History of the decline and fall of the roman empire edward Gibbon, Esq

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Edward Gibbon, Esq.
With notes by the Rev. H. H. Milman



Preface By The Editor.

The great work of Gibbon is indispensable to the student of history. The

literature of Europe offers no substitute for "The Decline and Fall of

the Roman Empire." It has obtained undisputed possession, as rightful

occupant, of the vast period which it comprehends. However some

subjects, which it embraces, may have undergone more complete

investigation, on the general view of the whole period, this history

is the sole undisputed authority to which all defer, and from which

few appeal to the original writers, or to more modern compilers. The

inherent interest of the subject, the inexhaustible labor employed upon

it; the immense condensation of matter; the luminous arrangement; the

general accuracy; the style, which, however monotonous from its

uniform stateliness, and sometimes wearisome from its elaborate ar.,

is throughout vigorous, animated, often picturesque always commands

attention, always conveys its meaning with emphatic energy, describes

with singular breadth and fidelity, and generalizes with unrivalled

felicity of expression; all these high qualifications have secured, and

seem likely to secure, its permanent place in historic literature.
This vast design of Gibbon, the magnificent whole into which he has cast

the decay and ruin of the ancient civilization, the formation and birth

of the new order of things, will of itself, independent of the laborious

execution of his immense plan, render "The Decline and Fall of the Roman

Empire" an unapproachable subject to the future historian: [101] in the

eloquent language of his recent French editor, M. Guizot:--

[Footnote 101: A considerable portion of this preface has already appeared

before us public in the Quarterly Review.]

"The gradual decline of the most extraordinary dominion which has

ever invaded and oppressed the world; the fall of that immense empire,

erected on the ruins of so many kingdoms, republics, and states both

barbarous and civilized; and forming in its turn, by its dismemberment,

a multitude of states, republics, and kingdoms; the annihilation of the

religion of Greece and Rome; the birth and the progress of the two new

religions which have shared the most beautiful regions of the earth; the

decrepitude of the ancient world, the spectacle of its expiring glory

and degenerate manners; the infancy of the modern world, the picture of

its first progress, of the new direction given to the mind and character

of man--such a subject must necessarily fix the attention and excite

the interest of men, who cannot behold with indifference those memorable

epochs, during which, in the fine language of Corneille--
'Un grand destin commence, un grand destin s'acheve.'"
This extent and harmony of design is unquestionably that which

distinguishes the work of Gibbon from all other great historical

compositions. He has first bridged the abyss between ancient and modern

times, and connected together the two great worlds of history. The great

advantage which the classical historians possess over those of modern

times is in unity of plan, of course greatly facilitated by the narrower

sphere to which their researches were confined. Except Herodotus, the

great historians of Greece--we exclude the more modern compilers, like

Diodorus Siculus--limited themselves to a single period, or at 'east to

the contracted sphere of Grecian affairs. As far as the Barbarians

trespassed within the Grecian boundary, or were necessarily mingled up

with Grecian politics, they were admitted into the pale of Grecian

history; but to Thucydides and to Xenophon, excepting in the Persian

inroad of the latter, Greece was the world. Natural unity confined their

narrative almost to chronological order, the episodes were of rare

occurrence and extremely brief. To the Roman historians the course was

equally clear and defined. Rome was their centre of unity; and the

uniformity with which the circle of the Roman dominion spread around,

the regularity with which their civil polity expanded, forced, as it

were, upon the Roman historian that plan which Polybius announces as the

subject of his history, the means and the manner by which the whole

world became subject to the Roman sway. How different the complicated

politics of the European kingdoms! Every national history, to be

complete, must, in a certain sense, be the history of Europe; there is

no knowing to how remote a quarter it may be necessary to trace our most

domestic events; from a country, how apparently disconnected, may

originate the impulse which gives its direction to the whole course of

In imitation of his classical models, Gibbon places Rome as the cardinal

point from which his inquiries diverge, and to which they bear constant

reference; yet how immeasurable the space over which those inquiries

range; how complicated, how confused, how apparently inextricable the

ca-\nuses which tend to the decline of the Roman empire! how countless

the nations which swarm forth, in mingling and indistinct hordes,

constantly changing the geographical limits--incessantly confounding the

natural boundaries! At first sight, the whole period, the whole state

of the world, seems to offer no more secure footing to an historical

adventurer than the chaos of Milton--to be in a state of irreclaimable

disorder, best described in the language of the poet:--

--"A dark

Illimitable ocean, without bound,

Without dimension, where length, breadth, and height,
And time, and place, are lost: where eldest Night

And Chaos, ancestors of Nature, hold

Eternal anarchy, amidst the noise

Of endless wars, and by confusion stand."

