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The Moonspeaker:
Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...



Among the many lists of "great books" focussed on non-fiction, many of them include an entry for Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Included it may be, yet it also seems that this massive work by a member of the english minor gentry of the eighteenth century is barely read today. Perhaps this shouldn't be surprising, since it was published in six volumes between 1776 and 1788, coming to over 4000 pages in its earlier editions. The edition I eventually worked my way through was published in two volumes of fine print, coming to approximately 2700 pages. As Maciej Ceglowski observed of Fyodor Dostoyevsky composing his great novels, Gibbon wrote all of this with either quill or early wood and metal dip pens – by hand. In addition, because Gibbon traced the roman empire all the way to its end, he had to deal with its second era when it was based in "the east" at the great city of byzantium, now better known as istanbul. For that place and period, the sources available to him were poor, and he had no means to counter what now is recognized as grave distortions due to orientalism. That Gibbon's work remains interesting to scholars is partly historical, and partly topical. Literary scholar David Womersley noted that Gibbon emphasized human agency while admitting that "fortune" also played a role in the events he covers. In his history of the footnote, Anthony Grafton details how Gibbon applied this still new method of citation, rendering his work accessible to critical examination and debate. Gibbon's history originally garnered attention because of his infamous analysis of the role of the development of early christianity in the fall of roman empire, and so he remains to this day of special interest to people who question religion and its social and political uses. Certainly his analysis of an empire in social and military collapse holds attention in any period where conditions that seem similar are observed. While Gibbon himself was very a much a political and social conservative, whatever his intentions, his history will regularly be read as a critique of the present.

UPDATE 2023-03-20 - There is a striking predecessor to Gibbon's multi-volume work that must have helped make it seem rather ordinary in being of such vast length and scope. That predecessor is Paul de Rapin Thoyras' Histoire d'Angleterre, originally published in french and rapidly translated and reproduced in england. It became such a standard for its time that the translator Nicholas Tindal began writing extensions to bring Rapin Thoyras' history up to the present. According to scholar Miriam Franchina, Hume was reacting in part to Rapin Thoyras when he wrote a history of england. See Liverpool University Press Blog: Paul Rapin Thoyras and the Art of Eighteenth-century Historiography, 9 december 2021. The wikisource project has digitized the british Dictionary of National Biography 1885-1900, including the capsule biography of Rapin Thoyras. There is also a fine set of online reproductions of the maps produced to illustrate Tindal's translation, generously posted by Westland London. Remarkably it is possible to read Rapin Thoyras both in the original french and in translation online, although the later volumes of the translation are more difficult to find. These are huge books, averaging 600-650 pages, so all praise to the hardworking staff who put in the time and effort to scan them, and if they ran out of time or energy to scan 7 more after 28 of them, they are more than entitled to the rest from the job.

Rapin Thoyras, Paul de. Dissertation Sur les Whigs et les Torys. La Haye: Charles Le Vier, 1717.

Rapin Thoyras, Paul de. Histoire d'Angleterre. La Haye: Chretien Van om, Jean Van Dum, et Pierre de Hondt Libraires, 1724-1728. Tome 1 | Tome 2 | Tome 3 | Tome 4 | Tome 5 | Tome 6 | Tome 7 | Tome 8 | Tome 9 | Tome 10.

In english translation by N. Tindal as The History of England, 1757-1761. Volume 1 | Volume 2 | Volume 3 | Volume 4 | Volume 5 | Volume 6 | Volume 7 | Volume 8 | Volume 9 | Volume 10 | Volume 11 | Volume 12 | Volume 13 | Volume 14 | Volume 15 | Volume 16
Volume 12 corresponds to Tome 10; Volume 13 gives a biography of Rapin-Troyas and a continuation of the history; Volume 14 adds to the continuation and appends a translation of the Dissertation Sur les Whigs et Torys; after that there are 7 more "continuation" volumes. The first two volumes of his continuation follow more smoothly on his translation of Tome 10: The Continuation of Mr. Rapin de Thoyras's History of England (1751), Volume I | Volume II.

Not many people read the whole of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, (from now on HDFRE) and for good reason, considering its sheer length and mass of detail. My first encounter with it was in an abridged version that came to around 750 pages, and I collapsed at the end of the section covering the reign of Diocletian and his co-regents, Maximan, Galerius, and Constantinus. In my experience abridgements of multi-volume projects are frustrating to read, and this one was no exception. Worse yet, there was no introduction to explain what the person who did the abridging had decided to leave out or why. Often this makes no difference to the general reader, but in the case of Gibbon's work it was baffling because I had heard that his whole argument was that the only thing that brought the roman empire down was christianity, and he had critiqued the religion in a controversial way. Yet there was no sign of the controversial pair of chapters on christianity, and really, the text came across as disjointed and boring. Nevertheless, enough of Gibbon's text was there to confirm what else I had heard about him: that he was a notable prose stylist. It was much later I encountered people talking about and psychoanalysing his footnotes, which provide a striking parallel text to the main narrative. Overall I concluded my impression of Gibbon's account of the fall of the roman empire couldn't be remotely accurate, and to have a fairer sense of it I would have to read the whole thing, not expecting to do it. Reading multi-volume fantasy novels is one thing, an over two year old history of the roman empire something else. Then, for all too much ill, the COVID-19 pandemic struck. And so, my social life as sharply truncated as everyone else's, when done work for the day I began to read my way through many of the items on my "maybe I'll read that someday" book list, including Gibbon.

The apparently three volume edition I read was published by random house, probably between 1927 and 1950. I can't be quite certain because the first volume had to be rebound because of heavy use, losing its copyright page, and as it turned out it was originally a two volume edition. The original second half of volume one and volume two were almost pristine in comparison, with no pencil or pen marks, no irate comments jammed into the margins, not even around Gibbon's account of the origins and early development of islam. Also missing from this edition, apparently by design, are Gibbon's prefaces. Added to this edition is a smattering of newer footnotes, but it is not clear who this later annotator is. Otherwise it did not appear to be bowdlerized or otherwise altered, so I decided to stick with it and figure out the different editions of it later. As it was, I selected the one I did primarily because it was not abridged, it was apparently printed in three volumes rather than six or seven, and all three volumes were available. The other editions in more volumes were all incomplete, one edition missing two of six volumes, another four, all with different font sizes making for incommensurate page numbers so that they couldn't be combined to put together a full set of all seventy-one of Gibbon's chapters. Having taken all this trouble because I can't abide reading such a dense text on-screen, I finally brought the three selected volumes home from the library and began finishing a chapter or so each evening. Imagine my surprise on discovering that no, Gibbon did not argue that christianity alone caused the decline and fall of the roman empire, and that he considered it to have begun the process of decline and fall from the moment it was founded. As the text went on, I found myself also learning that the potential power and indeed danger of Gibbon's political content is often lost due to the infamy of his critique of christianity. While I often found him frustrating, as a man of his time and place must inevitably be to a person reading him today, I also began to appreciate his savvy in managing the potential reception of his grand project.

