The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

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The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
AuthorEdward Gibbon
CountryEngland
LanguageEnglish
SubjectHistory of the Roman Empire
PublisherStrahan & Cadell, London
Publication date
1776–89
Media typePrint
LC ClassDG311
 
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The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
AuthorEdward Gibbon
CountryEngland
LanguageEnglish
SubjectHistory of the Roman Empire
PublisherStrahan & Cadell, London
Publication date
1776–89
Media typePrint
LC ClassDG311
Edward Gibbon (1737–1794).

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (sometimes shortened to Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire) is a book of history written by the English historian Edward Gibbon, which traces the trajectory of Western civilization (as well as the Islamic and Mongolian conquests) from the height of the Roman Empire to the fall of Byzantium. It was published in six volumes. Volume I was published in 1776 and went through six printings.[1] Volumes II and III were published in 1781;[2][3] volumes IV, V, and VI in 1788–89.[4][5][6] The original volumes were published in quarto sections, a common publishing practice of the time. The work covers the history of the Roman Empire, Europe, and the Catholic Church from 98 to 1590 and discusses the decline of the Roman Empire in the East and West. Because of its relative objectivity and heavy use of primary sources, unusual at the time, its methodology became a model for later historians. This led to Gibbon being called the first "modern historian of ancient Rome".[7]

Thesis[edit]

Gibbon offers an explanation for why the Roman Empire fell, a task made difficult by a lack of comprehensive written sources, though he was not the only historian to tackle the subject.[8]

According to Gibbon, the Roman Empire succumbed to barbarian invasions in large part due to the gradual loss of civic virtue among its citizens.[9] They had become weak, outsourcing their duties to defend their Empire to barbarian mercenaries, who then became so numerous and ingrained that they were able to take over the Empire. Romans, he believed, had become effeminate, unwilling to live a tougher, "manly" military lifestyle. In addition, Gibbon argued that Christianity created a belief that a better life existed after death, which fostered an indifference to the present among Roman citizens, thus sapping their desire to sacrifice for the Empire. He also believed that Christianity's comparative pacifism tended to hamper the traditional Roman martial spirit. Finally, like other Enlightenment thinkers, Gibbon held in contempt the Middle Ages as a priest-ridden, superstitious dark age. It was not until his own age of reason and rational thought, it was believed, that human history could resume its progress.[10]

Gibbon sees the Praetorian Guard as the primary catalyst of the empire's initial decay and eventual collapse, a seed planted by Augustus at the establishment of the empire. He cites repeated examples of the Praetorian Guard abusing their power with calamitous results, including numerous instances of imperial assassination and incessant demands for increased pay.

Style[edit]

Gibbon's style is frequently distinguished by an ironically detached and somewhat dispassionate yet critical tone. He occasionally lapsed into moralization and aphorism.

"[A]s long as mankind shall continue to bestow more liberal applause on their destroyers than on their benefactors, the thirst of military glory will ever be the vice of the most exalted characters".

"The influence of the clergy, in an age of superstition, might be usefully employed to assert the rights of mankind; but so intimate is the connection between the throne and the altar, that the banner of the church has very seldom been seen on the side of the people" (Chapter Three p. 52).

"History...is, indeed, little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortune of mankind" (ibid. p. 69).

"If we contrast the rapid progress of this mischievous discovery [of gunpowder] with the slow and laborious advances of reason, science, and the arts of peace, a philosopher, according to his temper, will laugh or weep at the folly of mankind" (Chapter 65,p. 68).[Page numbers in which edition? clarification needed]

Citations[edit]

Gibbon provides the reader with a glimpse of his thought process with extensive notes along the body of the text, a precursor to the modern use of footnotes. Gibbon's footnotes are famous for their idiosyncratic and often humorous style, and have been called "Gibbon's table talk." They provide an entertaining moral commentary on both ancient Rome and 18th-century Great Britain. This technique enabled Gibbon to compare ancient Rome to modern times. Gibbon's work advocates a rationalist and progressive view of history.

Gibbon's citations provide in-depth detail regarding his use of sources for his work, which included documents dating back to ancient Rome. The detail within his asides and his care in noting the importance of each document is a precursor to modern-day historical footnoting methodology.