We feel that the unity and harmony of narrative, which shall comprehend

this period of social disorganization, must be ascribed entirely to the

skill and luminous disposition of the historian. It is in this sublime

Gothic architecture of his work, in which the boundless range, the

infinite variety, the, at first sight, incongruous gorgeousness of

the separate parts, nevertheless are all subordinate to one main and

predominant idea, that Gibbon is unrivalled. We cannot but admire the

manner in which he masses his materials, and arranges his facts in

successive groups, not according to chronological order, but to their

moral or political connection; the distinctness with which he marks his

periods of gradually increasing decay; and the skill with which, though

advancing on separate parallels of history, he shows the common tendency

of the slower or more rapid religious or civil innovations. However

these principles of composition may demand more than ordinary attention

on the part of the reader, they can alone impress upon the memory the

real course, and the relative importance of the events. Whoever would

justly appreciate the superiority of Gibbon's lucid arrangement, should

attempt to make his way through the regular but wearisome annals of

Tillemont, or even the less ponderous volumes of Le Beau. Both these

writers adhere, almost entirely, to chronological order; the consequence

is, that we are twenty times called upon to break off, and resume the

thread of six or eight wars in different parts of the empire; to suspend

the operations of a military expedition for a court intrigue; to hurry

away from a siege to a council; and the same page places us in the

middle of a campaign against the barbarians, and in the depths of the

Monophysite controversy. In Gibbon it is not always easy to bear in mind

the exact dates but the course of events is ever clear and distinct;

like a skilful general, though his troops advance from the most

remote and opposite quarters, they are constantly bearing down and

concentrating themselves on one point--that which is still occupied

by the name, and by the waning power of Rome. Whether he traces the

progress of hostile religions, or leads from the shores of the

Baltic, or the verge of the Chinese empire, the successive hosts of

barbarians--though one wave has hardly burst and discharged itself,

before another swells up and approaches--all is made to flow in the same

direction, and the impression which each makes upon the tottering fabric

of the Roman greatness, connects their distant movements, and measures

the relative importance assigned to them in the panoramic history. The

more peaceful and didactic episodes on the development of the Roman law,

or even on the details of ecclesiastical history, interpose themselves

as resting-places or divisions between the periods of barbaric invasion.

In short, though distracted first by the two capitals, and afterwards

by the formal partition of the empire, the extraordinary felicity of

arrangement maintains an order and a regular progression. As our horizon

expands to reveal to us the gathering tempests which are forming

far beyond the boundaries of the civilized world--as we follow their

successive approach to the trembling frontier--the compressed and

receding line is still distinctly visible; though gradually dismembered

and the broken fragments assuming the form of regular states and

kingdoms, the real relation of those kingdoms to the empire is

maintained and defined; and even when the Roman dominion has shrunk

into little more than the province of Thrace--when the name of Rome,

confined, in Italy, to the walls of the city--yet it is still the

memory, the shade of the Roman greatness, which extends over the wide

sphere into which the historian expands his later narrative; the

whole blends into the unity, and is manifestly essential to the double

catastrophe of his tragic drama.
But the amplitude, the magnificence, or the harmony of design, are,

though imposing, yet unworthy claims on our admiration, unless the

details are filled up with correctness and accuracy. No writer has been

more severely tried on this point than Gibbon. He has undergone the

triple scrutiny of theological zeal quickened by just resentment, of

literary emulation, and of that mean and invidious vanity which delights

in detecting errors in writers of established fame. On the result of

the trial, we may be permitted to summon competent witnesses before we

deliver our own judgment.
M. Guizot, in his preface, after stating that in France and Germany, as

well as in England, in the most enlightened countries of Europe, Gibbon

is constantly cited as an authority, thus proceeds:--
"I have had occasion, during my labors, to consult the writings of

philosophers, who have treated on the finances of the Roman empire; of

scholars, who have investigated the chronology; of theologians, who have

searched the depths of ecclesiastical history; of writers on law, who

have studied with care the Roman jurisprudence; of Orientalists, who

have occupied themselves with the Arabians and the Koran; of modern

historians, who have entered upon extensive researches touching the

crusades and their influence; each of these writers has remarked and

pointed out, in the 'History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman

Empire,' some negligences, some false or imperfect views some omissions,

which it is impossible not to suppose voluntary; they have rectified

some facts combated with advantage some assertions; but in general

they have taken the researches and the ideas of Gibbon, as points of

departure, or as proofs of the researches or of the new opinions which

they have advanced."
M. Guizot goes on to state his own impressions on reading Gibbon's

history, and no authority will have greater weight with those to whom

the extent and accuracy of his historical researches are known:--
"After a first rapid perusal, which allowed me to feel nothing but

the interest of a narrative, always animated, and, notwithstanding its

extent and the variety of objects which it makes to pass before the

view, always perspicuous, I entered upon a minute examination of the

details of which it was composed; and the opinion which I then formed

was, I confess, singularly severe. I discovered, in certain chapters,

errors which appeared to me sufficiently important and numerous to

make me believe that they had been written with extreme negligence; in

others, I was struck with a certain tinge of partiality and prejudice,

which imparted to the exposition of the facts that want of truth

and justice, which the English express by their happy term

misrepresentation. Some imperfect (tronquees) quotations; some passages,

omitted unintentionally or designedly cast a suspicion on the honesty

(bonne foi) of the author; and his violation of the first law of

history--increased to my eye by the prolonged attention with which I

occupied myself with every phrase, every note, every reflection--caused

me to form upon the whole work, a judgment far too rigorous. After

having finished my labors, I allowed some time to elapse before I

reviewed the whole. A second attentive and regular perusal of the entire

work, of the notes of the author, and of those which I had thought it

right to subjoin, showed me how much I had exaggerated the importance of

the reproaches which Gibbon really deserved; I was struck with the same

errors, the same partiality on certain subjects; but I had been far from

doing adequate justice to the immensity of his researches, the

variety of his knowledge, and above all, to that truly philosophical

discrimination (justesse d'esprit) which judges the past as it would

judge the present; which does not permit itself to be blinded by the

clouds which time gathers around the dead, and which prevent us from

seeing that, under the toga, as under the modern dress, in the senate

as in our councils, men were what they still are, and that events took

place eighteen centuries ago, as they take place in our days. I then

felt that his book, in spite of its faults, will always be a noble

work--and that we may correct his errors and combat his prejudices,

without ceasing to admit that few men have combined, if we are not to

say in so high a degree, at least in a manner so complete, and so well

regulated, the necessary qualifications for a writer of history."

The present editor has followed the track of Gibbon through many parts

of his work; he has read his authorities with constant reference to

his pages, and must pronounce his deliberate judgment, in terms of

the highest admiration as to his general accuracy. Many of his seeming

errors are almost inevitable from the close condensation of his matter.

From the immense range of his history, it was sometimes necessary to

compress into a single sentence, a whole vague and diffuse page of a

Byzantine chronicler. Perhaps something of importance may have thus

escaped, and his expressions may not quite contain the whole substance

of the passage from which they are taken. His limits, at times, compel

him to sketch; where that is the case, it is not fair to expect the

full details of the finished picture. At times he can only deal with

important results; and in his account of a war, it sometimes

requires great attention to discover that the events which seem to

be comprehended in a single campaign, occupy several years. But this

admirable skill in selecting and giving prominence to the points which

are of real weight and importance--this distribution of light and

shade--though perhaps it may occasionally betray him into vague and

imperfect statements, is one of the highest excellencies of Gibbon's

historic manner. It is the more striking, when we pass from the works of

his chief authorities, where, after laboring through long, minute, and

wearisome descriptions of the accessary and subordinate circumstances, a

single unmarked and undistinguished sentence, which we may overlook

from the inattention of fatigue, contains the great moral and political

Gibbon's method of arrangement, though on the whole most favorable

to the clear comprehension of the events, leads likewise to apparent

inaccuracy. That which we expect to find in one part is reserved for

another. The estimate which we are to form, depends on the accurate

balance of statements in remote parts of the work; and we have sometimes

to correct and modify opinions, formed from one chapter by those of

another. Yet, on the other hand, it is astonishing how rarely we detect

contradiction; the mind of the author has already harmonized the whole

result to truth and probability; the general impression is almost

invariably the same. The quotations of Gibbon have likewise been called

in question;--I have, in general, been more inclined to admire their

exactitude, than to complain of their indistinctness, or incompleteness.