After all, the first volume of HDFRE hit the bookshops during the early industrial revolution and the reign of the (in)famous english king George III. The english constitutional monarchy was in difficulty, and the absolute monarchy in france was in serious trouble, serious enough that it fell before Gibbon's death barely six years after he completed the last volume of HDFRE. The british public were debating questions of empire, citizenship, and religion, and these were just as critical to the development and history of the roman empire as the british one. Therefore Gibbon's book came out in the right time and place, catching the zeitgeist plus early improvements in the capacity of industrialized printing and binding. Not only could his multi-volume work be produced relatively easily, when it became a best seller, the printers could keep up with demand. The controversy inspired by the first volume generated plenty of useful publicity and a flurry of counter and supporting publications. According to Gibbon's autobiographies, edited together into a composite record by John Murray and published in 1894, he did not read many languages apart from english, french, ancient greek, and latin. This put him at a second disadvantage when writing about the byzantine era of the roman empire, and his critics made sure to take him to task over this. Yet he evidently overcame a great deal of this disadvantage via the aspects of his practice as a writer and historian that differed from his contemporaries. Womersley describes the differences as including Gibbon's use of many ancient and modern references rather than just one or two translations of a given historian. He described and compared what his sources had to say, then provided his own interpretations.

But before it is possible to engage with Gibbon's work more specifically, it is still necessary to provide a little more context. First, I will give a brief and opinionated basic timeline of the history of the roman empire, then with the assistance of premiere Gibbon scholar David Womersley, an outline of the publication chronology of the first edition of HDFRE. Both of these will be presented as lightly annotated lists. Second, I will outline the afterlife of HDFRE via three subsequent editions, H.H. Milman's in four volumes, J.B. Bury's published in seven volumes, and the most recent three-volume opus by David Womersley. Milman and Bury were unusual scholars in their own right, putting their own prominent spins on the interpretation and presentation of Gibbon's work. Readers who opt to read the Milman or Bury editions may find this part of the background information especially useful, as their versions were published in multiple hardcopy formats.

Let us begin then, with the two timelines necessary to appreciate the sheer scale of time Gibbon had to cover for HDFRE, and then how much time he needed to make this happen. Starting with a basic and opinionated timeline of the roman empire:

  • 212 BCE – the romans begin systematically pillaging other italian cities, which leads eventually to the social wars usually dated to circa 90 – 88 BCE
  • 44 BCE – Julius Caesar assassinated in attempt to keep political power in the senate and reform debt relations
  • 27 BCE – Octavian gulls the roman senate into naming him emperor after claiming to be Julius Caesar's adopted nephew for better credibility
  • 100 CE – approximately when Gibbon's history begins, after the death of Domitian
  • 476 CE – official end of rome as the political and military centre of the roman empire
  • 530 CE – Constantine is driven out of italy, retreats to byzantium and establishes it as the new political and military centre of the roman empire
  • 1054 CE – the eastern orthodox church breaks from the roman pontificate
  • 1299 CE – the commonly accepted foundation year of the ottoman empire
  • 1453 CE – end of the roman empire, and much to the frustration of european-based colonial powers, the year byzantium-constantinople became the capital of the ottoman empire
  • 1590 CE – death of pope Sixtus V, who undertook a massive construction program in rome and sought to re-establish the papal states as a major political and military power controlling western europe

Now for the basic timeline of Gibbon's six volume history, interspersed with some key social and political events that would have affected him in the course of this work:

  • 1737 CE – birth of Edward Gibbon in putney, england
  • 1745 CE – jacobite uprising meant to return a catholic Stuart to the english throne begins
  • 1754 CE – Gibbon's father sends him to lausanne, switzerland in order to force him to reconvert from catholicism and restart his formal education
  • 1756 CE – seven years' war begins
  • 1758 CE – Gibbon returns to england
  • 1760 CE – George II's reign ends; George III's reign begins
  • 1763 CE – seven years' war ends
  • 1765 – 1769 CE – period in which Gibbon began working consciously on HDFRE
  • 1775 CE – Gibbon's original intended publication year for Volume I of HDFRE
  • 1776 CE – Volume I of HDFRE published; 13 of the british colonies in north america rebel
  • 1780 CE – Gibbon's original intended publication year for Volumes II and III of HDFRE
  • 1781 CE – Volumes II and and III of HDFRE published
  • 1787 CE – Gibbon's original intended publication year for Volumes IV, V and VI of HDFRE
  • 1788 CE – Volumes IV, V, and VI of HDFRE published; Gibbon leaves for switzerland
  • 1789 CE – the french revolution overthrowing the absolute monarchy begins; having inherited a house in lausanne, Gibbon remains in switzerland
  • 1793 CE – last full year Gibbon lives in lausanne
  • 1794 CE – death of Edward Gibbon in sheffield, england
  • 1799 CE – end of the french revolution removing the Bourbons from absolute power in france

Gibbon's life and work also fall within that famous period in europe of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the enlightenment. In this period many absolute monarchies were curtailed by the advent of constitutional governance, outright overthrow, or loss of coercive power due to managing to utterly impoverish their societies by incessant warfare. This is also the period when the catholic pope's pretensions to earthly power were under effective attack by the kingdom of italy, to the point that in 1870 the pope lost control of the former papal states, reducing his authority to today's vatican city.

Inevitably, given the popularity of HDFRE and how tragically soon after its completion Gibbon died, there began a minor industry of what can be called "annotated editions." A "critical edition" that seeks to establish a "best text" seems to have taken until Womersley's close studies of Gibbon's language and use of sources to produce a three volume set in 1993. The most frequently reproduced posthumous editions are from the mid and late nineteenth century, the first by a cleric trying to somehow neutralize Gibbon's critique of the christian church. Annotated by by H.H. Milman, this edition began as a four-volume work with added maps as well as Milman's commentary. On reprinting it began to expand as various publishers produced more and more luxurious editions, so that four volumes plus an index volume grew to six, then seven, then twelve elaborately illustrated books. Milman was quite a controversial man in his own right, writing plays and The History of the Jews From the Earliest Period Down to Modern Times in three volumes, published in 1829. He did not include his authorities in the original published version, and Milman's critics took after him accordingly.

