Prospects and Living Pictures.
It is perhaps the shaping, more than anything else, that explains the joy Gibbon took in his work. The most "pleasing labour" of any artist, whether working in poetry or film, music or history, may be to take massively complicated, or seemingly intractable, or simply unlikely raw materials and form them into something beautiful, something with the power to astonish. A splendid phrase at the opening of the last chapter of the Decline and Fall adumbrates Gibbon's own aim. In 1430 the Florentine scholar Poggius climbed the Capitoline Hill in Rome and, amid the temple ruins, surveyed "the wide and various prospect of desolation." Poggius's eye could take in just about all that was then left of a single ancient city, but the historian's eye was on a prospect with a far grander scale of desolation--essentially all of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East (with occasional glimpses still farther east) over the course of fifteen hundred years, from the reigns of the Antonine Caesars in the second century of the Christian era to the papacy of Sixtus V at the close of the sixteenth century.
"Prospect" is an important term in eighteenth-century aesthetics; both visual artists and poets valued the commanding view from a summit that harmonized and composed disparate elements into a coherent picture. That kind of prospect view was the author's aim for the vast geographical and temporal and cultural miscellany he wanted to fashion into a coherent interpretation of a fall. For unsuspecting readers the title of Gibbon's volumes may seem a misnomer, since his prospect view embraces more than just the fall of the city of Rome in the fifth century, more even than the fall of the "New Rome" of Constantinople in the fifteenth. His canvas includes the depiction of various ascents that accompanied--and were often occasioned by--the declines of the western and eastern Roman empires: the new Christian hegemony built on the ashes of pagan religion; the gradual transformation of the marauding "Barbarians" who dismembered Rome's empire into the founders of "the great republic of Europe"; Islamic expansionism through the wars of Mahomet's successors against the weakened Byzantine, north African, and Spanish defenses; the supplanting of caesars and consuls by popes and bishops. The intertwined fall of the Romans and rise of the Christians are epitomized for Gibbon in the economics of parchment during the later centuries of the empire. Scribes erased and recycled copies of ancient histories, legal codes, and literary texts so that "Sophocles or Tacitus were obliged to resign the parchment to missals, homilies, and the golden legend." The opening sentence of chapter LXIV, foreseeing the eclipsing of a fading Byzantium by the nascent Ottoman empire, succinctly exhibits the paradigm of descents engendering ascents. "From the petty quarrels of a city and her suburbs, from the cowardice and discord of the falling Greeks, I shall now ascend to the victorious Turks." Such historical patterns stoke Gibbon's awareness of the ways in which history is recursive. Often he laments how numbingly repetitious the record of the past may be. A violent end was the common denominator of the careers of the emperors from the second through the fourth centuries when "almost every reign is closed by the same disgusting repetition of treason and murder." How is the historian to make such a pattern, so susceptible to sermonizing and mere rote, instructive and artful? "The revolution of ages may bring round the same calamities," Gibbon reflected, "but ages may revolve, without producing a Tacitus to describe them." There was his literary model--a historical writer who knew how to combine narrative and dramatic styles pursued with the kind of variety of presentation Gibbon wanted to emulate.
Gibbon, his mind operating in ways reminiscent of the associationist thinking of John Locke and Laurence Sterne, keeps casting a wider and wider net as he tries to bring into the picture the ripple effects of the fall of both the old and new Romes: the cultural decay that celebrated technological wizardry at the Byzantine court but sent philosophical and scientific enterprise into hibernation; the disasters--political, ethnic, moral, spiritual--of the Crusades; the vulnerability of Europe to Asian invasion, at first by the Huns and later by the cavalry of Zinguis Khan,-the fracturing of Christian unity by various heresies, by the schism between the western Catholics and eastern Orthodox, and ultimately, for the agnostically protestant Gibbon, by the Reformation that he keeps glimpsing on the horizon.
