EDWARD GIBBON AND THE ROMANS

The Roman Empire, when you count the existence of the Byzantine Empire, survived longer than any other empire on Earth, more than 20 centuries. According to one prominent British historian, the decline of the Empire started with the first century of Christianity and lasted well into the Renaissance era of Europe. While it left a very large footprint in civilization, there was not a unified historical record of the Empire until after the Empire fell for good at the hands of the Ottomans.

Pieces of the Roman Empire survived in math, science, medicine, politics, and philosophy, but there was no way to really know an account of the progress and ultimate demise of the Empire. Up until late in the 18th century, much of what happened to the Roman Empire was a mystery – it was hard to know what exactly happened and why.

Edward Gibbon set out to describe it with his most well-known historical work called The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon wrote his six-volume work in the 1770s and 1780s, with volumes published between 1776 and 1790. A British historian who was already of some repute, gained international notoriety from his work about the fall of the Romans, using primary and original source material, which was unusual for the time but soon became a model by which other historians since have been using.

Gibbon had a checkered history, being sick through most of his childhood (even almost dying several times), then becoming heavily involved in French society for a number of years as his health improved, then spending years back in England working on his Roman historical work. He tended to write very objectively and use original or primary sources for much of his information, but he seemed to be consistent with many people of the time – anti-religious, anti-Christian, Anti-Catholic – as he wrote of the Christianity-heavy Dark Ages as an era of superstition.

This was common in the Enlightenment of Gibbon’s time, when it was called the “age of reason” and rational thought. It is possible that that bias may have permeated his Roman history tracts, as he wrote that the decline and fall of the Roman (and Byzantine) Empire could be traced to two main causes:

  1. The acceptance and state sanctioning of Christianity and its inherent pacifism; and
  2. The “outsourcing” of its mercenaries.

Gibbon hypothesized that Romans and Byzantines had gradually become weak as a people and did not adhere to their initial militant and self-determining spirit, instead being willing to farm out all their military mercenary work to others – some of which did not have the same mission or goals as the Romans – and those mercenaries became such a part of the fabric of the Empire that they rotted the Empire from the inside, leaving the Romans themselves as passive and not willing to work or sacrifice for the protection of their community or culture.

As for Christianity, Gibbon said that the pacifism espoused by Christianity as it spread through the Empire further weakened the Romans and their militaristic might, and by the time the Empire was being besieged on all sides, especially by the Turks and the Muslims, the Roman people didn’t seem to have the stomach for fighting.

His work was very detailed for the time and was written in such a way that it set the standard for all future historical works regardless of the topic. Many American historians today use Gibbon as a model for their work, whether they are writing about Jamestown, the Civil War or Seabiscuit.