By contrast, J.B. Bury's annotated edition strove to give a sense of impartiality and technical analysis, at least in his introduction. He briefly compared different editions Gibbon oversaw and how his edits changed the text, often for style and readability. Then Bury tries to identify "out of date" parts of Gibbon's text, preparatory to "correcting" them with his own annotations. Notable is Bury's volume 7, which includes a nine page discussion of Gibbon's authorities, a seventeen page bibliography, maps, and an index. By the end of the nineteenth century, many readers would no longer be as familiar with the authorities or the geography of the roman empire compared to those who could afford Gibbon's books a hundred to a hundred-fifty years before. Bury was not a cleric but a "scientific historian," who also wrote a 1913 book, A History of Freedom of Thought. Nevertheless, earlier in his career when he worked on his edition of Gibbon, according to university of miami english professor Frank Palmeri, "Bury's supplemental notes to the Decline and Fall also aim to make Gibbon's history acceptable to Christians, a project Bury shares with a series of nineteenth century editors who abandoned the early direct attacks on Gibbon's history and instead attempted to appropriate the Decline and Fall for orthodox religious opinion." (Top)


Going into reading Gibbon, the understanding I had was that he declared it the fault of christianity, so in all honesty my expectation was to give up after 50 pages or so and leave it at that. Who wants to read at least hundreds (out of thousands) of pages telling how awful christianity is, whether or not the reader is inclined to agree? Well, within those 50 pages I learned that this "single factor" description is an atrocious misrepresentation, and I am inclined to gently disagree with Womersley, who seems to suggest in his 1988 book that Gibbon really was primarily blaming christianity in the first volume of HDFRE. Then Womersley goes on to argue that Gibbon changed his mind as he read and analysed more sources. My agreement is gentle in major part because Womersley undertakes a detailed rhetorical analysis of the text that digs into the reception and understanding of the book in Gibbon's time. Womersley is sticking very scrupulously to that, as opposed to what is inevitably impression of the late twentieth to early twenty-first century reception of Gibbon I have from researching online, in my local libraries, and observing the state of the copies of HDFRE in those libraries. The tomes containing Gibbon's Volumes I and II are almost always missing or heavily worn, with patches of annotation, usually, sure enough, at the sections where Gibbon discusses "primitive christianity" and christians. This also suggests there are aspects of Gibbon's critique that still sting to this day, and that is very interesting. But I am not going to delve into that yet, because it takes quite some time before christianity comes into the picture, a full fifteen chapters, which in the original edition comes to over 600 pages.

The complex, multifactorial causes of the roman empire, according to Gibbon, come into play right at the start. The rot was started by none other than the first emperor himself, Octavian. Indeed, a careful reader can see how the problems Gibbon identifies begin even earlier, and that the capacity for the roman governance system to minimize or stop them was destroyed in at least the early republic. However, Gibbon had to choose his areas to critique carefully, because he could not challenge the notion of "aristocratic rule" too sharply, and in truth he was in favour of aristocratic rule in a constitutional monarchy. He didn't leave england as permanent residence to protest the government of his day, but because he was in difficult financial straits, and like many in britain of his time he found it easier to pay the bills on the mainland, and best of all he had inherited a house. Being a supporter of constitutional monarchy, Gibbon decried Octavian's success in reducing the roman senate to his servant and maintaining his direct control of the army. In effect, Octavian did not have real controls on his power from the plebians or the aristocrats, and he had created a system in which an emperor needed to maintain the loyalty of the army as backstop to his authority. The new roman monarchy, which was never officially called one because according to roman political folklore, they refused to have a king, did nothing to curb the problem of increasing social inequality. In fact, the new system exacerbated it. To keep the army happy, and the aristocrats rich, ultimately the roman empire had to keep expanding. When the army couldn't pay itself with plunder, then the roman treasury had to make up the difference, and in that day and age this really did mean raised taxes in coin and in some areas in kind. The drain of the refurbished ruling class and the roman imperial family soon led to a cycle of trying to tamp down social unrest with a bread dole to stave off starvation and ready access to spectacles and spectator sports. Hence the infamous "bread and circuses."

Gibbon notes the creation of the praetorian guard, originally a republican body meant to serve as bodyguard for a general sent abroad to make war on another city, was another serious problem. With Octavian, it became the permanent bodyguard of the emperor, and developed rapidly into a sort of army within the army. They became a dissolute pack of kingmakers whom only a charismatic and successful warring emperor who led the fighting could control. Such an emperor had the best chances of keeping their confidence and ensuring they were always paid. An emperor without either charisma or military ability soon found themselves struggling in the toils of a protection racket as they tried to keep the praetorian guard onside, even to the point of needing to use the praetorian guard to protect himself from factions of his own family. Octavian was a war lord, and to this day there are still a collection of statues to his ego, his own account of his deeds, and his paid poet Virgil's attempt to better Homer in the Aeneid to show for it. He was a startling high point that today thanks to access to more records and archaeological data we now understand was also a product of his sense in marrying the eventual empress Livia.

The next emperor who was also a successful general was Septimus Severus, who won a bloody civil war nearly two hundred years after Octavian. The praetorian guards set up the civil war by literally auctioning off the throne to a man with what today certainly sounds like an unfortunate name, Didius Julianus. Severus ruled the roman empire as if he were in the middle of a warzone, which in truth he often was, but this did not lead him to fix the root causes of the situation. Gibbon explains how Severus destroyed byzantium, which was in many ways a successor to the fabled city of troy, punching a key hole in the imperial defences both in military and trade terms. Likely in hopes of improving his ability to keep the praetorian guard in particular and the army in general in check, Severus embedded an exemption from all civil laws for the emperors into the roman governance system. The result was an even worse hyperdependence on arbitrary military force and bribery rather than the rule of law or civil government. Gibbon steadily hammers on this point about arbitrary power through the first two volumes. I should note also that Gibbon does provide a digest of what is going on with the surrounding major military powers. He describes the monarchies in the area today known as iran and iraq, and traces the "germanic tribes" among whom we understand now were more celtic and caucasian (as in from the caucasus region) elements than historians could see in the eighteenth century.

Another corrosive factor in a terrible brew for the roman empire was the issue of roman citizenship, and Gibbon is very concerned about this, because it also ties into questions of culture, religion, and service. Some of his most powerful writing is dedicated to this topic, and also some of his most racist and ridiculous. In fact, Gibbon's own critical reading and discussion leads him almost to break free from the tropes Edward Said would later so famously discuss in his book Orientalism. In his first two volumes Gibbon already seems to struggle at times with serious cognitive dissonance as the uncomfortable parallels between what he talks about as due to an influx of foreign riches and culture, yet he has already shown how the rot started from inside the roman empire, not outside. Roman citizenship was originally an exclusive thing, later expanded so that the inhabitants of formerly independent cities in italy could have it, then to any soldiers who finished service in the roman army and took over stolen land as colonists. Later still, citizenship could be purchased. Gibbon can't resist suggesting the inclusion of "lesser peoples" contributed to the ruin of the roman empire. But his more detailed and documented argument notes how citizenship had to be expanded in order to expand the tax base. The tax base had to expand to fund the army, which had to expand to expand the empire, which then had to expand to pay the veterans with land so they could make money by farming and the like and therefore pay taxes... you can fill in the rest of the loop. There is another one for the obscene expenses of the imperial court. This exacerbated the separation between the military, praetorian guard, the emperor, the imperial court, and the general population. Soon a minority of actual roman citizens fought to expand and hold the empire, leaving the job mainly to mercenaries. Contempt for the skills necessary to govern, from accounting to public speaking, meant that these activities were relegated more and more often not just to ambitious plebeians, but even to slaves. Regardless, the majority of roman citizens in italy, let alone rome itself, were not so enamoured of the empire that they wanted to fight for it because they were ground down by taxes, poverty, and lawlessness. The roman authorities were less and less law-abiding all the time, shaking down the people within their jurisdiction for protection money or simply leaving them to fend for themselves. Gibbon makes clear that it was not a constant nightmare though. Some regions were better off than others depending on the time period, and could do very well indeed.

