The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, sometimes shortened to Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, is a six-volume work by the English historian Edward Gibbon. The six volumes cover, from 98 to 1590, the peak of the Roman Empire, the history of early Christianity and its emergence as the Roman state religion, the Fall of the Western Roman Empire, the rise of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane and the fall of Byzantium, as well as discussions on the ruins of Ancient Rome.[1][2]

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Title page from John Quincy Adams's copy of the third edition (1777)
AuthorEdward Gibbon
SubjectHistory of the Roman Empire and Fall of the Western Roman Empire
PublisherStrahan & Cadell, London
Publication date
Publication placeEngland
Media typePrint
LC ClassDG311

Volume I was published in 1776 and went through six printings.[3] Volumes II and III were published in 1781;[4][5] volumes IV, V, and VI in 1788–1789.[6][7][8][9] The original volumes were published in quarto sections, a common publishing practice of the time.

Conception and writing 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.[10]

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.[11]

As for sources more recent than the ancients, Gibbon drew on Montesquieu's short essay, Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and their Decline (1734), on Voltaire's Essay on Universal History (1756),[12] and on work published by Bossuet (1627–1704) in his Speech of Universal History (1681).[13]

Contents edit

Thesis edit

Gibbon offers an explanation for the fall of the Roman Empire, a task made difficult by a lack of comprehensive written sources.

According to Gibbon, the Roman Empire succumbed to barbarian invasions in large part due to the gradual loss of civic virtue among its citizens.[14] He began an ongoing controversy about the role of Christianity, but he gave great weight to other causes of internal decline and to attacks from outside the Empire.[clarification needed]

Like other Enlightenment thinkers and British citizens of the age steeped in institutional anti-Catholicism, Gibbon held in contempt the Middle Ages as a priest-ridden, superstitious Dark Age. It was not until his own era, the "Age of Reason", with its emphasis on rational thought, he believed, that human history could resume its progress.[15]

Style edit

Edward Gibbon (1737–1794)

Gibbon's tone was detached, dispassionate, and yet critical. He was noted as occasionally lapsing into moralisation and aphorism.[16]

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.

  • In-print complete editions
    • J. B. Bury, ed., seven volumes, seven editions, London: Methuen, 1898 to 1925, reprinted New York: AMS Press, 1974. ISBN 0-404-02820-9.
    • J. B. Bury, ed., two volumes, 4th edition New York: The Macmillan Company, 1914 Volume 1 Volume 2
    • Hugh Trevor-Roper, ed., six volumes, New York: Everyman's Library, 1993–1994. The text, including Gibbon's notes, is from Bury but without his notes. ISBN 0-679-42308-7 (vols. 1–3); ISBN 0-679-43593-X (vols. 4–6).
    • David Womersley, ed., three volumes, hardback London: Allen Lane, 1994; paperback New York: Penguin Books, 1994, revised ed. 2005. Includes the original index, and the Vindication (1779), which Gibbon wrote in response to attacks on his caustic portrayal of Christianity. The 2005 print includes minor revisions and a new chronology. ISBN 0-7139-9124-0 (3360 p.); ISBN 0-14-043393-7 (v. 1, 1232 p.); ISBN 0-14-043394-5 (v. 2, 1024 p.); ISBN 0-14-043395-3 (v. 3, 1360 p.)
  • In-print abridgements
    • David Womersley, abridged ed., one volume, New York: Penguin Books, 2000. Includes all footnotes and seventeen of the seventy-one chapters. ISBN 0-14-043764-9 (848 p.)
    • Hans-Friedrich Mueller, abridged ed., one volume, New York: 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. Based on the Rev. H.H. [Dean] Milman's edition of 1845 (see also Gutenberg e-text edition). ISBN 0-375-75811-9, (trade paper, 1312 p.); ISBN 0-345-47884-3 (mass market paper, 1536 p.)
    • AMN, abridged ed., one volume abridgement, Woodland: Historical Reprints, 2019. It eliminates most footnotes, adds some annotations, and omits Milman's notes. ISBN 978-1-950330-46-1 (large 8x11.5 trade paper 402 pages)

Criticism edit

Numerous tracts were published criticising his work. In response, Gibbon defended his work with the 1779 publication of A Vindication ... of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.[17]

Edward Gibbon's central thesis in his explanation of how the Roman Empire fell, that it was due to embracing Christianity, is not widely accepted by scholars today. Gibbon argued that with the empire's new Christian character, large sums of wealth that would have otherwise been used in secular affairs in promoting the state were transferred to promoting the activities of the Church. However, the pre-Christian empire also spent large financial sums on religion and it is unclear whether or not the change of religion increased the amount of resources the empire spent on it. Gibbon further argued that new attitudes in Christianity caused many Christians of wealth to renounce their lifestyles and enter a monastic lifestyle, and so stop participating in the support of the empire. However, while many Christians of wealth did become monastics, this paled in comparison to the participants in the imperial bureaucracy. Although Gibbon further pointed out that the importance Christianity placed on peace caused a decline in the number of people serving the military, the decline was so small as to be negligible for the army's effectiveness.[18][19]

