For books on the Roman Empire and on the rise of Christianity to come before a reviewer in 1976 brings author and reviewer alike into the disturbing presence of a mighty shade. Two centuries ago, in 1776, Edward Gibbon published the first volume of his Decline and Fall. It was twelve years previously, in 1764, “as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing Vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind.”
In January of this year, with pardonable hubris, the participants of a congress on Edward Gibbon and his Decline and Fall, organized by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, posed for a group photograph on that spot. The forthcoming issue of Daedalus will range widely and deeply in the immediate intellectual background of Gibbon, and will present a picture less of Gibbon’s relevance to modern scholarship in ancient and medieval history than of the deep roots of Gibbon’s thought and erudition in the religious and social preoccupations of post-Renaissance Europe.
In this review, a group of authors on the period of history that Gibbon himself covered is presented to the shade. An excellent short survey of Roman Social Relations by Professor Ramsay MacMullen; a short work of characteristic intellectual distinction on Christianity in the Roman World by Professor Robert Markus; a sensitive and pioneering study—the most specialized and the most original in our group—of the religious language of a Christian community that stretched from the Roman shore of the eastern Mediterranean deep into Asia, Symbols of Church and Kingdom: A Study in Early Syriac Tradition, by Robert Murray; and The Fall of the Roman Empire: A Reappraisal, skillfully written by Professor Grant, and magnificently illustrated.
The shade would have inspected this group with some curiosity, and would have inspired no little trepidation. For Gibbon’s range was awesome. Within twenty years he had covered the history of a millennium, and in so doing he had scanned almost every society in the Eurasian land mass. What is even more disturbing: before he set pen to paper, he had amassed vast knowledge which he did not even consider worth his while to put into the Decline and Fall, so great was his sense of relevance and of the overriding importance of his main themes. On page ninety-eight Professor MacMullen presents us with a diagram illustrating the distribution of wealth in an Italian region in the reign of the Emperor Trajan: the salient features of Roman society—its “verticality” and the accumulation of wealth and status in the hands of a tiny few—spring to the eye. This is a characteristically felicitous exploitation of data from an inscription—the Veleia tablet. It is the way history is done, and done well, in the 1970s. But Gibbon had seen the Veleia tablet in 1764. He had copied it out:
C’est un travail sec et ingrat, mais quand on construit un Édifice il faut en creuser les fondements. L’on est obligé de fair le rôle de maçon aussi bien que celui d’Architecte. J’espère pouvoir tirer quelque chose de cette espèce de recensement.
…and then decided that it was not worth using in the Decline and Fall.
Gibbon would have passed by Professor MacMullen’s book. This was because he had come to believe that the social development of the classical Empire could be of little relevance to his theme if it did not explain to him the main feature of the period of decline and fall—that is, the rapid and unprecedented accumulation of social and political power in the hands of new religious leaders, the Christian bishops and monks. But then Gibbon did not have the opportunity to be persuaded by a reading of Professor MacMullen’s Roman Social Relations, or by the author’s previous works, Soldier and Civilian in the Later Roman Empire (Harvard University Press, 1963) and Enemies of the Roman Order: Treason, Unrest and Alienation in the Empire (Harvard, 1966). For Gibbon would have met in MacMullen the one author in the English language whose highly distinctive view of what the social history of the ancient world was about (a view pursued with Gibbonian tenacity and erudition, and with more than a touch of Gibbonian empiricism) has enabled him to write convincingly of just those religious and cultural developments that so preoccupied Gibbon in the Decline and Fall.
Professor Markus’s book would have brought Gibbon to a halt. This book is directly relevant to his own concerns. It, is a clear-headed exposition of intellectual history, yet concerned throughout to grasp the meaning of ideas by way of the attitudes they encouraged groups to take toward their cultural and social environment—a central concern of Gibbon. Professor Markus calls his little book “a history of Christian self-awareness in the Roman world.” It is just that, and the best short account now available, giving the inside of a development which Gibbon had watched, from the outside, with fascinated curiosity.
