Gibbon Hoodwinked?

Ossian-Title Page, 1765

In Chapter VI, Gibbon’s narrative continues with the careers of Septimius Severus’ sons Caracalla and Geta, whose bitter rivalry was the bane of their fathers’ reign as emperor.  His efforts at evenhandedness towards them only extended the rift among them and their respective adherents until all of Rome’s power elite was aligned with one and inimical to the other.

Amidst this gloomy situation, in 208 A.D. came an invasion of the Roman-controlled Britain by Caledonians from the North (present-day Scotland).  Severus, along with his two sons, departed for the island province to crush the rebellion.  The rebels hung back until the Romans were well into their territory, hassled the Romans with guerilla-type attacks, and let a particularly harsh winter do the rest.  By Spring the Romans had lost more than 50,000 men, though they did ultimately force the Caledonians into a peace agreement (which the Caledonians ignored as soon as the Roman armies withdrew from the borderlands).

In any case, what’s interesting about Gibbon’s account of the war is his discussion of the poems of Ossian and how they constitute a dim reflection, in ancient Celtic legend, of the actual historical event.

“Ossian” was the (purported) author of a set of poems (purportedly) passed down through folklore that were (allegedly) discovered by Scotsman James Macpherson and published in 1765 to great acclaim and attention.  Macpherson’s “translations” of these poems, featuring the heroic feats of a hero named Fingal, were wildly successful and were translated into many languages.  They were also fake.  It is possible that Macpherson used some authentic sources e.g. Gaelic manuscripts and oral tradition of songs and stories, but most of the poetry, characters, and stories of “Ossian” were of his own composing.  Some of this controversy occurred during Mapherson’s lifetime, much of the challenge coming from Samuel Johnson, the famous English author and lexicographer, but at the time of the writing of volume one of the Decline and Fall, the work was still largely accepted as authentic.

Gibbon writes:

It is supposed, not without a considerable degree of probability, that [the war] is connected with the most shining period of British history or fable.  Fingal, whose fame…has been revived in our language by a recent publication, is said to have commanded the Caledonians in that memorable juncture, to have eluded the power of Severus, and to have obtained a signal victory…in which the son of the King of the World, Caracul, fled from his arms among the fields of his pride.

He does point out in a footnote, of the supposition that Ossian’s poems reflects a true ancient Caledonian account of the war with the Romans…

…yet the opinion is not without difficulty.  In the Caledonian war, the son of Severus was known only by the appellation of Antoninus; and it may seem strange, that the Highland bard should describe him by a nick-name, invented four years afterwards, scarcely used by the Romans till after the death of that emeror, and seldom employed by the most ancient historians.

Either Gibbon came extremely close to the realization that the whole Ossian thing was a complete fraud but just barely missed it, or it was obvious to him and his footnote is just his extremely subtle (and rather cheeky, given the disingenuous tone) way of saying so.  We’ll probably never know, but given the tone of the first quote, I think that Macpherson had Gibbon fooled along with most of the rest of the English-speaking world at the time.


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