Gibbon offers a particularly complex summation of the consequences of two centuries of crusades in the Middle East. While the first Crusade might be given the benefit of the doubt as an exercise in wishful idealism, no lessons were learned from the adverse experiences and failures of the original Crusaders. Six more generations "rushed headlong down the precipice that was open before them" as men of every social class became fixated on "the desperate adventure of possessing or recovering a tomb-stone two thousand miles from their country." Still, the European Crusaders might have profited even from this calamity because the holy wars "opened to their eyes the prospect of the world, and introduced them to a long and frequent intercourse with the more cultivated regions of the East." The Europeans were backward by comparison with the sophisticated Greeks who governed the eastern empire and the creative Arabs pursuing an empire of their own. Cultural contacts with the East helped the Europeans make progress in manufacturing, expanded their trading, and brought to the West new technology (windmills) and luxuries (bitter oranges and sugar). But when the Europeans (or "the Latins," as they were called) actually ousted the Greeks and for sixty years took over Constantinople they proved themselves incapable of real cultural progress. They refused to learn the Greek language of their subjects and they were immune to curiosity about the ancient works of Plato and Homer or the more recent Koran. In prospect, Gibbon can see only the "savage fanaticism" of the Crusaders, who ended up not advancing their own civilization but establishing "the inquisition, the mendicant orders of friars and monks, the last abuse of indulgences, and the final progress of idolatry."
But while the grand and desolate prospect is a hallmark of his history, Gibbon knew that sweeping panoramas work only when buttressed by startling, even if only briefly sketched, specific instances: the Goths' leveling "one of the wonders of the world," the temple of Diana at Ephesus; the empty circus of Laodicea "now peopled with wolves and foxes"; Tamerlane's ghastly pyramid of 90,000 heads constructed in the ruins of Bagdad; the empty shelves of the library of Alexandria after the fourth-century Archbishop Theophilus's rampage against the idolatrous works of the past; "the soul of genius evaporated in smoke" as Crusaders torched the library at Constantinople. When Gibbon describes Mahomet II on horseback directing the final siege of Constantinople from a beach on the Bosphorus, he provides a close-up of the sultan's body language, spurring his horse into the water and waving on his attacking soldiers. The scene had a precedent, and Gibbon identifies his source in a footnote: "I must confess, that I have before my eyes the living picture which Thucydides ... has drawn of the passions and gestures of the Athenians in a naval engagement in the great harbour of Syracuse." Living pictures lend immediacy, drama, and human interest to the generalizing views disclosed in prospect.
Picture and prospect work in tandem whenever Gibbon, breaching the boundaries of time within which he chose to work, evokes things that were to come: Spain, as a colonial outpost of Rome's empire and a source of silver and gold, "was the Peru and Mexico of the old world" and the forced labor of the native inhabitants to work the mines for their occupiers constitutes "an exact type of the more recent history of Spanish America." In describing the north African campaign of 376 by Valentinian's general Theodosius, Gibbon alludes to the then-unknown "negroes" in equatorial Africa and looks ahead to the slave trade in his own times: "Sixty thousand blacks are annually embarked from the coast of Guinea, never to return to their native country; but they are embarked in chains." At such moments Gibbon makes as plain as can be his conviction of history's task "to record the transactions of the past, for the instruction of future, ages." The view to the future is integral to Gibbon's epic project. And twentieth-and twenty-first-century readers may occasionally experience a reaching forward in time that the author could not have foreseen, as in his commentary on the "magnitude" of the Battle of Chalons in 451. An alliance of Romans and Visigoths from "nations from the Volga to the Atlantic" taking on the Huns under Attila results in a panEuropean conflict with casualties so huge that Gibbon ponders how "whole generations may be swept away, by the madness of kings, in the space of a single hour." A history that looks merely backwards can be an exercise in fruitless nostalgia--the very thing Gibbon scorned in the neoPlatonists who longed for the learning of the past without any purchase on problems relevant to the present, lacking the interest or the capacity to develop new knowledge "suited to our situation and powers."
