Gibbon: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, VI

August 14, 2022

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Volume 6
Edward Gibbon
(Everyman’s, 1993) [1788]
xxv + 684 p.

The previous volumes had brought the story to roughly the eleventh century, on the cusp of the Crusades. In this final volume Gibbon gathers up all the dangling threads and follows them to the middle of the fifteenth century, when, with the fall of Constantinople, the decline and fall of the Roman empire was completed.

Naturally, the focus is mainly on the eastern empire during these centuries, but he also keeps an attentive eye on the city of Rome. Along the way, we learn about the rise of the Ottoman Turks, the Crusades, religious controversies and schisms and councils, the sack of Constantinople in 1204 (after which, for a time, it was in the hands of Latin-speaking Crusader emperors), the migration of the papacy to Avignon, the Mongol invasions, and, of course, the final defeat of the eastern empire in 1453.

These pages are peopled by a remarkable cast of characters, from great Crusaders like Tancred (in whom “we discover all the virtues of a perfect knight”) and St Louis IX of France (“the father of his people, the friend of his neighbors, and the terror of the infidels”), to admirable foes such as Saladin, Timur, and, at the last, Mehmed II. Nearly an entire chapter is devoted to the life of Rienzi, who tried to revive Rome in the fourteenth century (and who, for his trouble, became the subject of a Wagnerian opera).

It’s a big story, bursting with incident, and boasting a sometimes bewildering surfeit of narrative paths to tread. Some, such as those about the Crusades, were fairly familiar; others, such as those about the Turks and Mongols, were not. Generally speaking, the predominant focus on the long denouement of the eastern empire made this volume the least engaging in the set for me. In these notes I’ll not attempt anything like a thorough overview. Instead, I’ll simply pick out a few aspects that particularly interested me.

*

The tendency today is to look askance at the Crusades, for a variety of reasons that are too familiar to bother with here. Gibbon, for his part, sees them generally as motivated by an unseemly fanaticism, but he is not unwilling to acknowledge individual excellence among the Crusaders when he sees it, nor does he overlook what he sees as their positive consequences. We saw in the previous volume, for instance, that he thought contact with the western powers en route to the Holy Land gave a very salutary spark to the ailing, inert cultural life of Byzantium. He also, in this volume, makes an argument that the Crusades benefitted western Europe by breaking the feudal system:

“The independence, rapine, and discord of the feudal lords were unmixed with any semblance of good; and every hope of industry and improvement was crushed by the iron weight of the martial aristocracy. Among the causes that undermined that Gothic edifice, a conspicuous place must be allowed to the crusades. The estates of the barons were dissipated, and their race was often extinguished, in these costly and perilous expeditions. Their poverty extorted from their pride those charters of freedom which unlocked the fetters of the slave, secured the farm of the peasant and the shop of the artificer, and gradually restored a substance and a soul to the most numerous and useful part of the community. The conflagration which destroyed the tall and barren trees of the forest gave air and scope to the vegetation of the smaller and nutritive plants of the soil.”

“Unmixed” and “every” strike me as exaggeration; no doubt feudalism had its weaknesses, but the testimony of medieval Europe is more mixed than Gibbon allows here. All the same, it is interesting to me that he makes this argument at all. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century there was a theory that the Crusades were undertaken by those members of European society who had nothing to lose: unpropertied second sons, and the like. On that view, the Crusades were a kind of greedy violence by which Christendom enriched and employed itself by spilling the blood of Muslims. This theory has been overturned in medieval scholarship, I believe, and has reverted to something very much like what Gibbon argues here: that the wealthy families of Europe impoverished rather than enriched themselves by taking the cross. I’d not have been surprised to find that Gibbon was the originator of the earlier theory; it is instructive to learn that he was not.

**

At one point, Gibbon discusses the work of the Byzantine historian Laonikos Chalkokondyles (c.1430-c.1470), and the result is quite diverting. By this time quite a lot of Crusaders had come through Byzantium, spinning tales about home, and it is amusing to read what the easterners — or at least this one easterner — thought about the western nations.

Of Germany, for instance, Laonikos writes that

“The soil, except in figs and olives, is sufficiently fruitful; the air is salubrious; the bodies of the natives are robust and healthy; and these cold regions are seldom visited with the calamities of pestilence, or earthquakes…and the Germans may boast of the invention of gunpowder and cannon.”

I’d not be at all surprised to learn that the Germans did indeed boast of it.

Of the French, he notes that they

“…are an ancient and opulent people; and their language and manners, though somewhat different, are not dissimilar from those of the Italians. Vain of the Imperial dignity of Charlemagne, of their victories over the Saracens, and of the exploits of their heroes, Oliver and Rowland, they esteem themselves the first of the western nations; but this foolish arrogance has been recently humbled by the unfortunate events of their wars against the English, the inhabitants of the British island.”

Some things, it seems, just don’t change. Although the English cannot smile too broadly at this appraisal, for they are next:

“…the land is overspread with towns and villages: though destitute of wine, and not abounding in fruit-trees, it is fertile in wheat and barley; in honey and wool; and much cloth is manufactured by the inhabitants… Their language bears no affinity to the idioms of the Continent: in the habits of domestic life, they are not easily distinguished from their neighbors of France: but the most singular circumstance of their manners is their disregard of conjugal honor and of female chastity. In their mutual visits, as the first act of hospitality, the guest is welcomed in the embraces of their wives and daughters: among friends they are lent and borrowed without shame; nor are the islanders offended at this strange commerce, and its inevitable consequences.”

