The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

From the lecture series: Books That Matter — The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

By Leo Damrosch, Ph.D., Harvard University

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.

Front page of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon. Third Edition. Copy scanned from John Adams Library at the Boston Public Library.
Upper half of title page of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon. Third Edition. Copy scanned from John Adams Library at the Boston Public Library. (Image: Internedt Archive/Public Domain)

Why We Continue Studying This Work

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

Portrait of Edward Gibbon by Henry Walton 1773
English historian, Edward Gibbon (1737–1794) (Image: By Henry Walton/Public Domain)

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.

This is a transcript from the video series Books That Matter: The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

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”

Portrait of Sir Winston Churchill by Yousuf Karsh 1941
Churchill was “…“immediately dominated both by the story and the style” of Gibbon’s work (Image: By Yousuf Karsh/digitized by: BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives/Public Domain)

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.”

Learn more about why Rome is so important to Gibbon and his readers

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.

Learn more about how dangerous Gibbon’s sociological treatment of Christianity seemed to most of his readers

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.

Learn more about early Roman history before the fall

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.”

Common Questions About the Fall of the Roman Empire

Q: What exactly caused the fall of the Roman Empire?

The fall of the Roman Empire is largely believed to have resulted from military losses due to barbarian tribes invading.

Q: What were some of the things that weakened the Roman Empire?

Things that were precursors to the fall of the Roman Empire and weakened it were food shortages, political issues, and many civil wars.

Q: What year is considered the fall of the Roman Empire?

The fall of the Roman Empire is thought to have officially occurred in 476 AD.

Q: When was the height of the Roman Empire?

The peak of the Roman Empire was around the year 117 AD, when it was the most massive and functioning without civil wars.

This article was updated on 12/14/2019

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