Not only does the historian look forward in time in the Decline and Fall, he also sometimes looks askance. Gibbon espies alternative histories that might have been. What if the narcissistic emperor Elagabalus had chosen not to trade in silken luxuries from China for his own adornment but to acquire some more useful, scientific invention? "I reflect with some pain, that if the importers of silk had introduced the art of printing, already practised by the Chinese, the comedies of Menander and the entire decads of Livy would have been perpetuated in the editions of the sixth century." What if the Saracen invasion of Europe had not been halted by the military strategy and good luck of Charles Martel at Tours in 732? Here prospect and living picture are inseparable: "The Arabian fleet might have sailed without a naval combat into the mouth of the Thames. Perhaps the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pupils might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mahomet." Or what if the Renaissance of learning in fourteenth-century Italy had been delayed until after the fall of Constantinople, before some of its unique ancient Greek texts had been copied? It was a very close call, Gibbon thought. "We may tremble at the thought, that Greece might have been overwhelmed, with her schools and libraries, before Europe had emerged from the deluge of barbarism; that the seeds of science might have been scattered by the winds, before the Italian soil was prepared for their cultivation."
In such glimpses into alternative history Gibbon suggests the contingency of human--and global--affairs. While he generally dismisses anything like the nineteenth-century "great man" theory of history as more suited to epic poetry and fiction than to real life, and while he favors the process of cultural change over achievements of individual heroism, he nevertheless wants readers to grasp how much our history has been affected, sometimes consequentially, by micro-events: small acts, or failures to act, that illuminate forking paths. The emperor Julian, for instance, for all the good he did during his short reign of 361-363, unwittingly contributed to the empire's decline by failing to make provision for a successor. When Mahomet was on his hegira from Mecca to Medina he was stopped by agents of his enemies who would probably have killed him were it not for his quick thinking; with a show of piety and glib political promises Mahomet caused them to stay their hands. "In this eventful moment, the lance of an Arab might have changed the history of the world." The Ottoman Bajazet I's fantasy of feeding oats to his horse on the altar of the basilica of St. Peter's is thwarted by a most unheroic intervention. "His progress was checked, not by the miraculous interposition of the apostle, not by a crusade of the Christian powers, but by a long and painful fit of the gout."
Although desolation is often in view in the Decline and Fall, the tone of the history is rarely elegiac. (A notable exception, in chapter LXVIII, is the affecting and dignified "last farewell" of the Emperor Constantine Palaeologus on the night before the collapse of Constantinople.) What is most celebrated in Gibbon's style is a biting and delicious wit. When antipope John XXIII was deposed and put on trial "the most scandalous charges were suppressed; the vicar of Christ was only accused of piracy, murder, rape, sodomy, and incest." But irony is not Gibbon's only, or even his most common, rhetorical register. He shifts easily between clinical analysis and spectacular inventories, between documentary precision and uninhibited speculation, between straight-out judgment and multiple-choice options, between aphoristic conciseness ("Revenge is profitable, gratitude is expensive.") and luxurious metaphor ("Ambition is a weed of quick and early vegetation in the vineyard of Christ."). For Gibbon as stylist Poggius is, once again, a relevant touchstone: Poggius's prospect was wide and various. In shaping his materials Gibbon used multiple rhetorical and narrative strategies to depict the long, meandering decline of an empire, shrewdly aware of his readers' limited patience and attention.
