The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

by Edward Gibbon
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Last Updated 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."


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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, 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 would have pacified the critics had not Gibbon immediately brought into play his urbane sarcasm, so distasteful to the insistently pious: “The theologian may indulge the pleasing task of describing Religion as she descended from Heaven, arrayed in her native purity. A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian. He must discover the inevitable mixture of error and corruption which she contracted in a long residence upon earth, among a weak and degenerate race of beings.”

Obviously, there is no truly impartial judge. Gibbon’s tone is acceptable, even proper, to those who share his skepticism, but to others more emotionally involved in the Christian faith Gibbon seems cynical to the point of gross distortion.

Gibbon asks how the Christian faith came to achieve its victory over Rome. He rejects as unsatisfactory an answer that attributes Christianity’s force to the truth of its doctrine and the providence of God. Five causes of the rapid growth of the Christian Church are then advanced: “I. The inflexible, and, if we may use the expression, the intolerant zeal of the Christians. . . . II. The doctrine of a future life. . . . III. The miraculous powers ascribed to the primitive church. IV. The pure and austere morals of the Christians. V. The union and discipline of the Christian republic, which gradually formed an independent and increasing state in the heart of the Roman empire.”

In his comments on these five causes Gibbon discusses Jewish influences on the Christian faith and explains how the Roman religion failed to be convincing in its mythology and doctrine of a future life; although he admits the persuasive power of the Christian claim of immortality, he speaks with skeptical condescension of the efforts of philosophers to support the doctrine of a future life, and he is sarcastic when he mentions “the mysterious dispensations of Providence” that withheld the doctrine from the Jews only to give it to the Christians. When he speaks of the miracles, Gibbon leaves the impression that the pagans failed to be convinced because no such events actually took place. “The lame walked, the blind saw, the sick were healed, the dead were raised,” he writes, but he adds that “the laws of Nature were frequently suspended for the benefit of the church.”

Gibbon argues that the emperors were not as criminal in their treatments of the Christians as some Christian apologists have argued. He maintains that the Romans acted only with caution and reluctance after a considerable amount of time and provocation, and that they were moderate in their use of punishments. He offers evidence in support of his claim that the stories of martyrdom were often exaggerated or wholly false, and that in many cases the Christians sought martyrdom by provoking the Romans to violence. Gibbon concludes by casting doubt on the numbers of those punished by death, and he insists that the Christians have inflicted more punishments on one another than they received from the Romans.

Discussion of Gibbon’s chapters on Christianity sometimes tends to turn attention away from the historian’s virtues: the inclusiveness of his survey, the liveliness of his account, and his careful documentation of historical claims. Gibbon did not pretend that he was without moral bias, but his judgments of the tyrannical emperors are defended by references to their acts. It was not enough for Gibbon to discover, for example, that Septimus Severus was false and insincere, particularly in the making of treaties; the question was whether Severus was forced, by the imperious demands of politics, to be deceitful. Gibbon’s conclusion was that there was no need for Severus to be as false in his promises as he was; consequently, he condemns him for his acts. In similar fashion he reviews the tyrannical behavior of Caracalla, Maximin, and other emperors before the barbarian invasion of the Germans.

Gibbon names the Franks, the Alemanni, the Goths, and the Persians as the enemies of the Romans during the reigns of Valerian and Gallienus, when a weakened empire was vulnerable to attack from both within and without. Perhaps the Roman Empire would have wholly disintegrated at that time had not Valerian and Gallienus been succeeded by Claudius, Aurelian, Probus, and Diocletian, described as “great princes” by Gibbon and as “Restorers of the Roman world.”

Several chapters of this massive work are devoted to a recital and discussion of the acts and influence of Constantine I, who reunited the Roman Empire that had been divided under Diocletian and, as a consequence of his conversion to the Christian faith, granted tolerance to the Christians by the Edict of Milan. One result of the consequent growth of Christianity was a growing emphasis upon the distinction between temporal and spiritual powers; the result was not that church and state remained apart from each other, but that the bishops of the church came to have more and more influence on matters of state. The date 476 is significant as marking the end of the West Roman Empire with the ascent to power of Odoacer, the barbarian chieftain.

The remainder of Gibbon’s classic story of Rome’s decline is the story of the increase of papal influence, the commencement of Byzantine rule, the reign of Charlemagne as emperor of the West, the sacking of Rome by the Arabs, the retirement of the popes to Avignon, the abortive efforts of Rienzi to restore the government of Rome, the return of the popes and the great schism, and the final settlement of the ecclesiastical state.

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