Who Is Edward Gibbon?
Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) was an 18th Century British historian and the author of "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," one of the few historical works of the modern era to stand comparison with the great classical works of Herodotus, Thucydides and Tacitus -- both as history and as literature.
At a million and a half words, Gibbon's masterpiece is not only one of the greatest works of history ever written, but one of the longest. As with Tolstoy's "War and Peace" and Proust's "A la recherche du temps perdu," its very length is daunting to many readers.
The comparison with Proust is particularly appropriate, since both Gibbon and Proust made the same (arguable) mistake. Roughly midway through the writing of their respective books, they decided to reconceive their scale. This ended up making their books more than twice as long as they would have been if they'd followed their original conceptions. Without a doubt, this has had the effect of cutting their potential readership in at least half. A lot of people who would read a book of half a million words will balk at attempting a book of a million and a half.
Why Should I Spend God Knows How Many Hours of My Life Reading a Million and a Half Words About the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire?
The fall of the Roman Empire, from its height under Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian and the Antonines, to the final destruction of the Eastern Empire with the conquest of Constantinople in the 15th Century is, as Gibbon puts it, "a revolution which will ever be remembered, and is still felt by the nations of the earth." In other words, it is one of the most important stories in human history.
Its immense length and ornate prose style have caused many people to write off Gibbon, or at the very least damn him with faint praise. They're wrong, of course, but that's simply my opinion. In an age of soundbites and sampling, few people seem to have either the time or the patience to spend a considerable chunk of time reading any book, much less a lengthy, multi-volume book on the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
Nevertheless, if you're interested or ambitious enough to try reading Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Joyce or Proust (in other words, if you're one of the tiny minority of people who still read literature, instead of crap), I would suggest that you take a stab at reading what Hugh Trevor-Roper once called "the greatest historical work in our language."
You have to admit, though, that a writer who has had admirers as disparate as Lord Byron, Virginia Woolf and Keith Richards has to have something going for him.
Gibbon's Prose Style
The most immediately noticeable thing about Gibbon is his famous prose style, and perhaps the best thing you can do at this point is scroll down to one of the links below that have extended excerpts from "Decline and Fall" to get an idea of how Gibbon writes. It's an ornate, elaborate style, that came with extreme effort. Gibbon wrote the first chapter of "Decline and Fall" three times over until he was convinced that he'd gotten the tone just right. He did -- the opening paragraph of the book is one of the most famous passages in all of English Literature:
"In the second century of the Christian Aera, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valor. The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury. The image of a free constitution was preserved with decent reverence: the Roman senate appeared to possess the sovereign authority, and devolved on the emperors all the executive powers of government. During a happy period of more than fourscore years, the public administration was conducted by the virtue and abilities of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the two Antonines. It is the design of this, and of the two succeeding chapters, to describe the prosperous condition of their empire; and afterwards, from the death of Marcus Antoninus, to deduce the most important circumstances of its decline and fall; a revolution which will ever be remembered, and is still felt by the nations of the earth."
Gibbon's style has been endlessly discussed -- and many eminent authors have famously disagreed about it.
The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge once declared that "Gibbon's style is detestable; but it is not the worst thing about him."
"Decline and Fall," however, was one of Lord Byron's favorite books, causing him to make a pilgrimage to Lausanne to see the house in which Gibbon finished it.
And while Ruskin once claimed that "Gibbon's is the worst English that was ever written by an educated Englishman," one of the things William Butler Yeats did with his Nobel Prize money was buy "a good edition" of "The History of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire."
One of the more heartfelt encomiums to Gibbon was written by a man whose own prose style owes a lot to his influence.
Winston Churchill first read "Decline and Fall" as a 22-year-old subaltern in the British army stationed in India: "I set out upon the eight volumes of Dean Milman's edition. ... All through the long glistening middle hours of the Indian day... I devoured Gibbon. I rode triumphantly through it from end to end and enjoyed it all.... I was not even estranged by his naughty footnotes."
Naughty Footnotes? What Naughty Footnotes?
"The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" contains 7,920 footnotes (at least in the one edition I checked), or an average of 111.5 for every chapter of the book. They constitute one quarter of the entire text. Any edition that does not contain all of Gibbon's footnotes is an abridgment, because Gibbon is notorious for smuggling the smuttier or more heretical passages into his book by the back door of the footnote.