The historian's job, Gibbon wrote early on in the Decline and Fall, is somehow to fashion "a clear and unbroken thread of narration" out of chaotic resources: records that are often biased, fragmentary, and poorly conceived and written; gaps in information at some times, and data-overload at others; dubious statistics and dating; and rival and disparate events jostling for space on the page. Questions of proportion and principles of selection are always on Gibbon's mind as he surveys the historical prospect. Considering the threats to Byzantium from the seventh through the ninth centuries, he justifies devoting so many pages to the Muslims but relatively few to the Bulgarian, Hungarian, and Russian assaults on the empire: "If in the account of this interesting people, I have deviated from the strict and original line of my undertaking, the merit of the subject will hide my transgression or solicit my excuse. In the East, in the West, in war, in religion, in science, in their prosperity, and in their decay, the Arabians press themselves on our curiosity." Subjects of interest and of merit, subjects that curious minds feel compelled to explore, outweigh obligations of coverage and geometrical balance. For Gibbon, as for Emerson, a foolish consistency was the hobgoblin of minds too small to confront the vast prospects of history and of consciousness.
Chronology can be a particularly tricky impediment to clarity of narration. In the mid-third century, when Rome was threatened by a number of foreign invaders (Franks, Alemanni, Goths, Persians), the historian ponders how best to tell a many-pronged story. Deciding to "consult order and perspicuity, by pursuing, not so much the doubtful arrangement of dates, as the more natural distribution of subjects," he lets a map rather than a calendar govern his arrangement. Similarly, at the opening of chapter XVII Gibbon reflects that a historian--and a reader--can find the number and diversity of significant events during Constantine's reign overwhelming "unless he diligently separates from each other the scenes which are connected only by the order of time" and instead proceeds topically. Facing the question of how to deal with complex foreign relations in the later fourth century in the dual reign of Valentinian and Valens, he weighs methodology against respect for his readers. This was a period during which five overlapping wars were in progress. "Perhaps the method of annals would more forcibly express the urgent and divided cares of the two emperors, but the attention of the reader, likewise, would be distracted by a tedious and desultory narrative." He throws out chronology and organizes his account geographically, taking up one by one wars in Germany, Britain, Africa, the East, and the Danube region. By sacrificing a neat timeline Gibbon gives himself an opportunity to construct cultural histories of each region.
Gibbon tackles a different problem of organization with the era of the so-called "thirty tyrants" of the third century. How much attention goes to each rival for the throne? "To illustrate the obscure monuments of the life and death of each individual, would prove a laborious task, alike barren of instruction and of amusement." He makes a characteristic move when confronting this kind of dilemma in which comprehensiveness might drown narrative. He identifies some general conditions of the times and constructs a group portrait of the usurpers, foregoing detailed individual biographies. A shared pattern of abrupt rise and fall is sufficient to measure the short, violent careers of "these precarious emperors": the "rapid and perpetual transitions from the cottage to the throne, and from the throne to the grave." Knowing, however, that cultural overviews at the expense of particularities would yield the kind of empty chronicle he disparaged, Gibbon likes to identify representative instances to flesh out and vivify his generalizations. To establish how Christian persecutions were carried out and what motivated the actions of martyrs he elaborates the career of Cyprian of Carthage as a case study of martyrdom. Of thirty-six popes from the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries humiliated by Rome's unruly citizens Gibbon selects four victims of particularly outrageous acts to illustrate the fragility of papal power and the anarchic state of the city; the "repetition of such capricious brutality, without connection or design, would be tedious and disgusting."
