The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: an Ironic Compendium

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The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: an Ironic Compendium

With a simple reasoning we could explain the theory that sustains the great book The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, hoisted by Edward Gibbon. That reasoning is: a society unavoidably subjected to material conditions can be described in terms of tragedy; a society ruled by reason, that is, one that is free, can be described in terms of epic; but a society compounded by rational beings that is deceived by material accidents and psychological illusions deserves to be described in terms of satire. The said book is a methodic, philosophical, elegant and perdurable jeer against irrational beings, whose pretext was Rome. The famous sentence of Gibbon, quoted here and there as a slogan of the said work, thus gets a meaning, and it says: history is “the register of the crimes and follies and misfortunes of mankind”[1]

Gibbon was a friend of the philosophy of Greece, and due to this he read and wondered[2]  always with “a modest doubt” and knitting a “liberal inquiry”[3]. But the inferences and analysis of the famous writer are not too brilliant. The interesting aspect of the tome is, as Borges has pointed out, that it is a book written by an English knight suffused by ancient, classic erudition[4]. This signifies that our applauded masterpiece of history has distinguished, above all, by its rational, anthropological, psychological examinations, by its poetic genius, and by its Latin vocabulary.

Like a Francis Bacon, but without clear classifications, Gibbon indicates the sources of the weakness of the Roman empire, namely: symbolic idolatry, misconstrued traditions, fallacious rhetoric and stoicism as a palliative for mediocrity.
A world populated by “a thousand deities”[7] or living symbols, that is, guided by natural forces that whimsically impose its will, transforms into an impossibility all political order, which always has been grounded upon “a very sincere or lively passion”[8]. If we melt the magic of Egypt, the rigorous religion of the Jewishs and the laws of Rome, we will obtain a halfhearted man unable to accomplish the ideals represented by those venerable traditions. Gibbon, for instance, says this of one of the principal Roman personages: “He was displeased with the spiritual worship of the synagogue; but he approved the institutions of Moses, who had not disdained to adopt many of the rites and ceremonies of Egypt”[9]. And if we involve bigotry and unattainable ideals with the solid language of philosophy, we will produce a population almost eternally enchanted. Philosophy, for a while, was the “most dangerous enemy” of Rome[10]. It was converted, in some cases, into “the organ of blasphemy”[11], of divination, of sacrifice, etc.
Before this short analysis we can say that the purview of Gibbon is a system displaying a human being with a free will, several obscure objects handled by the invisible hand of misfortune, or evil, and a god whose name is History.

The author affirms that the human race has “inalienable rights of conscience”[12], and if this is so, then that race is enabled to live intellectually secluded from any circumstance, that is, it has always power over its deeds. The metaphor that has united light and thought during so many centuries is among the paragraphs of Gibbon. The laws ruling our deportment belong to our free will, therefore, the human reason must enlight with ideas, logic and common sense, or rather, as the poetry of Gibbon says, with “the scattered rays of civil jurisdiction”[13], every dark social problem. Social problems are conjuncts of obscure entities, and in the theory of Gibbon they are directed, above all, by avarice, superstitions, nationalism and religion.

Rome was destroyed, we must remember, by internal quarrels, and several of them were the constant economic fights between its people and its government, fights whose forms were mainly “confiscations and forfeitures”[14]. It is truly interesting that Gibbon says that the barbarians are “natural powers”[15]. To him, so, there is a thumping difference between a war for natural rights and a war for artificial rights. Barbarians are, therefore, snow, storms. Under the pen of Gibbon history is a judge. The “candid severity of history” [16], as he says, is like a central constabulary judging wars, ideologies, linguistic forgeries, empires, etc. Everything, including history, comes in variegated circles[17], we read, but our progress cannot be erased because we, year by year, are better[18]. Such is the cosmological warp of the Decline and Fall.

The prose of Gibbon has beauty due to its syntactical straightforwardness, but its main feature is its poetic genius. Gibbon extolled the Greek tongue, which “gives a soul to the objects of sense, and a body to the abstractions of philosophy”[19]. Or, to speak more concretely, he finds metaphysical meanings within accidental, material things, and sensibilize abstract things.