All the same, by the time the reader reaches the infamous Chapters XV and XVI of Volume I of HDFRE, the sense of nightmarishness is predominant. Therefore when Gibbon begins his discussion of the "primitive christians" and the early development of the religion, I suspect it would take a hard heart indeed not to share Gibbon's sympathy with them. And it is I think, a real sympathy on Gibbon's part. The early christians were struggling to cope with terrible conditions, including the severe social inequality. Of course, this is just where he began to raise the ire of the critics who wrote broadsides against him. Whatever comes next, the simple piety of the primitive christians is going to put the behaviour of their successors in the shade. Furthermore, Gibbon juxtaposes the later christians who have established a formalized hierarchy and begun creating communities of monks with his discussion of what he refers to repeatedly as "effeminate practices" brought from "the east" by the roman nobles. Yes, here is an exemplar of the "effeminate asians" and their culture trope, which for Gibbon seems to centre on the introduction of eunuchs. These male castrates are a common feature of extremely patriarchal societies, especially within aristocratic families fearful for their bloodlines. A eunuch, unable to get himself into the succession, was supposed to be an exceptional support for the family he was bound to. So eunuchs could be, but they could and did rapidly develop into another source of kingmakers analogous to the praetorian guard. Gibbon speaks about eunuchs with a level of revulsion that is at times quite startling. It is hard to say how much of this is about what was done to these men, and how much about their capacity to influence royal children even to the point of becoming their social fathers, if not taking power directly themselves. Early christian interpretations of scripture as encouragement to men to castrate themselves, and the phenomenon of officially celibate and powerful monks and ascetics echo some of the logic behind the creation of a literal eunuch class of men.

I didn't really appreciate this juxtaposition and just what it suggests until I had read far deeper into HDFRE, when Gibbon begins following the roman empire after it is recentred on byzantium. There are now various studies of eunuchs and their social power in byzantium, china, and the different major centres of the islamic caliphates available for the curious to study, but I have not yet managed to find my way to what must be a fascinating range of books and articles on Gibbon's analysis. That his examination has reached especially dangerous waters became truly clear to me at the beginning of Volume IV, but in Gibbon's day the reading public was bound to be way ahead of any present-day reader. In the eighteenth century the questions of dogma and what if anything justified a split between different branches of christianity were a part of everyday life and debate. The reverberations of the sixteenth century protestant reformation were still affecting politics in western europe, including the more recent and england-specific echoes of the jacobite uprising. Therefore I imagine my four-point summary after reading Volumes IV-V below would have made Gibbon and his contemporaries roll their eyes, it was so evident to them.

  1. Gibbon inveighs again against the introduction of eunuchs without looking too far into how they got their power; he is satisfied with putting it down ultimately to the "pusillanimity of the nobles."
  2. Then he starts talking about the proliferation of church officials and the utter ruin of "primitive christianity."
  3. He never overtly acknowledges that maybe Constantine's interest in the church was as a divisive power to help him keep power, though he emphasizes Constantine's divide and control ethos.
  4. Instead Gibbon emphasizes the presence of all those ostensibly celibate officials who expect to live off their "congregations."

"Constantine" is the roman emperor who effectively refounded byzantium as a major roman city, and then recentred the empire on it. The "eastern emperors" later spend insane amounts of money and lives trying to permanently retake rome itself and reunify the eastern and western halves of the empire.

Gibbon is profoundly unimpressed by monastic orders, and he connects the growth of monasticism with the corruption of christianity. He tries to claim that the "forces" encouraging monasticism were especially influential on women and children, striving to equate it with "effeminacy." But he does seem to be talking out of both sides of his mouth on the point, because the evidence he presents soon demonstrates that monasticism appealed most to men because it was an easy route to political power. He summarizes the "origins, progress, and effects of the monastic life" in Chapter XXXVII, the second last chapter of Volume III, just where it will stand out. Gibbon deems monasticism a form of slavery and cowardly escape indulged in most often by hypocrites, a means by which men avoid military service and paying taxes. Yet he also discusses the blind obedience expected of both monks and soldiers, stating that "the monks were more expensive and numerous than the soldiers of the East," in Chapter XLII, near the beginning of Volume IV. That statement doesn't seem credible, but it all depends on whether he is making a literal or a rhetorical point. If notably high-placed monks have a baleful influence on the government, and that was his point, then it is certainly a rhetorical one. In either case, reading along with Gibbon as he sets out his narrative, it can be a strange and bewildering experience to read about "heresies" before there is an established centralized church, and his descriptions of obscure, but profoundly dangerous conflicts over doctrine sometimes left me none the wiser. Religious studies majors and well-read christians will certainly get far more from those chapters, including XLVII and XLIX.

For me what began to stand out was Gibbon's serious concern about the development of parallel, competing governments. He chronicles how politically ambitious men took advantage of and fomented christian fanaticism in order to become an alternate government. They strove to replace the denuded praetorian guard and the regular army as kingmakers, and although they did not quite succeed, for several centuries at least they came very close. At the very end of Chapter XXVII Gibbon remarks, "The loss of armies, the destruction of cities, and the dishonour of the Roman name, ineffectually solicited the successors of Gratian to restore the helmets and cuirasses of the infantry. The enervated soldiers abandoned their own and the public defence; and their pusillanimous indolence may be considered as the immediate cause of the downfall of the empire." In the next chapter he will declare the supposed death of paganism, and the curious timing of the introduction of saints and relics into christian worship practices. To Gibbon, this is another powerful turning point, when money and equipment can't be found for the military, while there is a growing frenzy of investment in new churches and their decoration and equipment. This is quite a stinging indictment of the elites of the time, who refused to do what was necessary to improve the lives of the people in general, including new christian converts. Rather than invest in restoring civil order and either maintenance of the empire or an ordered retreat into narrower confines, they cynically took advantage of the new religion to further enrich themselves and increase their political power. For all the older and newer commenters declaring Gibbon vicious and a misrepresenter of the christian church, it seems to me that he was neither of these things. His tone does suggest that he considers monasticism rather than christianity effeminate, and that christianity and naïve converts were used and abused for self-interested ends. Just because there seemed to be similar use and abuse of christianity and naïve christians in his own time does not make him wrong. (Top)


