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The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (known popularly as The History) was written by English historian Edward Gibbon and published in six volumes. Volume I was published in 1776, and went through six printings. Volumes II and III were published in 1781; volumes IV, V, VI in 1788-89. The original volumes were published as quartos, a common publishing practice of the time. It stands as a major literary achievement of the 18th century because it was adopted as a model for the methodologies of modern historians. This led to Gibbon being called the first modern historian of Ancient Rome.

Introduction

The books cover the period of the Roman Empire after Marcus Aurelius, from 180 to 1453, concluding in 1590. They take as their material the behaviour and decisions that led to the decay and eventual fall of the Roman Empire in the East and West, offering an explanation for why the Roman Empire fell.

Gibbon is sometimes called the first "modern historian of ancient Rome. By virtue of its mostly objective approach and highly accurate use of reference material, Gibbon's work was adopted as a model for the methodologies of 19th and 20th century historians. His pessimism and detached use of irony was common to the historical genre of his era.

Although he published other books, Gibbon devoted much of his life (1772-1789) to this one work. 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's theory

Gibbon offers an explanation for why the Roman Empire fell, a task made difficult by a lack of comprehensive written sources, though he was not the only historian to tackle the subject. Most of his ideas are directly taken from what few relevant records were available: those of the Roman moralists of the 4th and 5th centuries.

According to Gibbon, the Roman Empire succumbed to barbarian invasions because of a loss of civic virtue among its citizens. They had become weak, outsourcing their duties 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, had become effeminate, unwilling to live a tougher, "manly" 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 the Empire. He also believed its comparative pacifism tended to hamper the traditional Roman martial spirit. Lastly, like other Enlightenment thinkers, Gibbon held in contempt the Middle Ages as a priest-ridden, superstitious, dark age. It was not until his own age of reason and rational thought, it was believed, that human history could resume its progress.

Gibbon's use of citations

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 idiosyncrasy. They provide an entertaining moral commentary on both ancient Rome and 18th-century Great Britain. This technique enabled Gibbon to compare ancient Rome to modern times. 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," utilized much of the same research, and commented admiringly of the incredible depth and accuracy of Gibbon's work. It is notable that Bury, over a century after Gibbon, and Heather, over a century after Bury, both based much of their own work on Gibbon's factual research. Both found little to argue with his facts, though both disagreed with his theories, primarily on Christianity as a prime factor in the Empire's decline and fall. Unusual for the 18th century, Gibbon was notably not content with secondhand accounts when the primary sources were accessible, and used them so well that even today historians still cite his work as the definitive factual history of the western empire. "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.

Controversy: chapters XV, XVI

Volume I was never originally published as such, as it was instead introduced in quartos. The first two were well received and widely praised. The last quarto in Volume I, especially Chapters XV and XVI, were highly controversial, and Gibbon was attacked as a "paganist". Gibbon attacked Christian martyrdom as a myth by deconstructing official Church history that had been perpetuated for centuries. Because the Roman Catholic Church had a virtual monopoly on its own history and its own Latin interpretations were considered to be sacrosanct, the result was that the Church's writings had rarely been questioned before. For Gibbon, however, the Church writings were secondary sources, and he shunned them in favour of primary sources contemporary to the period he was chronicling. This is why Gibbon is referred to as the "first modern historian".

He compared the reigns of Diocletian (284-305), and Charles V (1519-1556) and the electorate of the Holy Roman Empire, making the argument that the two were remarkably similar. Both emperors were plagued by continuous war and compelled to excessive taxation; both chose to abdicate as Emperors at roughly the same age; and both chose to lead a quiet life upon their retirement.

Criticism

Numerous tracts were published criticizing his work, and Gibbon was forced to defend his work in reply. He left London to finish the following volumes in Lausanne, where he could work in solitude. Gibbon's remarks on Christianity aroused particularly vigorous attack. However, in the mid-twentieth century, at least one author claimed that "church historians allow the substantial justness of [Gibbon's] main positions.

Martyrs

According to Gibbon, Roman pagans were far more tolerant of Christians than Christians were of one another, especially once Christianity gained the upper hand. Christians inflicted far greater casualties on other Christians than were ever inflicted by the Roman Empire. Gibbon extrapolated that the number of Christians executed by other Christian factions far exceeded all the Christian martyrs who died during the three centuries of Christianity under Roman rule. This was in stark contrast to orthodox Church history, which insisted that Christianity won the hearts and minds of people largely because of the inspirational example set by its martyrs. Gibbon demonstrated that the early Church's custom of bestowing the title of martyr on all confessors of faith grossly inflated the actual numbers. Gibbon compares how insubstantial that number was, by comparing it to more modern persecutions.

