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Thursday 26 July 2018

I Read Edward Gibbon So You Don't Have To

Literally. There is no point anyone reading this book unless they're an actual historian.

Pretty much any history of Rome will mention, at some point, Gibbon's mighty tome, often in exalted terms as though its sheer magisterialness can be absorbed through osmosis. Well, as y'all know, I prefer to read the source material myself. They usually turn out to be a darn good read and (sometimes) the modern interpretations aren't quite up to scratch.

See, the other thing that pretty much any history of Rome will go on about is how gosh darn amazing Gibbon is. Peerless rhetoric, they said. A masterful command of language and persuasion, they said. "I devoured Gibbon", said Churchill. "An undisputed masterpiece... a work that will only perish with the death of the language itself", it says on the back of my paperback abridged edition. You can see why I was particularly eager to read this one.

Well, I'm here to tell you that they're all wrong. It's a crappy book full of dreary, inscrutably dense and dry prose and whoever did the editing of this particular version ought to be thrown to the lions or given some other suitably Roman punishment.

I suppose competing in the modern incarnation of Gladiators would be appropriate.
This particular version is a hefty 40% or so of the full work; a mere 1,056 pages making it a positively light read compared to Plato's 1,800, my last big read. But Plato was lively, engaging, occasionally funny (and not dry humour either), deeply analytical and a work of genius. Gibbon, on the other hand... well, imagine the most stereotypically boring librarian you can can conjure up and pretend you gave them unlimited funding for twenty years to write an encyclopedia about cabbage production. That's roughly what you get from Edward Gibbon.

Now, I'm not sure how much I should blame Gibbon and how much I should blame the editors of this cut-down version, but I'm pretty confident that both of them are morons so I'll blame 'em both. The editors because their chapter selection sucks, and Gibbon because during his twenty year project he apparently never learned how to explain things clearly, use commas correctly, stay on topic, assess relevancy, or have a single damn analytical thought in his life.

Gibbon's greatest strength is also his greatest weakness. His History is one of pure observation. As a compendium of citations with raw descriptions of what happened, it is indeed peerless and will never be surpassed. The amount of reading and note-taking the poor sap must have had to do in an age before the invention of ctrl+f should give everyone horrifying nightmares. The problem is that that is literally the only good thing about it.

Take his legendary rhetoric. At best, this is vastly over-rated. It's not that he didn't know how to turn a phrase so much as it was that he wouldn't stop doing it. Ever. Who needs clarity when you can have pseeudopoetry ? Except that it's rather worse than that... it's more pseudo-poetric ramblings. The occasional flash of rhetorical brilliance can't compensate for the impenetrable fug of verbal diarrhoea that fills most of the book. The real annoyance is that there's just enough good stuff in there - whole chapters, even - that I can't blame this on the writing style of the age. Some parts of the text are crystal clear, flowing narrative. The rest is what I'm calling Gibbonish... not exactly gibberish, but sort of half-narrative, half general commentary that ends up as the worst of both worlds. So focused is Gibbon, nay obsessed, with constructing rhetoric that it feels almost like deliberate obfuscation. It's not text you read so much as parse. And that quickly becomes mentally exhausting and whatever godforsaken point Gibbon was trying to make is utterly lost.

In particular, while the description of what happened is usually okay, deciphering who did what to who is often a fiendish challenge. For example Gibbon is overly-fond of referring to "that person", rather than saying, "he" or "she" or whatever. It feels lazy and weird, exactly like this cat :

"Yeah, it was that guy. You know, the emperor. The one with the shoes."
And it's much worse if multiple groups are interacting. Trying to understand which group did what is less of a challenging read and more of a decryption exercise from Bletchley Park's glory days. Often I found myself completely befuddled as to who attacked who and frequently baffled as to which side even inflicted an apparently decisive victory, and sometimes if was a victory at all or if everyone just went home for tea instead. Gibbon might very well have penned the least pedagogical history of all time.

Then there's his analysis. Other works I've read - most notably Peter Heather's Fall of the Roman Empire - have been quite insistent that Gibbon largely attributes the causes of the collapse as primarily internal discord and Christianity. But Gibbon actually has very little explicit to say about this, and nothing at all about the deepest underlying causes. As an analyst he is hopeless, as a philosopher he is a non-entity.

And what little Gibbon does have to say just isn't terribly convincing. He paints a reasonable picture of an arrogant Rome in a state of decay following the Antonine Emperors. The problem is that he then seems to describe a reasonable successful recovery during the following century, making that particular little episode not really very important in the grand scheme of things. And a grand narrative is something Gibbon singularly fails to deliver. It's just a case of "this happened, and then this happened, and then this, and then there were some angry barbarians for some reason."

Now I can't avoid mentioning the problems of this cut-down version, just in case I'm doing poor Gibbon a massive disservice. I might be. The way this edition has been abridged is by presenting a selection of chapters in their entirety, with brief notes describing the omitted chapters. These chapter selections are simply awful.

