The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire[a] is a six-volume work by the English historian Edward Gibbon. It traces Western civilization (as well as the Islamic and Mongolian conquests) from the height of the Roman Empire to the fall of Byzantium. Volume I was published in 1776 and went through six printings. Volumes II and III were published in 1781; volumes IV, V, and VI in 1788–1789. The original volumes were published in quarto sections, a common publishing practice of the time. The work covers the history, from 98 to 1590, of the Roman Empire, the history of early Christianity and then of the Roman State Church, and the history of Europe, and discusses the decline of the Roman Empire in the East and West. Because of its heavy use of primary sources, unusual at the time, its methodology became a model for later historians. This led to Gibbon's being called the first "modern historian of ancient Rome". His work remains a great literary achievement and a very readable introduction to the period, but considerable progress has since been made in history and archaeology, and his interpretations no longer represent current academic knowledge or thought. In The World of Late Antiquity (1971), Peter Brown offers an alternative interpretation of the period between the second and eighth centuries AD, and Framing the Early Middle Ages (2005) by Christopher Wickham presents hitherto unavailable evidence from both documentary and archaeological sources.
According to Gibbon, the Roman Empire succumbed to barbarian invasions in large part due to the gradual loss of civic virtue among its citizens. They had become weak, outsourcing their duty to defend their empire to barbarian mercenaries, who then became so numerous and ingrained that they were able to take over the Empire. Romans, he believed, were unwilling to live a tougher, military lifestyle. In addition, Gibbon argued that Christianity created a belief that a better life existed after death, which fostered an indifference to the present among Roman citizens, thus sapping their desire to sacrifice for a larger purpose. He also believed that Christianity's comparative pacifism tended to hamper the traditional Roman martial spirit. Also, seldom openly stated, but constantly shown in practice, Christianity destroyed the unity of the Empire. Christians were not unified; they were split into dozens of groups, constantly battling over exceedingly minute differences in dogma, where the pronunciation of a vowel would determine eternal bliss or hell, and killing each other in the literal hundreds of thousands. One reason Islam conquered Egypt so easily was that the Egyptians preferred a totally alien faith to the different branch of Christianity espoused in Constantinople. Finally, like other Enlightenment thinkers and British citizens of the age steeped in institutional anti-Catholicism, Gibbon held in contempt the Middle Ages as a priest-ridden, superstitious Dark Age. It was not until his own era, the "Age of Reason," with its emphasis on rational thought, it was believed, that human history could resume its progress.
Gibbon saw the Praetorian Guard as the primary catalyst of the empire's initial decay and eventual collapse, a seed planted by Augustus when the empire was established. His writings cite repeated examples of the Praetorian Guard abusing their power with calamitous results, including numerous instances of imperial assassination and incessant demands for increased pay.
He compared the reigns of Diocletian (284–305) and Charles V (1519–1556), noting superficial similarities. Both were plagued by continual war and compelled to excessive taxation to fund wars, both chose to abdicate as Emperors at roughly the same age, and both chose to lead a quiet life upon their retirement. However, Gibbon argues that these similarities are only superficial and that the underlying context and character of the two rulers is markedly different.
[A]s long as mankind shall continue to bestow more liberal applause on their destroyers than on their benefactors, the thirst of military glory will ever be the vice of the most exalted characters.— Gibbon, Edward (1872). The decline and fall of the Roman Empire. 1 (Chandos ed.). London: Frederick Warne & Co. p. 21. Retrieved 2017-09-12.
The influence of the clergy, in an age of superstition, might be usefully employed to assert the rights of mankind; but so intimate is the connection between the throne and the altar, that the banner of the church has very seldom been seen on the side of the people.— Gibbon, Edward (1872). The decline and fall of the Roman Empire. 1 (Chandos ed.). London: Frederick Warne & Co. p. 59. Retrieved 2017-09-12.
[H]istory […] is, indeed, little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.— Gibbon, Edward (1872). The decline and fall of the Roman Empire. 1 (Chandos ed.). London: Frederick Warne & Co. p. 72. Retrieved 2017-09-12.
If we contrast the rapid progress of this mischievous discovery [of gunpowder] with the slow and laborious advances of reason, science, and the arts of peace, a philosopher, according to his temper, will laugh or weep at the folly of mankind.— Gibbon, Edward (1890). The decline and fall of the Roman Empire. 3 (Chandos ed.). London: Frederick Warne & Co. p. 649. Retrieved 2017-09-12.