It is precisely because it is a history from the inside that the book differs so markedly from Gibbon’s. It displays, in a nutshell, where modern scholarship has changed, indeed advanced, in its handling of the problems set out by the Decline and Fall. For Gibbon was a theologian manqué. As a young man in Magdalen College, Oxford, he had been projected for a moment into Catholicism by the “elastic spring” of metaphysical controversy. A few generations later, he might have been a pillar of the Oxford Movement—a “perpendicular prig of Puseyism.” In his later life, the spring was weighed down safely by rational and humane considerations. But never for a moment did he lose his sense of its dangerous powers in others, or of the havoc it could wreak when, in the hands of fanatics, such as Christian monks and theologians, it flicked loose. For Gibbon, therefore, the “history of Christian self-awareness” was a history of deadly certainties. The hard bones of metaphysical cerebration and clerical ambition press ineluctably through the wasting flesh of the Empire.
Professor Markus writes in an age where the spring is safely broken. The finest passages of his own masterly exposition of the thought of Saint Augustine, Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of Saint Augustine (Cambridge University Press, 1970), are those in which he shows Augustine’s subtle and hard mind learning to live with uncertainty, and explains how relevant such uncertainty can be to a modern Christian. Gibbon and Gibbon’s bêtes noires alike thought in straight lines and right angles. Markus’s early Christians, by contrast, are left to fumble. Whatever “fanaticism” they might have had was tempered by a humane inability to breathe any other air than that of the Roman world and to see with any other eyes than those inherited from a long classical past. Professor Markus’s history of the Early Christian church is the history of a “subculture”: the angular figures of Gibbon give way to men groping obscurely “in their confrontation with what they came to recognise as non-Christian only in the moments of dawning self-definition.”
Not surprisingly, this is an amply and skillfully illustrated book. It is typical of the gap between Gibbon and ourselves that the scholars to whom Professor Markus acknowledges a debt should be one Platonic metaphysician (Professor Hilary Armstrong) and two interpreters of Late Roman art (Gervase Mathew and Sabine MacCormack). Gibbon’s Decline and Fall is unillustrable. The excellent set of pictures provided in J.B. Bury’s edition of 1908 almost invariably remind us of what is not in the text. For Gibbon’s text describes what Early Christian art could not show—men whose minds were bemazed by the deadly clarities of speculative theology. Such certainties speak most clearly only in cold print. Markus’s Christians come alive in their uncertainties; and the sheer weight of these uncertainties can be seen in so many of his illustrations. Christian themes struggle with a millennium of pagan craftsmanship to take on a profile of their own. The polished marble holds them back, imposes a classical reticence on them, and blurs each new face with a disturbing sense of déjà vu from an ancient past.
To Gibbon’s discredit, he might have found Robert Murray’s book unworthy of consideration. To bring alive the rich religious language of a Near Eastern province of the Later Roman Empire was not a service likely to commend itself to him. He had a brusque way with representatives of the “Syriac tradition,” and especially, as was generally the case, if they were monks: the monk Antiochus was only one such—“whose one hundred and twenty nine homilies are still extant, if what no one reads may be said to be extant.”
He might have missed the point of Murray’s beautiful and patient evocation of an Early Christian religious language. For just as the tentativeness of Markus’s Christians differs toto caelo from the fanatical clarities of Gibbon’s princes of the church, so Murray’s concern to explore the basic, mystery-laden “Symbols of Church and Kingdom” used by Syriac religious poets takes us far away from the arid world of the theologians, down to the roots of Christian piety in the Near East. Indeed, the deeper we sink into the inner dimensions of the “history of Christian self-awareness in the Roman world,” the less we smell the acrid smoke of theological battle which Gibbon managed, for all his distaste, to breathe with such gusto.
Murray’s Syrians knew Gibbon’s theologians, and did not like them. Ephraim, in his long, passionate songs, called them “the Questioners.” They were the self-confident heirs of Aristotelian logic, whose scholastic method sought to strip from the Godhead the rustling, shimmering, shot-silk veils of symbols. In the fourth century, these men were the Arian heretics in Edessa. A long tradition of scholastic thought in Western Christianity has made their like, until quite recently, the official spokesmen of orthodoxy. Symbols of Church and Kingdom is a scrupulous book, with unfailing historical sense and aliveness to the language of Late Roman men. But it has serious theological implications; it lays bare with rare sympathy the way in which the Christians of the Syriac-speaking provinces spoke of the Church. It is a subtle and mellow voice from the past that has been too long drowned by the articulate and rigid certainties of Western churchmen. Gibbon can have his speculative divines: Father Murray, I suspect, is happiest with his poet-monks: “He was a fine sight as he stood among the sisters, singing a melody of praise.”
