The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

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This article is about the book. For the historical events, see History of the Roman Empire and Fall of the Western Roman Empire. For the historiography spawned by Gibbon's theories, see Decline of the Roman Empire. For publication details and chapter listings, see Outline of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Author Edward Gibbon
Country England
Language English
Subject History of the Roman Empire
Publisher Strahan & Cadell, London
Publication date
Media type Print
LC Class DG311
Edward Gibbon (1737–1794).

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (sometimes shortened to Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire) is a book of history written by the English historian Edward Gibbon, which traces the trajectory of Western civilization (as well as the Islamic and Mongolian conquests) from the height of the Roman Empire to the fall of Byzantium. It was published in six volumes. Volume I was published in 1776 and went through six printings.[1] Volumes II and III were published in 1781;[2][3] volumes IV, V, and VI in 1788–89.[4][5][6] The original volumes were published in quarto sections, a common publishing practice of the time. The work covers the history of the Roman Empire, Europe, and the Catholic Church from 98 to 1590 and discusses the decline of the Roman Empire in the East and West. Because of its relative objectivity and heavy use of primary sources, unusual at the time, its methodology became a model for later historians. This led to Gibbon being called the first "modern historian of ancient Rome".[7]


Gibbon offers an explanation for the fall of the Roman Empire, a task made difficult by a lack of comprehensive written sources, though he was not the only historian to attempt the task.[8]

According to Gibbon, the Roman Empire succumbed to barbarian invasions in large part due to the gradual loss of civic virtue among its citizens.[9] They had become weak, outsourcing their duty to defend their empire to barbarian mercenaries, who then became so numerous and ingrained that they were able to take over the Empire. Romans, he believed, were unwilling to live a tougher, military lifestyle. In addition, Gibbon argued that Christianity created a belief that a better life existed after death, which fostered an indifference to the present among Roman citizens, thus sapping their desire to sacrifice for a larger purpose. He also believed that Christianity's comparative pacifism tended to hamper the traditional Roman martial spirit. Finally, like other Enlightenment thinkers and British citizens of the age steeped in institutional anti-Catholicism, Gibbon held in contempt the Middle Ages as a priest-ridden, superstitious Dark Age. It was not until his own era, the "Age of Reason," with its emphasis on rational thought, it was believed, that human history could resume its progress.[10]

Gibbon saw the Praetorian Guard as the primary catalyst of the empire's initial decay and eventual collapse, a seed planted by Augustus when the empire was established. His writings cite repeated examples of the Praetorian Guard abusing their power with calamitous results, including numerous instances of imperial assassination and incessant demands for increased pay.

He compared the reigns of Diocletian (284–305) and Charles V (1519–1556), noting superficial similarities. Both were plagued by continual war and compelled to excessive taxation to fund wars, both chose to abdicate as Emperors at roughly the same age, and both chose to lead a quiet life upon their retirement. However, Gibbon argues that these similarities are only superficial and that the underlying context and character of the two rulers is markedly different.


Gibbon's style is frequently distinguished by an ironically detached and somewhat dispassionate yet critical tone. He occasionally lapsed into moralization and aphorism:

[A]s long as mankind shall continue to bestow more liberal applause on their destroyers than on their benefactors, the thirst of military glory will ever be the vice of the most exalted characters.

The influence of the clergy, in an age of superstition, might be usefully employed to assert the rights of mankind; but so intimate is the connection between the throne and the altar, that the banner of the church has very seldom been seen on the side of the people (Chapter Three p. 52)., indeed, little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortune of mankind (ibid. p. 69).

If we contrast the rapid progress of this mischievous discovery [of gunpowder] with the slow and laborious advances of reason, science, and the arts of peace, a philosopher, according to his temper, will laugh or weep at the folly of mankind (Chapter 65, p. 68).[Page numbers in which edition? clarification needed]

Citations and footnotes[edit]

Gibbon provides the reader with a glimpse of his thought process with extensive notes along the body of the text, a precursor to the modern use of footnotes. Gibbon's footnotes are famous for their idiosyncratic and often humorous style, and have been called "Gibbon's table talk." They provide an entertaining moral commentary on both ancient Rome and 18th-century Great Britain. This technique enabled Gibbon to compare ancient Rome to modern times. Gibbon's work advocates a rationalist and progressive view of history.

