An illustration of Edward Gibbon's novel in two hands

How Edward Gibbon’s ancient history helped my dad and I to heal ours

After 15 years of arguments, it was a charity shop copy of a 18th-century history book that gave one father and daughter a second chance.

Thanks to a tediously acrimonious 15-year-long divorce battle my parents don’t speak. They also don’t need to: for many years I have been the head librarian of their respective grievances. Ask me for the letter “C” in my Rolodex of misery and, listed under “cheating”, “custody”, or “child maintenance payments”, I could heave from the archives pages of conflicting accounts of my family history.  These stories are so boring my sisters and I could copy them out from memory.

My relationship with my dad was always defined by his obstinate version of these stories and my equally obstinate desire to challenge them. A he-said/she-said bitterness that eventually seeped into the hangnail of our every interaction. Not only did I become the arbitrator of disputes, but I flexed my intellectual muscle by picking fights with him. One trigger phrase - or two big glasses of red wine - and we were hauling ourselves over injustices of the past again. We’d been arguing so long I couldn’t remember the last time we enjoyed one another’s company.

My dad, a self-styled cockney High Renaissance man, has always been a history nerd. He left school at 15 and took pride in the education he’d given himself. In more peaceful periods of our relationship he’d occasionally drive me to school. I recall half-following while he pleasantly rambled on about “dodgy” Popes, the sackings, whackings and moral failures of the Roman Empire that he said he learned about from a man called Edward Gibbon.

Privately, I began to dread he really believed the horrible things I said.

Deep into my twenties and father-daughter relations still didn’t show much sign of improving. A few months after I screamed “you are going to die alone!” through his car window, we gave up the fight, through stubbornness, cowardice, or sheer exhaustion.

Instead, my dad moved to a remote medieval town in the hills of Rome. We settled into a rhythm of apathy. Lame WhatsApp emoji exchanges and courtesy calls that were somehow more unsettling than the fights. Privately, I began to dread he really believed the horrible things I said.

While browsing the shelves in a charity shop a couple of years ago, I saw a copy of the book I’d remembered him harping on about years before: The History of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. We hadn’t spoken in more than six months. I flicked through the pages. It looked incredibly boring to me, but in a moment of blithe optimism, I bought it, wrote Dad’s address on a Jiffy bag and put it (illegally) in the work post. As the whole endeavour cost me a grand total of 50p, I figured the stakes were pretty low.

I came to discover that Decline and Fall isn’t a fusty history book, but a surprisingly relatable polemic

What I didn’t know at the time was that this act would set us on a path of tentative reconciliation. Curiosity began to slowly creep back into our relationship in the form of bookmarked pages and further footnotes. WhatsApp notes turned into real phone conversations where I realised I had somehow completely forgotten how funny my Dad is.

He’d give me his spin on the early Roman Popes: a line-up of “dodgy geezers” such as Pope Gregory who, as he put it, “went to a slave market and saw angels sent to him by God” or Pope John XII, who “died getting his end away in a bloody brothel, the dirty sod.”

For the first time we managed to have a casual debate - over whether Theodosius really was, as my Father had suggested, “a boring old git”.

I came to discover that Decline and Fall isn’t a fusty history book, but a surprisingly relatable polemic (dripping with spicy, hipster-grade irony) about the delusions of the powerful and the sheer stupidity of men engaged in the “wanton rigour of despotism”. Despite being a (sometimes exhaustingly) thorough factual account of the Empire, and written in 1776, its backbone is a moral one, its core thesis being that history is a humanity will never progress until the human condition had been exposed and superstitions about “greatness” unpacked.

Thanks to Gibbon we at least believe in a shared ground

In time, passages shared between father and daughter about this period of history turned into travel recommendations, which turned into short trips to Rome and longer ones into the ancient Italian hills for dusty, espresso-fuelled power walks around ruined villas.

Gibbon’s is a book that has taken us up crumbling ancient paths and one particularly harrowing near-death experience with a coachload of nuns swinging round the mountain to Assisi. On these mini adventures we’ve found a new tenderness. We’ve laughed our heads off to discover Nero’s villa as described was, in fact, a pile of knackered old rocks in a car park. We’ve stood in silent amazement, ice cream dribbling through our knuckles, in front of a Hellenistic mosaic of the Nile in Palestrina. Through Gibbon’s eloquent prose we have carefully picked our way around the moral concepts that have hitherto defined our relationship: the manipulation of facts, the folly of “virtue” and the concept of historical subjectivity.

We now know that we both share the Enlightenment values that preoccupy the book: fairness and justice in the pursuit of truth. Whether these the same values that propel my dad to walk around the British Museum, point at various ancient artefacts and shout “that’s nicked!”, I’m not sure. But thanks to Gibbon we at least believe this is our shared ground. Now we can both be furious about the same thing - Diocletian’s vicious persecution of Christians or the betrayal of Julian the Apostate - but nobody is going to cry themselves to sleep over it.

'Sometimes we take Gibbon on the road, where the front 30 pages occasionally escape into the footwell of the car'

And it’s how I found myself sitting in the window of dad’s little flat in the hills of Rome looking at the book that changed our story while he, less romantically, watches Pointless downstairs. I can confirm the book has seen better days. The pages are lightly oiled in the corners with suncream and nectarine juice. Sometimes we take Gibbon on the road, where the front 30 pages occasionally escape into the footwell of the car and are gathered up with other ancient crumbs. Gibbon probably never imagined he would suffer the injustice of sharing a Lidl cooler bag with an ASOS bucket hat, but here we are.

As for me and dad, I worry it would be both sickeningly trite and completely untrue if I declared that Decline and Fall became a tale of the ruin of one dynasty that saved another one. But I am overwhelmingly grateful to have left my post at the divorce archives and find a new one as a history nerd. I’m equally grateful to Edward Gibbon who, in recording the “crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind” gave dad and I the opportunity to reckon with our own and the provide us route out of them. If I were to be slightly less pretentious about it, I’d say at the very least it’s given us something to more fun to argue about.

Image: Tim Lane/Penguin

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