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 Because Gibbon was still a contemporary and an authority, he was not ‘out of date’, and should be consulted and corrected by the historian of late Antiquity, who read him to see where he was right and where wrong.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.

Editions complete or abridged of the Decline and Fall have never ceased to be available to a public larger than the community of scholars; the Everyman edition has just reappeared, with the footnotes added to Gibbon’s by Oliphant Smeaton in 1910 illuminated by an Introduction by Hugh Trevor-Roper (it would be hard to say what musical analogy Collingwood might have found for that).[*] All these editions have presented Gibbon as part of the heritage of English letters, his unbelief and irony modulated into an urbanity acceptable to liberal churchmen (he would have had no objection to this). What Womersley has done is to give us the text with Gibbon’s footnotes, which are themselves a calculated and witty obbligato to the grand themes of the narrative, together with such critical apparatus as is needed to provide the educated reader with a Gibbon unencumbered by Eminent Victorians, and the professional scholar with the Gibbon we now seek to reconstitute in his own history. For the sea-change that has occurred since 1896 means that we do not now read Gibbon in order to understand what happened in late Antiquity (though that enquiry goes on and those pursuing it may well read him and find him illuminating). We read Gibbon in order to understand what happened in the late 18th century. The text Womersley places before us belongs to the literary, intellectual, cultural and political history of Hanoverian Britain and Enlightened Europe; it issued out of both and helped make them what they were. Typographically luxurious, this edition is intellectually austere; it is designed to open up new historical riches.

This sea-change has been going on for decades – perhaps since Giuseppe Giarrizzo’s Edward Gibbon e la cultura europea del settecento (1954) – and literary scholars as well as historians have helped to effect it. Patricia Craddock, Gibbon’s biographer, bibliographer and editor of his essays, and David Womersley both belong to faculties of English literature, but practise a discipline essentially and critically historical. Womersley’s further achievement is to have given us a text which we can manage as a historical artefact because he has respected its division into volumes, as Bury, Smeaton and others did not always trouble to do. Volume I of the Decline and Fall appeared in 1776, Volumes II and III in 1781, Volumes IV, V and VI in 1788; this separation matters in Gibbon’s life, the history he lived in and the structure of his narrative. If Womersley has given us these three volumes in place of six, the caesuras of five years in his first volume and seven in his second are clearly marked; and we have to think about them. He does so in his ninety-page Introduction, itself an important contribution to the literature on Gibbon as the architect of an 18th-century structure in an 18th-century world.

What then was Gibbon, and what was he not? There are images to be set aside, and I want to engage Womersley’s Introduction in a conversation about what may replace them. In the first place, he was not a sentimental Classicist with a nostalgia for the grandeur that was Rome. He looked on Roman Antiquity as foundational for European civilisation, and wished to enquire whether its blend of cultic religion with sceptical tolerance could be reduplicated under late-Christian or post-Christian conditions; but the Antonine world described in his opening chapters is on the brink of self-destruction, and this will repeat the self-destructions of the Augustan principate and the Roman republic before it. The causes of this decay lie in the indissolubility, yet incompatibility, of republic and empire; Womersley’s suggestion in an earlier work that these causes mask Gibbon’s conviction that Christianity was at the root of Antonine decline did not convince me and this idea is not much pressed in this Introduction.

More important, the Antonine world is dead of its own tensions by the end of Chapter Seven, and we move out to consider the barbarian cultures and on to the recovery under the Illyrian military emperors, which leads to the transformation of the monarchy by Diocletian and Constantine. By the end of Volume I, the latter’s alliance with the Christian Church is about to occur, but will not be examined until Volume II, five years later. This gives the close of the 1776 volume an uncomfortably transitory character, but further means that Volumes II through VI, 55 of the Decline and Fall’s 71 chapters, recount the history and long defeat, not of the Antonine but the Constantinean monarchy, from 313 to 1453. Gibbon was not a historian of the Classical world and its decline, but of late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. It is not the case that his Antonine point of departure was the point of reference to which he constantly returned; the system which fails is the system founded by Constantine.

