Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is the definitive history of the Roman empire from the end of its golden age to its final political and physical disintegration. The massive character of the work, testifying to the years devoted to its composition by its scholar-author, is the first, but most superficial, sign of its greatness. The style—urbane, dramatic, polished—ensures its eminent place in literature. Finally, as history, the work stands or falls on the accuracy and depth of its report of events covering more than twelve centuries, and in this respect The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire continues to prevail as the most authoritative study on this theme ever written. Later scholars have challenged minor points or added to the material of the history, but Gibbon’s work stands as the source of all that is most relevant in the story of Rome’s declining years.
The account begins with a critical description of the age of the Antonines. Gibbon concentrates on the period from 96 to 180 c.e., a time that he describes as “a happy period,” during the reigns of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the two Antonines. The first three chapters are prefatory to the body of the work; they establish the claim that Rome was then at the height of its glory as an empire—it was strong, prosperous, and active, with worldwide influence. After the death of Marcus Aurelius, and with the ascent of Commodus (180-192), the Roman Empire began its long and gradual decline. The body of Gibbon’s work is devoted to a careful recital of the events that followed.
Gibbon was more interested in recounting the principal events of the Empire’s history than he was in analyzing events in an effort to account for the downfall of Rome. He did not, however, entirely ignore the question of causes. At the close of his monumental history he reports four principal causes of Rome’s decline and fall: “I. The injuries of time and nature. II. The hostile attacks of the barbarians and Christians. III. The use and abuse of the materials. And, IV. The domestic quarrels of the Romans.”
It is customary for commentators on Gibbon to emphasize the reference to the opposing influences of Christianity and barbarism; in particular, some critics have been inclined to charge Gibbon with a lack of sympathetic understanding of the early Christian Church. It is clear from Gibbon’s narrative and summary statement, however, that the Christian contribution to the eventual downfall of Rome was only part of a complex of causes, and it seems unlikely that the Christian effort would have succeeded if the Roman Empire had not already been in decline.
In any case, it is not so much what Gibbon says as his way of saying it that has proved irritating. In the first place, Gibbon writes as if he were located in Rome; his view of events is from the Roman perspective, although it does not always exhibit a Roman bias. Second, his objectivity, when it is achieved, has been offensive to some who so cherish the Christian Church that they cannot tolerate any discussion of its faults; it is as if such critics were demanding that Gibbon maintain historical impartiality about the Romans but not about the Christians.
When the The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire first appeared, the chapters on Christianity—15 and 16—immediately became the objects of critical attack. Gibbon seems to have anticipated this response, for he wrote, “The great law of impartiality too often obliges us to reveal the imperfections of the uninspired teachers and believers of the Gospel; and, to a careless observer, their faults may seem to cast a shade on the faith which they professed.” Perhaps this word of caution...
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