The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

From Academic Kids

This is about the book. For the historical event see Fall of the Roman Empire

The History of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a major literary achievement of Eighteenth Century, was written by the English historian, Edward Gibbon. Volume I was published in 1776, and went through five printings (a remarkable feat for its time). The second Volume was printed in 1781, and the final one in 1788. The original Volumes were not published together, but as quartos, a common publishing practice.

The books cover the period of the Roman Empire after Marcus Aurelius from just before CE 180 to 1453 and beyond, concluding in 1590. They take as their material the behavior and decisions that led to the decay and eventual fall of the Roman Empire in the East and West, offering an explanation on why the Roman Empire fell.

Often referred to as "the first modern historian", Gibbon was a precursor for the more advanced methodologies of 19th and 20th century historians regarding his objectivity and accuracy in the use of reference material. His pessimism and detached use of irony was common to the historical genre of that era.

Although he published other books, Gibbon devoted the greater part of his life to this one work. Even his Autobiography Memoirs of My Life and Writings is devoted for the most part to his reflections on how the writing of the book consumed his entire life.


Outline of the Work

For a comprehensive outline of the work, including chapter titles, excerpts, and a discussion of the division into volumes of the various editions, see The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Outline).

Gibbon's theory

The book is famous not only because it is extraordinarily well written, but also because Gibbon offers an explanation for why the Roman Empire fell. This is one of the greatest historical questions, and, because of the lack of written records from the time, one of the most difficult to answer. Gibbon was not the first to theorise on this. In fact most of his ideas are directly taken from Roman moralists of the 4th and 5th centuries who wrote about it at the time; nor would he be the last, most famously Henri Pirenne's Pirenne Thesis of the early 20th century.

According to Gibbon, the Roman Empire succumbed to barbarian invasions because of a loss of civic virtue among its citizens. They had become lazy and soft, outsourcing their duties to defend their Empire to barbarian mercenaries, who then became so numerous and ingrained that they were then able to easily take over the Empire. Romans, he believed, had become effeminate, unwilling to live the military lifestyle.

In addition Gibbon attacked Christianity. Christianity, he says, created a belief in another world, that is to say that a better life existed after death. This fostered indifference among the Roman citizens who believed they would live a better life once they died, thus sapping their desire to maintain and sacrifice for the Empire.

Finally, like other Enlightenment thinkers of his time, Gibbon held nothing but contempt for the Middle Ages that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire. Priest ridden, superstitious, "dark" times, it was not until his own age of Reason and rational thought, it was believed, that human history could resume its progress forward to better times.

These ideas and theories have remained influential with historians to modern times, although re-examinations of the archeological and anthropological record has shed new light on the traditional interpretations.

Gibbon's Use of Citations

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 idiosyncrasies. They provide an entertaining moral commentary on both Ancient Rome and Great Britain during the Eighteenth Century. However, these whimsical asides also serve as a literary device for Gibbon. This technique enabled Gibbon to play a dual role as a novelist and a historian with a voice of authority, comparing Ancient Rome to modern times. Gibbon's work advocates a rationalist and progressive view of history. It is impartial in terms of the Enlightenment concept of reason, and viewed in this perspective, it is as much a historical culture of the eighteenth century as it is of Ancient Rome.

Gibbon's citations provide in-depth detail regarding his use of sources for his work on Ancient Rome. What made Gibbon unique was his use of primary sources, original documents dating back to Ancient Rome. The enormous archive of detail within his asides and his obsession with noting the importance of each document is a precursor to modern day historical footnoting methodology. As a writer, Gibbon could only reconstruct his version of the past through his own translations in order to present an accurate portrayal of events.

The Controversial Chapters in Volume I

When Volume I was first published, it was introduced in quartos. The first two were well received and widely praised. The last quarto in Volume I, especially Chapters IV and VI, were highly controversial, and Gibbon was declared "paganist."