An especially rewarding example of Gibbon's pursuit of variety of format occurs when he takes up eight centuries' worth of Byzantine emperors in chapter XLVII. It is unique among the seventy-one chapters of the Decline and Fall in several ways. It is the only chapter in which the reader's eye is not drawn to a single footnoted interruption. It roams a much larger tract of time than other chapters, assessing five dozen emperors. Adhering to a strictly "chronological review," it severely compresses time and restricts coverage, with a few rulers getting several pages but most dispatched in a single paragraph. We witness a procession of the Eastern emperors--"phantoms of kings who have passed before our eyes"--not unlike the catalogue of Greek ships in Book II of the Iliad. Because Gibbon reckons nearly all these emperors to be figures of "weakness and misery" detailed portraiture would generate a prospect not of desolation but of dullness. He opts instead for "those general pictures which compose the use and ornament of a remote history" but with one brilliant exception: a protracted narrative of "the extraordinary character and adventures" of the twelfth-century Andronicus. Because there is a great story to tell in the career of the chameleon-like Andronicus, Gibbon lavishes attention on a figure with the aura of a medieval superhero. Andronicus's living picture is replete with intrigues, imprisonments, escapes, daring military ventures, complicated plots and counterplots, foreign travels, exile and restoration, all leading up to his election as emperor. This is the very stuff of romance that Gibbon usually derides. Without suppressing the romantic charms of Andronicus's life (though he prefaces the biography with a disclaimer about the veracity of his sources) the historian discloses a complex man worthy of a complex appraisal that other Byzantine emperors were too insipid to merit. Andronicus, once enthroned, reformed the political bureaucracy and improved the economic condition of the provinces, but he kept an enemies list and ruled with an iron fist. His ending is as much a horror story as his adventures were high romance. His usurping successor, Isaac II Angelus, turns Andronicus over to a mob of vigilantes who torture and murder him in the streets. For the historian he becomes a moral conundrum: "When he listened to his passions, he was the scourge; when he consulted his reason, the father, of his people." But about the manner of his death Gibbon is not ambivalent: "Our hatred for the tyrant is lost in pity for the man."
The Decline and Fall is studded with stories, anecdotes, and living pictures that not only vary the prospect-narrative but also draw readers deeply into the felt texture of historical events, personages, and cultures. The historian, moved to pity by Andronicus's death, indulges a range of intellectual and emotional responses to such instructive stories. Was the empress Theodora, the former actress and prostitute who married Justinian, really a monster who tortured her subjects in lightless dungeons beneath the palace, as her enemies charged? "Darkness is propitious to cruelty, but it is likewise favourable to calumny and fiction." The eleventh-century Zoe, wife of emperor Romanus III, conducts an affair with her chamberlain Michael, whom she makes emperor after her husband's death. Without expressly accusing Zoe of murder Gibbon slips into his sentence on the coronation of Michael IV an old Roman saying that "every adultress is capable of poisoning her husband." The caliph Soliman, reported to have died of indigestion, becomes for Gibbon an allegory of gluttony: "In one of his pilgrimages to Mecca, Soliman ate, at a single meal, seventy pomegranates, a kid, six fowls, and a huge quantity of the grapes of Tayef. If the bill of fare be correct, we must admire the appetite rather than the luxury of the sovereign of Asia." This story, like many others, appears in one of Gibbon's learned footnotes--an apparatus that, beyond being a record of sources and citations, contributes to the prospects and pictures of the narrative. Describing the funerary customs of the German armies, Gibbon observes how, succumbing to the heat of southern Europe, soldiers needed a way to transport the bones of fallen comrades back home for burial. With grisly humor an explanatory note spells out how this was done, first in a truncated participial phrase and then in a brisk sentence that explicates a hand-me-down system: "After boiling away the flesh. The caldrons for that purpose were a necessary piece of travelling furniture; and a German who was using it for his brother, promised it to a friend, after it should have been employed for himself." Famously, some of the bawdiest stories were reserved for footnotes, often printed in Latin without an English translation, as in a legend about the "conjugal vigour" of Mahomet whose penis, in death, remained erect. One story Gibbon didn't bother to hide under the wrappings of a foreign language illustrates the anger of Geoffrey of Anjou, who punished the local clergy for choosing a bishop without his consent. Geoffrey orders the bishop-elect and his priests castrated and has their testicles delivered to him on a platter. That story prompts the historian's drily anti-Catholic joke: "Of the pain and danger they might justly complain; yet, since they had vowed chastity, he deprived them of a superfluous treasure."