At the end of what had set out as a history of decline and fall, Gibbon observed that it had become a history of ‘the triumph of barbarism and religion’. The two pairs are not incompatible, but it is the second which provides the better key. By associating ‘barbarism and religion’ at a point where his narrative had reached the 15th century, Gibbon indicated that he had been the historian of the Christian millennium, from the institution of the Church as a ruling structure to its disruption by the Reformers. Renaissance humanists had looked on this as the age when Latin had become barbarous, meaning that it had been both Germanised and scholasticised; Protestants had considered it the thousand-year usurpation and reign of the Papal Antichrist; Enlightened philosophes had prolonged it through the Wars of Religion, ending it only when les lumières – the twin lamps of science and commerce – dawned slowly in the late 17th century. Was Gibbon one of them, and is the Decline and Fall a great Enlightened history? Womersley has rightly seen – though I wish to argue with him at some points – that this question may be answered affirmatively, though not without ambiguity.

In devoting five of his six volumes to the era from one Constantine to another, Gibbon made himself the historian of what the Enlightenment saw as the Dark Ages; but by ending his narrative in 1453 (he did not get that far without difficulty), he did not follow his predecessors and peers – Hume and Robertson, Voltaire and Raynal – in carrying history on into the age of Louis XIV and William III, when modernity and enlightenment began and ‘la lumière commençait partout.’ These predecessors all dated ‘modern’ history from the end of the Middle Ages, placed for various reasons at the end of the 15th century; Gibbon stopped at that point, and followed an older convention in defining ‘modern’ as that which was not ‘ancient’, and dating it from the alliance of the Popes with the Frankish monarchy.

That had been the point at which Voltaire and Emilie du Châtelet began the Essai sur les moeurs, intended by Voltaire as a prolegomena (or muqaddimah) to the Siècle de Louis XIV; Gibbon – who shared the Enlightened perspective – presented the Christian millennium, however much he disliked it, as neither a coda to the Classical nor a prelude to the modern. We have to decide how far he presented the late Antique and medieval world as worth studying for its own sake; and what importance to attach to the claim in his Memoirs that his life as a historian began at 14, when he found himself reading about the successors of Constantine and the first Muslim conquerors, both of whom were utterly new to him. After the history of Rome came the history of Europe and Islam; we could not understand either if we did not understand something about both.

Gibbon was never a philosophe in the Encyclopédiste sense. What was going on in Paris interested and attracted him, but he spent little time there. Moreover, his first work – the Essai sur l’ étude de la littérature (an edition of his writings in French is needed) – is a critique of d’ Alembert’s Discours préliminaire à l’encyclopédie. Gibbon criticises d’Alembert for exalting natural and mathematical philosophy above the historical imagination, which while searching for causes takes infinite delight in the tangled ironies of human behaviour. This is less proto-Romantic than it is a survival of baroque Tacitism; but in its insistence that human nature cannot exist outside its historical context, it may prefigure the instant Burkeanism of Gibbon’s response to the French Revolution when he heard of it nearly thirty years later.

For this reason I am not sure I can follow Womersley’s search for a moment at which Gibbon was primarily a philosophic and perhaps a deistic historian, who then moved away from such positions as the Decline and Fall took shape. I suspect that he was a historical ironist from the beginning, and a Humean sceptic, rather than a Bolingbrokean deist, from an early stage in his post-religious formation. His juvenile conversion to Catholicism, and subsequent recovery to be a rather nominal Protestant at the hands of Swiss Arminians at Lausanne, place him in a context of Protestant rather than Parisian Enlightenment: the movement away from Nicene theology through channels either Socinian or pietist, which the philosophes appropriated in their writings but which arose variously among Anglicans, Scottish Moderates, and Swiss, Dutch and Huguenot ex-Calvinists. Gibbon’s erudition, and therefore his historical commitments, remained very largely clerical even after his convictions became those of an unbeliever. This is as close as we have yet come to understanding why the best years of his life were spent in recounting, with irony but in detail, the history of the Christian millennium, which Voltaire could study only to express his horror at it.