Where they are imperfect, it is commonly from the study of brevity, and

rather from the desire of compressing the substance of his notes into

pointed and emphatic sentences, than from dishonesty, or uncandid

suppression of truth.

These observations apply more particularly to the accuracy and fidelity

of the historian as to his facts; his inferences, of course, are more

liable to exception. It is almost impossible to trace the line between

unfairness and unfaithfulness; between intentional misrepresentation

and undesigned false coloring. The relative magnitude and importance of

events must, in some respect, depend upon the mind before which they are

presented; the estimate of character, on the habits and feelings of the

reader. Christians, like M. Guizot and ourselves, will see some things,

and some persons, in a different light from the historian of the Decline

and Fall. We may deplore the bias of his mind; we may ourselves be on

our guard against the danger of being misled, and be anxious to warn

less wary readers against the same perils; but we must not confound

this secret and unconscious departure from truth, with the deliberate

violation of that veracity which is the only title of an historian

to our confidence. Gibbon, it may be fearlessly asserted, is rarely

chargeable even with the suppression of any material fact, which bears

upon individual character; he may, with apparently invidious hostility,

enhance the errors and crimes, and disparage the virtues of certain

persons; yet, in general, he leaves us the materials for forming a

fairer judgment; and if he is not exempt from his own prejudices,

perhaps we might write passions, yet it must be candidly acknowledged,

that his philosophical bigotry is not more unjust than the theological

partialities of those ecclesiastical writers who were before in

undisputed possession of this province of history.

We are thus naturally led to that great misrepresentation which

pervades his history--his false estimate of the nature and influence of

But on this subject some preliminary caution is necessary, lest that

should be expected from a new edition, which it is impossible that it

should completely accomplish. We must first be prepared with the only

sound preservative against the false impression likely to be produced

by the perusal of Gibbon; and we must see clearly the real cause of that

false impression. The former of these cautions will be briefly suggested

in its proper place, but it may be as well to state it, here, somewhat

more at length. The art of Gibbon, or at least the unfair impression

produced by his two memorable chapters, consists in his confounding

together, in one indistinguishable mass, the origin and apostolic

propagation of the new religion, with its later progress. No argument

for the divine authority of Christianity has been urged with greater

force, or traced with higher eloquence, than that deduced from its

primary development, explicable on no other hypothesis than a heavenly

origin, and from its rapid extension through great part of the Roman

empire. But this argument--one, when confined within reasonable limits,

of unanswerable force--becomes more feeble and disputable in proportion

as it recedes from the birthplace, as it were, of the religion. The

further Christianity advanced, the more causes purely human were

enlisted in its favor; nor can it be doubted that those developed with

such artful exclusiveness by Gibbon did concur most essentially to its

establishment. It is in the Christian dispensation, as in the material

world. In both it is as the great First Cause, that the Deity is most

undeniably manifest. When once launched in regular motion upon the bosom

of space, and endowed with all their properties and relations of weight

and mutual attraction, the heavenly bodies appear to pursue their

courses according to secondary laws, which account for all their sublime

regularity. So Christianity proclaims its Divine Author chiefly in its

first origin and development. When it had once received its impulse

from above--when it had once been infused into the minds of its

first teachers--when it had gained full possession of the reason and

affections of the favored few--it might be--and to the Protestant, the

rationa Christian, it is impossible to define when it really was--left

to make its way by its native force, under the ordinary secret agencies

of all-ruling Providence. The main question, the divine origin of the

religion, was dexterously eluded, or speciously conceded by Gibbon;

his plan enabled him to commence his account, in most parts, below the

apostolic times; and it was only by the strength of the dark coloring

with which he brought out the failings and the follies of the succeeding

ages, that a shadow of doubt and suspicion was thrown back upon the

primitive period of Christianity.

"The theologian," says Gibbon, "may indulge the pleasing task of

describing religion as she descended from heaven, arrayed in her native

purity; a more melancholy duty is imposed upon the historian:--he

must discover the inevitable mixture of error and corruption which she

contracted in a long residence upon earth among a weak and degenerate

race of beings." Divest this passage of the latent sarcasm betrayed by

the subsequent tone of the whole disquisition, and it might commence a

Christian history written in the most Christian spirit of candor. But as

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