Edward Gibbon on Byzantium

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was published in six volumes between 1776 and 1788.  Because of its age, few if any historians would now turn to Gibbon for basic facts, though it must be admitted the Gibbon is very seldom wrong.  We can quarrel with his method, we may dislike the philosophy in which his work is grounded, but we struggle to find more than a few minor factual errors.  Indeed Gibbon's method is the main problem: it can hardly be called critical.  He ranked his sources as primary and secondary, and the struck an average that satisfied "his personal sense of probability."*1*  Gibbon got his facts right because he "accepted the assumption of the Renaissance that when, by careful examination of the text, we have found what the ancients really meant, we have also discovered what actually happened."*2*  Few scholars would now take their sources at their word.   But modern notions of source criticism are a creation of the nineteenth century, and Gibbon was born a hundred years too early.  This was perhaps his greatest mistake.  But even if Gibbon's method is archaic, modern scholars have called the Decline and Fall "the greatest single book of history," "by far the greatest and most stimulating account of the early Middle Ages," "perhaps the most famous work of history ever written, and of its kind the greatest," and Peter Brown has pronounced Gibbon "the greatest English historian."*3*  In 1976 a bicentenary conference was held at UCLA to mark the publication of Gibbon's first volume: nineteen papers were given, and none of the scholars invovled seemed to have believed that he was wasting his time on a "museum piece."*4*  I can also add that the Edward Gibbon Society, a Facebook group which I founded three years ago, continues to attract new and eager proselytes. 

    No apology for writing on Gibbon in the twenty-first century seems necessary.  But how can we explain the the enduring appeal of the Decline and Fall?  The work can, of course, be appreciated for its style "derived from the letters of Cicero, the most ironic passages of Thucydides, and the innuendoes of Tacitus."*5*  Indeed, the work is never boring, but Gibbon's style is more than just the lightening of a potentially monotonous narrative: it is calculated to express an attitude to history.  This is the source of Gibbon's continued popularity.  Note the use of that word 'attitude'.  Unlike Montesquieu, Hegel, Marx, and now many feminist authors, Gibbon made no attempt to force history into a preconceived and rigid system.  Hence such expressions as "the secret and remote causes of the fall of the empire," "the latent causes of decay and corruption," "the secret and internal causes of decay," and perhaps Gibbon's favourite adverb "insensibly."  Gibbon avoided, therfore, the invocation of any impersonal forces beyond the influence or control of mankind.  It will be objected, perhaps, that Gibbon himself claims to have delineated the "triumph" of two impersonal forces, "barbarism and religion," but it is clear (as Gibbon's memorable descriptions of Caracalla, Elagabalus, Constantine Copronymus, Nicephorus, and others show) that Gibbon always deals with these forces on the level of the individual.  Gibbon unfolds before us only the real, the tangible, and the individual, and no grand system of history is expounded.

    But what is Gibbon's 'attitude' to history?  We can answer this question by turning immediately to his view of Byzantium, that 'tedious and uniform tale of weakness and misery', whose narration was 'an ungrateful and melancholy task'.  Such a judgment emerges from Gibbon's seemingly utopian belief in "a body of timeless, and eternally true principles, called Nature, Virtue, Wisdom, or Reasom."*6*  The Roman Republic was the embodiment of these right principles, and Whig notions of reason and liberty were programmed in also.  Accordingly, history furnishes a series of examples and warnings, which teach those timeless principles.  Explaining cause and effect, therefore, is very often irrelevant as far as Gibbon is concerned.  We might object now that history is not that simple.  But perhaps the lessons of history are precisely that simple, and the historian's 'ungrateful and melancholy task' is (as Rexroth has said of Thucydides) "to arrange, without falsifying, his material to show forth the lessons of history in their natural simplicity."*7*

    We can recognise in the Decline and Fall a profound sense of tragedy also.  The protagonist of Gibbon's history, its hero, is the man of reason.  His life in history is by nature tragic, as the martyrdom of Boethius and the murder of Hypatia show.*8*  But Gibbon's man of reason stands against the destructive and irrational folly of mankind, as did Augustine's Community of the Elect.  The Roman Republic, the embodiment of Enlightenment principles, is like "a passing avatar of the enduring City of Enlightenment."*9*  It is easy to get carried away in making such comparisons, but the defeat of the ideal by the real is the subject of all tragedy, and this is a theme that permeates Gibbon's work.  Any lover of Byzantium must see his period of interest as ultimately tragic: the dream of a universal, Christian and Roman Empire, a passing avatar of the Kingdom of Heaven, endured to Byzantium's final hour, but perished in the flames of Constantinople.

