Edward Gibbon's (1737-1794) History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was written and published between 1776 and 1788. It charts Western civilisation from the high point of the Roman Empire to the fall in 1453 of the Eastern Roman Empire capital Byzantium (Constantinople).
Gibbon's 18th. century account inherited several modes of historiography from the past which coloured his chronicle:
- One was Grecorroman rhetorical and exemplary narratives which were mostly political. This viewpoint assumes that the historian is a contemporary of a received account and, in second place, also a critic of the former account.
- Gibbon was heir to a tradition of detailing a study of the past through language, religion, law and society. This framed the interpretation of contexts in which to set actions and understand their evolution.
- The author also participated in the 18th. century Enlightenement vision of history as philosophy. He appears to be aware of writers like Montesquieu and figures of the Scottish Enlightenement like Hume and Smith who sought to understand European social history and even human psychology.
Scholarship has also recently shown that Gibbon and his contemporaries were influenced by several master narratives acting as paradigms of interpretation. Chief among these were those of the Roman authors themselves, particularly Tacitus, then the Florentines who developed them into medieval history. These narratives explained that Roman liberty depended on warrior citizens who conquered an Empire which was too huge to be controlled without the professional army which finally took over the Republic. Gibbons' first three volumes followed this plot of the progressive loss of civic and military capacity until the fall of the Western Empire.
A further grand narrative incorporated by Gibbon was the triumph of barbarism. This was the story of the Germanic peoples who had conquered the Empire's western provinces and established feudal kingdoms. Tacitus' grand account of these peoples' progress told of nomads who encroached upon the borders of the Empire which Rome could not defend.
The inherited narrative of the history of religion had its sources outside Europe in Greek and Hebrew. It was also culturally non-European in its Hellenistic, Egyptian and Syrian contexts. It was the account of Israel and its monotheism but also of the Gentiles and their idolatry and polytheism. The religious grand narrative also covered Christian struggles with gnosticism, manichaeism and other heresies. Gibbon reviewed the history of the religious debates in the fourth and fifth centuries and, though sceptical about their content, recognised their impact on history. There also existed a world history in the East, parallel to the biblical accounts preached by the Church.
There were another set of narratives which were part of Gibbon's conscious history. These were the stories told about the rise of Western European kingdoms. It covered the medieval kingdoms and their legal foundations, the rise of States after 1494, the wars of religion between 1550 and 1660, and Gibbon's own comfortable environment: States which had resolved civil and religious threats and Absolute monarchy, in short, the Enlightenment, satirised by his friend Voltaire in Candide as "the best of all possible worlds". Gibbon finished The Decline and Fall just one year before the French Revolution which would transform his world and how it was perceived in historiography.
Continuing his history after the first trilogy meant facing the challenge of chronicling the next thousand years of the Eastern Empire. This involved narrating the gradual loss of the Greek East to Persians, Arabs, Turks plus the religious revolution of Islam. Gibbon realised that the frameworks at play in Western history were not relevant in the East. However, he seemed unable to find eastern narratives about their own imperialism on which to base his history.
Pocock puts forward the hypothesis in Barbarism and Religion that Gibbon used two main strategies to construct the first tome of his history and argues that these strategies should be applied to the following tomes in order to understand them:
- The first was contextual and notes how the author moved from one master narrative to another and one histographical mode to another according to the changing narratives. The first tome relied on a story of barbaric kingdoms and a conjectural ecclesiastical history moving towards Enlightenement.
- The second strategy was made up of studies of other historians, ancient, recent and contemporaries. In this way Gibbon presents himself as a contender in 18th. century historiographical culture.
This implies that Gibbon used western European narratives to analyse the East and indeed he believed that the East had produced no central narrative of its own. In the later tomes he drew constantly on the history of religion and sociability, a Western rather than an Oriental theme.
Edward Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776 - 1788) was published in 6 volumes.
"After a diligent inquiry, I can discern four principal causes of the ruin of Rome, which continued to operate in a period of more than a thousand years. I. The injuries of time and nature. II. The hostile attacks of the Barbarians and Christians. III. The use and abuse of the materials. And, IV. The domestic quarrels of the Romans." (Chapter 71)
Volume I: The History and Foundation of the Roman Empire (Chapters 1-26). Gibbon explores the beginnings of the Roman Empire with Augustus Caesar. The Empire expands and transforms from a Republic to an autocracy with the rise of Tiberius, Caligula, and Nero as emperors. The author details the economic and political factors which led to Rome's dominance.
Volume II: The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Chapters 27-48). The author analyses from Hadrian to the end of the Western Empire, chronicling the internal political strife and external military campaigns. He details the rise of Christianity, the barbarian invasions and the division of the Empire into West and East.
Volume III: The Revival and Collapse of the Eastern Roman Empire (Chapters 49-71). These chapters deal with the Byzantine Empire after the Western fall. Justinian and those who succeed him try to restore the Empire to its former glory. He narrates the struggle with Persia, the ascent of Islam and the challenges to Constantinople.