The work is notable for its erratic but exhaustively documented notes and research. John Bury, following him 113 years later with his own "History of the Later Roman Empire", commended the depth and accuracy of Gibbon's work. Unusually for the 18th century, Gibbon was notably not content with secondhand accounts when the primary sources were accessible and used them so well that even today historians still cite his work as the definitive factual history of the western empire.[citation needed] "I have always endeavoured", Gibbon wrote, "to draw from the fountain-head; that my curiosity, as well as a sense of duty, has always urged me to study the originals; and that, if they have sometimes eluded my search, I have carefully marked the secondary evidence, on whose faith a passage or a fact were reduced to depend."[11] The Decline and Fall is a literary monument and a massive step forward in historical method.[12]

Controversy: chapters XV, XVI[edit]

Volume I was originally published in sections, as was common for large works at the time. The first two were well received and widely praised. The last quarto in Volume I, especially Chapters XV and XVI, were highly controversial, and Gibbon was attacked as a "paganist". Gibbon challenged Church history by estimating far smaller numbers of Christian martyrs than had been traditionally accepted. The Church's version of its early history had rarely been questioned before. For Gibbon, however, the Church writings were secondary sources, and he shunned them in favour of primary sources contemporary to the period he was chronicling.

He compared the reigns of Diocletian (284–305) and Charles V (1519–1556) and the electorate of the Holy Roman Empire, making the argument that the two were remarkably dissimilar. Both emperors were plagued by continual war and compelled to excessive taxation; both chose to abdicate as Emperors at roughly the same age; and both chose to lead a quiet life upon their retirement. However, Gibbon argues that these similarities are only superficial and that the underlying context and character of the two rulers is markedly different.

Criticism[edit]

Numerous tracts were published criticizing his work, and Gibbon was forced to defend his work in reply.[13] He left London to finish the following volumes in Lausanne, where he could work in solitude. Gibbon's remarks on Christianity aroused particularly vigorous attack. However, in the mid-twentieth century, at least one author claimed that "church historians allow the substantial justness of [Gibbon's] main positions."[14]

Christianity as a contributor to the fall and to stability[edit]

"As the happiness of a future life is the great object of religion, we may hear without surprise or scandal that the introduction, or at least the abuse of Christianity, had some influence on the decline and fall of the Roman empire. The clergy successfully preached the doctrines of patience and pusillanimity; the active virtues of society were discouraged; and the last remains of military spirit were buried in the cloister: a large portion of public and private wealth was consecrated to the specious demands of charity and devotion; and the soldiers' pay was lavished on the useless multitudes of both sexes who could only plead the merits of abstinence and chastity. Faith, zeal, curiosity, and more earthly passions of malice and ambition, kindled the flame of theological discord; the church, and even the state, were distracted by religious factions, whose conflicts were sometimes bloody and always implacable; the attention of the emperors was diverted from camps to synods; the Roman world was oppressed by a new species of tyranny; and the persecuted sects became the secret enemies of their country. Yet party-spirit, however pernicious or absurd, is a principle of union as well as of dissension. The bishops, from eighteen hundred pulpits, inculcated the duty of passive obedience to a lawful and orthodox sovereign; their frequent assemblies and perpetual correspondence maintained the communion of distant churches; and the benevolent temper of the Gospel was strengthened, though confirmed, by the spiritual alliance of the Catholics. The sacred indolence of the monks was devoutly embraced by a servile and effeminate age; but if superstition had not afforded a decent retreat, the same vices would have tempted the unworthy Romans to desert, from baser motives, the standard of the republic. Religious precepts are easily obeyed which indulge and sanctify the natural inclinations of their votaries; but the pure and genuine influence of Christianity may be traced in its beneficial, though imperfect, effects on the barbarian proselytes of the North. If the decline of the Roman empire was hastened by the conversion of Constantine, his victorious religion broke the violence of the fall, and mollified the ferocious temper of the conquerors." (chap. 39).[15]

