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BY THE EDITOR
IBBON is one of those few writers who hold as high a
place in the history of literature as in the roll of
great historians. He concerns us here as an historian; our business is to consider how far the view which he has presented of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire can be accepted as faithful to the facts, and in what respects it needs correction in the light of discoveries which have been made since he wrote. But the fact that his work, composed more than a hundred years ago, is still successful with the general circle of educated people, and has not gone the way of Hume and Robertson, whom we laud as “classics" and leave on the cold shelves, is due to the singularly happy union of the historian and the man of letters. Gibbon thus ranks with Thucydides and Tacitus, and is perhaps the clearest example that brilliance of style and accuracy of statement are perfectly compatible in an historian.
But Gibbon has his place in literature not only as the The moral styiist, who never lays aside his toga when he takes up his pen, Dealine but as the expounder of a large and striking idea in a sphere of intense interest to mankind, and as a powerful representative of certain tendencies of his age. The guiding idea or "moral"
“ of his history is briefly stated in his epigram: “I have described the triumph of barbarism and religion”. In other 2 words, the historical development of human societies, since the second century after Christ, was a retrogression (according to ordinary views of “ progress "), for which Christianity was mainly to blame.
Its contribution to
sophy of History
We are thus taken into a region of speculation where every she Philo traveller must make his own chart. But to attempt to deny
a general truth in Gibbon's point of view is vain; and it is feeble to deprecate his sneer. We may spare more sympathy than he for the warriors and the churchmen; but all that has since been added to his knowledge of facts has neither reversed nor blunted the point of the “Decline and Fall".
For an inquirer not blinded by religious prepossessions, or misled by comfortable sophistries, Gibbon really expounded one of the
chief data with which the philosophy of history has to reckon. O How are we to define progress? how recognize retrogression ?
Is there an end in relation to which such words have their meaning, and is there a law which will explain the triumph
“ of barbarism and religion " as a necessary moment in a reasonable process towards that end, whatever it may be? Some answers have been given since Gibbon's day, for which he
would have the same smile as for Leo's Dogmatic Epistle. His grasp
Not the least important aspect of the Decline and Fall is of the unity of history its lesson in the continuity of history, the favourite theme of
Mr. Freeman. The title displays the cardinal fact that the Empire founded by Augustus fell in 1461; that all the changes which transformed the Europe of Marcus Aurelius into the Europe of Erasmus had not abolished the name and memory of the Empire. And whatever names of contempt-in harmony with his thesis–Gibbon might apply to the institution in the period of its later decline, such as the “Lower Empire,” or “Greek Empire,” his title rectified any false impressions that such language might cause. On the continuity of the Roman Empire depended the unity of his work. By the emphasis laid on this fact he did the same kind of service to the study of history in England, that Mr. Bryce has done in his Holy Roman Empire by tracing the thread which connects the Europe of Francis the Second with the Europe of Charles the Great.
It has sometimes been remarked that those histories are
purposes spirit the
Inost readable which are written to prove a thesis. The in- Vltarior dictment of the Empire by Tacitus, the defence of Cæsarianism and party by Mommsen, Grote's vindication of democracy, Droysen's of history advocacy of monarchy, might be cited as examples. All these writers intended to present the facts as they took place, but all wrote with prepossessions and opinions, in the light of which they interpreted the events of history. Arnold de- Arnold's liberately advocated such partiality on the ground that “the past is reflected to us by the present and the partyman feels the present most ". Another Oxford Regius Professor remarked Bishop that “without some infusion of spite it seems as if history could not be written". On the other side stands the formula of Ranke as to the true task of the historian :)“ Ich will bloss Ranko's sagen wie es eigentlich gewesen ist # It cannot be said that Gibbon sat down to write with any ulterior purpose, but fortunately he allowed his temperament to colour his history, and used it to prove a congenial thesis. But, while he put things in the light demanded by this thesis, he related his facts accurately. If we take into account the vast range of his work, his accuracy is amazing. He laboured under some Gibbon's disadvantages, which are set forth in his own Memoirs. He had not enjoyed that school and university training in the languages and literatures of Greece and Rome which is probably the best preparation for historical research. His know- Imperfect ledge of Greek was imperfect; he was very far from having of Groek the “scrupulous ear of the well-flogged critic”. He has committed errors of translation, and was capable of writing · Gregory of Nazianzen". But such slips are singularly few.
Gibbon's diligent accuracy in the use of his materials Gibbon's cannot be over-praised, and it will not be diminished by giving Tillemont the due credit to his French predecessor Tillemont. The Histoire des Empereurs and the Mémoires ecclésiastiques, laborious and exhaustive collections of material, were addressed to the special student and not to the general reader, but scholars may still consult them with profit. It is interesting to find Mommsen
in his later years retracting one of his earlier judgments and
sunt (hist. 5, 699)-vivoit en Occident et ne savoit
dici hodie subscribo". It is one of Gibbon's merits that he made full use of Tillemont, “whose inimitable accuracy almost assumes the character of genius," as far as Tillemont guided him, up to the reign of Anastasius I.; and it is only just to the work of the Frenchman to impute to him a large share in the accuracy which the Englishman achieved. From the historical, though not from the literary, point of view, Gibbon, deserted by Tillemont, distinctly declines, though he is well sustained through the
wars of Justinian by the clear narrative of Procopius. Relimitations cognizing that he was accurate, we do not acknowledge by
implication that he was always right; for accuracy is relative to opportunities. The discovery of new materials, the researches of numerous scholars, in the course of a hundred years, have not only added to our knowledge of facts, but have modified and upset conclusions which Gibbon with his materials was justified in drawing.
Gibbon's historical sense kept him constantly right in dealmethods of researching with his sources, but he can hardly be said to have treated
them methodically. The growth of German erudition was one of the leading features of the intellectual history of the nineteenth century; and one of its most important contributions to historical method lies in the investigation of sources.
Some Quellen. German scholars have indeed pressed this “ Quellenkritik'
further than it can safely be pressed. A philologist, writing his doctoral dissertation, will bring plausible reasons to prove where exactly Diodorus ceased to “write out" Ephorus, whose work we do not possess, and began to write out somebody else,
1 In the Chronica Minora (M. G. H.), vol. i. 512 599.