If you want to know, to give just one example, the exact nature of "the naked scenes which [the Empress] Theodora was not ashamed to exhibit in the theatre," you have to turn to the footnote, where, quoting "The Secret History" (which Gibbon prints "veiled in the obscurity of a learned language" -- in other words, he leaves it in the original Alexandrian Greek), he gives Procopius' lubricious description of what Theodora actually did as the Byzantine equivalent of a porn star. (Scroll down to the bottom of the page for an English translation of this passage.)
Gibbon then reverts back to English to mention that "I have heard that a learned prelate, now deceased, was fond of quoting this passage in conversation." That last swipe is vintage Gibbon. And it's the kind of thing he'd only print in a footnote -- which is why you need an edition that contains them.
Gibbon and Religion
Gibbon in his youth had converted to Catholicism, but it didn't take. By the time he wrote his masterpiece, he had become more or less a born-again Pagan, and was notoriously skeptical about Christianity.
At the time during which Gibbon wrote, however, to deny the truth of the Christian religion was a crime. Therefore, any skeptical or heretical opinions he might have about Christianity would have to be implied, rather than directly stated. But Gibbon knew his Church history -- to such an extent that even such an authority as Cardinal Newman would claim that "It is melancholy to say it, but the chief, perhaps the only English writer who has any claim to be considered an ecclesiastical historian, is the unbeliever Gibbon."
If you can look past Gibbon's irony, you can learn quite a bit about the early Church by reading "Decline and Fall." But for almost a century, Gibbon's apostasy (or what some people believed to be such) was all that some people could see in "Decline and Fall."
To find a good example of this, read Rev. Milman's introduction to his 19th Century edition of Gibbon (it was the edition of choice before Bury's edition supplanted it):
Gibbon: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
As Gibbon's most recent biographer puts it, "Throughout the [nineteenth], and indeed well into the twentieth century, Gibbon was attacked or defended or praised for his religious positions.... Negative qualities -- innate coldness of heart, malicious hatred of Christianity, failure of historical imagination -- were assumed to account for his not portraying the beauty of Christianity or understanding the Christians' perspective on their experience. But in the course of the century, most readers came to realize that the "Decline and Fall" was not just an attack on the Christian Church."
Of course, saying that "Decline and Fall" is not just an attack on the Christian Church is not the same thing as denying that it is, at least in part, an attack on the Christian Church. Gibbon ends his work by stating that, in recounting the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, he has described the triumph of "barbarism and religion," as if the two were somehow synonymous.
And they're not -- are they?
Nevertheless, it is arguably true that the less you think of the Christian religion, the more you'll appreciate Gibbon (this is, I believe, why Byron liked him and Coleridge didn't). It may just be conceivable for a devout Christian to be a fan of "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," but I would consider it unlikely.
Decide for yourself. These links are to the notorious 15th and 16th Chapters of Gibbon, where he discusses the rise of Christianity:
The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire: Chapter 15
The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire: Chapter 16
I hope that the above has intrigued you to the point where you're at least considering taking a whack at reading "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." If so, you're in luck, because there are more versions of Gibbon's work available now than ever before.
The most up-to-date and scholarly edition available at the moment (and probably for a long time to come) is the three-volume set edited by David Womersley and published by Penguin. If you're reading Gibbon for either an undergraduate or a graduate program, this is the edition to get. It is the only complete edition of Gibbon in paperback (previously, due to its inordinate length, paperback editions of "Decline and Fall" were one-volume abridgments). It contains all of Gibbon's footnotes, and is the only edition to contain (in an Appendix) his famous and devastating "Vindication," written to defend his treatment of Christianity in Chapters 15 and 16 of his book against attacks made on it by the more unenlightened critics of the day. It costs $75 for all three paperback volumes (the hardcover edition is not currently available).
Penguin also has a one-volume abridged edition of Gibbon still in print. I'm not a big fan of abridgments (although Gibbon himself didn't mind them), but if you're not sure about taking the plunge and going for a complete edition, you might want to test the Gibbonian waters with the one-volume paperback.