While I would not claim that HDFRE is anything remotely like light reading, it was and is certainly eye-opening to read it, in whole or in part, so long as "in part" is a well-done abridged edition or perhaps annotated section excerpt. Gibbon is famous for the flack he caught for the infamous last two chapters of his first volume, but it may well be that his political analysis caused the greater discomfort. He basically says that the roman empire was a mistake made possible by a senate too cowardly to resist Octavian, and generally power and luxury-obsessed elite men who wanted those things without paying any personal price for them. The last thing they wanted was to put themselves or their immediate cohort at risk to expand or hold the empire by fighting, diplomacy, and administration. Gibbon was probably never going to bluntly state that the paranoia-driven choices of absolute rulers unrestricted by a parliament or any civil law wreak havoc by either slaughtering anyone competent enough to make them feel threatened or selecting multiple heirs to split the empire between. To my eye, Gibbon is at his best when he is analysing the structural changes of the administration and military control of the empire. To achieve this, he defines the roman empire as literally one centred on rome and then its various successor warlord states in "the west," then "the east," until at last it all peters out in the dangerous embarrassment of the "holy roman empire." An inexperienced reader might wonder how he could have kept going on when "the roman empire" is fundamentally over by the end of the first volume. Perhaps if Gibbon had realized how big his project would turn out to be, he might have sought a title that evoked what he traced more specifically: the ongoing political, social, and military impacts of the roman empire. More likely he would have run away screaming, so it is as well he had no idea he would work at least twenty years and compose what would come to thousands of printed pages.

An at once amusing and annoying discovery I made in Gibbon's pages is that he seems to be one of the earliest writers to refer to "navel gazing" as a self-indulgent religious practice in english. Roughly halfway into Volume VI, in Chapter LXIII, Gibbon spends some time on mystic practices in the eastern orthodox church.

The fakirs of India, and the monks of the Oriental church, were alike persuaded, that, in total abstraction of the faculties of the mind and body, the purer spirit may ascend to the enjoyment and vision of the Deity. The opinion and practice of the monasteries of mount Athos will be best represented in the words of an abbot, who flourished in the eleventh century. "When thou art alone in thy cell," says the ascetic teacher, "shut thy door, and seat thyself in a corner; raise thy mind above all things vain and transitory; recline thy beard and chin to thy breast; turn they eyes and thy thought towards the middle of the belly, the region of the navel; and search the place of the heart, the seat of the soul. At first, all will be dark and comfortless; but if you persevere day and night, you will feel an ineffable joy; and no sooner has the soul discovered the place of the heart, than it is involved in a mystic and etherial light." This light, the production of a distempered fancy, the creature of an empty stomach and an empty brain, was adored by the Quietists as the pure and perfect essence of God himself; and as long as the folly was confined to mount Athos, the simple solitaries were not inquisitive how the divine essence could be a material substance, or how an immaterial substance could be perceived by the eyes of the body.

This is funny for revealing a key origin of the commonly garbled understanding of meditation practices learned from buddhist and hindu monks, including the unfortunate label of "navel gazing." It is frustrating for its ethnocentrism, and what does seem like a bit of protesting too much due to his early flirtation with catholicism. But of course, that is simply speculation. On the flip side, this led me to a fascinating book by Anita Strezova, who explained what this practice is called and consists of in the eastern orthodox church.

Parallel to humanism, an enigmatic movement known as hesychasm reappeared in Byzantine consciousness at the end of the 13th century. The central tenet of this mystical spirituality was the development of hesychia, a term denoting tranquility and stillness, and a psychosomatic technique (consisting of repetition of the Jesus Prayer) to achieve knowledge and experience of the divine. The art of hesychia existed since the beginning of Orthodox monasticism in the 3rd century, and the monastic elders commonly transmitted this tradition to their spiritual children.

Nowadays even most thoughtful atheists and agnostics would not use the tone Gibbon does in his commentary on meditation practice at mount athos, and it seems to me it seriously takes away from his narrative when he gets caught up in discussing spiritual practices and religious differences. I suppose any of us should be so lucky, should we have a mass of writing survive over two hundred years after us, to manage to sound only so obnoxious in the parts we wrote on things we were most partisan about. (Top)


Depending on the edition of an abridged or full HDFRE a person may borrow or buy, including electronic versions, Gibbon's prefaces may be left out. This is unfortunate, because they are short but revealing and worth ten minutes or so to look at them. I have appended them in a fold out section below, which will expand on scroll over and retract again on moving the mouse outside of its border.

Many editions include Gibbon's annotated table of contents, but sometimes they don't, or seem to be missing parts, especially in secondhand hard copies. More recent editions add date ranges to the chapter annotations in the table of contents and the marginal notes, but that again is not always the case. Worse yet, many newer editions do not indicate the volume divisions. Where Gibbon divided his volumes matters a great deal, and I think it does a disservice to both him and the reader to leave these out. I have added a composite reference version of the table of contents in a second fold out section below. (Top)


[iii] IT is not my intention to detain the reader by expatiating on the variety, or the importance of the subject, which I have undertaken to treat: since the merit of the choice would serve to render the weakness of the execution still more apparent and still less excusable. But as I have presumed to lay before the Public a first volume only of the History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, it will perhaps be expected that I should explain, in a few words, the nature and limits of my general plan.

The memorable series of revolutions, which, in the course of about thirteen centuries, gradually undermined, and at length destroyed, the solid fabric of Roman greatness, may, with some propriety, be divided into the three following periods. [iv]

I. The first of these periods may be traced from the age of Trajan and the Antonines, when the Roman monarchy having attained its full strength and maturity, began to verge towards its decline and will extend to the subversion of the western empire, by the barbarians of Germany and Scythia, the rude ancestors of the most polished nations of modern Europe. This extraordinary revolution, which subjected Rome to the power of a Gothic conqueror, was completed about the beginning of the sixth century.

II. The second period of the Decline and Fall of Rome, may be supposed to commence with the reign of Justinian, who by his laws, as well as by his victories, restored a transient splendour to the Eastern Empire. It will comprehend the invasion of Italy by the Lombards; the conquest of the Asiatic and African provinces by the Arabs, who embraced the religion of Mahomet; the revolt of the Roman people against the feeble princes of Constantinople; and the elevation of Charlemagne, who, in the year eight hundred, [v] established the second, or German empire of the west.