"The learned Origen, who, from his experience as well as readings, was intimately acquainted with the history of the Christians, declares, in the most express terms, that the number of martyrs was very inconsiderable. His authority would alone be sufficient to annihilate that formidable army of martyrs, whose relics, drawn for the most part from the catacombs of Rome, have replenished so many churches, and whose marvellous achievements have been the subject of so many volumes of holy romance...

We shall conclude this chapter by a melancholy truth which obtrudes itself on the reluctant mind; that, even admitting, without hesitation or inquiry, all that history has recorded, or devotion has feigned, on the subject of martyrdoms, it must still be acknowledged that the Christians, in the course of their intestine dissensions, have inflicted far greater severities on each other than they had experienced from the zeal of infidels." (chap. 16).

Christianity as a contributor to the fall and to stability

"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. 39).

Historians such as David S. Potter and Fergus Millar dispute claims that the Empire fell as a result of a kind of lethargy towards current affairs brought on by Constantine's adoption of Christianity as the official state religion. They claim that such a view is "vague" and has little real evidence to support it. Others such as J.B. Bury, who wrote a history of the later Empire, claimed there is "no evidence" to support Gibbon's claims of Christian apathy towards the Empire:

"It has often been alleged that Christianity in its political effects was a disintegrating force and tended to weaken the power of Rome to resist her enemies. It is difficult to see that it had any such tendency, so long as the Church itself was united. Theological heresies were indeed to prove a disintegrating force in the East in the seventh century, when differences in doctrine which had alienated the Christians in Egypt and Syria from the government of Constantinople facilitated the conquests of the Saracens. But after the defeat of Arianism, there was no such vital or deep-reaching division in the West, and the effect of Christianity was to unite, not to sever, to check, rather than to emphasise, national or sectional feeling. In the political calculations of Constantine it was probably this ideal of unity, as a counterpoise to the centrifugal tendencies which had been clearly revealed in the third century, that was the great recommendation of the religion which he raised to power. Nor is there the least reason to suppose that Christian teaching had the practical effect of making men less loyal to the Empire or less ready to defend it. The Christians were as pugnacious as the pagans. Some might read Augustine's City of God with edification, but probably very few interpreted its theory with such strict practical logic as to be indifferent to the safety of the Empire. Hardly the author himself, though this has been disputed.

Today, historians tend to analyze economic and military factors in the decline of Rome, although generally allowing the spread of Christianity an underlying causative role.

In an article that appeared 1996 in the journal Past & Present, H.A. Drake challenges an understanding of Persecution of religion 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.

Gibbon had written:

"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".

"With such deft strokes," counters Drake, "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."

Neglect of Byzantium

Others such as John Julius Norwich, despite their admiration for his furthering of historical methodology, consider Gibbon's 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.

Gibbon's legacy

Gibbon’s methodology was accurate enough that few have refuted his use of primary sources for evidence. Contemporary historians still rely on Gibbon as a secondary source to substantiate references. Variations on the series title (including using "Rise and Fall" in place of "Decline and Fall") have been used by other writers:

and the music albums:

and the films:

The title and author are also cited in Noel Coward's comedic poem, "I went to a marvellous party. 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 / and that Greek, Thucydides", though in truth the "bit" is not tiny.

Editions

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.

