On reading Gibbon in the time of Trump

Last year I set myself the task of reading a chapter a day from Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The exercise felt as much like meditation as research, a form of spiritual discipline that recalled to mind the practices of Marcus Aurelius: a suitable association for the book in which Gibbon characterized the rule of the Antonine emperors as “the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous” (III, 1:103). Following the death of Marcus Aurelius, last and greatest of the Antonines, his son Commodus would go on to take the purple, triggering a brutal descent from tranquillity to corruption. This is how Gibbon described it:

The possession of wealth stimulated the diligence of the informers; rigid virtue implied a tacit censure of the irregularities of Commodus; important services implied a dangerous superiority of merit; and the friendship of the father always ensured the aversion of the son. Suspicion was equivalent to proof. Trial to condemnation. The execution of a considerable senator was attended with the death of all who might lament or revenge his fate; and when Commodus had once tasted human blood, he became incapable of pity or remorse. (IV, 1:112)

I spent February and March of this year at the American Academy in Rome pursuing the story of how Gibbon came to write this extraordinary history (it is seventy-one chapters, a million and a half words long, published in six volumes between 1776 and 1788), as well as how and why Enlightenment historians came to believe that walking around the actual broken ruins of the past could be one of the best ways of coming to understand it. It was on the afternoon of Saturday, February 25, 2017, that I came face to face, in the Capitoline Museums, with the ancient bust of Commodus as Hercules, complete with lion skin, club and related accessories. Gigantic, marmoreal, the emperor’s massive curl-bedecked head surges forth from the lion’s toothy mouth: a masterpiece of kitsch.

The statue was only excavated in the nineteenth century, and Gibbon wouldn’t have seen it when he visited Rome, but as an object it perfectly complements the historian’s sentences about the emperor whose accomplishments included, preposterously, the reintroduction of the custom of hunting wild beasts in the city’s amphitheaters. “In the civilized state of the Roman empire,” comments Gibbon, “the wild beasts had long since retired from the face of man, and the neighborhood of populous cities. To surprise them in their solitary haunts, and to transport them to Rome, that they might be slain in pomp by the hand of an emperor, was an enterprise equally ridiculous for the prince, and oppressive for the people” (IV, 1:117).

The iconography of man mastering the wild beasts already conveyed mild absurdity in ancient Rome, but then one of the distinctive qualities of kitsch is the way it transcends historical particularities. Dictators of the twentieth century also loved to be pictured alongside wild animals (think of Uday Hussein’s lions, which may have been fed human flesh, or the lions and tigers and elephants of Gaddafi’s personal zoo). In contrast to those scenes, the 2010 photograph of Trump’s sons Donald Jr. and Eric posing with a dead leopard in Zimbabwe must seem relatively mild, but the irresistible tug of the imagery on a certain kind of political imagination may be evidenced in the staged Trump family portrait of the same year, taken by the Belgian photographer Regine Mahaux, which seats a diminutive Barron on a nearly life-size toy lion alongside his parents and against a loosely Roman backdrop of gilded columns and colossal urban panorama.

Gibbon was a member of Parliament in Britain during the period of American revolution, and though he followed the party line in deploring American independence, he took comfort in the notion that any perceived decline of British empire was in some sense merely notional. “Whatever may be the changes of [the Americans’] political situation, they must preserve the manners of Europe,” he observed; “and we may reflect with some pleasure, that the English language will probably be diffused over an immense and populous continent” (2:514). Given the light it cast on imperial decline, its symptoms and ultimate trajectories, Rome’s history was cautionary for Gibbon and his contemporaries; the question of how far those parallels extend might trouble us in the time of Trump as well.

Five selections, then, from Gibbon read in the time of Trump:

Monday, January 30, 2017 at 7:56am EST

“Of the chiefs and soldiers who marched to the holy sepulchre, I will dare to affirm, that all were prompted by the spirit of enthusiasm; the belief of merit, the hope of reward, and the assurance of divine aid. But I am equally persuaded, that in many it was not the sole, that in some it was not the leading, principle of action. The use and abuse of religion are feeble to stem, they are strong and irresistible to impel, the stream of national manners.”

Wednesday, February 1, 2017 at 6:05pm EST

Gibbon for the day: “The enthusiasm of the first crusade is a natural and simple event, while hope was fresh, danger untried, and enterprise congenial to the spirit of the times. But the obstinate perseverance of Europe may indeed excite our pity and admiration; that no instruction should have been drawn from constant and adverse experience; that the same confidence should have repeatedly grown from the same failures; that six succeeding generations should have rushed headlong down the precipice that was open before them; and that men of every condition should have staked their public and private fortunes, on the desperate adventure of possessing or recovering a tomb-stone two thousand miles from their country.”

Thursday, February 9, 2017 at 8:41am EST

Gibbon for the day: “I shall not, I trust, be accused of superstition: but I must remark, that, even in this world, the natural order of events will sometimes afford the strong appearances of moral retribution.”

Monday, February 20, 2017 at 5:27am EST

“Of the various forms of government, which have prevailed in the world, an hereditary monarchy seems to present the fairest scope for ridicule. Is it possible to relate, without an indignant smile, that, on the father’s decease, the property of a nation, like that of a drove of oxen, descends to his infant son, as yet unknown to mankind and to himself; and that the bravest warriors and the wisest statesmen, relinquishing their natural right to empire, approach the royal cradle with bended knees and protestations of inviolable fidelity? Satire and declamation may paint these obvious topics in the most dazzling colours, but our more serious thoughts will respect a useful prejudice, that establishes a rule of succession, independent of the passions of mankind; and we shall cheerfully acquiesce in any expedient which deprives the multitude of the dangerous, and indeed the ideal, power of giving themselves a master” (Gibbon, Decline and Fall, ch. VII, 1:187).

Thursday, March 2, 2017 at 8:50am EST

Decline and Fall, ch. 26, on the Goths imploring the protection of Valens, A.D. 376: “As long as the same passions and the interests subsist among mankind, the questions of war and peace, of justice and policy, which were debated in the councils of antiquity, will frequently present themselves as the subject of modern deliberation. But the most experienced statesman of Europe, has never been summoned to consider the propriety, or the danger, of admitting, or rejecting, an unnumerable multitude of Barbarians, who are driven by despair and hunger to solicit a settlement on the territories of a civilized nation.”

All quotations are from Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, ed. David Womersley, 3 vols. (London: Penguin/Allen Lane, 1994). Thanks to Chris Shea and Marco Roth for their comments on earlier drafts of this piece.