Was He One of Them?

J.G.A. Pocock

  • Edward Gibbon: The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vols I-VI edited by David Womersley
    Allen Lane, 1114 pp, £75.00, November 1994, ISBN 0 7139 9124 0

David Womersley’s massive and elegant edition of Gibbon is the better timed because it comes a century after the edition scholars have been obliged to use as the nearest to a critical text. It was in 1896 that J.B. Bury brought out the first volume of his edition, which he reissued in 1909 and which until now has been considered standard. We can therefore look back from Womersley to Bury, across a century of upheavals in both historiography and history, and wonder, Neoclassically, what will have become of both text and new edition when the next fin de siècle is on its way out. If there are readers then, and if they are reading Gibbon, they may not be Euro-Americans and may be integrating the Decline and Fall into histories of their own – if, again, they are so fortunate as to possess histories.

It was in 1896 also that Syaji Rao Gaekwar, Maharaja of Baroda, an enlightened prince of British India, published in London ‘a chapter-by-chapter paraphrase and summary of the Decline and Fall’ (omitting chapters on the Persians, the Germans, the monks and the Protestants) under the perceptive and justified title From Caesar to Sultan. Gibbon’s work opens with Marcus Aurelius and closes with Mehmed the Conqueror, and the Maharaja, ruling under British tutelage on the eastern fringes of the Ottoman and Mughul world which had triumphed over Eastern Christianity in 1453, had his own perspective in which to view the translations of empire. It is a necessary consequence of the changes in Gibbon scholarship between 1896 and 1994 that we view him more than ever in a context of European culture; but we need to remember that he looked beyond it.

Bury would not have been shocked to know that Gibbon would outlast him, but it may be a shock to us to realise that, of the two, Bury now seems the more remote figure. A sternly scientific historian, he looked on Gibbon as ‘still our master, above and beyond “date”’, unlike David Hume and William Robertson, who had become classics and were no longer read. Because Gibbon was still a contemporary and an authority, he was not ‘out of date’, and should be consulted and corrected by the historian of late Antiquity, who read him to see where he was right and where wrong. Bury therefore retained Gibbon’s footnotes, but reinforced them with notes of his own – provoking R.G. Collingwood, for whom Gibbon was himself a phenomenon of living history, to remark that this was like playing an Elizabethan madrigal with a saxophone obbligato – and he supplied an Introduction studded with the names of Reifferscheid, Büttner-Wobst, Zachariä von Lingenthal and Gfrörer, giants of German textual scholarship who had brought Gibbon’s critical apparatus up to the heights attained by 1896. That they would have regarded Gibbon as living in a world historically remote from theirs (and which now seems similarly remote from us) did not occur to Bury. He gave his judgment: Gibbon had been right in regarding the millennium separating the Constantine who built the city on the Bosphorus from the Constantine who perished when it fell to the Turks as ‘a retrogression (according to ordinary views of “progress”) for which Christianity was mainly to blame’, and had at the same time ‘expounded one of the chief data with which the philosophy of history has to reckon. How are we to define progress? how recognise retrogression?’ The end of Bury’s world seems long ago; if we ask whether Gibbon was part of it, we receive a mixed answer.

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[*] Everyman, two boxed sets of three vols, 1715 pp. and 1944 pp., £25 each, 15 September 1993 and 13 October 1994, 1 85715 095 3 and 1 85715 192 5.