John Julius Norwich, despite his admiration for Gibbon's furthering of historical methodology, considered his hostile views on the Byzantine Empire flawed, and blamed him somewhat for the lack of interest shown in the subject throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries.[20] Gibbon prefaced subsequent editions to note that discussion of Byzantium was not his interest in writing the book.[21] However, the Yugoslavian historian George Ostrogorsky wrote, "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."[22]

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. Gibbon, however, said that modern Church writings were secondary sources, and he shunned them in favour of primary sources.[23]

Historian S. P. Foster says that Gibbon "blamed the otherworldly preoccupations of Christianity for the decline of the Roman empire, heaped scorn and abuse on the church, and sneered at the entirety of monasticism as a dreary, superstition-ridden enterprise".[24]

Gibbon's work was originally published in sections, as was common for large works at the time. The first two volumes were well-received and widely praised, but with the publication of volume 3, Gibbon was attacked by some as a "paganist" because he argued that Christianity (or at least the abuse of it by some of the clergy and its followers) had hastened the fall of the Roman Empire.

Voltaire was deemed to have influenced Gibbon's claim that Christianity was a contributor to the fall of the Roman Empire.[25]

Gibbon has been criticized for his portrayal of Paganism as tolerant and Christianity as intolerant.[26]

Legacy edit

Many writers have used variations on the series title (including using "Rise and Fall" in place of "Decline and Fall"), especially when dealing with a large polity that has imperial characteristics. Notable examples include Jefferson Davis' The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, and David Bowie's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

The title and author have also been referenced in poems such as Noël Coward's "I Went to a Marvellous Party" ("If you have any mind at all, / Gibbon's divine Decline and Fall, / Seems pretty flimsy, / No more than a whimsy...")[third-party source needed] and Isaac Asimov's "The Foundation of S.F. Success", in which Asimov admits his Foundation series (about the fall and rebuilding of a galactic empire) was written "with a tiny bit of cribbin' / from the works of Edward Gibbon".[27][third-party source needed]

Piers Brendon, who wrote The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1781–1997, claimed that Gibbon's work "became the essential guide for Britons anxious to plot their own imperial trajectory. They found the key to understanding the British Empire in the ruins of Rome."[28]

In 1995, an established journal of classical scholarship, Classics Ireland, published punk musician Iggy Pop's reflections on the applicability of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to the modern world in a short article, Caesar Lives, (vol. 2, 1995) in which he asserted:

America is Rome. Of course, why shouldn't it be? We are all Roman children, for better or worse ... I learn much about the way our society really works, because the system-origins – military, religious, political, colonial, agricultural, financial – are all there to be scrutinised in their infancy. I have gained perspective.[29]