Three examples will assuage the curiosity of my amicable American readers. “Calm” is a concept extracted from a sensorial perception. Gibbon has placed, for instance, the words “theatre” and “treacherous” abutting with it. Reading we imagine, “velis nolis”, the face of Marcus Aurelius peacefully imagining Arab or German cliques imagining the death of Marcus Aurelius. A desert is called “burning solitude”. That barren space, by force of imagination, is inhabited by too hot gods. “Freedom” is an idea extracted from our pure reason, to speak in a Kantian manner, and this means that it does not have a correlation with reality. But Gibbon talks on an “obscure freedom”. It is impossible to imagine a life of freedom without sensorial data, and this impossibility leads us to desperation[20].

Gibbon was a reader of Greek and Latin literature, but besides a practitioner of the French letters, whose Latin vocabulary has studded each page of the commented book. When one is reading the chivalrous deeds of the Inquisition, that conjunct of Transalpine faiths guided by a sacred city, our sight, passing upon hundreds of words of Roman lineage, is astonished by the clear and ancient phonetics of the paragraphs. Nobody can deny that the next lines of words do not evoke the idea of Rome: “recantation”, “demesne”, “multifarious”, “palliate”,  “inoculate”, “piquant”, “adumbrate”, “alleviate”, “annul”, “transient”, “lassitude”, “tome”, “languor”, “paramour”, “palladium”. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is, in sum, an “ironic compendium”, as the Argentinian skald said.-


[1] Gibbon, Edward, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Harmondsworth, Middleses, England: Penguin Books, 1963. Page 44.

[2] P. 697.

[3] P. 829.

[4] See Prólogos con un prólogo de prólogos, “Edward Gibbon: Páginas de  y de autobiografía”.

[5] P. 891.

[6] Ibidem.

[7] Mythology is the “poetry of religion”, as Prescott says (The Conquest of Mexico). It is, in sum, “the poetic development of the religious principle in a primitive age”. The Mexican Empire perished due to the same causes. The American author wrote on the old Mexicans this: “But the idea of unity — of a being, with whom volition is action, who has no need of inferior ministers to execute his purposes — was too simple, or too vast, for their understandings; and they sought relief, as usual, in a plurality of deities, who presided over elements, the changes of the seasons, and the various occupations of man”.

[8] P. 180.

[9] P. 363.

[10] P. 224.

[11] P.  607.

[12] P. 195. Although Gibbon was a rationalist philosopher, before his mind the human mind was not a machine, but a metaphysical entity. For this reason he spoke of “the subtle and invisible operations of the human mind” (p. 425).

[13] P. 36.

[14] P. 263.

[15] P. 528.

[16] P. 87. History is a “magistra vitae” (Cicero), in accordance with the classic Greek conception.

[17] Pp. 528-529. Kant talks about experience in terms of geometry, or circles. He says “Kreis der Erfahrung (Kritik der reinen Vernunft, B 8).

[18] Quevedo, that classicist owner of a Spanish prose settled upon a Latin syntax, displays the same conception of progress. He wrote:

En fuga irrevocable huye la hora;

pero aquélla el mejor cálculo cuenta,

que en la lección y estudios nos mejora.

[19] P. 821.

[20] The next expressions reveal the satiric spirit of Gibbon: “theatre of superstition” (13), “dissolved in luxury” (52), “obstinate despair” (215), “allegorical wisdom” (225), “amorous outrages” (454), matrimonial prostitution” (456), “philosophical romance” (481), “sacred indolence” (526), “genius of superstition” (510), “philosophic smile” (865). To him mythology is just “a tale of wonders” (224). The angels of the biblical verses are not angels, but spies (675). The arbitrary interpretations of the sacred letters made by Mohamet transformed him into an “editor of God” (667). Gibbon, Karl Kraus, Francisco de Quevedo, Cervantes, Bayle and Schopenhauer are, for me, infinite fonts of grins.

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Acerca de Edvard Zeind Palafox

Edvard Zeind Palafox   es Redactor Publicitario – Planner, Licenciado en Mercadotecnia y Publicidad (UNIMEX), con una Maestría en Mercadotecnia (con Mención Honorífica en UPAEP). Es Catedrático de tiempo completo, ha participado en congresos como expositor a nivel nacional.

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