Professor Grant’s book would have surprised Gibbon. It is written with the elegance and talent for making the evidence speak that we have come to expect in Professor Grant’s work. Clearly laid out, well signposted with maps and tables, the thirteen causes of the fall of the Roman Empire are made crystal clear in 314 pages. What would astonish Gibbon, though, is that of these thirteen causes, every one, Professor Grant points out at every turn, is also apparent and active in contemporary American and Western European society. The Roman Empire in its last hundred years is brought briskly up to the twentieth century. The effect is like seeing a near-by object through a telescope of high resolution: the sudden abolition of distance and the close-up detail is baffling, and unnecessary.
Gibbon would not have done that. He had weightier concerns. The “awful revolution” he described was about the deep change in the whole quality of an ancient civilization, and about the slow recovery of that civilization many centuries later. So deep a concern was not to be “blown up” by preaching and alarms. In any case, Gibbon felt that his own age had, if but recently, recovered from the fall of the Roman Empire, even from the rise of Christianity. Like many eighteenth-century Europeans, he felt that the “more polished nations of Europe,” at least, had come out on a plateau. The plateau might not have been very high, but it was safer than that of the Roman Empire at the time of its greatest prosperity and apparent security; and they would stay on it. When Gibbon writes with fascinated horror of the developments that he saw in the distant past, it is with the chill of a man who looks back over the precipice that his civilization has scaled successfully—che nel pensier rinnuova la paura. Grant’s book would have it that the civilization of America and Europe had rolled back and was clinging again to the edge of that precipice.
One would be content to leave to Mr. Gibbon the decision whether Professor Grant’s opinions are correct. One thing, however, is plain: this is a slight and basically a trivial book. Facing the problem of the possible decline and fall of a civilization, Professor Grant has none of Gibbon’s sense of scale and gives little evidence of commitments as deep and complex as Gibbon’s.
Gibbon began his narrative and close analysis of the decline of the Roman Empire with Augustus; and he came to wish that he had started even earlier. Grant begins with the reign of Valentinian I in 364 AD. Gibbon’s deep concern with the quality of Western civilization as such led him to follow the themes that obsessed him far beyond the conventional date of the fall of the Roman Empire. Grant ends his book in 476. Gibbon was aware not only of the military importance of the barbarian invasions but of the need to explain the nature of that great Third World that pressed in on Rome, finally accepted its religion, and passed on its culture. He learned to scrutinize the records of the early Middle Ages and to train his historical insight with a knowledge of primitive societies as far apart as those of China and Africa: in Florence he sits reading Mallet’s History of Denmark and speculates on what it was like for a Nordic pagan to live among rocks scratched by the Scaldic bards with dread, incomprehensible runic signs. Apart from a few portraits, some artifacts, and an elegant pair of trousers and shirt rescued from Thorsberger Moor, Grant leaves this world outside his scope. The “disastrous disunities” of his own Western society hold his attention entirely.
It is merely a fruit of comparatively modern classical prejudice that we concentrate almost exclusively on the earlier part of Gibbon’s majestic narrative. Like all great books, the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire raises themes that stretch far deeper and far wider than a conventional interpretation of its title would lead us to expect. Gibbon and his contemporaries had a far larger historical vision than ours, products as we are of the specialized disciplines of a modern university system. For Gibbon the history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire was meaningful only as the prelude to the rise of modern Europe.
Thus after the deceptively trenchant “General Observations” on the fall of the Empire in the West, Gibbon resumed his unhurrying pace. There were more interesting things to explain than merely the collapse of the Roman Empire: barbarian Europe had to be Christianized and sent on Crusade; the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire had to rise out of the ruins of Dark Age Italy; the “Revolution of the East,” the rise of Islam and the Arab and Turkish conquests, had to be played out until its fateful climax in the fall of Constantinople in 1453.
Then, as now, conventional gentlemen, reared on the classics, chafed and tried to cry “Halt.” Walpole, having fluted praise to Gibbon in 1776 over the Age of the Antonines—“that Elysian era”—predictably lost interest even by the early fifth century: too many tribes by far, “who with the same features and characters are to be described in different terms, without any substantial variety, and he is to bring you acquainted with them when you wish them all at the bottom of the Red Sea.” More robust souls stood the pace for a few more centuries: in 1781 Lord Hardwick still wanted a little more, “at least till the irruption of the Arabs after Mahomet. From that period the History of the East is not very interesting and often disgusting.” Undeterred, magnificently un-Europocentric, Gibbon strode on until the job was done. As a result, the “historian of the Roman Empire” wrote some of his best chapters as a medievalist and as a connoisseur of Asiatic empire-building.
