The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

From a LECTURE SERIES BY Professor Leo Damrosch, Ph.D.

For all its renown as a work of style, elegance, wit, and insight, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by the Enlightenment historian Edward Gibbon can be quite intimidating for the armchair historian. Published between 1776 and 1781, the six volumes contain 1.5 million words, an estimated 8,000 footnotes, a cast of 10,000 historical figures, and they span a timeline of more than 1,000 years.

Image of Rome Colosseum for the Fall of the Roman Empire post

Why We Continue Studying This Work

Even today, centuries after its original publication, Gibbon’s historical chronicle demands to be read and understood.

Image of English historian, Edward Gibbon
English historian, Edward Gibbon (1737–1794)

Firstly, while later historians have brought fresh perspectives to the Roman Empire’s collapse, Gibbon’s book remains profoundly truthful in the events it recounts, bringing a unifying, insight-inspiring perspective to the past.

Also, a great work of history is just as much about storytelling as it is about events. Gibbon is a masterful storyteller, and his Decline and Fall still has the ability to hook modern-day readers with its style and manner—just like a great novel.

Finally, Gibbon was (and remains) a landmark historian who revolutionized the way writers think about and interpret the past. Despite being a product of his time in certain views, his techniques and insights would lay the foundation for generations of future historians.

“I Was Immediately Dominated Both by the Story and the Style”

Image of Sir Winston Churchill
Churchill was “…“immediately dominated both by the story and the style” of Gibbon’s work.

As a young army officer stationed in India, Winston Churchill discovered Gibbon’s masterpiece and wrote in his memoir,

“I was immediately dominated both by the story and the style. All through the long glistening middle hours of the Indian day I devoured Gibbon. I rode triumphantly through it from beginning to end, and enjoyed it all.”

To understand why this book captivated millions of readers who, like Churchill, found Gibbon’s writing to be both authoritative and addictive, you must first realize how revolutionary a work of history this book is.

  • Footnotes: We’re so accustomed to footnotes today that we may not suspect how original Gibbon was in providing them. Taken together, the footnotes in Decline and Fall occupy fully one fourth of the entire book. Not only did these copious footnotes register sources (uncommon in other texts of the time), they allowed Gibbon to engage in an intimate conversation with the reader that would have seemed inappropriate in the body of the text itself.
  • Periodic Style: The Decline and Fall‘s renown as a work of literary genius owes much to Gibbon’s employment of the periodic style throughout its pages. For example, about a Byzantine emperor, he writes, “In every deed of mischief, he had a heart to resolve, a head to contrive, and a hand to execute.” By bringing out parallels, or setting ideas against each other, Gibbon gives the reader a coherent structure for stories that might otherwise be extremely confusing. It also makes the book compulsively readable.
  • Room for Reflection: In many respects, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall offered a new way to write about the past. While Gibbon admired Enlightenment theorizing, he believed historiography should always be grounded in “knowledge and reflection.” The best historians, according to Gibbon, take readers behind the scenes and allow them to ponder evidence alongside the author. The Decline and Fallwasn’t written from a place of complete understanding; rather, it was written to help readers better evaluate the past.
Image of she wolf with Romulus and Remus
In Roman mythology, Romulus and Remus are twin brothers, whose story tells the events that led to the founding of the city of Rome and the Roman Kingdom by Romulus.

Capturing Pivotal Moments

There are many pivotal moments in the grand story of the Roman Empire’s collapse that Gibbon highlights in his opus. Here is just a handful:

  • One last golden age (Chapters 1 to 3): Gibbon begins the Decline and Fall with a look at the Antonines (whom Machiavelli called the “Five Good Emperors” of Rome). The image Gibbon creates is of an empire that saw an undogmatic attitude toward religion, magnificent public structures like the Pantheon—and the slavery that made it all possible. Some examples:
  • A new world faith emerges (Chapters 15 and 16): Before the 18th century, historians attributed the rise of Christianity to divine providence. Gibbon, however, outlines the human causes behind the faith’s emergence as the dominant ideology of the Roman world, including the early Christians’ proselytizing zeal, ”pure” morals, and organizational ability.
  • Building a legal foundation (Chapter 44): Gibbon devotes an entire chapter to a historical event he wholeheartedly admired, which was the revision and codification of Roman law. Established beginning in 529 A.D. by the emperor Justinian, this code covered everything from marriage and divorce to property and contracts.
  • Another world faith emerges (Chapters 50 to 52): Seen by Gibbon as an amazing historical intervention, Islam emerged just when the Roman Empire in the West was collapsing. As the faith quickly spread under Muhammad and his successors, conditions arose that would set the stage for the Crusades, explored in subsequent chapters.
  • The last breath of an empire (Chapter 71): How did Gibbon decide to end this massive chronicle? His answer was to make “some inquiry into the state of the city of Rome during the darkness and confusion of the Middle Ages.” (It is worth noting that later historians and archaeologists would revise what they saw as his somewhat oversimplified summation of medieval Europe.)

But the Decline and Fall isn’t a perfect work of history. For all its historical insight, Gibbon’s masterpiece was nevertheless a victim of blind spots in Enlightenment thinking. One such failing  is Gibbon’s treatment of religion (including Christianity and Islam) as a purely social phenomenon. All too often in these pages, he neglects its importance as an interior, spiritual experience.

Gibbons beautifully sums up the Decline and Fall in the opening paragraph, when he describes the centuries-long end of the Roman Empire as “a revolution which will ever be remembered, and is still felt by the nations of the Earth.”

From the lecture series Books That Matter: The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Taught by Professor Leo Damrosch, Ph.D.
Image of Churchill: By BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

2 Comments

  1. While in high school I read the Hornblower series by C.S. Forester. It was about the life of a fi. ctional British Naval Pfficer, Horacio Hornblower, whose. Steer spanned the Napoleonic era. Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empier was an important part of Hornblower’s library and he read the six volumes.
    I found the full six volume set for sale on a shelf in the surplus rack at the Main Milwaukee Library. It was priced at $0.15 per volume. I couldn’t bare the thought of the set being broken up so I bought it all, though $0.90 was a sizeable sum in those days.
    It’s in my library and on my to read list. I’ve sampled parts but a linear read is something I still want to do.
    I enjoy publications by The Great Courses and would purchase more often if I could make time for them.

  2. The Koran
    “The communication of ideas requires a similitude of thought and language: the discourse of a philosopher would vibrate without effect on the ear of a peasant; yet how minute is the distance of their understandings, if it be compared with the contact of an infinite and a finite mind, with the word of God expressed by the tongue or the pen of a mortal ! The inspiration of the Hebrew prophets, of the apostles and evangelists of Christ, might not be incompatible with the exercise of their reason and memory; and the diversity of their genius is strongly marked in the style and composition of the books of the Old and New Testament. But Mahomet was content with a character, more humble, yet more sublime, of a simple editor; the substance of the Koran, according to himself or his disciples, is uncreated and eternal; subsisting in the essence of the Deity, and inscribed with a pen of light on the table of his everlasting decrees. A paper copy, in a volume of silk and gems, was brought down to the lowest heaven by the angel Gabriel, who, under the Jewish economy, had indeed been despatched on the most important errands; and this trusty messenger successively revealed the chapters and verses to the Arabian prophet.”

    Excerpt from Chapter L
    Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

    Gibbon was not only an Historian extraordinaire but also a beautiful poet. The prose and style of Edward Gibbon remains unequaled by any English author with the notable exception of William Shakespeare.
    He dared to relate the story of Muhammet (et al) with due reverence while considering the contrasting views then common among western scholars.

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