See also edit

References edit

  1. ^ "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire | Ancient history". Cambridge University Press. Retrieved 26 October 2023.
  2. ^ "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. 6 | Online Library of Liberty". Retrieved 26 October 2023.
  3. ^ Gibbon, Edward (1776). The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Vol. I. W. Strahan and T. Cadell.
  4. ^ Gibbon, Edward (1781). The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Vol. II.
  5. ^ Gibbon, Edward (1781). The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Vol. III.
  6. ^ Gibbon, Edward (1788). The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Vol. IV.
  7. ^ Gibbon, Edward (1788). The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Vol. V. W. Strahan and T. Cadell.
  8. ^ Edward Gibbon (1788). The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Vol. VI.
  9. ^ Edward Gibbon (1788). The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Vol. VII. Basil: J. J. Tourneisen. p. i(Preface).
  10. ^ Gibbon, Edward (1781). The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Vol. 3. chapter 36, footnote 43.
  11. ^ Craddock, Patricia B. (1989). Edward Gibbon, Luminous Historian. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press. pp. 249–266.
  12. ^ Pocock, The Enlightenments of Edward Gibbon, 1737–1764, pp. 65, 145
  13. ^ Pocock, The Enlightenments of Edward Gibbon, 1737–1764, pp. 85–88, 114, 223
  14. ^ 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, The Enlightenments of Edward Gibbon, 1737–1764, 303–304; The First Decline and Fall, 304–306.
  15. ^ Pocock, J.G.A. (1976). "Between Machiavelli and Hume: Gibbon as Civic Humanist and Philosophical Historian". Daedalus. 105 (3): 153–169.; and in Further reading: Pocock, The Enlightenments of Edward Gibbon, 1737–1764, 303–304; The First Decline and Fall, 304–306.
  16. ^ Foster (2013). Melancholy Duty. Springer. p. 63. ISBN 978-9401722353.
  17. ^ 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.
  18. ^ Heather, Peter (2007). The Fall of the Roman Empire. Oxford University Press. pp. 122–123. ISBN 978-0-19-997861-8.
  19. ^ Gerberding, Richard (2005). "The later Roman Empire". In Fouracre, Paul (ed.). The New Cambridge Medieval History, Volume 1, c.500–c.700. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 25–26. ISBN 978-1-13905393-8.
  20. ^ John Julius Norwich, Byzantium (New York: Knopf, 1989); Byzantium: the apogee (London and New York: Viking Press, 1991).
  21. ^ [Preface of 1782 online].
  22. ^ Ostrogorsky, George (1986). History of the Byzantine State. p. 6.
  23. ^ Womersley, David (17 November 1988). The Transformation of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Cambridge University Press. p. Intro.
  24. ^ S.P. Foster (2013). Melancholy Duty: The Hume-Gibbon Attack on Christianity. Springer. p. 16. ISBN 978-9401722353.
  25. ^ Dublin review: a quarterly and critical journal. Burns, Oates and Washbourne. 1840. p. 208.
  26. ^ In an article that appeared in 1996 in the journal Past & Present, H. A. Drake
  27. ^ Asimov, Isaac (October 1954). "The Foundation of S. F. Success". The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. p. 69.
  28. ^ Piers Brendon, The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1781–1997 (2008) p. xv.
  29. ^ Pop, Iggy (1995). "Caesar lives". Classics Ireland. 2: 94–96. doi:10.2307/25528281. JSTOR 25528281. S2CID 245665466.

Further reading edit

  • Brownley, Martine W. "Appearance and Reality in Gibbon's History," Journal of the History of Ideas 38:4 (1977), 651–666.
  • Brownley, Martine W. "Gibbon's Artistic and Historical Scope in the Decline and Fall," Journal of the History of Ideas 42:4 (1981), 629–642.
  • Cosgrove, Peter. Impartial Stranger: History and Intertextuality in Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Newark: Associated University Presses, 1999) ISBN 0-87413-658-X.
  • Craddock, Patricia. "Historical Discovery and Literary Invention in Gibbon's 'Decline and Fall'," Modern Philology 85:4 (May 1988), 569–587.
  • Drake, H.A., "Lambs into Lions: explaining early Christian intolerance," Past and Present 153 (1996), 3–36. Oxford Journals
  • Furet, Francois. "Civilization and Barbarism in Gibbon's History," Daedalus 105:3 (1976), 209–216.
  • Gay, Peter. Style in History (New York: Basic Books, 1974) ISBN 0-465-08304-8.
  • Ghosh, Peter R. "Gibbon's Dark Ages: Some Remarks on the Genesis of the Decline and Fall," Journal of Roman Studies 73 (1983), 1–23.
  • Homer-Dixon, Thomas "The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization", 2007 ISBN 978-0-676-97723-3, Chapter 3 pp. 57–60
  • Kelly, Christopher. "A Grand Tour: Reading Gibbon's 'Decline and Fall'," Greece & Rome 2nd ser., 44:1 (Apr. 1997), 39–58.
  • Momigliano, Arnaldo. "Eighteenth-Century Prelude to Mr. Gibbon," in Pierre Ducrey et al., eds., Gibbon et Rome à la lumière de l'historiographie moderne (Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1977).
  • Momigliano, Arnaldo. "Gibbon from an Italian Point of View," in G.W. Bowersock et al., eds., Edward Gibbon and the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1977).
  • Momigliano, Arnaldo. "Declines and Falls," American Scholar 49 (Winter 1979), 37–51.
  • Momigliano, Arnaldo. "After Gibbon's Decline and Fall," in Kurt Weitzmann, ed. Age of Spirituality : a symposium (Princeton: 1980); ISBN 0-89142-039-8.
  • Pocock, J.G.A. Barbarism and Religion, 4 vols. Cambridge University Press.
  • Roberts, Charlotte. Edward Gibbon and the Shape of History. 2014 Oxford University Press ISBN 978-0-19-870483-6
  • Trevor-Roper, H.R. "Gibbon and the Publication of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 1776–1976," Journal of Law and Economics 19:3 (Oct. 1976), 489–505.
  • Womersley, David. The Transformation of 'The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire' (Cambridge: 1988).
  • Womersley, David, ed. Religious Scepticism: Contemporary Responses to Gibbon (Bristol, England: Thoemmes Press, 1997).
  • Wootton, David. "Narrative, Irony, and Faith in Gibbon's Decline and Fall," History and Theory 33:4 (Dec. 1994), 77–105.

External links edit