III. The last and longest of these periods includes about seven centuries and a half; from the revival of the Western Empire, till the taking of Constantinople by the Turks, and the extinction of a degenerate race of princes, who continued to assume the titles of Caesar and Augustus, after their dominions were contracted to the limits of a single city; in which the language, as well as manners, of the ancient Romans, had been long since forgotten. The writer who should undertake to relate the events of this period, would find himself obliged to enter into the general history of the Crusades, as far as they contributed to the ruin of the Greek Empire; and he would scarcely be able to restrain his curiosity from making some inquiry into the state of the city of Rome, during the darkness and confusion of the middle ages.

As I have ventured perhaps too boldly to commit to the press, a work, which in every sense of the word, [vi] deserves the epithet of imperfect, I consider myself as contracting an engagement wo finish, most probably in a second volume, the first of these memorable periods; and to deliver to the Public, the complete history of the Decline and Fall of Rome, from the age of the Antonines, to the subversion of the Western Empire. With regard to the subsequent periods, though I may entertain some hopes, I dare not presume to give any assurances. The execution of such an extensive plan, as I have traced out, and which might perhaps be comprehended in about four volumes, would fill up the long interval between ancient and modern history; but it would require many years of health, of leisure, and of perseverance.


P.S. Before I dismiss this Third Edition from the Press, I think it incumbent on me to declare, that the indulgence of the candid Public encourages me to prosecute a laborious Work, which has been judged not wholly unworthy of their attention.

An Author easily persuades himself that the public opinion is still favorable to his labours; and I have now embraced the serious resolution of proceeding to the last period od my original design, and of the Roman Empire, the taking of Constantinople by the Turks, in the year one thousand four hundred and fifty-three. The most patient Reader, who computes that three ponderous volumes have been already employed on the events of four centuries, may, perhaps, be alarmed at the long prospect of nine hundred years. But it is not my intention to expatiate with the same minuteness on the whole series of the Byzantine history. At our entrance into this period, the reign of Justinian, and the conquests of the Mahometans, will deserve and detain our attention,a nd the last age of Constaniople, (the Crusades and the Turks) is connected with the revolutions of Modern Europe. From the seventh to the eleventh century, the obscure interval will be supplied by a concise narrative of such facts as may appear interesting or important.

BENTINCK STREET, March 1, 1782.


DILIGENCE and accuracy are the only merits which an historical writer may ascribe to himself; if any merit indeed can be assumed from the performance of an indispensable duty. I may therefore be allowed to say, that I have carefully examined all the original materials that could illustrate the subject which I had undertaken to treat. Should I ever complete the extensive design which has been sketched out in the Preface, I might perhaps conclude it with a critical account of the authors consulted during the progress of the whole work; and however such an attempt might incur the censure of ostentation, I am persuaded, that it would be susceptible of entertainment as well as information.

At present I shall content myself with a single observation. The Biographers, who, under the reigns of Diocletian and Constantine, composed, or rather compiled, the lives of the emperors, from Hadrian to the sons of Carus, are usually mentioned under the names of Aelius Spartianus, Julius Capitolinus, Aelius Lampridius, Vulcatius Gallicanus, Trebellius Pollio, and Flavius Vopiscus. But there is so much perplexity in the titles of the MSS.; and so many disputes have arisen among the critics (see Fabricius Biblioth. Larin, I. iii. c. 6) concerning their number, their names, and their respective property, that for the most part I have quoted them without distinction, under the general and well known title of the Augustan History.

PREFACE to the Fourth Volume of the Original Quarto Edition

[xxxi] I now discharge my promise, and complete my design, of writing the History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, both in the West and the East. The whole period extends from the age of Trajan and the Antonines, to the taking of Constantinople by Mahomet the Second; and includes a review of the Crusades, and the state of Rome during the middle ages. Since the publication of the first volume, twelve years have elapsed; twelve years, according to my wish, "of health, of leisure, and of perseverance." I may now congratulate my deliverance from a long and laborious service, and my satisfaction will be pure and perfect, if the public favour should be extended to the conclusion of my work.

It was my first intention to have collected, under one view, the numerous authors, of every age and language, from whom I have derived the materials of this history; and I am still convinced that the apparent ostentation would be more than compensated by real use. If I have renounced this idea, if I have declined an undertaking which had obtained the [xxxii] approbation of a master-artist, my excuse may be found in the extreme difficulty of assigning a proper measure to such a catalogue. A naked list of names and editions would not be satisfactory to my readers: the characters of the principal Authors of the Roman and Byzantine History have been occasionally connected with the events which they describe; a more copious and critical inquiry might indeed deserve, but it would demand, an elaborate volume, which might swell by degrees into a general library of historical writers. For the present, I shall content myself with renewing my serious protestation, that I have endeavoured 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.

[xxxiv] P.S. I shall embrace this opportunity of introducing two verbal remarks, which have not conveniently offered themselves to my notice. 1. As often as I use the definition of beyond the Alps, the Rhine, the Danube, &c., I generally suppose myself at Rome, and afterwards at Constantinople; without observing whether this relative geography may agree with the local, but variable, situation of the reader, or the historian. 2. In proper names of foreign, and especially of Oriental origin, it should always be our aim to [xxxv] express, in our English version, a faithful copy of the original. But this rule, which is founded on a just regard to uniformity and truth, must often be relaxed; and the exceptions will be limited or enlarged by the custom of the language and the taste of the interpreter. Our alphabets may often be defective; a harsh sound, an uncouth spelling, might offend the ear or the eye of our countrymen; and some words, notoriously corrupt, are fixed, and, as it were, naturalized in the vulgar tongue. The prophet Mohammed can no longer be stripped of the famous, though improper, appellation of Mahomet: the well-known cities of Aleppo, Damascus, and Cairo, would almost be lost in the strange descriptions of Haleb, Demashk, and Al Cahira: the titles and offices of the Ottoman empire are fashioned by the practice of three hundred years; and we are pleased to blend the three Chinese monosyllables, Con-fû-tzee, in the respectable name of Confucius, or even to adopt the Portuguese corruption of Mandarin. But I would vary the use of Zoroaster and Zerdusht, as I drew my information from Greece or Persia: since our connection with India, the genuine Timour is restored to the throne of Tamerlane: our most correct writers have retrenched the Al, the superfluous article, from the Koran; and we escape an ambiguous termination, by adopting Moslem instead of Musulman, in the plural number. In these, and in a thousand examples, the shades of distinction are often minute; and I can feel, where I cannot explain, the motives of my choice.


