The History of History 3: Shall We Decline & Fall?

This week’s readings bring us into the early modern age of historical writing. Lorenzo Valla’s Discourse on the Forgery of the Alleged Donation of Constantine (1440) reveals that the Vatican’s primary evidence for defending the pope’s political power is falsified. Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–89) is a mammoth text that supplies a God’s eye view of Roman history from Caesar Augustus onward. These two texts differ from modern historiography because they draw heavily from classical (particularly Latin) literature, and the authors assume that the reader is educated in the classics. Today, it is usually philosophers and classicists, not historians, who assume such familiarity with the works of antiquity. Still, Valla and particularly Gibbon read more like twenty-first-century historians than Thucydides, Biblical authors, or Sima Qian, whom we tackled last week. Both Valla and Gibbon do not fictionalize the past; they do not make historical actors act as they want them to act (see Thucydides, Sima Qian, etc., for examples of fictionalized history). Instead, Valla and Gibbon seek to understand what really happened, so while they analyze their sources, they do not alter their sources.

Lorenzo Valla does not display elements of modern historiography like a narrow thesis statement, footnotes, or a calm, measured tone. Rather, Valla works within the venerable tradition of polemics, writing a passionate philosophical dialogue in which he speaks directly to past popes and the unknown forger of the Donation. There may also be an element of pastiche to Valla’s Discourse — he criticizes a fake classical dialogue by writing his own classical dialogue, in the tradition of Cato and other soaring orators. Valla particularly reminded me of Cicero’s Catiline Orations, in which Cicero denounced Catiline to his face for planning a coup. Here, Valla denounces a series of popes (the current one, but also deceased ones) for promulgating a fake document that authorizes their role as political, and not only spiritual, leaders. Valla asks if the popes have been ignorant or simply devious to use a forgery as cover for their political actions. The author holds the popes responsible for what they should have done (i.e., not circulate the Donation); Valla does not supply fictionalized anecdotes or fawning language that would let the popes off the hook. Due to its line-by-line analysis of the Donation, its pinpointing of incorrect Roman vocabulary and basic geographic errors, and its similarity to a lawyer’s argument, Valla’s Discourse feels like a modern work of history. One can imagine that the Discourse, revealing the forgery and criticizing the Vicar of Christ, would have had the effect of the Pentagon Papers or Wikileaks today. People would have been stunned, then aggravated. Indeed, Valla’s translator Christopher B. Coleman says in his introduction that Valla’s discovery gave ammunition to Martin Luther’s movement to reform Christianity. Valla is therefore an early example of a historian changing the public conversation with his scholarship.

Edward Gibbon does not discuss other historians’ arguments in the way that twenty-first-century historians supply “literature reviews” in their introductions (although there were likely few historians in 1776 with Gibbon’s rigorous standards). Like Valla, Gibbon lacks an up-front thesis statement; Gibbon does give something close to a thesis in his “General Observations” chapter, but he only reaches this thesis midway through the project, when the first portions of the text have already been published. The author also indicates at various times that he interprets the Bible in a fairly literal manner. Other than these points, though, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire resembles (indeed, is the progenitor of) modern historical writing. The author supplies extensive footnotes, which contain extra research, tangential asides, a list of the classical texts on which he relies, and commentary about his sources. Gibbon discusses geography, politics, religion, and even some economics, reflecting not only the wide-ranging philosophic studies of the eighteenth century, but also a desire to understand all facets of his subject. He has a scholarly question (namely, why did the Western and Eastern Roman Empires collapse?), and he discusses the implications of his research for European politics. Gibbon even reveals his basic assumptions and premises as an author — he is proud to be an Englishman, and he will keep writing and not retire into a gentleman’s life so long as the public remains interested in his work. While my classicist peers tell me that parts of Gibbon’s argument are no longer considered valid, I cannot help but see the beginning of the modern historical profession in Gibbon. Decline and Fall is historiography as we know it today.

That is not to say that Gibbon is without his problematic points (from our twenty-first-century vantage point). Like the writings of Immanuel Kant, Decline and Fall assumes that a racial hierarchy exists in the world, and Europeans sit at the top of that hierarchy. Africans, so-called barbarians, and the Arabs that Gibbon regards as rapacious savages (see pg. 288) lie beneath the Europeans. Separate from Gibbon’s racial views, contradictory ideas pull at each other within Gibbon’s argument. The author condemns many of the Caesars as tyrants, expressing praise for Roman republicanism, yet he lauds several of the Caesars (Augustus, Marcus Aurelius, and even Julian at times) for particular acts of genius. This nuanced stance suggests that Gibbon sees a constitutional monarchy, as in his Great Britain, as the proper form of government, between a full republic and a full dictatorship. Gibbon’s mixed messaging on politics lacks resolution in the text, though. Another complex matter is Gibbon’s attitude toward Christianity. In his introduction and notes, editor David Wormsley contends that Gibbon is highly critical of Christianity. While I did not find Gibbon to be as tough on Christianity as Wormsley claims, I did notice that Gibbon’s positions are difficult to reconcile. He condemns the Roman Catholics for destroying the Library of Alexandria, and he (in a very Protestant manner) dismisses the veneration of saints as a pagan corruption of true Christianity. At the same time, Gibbon expresses faith in Biblical events, if not in miraculous saint stories, and he writes that Catholicism helped to tame the Germanic barbarians. It seems like Gibbon is struggling to separate his personal religious beliefs from the recognition that Christianity was not always a constructive or rational factor in Roman history.

Despite the contradictions in Gibbon’s narrative, I thought the text was surprisingly readable, even funny at times, and educational about the Roman Empire. I found myself convinced by Gibbon’s claim that Emperor Julian’s war against Persia depleted the Empire’s resources, as well as the claim that political infighting left the Western Empire underequipped to stave off Germanic incursions. The damage wrought by ill-advised warfare, ignorance of new enemies, and political chaos reminded me of the United States today. Of all the aspects of Gibbon’s text, I admired the identification of historical ironies the most. There are four major ironies that Gibbon discusses, at least in the excerpts we read for class: (a) Augustus lauds republicanism while he uses its mechanisms to become a dictator; (b) Julian promises religious toleration, but in practice punishes Christians; (c) Christianity becomes Rome’s state religion anyway; and (d) Gibbon posits that occasionally the barbarians were more “civilized” than the Romans. It is this attention to nuanced historical detail, even as he covers monumental topics and trends, that makes Edward Gibbon a masterful historian.

Cover Image Source:
Image taken from Vol. 6, pg. 17, of Edward Gibbon, “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire … New edition,” with notes by Dean Milman and M. Guizot, and edited with additional notes by W. Smith. (London, 1854), British Library HMNTS 09039.c.1., British Library, Flickr Commons, no known copyright restrictions, accessed Sept. 21, 2016,


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