A consideration of Edward Gibbon’s perspective on civilisation and barbarism. I have mostly refered to his “Decline and Fall”, for obvious reasons.
In his discussion of civilisation, Gibbon establishes a set of criteria by which we can judge any society. Some of these are empirical and concrete, for example the advancement of technology or the construction of grand monuments. Others, such as cultural and civic achievements, are much more difficult to quantify. Perhaps chief amongst the measures of any state’s value would be the degree and availability of that golden property: liberty.
If Gibbon placed a great deal of emphasis on the importance of liberty, it was because he lived in interesting times. It hardly needs mentioning that 1776 was an important year, not least for the American revolutionary war. Indeed, it would have been clear to Gibbon (or indeed anyone more than half awake) how crucial freedoms are to the functioning of a modern society, which has clear relevance to our understanding of both the peak and the fall of the Roman Empire. Thomas Paine (coincidentally one of the first authors to use “republic“ with a positive connotation1) had written, that very year, of “the inalienable rights of man“2. What seems beyond doubt is that Gibbon saw liberty as essential to civilisation. Yet here lies an unusual contradiction. The role of civilisation must be, at least in part, to restrict the basic freedoms of its citizens. As Rousseau observed, “Man is born free and everywhere his in chains”. Gibbon was certainly no admirer of Rousseau3, and yet here he holds a sentiment that, if not similar, springs from the same impulse. We should be careful here, however. If we take barbarism to be the opposite of civilisation (which Gibbon himself did not do), then we must remember that it not a state of absolute liberty. Gibbon talks at great length about how, by maintaining a pastoral lifestyle, and wilfully avoiding the trappings agrarian society, the Germanic peoples maintain their freedom to move as they will. Yet, he also pays attention to the crushing tyranny that keeps these close knit communities together. Child eugenics and subjection of women are widespread, accepted factors, as is the rule of an absolute chieftain. It seems that in order to uphold one kind of liberty, the barbarians have had to utterly surrender another. The Romans, on the other hand, might have achieved a more balanced compromise. They retain (the free males at least) a degree of personal freedoms, while at the same times enjoying the security of a large state. This is not without its disadvantages. Gibbon believes that the “soft enjoyments”4 of such a lifestyle lead, in part, to Rome’s military decline.
Gibbon was not, however, a man who focused purely on high ideals. Much of The Decline and Fall is consumed by his fascination with the technology and architecture of the day. Here, it would seem, he has to come out in favour of civilisation. The barbarians had a number of counts against them in this regard, most notably that they failed to write things down. He believed that the written word was the “principle circumstance that distinguishes a civilised people from a herd of savages incapable of knowledge or reflection”. The storage and transmission of principles and ideas becomes nigh impossible over wide areas to large numbers of people. Furthermore, the quasi-nomadic lifestyle was not conducive to innovation or experimentation. Moving about from place to place, they could not have constructed the grand temples or the Colosseum that Gibbon himself loved5. The people of Rome could afford, due to the efficiency of their agriculture (not to mention the toil of their slaves) to dedicate time to the advancement of science and technology. The principle concern of the barbarians being survival, they could not be so contemplative. It might seem likely that, given Gibbon’s thoughts on their military supremacy, they would have devoted more time to the improvement of arms and machines of war. Yet this does not seem to be the case. Their might is attributed to any number of factors, (“a breed of strong and serviceable horses”4), the cunning of their leaders, (“In the arts of negotiation, as well as in those of war, the Gothic king maintained his superior ascendant over an enemy”6), and the character of the barbarians themselves (their diet, cultural attitudes and so on). In the art of war, they seem essentially static, and seemingly uniform in their tactics, the Mongol hordes not, at first glance, appear so very different to the marauding Huns in battle. As he puts it in his General Observations, the “rude valour of the Barbarian mercenaries” is enough to overcome the technological advantages of Rome.
Perhaps then we should pause to consider what it is to be a “barbarian”. The word derives from the Greek “barbaros”, meaning that which was foreign or non-Greek. In fact, the term originally had racist overtones, being an onomatopoeic mockery of incomprehensible speech7. When applied, it is used to mean uncivilised and primitive, and yet it also refers to that which is other and alien. Gibbon was not so naïve as to believe the Roman Empire to be the only civilised culture on earth. He writes in admiration of the social subtlety of Chinese society, and their skill at trade and negotiation. The definition of barbarism extends beyond a social model or set of cultural values, “The Tartars are an ugly and even deformed race”4. Of course, assertions such as this are always measured against one’s own cultural values, as well as those of historical sources. It seems unlikely that Gibbon would have found such a sentiment amongst the annals of the Tartars themselves, if such annals had existed.