In the face of this scandalous reputation, Gibbon protests that poor Laonikas has “confounded a modest salute with a criminal embrace”, and draws this lesson: “to distrust the accounts of foreign and remote nations, and to suspend our belief of every tale that deviates from the laws of nature and the character of man.”

****

For me, as, I expect, for many readers, the most engrossing section of this volume concerned the siege of Constantinople in 1453. I was startled to realize, while reading, that although I consider this siege as historically important I did not know much of anything about how it happened. I did not know, for instance, that the siege was led by a young (just 21 years old) Ottoman commander, the Sultan Mehmed II. I did not know that the attacking force numbered in the vicinity of 200,000 men, while the defenders, under the command of Constantine XI Paleologus, were fewer than 10,000. Nor did I know that the attack on Constantinople is important in the annals of military history because it made use of the new technology of gunpowder, which was to so profoundly change both tactics and strategy in the centuries to come.

Most poignant to me was the account of how, after nearly two months of siege,  the people of Constantinople prepared for what they could see was imminent defeat. Of the eve before the city was finally taken, Gibbon writes:

“They wept, they embraced; regardless of their families and fortunes, they devoted their lives; and each commander, departing to his station, maintained all night a vigilant and anxious watch on the rampart. The emperor, and some faithful companions, entered the dome of St. Sophia, which in a few hours was to be converted into a mosque; and devoutly received, with tears and prayers, the sacrament of the holy communion. He reposed some moments in the palace, which resounded with cries and lamentations; solicited the pardon of all whom he might have injured; and mounted on horseback to visit the guards, and explore the motions of the enemy. The distress and fall of the last Constantine are more glorious than the long prosperity of the Byzantine Cæsars.”

And so the city fell. Mehmed II, who earned in this affair the cognomen “the Conqueror”, allowed his soldiers three days of looting, slaughter, and rape, after which about 30,000 civilians, the last remnant of the Roman empire, were sold into slavery.

***

Around the same time — technically, a few years earlier, but from this distance they look nearly simultaneous — across the sea in Rome, a scholar named Poggio Bracciolini stood with a friend overlooking the ruins of the Roman forum, meditating on the transitoriness of human endeavours, and he later composed a memorable lament for the city, which Gibbon preserves for us:

“Her primeval state, such as she might appear in a remote age, when Evander entertained the stranger of Troy, has been delineated by the fancy of Virgil. This Tarpeian rock was then a savage and solitary thicket: in the time of the poet, it was crowned with the golden roofs of a temple; the temple is overthrown, the gold has been pillaged, the wheel of fortune has accomplished her revolution, and the sacred ground is again disfigured with thorns and brambles. The hill of the Capitol, on which we sit, was formerly the head of the Roman empire, the citadel of the earth, the terror of kings; illustrated by the footsteps of so many triumphs, enriched with the spoils and tributes of so many nations. This spectacle of the world, how is it fallen! how changed! how defaced! The path of victory is obliterated by vines, and the benches of the senators are concealed by a dunghill. Cast your eyes on the Palatine hill, and seek among the shapeless and enormous fragments the marble theatre, the obelisks, the colossal statues, the porticos of Nero’s palace: survey the other hills of the city, the vacant space is interrupted only by ruins and gardens. The forum of the Roman people, where they assembled to enact their laws and elect their magistrates, is now enclosed for the cultivation of pot-herbs, or thrown open for the reception of swine and buffaloes. The public and private edifices, that were founded for eternity, lie prostrate, naked, and broken, like the limbs of a mighty giant; and the ruin is the more visible, from the stupendous relics that have survived the injuries of time and fortune.”

It could hardly be said better.

***

All good things must come to an end, and we now, at long last, have come to the end of Gibbon’s great work. Nearly two hundred and fifty years have passed since its publication, and naturally some of his scholarship has been superseded, but as a masterpiece of both historiography and of English prose it can have few, if any, rivals. To read the book is to acquire an education in Western history; its principal themes and theses are, as he says, “connected with many of the events most interesting in human annals”. To wit:

the artful policy of the Cæsars, who long maintained the name and image of a free republic; the disorders of military despotism; the rise, establishment, and sects of Christianity; the foundation of Constantinople; the division of the monarchy; the invasion and settlements of the Barbarians of Germany and Scythia; the institutions of the civil law; the character and religion of Mahomet; the temporal sovereignty of the popes; the restoration and decay of the Western empire of Charlemagne; the crusades of the Latins in the East: the conquests of the Saracens and Turks; the ruin of the Greek empire; the state and revolutions of Rome in the middle age.

The very last sentence of the book is a famous one; he, like Poggio Bracciolini, was inspired to write as he sat overlooking the Forum:

“It was among the ruins of the Capitol that I first conceived the idea of a work which has amused and exercised near twenty years of my life, and which, however inadequate to my own wishes, I finally deliver to the curiosity and candor of the public.”

I am happy to acknowledge my gratitude to him — and happy, too, to have finally finished! It took nearly 10 months for me to read the entire book, and, given my state of life, it is fair to say that this counts as a modest but, remembering the parable of the widow’s mite, fine achievement.

In any case, I believe that I have now concluded my efforts to blog about this large work. May those who think I have blogged too much, or those who think I have blogged too little, forgive me. May those who think I have blogged just enough join me in giving thanks to God.

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