Furthermore, through the Decline and Fall, Gibbon’s sense of the causes of the “awful revolution” was enlarged by a sober respect for weighty and complex processes: the word “insensibly,” the image of “poison” convey this sense throughout the narrative. By contrast, Grant’s causes are clear-cut and flimsy. To take one example: the rise of monasticism and of the ascetic movement is briskly brought into relation with modern “drop out” movements, and then the effect of the whole development is summed up as having weakened the Empire by diminishing the birth rate—too much chastity! In the same way, the careers of bishops and theologians are regretted: “men of superior brains and character who in earlier times would have been public servants.” There is an element of bathos in such pinpointing of the causes of the decline of the Empire that is only too common in modern scholarship.
Gibbon mentioned these issues and then passed on: they disquieted him far less than did the deeper changes in men’s relation to civilized living. He hated monks; but he hated them for weighty reasons, and not because of a sudden onset of charismatic contraception. He hated them because he detected a sloughing off of the merciful restraints of humanity in these men, and feared it for its consequences of fanaticism, inhumanity, and violence. A culture of monks was a culture of non-men: “glorious was the man,” he wrote of one flamboyant masochist, “(I abuse that name).” It is Gibbon’s sharpest phrase.
How to understand the movement toward a radical rejection of the bonds of society that swept the Near East remains one of the major unsolved problems of late Roman history. We come closer to understanding it, and with far greater sympathy, in Murray’s patient study. Even if a book such as Symbols of Church and Kingdom shows that Gibbon misunderstood some of the deeper drives and the latent social function of these strange men, at least Gibbon had a sense of the size of the phenomenon he was grappling with, both in the past and in his own age. Grant’s account is that of a man who would encourage us to understand neither Saint Anthony nor Beat.
We need only turn to Professor MacMullen’s Roman Social Relations to see the weakness of Grant’s approach. Grant’s last Romans appear to move in a weight-free environment, taking choices and performing antics that arouse the disquiet of Westerners of liberal temper. The fact that they were grappling with the eternal problems of Mediterranean empires is hardly apparent.
MacMullen’s short book makes such a view of the causes of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire untenable, and does so all the more cogently for never mentioning it. Let us first praise the book’s learning, which is like one of the figures he describes so well—“exuberantly formidable.” Textbook stereotypes and popular illusions alike are quietly and ineluctably buried forever beneath a shifting dune of minute grains of erudition. It is a book that is all the more persuasive for being utterly undogmatic, the product of humble patient craftsmanship, which is rare in modern writings on ancient economic history. MacMullen’s emphasis on the paramount importance of noneconomic factors in Roman life—on concern for status, on the role of sheer brute force in the relations of rich and poor and in the accumulation of wealth—these subjects on which misconception long rested in respectable circles, and around which, at long last, controversy now rages, are silently and firmly put in their place.
For just as Gibbon became learned because he was convinced that a particular type of history was possible, so, I suspect, did MacMullen. This short book illustrates a breakthrough in classical scholarship. For classical scholars, tied as they have been to their texts and tied yet more firmly to the elitist prejudices of these texts and of their own peculiar academic environment, have never been noted for their optimism about the amount of evidence available for the writing of ancient social history. In fact, they condemn themselves to this impression by sheer snobbishness. One scholar in a distinguished university was heard to remark that, in his opinion, the Acts of the Apostles were not history; they were only footnotes to history.
But, then, what is ancient “history”? Professor MacMullen throws open the windows in that narrow room. The whole landscape lies at our feet, in whatever language, from whatever region—Roman Social Relations embraces and skillfully uses it. MacMullen makes plain that he is up against the problems posed by the consciousness of the type of society he is describing. A society so rigidly “vertical” in its structure can hardly be expected to show interest for the average man, or for men who, though far from average, did not share in their narrow horizons—the Jewish rabbis, for instance, whose remarks in the Talmud provide MacMullen with some astonishingly vivid views of the Roman world.
The senatorial stratum amounted to something like two-thousandths of one percent (a figure that Tacitus would have found deeply gratifying).
Unfortunately, it is to Tacitus and his modern exponents that the student is first directed in his study of the “history” of the ancient world. Professor MacMullen will have nothing of this, and he makes his reasons abundantly plain. We have a choice:
Ammianus Marcellinus [who said]: “Not everything deserves narration that goes on among the lower orders.” In contrast, Marc Bloch: “I can hardly be persuaded that it is perfectly legitimate to describe a state, without having first tried to analyse the society on which it rests.” Two views, ancient and modern. Which shall we follow?