Several included chapters are almost entirely irrelevant, have no meaningful context, and often they don't relate to the Empire at all, much less its downfall. Chapter 21, for example, is exclusively devoted to some stupid old priest who (so far as I could tell) did absolutely nothing and died. Later chapters are about the rise of the Prophet Mohammed and the crusades, which would be pefectly fine in the context of the end of the Byzantine Empire except that's not how they're told. They're just about those particular episodes for their own sake, and I'm pretty sure some chapters don't even mention the Romans at all. And dammit, I don't care about some stupid priest who did absolutely nothing and died, or even the Crusades : I want to hear about the goddamn Romans. You're a moron, Gibbon, and I don't like you.

Gibbon covers the fall of both the Western and Eastern empires. One might imagine that an edited version would focus on either one of these, and that's mostly what's done with this edition, but reeeeally badly. Crucial chapters detailing how barbarian tribes became incorporated into the Western empire are cut, so we go from the empire having some minor difficulties to suddenly OMG there are barbarians everywhere and where the hell did they come from ? 

Admittedlyone does get a nice sense of the empire transmuting into something different in its last couple of decades, dissolving rather than falling... it's clear that by the nominal end the Empire was already quite, quite dead, the deposition of "Emperor" Romulus Augustulus a mere formality. Very good. But how did it come to that ? All those critical decisions in which Rome failed to properly deal with the massing barbarian tribes... those chapters are completely missing. And that sucks. The most important part of the story is gone. Why ? Buggered if I know.

Later on we miss out all the best bits of the Byzantine Empire as well, and that sucks too because it's a damned epic story : the Eastern Empire's spectacular (but tragically brief) recovery after its near-fatal wars against Sassanid Persia has been called one of the greatest military comebacks of all time. But we don't get any of it in this edition, we just skip straight to Mohammed, the Crusades, and the final siege of Constantinople. It's bloody stupid, is what it is.

I somehow doubt that the missing chapters would help that much though. Gibbon is at least half decent at writing narrative, so as far as individual stories go, he's fine as long as he doesn't slip into Gibbonish. Not brilliant, but okay (if you want a modern writer who could kick Gibbon's ass, I recommend the aforementioned Peter Heather, Tom Holland and Roger Crowley; Lars Brownworth tells a really gripping tale but I have my doubts about his accuracy). The chapter on the rise of Islam, for instance, is very long but a thoroughly good read, and Gibbon - never one to be shy of judgement - does at least venture some interesting commentary on the character of Mohammed.

But what about analysis ?

Nope nope nope nope nope. Gibbon doesn't do that; the closest he gets is judging people's personalities. Sorry Gibbon, but there's more to an Empire than the quality of its Emperor. How about some thoughts on what forces were at work to influence the choices of the soldiers when they brought good and bad emperors to power ? Under what conditions were emperors able to control their armies rather than the other way around ? What about the state of the legions and their organisation over time ? The economic forces ? The social changes ? Why did Rome, otherwise masterful at exporting its culture to distant lands and assimilating others into its vast edifice, later do such a crappy job of incorporating barbarian tribes when its Empire was still powerful ? No, no discussion of that. The person who read more of the original source materials than any other also seems to have thought about them the least. Even the final chapter, where Gibbon ventures to describe the conditions that led to Rome's ruin, is disappointingly and almost comically literal. He describes why the city itself fell into ruin, of which the causes are pathetically trivial : buildings fall down, it's a thing that they do.

Thanks, Gibbon. Thanks so much.

Of course you could read between the lines and infer your own hypotheses, which is what later historians have done. But that really is a job for historians, as without a starting point this ain't so easy. Comparisons and analysis of a stated position are relatively easy : if Gibbon were to say "Christians did it", you could point to examples of where his evidence supports the claim and examples where it doesn't. Then you can sum up and decide if this idea makes sense overall. Spotting the possible underlying trends from the raw facts - especially with Gibbon's focus on individual character rather than systemic trends - is much more difficult, and because Gibbon's text is largely drier than the surface of the Moon, I'm not going to try.

Even at a much more trivial level this edition is unnecessarily difficult to read : I'm talking about footnotes. I can understand why these are useful in a historical narrative where you want to state important caveats without interrupting the flow of the story. Fine. But the editing here is pretty horrendous; 95% of the footnotes are bibliographic references but some do contain interesting additions that are worth reading. It would not be a monumental task - seriously, the work of a week or two, and if anyone wants to pay me money then dammit I'll do it myself to prove it - to arrange these to appear at the bottom of the relevant page so that the reader doesn't have to treat the work as a gigantic flip book, leaving the bibliographic references at the back for the historian. Oh, and most of the non-English language footnotes have been translated, but some haven't and no explanation is provided. It's weird and silly and I don't like it.

How to summarise this nine month endeavour of mine ? Well, sorry Gibbon, but I'm rating your life's work 3/10. Low on clarity, long-winded, and while there are indeed flashes of genuine rhetorical brilliance, they're rarer than sightings of Bigfoot being abducted by a flying saucer. Obsessive descriptions of irrelevant minutiae are hardly a substitute for deep analysis, a fact obvious to just about everyone except Gibbon. Go away and read the dictionary instead. You'll learn more and make more friends.

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