    Gibbon's ideal state was not the age of the Antonines, as is sometimes believed, but the Roman Republic.  How different this republic was from Byzantium!  It hardly seems necessary to rehearse the differences between these two states, with which Gibbon took issue, but it was with Byzantine depotism and religion that Gibbon's chief grievances lay.  Though Gibbon was thoroughly a disciple of Burke and had no quarrel with monarchy in the abstract, the historian never condescended 'to plead the cause of tyrants', nor 'to justify the maxims of persecution'.  Thus he writes:
'The legislative and executive power were centred in the person of the monarch, and the last remains of the authority of the senate were finally eradicated by Leo the Philosopher.  A lethargy of servitude had benumbed the minds of the Greeks; in their wildest tumults of rebellion they never aspired to the idea of a free constitution and the private character of the prince was the only source and measure of their public happiness.'
Runciman has criticised Gibbon's position on the Byzantine monarchy, enumerating what he calls certain "checks on despotism."  But these amount to nothing but a right to revolution shared by the people, the army, and the senate.*10*  This is hardly a system of government that we today could tolerate or respect.  There was, of course, no lack of Byzantine political theory.  It was widely believed and repeatedly rearticulated that absolutism was "the only practicable mode of government."*11*  But this theory was unoriginal, and never developed.  Development of political theory requires political discussion: "the canvassing of different views and the debate between rival ideas."*12*  There was, however, no parliament or assembly in which such ideas could have been discussed.  The chief task of the senate was not to debate anything, but to elect certain officials, and even this limited function was (as Gibbon notes) abolished by Leo VI.  There were no political parties, but only social tensions—tensions such that between the expanding land-owning aristocracy and the free peasantry, who clung to the soil.  Some have even observed the germs, "or even more than the germs," of Byzantine feudalism, but nothing on the order of an "agrarian party," or a "peasants' revolt" ever arose.*13*  Such troubles never emerged into the open, and there was no public discussion.

    If Gibbon had remained a devout Catholic, he might also have insisted with characteristic vehemence that the Christian, Roman Empire failed to live up to the high standard set for it by Eusebius.  The notion that the the Christian Empire was "a transient copy of the true reality of the Kingdom of Heaven,"*14* as Runciman calls it, was undoubtedly a doctrine upon which the Byzantine state rested.  But is it a doctrine that we would call respectable, or even sane?  There are of course many people now living, notably in Iran and the United States of America, who would happily embrace such a system, but such views are manifestly destructive to mankind.  Gibbon may exaggerate that the 'private character of the prince' was 'the only source and measure' of public happiness, but this must be only a very slight exaggeration.

    Gibbon concludes the unhappy paragraph on the autocracy of the Byzantines by adding that 'superstition rivetted their chains', noting later that 'the minds of the Greeks were bound in the fetters of a base and imperious superstition'.  Gibbon's position on Byzantine Christianity is clear.  The risible spectacle of the Ecumenical Synods summoned to sort out insoluble Christological disputes of the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries excite our astonishment and abuse our patience, and our disgust must be aroused by petty jealousies among the patriarchal sees, and by the abominable conduct of so many sages standing in God's holy fire, such as the unwholesome Cyril of Alexandria.  Again, Runciman comes to the defence of the ordinary Byzantine, who was "deeply religious and sincerely believed that life on this earth was but the prelude to the life everlasting in heaven," and who made "a genuine attempt to find the proper philosophical terms for the central Christian doctrine of the Incarnation."*15*  These statements may well be true, but Runciman's explanations are not actually at odds with Gibbon's treatment.  Religious zeal certainly exerts a strong influence on human behaviour, and may explain much, but does not excuse the fact that the Byzantine enthusiast was actuated by a will to persecute.