Gibbon provides the reader with a glimpse of his thought process with extensive notes along the body of the text, a precursor to the modern use of footnotes. Gibbon's footnotes are famous for their idiosyncratic and often humorous style, and have been called "Gibbon's table talk." They provide an entertaining moral commentary on both ancient Rome and 18th-century Great Britain. This technique enabled Gibbon to compare ancient Rome to his own contemporary world. Gibbon's work advocates a rationalist and progressive view of history.
Gibbon's citations provide in-depth detail regarding his use of sources for his work, which included documents dating back to ancient Rome. The detail within his asides and his care in noting the importance of each document is a precursor to modern-day historical footnoting methodology.
The work is notable for its erratic but exhaustively documented notes and research. John Bury, following him 113 years later with his own History of the Later Roman Empire, commended the depth and accuracy of Gibbon's work. Unusually for 18th century historians, Gibbon was not content with second-hand accounts when the primary sources were accessible. "I have always endeavoured", Gibbon wrote, "to draw from the fountain-head; that my curiosity, as well as a sense of duty, has always urged me to study the originals; and that, if they have sometimes eluded my search, I have carefully marked the secondary evidence, on whose faith a passage or a fact were reduced to depend." The Decline and Fall is a literary monument and a massive step forward in historical method.[c]
Numerous tracts were published criticising his work. In response, Gibbon defended his work with the 1779 publication of, A Vindication ... of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. His remarks on Christianity aroused particularly vigorous attacks, but in the mid-twentieth century, at least one author claimed that "church historians allow the substantial justness of [Gibbon's] main positions."
Gibbon's comments on the Quran and Muhammad reflected his view of the secular, rather than divine, origin of the text. He outlined in chapter 33 the widespread tale, possibly Jewish in origin, of the Seven Sleepers, and remarked "This popular tale, which Mahomet might learn when he drove his camels to the fairs of Syria, is introduced, as a divine revelation, into the Quran." His presentation of Muhammad's life again reflected his secular approach: "in his private conduct, Mahomet indulged the appetites of a man, and abused the claims of a prophet. A special revelation dispensed him from the laws which he had imposed on his nation: the female sex, without reserve, was abandoned to his desires; and this singular prerogative excited the envy, rather than the scandal, the veneration, rather than the envy, of the devout Mussulmans."
Gibbon described the Jews as "a race of fanatics, whose dire and credulous superstition seemed to render them the implacable enemies not only of the Roman government, but also of humankind".
Gibbon challenged Church history by estimating far smaller numbers of Christian martyrs than had been traditionally accepted. The Church's version of its early history had rarely been questioned before. Gibbon, however, knew that modern Church writings were secondary sources, and he shunned them in favor of primary sources.
Volume I was originally published in sections, as was common for large works at the time. The first two were well received and widely praised. The last quarto in Volume I, especially Chapters XV and XVI, was highly controversial, and Gibbon was attacked as a "paganist". Gibbon thought that Christianity had hastened the Fall, but also ameliorated the results:
As the happiness of a future life is the great object of religion, we may hear without surprise or scandal that the introduction, or at least the abuse of Christianity, had some influence on the decline and fall of the Roman empire. The clergy successfully preached the doctrines of patience and pusillanimity; the active virtues of society were discouraged; and the last remains of military spirit were buried in the cloister: a large portion of public and private wealth was consecrated to the specious demands of charity and devotion; and the soldiers' pay was lavished on the useless multitudes of both sexes who could only plead the merits of abstinence and chastity. Faith, zeal, curiosity, and more earthly passions of malice and ambition, kindled the flame of theological discord; the church, and even the state, were distracted by religious factions, whose conflicts were sometimes bloody and always implacable; the attention of the emperors was diverted from camps to synods; the Roman world was oppressed by a new species of tyranny; and the persecuted sects became the secret enemies of their country. Yet party-spirit, however pernicious or absurd, is a principle of union as well as of dissension. The bishops, from eighteen hundred pulpits, inculcated the duty of passive obedience to a lawful and orthodox sovereign; their frequent assemblies and perpetual correspondence maintained the communion of distant churches; and the benevolent temper of the Gospel was strengthened, though confirmed, by the spiritual alliance of the Catholics. The sacred indolence of the monks was devoutly embraced by a servile and effeminate age; but if superstition had not afforded a decent retreat, the same vices would have tempted the unworthy Romans to desert, from baser motives, the standard of the republic. Religious precepts are easily obeyed which indulge and sanctify the natural inclinations of their votaries; but the pure and genuine influence of Christianity may be traced in its beneficial, though imperfect, effects on the barbarian proselytes of the North. If the decline of the Roman empire was hastened by the conversion of Constantine, his victorious religion broke the violence of the fall, and mollified the ferocious temper of the conquerors (chap. 38).
