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
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{{short description|1776-89 book by English historian, Edward Gibbon}}{{about|the book|the historical events|History of the Roman Empire|and|Fall of the Western Roman Empire|the historiography spawned by Gibbon's theories|Historiography of the fall of the Western Roman Empire|publication details and chapter listings|Outline of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire}}

(File:Edward Gibbon by Henry Walton cleaned.jpg|thumb|right|222px|Edward Gibbon (1737–1794))The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire{{efn|sometimes shortened to Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire}} is a six-volume work by the English historian Edward Gibbon. It traces Western civilization (as well as the Islamic and Mongolian conquests) from the height of the Roman Empire to the fall of Byzantium. Volume I was published in 1776 and went through six printings.BOOK, Edward, Gibbon, Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, I,weblink 1776, W. Strahan and T. Cadell, Volumes II and III were published in 1781;BOOK, Edward, Gibbon, Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, II,weblink 1781, BOOK, Edward, Gibbon, Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, III,weblink 1781, volumes IV, V, and VI in 1788–1789.BOOK, Edward, Gibbon, Edward Gibbon, The History Of The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire, IV,weblink 1788, Strahan and Cadell, BOOK, Edward, Gibbon, Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, V,weblink 1788, W. Strahan and T. Cadell, BOOK, Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, VI,weblink 1788, The original volumes were published in quarto sections, a common publishing practice of the time.The six volumes cover the history, from 98 to 1590, of the Roman Empire, the history of early Christianity and then of the Roman State Church, and the history of Europe, and discusses the decline of the Roman Empire among other things.Gibbon’s work remains a great literary achievement and a very readable introduction to the period, but considerable progress has since been made in history and archaeology, and his interpretive observations and conclusions no longer represent current academic knowledge{{Why|date=September 2019}} (additional research) or thought (analyses and finding based upon current evidence){{Citation needed|date=September 2019}}.


Gibbon offers an explanation for the fall of the Roman Empire, a task made difficult by a lack of comprehensive written sources, though he was not the only historian to attempt it.{{efn|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, Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and their Decline, and on previous work published by Bossuet (1627–1704) in his Histoire universelle à Monseigneur le dauphin (1763). see Pocock, The Enlightenments of Edward Gibbon, 1737–1764. for Bousset, pp. 65, 145; for Montesquieu, pp. 85–88, 114, 223.}}According to Gibbon, the Roman Empire succumbed to barbarian invasions in large part due to the gradual loss of civic virtue among its citizens.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. 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. {{blockquote|The story of its ruin is simple and obvious; and, instead of inquiring why the Roman empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it had subsisted so long. The victorious legions, who, in distant wars, acquired the vices of strangers and mercenaries, first oppressed the freedom of the republic, and afterwards violated the majesty of the purple. The emperors, anxious for their personal safety and the public peace, were reduced to the base expedient of corrupting the discipline which rendered them alike formidable to their sovereign and to the enemy; the vigour of the military government was relaxed, and finally dissolved, by the partial institutions of Constantine; and the Roman world was overwhelmed by a deluge of Barbarians. |Edward Gibbon. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter 38 "General Observations on the Fall of the Roman Empire in the West"}}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, it was believed, that human history could resume its progress.JOURNAL, J.G.A., Pocock, 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.


Gibbon's tone was detached, dispassionate, and yet critical. He can lapse into moralisation and aphorism:BOOK, Foster, Melancholy Duty,weblink 2013, 63, 978-9401722353, }}}}}}}}

Citations and footnotes

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."BOOK, Saunders, Dero A., Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 1952, New York, Penguin, page 23 (Introduction), They provide an entertaining moral commentary on both ancient Rome and 18th century Great Britain. This technique enabled Gibbon to compare ancient Rome to his own contemporary world. 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 18th century historians, Gibbon was not content with second-hand accounts when primary sources were accessible. "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."BOOK, page 520, Preface to Gibbon's Volume the Fourth, David, Womersley, Edward Gibbon – The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 2, New York, Penguin Books, 1994, The Decline and Fall is a literary monument and a massive step forward in historical method.{{efn|In the early 20th century, biographer Sir Leslie Stephen 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.BOOK, Sir Leslie, Stephen, Gibbon, Edward (1737–1794), Dictionary of National Biography, 7, Oxford, 1921, 1134, }}


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.BOOK, Edward Gibbon, 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,weblink 1779, Printed for W. Strahan; and T. Cadell, in the Strand., His remarks on Christianity aroused particularly vigorous attacks, but in the mid-twentieth century, at least one author claimed that "church historians allow the substantial justness of [Gibbon's] main positions."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.

Gibbon's views on religion

Criticism of Quran and Muhammad

Gibbon's comments on the Quran and Muhammad reflected his view of the secular origin of the text. He outlined in chapter 33 the widespread tale of the Seven Sleepers,Rashid Iqbal, (2017). “A New Theory on Aṣḥāb al-kahf (The Sleepers of the Cave) Based on Evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS)”. Al-Bayān – Journal of Qurʾān and ḤadĪth Studies 15 (2017). {{DOI|10.1163/22321969-12340044}}. pp. 20–47. Retrieved fromweblink and remarked "This popular tale, which Mahomet might learn when he drove his camels to the fairs of Syria, is introduced, as a divine revelation, into the Quran." His presentation of Muhammad's life again reflected his secular approach: "in his private conduct, Mahomet indulged the appetites of a man, and abused the claims of a prophet. A special revelation dispensed him from the laws which he had imposed on his nation: the female sex, without reserve, was abandoned to his desires; and this singular prerogative excited the envy, rather than the scandal, the veneration, rather than the envy, of the devout Mussulmans."BOOK,weblink Chapter 50 of 'The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire', Edward, Gibbon, Project Gutenberg, .

