On this Episode of The Torch, we examine The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a literary masterpiece written by Edward Gibbon.
Here to discuss the lessons The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire has to offer is Leo Damrosch Ph. D, Professor of Literature Emeritus at Harvard
This transcript has been edited slightly for readability.
The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Ed Leon: [The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire] This is a book that was written over 200 years ago, how is it still relevant today?
Leo Damrosch: I think modern historians of the ancient world agree it’s quite amazing how well he told the story. There are some angles that in those days weren’t taken so seriously—economic pressures, the lives of common people, certainly, modern historians have added a lot—but everybody says, just to tell the story of a thousand years with the rich detail, but also the kind of novelistic energy that he does, has never been matched.
Ed Leon: Is it even accurate, still, as history?
Leo Damrosch: Absolutely so. It’s not considered factually wrong; it’s a matter of interpretation whether people would argue with it now.
Ed Leon: I know this course will really dive deep into this book. It’s 2500 pages long—as a work, it’s pretty epic.
Leo Damrosch: A million and a half words.
Ed Leon: Do we need to read it all to really get its impact?
Leo Damrosch: No, by no means. There are some good abridgments. I think people who do decide to make the long march from beginning to end are glad they did it. Winston Churchill did that when he was a young man, a cavalry officer in India, he started reading The Decline and Fall and he said “I rode through it triumphantly from one end to the other.”
Winston Churchill when he was a young cavalry officer in India, he started reading The Decline and Fall and he said “I rode through it triumphantly from one end to the other”.
Leo Damrosch: The first half of it is as far as he originally thought he would go, which is in the 5th century. The Roman Empire in the West collapsed and gave way to the Goths, the vandals and people eventually became Frenchmen and Spanish. Then, he thought, the Eastern Empire in Constantinople went on calling itself Roman and why not follow it all the way up to 1453, which is when the Turks finally took Constantinople.
Ed Leon: As you examined it, are there lessons that we can take for modern day society?
Leo Damrosch: I think so. Edward Gibbon thought one of them was the terrible danger of a single autocratic ruler, which he thought was the poison that destroyed the Roman Empire. You might get a wise and good Emperor, but you might get a pathological, one like Caligula or Nero. There was that. But the largest theme—I know he was thinking of his own time, because the British Empire was still growing—he thought the Roman Empire finally fell mainly because it was just overextended, they could not govern so many people so far away without an enormous army, which was sapping their economy and finally just too many firestorms. He thought England was doing the same thing, trying to govern the world.
Ed Leon: You call this “hidden poisons” in the course. Do you think that are lessons for modern Europe or maybe even the United States today?
Leo Damrosch: Maybe not as explicit lessons, but his whole take on the ideal political order is very much like that of our American founders. Checks and balances, the various obstacles to any single kind of charismatic figure rising to supreme power. I think he would admire what the United States has made of itself.
Ed Leon: Absolutely. In the time where he wrote this, his description of Christianity was controversial: how so?
Leo Damrosch: It wouldn’t be today I think, because most believers think that Christianity…it grounds itself on faith rather than on historical factual evidence, but in Gibbon’s day, there was a very strong wish that the evidence should be historical and factual. Gibbon basically said at the beginning, “I’m not questioning people’s faith, but if you want to talk about whether those miracles really occurred, whether the persecutions were as terrible as the later Christian writer said they were, then I think we have some evidence we ought to look at.” That was quite scandalous at the time.
Ed Leon: Really. There’s so much that’s covered, but there was a time when the Roman Empire tried to return to Paganism, right? Talk a little bit about that.
Leo Damrosch: Yeah, briefly. What was more surprising, I think modern historians would agree, is that Constantine not only converted to Christianity as the first Christian Emperor, but made the entire empire Christian. If somebody else had been in his shoes, maybe that wouldn’t had happened. Very shortly after his death, the Emperor named Julian, who became know by Christians as the Apostate, tried to reinstall Paganism. It was damned to failure. Paganism was a bunch of disorganized beliefs that never had an organized structure. Christianity did have an organized structure. It was really a kind of nostalgic effort to bring back something that nobody wanted anymore.
