Edward Gibbon: The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Ed. David Womersley. Penguin Classics (1994)
Gibbon observes that in the Arabian book par excellence, in the Koran, there are no camels; I believe if there were any doubt as to the authenticity of the Koran, this absence of camels would be sufficient to prove it is an Arabian work.- Jorge Luis Borges: "The Argentine Writer and Tradition"
What was my surprise, whilst trawling through the seemingly endless pages of volume 5 of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to find the following remark, squirreled away unobtrusively in a footnote?
... Mahomet himself, who was fond of milk, prefers the cow, and does not even mention the camel; but the diet of Mecca and Medina was already more luxurious ...- Gibbon, vol. 5, chapter L, ftnt.13
[Penguin Classics ed., vol. III, p. 155]
What's most interesting is that this remark follows a long disquisition on horses ["Arabia, in the opinion of the naturalist, is the genuine and original country of the horse" (III: 154-55.)], and is not really concerned with the Koran and its contents at all (except in passing).
Did Borges get it wrong? He did have a tendency to exaggerate the significance of particular passages he'd found in the classics which seemed to vindicate some particularly outrageous paradox of his: witness his claims about the legendary "602nd Night" of the 1001 Nights, when Scheherazade - allegedly - starts to retell her own story (for more on that assertion, see my essay here).
As in the case of Scheherazade, there's always a whisker of truth in what he says. After all, Mahomet could scarcely "not have mentioned" the camel anywhere except in the Koran, so Borges is teasing out an implication which is undoubtedly there in Gibbon's text - in however tenuous a form.
What else does Gibbon say in this memorable chapter 50 of the Decline and Fall, though? In the midst of a long discussion of Arabic culture, he suddenly gives vent to the following disavowal:
Their [the Arabs'] language and letters are copiously treated by Pocock ... and Niebuhr ... I pass slightly; I am not fond of repeating words like a parrot.- Gibbon, vol. 5, chapter L, ftnt.39
[Penguin Classics ed., vol. III, p. 164]
It wasn't his field. He was at the mercy of his sources. And (unfortunately) on this occasion - as so often latterly, once he'd left the better-trodden field of the Greek and Roman classics - they led him astray. A simple search of an online version of the Koran gives us no fewer than 18 matches for the word "camel."
X marks the spot.
"It was here on the evening of the 15th October, 1764 that Edward Gibbon formed the idea of writing the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
More or less ..."
The first volume of Gibbon's masterwork appeared in 1776, on the eve of the American Revolution (or "War of Independence," if you prefer the British usage). The next instalment of two volumes came out in 1781, when that war had reached its climax. The last package of three volumes was published in 1788, on the eve of the French Revolution.
Gibbon's Enlightenment view of the 'settled" nature of modern times was thus continually overtaken by events. Is his book, then, too outdated, too invalidated by subsequent research and archaeology to be worth reading any more?
One of the reviewers of David Womersley's magisterial 3-volume Penguin Classics edition remarked that - strangely enough - it was the supplementary notes and "corrections" of such Victorian scholars as J. B. Bury which read most archaically now. Gibbon himself, by contrast, seems to speak every more clearly over the more than two centuries that separate his work from us.
I first tried to read Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in 1977, shortly after buying all six volumes of the Everyman edition from Vintage Books in Elliott Street.
Elliott Street, Auckland (2010)
The shop (long since pulverised into dust: it was situated somewhere in the vicinity of the Atrium on Elliott mall, and though intact in my imagination, has now - literally - no earthly habitation) was one of my favourite haunts, and I still remember the day I walked in and saw the red and gold volumes sitting there, in a neat little row. The price was "$9 for 6," which seemed pretty reasonable even at the time.
I promptly scooped them up and took them to the from of the shop. At this stage, however, I was interrupted by a rather flustered gentleman who'd apparently been summoned by phone by the owners to look over this recently acquired set of books. "I've been looking for it for years," he exclaimed, in an appeal to my better nature.
"So have I," I replied, and continued my inexorable progress to the till. I still feel guilty about that, I must admit. He must have seen me as some jumped-up interloper, heading him off at the moment of consummation of the quest of a lifetime. And yet I had been looking for it for years - a complete set of Gibbon was high on my list of most desirable books (along with an unabridged Arabian Nights and the collected works of William Morris) ...
Right was undoubtedly on my side, and yet I can still hear that plaintive voice in my ear. Every time I ran across another second-hand set of that or other editions of Gibbon, I thought of him, and hoped that he'd run across another copy without too much delay. In any case, I bought it, took it home, and - impelled as much by guilt as interest, perhaps - started to read it.
Edward Gibbon: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Ed. Oliphant Smeaton. Everyman's Library. 6 vols (1910)
(As you can see, I used to brand my books with that rather barbarous rubber stamp back then, but it's still quite interesting to see the dates.)
