Harrison Middleton University

Reading Gibbon

Reading Gibbon

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April 29, 2016

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

The following list compiles ten things I learned about Gibbon by reading the footnotes from The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. First of all, I highly recommend his footnotes, just for the fun of trying to puzzle out what Gibbon deems worthy of being source-material. But also, because his notes guide the reader to understand how he uses source materials, which is very relevant to his historical work. Gibbon’s sources span the spectrum from poetry to legal documents to government decrees to military speeches. Without the footnotes, it is impossible to weed out fact from possible fiction. At times, too, he includes sarcasm without alerting the reader (outside of the footnote reference). And at times, he acts as if in mid-conversation with the reader, expecting us to know the reference and text as thoroughly as he does. He also expects us to know Latin and Greek. The following list is far short of all of the hilarious notes I have compiled, but it gives a sense of Gibbon’s tone, irony, sarcasm, writing style, and most of all, his ego.

1] Gibbon plays fast and loose with translations. One example of this is footnote 34, Chapter XXXI, which reads: “It is incumbent upon me to explain the liberties which I have taken with the text of Ammianus. 1. I have melted down into one piece the sixth chapter of the fourteenth and the fourth of the twenty-eighth book. 2. I have given order and connection to the confused mass of materials. 3. I have softened some extravagant hyperboles and pared away some superfluities of the original. 4. I have developed some observations which were insinuated rather than expressed. With these allowances my version will be found, not literal indeed, but faithful and exact.” I laugh out loud at his idea of faithful representation every time. Of course, he could very well be faithful…so much depends upon our own perspective. (I give him much credit for incorporating the original text in the footnotes so that the reader can measure the citation for himself (if one is able to read foreign languages)). Which brings me to point number two.

2] Gibbon incorporates a lot of Greek, Latin and some French in his footnotes. He does not offer the translation for the reader because we are meant to understand the context from his text. He fluidly jumps back and forth and he expects much from the reader’s ability too. (I find no need to place an example, but his footnotes are riddled with foreign languages).

3] Gibbon clearly read as much material as possible in preparation for writing The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. As much as he relies on these sources, he rarely grants a full compliment to the writer. Even to Ammianus, who is the most highly esteemed source in the text, I believe, he offers some remark of dissatisfaction. Gibbon usually couples a compliment with a derogatory remark of nearly equal weight. In the following example, he speaks harshly of St. Ambrose (one of his least favorite sources, who he, ironically, cites quite a bit). In footnote 96 from Chapter XXVII, he writes: “His epistle is a miserable rhapsody on a noble subject. Ambrose could act better than he could write. His compositions are destitute of taste or genius; without the spirit of Tertullian, the copious elegance of Lactantius, the lively wit of Jerom, or the grave energy of Augustin.” (It should be noted that all of the authors whom he compliments here, he also derides at some point, though not with such harshness).

4] Gibbon’s sources span the spectrum of poetry, history, philosophy, religious and legal texts. This does not mean that he places equal importance on each of these styles. Instead, he offers the reader his personal account of the individual author of these accounts. Some of which he finds decent historians (regardless of their genre) and some of them he finds false and witless. He draws meaning from many texts and then presents it so that one can understand how Gibbon reads a text and what he might be looking for (as historian and/or philosopher). Footnote 149 from Chapter XXXI reads: “I have disdained to mention a very foolish, and probably a false, report…, that Honorious was alarmed by the loss of Rome till he understood that it was not a favourite chicken of that name, but only the capital of the world, which had been lost. Yet even this story is some evidence of the public opinion.”

5] Sometimes I do not know if Gibbon is being ironic or not. But I take this footnote as an honest desire to save the beauty and perfection of his contemporary British society. (In which case, this tremendous history of Rome may have been written as a cautionary tale). In footnote 15, from Chapter XXXIX, Gibbon writes, “The merit of discovery has too often been stained with avarice, cruelty, and fanaticism; and the intercourse of nations has produced the communication of disease and prejudice. A singular exception is due to the virtue of our own times and country. The five great voyages, successively undertaken by the command of his present Majesty, were inspired by the pure and generous love of science and mankind. The same prince, adapting his benefactions to the different stages of society, has founded a school of painting in his capital, and has introduced into the islands of the South Sea the vegetables and animals most useful to human life.”

6] Gibbon can be quite pointed. If he doesn’t like something, the reader will likely know. Footnote 23 from Chapter XXXVII reads, “All that learning can extract from the rubbish of the dark ages is copiously stated by Archbishop Usher in his Britannicarum Ecclesiarum”.

7] Gibbon is not overwhelmingly sympathetic or flexible. Footnote 27 of Chapter XXXI reads, “[A]mbiguity is an inexcusable fault in the language of laws.”

8] Sometimes Gibbon treats the authors of religious texts a bit harshly. On his hierarchical scale of a source’s credibility, he would probably place religious texts at the lower end. For example, footnote 77 of Chapter XXX reads, “How many interesting facts might Orosius have inserted in the vacant space which is devoted to pious nonsense.” (In other words, Orosius was writing of miracles and religious history, but not ‘credible’, ‘factual’ history that Gibbon desired. And yet, Gibbon uses Orosius as a source and the reader only knows of Gibbon’s feelings from the footnotes).

9] Gibbon clearly has a preconceived notion of the ‘true Roman’. Footnote 75 from Chapter XXX reads, “Yet the Jupiter of Radagaisus, who worshipped Thor and Woden, was very different from the Olympic or Capitoline Jove. The accommodating temper of polytheism might unite those various and remote deities; but the genuine Romans abhorred the human sacrifices of Gaul and Germany.” I wonder, what exactly did Gibbon believe was “the genuine Roman”?

10] Gibbon likes sarcasm and employs it liberally, particularly in reference to any religious miracle. For example, Gibbon laughs off the notion of a miracle in the form of a dead man talking. Footnote 76 from Chapter XXVIII reads, “Martin of Tours…extorted this confession from the mouth of a dead man. The error is allowed to be natural; the discovery is supposed to be miraculous. Which of the two was likely to happen most frequently?”

11] Just for a bonus: Gibbon loves his own wit and sometimes cannot stop himself from making a ridiculous comment. For example, footnote 118 from Chapter XXXVII discusses corrections to the Bible. Gibbon quips: “Notwithstanding these corrections, the passage is still wanting in twenty-five Latin MSS… the oldest and the fairest; two qualities seldom united, except in manuscripts.”

I have compiled pages of notes on Gibbon’s notes and I sincerely suggest any serious reader of Gibbon to do the same. It’s absolutely fun and instructive. Please add any additional comments on Gibbon or his footnotes. Thanks for reading!


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3 thoughts on “Reading Gibbon”

  1. Alissa Simon

    A quick correction to number 3 above. I no longer think that Ammianus is his favorite source, and coming up with a favorite is tough. But I would add that he relies heavily on Dion (who just so happened to write during Gibbon’s version of ‘real’ Rome). He also notes his approval of David Hume’s Roman scholarship.

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