Gibbon was shrewd enough to realize that scandalous stories about the private lives of the rich and famous would entice readers, but he seldom gratifies those desires unless a story elucidates the prospect of desolation. "The personal characters of the emperors, their victories, laws, follies, and fortunes, can interest us no farther than as they are connected with the general history of the Decline and Fall of the monarchy." The historian is unwilling to wallow in the depravities of Tiberius or Caligula, but he skewers the do-nothing emperors under whom Roman power attenuated. One of Gibbon's virtuoso strategies for dealing with rulers who were moral and political ciphers is to announce a refusal to tell their stories. This narrative negation often appears in the obituaries he composes as the anticlimactic summations of imperial careers, as in his dismissals of Honorius and Arcadius, the heirs of the emperor Theodosius. "The son of Theodosius passed the slumber of his life, a captive in his palace, a stranger in his country, and the patient, almost the indifferent, spectator of the ruin of the Western empire, which was repeatedly attacked, and finally subverted, by the arms of the Barbarians. In the eventful history of a reign of twenty-eight years, it will seldom be necessary to mention the name of the emperor Honorius." The verdict on Honorius's brother is even more withering: "At length, in the thirty-first year of his age, after a reign (if we may abuse that word) of thirteen years, three months, and fifteen days, Arcadius expired in the palace of Constantinople. It is impossible to delineate his character; since, in a period very copiously furnished with historical materials, it has not been possible to remark one action that properly belongs to the son of the great Theodosius."
Gibbon maintains a healthy skepticism about the authenticity of received stories. The "pretended victory" of Alexander Severus over King Artaxerxes of Persia in 2,33 in a "blaze of imaginary glory," as reported by official historians of the time, is largely a fabrication. He is said to have defeated an army of 120,000 horsemen, 700 elephants mounted with towers of archers, and 1800 scythe-wielding charioteers. But the emperor's intrepidity and valor were a public relations ploy to make him over into Alexander the Great redivivus. "Such are the circumstances of this ostentatious and improbable relation, dictated, as it too plainly appears, by the vanity of the monarch, adorned by the unblushing servility of his flatterers, and received without contradiction by a distant and obsequious senate." Elsewhere, reviewing the fantastic stories told about Richard Fs exploits in the Crusades and summoning up the heroes of Renaissance epics and chivalric romances, Gibbon asks himself: "Am I writing the history of Orlando or Amadis? " He repeats many stories about the Byzantine emperor Manuel's invincibility in single combats with gigantic opponents whom he always defeated, but then undercuts the reliability of his Greek sources: "I will not, to vindicate their credit, endanger my own." The historian adeptly exploits an appealing story while preserving deniability.
Gibbon used stories to great advantage in writing his history, but he knew they were seductive and could give readers a coarsened or exalted version of the truth. He tells few stories, for instance, about the persecutions of early Christians because he believes they were inflated for ecclesiastical propaganda. More Catholics were killed by their own church during the Inquisition, he cautions readers, than were slaughtered in the Colosseum. Anything that comes out of the genre of fable must be scrutinized and evaluated before it is imported into the genre of history. Consider the case of George Castriot of Albania, born Christian but circumcised and instmcted from childhood in Islam and given the Turkish title "Scanderbeg (Iskender Beg), or the lord Alexander." He later renounced Islam and took the role of avenger of Albania and Christianity, but Gibbon (using an either/or formula that is both an intellectual habit and a favorite weapon from his rhetorical arsenal) notes the "art or credulity" of Christian historians who report that "in every encounter he spared the Christians, while he fell with a thundering arm on his Musulman foes." While Scanderbeg was a genuine champion of Albanian independence, many of the "fabulous" tales of his military exploits are compromised by "the latitude of romance." A "legend of ecclesiastical tradition" that Rome was spared during the Hunnish invasion when Saints Peter and Paul appeared to Attila and threatened him with instant death is rejected with Gibbon's characteristic impatience with miraculous interventions. But he makes an allowance: the story inspired some memorable art "and some indulgence is due to a fable, which has been represented by the pencil of Raphael, and the chisel of Algardi."