Gibbon's citations provide in-depth detail regarding his use of sources for his work, which included documents dating back to ancient Rome. The detail within his asides and his care in noting the importance of each document is a precursor to modern-day historical footnoting methodology.

The work is notable for its erratic but exhaustively documented notes and research. John Bury, following him 113 years later with his own "History of the Later Roman Empire", commended the depth and accuracy of Gibbon's work. Unusually for 18th century historians, Gibbon was not content with second-hand accounts when the primary sources were accessible. "I have always endeavoured", Gibbon wrote, "to draw from the fountain-head; that my curiosity, as well as a sense of duty, has always urged me to study the originals; and that, if they have sometimes eluded my search, I have carefully marked the secondary evidence, on whose faith a passage or a fact were reduced to depend."[11] The Decline and Fall is a literary monument and a massive step forward in historical method.[12]


Numerous tracts were published criticizing his work and in response, Gibbon defended his work with the 1779 publication of, A Vindication ... of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.[13] His remarks on Christianity aroused particularly vigorous attacks, but in the mid-twentieth century, at least one author claimed that "church historians allow the substantial justness of [Gibbon's] main positions."[14]

Number of Christian martyrs[edit]

Gibbon challenged Church history by estimating far smaller numbers of Christian martyrs than had been traditionally accepted. The Church's version of its early history had rarely been questioned before. Gibbon, however, knew Church writings were secondary sources, and he shunned them in favour of primary sources.

Christianity as a contributor to the fall and to stability: chapters XV, XVI[edit]

Volume I was originally published in sections, as was common for large works at the time. The first two were well received and widely praised. The last quarto in Volume I, especially Chapters XV and XVI, was highly controversial, and Gibbon was attacked as a "paganist". Voltaire was deemed to have influenced Gibbon's claiming that Christianity was a contributor to the fall of the Roman Empire.

As Christianity advances, disasters befall the [Roman] empire—arts, science, literature, decay—barbarism and all its revolting concomitants are made to seem the consequences of its decisive triumph—and the unwary reader is conducted, with matchless dexterity, to the desired conclusion—the abominable Manicheism of Candide, and, in fact, of all the productions of Voltaire's historic school—viz., "that instead of being a merciful, ameliorating, and benignant visitation, the religion of Christians would rather seem to be a scourge sent on man by the author of all evil."[15]

Gibbon thought that Christianity had hastened the Fall, but also ameliorated the results:

As the happiness of a future life is the great object of religion, we may hear without surprise or scandal that the introduction, or at least the abuse of Christianity, had some influence on the decline and fall of the Roman empire. The clergy successfully preached the doctrines of patience and pusillanimity; the active virtues of society were discouraged; and the last remains of military spirit were buried in the cloister: a large portion of public and private wealth was consecrated to the specious demands of charity and devotion; and the soldiers' pay was lavished on the useless multitudes of both sexes who could only plead the merits of abstinence and chastity. Faith, zeal, curiosity, and more earthly passions of malice and ambition, kindled the flame of theological discord; the church, and even the state, were distracted by religious factions, whose conflicts were sometimes bloody and always implacable; the attention of the emperors was diverted from camps to synods; the Roman world was oppressed by a new species of tyranny; and the persecuted sects became the secret enemies of their country. Yet party-spirit, however pernicious or absurd, is a principle of union as well as of dissension. The bishops, from eighteen hundred pulpits, inculcated the duty of passive obedience to a lawful and orthodox sovereign; their frequent assemblies and perpetual correspondence maintained the communion of distant churches; and the benevolent temper of the Gospel was strengthened, though confirmed, by the spiritual alliance of the Catholics. The sacred indolence of the monks was devoutly embraced by a servile and effeminate age; but if superstition had not afforded a decent retreat, the same vices would have tempted the unworthy Romans to desert, from baser motives, the standard of the republic. Religious precepts are easily obeyed which indulge and sanctify the natural inclinations of their votaries; but the pure and genuine influence of Christianity may be traced in its beneficial, though imperfect, effects on the barbarian proselytes of the North. If the decline of the Roman empire was hastened by the conversion of Constantine, his victorious religion broke the violence of the fall, and mollified the ferocious temper of the conquerors (chap. 39).[16]

Tolerant paganism[edit]

Gibbon has been criticized for his portrayal of Paganism as tolerant and Christianity as intolerant. In an article that appeared in 1996 in the journal Past & Present, H.A. Drake challenges an understanding of religious persecution in ancient Rome, which he considers to be the "conceptual scheme" that was used by historians to deal with the topic for the last 200 years, and whose most eminent representative is Gibbon. Gibbon had written:

The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosophers as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful.