Nor was Gibbon a complacent Hanoverian Whig, at ease in a society where religious toleration was protected by the Revolution settlement of 1688. His family was Tory and closet Jacobite, and he anticipated modern revisionists by writing that the country gentry of England did not fully accept the Brunswick dynasty until the accession of George III. He saw himself as part of that ralliement, and recounted how he had moved from the attitudes of the country opposition to support – both as MP and as office-holder – for the ministry of Lord North. Womersley sees this as a move away from Whiggism; I see it as a move from Toryism to the kind of Whiggism which it suited alienated Whigs to stigmatise as Tory. Gibbon quotes Burke to this effect, and it is interesting that he enjoyed the company of Charles Fox while disapproving of his politics. In rallying to the Hanoverian regime – and toying with a history of the House of Brunswick from its medieval beginnings – Gibbon was accepting that aristocratic yet commercial and modern society and European order which we misleadingly call the Ancien Régime. Between the Treaty of Utrecht and the French Revolution eighty years later, the European élites believed that they had recovered from the Wars of Religion and the threat of French universal monarchy by creating a republic – a European community – of independent states strong enough to trade with one another (it was Hume who varned that a regime of fluid capital would rob the states of all socially-derived authority). Gibbon accepted this reading of modern history and its accounts of the progress of society; he made use of Scottish stadial theory in transforming the ancient concept of barbarism and the modern concept of a ‘shepherd’ stage of social development into a history of Central Asian nomadism from the Huns to the Mongols, and joined Voltaire in believing that the age of steppe domination in world history had just ended, at the hands of the Russians and the Manchus. The Decline and Fall has a Eurasian as well as a Euro-Mediterranean dimension; but if it is predicated on the rise of commercial modernity, it does not reach the point of recounting it, as so many Enlightened histories had done.

Gibbon stopped, with relief, at the fall of Constantinople in 1453; the Caesaro-Papal millennium was ending. From this point Voltaire had gone on towards the siècle de Louis XIV; Raynal and his collaborators to the Portuguese appearance in the Red Sea and the European conquest of the planetary ocean. Gibbon, who could have pursued the history of the Ottoman, Habsburg and Romanov Empires in Eastern Europe, returned to the beginnings of his enterprise and wrote three concluding chapters on the city of Rome in the Middle Ages. It was a history of Papal authority in conflict with the Colonna and Orsini, Petrarch and Cola di Renzo; and Gibbon noted with irony that his attitude towards the Papacy was becoming curiously lenient. He preferred Guelf to Ghibelline, an alliance of French monarchy and Italian republics with the temporal power to any Hohenstaufen or Habsburg universal empire (a thesis which Voltaire might have shared but had not perceived); and Womersley is absolutely right to note that in the end he preferred superstition to enthusiasm, a religion which anchored the mind in material objects to a Protestant-derived philosophy which liberated it for the fanatical pursuit of its own ideas. The last and bitterest of Gibbon’s religious quarrels was not with the Anglicans Davies and Chelsum, but with the Unitarian Joseph Priestley, who employed a history of Christian doctrine very like Gibbon’s own to prophesy the imminent fall of all civil powers that had committed the heresy of maintaining state-established churches. Gibbon knew enthusiasm when he saw it, and the age of revolutions was beginning.

David Womersley’s edition is an enormous achievement. There is not a great deal to be done by way of a critical reconstitution of the text, since Gibbon’s manuscripts have disappeared and his revisions, though interesting, are few. Womersley supplies them in detail, and includes a valuable bibliographical index to the authors ancient and modern whom Gibbon cites, Perhaps the two most daunting stories yet to be written are the growth of his erudition – scarcely to be undertaken by anyone who does not equal it – and the growth of his style, that unique if not faultless instrument: a ‘great melody’ like that which Yeats found in Burke. These volumes give us The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire on a scale worthy of the original; a clear and handsome text in which we can see how the footnotes stand in relation to the narrative, and the chapters in relation to the volumes. They leave the road open to detailed and historical interpretations of what Gibbon was and did.

[*] 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.