chapter  16
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Edward Gibbon, 1737–1794)
Pages 6

Gibbon has been corrected but never replaced. His reputation as a premier historian in the Western tradition is secure. The Decline and Fall was recognized in his own time as a masterpiece. Since then, the work has steadily grown in stature. Its strength lies in memorable writing sustained over hundreds of pages dealing with many centuries of events without loss, for the most part, of scholarly persuasion. The work’s integrity comes from a vast quantity of notes that sweeps up virtually all usable evidence available to the author. Independent means provided him with ample leisure to travel,

research, read, and write. He was supported in his labors by wellplaced, wealthy friends in France, Switzerland, and England who respected his character and abilities. A deceased friend in Lausanne, Switzerland left him a mansion, including servants, where last chapters of the Decline and Fall were written. He was intellectually gifted with

a fine memory and intense powers of concentration. He was obsessive about reading serious books, surely a necessity for embarking on a history of some 1500 years. Elected to the English Parliament, he attended faithfully: “The eight sessions I sat in parliament were a school of civil prudence, the first and most essential virtue of a historian” (Autobiography, in Roper, 41). He was convivial, dined out almost nightly, and admits to occasional dissipation. The chief burden in his life was ill health, mainly from a crippling affliction in private parts that killed him at 57. Five years of reading in Lausanne, where he was exiled by his

father for converting to Catholicism, resulted in a precocious Essay on the Study of Literature, written in French at age 22, which hints at his idea of what history should do. The history of empires, he believed, has brought distress to humanity while the history of knowledge has brought fulfillment, and it is desirable that historians should be philosophers. In1757 he met Voltaire in Lausanne, whose writings eventually supplied most of his ideas about political, social, and religious matters with a heavy dose of skepticism and irony. Like Voltaire he despised tyranny, superstition, fanaticism, and persecution. Even some of his views on why Rome declined and fell came from Voltaire’s Essay on Customs and Montesquieu’s 1713 book on the grandeur and decadence of Rome. After returning to Protestantism, a trip to Rome and a tour of its ruins inspired him to undertake a project that would unite philosophy, art, and history. Philosophy would yield perspective and art would give form to scattered evidence. At first his chosen subject was the decay of Rome as a city. This

scheme was expanded to include the Western Empire’s decline and eventual collapse in the late fifth century A.D. from its pinnacle under the Antonines from Nerva (d. 98) to Marcus Aurelius (d. 180). Then he added the long career of the Eastern Empire to the loss of Constantinople to Ottoman Turks in 1453, and concluded with the fate of Rome the city until the reign of Pope Sixtus V (1585-90). His theme was imposing-the slide of an entire civilization into oblivion, “a revolution which will ever be remembered and is still felt by the nations of the earth” (I, 1). Disintegration of the Western Empire is a haunting episode in world history. Inquiry continues unabated about the course of its fall and reasons for its collapse. The original text was in six volumes. In 1776 he published the first

16 chapters and composed the final lines of the seventy-first chapter in 1787. The scope and quality of the work are remarkable by any standard. In the Great Books edition, the first 40 chapters are in volume one at 671 closely printed pages followed by 227 pages of

notes. The second volume has chapters 41-71 at 598 pages followed by 296 pages of notes. The imposing size of Gibbon’s history at 1792 pages gives us pause because 523 of the total, or about a third of the whole, are his scrupulous notes. There was no precedent for a vast narrative in memorable prose resting on such a broad foundation of explicit evidence. For Voltaire, details were unfortunate or even calamitous, interfering with readability, style, and an exposition of big ideas to hold a reader’s attention. Gibbon addressed big ideas without a loss of detail. In the six-volume edition, the work divides into two parts. The

first includes volumes I-IV, which covers about 500 years from the end of the first century A.D. to the death of Emperor Heraclius in 641. The high point of the empire, “the fairest part of the earth and the most civilized portion of mankind,” was from 98 to 180 under Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aureliius (I, 1). The slide downward began when Aurelius’s demented son Commodus succeeded him. Gibbon begins with three chapters on the extent of the empire, its military organization, and the structure of the Roman constitution in A.D. 98 The second part covers ten centuries in two volumes, a lopsided

apportionment of space that suggests his distaste for Byzantine history, although he deserves credit for a competent job at a time when prejudice against Byzantine studies ran high. Moreover, in these sparse pages there are outstanding episodes such as Fourth Crusade in 1204 and the taking of Constantinople by Mahmud II. He notes in Chapter 65 the irony about Constantinople is that a weapon of defense known to Europe, gunpowder used in cannon, was available but exported to the Ottomans rather than to the Byzantines. Cannon fire breached the ancient walls: “If we contrast the rapid progress of this mischievous discovery with the slow and laborious advances of reason, science, and the arts of peace, a philosopher … will laugh or weep at the folly of mankind” (II, 510). At the end he notes “four principal causes of the ruin of Rome,

