Edward Gibbon, the Fall of Rome and Me

Whether it was in my secondary school or college library where I was first confronted by Edward Gibbon’s monumental history of the Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire I can’t recall. It is likely to have been the former as before they cut it down by half and moved it to a disused classroom across the campus, where it was never open, my secondary school library had a whole wall of ‘classics’ which nobody except the likes of myself ever went near. I am convinced that Gibbon was included on that wall of books. What I can definitely recall is how astonished I was by the scale of it, six incredibly thick volumes of tiny and complex writing which I could never have hoped to understand at that age. Even if I could have understood it I felt that I would never be able to get through all six volumes. It was too vast, too daunting for me to even comprehend. Naturally, I avoided it for this reason.

I did eventually pick it up and contrary to my earlier opinion I did understand it, for the most part. It was whilst I was at college when I happened to be scouting the shelves of the library for information about the Emperor Nero. I found him at the end of Gibbon’s first volume and, in the pursuit of my research, began reading from chapter fifteen. Those who know Gibbon at all will immediately be able to point out why this is significant for it is in this very chapter, and that which follows, where Gibbon begins to set out the argument for which he is most remembered, the argument that the rise and adoption of Christianity was a major contributing factor to the death of the Roman empire. This idea, the moment I read Gibbon’s words, struck me.

Edward Gibbon by Joshua Reynolds (courtesy of Wikimedia/Image is public domain.)

Whilst Gibbon’s argument has been heavily criticised, even as far back as its first publication in 1776, it seemed to my young self to be so obvious and so clear. Of course Christianity was to blame! How could it not be? Look at the facts. Before the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 AD the Emperor Constantine sees the sign of a cross in the sky and has it painted on the shields of his army after hearing a voice say ‘in this sign you will conquer.’ This story has numerous variations but those are the main facts inherent in all versions. Constantine attributes his victory to the cross, a Christian symbol, and begins the process of converting the whole empire to Christianity. Within less than one hundred years, in 410AD to be precise, once the last remnants of the old pagan religion have been swept away, Rome itself is destroyed and the empire taken over by the so called barbarians. I found it too much of a coincidence that the greatest empire of the ancient world fell so soon after conversion. Gibbon had to be correct.

This was far too simplistic a view and not one that stands up to any scrutiny. I did not have all the facts, merely what I read by skimming through two chapters, and I had not taken on board that Gibbon, though his main argument is that it is the fault of Christianity, also presents the decline of the Roman Empire as a long process and includes many other factors, widespread corruption to use one example, besides the rise of Christianity. I had not yet learned of all that had occurred in the century prior to the reign of Constantine, of how the empire was already fractured and unstable, how it had become too large to be effectively managed and how it was riddled with economic problems, political volatility and corruption. It was becoming what these days we would call a failed state- It says something that in the one hundred years before Constantine there had been an astonishing thirty three different emperors, many of them murdered and deposed. This level of turnover is a clear sign of a serious problem. Though attempts to stabilise things had been made by Diocletian towards the end of the third century, Rome had been on a downward path long before Constantine converted it to Christianity. I was not aware of all this and so took Gibbon at his word and believed Christianity was the cause of the decline.

Given the instances I mention above, it was clearly not. Even the idea that the sack of Rome in 410, by Alaric and the Visigoths, marked the end of the empire is one that many have argued against. 410 is only one of many dates that have been postulated by numerous historians. Rome itself had not been the capital of the empire for some time before this and so prior dates have been suggested. Constantine founded Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) in 330 and made that his capital, so this has been ascribed as one possible date. Others place the fall in 476, at the deposition of Romulus Augustus. Even then, most of the former imperial provinces, Britain and France and Spain, were no longer a part of the empire by this time so all of those instances have been ascribed as well. There is another argument that Rome continued long after this in the form of the eastern, Byzantine Empire. Even Gibbon himself could be said to be included in those who agree with this given that his history covers the period right up to the taking of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453.

The final, seriously considered argument is that the Roman Empire did not die, that it continues to this day and in a very different form to that which it is usually considered. The argument goes that the empire continues not as a physical entity but as a spiritual one, namely, the Catholic Church. This turns Gibbon’s theory on its head. Instead of being the destructive force he supposes it to be Christianity was actually a saving grace. Through Catholicism it was able to carry forward the name of Rome and the principles of the Empire into the present day, with the Pope as the modern equivalent of the Emperor. Indeed, it is an argument that is lent a lot of credence by the fact that the basis of Western European language and law is fundamentally Latin in its basis. In our day to day lives we can be said to be very much still Roman.

Not long after my first foray into Gibbon’s vast work I bought my own copy, a well abridged one volume version which has sat on my shelf ever since. Although I have tried to read it several times I have never got any further than that point where he begins to set out his principle argument. Whilst it is still important for its influence on the study and writing of history, Gibbon is incredibly old fashioned and dated in his outlook. In the face of our current understanding of the Roman Empire, in the face of current theories, he does not hold water. The decline and fall of the Roman Empire is far more complex than he painted it and were Gibbon writing today, with modern ideas and modern knowledge, I am convinced that it would be an even more monumental work. It may have reached a total of twelve volumes instead of six, and that would have been a much more daunting read, even in an abridged form.

The Course of Empire: Destruction, by Thomas Cole (Courtesy of Wikimedia/Image is Public Domain)

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