Society

Edward Gibbon and the Future of America

If the Fall of Rome is to illuminate the present crisis of American Civilisation it is necessary to identify the factors that made Rome great, and the forces that brought her to her knees. And here the work of Edward Gibbon in his monumental History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1789) has never been surpassed. This article will discuss Gibbon’s approach and identify the positive factors and negative forces that applied to Rome and may apply to the United States

It was the role of Christianity in Rome’s epoch-shaping civilizational collapse that Gibbon agonized most over in the Decline and Fall. As he observed (Ch. 15): “A candid but rational inquiry into the progress and establishment of Christianity may be considered as a very essential part of the history of the Roman Empire.” Although his attitude towards it was ambivalent, he saw Christianity as a primary cause of the fall of the Empire. He viewed the Christian triumph in terms of its slow infiltration and silent subversion of the Romano-Greek civilisation that had evolved over half a millennium: 

While that great body was invaded by open violence, or undermined by slow decay, a pure and humble religion gently insinuated itself into the minds of men, grew up in silence and obscurity, derived new vigour from opposition, and finally erected the triumphant banner of the Cross on the ruins of the Capitol.

This was an event that Gibbon found very hard to come to terms with:

Our curiosity is naturally prompted to inquire by what means the Christian faith obtained so remarkable a victory over the established religions of the earth.

He conceded that one answer to this question was that the victory “was owing to the convincing evidence of the doctrine itself, and to the ruling providence of its great Author,” i.e., it was due to God Himself! However, he regarded this as “an obvious but unsatisfactory answer.” Indeed, it seems he regarded the Christian victory as almost inexplicable, and as transgressing all the tenets of reason and good sense as he had learnt them during the Enlightenment, of which he was an exemplary product.

In Gibbon’s account, it was the Emperor’s Constantine’s conversion to Christianity at the Battle of Milvan Bridge that was the key to the eventual Fall, as it opened the door to the grim fate that overtook the Roman Empire. Gibbon was bemused by this conversion and his exasperation grew as he wrote. It was the exasperation of a religious convert and zealot who had then lost his faith. Gibbon had been a Protestant, as were most people in Britain in the 18th Century, when Catholicism was seriously constrained as a highly suspect foreign faith. It had therefore come as a massive shock to his father to learn that Edward had converted to Catholicism. Moreover, he had done so with fierce enthusiasm, as he himself recalled, embracing

The marvellous tales … which compelled me to embrace the superior merits of celibacy, the institution of the monastic life, the use of the sign of the cross, of holy oil, and of images, the invocation of Saints, the worship of relics, the rudiments of purgatory in prayers for the dead, and the tremendous mystery of the sacrifice of the body and blood of Christ, which insensibly swelled into the prodigy of Transubstantiation.

His father’s decisive response to this wilful and naive act (one that would forever blight his son’s career and marital prospects in Britain) was to pack up Edward and send him to Calvinist Lausanne, where he spent the next five years right in the centre of a Europe convulsed by conflict between faiths and between faith and atheism. From his father’s perspective the sojourn had been a success, as Gibbon returned home unable to believe in anything – it was later observed that henceforth “he had not the slightest spiritual sympathies.”

However Gibbon never forgot the great deal he had learned about Church history and theology. He himself was convinced that his new-found scepticism gave him an advantage as an historian because, “the history of religions is the most interesting part of the history of the human spirit.” It was this insight and knowledge that gave him an immense advantage over other historians as he traced the byzantine complexities of Christian history and thought as it evolved over 15 centuries.

Gibbon eventually applied these insights to an analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of Romano-Greek Civilisation that has never been equalled. In the middle of his massive work, he inserted an unnumbered chapter called ‘General Observations on the Fall of the Roman Empire i♦n The West’. In this he offered a summary of the history of the Republic and the Empire up to 476 and a tentative explanation for its Fall.  He began with observations of the Greek historian Polybius (2nd Century BC) who identified “the deep foundations of the greatness of Rome,” which Gibbon then enumerated. These foundations of Romano-Greek Civilisation can be listed as follows:

♦ Civic Commitment “The fidelity of the citizens to each other and to the state was confirmed by the habits of education and the prejudices of religion.”

♦ The Primacy of Honour “Honour, as well as virtue, was the principle of the republic; the ambitious citizens laboured to deserve the solemn glories of a triumph; and the ardour of the Roman youth was kindled into active emulation as often as they beheld the domestic images of their ancestors.”

♦ A Strong & Balanced Constitution “The temperate struggles of the patricians and plebeians had finally established the firm and equal balance of the constitution, which united the freedom of popular assemblies with the authority and wisdom of a senate and the executive powers of a regal magistrate.”