Historians such as David S. Potter and Fergus Millar dispute claims that the Empire fell as a result of a kind of lethargy towards current affairs brought on by Constantine's adoption of Christianity as the official state religion. They claim that such a view is "vague" and has little real evidence to support it. Others such as J.B. Bury, who wrote a history of the later Empire, claimed there is "no evidence" to support Gibbon's claims of Christian apathy towards the Empire:

"It has often been alleged that Christianity in its political effects was a disintegrating force and tended to weaken the power of Rome to resist her enemies. It is difficult to see that it had any such tendency, so long as the Church itself was united. Theological heresies were indeed to prove a disintegrating force in the East in the seventh century, when differences in doctrine which had alienated the Christians in Egypt and Syria from the government of Constantinople facilitated the conquests of the Saracens. But after the defeat of Arianism, there was no such vital or deep-reaching division in the West, and the effect of Christianity was to unite, not to sever, to check, rather than to emphasise, national or sectional feeling. In the political calculations of Constantine it was probably this ideal of unity, as a counterpoise to the centrifugal tendencies which had been clearly revealed in the third century, that was the great recommendation of the religion which he raised to power. Nor is there the least reason to suppose that Christian teaching had the practical effect of making men less loyal to the Empire or less ready to defend it. The Christians were as pugnacious as the pagans. Some might read Augustine's City of God with edification, but probably very few interpreted its theory with such strict practical logic as to be indifferent to the safety of the Empire. Hardly the author himself, though this has been disputed."[16]

Today, historians tend to analyze economic and military factors in the decline of Rome.[17]

Furthermore, Gibbon has been criticized for his portrayal of Paganism as tolerant and Christianity as intolerant. In an article that appeared 1996 in the journal Past & Present, H.A. Drake challenges an understanding of religious persecution in ancient Rome, which he considers to be the "conceptual scheme" that was used by historians to deal with the topic for the last 200 years, and whose most eminent representative is Gibbon. Gibbon had written:

"The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosophers as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful".

Drake counters:

"With such deft strokes, Gibbon enters into a conspiracy with his readers: unlike the credulous masses, he and we are cosmopolitans who know the uses of religion as an instrument of social control. So doing, Gibbon skirts a serious problem: for three centuries prior to Constantine, the tolerant pagans who people the Decline and Fall were the authors of several major persecutions, in which Christians were the victims. ...Gibbon covered this embarrassing hole in his argument with an elegant demur. Rather than deny the obvious, he adroitly masked the question by transforming his Roman magistrates into models of Enlightenment rulers — reluctant persecutors, too sophisticated to be themselves religious zealots."

Misinterpretation of Byzantium[edit]

Others such as John Julius Norwich, despite their admiration for his furthering of historical methodology, consider Gibbon's hostile views on the Byzantine Empire flawed and blame him somewhat for the lack of interest shown in the subject throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries.[18] This view might well be admitted by Gibbon himself: "But it is not my intention to expatiate with the same minuteness on the whole series of the Byzantine history."[19] However one recent scholar of Byzantium says, "Gibbon and Lebeau were genuine historians — and Gibbon a very great one — and their works, in spite of factual inadequacy, rank high for their presentation of their material."[20]

Gibbon's reflections[edit]

Gibbon's initial plan was to write a history "of the decline and fall of the city of Rome", and only later expanded his scope to the whole Roman Empire.[21]

Although he published other books, Gibbon devoted much of his life to this one work (1772–1789). His autobiography Memoirs of My Life and Writings is devoted largely to his reflections on how the book virtually became his life. He compared the publication of each succeeding volume to a newborn child.[22]

Editions[edit]

Gibbon continued to revise and change his work even after publication. The complexities of the problem are addressed in Womersley's introduction and appendices to his complete edition.

Legacy[edit]

Variations on the series title (including using "Rise and Fall" in place of "Decline and Fall") have been used by other writers:

and in music albums:

and in film titles:

and in television:

The title and author are also cited in Noël Coward's comedic poem "I Went to a Marvellous Party".[23] And in the poem "The Foundation of Science Fiction Success", Isaac Asimov acknowledged that his Foundation series—an epic tale of the fall and rebuilding of a galactic empire—was written "with a tiny bit of cribbin' / from the works of Edward Gibbon".