I. Of the Extent and Military Force of the Empire, in the Age of the Antonines

II. Of the Union and Internal Prosperity of the Roman Empire in the Age of the Antonines

III. Of the Constitution of the Roman Empire in the Age of the Antonines (96 – 180 CE)

IV. The Cruelty, Follies, and Murder of Commodus – Election of Pertinax – His Attempts to Reform the State – His Assassination by the Praetorian Guards (180 – 193 CE)

V. Public Sale of the Empire to Didius Julianus by the Praetorian Guards – Clodius Albinus in Britain, Pescennius Niger in Syria, and Septimus Severus in Pannonia, Declare Against the Murderers of Pertinax – Civil War and Victory of Severus Over His Three Rivals – Relaxation of Discipline – New Maxims of Government (193 – 197 CE)

VI. The Death of Severus – Tyranny of Caracalla – Usurpation of Macrinus – Follies of Elagabalus – Virtues of Alexander Severus – Licentiousness of the Army – General State of the Roman Finances (208 – 235 CE)

VII. The Elevation of Tyranny of Maximin – Rebellion in Africa and Italy, Under the Authority of the Senate Civil Wars and Seditions – Violent Deaths of Maximin and His Son, of Maximus and Balbinus, and of the Three Gordians – Usurpation and Secular Games of Philip (235 – 248 CE)

VIII. Of the State of Persia After the Restoration of the Monarchy by Artaxerxes (165 – 240 CE)

IX. The State of Germany Till the Invasion of the Barbarians in the Time of Emperor Decius (249 – 251 CE)

X. The Emperor Decius, Gallus, Aemilianus, Valerian, and Gallienus – The General Irruption of the Barbarians – The Thirty Tyrants (248 – 268 CE)

XI. Reign of Claudius – Defeat of the Goths – Victories, Triumph, and Death of Aurelian (268 – 275 CE)

XII. Conduct of the Army and Senate After the Death of Aurelian – Reigns of Tacitus, Probus, Carus, and His Sons (275 – 285 CE)

XIII. The Reign of Diocletian and His Three Associates, Maximan, Galerius, and Constantius – General Re-Establishment of Order and Tranquility – The New Form of Administration – Abdication and Retirement of Diocletian and Maximian (285 – 313 CE)

XIV. Troubles After the Abdication of Diocletian – Death of Constantius – Elevation of Constantine and Maxentius – Six Emperors and the Same Time – Death of Maximian and Galerius – Victories of Constantine Over Maxentius and Licinius – Re-Union of the Empire Under the Authority of Constantine (305 – 324 CE)

XV. The Progress of the Christian Religion – Sentiments, Manners, Numbers, and Conditions of the Primitive Christians

XVI. The Conduct of the Roman Government Towards the Christians, From the Reign of Nero to That of Constantine (180-313 CE)


XVII. Foundation of Constantinople – Political System of Constantine and His Successors – Military Discipline – The Palace – The Finances (300 – 500 CE)

XVIII. Character of Constantine – Gothic War – Death of Constantine – Division of the Empire Among His Three Sons – Persian War – Tragic Deaths of Constantine the Younger and Constans – Usurpation of Magnentius – Civil War – Victory of Constantius (324 – 353 CE)

XIX. Constantius Sole Emperor – Elevation and Death of Gallus – Danger and Elevation of Julian – Sarmatian and Persian Wars – Victories of Julian in Gaul (351 – 360 CE)

XX. The Motives, Progress, and Effects of the Conversion of Constantine – Legal Establishment and Constitution of the Christian or Catholic Church (306 – 438 CE)

XXI. Persecution of Heresy – The Schism of the Donatists – The Arian Controversy – Athanasius – Distracted State of the Church and Empire Under Constantine and His Sons – Toleration of Paganism (312 – 362 CE)

XXII. Julian is Declared Emperor by the Legions of Gaul – His March and Success – The Death of Constantius – Civil Administration of Julian (360 – 361 CE)

XXIII. The Religion of Julian – Universal Toleration – He Attempts to Restore and Reform the Pagan Worship – To Rebuild the Temple of Jerusalem – His Artful Persecution of the Christians – Mutual Zeal and Injustice (351 – 363 CE)

XXIV. Residence of Julian at Antioch – His Successful Expedition Against the Persians – Passage of the Tigris – The Retreat and Death of Julian – Election of Jovian – He Saves the Roman Army By a Disgraceful Treaty (314 – 390 CE)

XXV. The Government and Death of Jovian – Election of Valentinian, Who Associates His Brother Valens, and Makes the Final Division of the Eastern and Western Empires – Revolt of Procopius – Civil and Ecclesiastical Administration – Germany – Britain – Africa – The East – The Danube – Death of Valentinian – His Two Sons, Gratian and Valentinian II, Succeeds to the Western Empire (343 – 384 CE)

XXVI. Manners of the Pastoral Nations – Progress of the Huns From China to Europe – Flight of the Goths – Defeat and Death of Valens – Gratian Invests Theodosius With the Eastern Empire – Peace and Settlement of the Goths (365 – 395 CE)


XXVII. Death of Gratian – Ruin of Arianism – St. Ambrose – First Civil War, Against Maximus – Character, Administration, and Penance of Theodosius – Death of Valentinian II – Second Civil War, Against Eugenius – Death of Theodosius (340 – 397 CE)

XXVIII. Final Destruction of Paganism – Introduction of the Worship of Saints and Relics Among the Christians (378 – 420 CE)

XXIX. Final Division of the Roman Empire Between the Sons of Theodosius – Reign of Arcadius and Honorius – Administration of Rufinus and Stilicho – Revolt and Defeat of Gildo in Africa (386 – 398 CE)

XXX. Revolt of the Goths – They Plunder Greece – Two Great Invasions of Italy by Alaric and Radagaisus – They are Repulsed By Stilicho – The Germans Overrun Gaul – Usurpation of Constantine in the West – Disgrace and Death of Stilicho (395 – 408 CE)

XXXI. Invasion of Italy by Alaric – Rome is Thrice Besieged, and at Length Pillaged, by the Goths – Death of Alaric – The Goths Evacuate Italy – Fall of Constantine – Gaul and Spain Occupied by the Barbarians – Independence of Britain (408 – 449 CE)

XXXII. Arcadius Emperor of the East – Administration and Disgrace of Eutropus – Revolt of Gainas – Perscution of St. John Chrysostom – Theodosius II Emperor of the East – The Persian War, and Division of Armenia (395 – 1453 CE)

XXXIII. Death of Honorius – Valentinian III Emperor of the West – Administration of His Mother Placida – Aetius and Boniface – Conquest of Africa by the Vandals (423 – 455 CE)

XXXIV. The Character, Conquests, and Court of Attila, King of the Huns – Death of Theodosius the Younger – Elevation of Marcian to the Empire of the East (376 – 453 CE)

XXXV. Invasion of Gaul by Attila – He is Repulsed by Aetius and the Visigoths – Attila Invades and Evacuates Italy – The Deaths of Attila, Aetius, and Valentinian the Third (419 – 455 CE)

