The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman EmpireThe History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
is a monumental work by Edward Gibbon
. It is considered a landmark in the field of history
, and is often considered the first "modern" history. It was published in six volumes, in quarto
. The first volume was published in 1776
, and the last volume in 1788
. Gibbon devoted the greater part of his life to this one work.
Gibbon, like all historians before the establishment of the science of archaeology, relied on literary sources. He very rarely and reservedly used the secondary sources of later scholars or historians, preferring contemporaneous or near-contemporaneous accounts. One important reason that Gibbon's work has stood the test of time so very well is his astute and insightful judgement as to the reliability of various sources and his diligent efforts at substantiation of the claims of other historians.
By modern standards of historical research, Gibbon's work does not compare favorably. Standards of academic rigor have become much higher in the intervening centuries. Measured against the standards of his time, however, the Decline and Fall was a leap forward.
After more than two centuries of later scholarship, Gibbon's work has only very rarely been found wrong. Much additional information has been uncovered, but almost none of it has invalidated Gibbon's exhaustive review of the information then available. In this respect, he stands alone among 18th century historians. And not only have the facts of his history seldom been contradicted, but his judgements and hypotheses have often been corroborated by later discoveries. Gibbon was not only an inexhaustible researcher, but a profoundly perceptive one as well.
Advances in historical scholarship have moved the field far beyond Gibbon, and he is seldom used today in scholarship. As a literary work available to a general readership, however, it still stands. The Decline and Fall is one of the oldest histories still read widely for pleasure. While Gibbon's style seems somewhat archaic to modern readers, he displays a remarkable command of language and a ready, if subtle, wit.
The work is considered the first "Modern" history because it seeks explanations for historical events in terms of society, culture, and government rather than a Divine plan. Previous Christian authors almost always explained events in religious terms, and did not seek "worldly" explanations. Gibbon, however, approached his work from a point of skepticism, and wrote a very different kind of history.
Upon its initial publication, it provoked no small amount of controversy. Not only did he fail to ascribe the course of history to God's divine plan, but he wrote extensively on early Christianity in terms that, while historically accurate, were not always favorable to the early Christians.
The following excerpt from Chapter XV is the last paragraph of Volume I. This excellent example displays Gibbon's style of writing, his use of irony and humor, and his skepticism about historical Christianity in one paragraph:
- But how shall we excuse the supine inattention of the Pagan and philosophic world to those evidences which were presented, not to their reason, but to their senses? During the age of Christ, of his apostles, and of their first disciples, the doctrine which they preached was confirmed by innumerable prodigies. The lame walked, the blind saw, the sick were healed, the dead were raised, daemons were expelled, and the laws of Nature were frequently suspended for the benefit of the church. But the sages of Greece and Rome turned aside from the awful spectacle, and, pursuing the ordinary occupations of life and study, appeared unconscious of any alterations in the moral or physical government of the world. Under the reign of Tiberius, the whole earth, or at least a celebrated province of the Roman empire, was involved in a preternatural darkness of three hours. Even this miraculous event, which ought to have excited the wonder, the curiosity, and the devotion of mankind, passed without notice in an age of science and history. It happened during the lifetime of Seneca and the elder Pliny, who must have experienced the immediate effects, or received the earliest intelligence, of the prodigy. Each of these philosophers, in a laborious work, has recorded all the great phenomena of Nature, earthquakes, meteors, comets, and eclipses, which his indefatigable curiosity could collect. Both the one and the other have omitted to mention the greatest phenomenon to which the mortal eye has been witness since the creation of the globe. A distinct chapter of Pliny is designed for eclipses of an extraordinary nature and unusual duration; but he contents himself with describing the singular defect of light which followed the murder of Caesar, when, during the greatest part of a year, the orb of the sun appeared pale and without splendour. This season of obscurity, which cannot surely be compared with the preternatural darkness of the Passion, had been already celebrated by most of the poets and historians of that memorable age.
Despite a professed surprise that the contemporaries of Christ could have overlooked such a signal event, it is quite obvious that Gibbon's intention was to state that there was no historical evidence that the events recorded in the New Testament
account of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ
ever happened. In his day, such a statement was not well received, to say the least. Even Gibbon felt the need to obscure the statement in irony.
This book can be read online at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library.