♦ A Citizen Army “When the consul displayed the standard of the republic, each citizen bound himself, by the obligation of an oath, to draw his sword in the cause of his country till he had discharged the sacred duty by a military service of ten years. This wise institution continually poured into the field the rising generations of freemen and soldiers; and their numbers were reinforced by the warlike and populous states of Italy, who, after a brave resistance, had yielded to the valour and embraced the alliance of the Romans.”

♦ The Roman Military System “Their levies, arms, exercises, subordination, marches, encampments; and the invincible legion [were] superior in active strength to the Macedonian phalanx of Philip and Alexander,” the previously greatest armies of the Ancient World.

♦ The Imperial Drive “From these institutions of peace and war [emerged] the spirit and success of a people incapable of fear and impatient of repose. The ambitious design of conquest, which might have been defeated by the seasonable conspiracy of mankind, was attempted and achieved; and the perpetual violation of justice was maintained by the political virtues of prudence and courage.”

♦ Rome’s Vast Expanse “The arms of the Republic, sometimes vanquished in battle, always victorious in war, advanced with rapid steps to the Euphrates, the Danube, the Rhine, and the Ocean; and the images of gold, or silver, or brass, that might serve to represent the nations and their kings, were successively broken by the iron monarchy of Rome.”

♦ The Role of Christianity After Constantine, “Bishops, from 1800 pulpits, inculcated the duty of passive obedience to a lawful and orthodox sovereign; their frequent assemblies and perpetual correspondence maintained the communion of distant churches; and the benevolent temper of the Gospel was strengthened, though confirmed, by the spiritual alliance of the Catholics.”

♦ The Conversion of the Barbarians “The pure and genuine influence of Christianity may be traced in its beneficial, though imperfect, effects on the barbarian proselytes of the North. If the decline of the Roman Empire was hastened by the conversion of Constantine, his victorious religion broke the violence of the Fall, and mollified the ferocious temper of the conquerors.”

Gibbon then turned to the forces that had fatally undermined this massive civilizational edifice:

♦ An Over-Powerful Military “The victorious legions, who, in distant wars, acquired the vices of strangers and mercenaries, first oppressed the freedom of the republic, and afterwards violated the majesty of the purple. The emperors, anxious for their personal safety and the public peace, were reduced to the base expedient of corrupting the discipline which rendered them alike formidable to their sovereign and to the enemy; the vigour of the military government was relaxed and finally dissolved by the partial institutions of Constantine; and the Roman world was overwhelmed by a deluge of barbarians.”

♦ The East-West Division “The throne of Constantinople was erected in the East; while the West was still possessed by a series of emperors who held their residence in Italy, and claimed their equal inheritance of the legions and provinces. This dangerous novelty impaired the strength and fomented the vices of a double reign: the instruments of an oppressive and arbitrary system were multiplied; and a vain emulation of luxury, not of merit, was introduced and supported between the degenerate successors of Theodosius.”

♦ Christian Passivity “The clergy successfully preached the doctrines of patience and timidity; the active virtues of society were discouraged; and the last remains of military spirit were buried in the cloister: a large portion of public and private wealth was consecrated to the specious demands of charity and devotion; and the soldiers’ pay was lavished on the useless multitudes of both sexes who could only plead the merits of abstinence and chastity.”

♦ Religious Sectarianism “Faith, zeal, curiosity, and more earthly passions of malice and ambition, kindled the flame of theological discord; the church, and even the state, were distracted by religious factions, whose conflicts were sometimes bloody and always implacable; the attention of the emperors was diverted from camps to synods; the Roman world was oppressed by a new species of tyranny; and the persecuted sects became the secret enemies of their country.”

♦ The Size of the Threat “The Romans were ignorant of the extent of their dangers and the number of their enemies. Beyond the Rhine and Danube the northern countries of Europe and Asia were filled with innumerable tribes of hunters and shepherds, poor, voracious, and turbulent; bold in arms, and impatient to ravish the fruits of industry.”

♦ Barbarian Migrations “The barbarian world was agitated by the rapid impulse of war; and the peace of Gaul or Italy was shaken by the distant revolutions of China. The Huns, who fled before a victorious enemy, directed their march towards the West; and the torrent was swelled by the gradual accession of captives and allies. The flying tribes who yielded to the Huns assumed in their turn the spirit of conquest; the endless column of barbarians pressed on the Roman empire with [an] accumulated weight,” that it could not withstand.”

