60 in 60: #9 – Gibbon’s The Christians and the Fall of Rome (Penguin’s Great Ideas)

This blog post is part of my ongoing “60 Books in 60 Days” encounter with the Penguin Great Ideas series. From mid-December to mid-February, I will read one book in the series each night and post a blog entry about it the next morning. For more on this beautifully designed series, visit Penguin’s page about the books.

The Christians and the Fall of Rome
by Edward Gibbon

Memorable Line
“Disdaining an ignominious flight, the virgins of the warm climate of Africa encountered the enemy in the closest engagement; they permitted priests and deacons to share their bed, and gloried amidst the flames in their unsullied purity.”

The Skinny
An examination of the rise of Christianity during the fall of the Roman Empire.

Relevance? Argument?
I have always enjoyed reading Edward Gibbon’s work; one of my great ambitions is to re-read The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in the quiet senility of my dotage, when a man may best sympathize with the failings of an old empire. In the meantime, I must content myself with this thin slice, flensed from the whole.

By the standards of the time, The Christians and the Fall of Rome is clinical and ruthless in discussing the early “primitive” Christians, brought up from the dirt of centuries pressing down on them and examined by Gibbon’s cool yet eccentric eye. To use modern parlance, Gibbon’s first attempts to “cover his ass” by acknowledging that the primary reason for the spread of Christianity was “the convincing evidence of the doctrine itself” and “the ruling providence of its great Author.” This affirmation out of the way, Gibbons is free to put forth some “secondary causes”: intolerance, the promise of a future life, miraculous powers “attributed to the primitive church,” the austere morals of early Christians, and the organizational discipline of the “Christian Republic, which gradually formed an independent and increasing state in the heart of the Roman empire.”

A great deal of Jew-hating occurs immediately thereafter, with descriptions such as “sullen obstinacy” to their “implacable hatred of the rest of human-kind,” before an equally unscientific recognition of the piety of the Jews “of the second temple.” In reading this section, I began to think my plan of re-reading Gibbon in my dotage was a wise one, as I would be unlikely to retain any memory of such specifics.

Gibbon’s then mercilessly expands upon why early Christianity managed to survive and then to flourish. In doing so, he engages in an at times insightful analysis of the political and social situation surrounding Year Zero. When necessary, he calls into question claims as to the numbers of disciples in those early times, notes the disorganization of polytheists, points out the strange belief of early Christians in “extraordinary events,” and also ascribes certain successes to luck.

Bluntness occurs without warning: “The acquisition of knowledge, the exercise of our reason or fancy, and the cheerful flow of unguarded conversation, may employ the leisure of a liberal mind. Such amusements, however, were rejected with abhorrence, or admitted with the utmost caution, by the severity of the fathers, who despised all knowledge that was not useful to salvation, and who considered all levity of discourse as a criminal abuse of the gift of speech.”

Gibbon’s thoughts on this subject ignited controversy in Christiandom, although much of it seemed tame to me, which perhaps accounts for the tameness of this post.

To Rick Warren, Edward Gibbon would appear to be an alien intelligence.

Question for Readers
Is faith incompatible with the specific detail of established fact?

Next up, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense


  1. says

    I read an abridged edition of Gibbon’s work about a dozen years ago and I remember alternating between admiring his prose and being frustrated and sometimes irritated with his approach towards describing Roman History (perhaps because despite my poststructuralist leanings, I studied under a professor whose mentor was a disciple of Friedrich Meinecke, who in turn was guided by Leopold von Ranke, the founder of the Historicist School of analyzing/interpreting history, but I digress). There was something beautiful about the way that the late 18th century and early 19th century British writers/historians like Gibbon and Macaulay wrote about events. It reads well as great literature; too bad the historical analysis often is crappy.

    But despite my bias against Gibbon’s approach (too much on one group and not enough on the structural failings of the later Empire), I too plan on re-reading him in whole sometime in the future, because his prose was something to behold.

    As for your question regarding faith, I don’t think it is. Faith is, in some senses, an interpretative schema, and I would imagine that the “realness” of believing that divine intervention caused specific events to happen will continue even after there is a host of evidence that those specific events (say an earthquake that struck the Egyptian Delta around the time that the Minoan Civilization was on the verge of collapse and when Thera blew up) might have been the origin for the divine intervention beliefs (Red Sea parting, etc.). Or in a totally different way of looking at it: Despite all sorts of evidence that politicians will anger and frustrate us, many people still place their faith in the just-elected President/Senator/etc. to do the “right thing.” I guess it all goes back to Hope?