The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

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This article is about the book. For the historical event, see Decline of the Roman Empire.

The History of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a major literary achievement of the 18th century published in six volumes, was written by the celebrated English historian Edward Gibbon. Volume I was published in 1776, and went through six printings (a remarkable feat for its time). Volumes II and III were published in 1781; volumes IV, V, VI in 1788. The original volumes were published as quartos, a common publishing practice of the time.<ref>For a comprehensive outline of the work, including chapter titles, excerpts, and a discussion of the division into volumes of the various editions, see Outline of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.</ref>

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

Often referred to as the first "modern" historian, Gibbon's work was taken as a model for the methodologies of 19th and 20th century historians in his objectivity and accuracy in the use of reference material. His pessimism and detached use of irony was common to the historical genre of his era.

Although he published other books, Gibbon devoted much of his life (1772-1789) to this one work. 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 the birth of a child.

Contents

[edit] 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 great historical questions, and, because of the relative lack of written records from the time, one of the most difficult to undertake. Gibbon was not the first to theorise about 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; see most famously Henri Pirenne's 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 able to 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 that a better life existed after death. This fostered indifference to this life among Roman citizens, thus sapping their desire to sacrifice for the Empire. He also believed its comparative pacifism tended to sap 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.

[edit] 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 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 on ancient Rome, 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," utilized much of the same research, and commented admiringly of the incredible depth and accuracy of Gibbon's work. It is notable that Bury, over a century after Gibbon, and Heather, over a century after Bury, both based much of their own work on Gibbon's factual research. Both found little to argue with his facts, though both disagreed with his theories, primarily on Christianity as a prime factor in the Empire's decline and fall. Unusual 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. "I have always endeavoured," Gibbon said in his own autobiography, "to draw from the fountainhead; my curiosity, as well as a sense of duty, has always urged me to study the originals; and 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." Decline and Fall is a literary monument, and a massive step forward in historical method. <ref>In the early 20th century, biographer Sir Leslie Stephen ("Gibbon, Edward," Dictionary of National Biography, vol. 21, [Oxford, 1921], 1134.) summarized The History's reputation as a work of unmatched erudition, a degree of professional esteem which remains as strong today as it did then:

The criticisms upon his book...are nearly unamimous. 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.

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[edit] Controversy: chapters XV, XVI

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 XV and XVI, were highly controversial, and Gibbon was declared "paganist".

Gibbon attacked Christian martyrdom as a myth 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, the Church writings were secondary sources, and he eschewed them in favour of primary sources contemporary to the period he was chronicling. This is why Gibbon is referred to as the "first modern historian".

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 demonstrated 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 both the reigns of Diocletian (284-305), and Charles V (1519-1556) 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 chose to abdicate as Emperors at roughly the same age; and both chose to lead a quiet life upon their retirement.

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.

[edit] Gibbon's legacy

Gibbon’s 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, his skill in translation of his sources was impeccable. Contemporary historians still rely on Gibbon as a secondary source to substantiate references. His literary tone is old-fashioned, skeptical, and pessimistic; it mirrors both the man and the topic: the gradual decay of a mighty empire. Variations on the series title (including using "Rise and Fall" in place of "Decline and Fall") have been used by other writers:

and the music album:

[edit] Editions

Note: 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 by AMS Press. Until the Womersley, this was the essential edition, but now almost one hundred years old, the historical analysis commentary is dated. [ISBN 0-8095-9235-5 (v.1); ISBN 0-8095-9236-3 (v.2); ISBN 0-8095-9237-1 (v.3); ISBN 0-8095-9238-X (v.4); ISBN 0-8095-9239-8 (v.5); ISBN 0-8095-9240-1 (v.6); ISBN 0-8095-9241-X (v.7)]
    • Hugh Trevor-Roper, ed. Everyman's Library, 6 volumes; from the Bury text, but without Bury's notes, many of which are superseded by more recent research, and with Gibbon's own notes. [ISBN 1-85715-095-3 (vols. 1–3); and ISBN 1-85715-192-5 (vols. 4–6); boxed set: ISBN 0679423087 (vols. 1–3, 704 p.); and ISBN 067943593X (vols. 4–6, 2064 p.)]
    • David Womersley, ed., 3 volumes (London: Penguin Books, 1994). The current essential edition, it is the most faithful to Gibbon's original words. 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 Gibbon's cryptic footnote notations. It also includes the original index, and the Vindication (1779) which Gibbon wrote in response to Henry Edwards Davis' sharp attack (Examination of the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Chapters) on Gibbon's portrayal of Christianity. [ISBN 0-71-3991240 (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 (London: Penguin Books, 2000). Includes all footnotes and eleven of the original seventy-one chapters. [ISBN 0-14-043764-9, 848 p.]
    • Hans-Friedrich Mueller, ed., 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 retains the narrative from start to finish. Based on the Rev. H.H. Milman edition of 1845 (see also Gutenberg etext edition). [ISBN 0-375-75811-9, (trade paper, 1312 p.); ISBN 0345478843 (mass market paper, 1536 p.)]

[edit] Notes

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[edit] Further Reading

  • 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].
  • 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.
  • Kelly, Christopher. "A Grand Tour: Reading Gibbon's 'Decline and Fall'," Greece & Rome 2nd ser., 44,1(Apr. 1997), 39–58.
  • Pocock, J.G.A. Barbarism and Religion. 4 vols.: vol. 1, The Enlightenments of Edward Gibbon, 1737–1764, 1999 [hb: ISBN 0521633451]; vol. 2, Narratives of Civil Government, 1999 [hb: ISBN 0521640024]; vol. 3, The First Decline and Fall, 2003 [pb: ISBN 0521824451]; vol. 4, Barbarians, Savages and Empires, 2005 [hb: ISBN 0521856256]. all New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.
  • Pocock, J.G.A. The Work of J.G.A. Pocock: Edward Gibbon section.
  • 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.
  • Wootton, David. "Narrative, Irony, and Faith in Gibbon's Decline and Fall," History and Theory 33,4(Dec., 1994), 77–105.
  • Further Reading at the Edward Gibbon page.

[edit] External links

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The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

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