    What of Gibbon's views on Byzantine culture?  It is probably Gibbon's fifty-third chapter, as infamous perhaps as his 'candid and rational' treatments of Christianity, that inspires the most rage from modern Byzantinists.  The worship of images is condemned not for its own sake, but because the iconophile synod enjoined it on all believers.  Adoration of the emperor was likewise abhorrent to Gibbon, Byzantine art was rigid and flat, the ceremony of the court pompous and degrading, and monasticism an insult to the human spirit.  Few, were they exposed to it in the present age, could take seriously or endure the servility and toadyism of the imperial household, and the current popularity of monasticism speaks for itself.  But Gibbon's judgment of Byzantine art is a trifle unfair.  Byzantine art, in harmony with Plotinus, was concerned not with the material but with the eternal, and its artists aimed to express the doctrine of the incarnation "in terms of visible beauty."*16*  This should not have been incomprehensible to Gibbon, but it is unlikely that he had actually seen any Byzantine art. 

    Gibbon's judgment of Byzantine literature is on quite a different level.  Later Greek literature, even when it is meant to be serious, is 'a dark fund of superstition', with a copious admixture of 'fabulous and florid legends'.  The Greeks of Constantinople still comprehended their ancestral language, 'the most happy composition of human art,' and read the classics assiduously.  Nevertheless, this was not an achievement: 'not a single composition of history, philosophy, or literature, has been saved from oblivion by the intrinsic beauties of style or sentiment'.  Even their imitation of the classics was deficient.  Gibbon's disgust rises in an impressive crescendo:

In every page our taste and reason are wounded by the choice of gigantic and obsolete words, a stiff and intricate phraseology, the discord of images, the childish play of false or unseasonable ornament, and the painful attempt to elevate themselves, to astonish the reader, and to involve a trivial meaning in the smoke of obscurity and exaggeration.

Has a stronger condemnation of the literature of an entire culture ever been written?  Has it ever been more thoroughly deserved?  Gibbon, of course, did not use Psellus' Chronographia, whose "wit and vividness" would have appealed to him, nor did he consult the Strategicon of Cecaumenus, the work of a "down to earth" soldier, whom Gibbon would have liked.*17*  But these texts were published in 1874 and 1881 respectively.  Constantine Porphyrogenitus, whose work Gibbon consulted and praised, deliberately eschews the insanity of overblown Atticism, and Gibbon's favourable judgment is fair.  But the vast majority of Byzantine authors are indeed verbose, obscure, and often vulgar.  Procopius and Agathias, who are usually considered good Atticists, are highly mannered, and borrow inappropriately from the vocabulary of Aristophanes.  The poetry of George of Pisidia, though useful to an historian, cannot be read for pleasure, is full of unseasonable images, and strains the Greek language beyond a reasonable limit.  The Timarion, supposedly a humorous text, compares the arrangement of tents at a fair to so many centipedes.  Anna Comnena was as accomplished a euphuist as any other Byzantine author, and Theodore Metochites, the master pedant, never wrote one word if ten would suffice.  Only a few authors have been named, but even Runciman agrees that Byzantine literary style is usually 'affected and verbose'.  Real originality is very difficult in music, for instance, and the Byzantine, though probably quite distinct from the music of the Classical Age, differs only slightly from other Oriental music, but it can still be heard in most Orthodox churches, and is still frequently recorded.  Byzantine art has already been discussed, but we can add that it made no small contribution to the Secessionist movement, and Art Nouveau can be said to have taken some inspiration from it also.  It is not unreasonable to claim that aspected of Byzantine culture can be appreciated now.  But we must be honest about Byzantine literature. 

    The Byzantines were by no means unintelligent, and they were certainly capable of subtle and probing thought.  But as Byzantium cast off the remnants of the Roman and Latin tradition, Greek heritage began to weigh heavily upon her.  This is a sharp contrast to the state of the Latin West, or the Arabic East, with their plurality of vernacular languages and local dialects, all of which interacted with their respective language of religion, so as to produce a lively and vigorous scholarly idiom.  The Byzantines, however, succumbed to the common disease of Classicists: the tendency to believe that "the whole of wisdom is to be found in the past," and that the task of the present age is merely to copy and recapitulate that wisdom.  A lofty and rhythmical style, beloved by Cicero and Quintilian, reached a stage of over-ripeness during the Second Sophistic when form was preferred over matter.  The Byzantines inherited this tendency, and never put it down.  A gulf widened between everyday speech and the Greek used by scholars, which wore (as it were) "evening dress," and the language used became "too elaborate and too artificial to be a free channel for thought."*18*  So much Byzantine literature is checked by "style and the recalcitrance of language," that it is very difficult to determine what the character of Byzantine thought actually was.

