The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

by Edward Gibbon

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

In his massive six-volume history, published in 1776 to 1789, Edward Gibbon reviewed more than a millennium of history in all the territories that the Roman Empire had controlled, even marginally, and what happened in those areas after the “fall of Rome” in the sixth century CE. Thus, the entire work primarily covers about thirteen centuries (although occasionally touching earlier or later dates) and spans Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, and western China. Gibbon divided the work into three periods: the decline leading up to the fall of Rome; the second period of decline and fall, from Justinian through Charlemagne; and six more centuries from the Western Empire’s revival through the Turkish taking of Constantinople. In sum, Gibbon’s work includes thousands of historical persons, about whom he writes through the lens of an Enlightenment-era Englishman. Gibbon’s views on people’s characters, roles in their own time, and later influences have all been widely debated ever since the work’s initial publication.

Notable figures include the Roman emperors, especially those Gibbon holds responsible for the decline. While he reserves his harshest words for the Christian emperors of the fifth through sixth centuries, he also faults those who came after Julius Caesar for overreaching and thus setting the stage for the decline. Augustus and those who followed are among the significant figures, and especially important for this stage is Diocletian, who divided the empire into its eastern and western parts in the third century, along with his successors Maxentius and Constantine. As Gibbon places much of the blame for Rome’s fall on the adoption of Christianity—a perspective not shared by other historians, even when Gibbon was writing—Constantine, who supported the religion, and Julian, who opposed it, are both significant.

Gibbon, who heavily promoted the view that the “barbarian” attacks on Rome from the north brought the empire’s fall, uncovered much of the documentation supporting that view. Important figures here include Valens of the Goths; Attila, leader of the Huns; and Genseric, the Vandal king who invaded Rome.

In the disastrous period of the fall of the Roman Empire, which may justly be dated from the reign of Valens, the happiness and security of each individual were personally attacked; and the arts and labors of ages were rudely defaced by the Barbarians of Scythia and Germany. The invasion of the Huns precipitated on the provinces of the West the Gothic nation . . . opened a way, by the success of their arms, to the inroads of so many hostile tribes, more savage than themselves. (chapter XXVII)

With the ascent of Constantinople, the leaders of the Eastern Empire, or Byzantium, gained importance—notably Justinian, as well as Belisarius, who retook North African from the Vandals. Gibbon devotes considerable attention to religious leaders, profiling the popes. He also offers a character sketch of “Mahomet” and chronicles the spread of Islam. Several chapters concern the Crusades and religious or political controversies of those centuries. He also profiles Timour or Tamerlane, reviews the Ottoman ascent, and analyzes the strategies and character of Constantine, especially in his last days, and the reasons Mahomet II succeeded in capturing Constantinople.

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