The most reader-friendly edition of Gibbon is the six-volume edition (in two slipcases) published by Everyman's Library. It reprints the famous J.B. Bury edition (the edition of choice before Womersley), has a large, readable typeface, and is conveniently packaged. It also has a decent bibliography and a longish introduction by Hugh Trevor-Roper. If I were recommending one edition of Gibbon to someone who wanted to read it for pleasure, it would be this one. The six volumes will cost you $90.
The Modern Library has put out a three-volume reprint of a famous edition of Gibbon containing the Bury text with illustrations by Piranesi. The three volumes are somewhat oversized and cumbersome, and the margins are so narrow towards the binding that it can be a little difficult to read. It costs roughly $70 for all three volumes.
The older Modern Library edition (in three volumes, smaller physically than the current version and without the Piranesi prints) is readily obtainable in second-hand bookstores. It is also the most unattractive edition of Gibbon I have ever seen -- avoid it at all costs.
The AMS Press has published a seven-volume reprint, quarter-bound in leather, of the famous 1909 J.B. Bury edition of "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." I have to admit to feeling a little nostalgic for this edition, because it was the first edition of Gibbon I ever owned. Each of the seven volumes is manageable to carry around, and the text is large and clear. It has all of Gibbon's footnotes. It is also, however, very expensive -- too expensive for most readers.
The Easton Press and The Folio Society
For the well-heeled reader, both The Easton Press and The Folio Society have published editions of Gibbon that they offer to their subscribers. The Folio Society edition is in eight volumes in two slipcases (bound in elephanthide, no less). The Easton Press edition is in six leather volumes. Both editions are gorgeous to look at, are wildly expensive (each set costs more than $300), and both omit almost all of the footnotes, which puts them out of the running for any serious reader of Gibbon.
Possibly the cheapest edition of "Decline and Fall," if you can find it second hand, is the two-volume edition published by the Encyclopedia Brittanica as Volumes 37 and 38 of their set of The Great Books of the Western World. At 1,269 double-columned pages of text, it's the most compact Gibbon available (a little too compact if you ask me). Also, Gibbon's footnotes are reprinted, not at the bottom of the page, but as endnotes (that is, stuck at the back of the volume), which is an awkward way to print them. For the price, however (I picked up both volumes second hand for less than $17), it's a great way to have all of Gibbon in a way that doesn't take up a lot of space on your bookshelves.
By The Way -- Did Gibbon Really Have A Testicle The Size Of A Watermelon?
Believe it or not, yes. Gibbon was a short, fat man who had, as Lytton Strachey once delicately put it, "a protuberance in the lower part of his person, which... had grown to extraordinary proportions..."
Actually, Gibbon had what is known as a hydrocele, which The Merck Manual describes as "a common intrinsic scrotal mass," which "results from excessive accumulations of sterile fluid within the tunica vaginalis due to overproduction (lymphatic or venous obstruction in the cord or retroperitoneal space)."
To put it in layman's terms, his scrotum filled with fluid until it was the size of a watermelon. When he finally had it dealt with surgically, he died not long after. It is quite possible that inadequate antisepsis, and not the hydrocele, is what killed him.
Here is a good overview of Gibbon's life and times:
Gibbon - Historian - Part I
Here is a page specifically concerned with "Decline and Fall":
Gibbon - Historian - Part 2
These people keep chugging along in their quest to get all of Gibbon online (at last count they had put up the first 35 chapters of "Decline and Fall"):
The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire
This page has an extended quote from Gibbon's Chapter 38:
Medieval Sourcebook: Gibbon
This page has a section on Gibbon:
The Vision of Human Progress
Here are two pages consisting of excerpts from "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire":
Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Gibbon's DECLINE AND FALL - Selected Passages
Here's how to get back home:
Tom Moran (Feuillade) Website
This page is very much a work-in-progress.
So What the Hell Did This Theodora Chick Do, Anyway?
Theodora "would spread herself out [nude except for a narrow girdle] and lie face upwards on the floor. Servants on whom this task had been imposed would sprinkle barley grains over her private parts, and geese trained for the purpose used to pick them off one by one with their bills and swallow them."
Aren't you glad you know that?
Let me know what you think about my page. Send mail by clicking here.