  • In-print complete editions
    • J.B. Bury, ed., 7 volumes (London: Methuen, 1909-1914), currently reprinted (New York: AMS Press, 1974). Until Womersley, this was the essential edition, but now nearing age 100, the historical analysis/commentary is dated. [ISBN 0-404-02820-9].
    • Hugh Trevor-Roper, ed., 6 volumes (New York: Everyman's Library, 1993-1994). from the Bury text and with Gibbon's own notes, but without Bury's, many of which are superseded by more recent research. [ISBN 0-679-42308-7 (vols. 1–3); ISBN 0-679-43593-X (vols. 4–6)].
    • David Womersley, ed., 3 volumes. hardback-(London: Allen Lane, 1994); paperback-(New York: Penguin Books, 2005;1994). The current essential edition, the most faithful to Gibbon's original text. The ancient Greek quotations are not as accurate as in Bury, but an otherwise excellent work with complete footnotes and bibliographical information for Gibbon's cryptic footnote notations. Includes the original index, and the Vindication (1779) which Gibbon wrote in response to attacks on his caustic portrayal of Christianity. The 2005 print includes minor revisions and a new chronology. [ISBN 0-7139-9124-0 (3360 p.); ISBN 0-14-043393-7 (v.1, 1232 p.); ISBN 0-14-043394-5 (v.2, 1024 p.); ISBN 0-14-043395-3 (v.3, 1360 p.)]
  • In-print abridgements
    • David Womersley, ed., 1 volume (New York: Penguin Books, 2000). Includes all footnotes and eleven of the original seventy-one chapters. [ISBN 0-14-043764-9, 848 p.]
    • Hans-Friedrich Mueller, ed., one volume abridgment (New York: Random House, 2003). Includes excerpts from all seventy-one chapters. It eliminates footnotes, geographic surveys, details of battle formations, long narratives of military campaigns, ethnographies, and genealogies, but retains the narrative from start to finish. Based on the Rev. H.H. [Dean] Milman edition of 1845 (see also Gutenberg etext edition). [ISBN 0-375-75811-9, (trade paper, 1312 p.); ISBN 0-345-47884-3 (mass market paper, 1536 p.)]

Notes

Further reading

  • Brownley, Martine W. "Appearance and Reality in Gibbon's History," Journal of the History of Ideas 38,4(1977), 651-666.
    • Brownley. "Gibbon's Artistic and Historical Scope in the Decline and Fall," Journal of the History of Ideas 42,4(1981), 629-642.
  • Cosgrove, Peter. Impartial Stranger: History and Intertextuality in Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Newark: Associated University Presses, 1999); [ISBN 0-87413-658-X].
  • Craddock, Patricia. "Historical Discovery and Literary Invention in Gibbon's 'Decline and Fall'," Modern Philology 85,4(May 1988), 569-587.
  • Drake, H.A., "Lambs into Lions: explaining early Christian intolerance," Past and Present 153(1996), 3-36. Oxford Journals
  • Furet, Francois. "Civilization and Barbarism in Gibbon's History," Daedalus 105,3(1976), 209-216.
  • Gay, Peter. Style in History (New York: Basic Books, 1974); [ISBN 0-465-08304-8].
  • Ghosh, Peter R. "Gibbon's Dark Ages: Some Remarks on the Genesis of the Decline and Fall," Journal of Roman Studies 73(1983), 1–23.
  • Kelly, Christopher. "A Grand Tour: Reading Gibbon's 'Decline and Fall'," Greece & Rome 2nd ser., 44,1 (Apr. 1997), 39–58.
  • Momigliano, Arnaldo. "Eighteenth-Century Prelude to Mr. Gibbon," in Pierre Ducrey et al., eds., Gibbon et Rome à la lumière de l'historiographie moderne (Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1977).
    • Momigliano, "Gibbon from an Italian Point of View," in G.W. Bowersock et al., eds., Edward Gibbon and the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1977).
    • Momigliano, "Declines and Falls," American Scholar 49(Winter 1979), 37-51.
    • Momigliano, "After Gibbon's Decline and Fall," in Kurt Weitzmann, ed. Age of Spirituality : a symposium (Princeton: 1980); [ISBN 0-891-42039-8].
  • Pocock, J.G.A. Barbarism and Religion, 4 vols. all Cambridge Univ. Press.
    • vol. 1, The Enlightenments of Edward Gibbon, 1737–1764, 1999 [hb: ISBN 0-521-63345-1]. cited as "Pocock, EEG";
    • vol. 2, Narratives of Civil Government, 1999 [hb: ISBN 0-521-64002-4];
    • vol. 3, The First Decline and Fall, 2003 [pb: ISBN 0-521-82445-1]. cited as "Pocock, FDF."
    • vol. 4, Barbarians, Savages and Empires, 2005 [hb: ISBN 0-521-85625-6].
    • The Work of J.G.A. Pocock: Edward Gibbon section.
  • Trevor-Roper, H.R. "Gibbon and the Publication of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 1776-1976," Journal of Law and Economics 19,3 (Oct. 1976), 489–505.
  • Womersley, David. The Transformation of 'The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire' (Cambridge: 1988).
    • Womersley, ed. Religious Scepticism: Contemporary Responses to Gibbon (Bristol, England: Thoemmes Press, 1997).
  • Wootton, David. "Narrative, Irony, and Faith in Gibbon's Decline and Fall," History and Theory 33,4 (Dec., 1994), 77–105.

See also

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