If Gibbon does not admire the state of barbarism as a whole, then perhaps we should not translate this view to the barbarians themselves. “Cold, poverty, and a life of danger and fatigue, fortify the strength and courage of the barbarians”8. This has a lot in common with Voltaire’s (somewhat satirical) vision of the “Noble Savage”9, which romantic thinkers often placed above corrupt, “civilised” man. Gibbon was certainly no romantic (neither was Voltaire for that matter), and yet we can find parallels. However, we should be cautious here. Gibbon, like Voltaire, was able to see that a savage, however noble, was nonetheless a savage. He saw the “human savage”9 as a mutable, malleable entity, and one which could be improved by the shaping touch of civil society. He may have had much to say about the weakness and degeneracy of latter day Rome, and yet he finds the later synthesis of Roman and barbarian cultures intriguing, the “gradual progress of society from the lowest ebb of premeditative barbarism to the full tide of modern civilisation”.
One potential, indeed tempting, view of civilisation and barbarism can be one of the oldest: that history must be ultimately cyclical3. To view civilisation as tide, ever rising or receding, is an interesting notion, and one that seemed to occur to Gibbon. It seems that Gibbon could see the value the collapse of an empire, as it would create a vacuum which a new society could fill. He was particularly critical of those nations who wasted their longevity (Byzantium would be one example) without contributing to human understanding in a significant way. It was Gibbon’s hope that a succession of civilisations could each leave some sediment of their achievements, be it technological, social, cultural or artistic, which could then inform and expand future human endeavour. In this sense, barbarism as a force of history can be construed as a positive. By culling those civilisations who have passed from both eminence and usefulness, thereby paving the way for newer states to arise.
In terms of cultural and civic achievements, the historian must abandon all hopes of a balanced comparison. The luxury and decadence of Rome not withstanding, who could hope to find the “barbarian” equivalent of the Forum, or a Gallic monument to match the Pantheon. As mentioned earlier, detrimental to the barbarians cultural standing was their lack of recorded history. If they ever produced thinkers to match Cicero, Tacitus or Plotinus, then we shall never know it. Perhaps another distinction between the two is that Roman culture was able to assimilate the thoughts and achievements that had gone before it. Roman literature and philosophy (indeed, thought as a whole) would have been unrecognisable without the influence of Greek poetry and rationality. Barbarian culture, such as it was, essentially had to start from scratch. Stoicism, in particularly, was a Greek idea adopted, and then adapted (although Zeno might have been understandably surprised to see how his ideas were used) into Roman society10. It is this stoicism that Gibbon admires in early society, with self deprivation and personal abstinence forming the main strength of the Roman legions. It could be argued that while the Empire slowly lost these characteristics, the barbarians had them almost intrinsically, albeit without any intellectual grounding. In more absolute terms, we can see that the civic achievements of Rome last to this day. It might have descended into the realms of cliché, but laying the groundwork for the world’s first continental road system cannot be overlooked. Similarly, the development of infrastructure (particularly in the use of aqueducts and irrigation for both civil and agriculture purposes) is something we should all feel rather grateful for.
The conclusion seems to be worrying simple. Edward Gibbon did indeed prefer civilisation to barbarism. There are indeed shades of grey that Gibbon found between the two opposing states of existence, and herein lies the subtlety of the issue. What Gibbon provides is a timely reminder that barbarism is not so distant from civilisation as we might like to think; and that the “stupendous fabric”11 of civilisation is never far enough from breaking point for comfort. In this sense (although this is not perhaps what Gibbon intended), The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire can be interpreted as a cautionary tale. Gibbon had great faith in the notion that, at its best, mankind could,
“Acquiesce in the pleasing conclusion that every age of the world has increased, and still increases, the real wealth, the happiness, the knowledge, and perhaps the virtue of the human race”.12
If barbarism is a necessary step on the path towards the future, then we should not confuse the means with the ends. We should be wary of confusing Gibbon’s criticisms of the Roman Empire with his comments on civilisation as a whole, and consider a plain truth which we can finally take as self evident. Would Gibbon have traded his civilised life for that of the barbarian? Lets not be bashful here: No.
1 Made In America- Bill Bryson
2Common Sense- Thomas Paine
3Gibbon: Making History- Roy Porter
4The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire, Chapter XXVI
5Memoirs Of My Life- Edward Gibbon
7Collins English Dictionary
8General Observations On The Fall Of The Roman Empire In The West- Edward Gibbon
10The Penguin Dictionary Of Philosophy
11General Observations On The Fall Of The Roman Empire In The West- Edward Gibbon
12The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire, Volume XI, Chapter LXXI