The question regards the highlighted words in this clause from Edward Gibbon.

and Rome was saved, if the wisdom of Belisarius had not been defeated by the misconduct of his officers.

What is it in mood and tense?

I want to say that

  • was is subjunctive in mood and present in tense (an equivalent of German wäre except that German itself might have used a form of werden for passivizing) and
  • a poetic/rhetorical substitute for had been, which would be subjunctive in mood and past in tense and the thing one should have expected (barring a conditional).


For context, the relevant paragraph.

The foresight of Totila had raised obstacles worthy of such an antagonist. Ninety furlongs below the city, in the narrowest part of the river, he joined the two banks by strong and solid timbers in the form of a bridge, on which he erected two lofty towers, manned by the bravest of his Goths, and profusely stored with missile weapons and engines of offence. The approach of the bridge and towers was covered by a strong and massy chain of iron; and the chain, at either end, on the opposite sides of the Tyber, was defended by a numerous and chosen detachment of archers. But the enterprise of forcing these barriers, and relieving the capital, displays a shining example of the boldness and conduct of Belisarius. His cavalry advanced from the port along the public road, to awe the motions, and distract the attention of the enemy. His infantry and provisions were distributed in two hundred large boats; and each boat was shielded by a high rampart of thick planks, pierced with many small holes for the discharge of missile weapons. In the front, two large vessels were linked together to sustain a floating castle, which commanded the towers of the bridge, and contained a magazine of fire, sulphur, and bitumen. The whole fleet, which the general led in person, was laboriously moved against the current of the river. The chain yielded to their weight, and the enemies who guarded the banks were either slain or scattered. As soon as they touched the principal barrier, the fire- ship was instantly grappled to the bridge; one of the towers, with two hundred Goths, was consumed by the flames; the assailants shouted victory; and Rome was saved, if the wisdom of Belisarius had not been defeated by the misconduct of his officers. He had previously sent orders to Bessas to second his operations by a timely sally from the town; and he had fixed his lieutenant, Isaac, by a peremptory command, to the station of the port. But avarice rendered Bessas immovable; while the youthful ardor of Isaac delivered him into the hands of a superior enemy. The exaggerated rumor of his defeat was hastily carried to the ears of Belisarius: he paused; betrayed in that single moment of his life some emotions of surprise and perplexity; and reluctantly sounded a retreat to save his wife Antonina, his treasures, and the only harbor which he possessed on the Tuscan coast. The vexation of his mind produced an ardent and almost mortal fever; and Rome was left without protection to the mercy or indignation of Totila. The continuance of hostilities had imbittered the national hatred: the Arian clergy was ignominiously driven from Rome; Pelagius, the archdeacon, returned without success from an embassy to the Gothic camp; and a Sicilian bishop, the envoy or nuncio of the pope, was deprived of both his hands, for daring to utter falsehoods in the service of the church and state.

  • Not sure why the closing votes -- this seems like a valid and interesting question, though maybe a little imprecisely stated. Maybe it would better to ask not "what mood and tense is it" (which is straightforward, indicative preterite) but "why is this mood and tense being used in this unusual way".
    – TKR
    Jan 18 '17 at 18:55
  • 1
    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it belongs on English Language and Usage
    – Mitch
    Jan 19 '17 at 17:02

Technically, the answer to your question is that was is a preterite indicative, because mood and tense are categories of verb form, not semantics. But you're right that this is an unusual use of the indicative: was seems to be intended as semantically counterfactual, equivalent to would have been. I believe that Gibbon has calqued this usage from Latin and Greek, both of which can use the indicative in a similar way.

Normally, in both Latin and Greek the apodosis (then-clause) of a counterfactual condition is marked by something other than a plain indicative (subjunctive in Latin, counterfactual particle ἄν in Greek). But in both languages one occasionally finds a plain indicative instead, e.g.:

Iam tuta tenebam, ni gens crudelis ferro invasisset (Vergil, Aeneid 6.358) "I was reaching a place of safety, if the fierce people had not attacked": meaning "I would have reached", but tenebam is indicative.