Ed Leon: He also devotes a large amount of the narrative to the rise of Islam, can you talk about that a little bit?
Leo Damrosch: Yeah. I’m certainly no expert on that field, but people who are seem to agree that he tells the story not just well, but very sensitively. He has great respect for Islam, for the simplicity of the faith, for the sincerity of the believers; his portrait of Muhammad is one of the noblest in the entire Decline and Fall. A person of genius, he thought.
Learn more: The Rise of Islam
Ed Leon: Why do you call it noble?
Leo Damrosch: It’s noble because he sees him (as he sees various charismatic leaders like that over the centuries) as raising above everybody else, as really exceptional. There would not had been Islam without this extraordinary founder. He understands about the split between Sunni and Shiite, which occurred very early. He describes not just the spread politically of the Islam, but its intellectual strength, the great Islamic kingdom in Spain, I don’t think there’s a negative thing throughout there. When it comes to the Crusades he’s appalled at the way the Christians behaved.
Ed Leon: Yeah. No kidding. What are some of your favorite scenes or characters from the book?
Leo Damrosch: I think some of the most appealing characters are the ones you wouldn’t expect. Like Attila, the Hun. It turns out to be not the savage that we’ve been led to believe, but actually a very able leader who managed to coalesce a bunch of feuding tribes and turned them into a major force. In fact, the theme throughout is, what the Romans called barbarians were really ethnic peoples who weren’t Roman rather than crude savages. People like that, Tamerlane the magnificent, as he was known, just fascinate Gibbon. He had a kind of almost romantic notion of exotic places and people.
Learn more: Genghis Khan and Tamerlane
Ed Leon: Do you think that, that colors historical aspect of it? Because you mentioned he wrote in a novelistic style. Talk about what you appreciate about him as a writer.
Leo Damrosch: His style is not just elegant, but incredibly organized in structuring. He always, paragraph by paragraph, makes you weigh things and see “It could be this, it could be that.” In fact, his favorite novel was Tom Jones by Henry Fielding. Fielding was a professional lawyer, he became a judge; Fielding’s theme is: “Don’t assume that circumstantial evidence means what it seems to.” His novel teaches us that what we thought we understood might have been something very different, even though the clues were planted. Of course, in history, that is not a novelist making it all come out, but that’s how Gibbon operates. He doesn’t just tell you what happened; he helps you weigh the evidence and think about how you would assess the motives of these people and when he doesn’t know, he tells you he doesn’t.
Ed Leon: Does the course also examine Gibbon as the man? About him as the author?
Leo Damrosch: Yeah, it talks about his life as a boy, he was kind of bookish, didn’t go to school much, he had tutors, he conceived the idea of becoming a historian, he just fell in love with the idea. As a young man, in his 20s, he visited Rome and claims, at least, that while he was listening to the barefoot Franciscan Friars, singing their evening vesper service in the ruins of what had been the temple of Jupiter, that the idea came to his mind, “I should be writing about what happened to the Ancient Romans.”
Ed Leon: He did not narrow his focus, he took on the whole Megillah.
First Gibbon thought he would just write about the city of Rome, then he realized “No, I’m writing about the whole Roman Empire,” then he thought, “I’m writing about the Byzantine Empire and the Arabs.”
Leo Damrosch: That’s right. First he thought he would just write about the city of Rome, then he realized “No, I’m writing about the whole Roman Empire,” then he thought, “I’m writing about the Byzantine Empire and the Arabs.”
Ed Leon: I’ll put one final question to you. As you went back and reexamined this material on the book, did anything jump out to you as new insights? I mean, you’ve studied this a long time and you’re such an expert on it, but did anything pop out fresh or just relevant to you now, as you examine this course?
Leo Damrosch: I don’t think that because I’ve known the book for years, and even written a bit about it, but I think what always strikes me as it does, when you read Anna Karenina or any great imaginative work is how fresh it is, how much you want to get back inside that imaginative world. It does feel new in that respect.
Ed Leon: It’s an epic book, it’s a fantastic book, we’re so looking forward to having you guide us through it on the course. We thank you so much for being with us today.
Leo Damrosch: Thank you very much indeed.