The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire "History Is Little More Than The Register Of The Crimes, Follies, And Misfortunes Of Mankind"

Edward Gibbon

"History Is Little More Than The Register Of The Crimes, Follies, And Misfortunes Of Mankind"

Context: Perhaps no one in his age was better acquainted with the course of history than Edward Gibbon, whose vast study of Roman history has become a classic work in historiography. And to read that work is to understand the force of Gibbon's comment upon the nature of history; his recitation of the events and personalities of the Roman Empire show the truth of his observation, and Gibbon makes it clear that he has glossed over some of the more lurid and notorious aspects of the Roman story, though he notes in passing that they existed. The chapter in which his comment occurs is entitled "Of the Constitution of the Roman Empire in the Age of the Antonines." The chapter begins with what the writer calls "the obvious definition of a monarchy" and proceeds to narrate the progress of the Roman Empire from Augustus, including an account of how he solidified his position, through the reign of Hadrian, to Titus Antoninus Pius and his successor, Marcus. The two Antonines ruled the Roman world for forty-two years, with, in Gibbon's words, "the same invariable spirit of wisdom and virtue." The comment about the nature of history is found in a paragraph describing the reign of the earlier Antonine:

Titus Antoninus Pius has been justly denominated a second Numa. The same love of religion, justice, and peace, was the distinguishing characteristic of both princes. But the situation of the latter opened a much larger field for the exercise of those virtues. Numa could only prevent a few neighbouring villages from plundering each other's harvests. Antoninus diffused order and tranquillity over the greatest part of the earth. His reign is marked by the rare advantage of furnishing very few materials for history; which is, indeed, little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind. In private life, he was an amiable as well as a good man. The native simplicity of his virtue was a stranger to vanity or affectation. He enjoyed with moderation the conveniences of his fortune, and the innocent pleasures of society: and the benevolence of his soul displayed itself in a cheerful serenity of temper.