatment in one chapter which does little more than provide the basic vice/virtue character sketch and the circumstances of their death. In some instances, the reasons for the imbalance are likely due to personal inclination (Gibbon’s fondness for Julian), but in others, it may simply reflect the availability of materials.

Gibbon’s style is also very much out of fashion. Clive James, though an omnivorous reader, nevertheless confessed that he could never read much of Gibbon because it was all style and too ‘rococo’. Indeed, it is interesting that Gibbon himself regularly inveighs against the rhetorical-sophistic prose of various ancient authors whom he himself suspects of being all style. But criticisms of Gibbon’s prose date back as far as Porson, who suggested that there was no better exercise for the young student than to turn a page of The Decline and Fall into English.

Yet, for all of that, I am an utterly unapologetic fan of Gibbon’s prose. Some of its quirks stem, I suspect, from the infusion of Gallic idiom dating to his years writing and thinking in French. His reckless abandon in the use of commas is pretty characteristic of 18th century English prose, and once can profitably compare Gibbon’s deployment of that workhorse of punctuation to Jane Austen’s. Perhaps the most admirable synthesis achieved by Gibbon is the admirable mixture of two classical modes: the sonorous periods of Cicero, and the pointed antitheses of Tacitus. Gibbon is not nearly as diffuse as Cicero, but his periods always manage to be perfectly balanced, and he cannot resist the temptation of a well-regulated tricolon. He hasn’t the clipped and telegraphic brevity of Tacitus, but he managed to imbibe that author’s utter cynicism, and he regularly employs that hallmark of Tacitean style, imputing in an entirely non-committal way the darkest designs and most sinister motives to almost every action.

For all of the care and attention which he has given his subject, he cannot but approach it with a sense of contempt and disgust. As he himself writes, “History is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind.” Yet he also indulges in a dangerous inclination to see a more distant past as a kind of idyllic utopia of good character and good government. Famously, he assigns the happiest period of the entire history of the world to the period under the adoptive and Antonine emperors. Throughout the history, later Italians and Greeks are conceived as semi-barbaric and wholly unworthy successors to their “manly” and “virtuous” ancestors.

The standard trope seems to be: perfection on a grand scale was achieved in the past through virtue, but it insensibly (Gibbonian style!) gave way to vice, and the declining state of the world reflected that; there is an inevitability to the collapse, but the decline can be slowed by virtuous (or effective) individuals. This explains why, for example, the western empire fell much sooner than the eastern: the west was overrun by barbarians, but the east was propped up by the heroics of Justinian and Belisarius, whose exploits helped the system to coast for a while longer. When scrutinized, this view is simplistic, but it does at any rate make for a fun and engaging narrative.

Gibbon’s original intent in writing The Decline and Fall was much more narrowly circumscribed by the limits of the city Rome itself, but it quickly expanded outward to include more or less everything with some bearing on any of the lands once controlled by the Romans. But Gibbon is only as good as his guides. For example, his narrative of the period between Commodus and Constantine is pretty faithful to the Historia Augusta, going so far as to incorporate the moral censures included in that work. (Of course, Gibbon did not know that it was an elaborate forgery.) Yet, once he reaches the end of the reign of Justinian, Gibbon goes off the rails a bit. His panoptic survey takes in a lot of eastern history, but for all of this, he relies on an admixture of Byzantine authors and later treatments by European scholars (since he did not know Arabic, Farsi, etc. himself). The separation from primary sources for the latter half of the work, combined with Gibbon’s manifest contempt for the Byzantine intellectual in general, result in a narrative that can be tedious, confusing, and in many instances requiring substantial correction. Added to this is the casual racism and contemptuous xenophobia of the 18th century Englishman. One can readily see why almost no one reads the work in full, and why abridgements generally summarize most of what happened following the reign of Justinian.

Yet, for all of the problems which the work manifests, it is nevertheless an incredible monument to heroic reading. In his Memoirs, Gibbon downplays the time which he spent reading and working in earnest in any given day, but surely this is just the awkward affectation of an English gentleman’s sprezzatura. A survey of Gibbon’s footnotes is enough to assure us that he was always reading. Everywhere we hear that one can read more about such and such a topic in x number of thick folio volumes or dense octavos. A.E. Housman once remarked that being a scholar involved countless hours reading what was not really worth reading, and this seems to have been the case with Gibbon. As noted before, he has more or less just synthesized what he read in various ancient and secondary sources. (Though it’s true that this is more or less what writing history is.)

We should not be surprised if we find the book riddled with faults, given that it spans a tremendous temporal and geographical expanse and was one of the first real attempts at a scholarly but engaging narrative history in English. That is, it may fall short by today’s standards of scholarship, but as a work of popular history, it still holds up pretty well. Gibbon was allowed the leisure to read and write so much because he was, though not rich, at least a gentleman of sufficient means, but one must bear in mind that he was also in modern parlance a college dropout. Having left Oxford during his brief conversion to Catholicism, he never returned to take his degree. Yet he certainly read more widely than many of the formally-trained scholars of his time and ours.

In sum, I know that Gibbon is problematic, and likely to become more and more unfashionable with time, but I find something entirely irresistible in his work. Perhaps the most shocking confession I could make to my friends and peers is that Gibbon’s collected works would be my “desert island book.” (Does that make it my favorite? I don’t even know.) Unlike most fanboys, I am not willfully ignorant of its faults, and I can definitely see why people hate The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. But goddammit, I love it.

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The only way to read a book like this.

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