which continued to operate over a period of some thousand years.” They were “injuries of time and nature, hostile attacks of the barbarians and Christians, use and abuse of the materials, and domestic quarrels of the Romans” (II, 591). The decline and fall was not, as he says elsewhere, just a “triumph of barbarism and religion.” The fifteenth and sixteenth chapters of the first volume are notable for their secular account of Christianity and the rise of the Church. Gibbon puts aside supernatural agencies and theology. He describes the rise and success of Christianity as a result of “secondary causes,” in

other words, as a historical rather than a miraculous phenomenon, which provoked uproar among the faithful: “The theologian may indulge the pleasing task of describing Religion as she descended from Heaven … 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” (1, 179). Distress was aroused further by noting “a melancholy truth” about Roman persecution of Christians: “ … the Christians, in the course of their intestine dissensions, have inflicted far greater adversities on each other than they had experienced from the zeal of infidels” (I, 233). As a philosophical historian, he notes in Chapter 2 with ill-con-

cealed irony that religious pluralism resulted in social and doctrinal harmony: “The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord” (I, 12). His mastery of French opened the way to sources in that language

and to materials translated from other languages into French, including some from German. Accomplished in Latin, he read extensively not only in classical literature but also in ecclesiastical history, the Church Fathers, Roman law, and publications of the Benedictines. Available works on Byzantium, the Middle East, China, and India were tracked down. His Greek was sufficient to read Xenophon, which opened up Byzantine sources. He consulted principles of paleography in Mabillon’s On Diplomatics and Montfaucon’s Greek Paleography, although that kind of knowledge was not applied to a critical assessment of documents (see essay 14 of this volume). Notes for the history suggest that no significant piece of evidence

from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was overlooked. A compulsive reader, he assembled and pored over sources tirelessly in a library that grew to some 6000 volumes between 1785 and 1787. Reputedly he spent £3000 on books and other materials. He sought out and consulted inscriptions and coins, thereby integrating epigraphy and numismatics into his web of evidence. One wonders how time was secured to write multiple drafts of the history on top of collecting, reading, and note taking while suffering from chronic swelling of his scrotum. Gibbon used scholarship produced by European érudits in

the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, whose work he respected. He admired especially Pierre Bayle (see essay 13 in

this volume), whose erudition in an age of learning was legendary and second to none. From Bayle he also acquired a knack for combining malice with scholarship. One of his major sources was Ludovico Muratori’s Annals of Italy (Annali d’ Italia), which appeared shortly after 1751 in 18 volumes and took the story of Italy from the birth of Christ in the late first century B.C. to the eighteenth century. Gibbon called this work “My guide and master in the history of Italy” (quoted in Thompson, II, 51). He relied also on Louis-Sébastien Le Nain de Tillemont’s histories of the Church (16 volumes) and the Roman emperors (six volumes) in the first six centuries, “whose inimitable accuracy almost assumes the character of genius … ” (Autobiography, in Roper, 37). Despite labor and diligence in locating and digesting sources, he was aware of the historian’s limitations: “ … while he is conscious of his own imperfections, he must often accuse the deficiency of his materials” (Chapter 71). The evidence he accumulated is transparent in the sense that it can

be faulted and revised. One seldom knows where philosophical historians like Montesquieu, Hume, and Voltaire got their material or what they thought of it. Gibbon provided copious footnotes that display his sources up front, often with flashes of wit and irony. Books and other documents are supplemented by inscriptions, coins, medals, maps, and other materials he hunted down in Europe and England. With that said, he added nothing to techniques of source criticism developed by the Maurists (see essay 14 in this volume) or those pursued by German scholars in his own time. He rarely compares sources with one another or asks with analytical follow-up why one is to be trusted more than another. While using them much as they were found, at least knowable sources were at hand and the reader is told what they are. This feature of his book was praised by early reviewers. But reviewers then and since have voiced reservations: that he is too indulgent of pagans, who were intolerant as well as Christians, that no evidence supports his view that Christians were indifferent to the empire, and that Christianity as a cause of decline was less fundamental than economic and military decay. His enduring contribution to historiography was to blend the fact-

based ideal of antiquarians (érudits) with some aspects of the philosophical approach taken by Baron Montesquieu, David Hume, and Voltaire (see essay 15 of this volume). Doing history en philosophe meant omission of divine Providence in search of earthly causes for historical change. The goal was a wiser, better world, while conceiving history as something grander and more illuminating than facts and politics. The shortcoming of philosophical historians was inattention

or even indifference to sources. Ideas were paramount for themcivilization, progress, and general movement of the past. While sharing that vision, Gibbon did not ignore or obscure the particular, nor did he reduce history to a convenient arsenal of examples to combat superstition and fanaticism. He demonstrated that philosophical history on a grand theme might be done without neglecting available evidence.