The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

by Edward Gibbon
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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 272

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon is the history of Roman Empire from the end of the golden age to the fall of Byzantium. Though considerable strides in historical understanding have been made since the 1700s, and the work is no longer widely reflective of modern understanding, it is still considered to be an extraordinary literary achievement due to Gibbon's great strides in methodology and the undertaking of such a daunting task with so few comprehensive sources.

Gibbon states that the death of Marcus Aurelius was the beginning of the end for the Roman Empire. What follows is the succession of events that lead to its ultimate demise. According to Gibbon, these events included repeated attacks by barbarians as well as a loss of civility among Roman citizens. In particular, Gibbon cites Christianity as a major reason for the fall of Rome.

Gibbon came under severe criticism for his perceived attack on Christianity, and he seemed to be expecting it. Like many thinkers of the time, he held the role that the Christian Church played in the dark ages in contempt. The tone on which he speaks on the religion in the work is cynical, to say the least. Critics commenting on chapters fifteen and sixteen even went as far to call Gibbon a "paganist."

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The way Gibbon writes through footnotes offers a humorous view of his thought process and moralist views on the Roman Empire as well as Gibbon's modern world, and have served as a standard for the modern use of footnotes. These incredibly entertaining sections have been called "Gibbon's Table Talk."


Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1559

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,...

(The entire section contains 1831 words.)

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