Drake counters:

With such deft strokes, Gibbon enters into a conspiracy with his readers: unlike the credulous masses, he and we are cosmopolitans who know the uses of religion as an instrument of social control. So doing, Gibbon skirts a serious problem: for three centuries prior to Constantine, the tolerant pagans who people the Decline and Fall were the authors of several major persecutions, in which Christians were the victims. ...Gibbon covered this embarrassing hole in his argument with an elegant demur. Rather than deny the obvious, he adroitly masked the question by transforming his Roman magistrates into models of Enlightenment rulers — reluctant persecutors, too sophisticated to be themselves religious zealots.

Misinterpretation of Byzantium[edit]

Others such as John Julius Norwich, despite their admiration for his furthering of historical methodology, consider Gibbon's hostile views on the Byzantine Empire flawed and blame him somewhat for the lack of interest shown in the subject throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries.[17] This view might well be admitted by Gibbon himself: "But it is not my intention to expatiate with the same minuteness on the whole series of the Byzantine history."[18] However the Russian historian George Ostrogorsky writes, "Gibbon and Lebeau were genuine historians — and Gibbon a very great one — and their works, in spite of factual inadequacy, rank high for their presentation of their material."[19]

Gibbon's reflections[edit]

Gibbon's initial plan was to write a history "of the decline and fall of the city of Rome", and only later expanded his scope to the whole Roman Empire.[20]

Although he published other books, Gibbon devoted much of his life to this one work (1772–1789). His autobiography Memoirs of My Life and Writings is devoted largely to his reflections on how the book virtually became his life. He compared the publication of each succeeding volume to a newborn child.[21]


Gibbon continued to revise and change his work even after publication. The complexities of the problem are addressed in Womersley's introduction and appendices to his complete edition.

  • In-print complete editions
    • J.B. Bury, ed., 7 volumes (London: Methuen, 1909–1914), currently reprinted (New York: AMS Press, 1974). Until Womersley, this was the essential edition, but now nearing age 100, the historical analysis/commentary is dated. ISBN 0-404-02820-9.
    • Hugh Trevor-Roper, ed., 6 volumes (New York: Everyman's Library, 1993–1994). The text, including Gibbon's notes, is from Bury but without his notes. The introduction by Trevor-Roper is one of his longer considerations of Gibbon and alone makes the edition worth consulting. ISBN 0-679-42308-7 (vols. 1–3); ISBN 0-679-43593-X (vols. 4–6).
    • David Womersley, ed., 3 volumes. hardback-(London: Allen Lane, 1994); paperback-(New York: Penguin Books, 2005;1994). The current essential edition[citation needed], the most faithful to Gibbon's original text[citation needed]. The ancient Greek quotations are not as accurate as in Bury, and Womersley does not seek to evaluate Gibbon's historical claims, as Bury did in his footnotes, but an otherwise excellent work that includes bibliographical help for Gibbon's cryptic footnote notations[citation needed]. Includes the original index, and the Vindication (1779), which Gibbon wrote in response to attacks on his caustic portrayal of Christianity. The 2005 print includes minor revisions and a new chronology. ISBN 0-7139-9124-0 (3360 p.); ISBN 0-14-043393-7 (v.1, 1232 p.); ISBN 0-14-043394-5 (v.2, 1024 pages); ISBN 0-14-043395-3 (v.3, 1360 pages)
  • In-print abridgements
    • David Womersley, ed., 1 volume (New York: Penguin Books, 2000). Includes all footnotes and eleven of the original seventy-one chapters. ISBN 0-14-043764-9, 848 pages
    • Hans-Friedrich Mueller, ed., one volume abridgment (New York: Random House, 2003). Includes excerpts from all seventy-one chapters. It eliminates footnotes, geographic surveys, details of battle formations, long narratives of military campaigns, ethnographies and genealogies, but retains the narrative from start to finish. Based on the Rev. H.H. [Dean] Milman edition of 1845 (see also Gutenberg etext edition). ISBN 0-375-75811-9, (trade paper, 1312 pages); ISBN 0-345-47884-3 (mass market paper, 1536 pages)


