Roman holiday – An Irishman’s Diary about Edward Gibbon’s literary and historical masterpiece

Edward Gibbon: punchy and  elegant style

Edward Gibbon: punchy and elegant style


In a triumph of optimism over experience recently, I bought a copy of Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. No, not the entire work, which runs to 71 chapters, an estimated 1.5 million words, and tends to come in six volumes. Life probably is too short for that.

This was one of the many abridged versions, with a mere 28 chapters in full and the rest summarised. Even so, it’s nearly the length of War and Peace, a book I have now twice attempted to invade, before both times getting hopelessly bogged down in the Russian winter of Tolstoy’s prose, circa page 750, and having to retreat.

Unlike that, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall had never even been on my to-do list.  Then I read a combined review of three new books about ancient Rome, which as the critic said, illustrated the continuing fascination the subject has for modern readers.  

And the books all sounded very interesting. But unfortunately for the authors, I wasn’t talked into buying any of them, because the review was shot through with so many references to the greatness of Gibbon’s masterpiece, as history and as literature, that the clear message was I should get that instead.

Mind you, I did so with doubts about how well a book written in the 1770s would stand up now. The pacing was sure to be slow, I thought, the language fusty. I stopped thinking this on page 2, however, where Gibbon sums up the Roman conquest of Britain under Claudius, Nero, and Domitian, in the following sentence: “After a war of about forty years, undertaken by the most stupid, maintained by the most dissolute, and terminated by the most timid of all the emperors, the far greater part of the island submitted to the Roman yoke.”

Punchy as well as elegant, that’s fairly typical of what I’ve read so far. Even when he’s delivering masses of historical detail, Gibbon can usually tie it all together with a taut, telling phrase. There’s a long section in chapter one, for example, where he’s discussing the Roman army’s training methods, which were notoriously intense.  

Then he summarises: “It is prettily remarked by an ancient historian who had fought against them that the effusion of blood was the only circumstance which distinguished a field of battle from a field of exercise.” (For some reason, this bit reminded me of things I’ve heard about the Kilkenny hurling team.)

The time of the British conquest was also, of course, the time when the Romans might have invaded Ireland.  

They clearly thought about it, if only for strategic reasons.  As Gibbon puts it: “The western isle might be improved into a valuable possession, and the Britons would wear their chains with less reluctance if the prospect and example of freedom was on every side removed . . . ”

Alas, we’ll never know what improvements the Romans had in mind (the draining of the Shannon, maybe), although they didn’t think Ireland would be much trouble to conquer.  “One legion and a few auxiliaries” was the military assessment, an insult to Hibernian fighting powers that leads to one of Gibbon’s countless footnotes (“The Irish writers, jealous of their national honour, are extremely provoked on this occasion.”).  

That, by the way, is part of the price of his uncluttered prose. Many of the footnotes are interesting enough in their own right to tempt you off the path. In this case, naturally, I had to look up those provoked Irish writers. And I found at least one, who argued indignantly that the Romans were underestimating the challenge.

After all, it had taken three legions and 8,000 British recruits to fight the Scots, whereas Ireland was “larger than Caledonia, better peopled, and more warlike”. The same writer goes on to suggest that perhaps the Romans were planning some sort of strategic partnership with local overlords, to minimise investment.

The footnotes problem aside, Gibbon also uses some words that no longer mean what they did 250 years ago. The publishers helpfully list a few, and most (including “fabulous” and “artificial”) are obvious enough. 

But I’d never come across “intestine” as an adjective meaning “internal” before.  And I’m glad this was explained, because that same provoked writer also uses it, referring to an Irish prince who, after being overthrown by “an intestine commotion”, had approached the Romans for help. It sounds like he had stomach cramps.  

The Decline and Fall will be a steep learning curve, clearly.  Still, I’m up to page 26 already.  Only another 1,030 to go.