Ναὶ μὰ Δία ᾐσχυνόμην μέντοι, εἱ ὑπὸ πολεμίου γε ὄντος ἑξηπατήθην "Yes, by Zeus, I was indeed ashamed, if I had been deceived by an enemy" (Xenophon, Anabasis 7.6.21): meaning "I would have been ashamed", but again with a plain indicative.

In neither language is this the normal construction for counterfactuals, but it's common enough in both that anyone with an eighteenth-century classical education would have been likely to encounter it, and it's odd enough to stick in one's memory as a neat rhetorical effect, so my guess is that Gibbon, whose style is highly classicizing, copied this usage from classical authors he was familiar with.

  • Thank you. That completely demystifies! Here's one whose apodosis, by coming second, makes its semantics even clearer (no seeing it as theatrics). 'And here I cannot omit expressing my gratitude to the kindness intended me by Mr Nash, who took me one day aside, and gave me advice, which if I had followed, I had been a happy woman.' The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, book 11 chapter 4.
    – Catomic
    Jan 19 '17 at 1:45
  • @Catomic, in that Tom Jones quote had been is, I believe, simply the regular early modern English equivalent of our would have been. But there are certainly other examples closely parallel to Gibbon's -- in writing the answer I actually came across one from Shakespeare, but now can't find it again.
    – TKR
    Jan 19 '17 at 1:56
  • Please see if I understand you right: (a) Fielding's had been is as a matter of form at a certain period the equivalent of our conditional would have been and (b) indeed subjunctive (cf. hätte... though German itself has wäre gewesen). (c) If Gibbon went Rome were saved you would have called were the equivalent of our conditional, again as a matter of form at a certain period.
    – Catomic
    Jan 19 '17 at 2:58
  • @Catomic, yes, pretty much. I think Gibbon would have more likely written Rome had been saved than Rome were saved if he had chosen to use the normal counterfactual form.
    – TKR
    Jan 20 '17 at 2:43

and Rome was saved is an ordinary declarative, the top of a climax:

the fireship was instantly grappled to the bridge; one of the towers, with two hundred Goths, was consumed by the flames; the assailants shouted victory; and Rome was saved.

What's confusing you is Gibbon's following this with a protasis (if or condition clause), which you (quite reasonably) expect to be associated with a corresponding apodosis (then or consequence clause). Gibbon, however, intends for you to read that protasis as a supplement to what precedes it, contradicting the asserted salvation. A contemporary author would probably point it with a dash (and maybe a screamer, too!) rather than a comma:

the fireship was instantly grappled to the bridge; one of the towers, with two hundred Goths, was consumed by the flames; the assailants shouted victory; and Rome was saved!— if the wisdom of Belisarius had not been defeated by the misconduct of his officers.

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    +1. Thank you. I think that is another valid reading. However, it would require housing Rome was saved in the mind of Belisarius, or seeing the historian as going for theatrical effect. But that is quite unlike Gibbon, who is sober if elevated (at least insofar as I can judge from the first half of his long work).
    – Catomic
    Jan 18 '17 at 1:17
  • @Catomic I think Gibbon is being wry rather than sensationalist. And you should not let his meticulously balanced periods obscure his constant (and often very funny) irony. Jan 18 '17 at 5:44
  • Constant? Are you perhaps seeing irony in things like 'fairest part of the earth' and 'most civilised portion of mankind'? That would seem to me like attributing irony to the text whenever you can doubt it. Apologies if I read too much into 'constant.' It'd be most helpful to be shown instances of wry humor or irony as you see it. Not saying this as a challenge but only from a desire to learn.
    – Catomic
    Jan 18 '17 at 14:26
  • @Catomic I'm thinking more of things like (in the passage you quote) the apposition of Belisarius' wife and treasures with his "only harbor on the Tuscan coast", and the cool description of Bishop Valentine's crime. Jan 18 '17 at 15:54
  • I must not have the facts to see the irony. I thought e.g. Antonina was a critical link to the imperial couple, treasures the general presumably needed to pay his men, the port kept him from getting cut off. In short, all properly objects of 'saving.' Don't want to presume on your kindness further. Thank you.
    – Catomic
    Jan 18 '17 at 16:23

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