To comprehend the fairest part of the earth.

October 15, 2008, 12:09 pm

On this day in—no, wait; let me permit the great historian to speak for himself:

It was at Rome, on the fifteenth of October, 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted fryars 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.

I’ve always loved this sentence, as indeed have many historians; it is in its way a perfect historian’s account: specific as to time and place, presenting a vivid image that clearly has within it the essential elements of the work it adumbrates. It is evening and autumn, the time and season for meditation on decline; Gibbon observes the Christian monks, in what had become the capital of Christianity, worshipping their God in the middle of the great temple to the greatest of the pagan gods whom the city worshipped when it was the capital of the known world.

Gibbon often wrote caustically about Christianity’s various habits, including canonization:

… born at Epiphania in Cilicia, in a fuller’s shop. From this obscure and servile origin he raised himself by the talents of a parasite; and the patrons, whom he assiduously flattered, procured for their worthless dependent a lucrative commission, or contract, to supply the army with bacon. His employment was mean; he rendered it infamous. He accumulated wealth by the basest arts of fraud and corruption; but his malversations were so notorious, that George was compelled to escape from the pursuits of justice. After this disgrace, in which he appears to have saved his fortune at the expense of his honor, he embraced, with real or affected zeal, the profession of Arianism…. The odious stranger, disguising every circumstance of time and place, assumed the mask of a martyr, a saint, and a Christian hero; and the infamous George of Cappadocia has been transformed into the renowned St. George of England, the patron of arms, of chivalry, and of the garter.

He also liked recounting a bit of debauchery. Consider this, of the younger Gordian:

Twenty-two acknowledged concubines, and a library of twenty-two thousand volumes, attested the variety of his inclinations; and from the productions which he left behind him, it appears that the former as well as the latter were designed for use rather than for ostentation.

This sly tone puts in an ambiguous light his apparently prim note “that of the first fifteen emperors, Claudius was the only one whose taste in love was entirely correct.”

Gibbon exhibited the historian’s essential detachment, an appreciation for the mixture of qualities in any person or institution. His treatment of Julian the apostate is perhaps the most obviously careful in this respect, but he also counted the worth of a Church that preserved, archived amid its absurdities, civic virtues of the fallen world.

Each year I conclude my US history survey with a lecture called “The Capitoline Steps.” I begin by noting that Decline and Fall‘s first volume appeared in 1776, making it one of three related and remarkable inventions made out of English words in that year: Gibbon’s story of a republic’s vulnerability; Smith’s Wealth of Nations; the United States of America.

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