Anyway, to make a long story short, I think I got to the end of volume one before I gave up. The sheer sweep and extent of Gibbon's historical imagination was beyond me, and I just bogged down each time I tried to get going on volume two. I did, however, enjoy reading the standard edition of his autobiography, which I picked up a couple of years later.
In Edinburgh, in the late 1980s, I knew a young American who'd made a fortune on the Stock Exchange, then retired to pursue a more worthy life of scholarship and reflection (though he did have a bad habit of trying to hit on each of the female students in the class one after the other). Like me, he was called Jack, and we became friends of a sort. The main focus of his studies was Gibbon, and he would endlessly extol the beauty and complexity of the Decline and Fall. "Have you read the whole thing?" I asked him one day (somewhat naively, in retrospect).
He stared at me incredulously. "Are you joking? It's huge. No, I'm just reading the passages that my supervisor [a certain Mr. Geoffrey Carnall, if I remember rightly] recommends to me."
So much for the other Jack's scholarship. Not that I could claim any better. Our acquaintance eventually foundered over a rather bizarre graduation lunch party he hosted, where he asked me - as a kind of concession to his fetish for all things old and musty and imperial - to make the "loyal toast" to the reigning sovereign. None of the Brits present had been ready to oblige, but I felt, given that Elizabeth II was titular head of state for NZ as well the UK, that I could do so without any great abridgement of conscience.
Mr Carnall, who was present (and, it turned out, a devout Quaker) was grievously shocked and offended, and I must confess that I've often regretted since indulging Jack's seemingly harmless request. Symbols are realer than they seem, I learned that day, and I've been careful not to bow down too assiduously in the House of Rimmon ever since.
A subsequent attempt to read Gibbon in the late nineties took me as far as the fourth volume of the Everyman edition, where I got snared in the intricacies of Justinian's legal and religious institutions (the account of which seemed to have dominated most of the volume).
Then came David Womersley's great Penguin edition:
Edward Gibbon: The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Ed. David Womersley. Penguin Classics. vol 1 of 3 (1994).
- Edward Gibbon (1737-1794)
- Gibbon, Edward. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Ed. Oliphant Smeaton. 6 vols. Everyman’s Library. 1910. London: J. M. Dent / New York: E. P. Dutton, 1928.
- Gibbon, Edward. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Volume the First (1776) and Volume the Second (1781). Ed. David Womersley. 1994. Penguin Classics. 1995. Rev. ed. Vol 1 of 3. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2005.
- Gibbon, Edward. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Volume the Third (1781) and Volume the Fourth (1788). Ed. David Womersley. 1994. Penguin Classics. Vol 2 of 3. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1995.
- Gibbon, Edward. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Volume the Fifth (1788) and Volume the Sixth (1788). Ed. David Womersley. 1994. Penguin Classics. Vol 3 of 3. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1995.
- Gibbon, Edward. Autobiography. Ed. Lord Sheffield. Introduction by J. B. Bury. The World’s Classics. London: Henry Frowde / Oxford University Press, 1907.
- Gibbon, Edward. Gibbon’s Journey from Geneva to Rome: His Journal from 20 April to 2 October 1764. Ed. Georges A. Bonnard. London: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd., 1961.
I'm therefore glad to report, after 35 years (1977-2013), that I've finally succeeded in reaching the end of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788). And what have I learned from the experience?
Well, he certainly does have a down on the Byzantine empire (early and late). I've never read a more sympathetic account of the notorious Fourth Crusade, when the Venetians devoted a mob of French and Germans bound for Palestine into attacking their fellow-Christians in Constantinople instead.
He's very interesting on Mahomet and the rise of Islam; surprisingly well-informed on Attila and Genghis Khan and Tamurlane and other great invaders from the East. He also gets in some amusing side-swipes at Voltaire and Dr. Johnson, both of whom seem to have offended him at various times.
Beyond that, though, all I can say is that if you have the slightest curiosity in how Western civilisation went from Marcus Aurelius to Pope Alessandro Borgia, with extensive divagations down every interesting byway in the history of over a thousand years, then Gibbon is your man. More than that: Womersley's is your edition. The true nature of Gibbon's work comes into focus there, freed of the accretions of nineteenth and twentieth-century commentators and improvers - and complete with his fascinating Vindication of the accuracy of his chapters on the early church, which caused such controversy with Ecclesiastical historians then and since.
And how else will you ever be able to check the accuracy of statements such as Borges's about Gibbon's view on the presence or absence of camels from the Koran? I've seen it quoted everywhere, but nobody else has bothered to check it (so far as I know, at any rate) ...
Sir Joshua Reynolds: Edward Emily Gibbon