One example is worth extended attention because the story is famous and the historian's deployment of it a model of judiciousness. Gibbon is disinclined to give up the story of Tamerlane's imprisonment of the sultan Bajazet in a portable iron cage (a key prop in Marlowe's staging of Tamburlaine the Great), even though it "is now rejected as a fable by the modern writers." He reports that the story of the cage was disputed by partisan Persian commentators, who wanted to venerate Tamerlane as a generous conqueror, but endorsed by Arabic, Italian, Greek, and Turkish sources. He devotes nearly five pages and thirteen notes to an analysis of the evidence for and against the cage. In the end, he deduces that the story is probably true in its outlines, although the caging of Bajazet was not a gratuitous insult to the Muslim chief, as the anti-Tamerlane historians claimed, but a last resort after Bajazet tried to escape through a tunnel dug under the low-security tent in which he was held as a gentleman-captive. To crown his analysis Gibbon proposes that Tamerlane fixed on the device of the iron cage because of an apocryphal story he had read "in some fabulous history" of a similar punishment of a third-century Persian king by a Roman conqueror who confined him inside a cow's hide. Thus a fable begets history which begets its own fabled version.
This complex relationship between story and history, between fable and truth, is a familiar feature of the epic tradition. Aeneas, landing in Carthage in Book I of the Aeneid, encounters temple paintings of the Trojan war, including images of himself--a figure out of legend now appearing in the flesh in Dido's court. In the Icelandic Volsungasaga Sigurd discovers that his mythic status has preceded him when he observes tapestries woven by Brynhild that record his previous adventures. An instructive instance of fable blending into history and history into fable occurs in the first book of Paradise Lost. There the devil who designed the infernal city of Pandaemonium turns out to have had a storied counterpart in Greek and Roman myth:
Nor was his name unheard or unadored In ancient Greece and in Ausonian land Men called him Mulciber, and how he fell From Heav'n they fabl'd, thrown by angry Jove Sheer o'er the crystal battlements.
When writers tell this story of Mulciber they are, Milton says, "erring." A fable is a lying story, but Milton, re-enacting the story in hell, gave the lie a pedigree.
Gibbon repeatedly demeans the capacity of epic poetry or romantic fiction to render historical truth. Poetic renditions of war too frequently confer a fake and dangerous glory on the horrors of battles. "When in calm retirement we peruse the combats described by Homer or Tasso," he observes in his account of German military culture during the reign of Decius, "we are insensibly seduced by the fiction, and feel a momentary glow of martial ardour." The contrast is more pointed in the scene inside Constantinople on the night of the final assault in 1453: "The single combat of the heroes of history or fable, amuse our fancy and engage our affections.... But in the uniform and odious pictures of a general assault, all is blood, and horror, and confusion." Recounting episodes of cannibalism and of pestilence from the unburied dead during Alaric's siege of Rome, he insists on the accuracy and eloquence of prose when "a plain narrative of facts is much more pathetic, than the most laboured descriptions of epic poetry." Repeatedly, as he sifts the documents, Gibbon finds himself having to "translate the language of fiction, or exaggeration, into the truth and simplicity of historic prose."
Yet, despite these reservations, throughout the Decline and Fall Gibbon displays an intimate knowledge of the epic and romance traditions, quoting from, alluding to, and commenting on the texts of Homer, Virgil, and Milton above all others. The extent of his tributes to the epic poets cannot be gauged solely by the number of entries under these three names in the enormous index Gibbon appended to his history. Buried homages appear in phrases that echo the epic patrimony. Describing the torture of Persian king Chosroes by his son Siroes, Gibbon says "he sunk without hope into a still deeper abyss," recalling the great soliloquy of Satan in Paradise Lost IV when, in despair, he feels that "in the lowest deep a lower deep / Still threat'ning to devour me opens wide." When the sixth-century Patriarch Apollinaris arrives in Alexandria in military garb, ascends the cathedral throne, and throws off his soldier's gear to reveal himself to the assembled people in his episcopal robes, "Astonishment held them mute," Gibbon writes, echoing the devils' response to Satan's political comeback speech in Paradise Lost I: "Attention held them mute." Mahomet's uncle Abbas, we hear, "like the heroes of Homer, excelled in the loudness of his voice." At such moments we can appreciate the force--and significance--of Gibbon's disdain for the lyric poetry of Petrarch: "I may hope or presume, that the Italians do not compare the tedious uniformity of sonnets and elegies, with the sublime compositions of their epic muse, the original wildness of Dante, the regular beauties of Tasso, and the boundless variety of the incomparable Ariosto." Gibbon, without doubt, had a powerful affinity with the epic imagination.