Variations on the series title (including using "Rise and Fall" in place of "Decline and Fall") have been used by other writers:

and in music albums:

and in film titles:

and in television:

The title and author are also cited in Noël Coward's comedic poem "I Went to a Marvellous Party".[22] And in the poem "The Foundation of Science Fiction Success", Isaac Asimov acknowledged that his Foundation series—an epic tale of the fall and rebuilding of a galactic empire—was written "with a tiny bit of cribbin' / from the works of Edward Gibbon".

In 1995, an established journal of classical scholarship, Classics Ireland, published punk musician's Iggy Pop's reflections on the applicability of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to the modern world in a short article, Caesar Lives, (Vol. 2, 1995) in which he noted "America is Rome. Of course, why shouldn't it be? We are all Roman children, for better or worse... I learn much about the way our society really works, because the system-origins - military, religious, political, colonial, agricultural, financial - are all there to be scrutinized in their infancy. I have gained perspective." [23]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Edward Gibbon (1776). The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire I. W. Strahan and T. Cadell. 
  2. ^ Edward Gibbon (1781). The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire II. 
  3. ^ Edward Gibbon (1781). The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire III. 
  4. ^ Edward Gibbon (1788). The History Of The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire IV. Strahan and Cadell. 
  5. ^ Edward Gibbon (1788). The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire V. W. Strahan and T. Cadell. 
  6. ^ Edward Gibbon (1788). The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire VI. 
  7. ^ David S. Potter (2006-05-22). A Companion to the Roman Empire. Wiley. p. 100. ISBN 978-0-631-22644-4. 
  8. ^ see for example Henri Pirenne's (1862–1935) famous thesis published in the early 20th century. As for sources more recent than the ancients, Gibbon certainly drew on Montesquieu's short essay, Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence, and on previous work published by Bossuet (1627-1704) in his Histoire universelle à Monseigneur le dauphin (1763). see Pocock, EEG. for Bousset, pp. 65, 145; for Montesquieu, pp. 85–88, 114, 223.
  9. ^ J.G.A. Pocock, "Between Machiavelli and Hume: Gibbon as Civic Humanist and Philosophical Historian," Daedalus 105,3(1976), 153–169; and in Further reading: Pocock, EEG, 303–304; FDF, 304–306.
  10. ^ J.G.A. Pocock, "Between Machiavelli and Hume: Gibbon as Civic Humanist and Philosophical Historian," Daedulus 105,3(1976), 153–169; and in Further reading: Pocock, EEG, 303–304; FDF, 304–306.
  11. ^ Preface to Gibbon's Volume the Fourth in David Womersley ed., Edward Gibbon - The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. 2 (New York: Penguin Books, 1994), p. 520.
  12. ^ In the early 20th century, biographer Sir Leslie Stephen ["Gibbon, Edward (1737–1794)," Dictionary of National Biography, vol. 7, (Oxford, 1921), p. 1134.] summarized The History's reputation as a work of unmatched erudition, a degree of professional esteem which remains as strong today as it was then:

    The criticisms upon his book...are nearly unanimous. In accuracy, thoroughness, lucidity, and comprehensive grasp of a vast subject, the History is unsurpassable. It is the one English history which may be regarded as definitive. ...Whatever its shortcomings, the book is artistically imposing as well as historically unimpeachable as a vast panorama of a great period.