Gibbon debunked the myth of Christian martyrdom by deconstructing official Church history that had been perpetuated for centuries. Because the Roman Church had a virtual monopoly on its own history, its own Latin interpretations were considered sacrosanct, and as a result the Church's writings had rarely been questioned before. For Gibbon, however, they were secondary sources: The same Latin documents translated by someone else. Gibbon eschewed these, and never referred to them in his own history. This is why Gibbon is referred to as the "first modern historian," and thus, his interpretations were deemed pagan.

According to Gibbon, Romans were far more tolerant of Christians than Christians were of one another, especially once Christianity gained the upper hand. Christians inflicted far greater casualties on Christians than were ever inflicted by the Roman Empire. Gibbon extrapolated that the number of Christians executed by other Christian factions far exceeded all the Christian martyrs who died during the three centuries of Christianity under Roman rule. This was in stark contrast to Orthodox Church history, which insisted that Christianity won the hearts and minds of people largely because of the inspirational example set by its martyrs. Gibbon proved that the early Church's custom of bestowing the title of martyr on all confessors of faith grossly inflated the actual numbers.

Gibbon compares how insubstantial that number was, by comparing it to more modern terms. He compared the reigns of Diocletian, one of the most unsuccessful reigns during the Roman Empire, to the reign of Charles V in the 16th century and the electorate of the Holy Roman Empire, making the argument that both were remarkably similar. Both emperors were plagued by continuous war and compelled to excessive taxation; both were forced to resign as Emperors at a relatively young age; and both had no choice but to lead a quiet life upon their demise.

Gibbon's critics were scathing in their attack on this particular line of argument. Numerous tracts were published criticising his work, and Gibbon was forced to defend his work in reply. He left London to finish the following volumes in Lausanne, where he could work in solitude.

Gibbon's Legacy

Gibbons methodology was so accurate that, to this day, little can be found to controvert his use of primary sources for evidence. While modern historical methodology has changed dramatically, his skill in translation of his sources is considered impeccable. Contemporary historians still rely on Gibbon as a reliable secondary source to substantiate references and for citations. His literary tone in the History is out of date to modern readers, and is always described as sceptical and pessimistic. However, it mirrors both the man and more importantly, the topic of his great work: the gradual decay of a mighty empire. Since its first publication, the title has been shortened from The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.


Note: Gibbon continued to revise and change his work even after publication; the complexities of the problem are addressed in the forward of the Womersley edition.

  • In-Print Complete Editions
    • J.B. Bury, editor, 7 volumes (London:Methuen, 1909-1914), currently reprinted by AMS Press. Until the Womersley edition, this was the essential version, but now almost one hundred years old, the historical analysis commentary is not the latest.
    • D. Womersley, editor, 3 volumes (London:Penguin Books, 1994). The current essential version, it is the most faithful to Gibbon's original words; alas, the ancient Greek quotations are not as good as in Bury, a minor quibble for an otherwise excellent work with complete footnotes, and bibliographical information for Gibbons cryptic footnote notations, plus an index, and a copy of Vindication (1799) which Gibbon wrote in response to his description of the rise of Christianity.
  • In-Print Abridgements
    • D. Womersley, editor, 1 volume (London:Penguin Books, 2000). Includes in complete entirety, including all footnotes, eleven of the original seventy-one chapters.
    • Hans-Friedrich Mueller, editor, 1 volume (Random House, 2003). Includes excerpts from all seventy-one chapters, it eliminates footnotes, geographic surveys, details of battle formations, long narratives of military campaigns, ethnographies and genealogies, but keeps the narrative start to finish. Based on the Rev. H.H. Milman edition of 1845 (See also Gutenburg etext edition).
  • Bibliography
    • Cosgrove, Peter. Impartial Stranger: History and Intertextuality in Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." 1999. Newark: Associated University Presses. ISBN 087413658X
    • Gay, Peter. Style in History (1974). New York: Basic Books. ISBN 0465083048
    • Pocock, J.G.A. Barbarism and Religion (1999). New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521633451 (v.1) ISBN 0521640024 (v.2)

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