Volume IV: The Crusades and the Eastern Roman Empire (Chapters 72-94). Gibbon relates the impact of the Crusades on the Eastern Empire, exploring the motivations behind them and the exchanges they brought about. He recounts the Empire's decline due to internal strife, threats from outside and the sack of Constantinople during the fourth Crusade
Volume V: The Fall of Constantinople (Chapters 95-108). This section tells the story of the end of the Byzantine Empire and the siege and fall of the capital to the Turks in 1453.
Volume VI: General Observations on the Fall of the Roman Empire (Chapters 109-118). Here Gibbon offers his interpretation on the causes and results of the fall of the Empire: loss of civic virtue, the rise of Christianity, invasions by barbarians, economic problems and political corruption. The author also remarks on the enduring legacy of Rome.
Overexpansion led to decay
Gibson maintained that the decline of Rome:
"was the natural and inevitable effect of 'immoderate greatness'".
His argument was that Rome's increasing territorial expansion caused it to become more and more careless. However, other historians countered this claim by pointing out that only the Western Empire fell while the Eastern Empire remained for another thousand years. This implied that expansion to the East contributed to Eastern preservation and did not affect the decline in the West.
"A candid but rational inquiry into the progress and establishment of Christianity may be considered as a very essential part of the history of the Roman empire. While the great body was invaded by open violence, or undermined by slow decay, a pure and humble religion gently insinuated itself into the minds of men ..."
However, if Roman society had been functioning correctly, the alien Christian culture could not have had a major impact on it. The cultural cause for decline must lie elsewhere.
Spread of Christianity in Roman times:
Gibbon maintained that the christianisation of the Empire brought pacifism, reducing the fighting spirit of the Roman army. The author exemplifies this in Constantine's conversation which, he asserts, released a cultural revolution thus dismantling Roman ideology. However, other historians, like Heather, argue that since Augustus the emperors had relied on Divinities who predicted Roman conquests. Christianity simply replaced polytheism with monotheism, but the influence of the Deity remained.
The emphasis at Gibbon's time of writing was that of Locke, Voltaire, Rousseau and Montesquieu, the age of the Enlightenment. Gibbon was acquainted with the ideas of the French philosophes because of his education in Lausanne and he had met Voltaire personally. These encyclopedists proclaimed that reason should be developed replacing the medieval tradition of faith in past masters, since it would boost progress. One of their targets of criticism was the Catholic Church. This mindset may explain Gibbon's negative attitude to Christianity.
Another Enlightenment idea, particularly in France, was equality and it led to covert criticism of the Absolute monarchy. Montesquieu had studied the British system of separation of powers and advocated for it in France. Gibbon's finished work was published on the eve of the French revolution and he recognised that the Roman Empire was governed by absolute military power. The change of regime may have influenced him to search for signs of decline in the Roman system.
Loss of civic virtue
"That public virtue, which among the ancients was denominated patriotism, is derived from a strong sense of our own interest in the preservation and prosperity of the free government of which we are members. Such a sentiment, which had rendered the legions of the Republic almost invincible, could make but a very feeble impression on the mercenary servants of a despotic prince."
Gibbon emphasised public virtue, by which he meant active participation in public life, as the great contribution of the ancient tradition. He reiterated that the same thing had occurred in the Eastern Empire. The author explains that this virtue depends on a tradition of attending to natural dignity and equal rights. It is, however, always in danger of being crushed by the powerful. Gibbon recognises the virtuous emperors but criticises the system in which, for example, an exemplary Marcus Aurelius can be followed by a disastrous Commodus. He blames the monopoly of imperial power on the tyrannical rulers who governed Rome. Compared with contemporary independent European States where nonconformists could always find a base, the power of the Roman emperors was total and ubiquitous, thus stifling progress, when judged by the Illustration values of liberty, separation of powers and political and economic competition between independent States. Gibbon comments on the example of the emperor Honorius who wanted to devolve power in Gaul to provincial assemblies:
"If such an institution, which gave the people an interest in their own government, had been universally established by Trajan or the Antonines, the seeds of public wisdom and virtue might have been cherished and propagated in the empire of Rome."
However Roman centralisation prevailed and, in Gibbon's interpretation, led to the collapse of the Empire under its own weight.
The huge influence of Illustration, particularly the French philosophes' values, appear to play a major part in Gibbon's narrative. He views virtue, not as a passive stoic acceptance, but as a active outgoing principle which is based on freedom and creates liberty. It also encourages science and material progress, whereas monopoly of wealth, power or knowledge is the enemy of liberty. The hereditary estates and centralised bureaucratic power in the Empire were causes of its fall. (The liberty narrative applied to economic analysis by Adam Smith in his laissez-faire theory of capitalism is also visible behind this outlook.)
The notion that life was cheap and the norm of depravity and cruelty took over, according to Polybius in the second century. The gladitorial games is one example. Slave labour led to many citizens becoming unemployed and needing State subsidies. To prevent riots by bored citizens entertainment was organised in the form of bread and circus spectacles. These rose to a cost of one third of imperial income as emperors tried to aplacate the population.
Economic decline is one of Gibbon's themes. Military expansion became very costly along with the communications networks of roads, bridges, and aqueducts which supported imperial power. Inflation was another problem through the debasement of the currency using low-cost metals. Citizen taxation, particularly of the merchant class, led to a growing opposition of the population to their rulers, especially when they saw the extreme wealth at the top, coupled with corrupt practices in the late Empire.