Edward Gibbon - Portrait

Seminar II: Edward Gibbonís Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Written in the late eighteenth century, when the intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment was in its maturity, Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire remains the most celebrated and influential account of the Roman Empire. Begun around 1770, the first volume, covering the period down to the conversion of Constantine, was published in 1776. The next two volumes, which focused on the western Empire carried the narrative forward to the deposition of the emperor Romulus Augustulus, were published together in 1781. The final three volumes, which are concerned less with the Latin-Germanic West than with the history of the eastern Empire (or Byzantium) and with the struggle with Islam in the East, appeared in 1788 – on the eve of the French Revolution of 1789. The essay which is the subject of this week’s seminar – the ‘General Observations on the Fall of the Roman Empire in the West’ – appears at the end of the third volume, in the original edition.

It is often assumed by those who have not read it that the Decline and Fall is a lament for the lost glory of a great military state, but this is not the case. Edward Gibbon (1737–94) was a great admirer, not of the Roman Empire, but of the ancient city as found in the Mediterranean world during the Classical and Hellenistic periods – that is, in the five centuries before the overthrow of the Roman Republic by Julius Caesar and the emperor Augustus. For Gibbon it was the ancient city more than any other form of society known prior to the eighteenth century that had permitted human beings to develop a capacity for rational thought and self-examination – a capacity for the pursuit of ‘philosophy’. Gibbon’s Decline and Fall is a sustained examination of the fate of this socio-political structure at the hands of diverse historical forces – at the hands of the imperial system of government created by Augustus and his successors, at the hands of the new monotheistic religions that emerged in the second and third centuries (above all, Christianity), at the hands of the Barbarians who invaded the empire and were settled within its borders in the fourth and fifth centuries, and so on.

Careful reading shows that Edward Gibbon is by no means unequivocal in his assessment of the impact of these phenomena on Greco-Roman civilisation; on the contrary, although he thought that their impact was mostly for the worse, he was often willing to recognise the positive as well as the negative effects. The consistent thread is a concern – a concern which he shared with other Enlightenment historians such as David Hume (1711–76) and to a lesser extent William Robertson (1721–93) – to investigate the impact of various approaches to government and religion on the pursuit of knowledge and the progress of civilisation. These priorities are especially evident in the extract which is the subject of this week’s seminar.

Paul Hayward (10.xii.07).

Image: Edward Gibbon.

Set Texts

  1. Gibbon, Edward, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, ed. J. B. Bury, 7 vols. (3rd edn, London, 1909-13), iv, 160–9, ‘General Observations on the Fall of the Roman Empire in the West’.
  2. Pocock, J. G. A., ‘Gibbon’s Decline and Fall and the World View of the Late Enlightenment’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 10 (1976–7), 287–303. Journals Y6. JSTOR.

Worksheet Questions

  1. What, according to Gibbon, caused the decline and fall of Roman civilisation?
  2. What, according to Gibbon, is the problem with monotheistic religions like Christianity?
  3. What, according to Gibbon, is the problem with imperial systems of government?
  4. How, according to Gibbon, do the barbarians figure in his sorry tale?
  5. In what ways are Gibbon’s views and assumptions typical of the ‘world view’ of the ‘Late Enlightenment’?

Strongly Recommended Reading

Additional Reading

  • Africa, T. W., Gibbon and the Golden Age, rpt. from The Centennial Review, 7 (1963), 273–81. Pamphlets L44.G4.
  • Burrow, J. W., Gibbon (Oxford, 1985). L44.G4.*
  • Ghosh, P. R., ‘Gibbon Observed’, The Journal of Roman Studies, 81 (1991), 132–56. Journals XD6. JSTOR. Concerned with the writing of the ‘General Observations’ chapter.
  • Gossman, L., The Empire Unpossess’d: An Essay on Gibbon’s Decline and Fall (Cambridge, 1981). L44.G4.
  • Hume, D., The History of England from the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Revolution in 1688, 8 vols. (new edn, 1778; rpt in 6 vols., 1983–5).
  • Kenyon, J. P., The History Men: The Historical Profession in England since the Renaissance (2nd edn, London, 1993), chps. 3. L45.
  • Kirk, L., ‘The Matter of Enlightenment’, The Historical Journal, 43 (2000), 1129–43. Journals L6. JSTOR.
  • Lentin, T., et al., Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Milton Keynes, 1979). A course prepared for the Open University. MCN.1. There is a video that goes with this course which can be obtained by asking at the Enquiry Desk.
  • McKitterick, R., and R. Quinault (eds), Edward Gibbon and Empire (Cambridge, 1987). L44.G4. A collection which is full of useful essays, including: J. Matthews, ‘Gibbon and the Later Roman Empire: Causes and Circumstances’, and P. Ghosh, ‘The Conception of Gibbon’s History’.
  • Momigliano, A., ‘After Gibbon’s Decline and Fall’, in K. Weitzmann (ed.), Age of Spirituality: A Symposium, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (Princeton, NJ, 1980). PN.I.
  • Momigliano, A., ‘Gibbon’s Contributions to Historical Method’, in his Studies in Historiography (London, 1966), pp. 40–55. L43.
  • Pocock, J. G. A., ‘Between Machiavelli and Hume: Gibbon as Civic Humanist and Philosophical Historian’, Daedalus, 105 (1976), 153–69. Journals K6.
  • Pocock, J. G. A., ‘Gibbon and the Shepherds: The Stages of Society in the Decline and Fall’, History of European Ideas, 2 (1981), 193–202. Journals L6.
  • Pocock, J. G. A., Barbarism and Religion, 3 vols. (Cambridge, 1999–). L44.G4.
  • Porter, R., Edward Gibbon: Making History (London, 1988). L44.G4.
  • Swain, J. W., Edward Gibbon the Historian (London, 1966). L44.G4.
  • Womersley, D., Gibbon and the ‘Watchmen of the Holy City’: The Historian and his Reputation, 1776-1815 (Oxford, 2002). L44.G4.
  • Wootton, D., ‘Narrative, Irony, and Faith in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall’, History and Theory, 33 (1994), 77–105. Journals L6. JSTOR.
  • Young, B. W., ‘“Scepticism in Excess”: Gibbon and Eighteenth-Century Christianity’, The Historical Journal, 41 (1998), 179–99. Journals L6. JSTOR. Perhaps the best article on Gibbon’s approach to religion.

Some French Terms Used by Pocock

  • philosophe, philosophes = ‘philosophers’, a term applied especially to the sceptical thinkers of the 18th-century Enlightenment in France such as Voltaire, Montesquieu, Helvétius, and the Encyclopédistes led by Diderot, d’Alembert and d’Holbach.
  • le grand siècle = the age of Louis XIV (1638–1715), the 17th century.
  • thèse royale = the proposition that monarchy is to be preferred.
  • le Tacite de l’Ecosse = the Scottish equivalent of the Roman historian, Tacitus.

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