Roman Social Relations is a portrait of the Roman Empire as it existed in its fullness. It stretches beyond the awareness of its governing classes, embracing the whole of provincial society. MacMullen writes tartly that “the accident of source-survival has pushed Italy forward as equivalent to ‘Roman civilization’ “; and characteristically he goes on to redress the accident, by bringing in the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, where, in the Jewish literature of the time, we see a world viewed without illusions, and betrayed right down to the names used for its main social categories—the rich are “The Haughty Ones,” and their agents “the Men of the Arm.”
Professor MacMullen’s classical Roman Empire of the first and second centuries—a society where wealth has already drained into the hands of the few, whose countryside was ravaged by endemic violence, whose population lived on the brink of famine—is not the sort of empire to have a straightforward “Decline and Fall.” For it could hardly have declined much further. The only difference between the Roman Empire of the Age of the Antonines and the Later Roman Empire may well be that we know far more about the Later Empire: a social structure glimpsed with a taper is suddenly lit up under an arc lamp. We know more because its rulers and articulate groups within it—the Christian bishops—set themselves to know more about it.
In the Age of the Antonines, “the one sure maxim of extended empire, a wise and salutary neglect,” held good throughout the Roman world. The Roman Empire, whose professional administrative class numbered a little less than one thousand, gave a free hand to the local oligarchies to do the business of government. Comparatively little was demanded by way of taxes, and no questions were asked how that little was extorted from the peasantry. It is a type of “soft” government on which many a colonial empire has rested in recent times, and on which the economic empires of many developed Western nations still do rest. The Later Roman Empire could not afford to blind itself so thoroughly. The emperors had to get in the taxes and the recruits in order to meet the strain of constant war. They had to lift ancient and respectable stones. It is hardly surprising that some unpleasant creatures were found to be crawling beneath them; but Professor MacMullen has the good sense to realize that they had been there a long time; the oppressive relations of landowner and peasant, for instance, were “only the further development of predatory arrogance long latent in the pax romana.”
Nor was public opinion so bland. By the beginning of the fifth century, congregations flocked to hear a preacher like John Chrysostom denouncing the exploitation of seasonal laborers, and Asterius of Amaseia (a small-town bishop) would describe in vivid detail the poor of the city, pressing up against the warm sides of the public bathhouse for a little bit of comfort against the icy winter of Anatolia. Such themes would not have drawn an audience for the polished rhetoricians of the Antonine age.
At the risk of a paradox, one might almost say that the “fall” of the Roman Empire—that is, the collapse of its political superstructure in its Western provinces—happened because, in a few desperate generations, the Roman emperors of the fourth century, their servants and advisers, decided that the time had come to reverse the trend of its “decline”—a decline too long masked behind a façade of classical dignity.
Gibbon’s problem, therefore, remains. It was not why the Roman Empire fell, but why it lasted so long, and why its culture and social infrastructure long survived the collapse of the Imperial administration in the western Mediterranean. This, and not the facile blame-pinning of a modern commentator, remains the unsolved mystery of Late Roman studies.
It is not a mystery in which the inhabitants of the Western world have a monopoly of interest. The problem of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire may not be relevant to a Western man’s image of himself and his society. Gibbon could write as he did about the Roman Empire because the society of pre-industrial Western Europe was still close enough to that of the Roman world for him to understand that world, and to observe that the Europe of his own days had done better with similar materials. We have moved on into more dangerous times, to which the Roman Empire and its dilemmas are irrelevant. But the problems of how great traditional societies, in Asia, Africa, and the Andes, grapple today with unprecedented political and ideological change—these are the problems which might more fruitfully engage the sympathy and the understanding of Western readers of the Decline and Fall.
It would take a society even more complacent and more inward-looking than the Later Empire, as Grant imagines it to have been, to be satisfied that its own ills could be diagnosed so briskly and to believe that the fate of a long-past Mediterranean empire could be marshaled so peremptorily to give answers to its own needs and anxieties. However much we scholars may disagree with him, Gibbon gave us a Roman Empire that was bigger, stranger, richer, and more resilient than the pocket-mirror image of modern discontents that emerges from Grant’s Reappraisal.
April 15, 1976