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Byzantium, Edward Gibbon, and The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

By Nicolas Soames

1 November 2008

The grandeur of Rome and its Western empire, its history, architecture and literature, still casts such a dominating influence over Europe that it rather eclipses our awareness of the Byzantine Empire that succeeded it.

But not to anyone who has read Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Published in six volumes between 1776 and 1789, it proved one of the major literary monuments of the English language, hugely popular in the time of the author, and still respected now.

This was partly because Gibbon (1737–1794) investigated his subject with great care and annotated his main narrative with thousands of references to the sources, an approach that became the norm for succeeding historians. But it has also been an enduring success because the subject was presented in English at its most grand – no historian since has matched the remarkable architecture of his sentences. While recounting the worst excesses and achievements of principal players in world history, Gibbon maintains a firm grip on his magnificent verbal domes and architraves.

Here is an example:

When Justinian ascended the throne, about fifty years after the fall of the Western empire, the kingdoms of the Goths and Vandals had obtained a solid, and, as it might seem, a legal establishment both in Europe and Africa. The titles, which Roman victory had inscribed, were erased with equal justice by the sword of the Barbarians; and their successful rapine derived a more venerable sanction from time, from treaties, and from the oaths of fidelity, already repeated by a second or third generation of obedient subjects. Experience and Christianity had refuted the superstitious hope that Rome was founded by the gods to reign forever over the nations of the earth. But the proud claim of perpetual and indefeasible dominion, which her soldiers could no longer maintain, was firmly asserted by her statesmen and lawyers, whose opinions have been sometimes revived and propagated in the modern schools of jurisprudence.

After Rome herself had been stripped of the Imperial purple, the princes of Constantinople assumed the sole and sacred sceptre of the monarchy; demanded, as their rightful inheritance, the provinces which had been subdued by the consuls, or possessed by the Caesars; and feebly aspired to deliver their faithful subjects of the West from the usurpation of heretics and Barbarians. The execution of this splendid design was in some degree reserved for Justinian.

I was reminded of the grandeur of Gibbon by the new exhibition that has just opened in the Royal Academy, London: BYZANTIUM 330–1453. It brings back into centre stage the Empire that began with Constantine’s new city overlooking the Bosporos, founded in 330, and which lasted until the Ottoman Empire, in 1453, finally broke through the thick and multilayered walls of what is now Istanbul.

Room after room at the Royal Academy is filled with icons large and small, illustrated psalters, intricately carved ivory, bells, paintings, gilded chalices and silverware. Rightly, it only refers to Gibbon in passing, for the point of the exhibition is to make us more aware of the unique nature of the Empire that lasted for a thousand years.

But having once spent spent a week recording an abridgement of The Decline and Fall with the Welsh actor Philip Madoc, he of the imperial voice, I heard in my memory the great sentences and phrases of that remarkable eighteenth-century historian.

Gibbon’s great work starts with the death of Augustus in Rome in AD 14. Augustus advised his successors not to expand the borders of the Roman empire because, he said, it had reached the furthest extent which was practical to maintain. But, argues Gibbon, stasis is no state for an empire – it must either expand or contract.

However, Gibbon’s main thesis was that the Empire declined and fell following the ‘degradation of civic virtue’ and the loss of martial spirit, perhaps affected by the Christian attitude of pacifism. He also contrasted the age of reason in which he himself lived with the supposed Dark Ages of the medieval period.

Though he, too, encountered ignorance: when presenting the second volume of The Decline and Fall to the Duke of Gloucester, the said duke laid the big book on the table and remarked, ‘Another damn’d thick, square book! Always, scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr Gibbon?’

Gibbon acknowledges the role the Byzantine empire played in world history. Latin was gradually superseded by Greek so that by 700 AD it was the language of the law, government and religion; and artistic and religious expression were affected as much by Eastern as by Western influences. Interacting with Persia, Egypt and the growing might of Islam, both in terms of military expansion as well as science and the arts, the Byzantine culture developed a very different character from its Roman origins.

Gibbon’s account of this second phase of the ‘Roman’ empire is laced with a certain disdain: ‘a degenerate race of princes’ he writes, and certainly it can seem so with its succession of emperors who died or were dismembered in unpleasant ways, and their misbehaving consorts. Even Justinian (484–565), one of the strongest figures, chose for a wife one Theodora, a woman whose public sexual activities were the stuff of common knowledge and experience.

I have returned to our recording (in two 6-CD volumes) of the useful abridgement of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall and found it is as hypnotic as I had remembered. This is due in part, of course, to the magisterial Philip Madoc, who has just the right amount of hauteur; but mostly to Gibbon himself who is always so clear despite a staggering vocabulary. I certainly recommend it as a fine adjunct to the Royal Academy exhibition: if you listen to the whole 12 CDs of the two volumes, you will have a better grasp of the Roman Empire in its two phases, and English at its apogee.

Nicolas Soames

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