  13. ^ Edward Gibbon (1779). A vindication of some passages in the fifteenth and sixteenth chapters of The history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire: By the author.. Printed for W. Strahan; and T. Cadell, in the Strand. 
  14. ^ The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, vol. IV, eds. S.M. Jackson, et al. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1952), 483–484. online.
  15. ^ Dublin review: a quarterly and critical journal. Burns, Oates and Washbourne. 1840. pp. 208–. JItKAAAAcAAJ. p. 208 image at Google Books 
  16. ^ General Observations On The Fall Of The Roman Empire In The West. Fall In The West — The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon. At Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Calvin College Computer Science.
  17. ^ John Julius Norwich, Byzantium (New York: Knopf, 1989); Byzantium: the apogee (London and New York: Viking Press, 1991).
  18. ^ Preface of 1782 online.
  19. ^ Georgije Ostrogorski History of the Byzantine State (1986) p. 5 online
  20. ^ Gibbon, Edward (1781). The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire 3. chapter 36, footnote 43. If I prosecute this History, I shall not be unmindful of the decline and fall of the city of Rome; an interesting object, to which my plan was originally confined. 
  21. ^ Patricia B. Craddock, Edward Gibbon, Luminous Historian. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1989), 249–266.
  22. ^ Link to notes on the poem here [1]. Excerpt: "If you have any mind at all, Gibbon's divine Decline and Fall, Seems pretty flimsy, No more than a whimsy... ."
  23. ^ "Classics Ireland". Retrieved September 8, 2010. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Brownley, Martine W. "Appearance and Reality in Gibbon's History," Journal of the History of Ideas 38,4 (1977), 651–666.
  • Brownley, Martine W. "Gibbon's Artistic and Historical Scope in the Decline and Fall," Journal of the History of Ideas 42,4(1981), 629–642.
  • Cosgrove, Peter. Impartial Stranger: History and Intertextuality in Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Newark: Associated University Presses, 1999); ISBN 0-87413-658-X.
  • Craddock, Patricia. "Historical Discovery and Literary Invention in Gibbon's 'Decline and Fall'," Modern Philology 85,4(May 1988), 569–587.
  • Drake, H.A., "Lambs into Lions: explaining early Christian intolerance," Past and Present 153(1996), 3–36. Oxford Journals
  • Furet, Francois. "Civilization and Barbarism in Gibbon's History," Daedalus 105,3(1976), 209–216.
  • Gay, Peter. Style in History (New York: Basic Books, 1974); ISBN 0-465-08304-8.
  • Ghosh, Peter R. "Gibbon's Dark Ages: Some Remarks on the Genesis of the Decline and Fall," Journal of Roman Studies 73(1983), 1–23.
  • Homer-Dixon, Thomas "The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization", 2007 ISBN 978-0-676-97723-3, Chapter 3 pp. 57–60
  • Kelly, Christopher. "A Grand Tour: Reading Gibbon's 'Decline and Fall'," Greece & Rome 2nd ser., 44,1 (Apr. 1997), 39–58.
  • Momigliano, Arnaldo. "Eighteenth-Century Prelude to Mr. Gibbon," in Pierre Ducrey et al., eds., Gibbon et Rome à la lumière de l'historiographie moderne (Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1977).
  • Momigliano, Arnaldo. "Gibbon from an Italian Point of View," in G.W. Bowersock et al., eds., Edward Gibbon and the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1977).
  • Momigliano, Arnaldo. "Declines and Falls," American Scholar 49(Winter 1979), 37–51.
  • Momigliano, Arnaldo. "After Gibbon's Decline and Fall," in Kurt Weitzmann, ed. Age of Spirituality : a symposium (Princeton: 1980); ISBN 0-89142-039-8.
  • Pocock, J.G.A. Barbarism and Religion, 4 vols. all Cambridge Univ. Press.
  • Roberts, Charlotte Edward Gibbon and the Shape of History. 2014 Oxford University Press 9780198704836
  • Trevor-Roper, H.R. "Gibbon and the Publication of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 1776–1976," Journal of Law and Economics 19,3 (Oct. 1976), 489–505.
  • Womersley, David. The Transformation of 'The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire' (Cambridge: 1988).
  • Womersley, David, ed. Religious Scepticism: Contemporary Responses to Gibbon (Bristol, England: Thoemmes Press, 1997).
  • Wootton, David. "Narrative, Irony, and Faith in Gibbon's Decline and Fall," History and Theory 33,4 (Dec., 1994), 77–105.

External links[edit]