Voltaire was deemed to have influenced Gibbon's claim that Christianity was a contributor to the fall of the Roman Empire. As one pro-Christian commenter put it in 1840:
As Christianity advances, disasters befall the [Roman] empire—arts, science, literature, decay—barbarism and all its revolting concomitants are made to seem the consequences of its decisive triumph—and the unwary reader is conducted, with matchless dexterity, to the desired conclusion—the abominable Manicheism of Candide, and, in fact, of all the productions of Voltaire's historic school—viz., "that instead of being a merciful, ameliorating, and benignant visitation, the religion of Christians would rather seem to be a scourge sent on man by the author of all evil."
The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosophers as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful.
He has been criticized for his portrayal of Paganism as tolerant and Christianity as intolerant. In an article that appeared in 1996 in the journal Past & Present, H.A. Drake challenges an understanding of religious persecution in ancient Rome, which he considers to be the "conceptual scheme" that was used by historians to deal with the topic for the last 200 years, and whose most eminent representative is Gibbon. Drake counters:
With such deft strokes, Gibbon enters into a conspiracy with his readers: unlike the credulous masses, he and we are cosmopolitans who know the uses of religion as an instrument of social control. So doing, Gibbon skirts a serious problem: for three centuries prior to Constantine, the tolerant pagans who people the Decline and Fall were the authors of several major persecutions, in which Christians were the victims. ...Gibbon covered this embarrassing hole in his argument with an elegant demur. Rather than deny the obvious, he adroitly masked the question by transforming his Roman magistrates into models of Enlightenment rulers—reluctant persecutors, too sophisticated to be themselves religious zealots.
Others such as John Julius Norwich, despite their admiration for his furthering of historical methodology, consider Gibbon's hostile views on the Byzantine Empire flawed and blame him somewhat for the lack of interest shown in the subject throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. This view might well be admitted by Gibbon himself: "But it is not my intention to expatiate with the same minuteness on the whole series of the Byzantine history." However the Russian historian George Ostrogorsky writes, "Gibbon and Lebeau were genuine historians—and Gibbon a very great one—and their works, in spite of factual inadequacy, rank high for their presentation of their material."
Gibbon's initial plan was to write a history "of the decline and fall of the city of Rome", and only later expanded his scope to the whole Roman Empire.
Although he published other books, Gibbon devoted much of his life to this one work (1772–89). His autobiography Memoirs of My Life and Writings is devoted largely to his reflections on how the book virtually became his life. He compared the publication of each succeeding volume to a newborn child.
Gibbon continued to revise and change his work even after publication. The complexities of the problem are addressed in Womersley's introduction and appendices to his complete edition.
Many writers have used variations on the series title (including using "Rise and Fall" in place of "Decline and Fall"), especially when dealing with large nations or empires. Piers Brendon notes that Gibbon's work, "became the essential guide for Britons anxious to plot their own imperial trajectory. They found the key to understanding the British Empire in the ruins of Rome."
and in film:
and in television:
The title and author are also cited in Noël Coward's comedic poem "I Went to a Marvellous Party".[d] And in the poem "The Foundation of Science Fiction Success", Isaac Asimov acknowledged that his Foundation series—an epic tale of the fall and rebuilding of a galactic empire—was written "with a tiny bit of cribbin' / from the works of Edward Gibbon".
In 1995, an established journal of classical scholarship, Classics Ireland, published punk musician's Iggy Pop's reflections on the applicability of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to the modern world in a short article, Caesar Lives, (Vol. 2, 1995) in which he noted "America is Rome. Of course, why shouldn't it be? We are all Roman children, for better or worse... I learn much about the way our society really works, because the system-origins - military, religious, political, colonial, agricultural, financial - are all there to be scrutinised in their infancy. I have gained perspective."
'Decline and fall' and 'rise and fall', and wordplay thereon, have become characteristic formulae in British culture, as seen in the titles of works such as Evelyn Waugh's novel Decline and Fall (1928), David Bowie's 1972 album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, and David Nobbs' series of novels The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin which were later turned into a television sitcom.
The criticisms upon his book...are nearly unanimous. In accuracy, thoroughness, lucidity, and comprehensive grasp of a vast subject, the History is unsurpassable. It is the one English history which may be regarded as definitive. ...Whatever its shortcomings, the book is artistically imposing as well as historically unimpeachable as a vast panorama of a great period.
p. 208 image at Google Books
If I prosecute this History, I shall not be unmindful of the decline and fall of the city of Rome; an interesting object, to which my plan was originally confined.
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