When someone suggested that Thomas Jefferson had borrowed some of the language of John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government in his draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson replied, in what remains the classic defense against a charge of plagiarism, that his responsibility had been “to be correct, not original.” Lincoln thought the Declaration not just correct, but should become our “civic religion,” taught to children so early that it would become a permanent part of their character. Mention the year l776, we immediately think of the Declaration, but 1776 was also the year in which two of the most important books ever written were published, both of them, like the Declaration, connected with the American experiment.
Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, demonstrated, once and for all, that the desire for acquisition, if left free of governmental, or religious, restriction would lead to a constant increase in the wealth of the community. Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire demonstrated how the greatest empire the world has ever seen was destroyed by a religion that taught that the only thing important was not what happened here, on earth, but what happened after death. Everyone has heard of the Declaration of Independence, even if they have never read it; and everyone knows that Adam Smith has something to do with the basic principles of capitalism, but Edward Gibbon? Who but a handful of demented scholars would take the trouble to wade through seven volumes, close to four thousand pages, in the edition of J.B.Bury, published in l896?
Winston Churchill, for one. When he was a young lieutenant in the British army, dreaming of a political career, he read The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Theodore Roosevelt did the same thing, and so did John F. Kennedy, who was in all probability the last American president to read it. What did Churchill and Kennedy learn from it? Among other things, the grandeur of the English language, something that becomes obvious the moment you read the first paragraph:
“In the second century of the Christian Era, the empire of Rome comprehended
the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind. The
frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and
disciplined valour. The gentle, but powerful, influence of laws and manners
had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants
enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury. The image of a free
constitution was preserved with decent reverence. The Roman senate appeared
to possess the sovereign authority, and devolved on the emperors all the executive
powers of government. During a happy period of more than fourscore years, the
public administration was conducted by the virtue and abilities of Nerva, Trajan,
Hadrian, and the two Antonines. It is the design of this and of the two
succeeding chapters, to describe the prosperous condition of their empire, and
afterwards, from the death of Marcus Antoninus, to deduce the most important
circumstances of its decline and fall: a revolution which will ever be remembered,
and is still felt by the nations of the earth.”
Like everything Gibbon wrote, this was not put on paper until he had first written, and re-written, it in his mind; not a few words, not a sentence or two, but the whole, remarkable, perfectly well-balanced, long paragraph; and then, having put it on paper, he wrote it, and rewrote it, again. You can see Churchill, sitting inside the barracks in India during the midday heat, reading Gibbon’s words, learning, and making his own, the cadence, the rhythms, of the best English ever written in a work of history. You can see, years later, a young Jack Kennedy, following Churchill’s example, learning the power language can have.
The Decline and Fall begins with the peak of the Roman Empire; it does not begin with, nor does it concern itself with, the peak of the Roman republic. There is nothing about the founding of Rome, nothing about the Roman republic, nothing about how Julius Caesar took power, nothing about how and why he was killed. It is not a history of Rome; it is an inquiry into what caused the Roman Empire to fall from the pinnacle of its achievement, the rule of one hundred twenty million people, “the most numerous society that has ever been united under the same system of government.” The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire begins with Augustus.
After the victory at Actium, Rome was under an imperial government, “an absolute monarchy disguised by the form of a commonwealth.” Augustus understood “that mankind is governed by names; nor was he deceived in his expectation that the senate and people would submit to slavery, provided they were respectfully assured that they still enjoyed their ancient freedom.” Provided with bread and public entertainment, the people of Rome did not mind, and perhaps did not notice, that they had lost more than their independence. “This long peace, and the uniform government of the Romans, introduced a slow and secret poison into the vitals of the empire. The minds of men were gradually reduced to the same level, the fire of genius was extinguished, and even the military spirit evaporated.”
The rule of Augustus was, in all its essentials, absolute; absolute in a sense it is difficult for us to understand. The separation of church and state did not exist. Government was more than the making and enforcing the rules of secular existence; government was control over what every citizen was taught, and required, to believe. Augustus was not just head of state; Augustus, and the emperors who followed him, was Supreme Pontiff and Censor. “By the former he acquired the management of the religion, by the latter a legal inspection over the manners and fortunes of the Roman people.”
In a single sentence, Gibbon explains the state of religious belief: “The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful.” This changed when, instead of the martial virtues that had made Rome great, Rome became addicted to private pleasure and private wealth. Life became meaningless, everyone a slave, if a willing slave, to Augustus and then to his successors. In a reaction to the helplessness of their condition, greater and greater numbers of Roman citizens embraced a faith, a religion, that gave them something worth dying for. Christianity became Rome’s fatal weakness.
With their “intolerant zeal” and their doctrine of a future life, the number of Christians spread rapidly, and with that, the decline and fall of Rome had begun. It is an interesting question when Gibbon thought Roman empire finally came to an end. The seventh, and concluding volume, ends with the fall of Constantinople to the Muslims in 1461 A.D., but Gibbon ended the first half of his work with the conquest of Rome by the barbarians a thousand years earlier, in 476 A.D. In the most serious sense the fall of the Roman Empire happened a century earlier, with the death of the Emperor Julian. More than half of the second volume, more than three hundred pages, of The Decline and Fall is devoted to Julian. Julian held power for only twenty-two months, but in that short space of time he almost succeeded in destroying Christianity and restoring the ancient gods of Rome.
Gibbon has a real appreciation for how remarkable Julian was, but he mistakes what Julian professed for what Julian believed. He thinks that Julian had “a devout and sincere attachment to the gods of Athens and Rome,” and that this “constituted the ruling passion of Julian….” It did not. Julian believed that only the restoration of the gods of Rome would bring the Romans back to their belief in the importance, the supreme importance, of Roman greatness, a belief that Christianity had started to destroy. Julian’s own belief was what Plato and Aristotle believed: that there is an unchanging order in the world and that the gods were, all of them, imaginary.
Gibbon had a sense of this when he described what happened after Julian was killed in battle: “The philosophers expressed a very reasonable wish that a disciple of Plato might have reposed amidst the groves of the academy: while the solders exclaimed in bolder accents that the ashes of Julian should have mingled with those of Caesar, in the field of Mars, and among the ancient monuments of Roman virtue.”
Julian’s ashes were buried, and so was Julian’s name. Julian, who had he lived would have been the greatest emperor Rome ever had, became Julian the Apostate, an enemy of triumphant Christianity; a name no one was allowed to mention, and for more than a thousand years, until Edward Gibbon wrote his history, no one dared to praise.