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Edward Gibbon (1776). The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. W. Strahan and T. Cadell. 
  2. ^ Edward Gibbon (1781). The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. 
  3. ^ Edward Gibbon (1781). The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. 
  4. ^ Edward Gibbon (1788). The History Of The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire. Strahan and Cadell. 
  5. ^ Edward Gibbon (1788). The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. W. Strahan and T. Cadell. 
  6. ^ Edward Gibbon (1788). The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. 
  7. ^ David S. Potter (2006-05-22). A Companion to the Roman Empire. Wiley. p. 100. ISBN 978-0-631-22644-4. 
  8. ^ see for example Henri Pirenne's (1862–1935) famous thesis published in the early 20th century. As for sources more recent than the ancients, Gibbon certainly drew on Montesquieu's short essay, Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence, and on previous work published by Bossuet (1627-1704) in his Histoire universelle à Monseigneur le dauphin (1763). see Pocock, EEG. for Bousset, pp. 65, 145; for Montesquieu, pp. 85–88, 114, 223.
  9. ^ J.G.A. Pocock, "Between Machiavelli and Hume: Gibbon as Civic Humanist and Philosophical Historian," Daedalus 105,3(1976), 153–169; and in Further reading: Pocock, EEG, 303–304; FDF, 304–306.
  10. ^ J.G.A. Pocock, "Between Machiavelli and Hume: Gibbon as Civic Humanist and Philosophical Historian," Daedulus 105,3(1976), 153–169; and in Further reading: Pocock, EEG, 303–304; FDF, 304–306.
  11. ^ Preface to Gibbon's Volume the Fourth in David Womersley ed., Edward Gibbon - The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. 2 (New York: Penguin Books, 1994), p. 520.
  12. ^ In the early 20th century, biographer Sir Leslie Stephen ["Gibbon, Edward (1737–1794)," Dictionary of National Biography, vol. 7, (Oxford, 1921), p. 1134.] summarized The History's reputation as a work of unmatched erudition, a degree of professional esteem which remains as strong today as it was then:

    The criticisms upon his book...are nearly unanimous. In accuracy, thoroughness, lucidity, and comprehensive grasp of a vast subject, the History is unsurpassable. It is the one English history which may be regarded as definitive. ...Whatever its shortcomings, the book is artistically imposing as well as historically unimpeachable as a vast panorama of a great period.

  13. ^ Edward Gibbon (1779). A vindication of some passages in the fifteenth and sixteenth chapters of The history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire: By the author... Printed for W. Strahan; and T. Cadell, in the Strand. 
  14. ^ The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, vol. IV, eds. S.M. Jackson, et al. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1952), 483–484. online.
  15. ^ General Observations On The Fall Of The Roman Empire In The West. Fall In The West — The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon. At Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Calvin College Computer Science. http://www.ccel.org/g/gibbon/decline/volume1/chap39.htm
  16. ^ J.B. Bury, History of the Later Roman Empire, from Arcadius to Irene (395 A. D. to 800 A. D.). (London and New York: Macmillan and Co., 1889), 319–320.
  17. ^ Ramsay MacMullen, Corruption and the Decline of Rome. (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1988); Thomas S. Burns, Barbarians Within the Gates of Rome: Study of Roman Military Policy and the Barbarians, ca. 375–425 AD. (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1995).
  18. ^ John Julius Norwich, Byzantium (New York: Knopf, 1989); Byzantium: the apogee (London and New York: Viking Press, 1991).
  19. ^ Preface of 1782 online.
  20. ^ Georgije Ostrogorski History of the Byzantine State (1986) p 5 online
  21. ^ Gibbon, Edward (1781). The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire 3. chapter 36, footnote 43. "If I prosecute this History, I shall not be unmindful of the decline and fall of the city of Rome; an interesting object, to which my plan was originally confined." 
  22. ^ Patricia B. Craddock, Edward Gibbon, Luminous Historian. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1989), 249–266.
  23. ^ Link to notes on the poem here [1]. Excerpt: "If you have any mind at all, Gibbon's divine Decline and Fall, Seems pretty flimsy, No more than a whimsy... ."

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]