♦ Disempowerment of its Citizens “The Empire of Rome was firmly established by the singular and perfect coalition of its members. The subject nations, resigning the hope and even the wish of independence, embraced the character of Roman citizens … But this union was purchased by the loss of national freedom and military spirit; and the servile provinces, destitute of life and motion, [came to expect] their safety [to be guaranteed by] mercenary troops and governors who were directed by the orders of a distant court.”

♦ Decadence of the Court “The happiness of a hundred million citizens depended on the personal merit of one or two men, perhaps children, whose minds were corrupted by education, luxury, and despotic power. The deepest wounds were inflicted on the Empire during the minorities of the sons and grandsons of Theodosius; and, after those incapable princes seemed to attain the age of manhood, they abandoned the church to the bishops, the state to the eunuchs, and the provinces to the barbarians.”

♦ Decline of the Roman Martial Spirit “The warlike states of antiquity, Greece, Macedonia, and Rome, educated a race of soldiers; exercised their bodies, disciplined their courage, multiplied their forces by regular evolutions, and converted the iron which they possessed into strong and serviceable weapons. But this superiority insensibly declined with their laws and manners: and the feeble policy of Constantine and his successors armed and instructed, for the ruin of the empire, the rude valour of the barbarian mercenaries.

♦Immoderate Greatness “The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight.” And so, “instead of inquiring why the Roman Empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it had subsisted so long.”

Many of these factors are relevant in an analysis of the American crisis, some much more than others. It is not possible to engage in an in-depth discussion in a short article such as this. However, a few tentative comments may be ventured. For example, most of the factors that contributed to the foundations of the Roman Empire are paralleled in the United States and would contribute to her survival in any crisis, including some that appear to be lying dormant at present. These would include the nation’s Civic Commitment, its respect for Honour, the strength of the American Constitution, and the unparalleled strength and reliability of the American military. The US would also draw great strength from its deep Christian heritage.

The factors that would erode the foundations of American Civilisation and lead to its eventual decline and fall can also be found in Gibbon’s analysis. The most prominent of these is Passivity, i.e., the passivity not only of its mainstream churches but also of its leading intellectual, cultural and religious institutions in the face of a massive co-ordinated attack on the nation’s entire civilisational edifice. To this can be added Decadence, i.e., the decadence of America’s political, bureaucratic, cultural, and intellectual elites, all of which appear to have adopted a post-Christian moral relativism and postmodern intellectual vacuity, and have connived in this attack on their own civilisation, while exhibiting no commitment at all to the key values of an open liberal democratic society, especially the values of free speech and due process. They have connived, moreover, in the disempowerment of the American people, disrespectfully dismissing them as ‘deplorables’. Tragically and wickedly, it will be to the young ‘deplorables’ that these elites will once again turn if the nation finds itself in a serious conflict and needs military manpower.

Is it possible to be optimistic? At the present time it seems the negative forces noted above have more traction and momentum than the positive ones. Sadly, the latter do indeed seem to be lying dormant and are likely only to be sufficiently activated in the event of a truly major crisis, when it is likely, however, that they would prevail.

Is America presently entering into such a crisis? Is this what we are presently witnessing? Is this what MAGA really means? The next few years may have a great story to tell!

5 comments
  • STD

    Enjoyed this, thanks Merv.

  • Alistair

    I wonder if the correct analogy would not better be the comparison of Rome with Europe, and Constantinople with America. The split of the Empire into two parts – the old decaying part and a newer revitalised part seems appropriate?
    At the end of the Roman Empire Europe became demographically German while currently it seems inevitable that it will become Muslim. (Swedish Islamic slogan : “2030 and we take over!”)
    On the other hand comparing, Rome/Constantinople with America, I would say that America has reached the end of rule of Democracy/ (the end of the Republic) and the beginning of Caesarism or the rule by oligarchs and tyrants.

  • Tony Tea

    In Our Time recently did Gibbon.

    https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000x0v2

  • brandee

    It is always instructive to have a presentation by Mervyn Bendle. Thanks MB for these insights from yourself and Edward Gibbon.
    Obviously democracy flowered in the US as it spun off from a democratic UK whereas Rome was less democratic than Greece. Now the US seems much less democratic than it was 50 years ago and the rule of law is fragmenting.
    The summation by Alistair appeals to me saying the US ‘has reached the end of the rule of Democracy and the beginning of Caesarism or the rule by oligarchs and tyrants’.
    The traditional style Christian church seems bound to not notice or address from the pulpit the public drift from truth and honesty and the expanding Charismatic churches that address the here-and-now seem to do so more on a personal feelings level while disregarding public trends.

  • Ian MacKenzie

    Interesting comparison and quite a few similarities, however these analogies only go so far. The main difference seems to be that the barbarians were outside Rome, but now…..

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