A hundred years after Milton completed his mythic account of the fall of the first man and woman, Gibbon brought the story of a fall to the stage of history and on a scale that was matchless. Stories of falls antedated the epic treatment given that subject in Paradise Lost, of course. The "fall of princes" was a favorite theme of Boccaccio, Chaucer, and Lydgate, among other medieval writers. As Fortune impassively turned her wheel the high and mighty tumbled into ignominy. But those were stories of individuals who fell from the height of power. (Perhaps only Malory among the early English writers connected the fall of a king with the decline of an entire culture.) Gibbon certainly includes in his Decline and Fall the downfall of many a ruler and general, pope and patriarch. Many fortune's-wheel moments enliven the history. When Attila captures Milan he orders a picture in the palace repainted. Attila had the image of a Caesar on his throne with Scythian princes prostrated before him reversed. The new painting showed the emperors "approaching in a suppliant posture to empty their bags of tributary gold before the throne of the Scythian monarch." fust as Bajazet, at the height of his power, seems ready to capture Constantinople and put paid to the eastern empire, Tamerlane enters the story and the unfortunate Bajazet is "overthrown by another savage stronger than himself." But these falls are treated as incidental to or symptomatic of a larger phenomenon of which they are "living pictures" in miniature. Gibbon would study falling not as a single, decisive act but as a sequence of acts and accidents unfolding over the course of a millennium and a half with a dramatis personae of thousands spread across most of the world as known to Europeans of the ancient and Middle Ages. Individuals come and go in the historical narrative, and some of them of exceptional character and accomplishment (Emperor Julian, Justinian's generals Belisarius and Narses, Charlemagne, Consul Rienzi) seem temporarily to halt or cancel the decline, but the process of falling is inexorable and irreversible.
In treating the fall of the Roman empire as a process rather than an event, Gibbon upended the assumptions and expectations not only of his readers but of that distinctively modern personage, the tourist--whether on the Grand Tour in his own era or on a package tour in ours. Spectators sitting in the ruins of the Forum (as Gibbon himself once did when the idea for his history first germinated) might rue the destruction wrought by the Visigoths in 410. Not so, says the historian. "The Gothic kings, so injuriously accused of the ruin of antiquity, were anxious to preserve the monuments of the nation whom they had subdued." It was the Roman citizenry itself, indolent, ignorant, and blind to the glories of their architectural heritage, that treated the city's monuments "as an inexhaustible mine of materials, cheaper, and more convenient, than the distant quarry." Rome was pillaged and denuded by the Romans, slowly and relentlessly, over the course of ten centuries. They created the ruins we now associate with both the glory of Rome and the totality of its undoing.
To give life to the slow, protracted devolution of an empire, to take a fall so massive and so independent of individual heroes and culprits and make it palpable rather than an abstraction, required an imaginative labor that is appropriately called epic. That designation has floated somewhat uncertainly over the Decline and Fall for a long time. E. M. W. Tillyard called it a "partial epic"; Louis Kampf, a "mock epic"; D. W. Camochan, "an epic manque"; Edward Adams, a "liberal epic." But there is no need for qualifiers or half-measures. More than Pope's Iliad, far more than Fielding's Tom Jones, Gibbon's history is the great achievement of the epic imagination in the eighteenth century. That was his aspiration and his delight.
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|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2015|
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