Views on Jews and charge of antisemitism

Gibbon described the Jews as "a race of fanatics, whose dire and credulous superstition seemed to render them the implacable enemies not only of the Roman government, but also of humankind".Gibbon, Edward. "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire", p. 521 in the first volume.Because of his view Gibbon has been charged with antisemitism.WEB,weblink Anti-Semitism | EIPA,

Number of Christian martyrs

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, knew that modern Church writings were secondary sources, and he shunned them in favor of primary sources.

Christianity as a contributor to the fall and to stability: chapters XV, XVI

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. The Decline and Fall compares Christianity invidiously with both the pagan religions of Rome and the religion of Islam.BOOK, S.P. Foster, Melancholy Duty: The Hume-Gibbon Attack on Christianity,weblink 2013, Springer, 16, 978-9401722353,
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, was highly controversial, and Gibbon was attacked as a "paganist". Gibbon thought that Christianity had hastened the Fall, but also ameliorated the results:Voltaire was deemed to have influenced Gibbon's claim that Christianity was a contributor to the fall of the Roman Empire. As one pro-Christian commenter put it in 1840:}}

Tolerant paganism

Gibbon wrote:
He has been criticized for his portrayal of Paganism as tolerant and Christianity as intolerant. In an article that appeared in 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. Drake counters:

Misinterpretation of Byzantium

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.John Julius Norwich, Byzantium (New York: Knopf, 1989); Byzantium: the apogee (London and New York: Viking Press, 1991). 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."Preface of 1782 online. However the Russian historian George Ostrogorsky writes, "Gibbon and Lebeau were genuine historians â€“ and Gibbon a very great one â€“ and their works, in spite of factual inadequacy, rank high for their presentation of their material."Georgije Ostrogorski History of the Byzantine State (1986) p. 5 online

Gibbon's reflections

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: 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.BOOK, Gibbon, Edward, Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 3, chapter 36, footnote 43, 1781, 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.BOOK, Patricia B., Craddock, Edward Gibbon, Luminous Historian, Baltimore, MD, Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1989, 249–266,


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., 7 volumes (London: Methuen, 1909–1914), currently reprinted (New York: AMS Press, 1974). {{ISBN|0-404-02820-9}}.
    • J.B. Bury, ed., 2 volumes (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1914) Volume 1 Volume 2
    • Hugh Trevor-Roper, ed., 6 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., 3 volumes. hardback-(London: Allen Lane, 1994); paperback (New York: Penguin Books, 2005; 1994). 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, ed., 1 volume (New York: Penguin Books, 2000). Includes all footnotes and seventeen of the original seventy-one chapters. {{ISBN|0-14-043764-9}} (848 p.)
    • Hans-Friedrich Mueller, ed., one-volume abridgment (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 edition of 1845 (see also Gutenberg etext edition). {{ISBN|0-375-75811-9}}, (trade paper, 1312 p.); {{ISBN|0-345-47884-3}} (mass market paper, 1536 p.)
    • AMN, ed. one-volume abridgment (Woodland: Historical Reprints, 2019). It eliminates most footnotes, adds some annotations, omits Milman notes. {{ISBN|978-1-950330-46-1}} (large 8x11.5 trade paper 402 pages)


{{lacking ISBN|date=October 2018}}Many writers have used variations on the series title (including using "Rise and Fall" in place of "Decline and Fall"), especially when dealing with large nations or empires. Piers Brendon notes 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."Piers Brendon, The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1781–1997 (2008) p. xv. and in film: and in television:
  • (Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire) (2006)
and in video games:
  • (Rise and Fall: Civilizations at War) (2006)
  • (Civilizations VI: Rise and Fall) (2006)
The title and author are also cited in Noël Coward's comedic poem "I Went to a Marvellous Party".{{efn|Link to notes on the poem hereweblink Excerpt:"If you have any mind at all,Gibbon's divine Decline and Fall,Seems pretty flimsy,No more than a whimsy ... ."}} 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".NEWS, Asimov, Isaac, The Foundation of S. F. Success, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, October 1954, 69, Feminist Science Fiction author Sheri S. Tepper gave one of her novels the title Gibbon's Decline and Fall.In 1995, an established journal of classical scholarship, Classics Ireland, published punk musician's 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 notedAmerica 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.JOURNAL, 25528281, Iggy, Pop, Iggy Pop, Caesar lives, 1995, 2, 94–96, Classics Ireland, 10.2307/25528281,

See also





Further reading

  • 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 Univ. 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 Univ. Press.
    • vol. 1, The Enlightenments of Edward Gibbon, 1737–1764, 1999 [hb: {{ISBN|0-521-63345-1}}];
    • vol. 2, Narratives of Civil Government, 1999 [hb: {{ISBN|0-521-64002-4}}];
    • vol. 3, The First Decline and Fall, 2003 [pb: {{ISBN|0-521-82445-1}}].
    • vol. 4, Barbarians, Savages and Empires, 2005 [hb: {{ISBN|0-521-85625-6}}].
    • (The Work of J.G.A. PocockEdward Gibbon|The Work of J.G.A. Pocock: Edward Gibbon section).
  • Roberts, Charlotte. Edward Gibbon and the Shape of History. 2014 Oxford University Press {{ISBN|978-0198704836}}
  • 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.

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