Book Review: The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

By Edward Gibbon
Published in six volumes, 1776-1789
With commentary by Henry Hart Milman, 1846

(Project Gutenberg edition)

“It was Rome, on the fifteenth of October 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefoot friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind.”

Some months ago, in a discussion of “Great Works”, a friend of mine had mentioned that she’d read Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall”. Intrigued, as I was nearing the end of Durant’s “Story of Civilisation”, and looking for something to load onto my mini-tablet for further lunchtime reading, I was pleasantly surprised to find an ePub version of all six volumes available at Project Gutenberg. I quickly downloaded and installed them.

“In the second century of the Christian era, the Empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valor. The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury. The image of a free constitution was preserved with decent reverence: the Roman senate appeared to possess the sovereign authority, and devolved on the emperors all the executive powers of government. During a happy period (A.D. 98-180) of more than fourscore years, the public administration was conducted by the virtue and abilities of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the two Antonines. It is the design of this, and of the two succeeding chapters, to describe the prosperous condition of their empire; and afterwards, from the death of Marcus Antoninus, to deduce the most important circumstances of its decline and fall; a revolution which will ever be remembered, and is still felt by the nations of the earth.”

That’s how it begins. Over the many pages, Gibbon covers not only the chronology of the late Roman Empire, but its legal system, military organization, culture, and the rise and development of Christianity. It’s the last item that’s gotten him some criticism. He comes across as decidedly anti-Catholic. But we cannot blame him for that or the other minor flaws that have come to light in his work; he’s a man of his times.

“Our work is the presentation of our capabilities.”

It must be kept in mind that no one had ever attempted something like this before Gibbon. There were the occasional biographies of individuals, chronicles of reigns, and memoirs – but no grand work covering centuries. Even his harshest critics pretty much concede that it’s a monumental work of scholarship and research.

Gibbon was serious about his work. He went back to source material as much as he could; the work is liberally salted with references and footnotes. And he wasn’t content to stop with three volumes once the Western Empire fell. Another three volumes describe the gothic kingdoms of the Italian peninsula, the Byzantine Empire, and the Rise of Islam. When covering the latter days of Byzantium, he finds it needful to get into the Mongol empire. And after Constantinople falls, he goes back to Rome to briefly cover some interesting parts of the history of that city to bring it up to his present day. The breadth of the work is astonishing.

“The various causes and progressive effects are connected with many of the events most interesting in human annals: the artful policy of the Cæsars, who long maintained the name and image of a free republic; the disorders of military despotism; the rise, establishment, and sects of Christianity; the foundation of Constantinople; the division of the monarchy; the invasion and settlements of the Barbarians of Germany and Scythia; the institutions of the civil law; the character and religion of Mahomet; the temporal sovereignty of the popes; the restoration and decay of the Western empire of Charlemagne; the crusades of the Latins in the East: the conquests of the Saracens and Turks; the ruin of the Greek empire; the state and revolutions of Rome in the middle age.”

As far as his style, Gibbon comes across like an old history professor who’s been teaching a class that he loves for so long that he can give his lectures from memory. He’s so comfortable with the subject that he feels free to spice it up with lively asides and anecdotes. Sure, he uses a rather more extensive vocabulary than the modern reader might be used to, but take that as a challenge to keep up.

If you’re thinking of plunging in head first and making your way through all six volumes, look for an edition that translates Gibbon’s occasional use of Latin into English. Maps would be a great help, too. If I were going to publish a new edition, I’d put headers on each page noting the year or years being covered by the text. I’d use modern spellings, too.

“I will not dissemble the first emotions of joy on the recovery of my freedom, and, perhaps, the establishment of my fame. But my pride was soon humbled, and a sober melancholy was spread over my mind by the idea that I had taken an everlasting leave of an old and agreeable companion, and that whatsoever might be the future fate of my history, the life of the historian must be short and precarious.”

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