    Something should be said about Gibbon's own literary style and its application to his Byzantine chapters.  Most abridgements of Gibbon either condense these heavily, or omit them altogether.  Why?  They are by far the most interesting part of his work.  Gibbon's wit and irony are at their most effective in describing the sexual habits of the young Theodora, the condemnation of Constantine Copronymous, the bizarre coronation of Michael the Stammerer, the buffoonery of Michael III, and the talents of Constantine Porphyrogenitus.  Is there a writing style better suited to the narration of the first crusade, in which the first battle arose, near Semlin, from an argument over the price of a pair of shoes and left five thousand dead?  One also gets the impression reading Gibbon's description of the crusaders' interview with the emperor Alexius that, if safety pins had been invented, Christendom's holy warriors would have worn them in their noses.  Even when irony is not called for, as in the fourth crusade, or the taking of Constantinople by the Turks, the majesty of Gibbon's sonorous periods is well suited to the gravity of his material.  But for the most part, Gibbon's muse of history appears not as the exalted goddess of Livy or Tacitus, but rather in the burlesque garb of the child Theodora dancing naked on the head of a bear.*19*  This and the examples listed above evince a sympathy for Gibbon's subject, or at the very least a sympathy for what his sources actually said.

    Gibbon's sympathy for Byzantium is subtle, but it is indeed real.  It reaches its peak is Gibbon's sixty-eighth chapter, which narrates the final taking of Constantinople, when the city "which had defied the power of Chosroes, the Chagan, and the caliphs," was "irretrievably subdued by the arms of Mahomet the second."  The narrative is full of real pathos, and it is in this chapter that the Decline and Fall reaches its climax: the young Sultan enters the ruins of the palace of the Caesars, and viewing the wreckage about him, pronounces an elegant distich of Persian poetry: "The spider has wove his web in the Imperial palace; and the owl hath sung her watch-song on the towers of Afrasiab."  We can easily imagine this couplet as a cypher for Gibbon's enitre work.  The spider and the owl, well-acknowledged symbols of waste and desolation in Persian poetry, remind us of the tragic end towards which all history moves, and they warn us of monarchy's unsteady foundation.  Afrasiab, the mythical ancestor of the Turkish nation, is himself buried in the dust of history and his accomplishments are ruined: Mehmet knows that one day he shall be likewise forgotten. 

    By way of conclusion, I want to pose a final question: is Gibbon unfair to Byzantium?  To a great extent the answer to this question depends as much on what we think of Byzantium as on what we think of Gibbon.  But are not the values of the Enlightenment still in some sense dominant in the West, or have we truly sunk so deeply into the morasse of relativism that we cannot agree with Gibbon's or any other judgment?  Can we not, at least, respect Gibbon's boldness in declaring his biases so forthrightly?  In any case, many of us might agree with Rexroth that Gibbon depreciates the Byzantine achievement much less than do Procopius, Anna Comnena, Michael Psellus, and Gemistus Plethon.  Though such a claim must not be pushed too far, it has merit.  Rexroth is right in observing that we might well imagine Gibbon fitting in amongst the best of the Byzantine historians who were his sources.

*1*Young, G.M., Gibbon, pp. 73-74.
*3*Morgan, Edward Gibbon and the East, p. 85.
*4*Ibid., p. 86.
*5*Rexroth, Classics Revisited, p. 169.
*6*Barnes, S. B. Eward Gibbon's Eutopia, p. 14.
*7*Rexroth, p. 47.
*8*Rexroth, p. 167.
*10*Runciman, Gibbon and Byzantium, p. 108.
*11*Barker, E.  Social and Political Thought in Byzntium, p. 1.
*12*Ibid., p. 5.
*13*Ibid., p. 5-6.
*15*Ibid., p. 109.
*16*Ibid., p. 107.
*17*Ibid., pp. 104-105.
*18*Barker, E. op. cit., p. 3.
*19*Rexroth, I have lost the reference.