XXXVI. Sack of Rome by Genseric – His Naval Depredations – Succession of the Last Emperors of the West, Maximus, Avitus, Majorian, Severus, Anthemius, Olybrius, Glycerius, Nepos, Augustulus – Total Extinction of the Western Empire – Reign of Odoacer, the First Barbarian King of Italy (439 – 490 CE)

XXXVII. Origin, Progress, and Effects of the Monastic Life – Conversion of the Barbarians to Christianity and Arianism – Persecution of the Vandals in Africa – Extinction of Arianism (305 – 712 CE)

XXXVIII. Reign and Conversion of Clovis – His Victories Over the Alemanni, Burgundians, and Visigoths – Establishment of the French Monarchy in Gaul – Laws of the Barbarians – State of the Romans – The Visigoths of Spain – Conquests of Britain by the Saxons (449 – 582 CE)


XXXIX. Zeno and Anastasius, Emperors of the East – Birth, Education, and First Exploits of Theodoric the Ostrogoth – His Invasion and Conquest of Italy – The Gothic Kingdom of Italy – State of the West – Military and Civil Government – The Senator Boethius – Last Acts and Death of Theodoric (455 – 526 CE)

XL. Elevation of Justin the Elder – Reign of Justinian – I. The Empress Theodora – II. Factions of the Circus, and Sedition of Constantinople – III. Trade and Manufacture of Silk – IV. Finances and Taxes – V. Edifices of Justinian – Church of St. Sophia – Fortifications and Frontiers of the Eastern Empire – Abolition of the Schools of Athens and the Consulship of Rome (482 – 565 CE)

XLI. Conquest of Justinian in the West – Character and First Campaigns of Belisarius – He Invades and Subdues the Vandal Kingdom of Africa – His Triumph – The Gothic War – He Recovers Sicily, Naples, and Rome – Siege of Rome by the Goths – Their Retreat and Losses – Surrender of Ravenna – Glory of Belisarius – His Domestic Shame and Misfortunes (522 – 620 CE)

XLII. State of the Barbaric World – Establishment of the Lombards on the Danube – Tribes and Inroads of the Sclavonians – Origin, Empire, and Embassies of the Turks – The Flight of the Avars – Chosroes I, or Nushrivan, King of Persia – His Prosperous Reign and Wars With the Romans – The Colchian or Lazic War (500 – 582 CE)

XLIII. Rebellions of Africa – Restoration of the Gothic Kingdom by Totila – Loss and Recovery of Rome – Final Conquest of Italy by Narses – Extinction of the Ostrogoths – Defeat of the Franks and Alemanni – Last Victory, Disgrace, and Death of Belisarius – Death and Character of Justinian – Comet, Earthquakes, and Plague (531 – 594 CE)

XLIV. Idea of the Roman Jurisprudence – The Laws of the Kings – The Twelve Tables of the Decemvirs – The Laws of the People – The Decrees of the Senate – The Edicts of the Magistrates and Emperors – Authority of the Civilians – Code, Pandects, Novels, and Institutes of Justinian: – I. Rights of Persons –

II. Rights of Things – III. Private Injuries and Actions – IV. Crimes and Punishments (527 – 565 CE)

XLV. Reign of the Younger Justin – Embassy of the Avars – Their Settlement on the Danube – Conquest of Italy by the Lombards – Adoption and Reign of Tiberius – Of Maurice – State of Italy Under the Lombards and the Exarchs – Of Ravenna – Gregory the First (565 – 643 CE)

XLVI. Revolutions of Persia After the Death of Chosroes or Nushirvan – His Son Hormouz, A Tyrant, is Deposed – Usurpation of Bahram – Flight and Restoration of Chosroes II – His Gratitude to the Romans – The Charan of the Avars – Revolt of the Army Against Maurice – His Death – Tyranny of Phocas – Elevation of Heraclius – The Persian War – Chosroes Subdues Syria, Egypt, and Asia Minor – Siege of Constantinople by the Persians and Avars – Persian Expeditions – Victories and Triumph of Heraclius (570 – 642 CE)

XLVII. Theological History of the Doctrine of the Incarnation – The Human and Divine Nature of Christ – Enmity of the Patriarchs of Alexandria and Constantinople – St. Cyril and Nestorius – Third General Council of Ephesus – Heresy of Eutyches – Fourth General Council of Chalcedon – Civil and Ecclesiastical Discord – Intolerance of Justinian – The Three Chapters – The Monothelite Controversy – State of the Oriental Sects – I. The Nestorians – II. The Jacobites – III. The Maronites – IV. The Armenians – V. The Copts and Abyssinans (412 – 1632 CE)


XLVIII. Plan of the Last Two [Quarto] Volumes – Succession and Characters of the Greek Emperors of Constantinople, From the Time of Heraclius to the Latin Conquest (641 – 1185 CE)

XLIX. Introduction, Worship, and Persecution of Images – Revolt of Italy and Rome – Temporal Dominion of the Popes – Conquest of Italy by the Franks – Establishment of Images – Character and Coronation of Charlemagne – Restoration and Decay of the Roman Empire in the West – Independence of Italy – Constitution of the Germanic Body (726 – 1378 CE)

L. Description of Arabia and its Inhabitants – Birth, Character, and Doctrine of Mohammed – He Preaches at Mecca – Flies to Medina – Propagates His Religion by the Sword – Voluntary or Reluctant Submission of the Arabs – His Death and Successors – The Claims and Fortunes of Ali and His Descendants (569 – 680 CE)

LI. The Conquest of Persia, Syria, Egypt, Africa, and Spain, by the Arabs or Saracens – Empire of the Caliphs, or Successors of Mohammed – State of the Christians, etc. Under Their Government (632 – 718 CE)

LII. The Two Sieges of Constantinople by the Arabs – Their Invasion of France, and Defeat by Charles Martel – Civil War of the Ommiades and Abbassides – Learning of the Arabs – Luxury of the Caliphs – Naval Enterprises on Crete, Sicily, and Rome – Decay and Division of the Empire of the Caliphs – Defeats and Victories of the Greek Emperors (668 – 1055 CE)

LIII. State of the Eastern Empire in the Tenth Century – Extent and Division – Wealth and Revenue – Palace of Constantinople – Titles and Offices – Pride and Power of the Emperors – Tactics of the Greeks, Arabs, and Franks – Loss of the Latin Tongue – Studies and Solitude of the Greeks (733 – 988 CE)

LIV. Origin and Doctrine of the Paulicians – Their Persecution by the Greek Emperors – Revolt in Armenia, Etc. – Transplantation Into Thrace – Propagation in the West – The Seeds, Character, and Consequences of the Reformation (660 – 1200 CE)

LV. The Bulgarians – Origin, Migrations, and Settlement of the Hungarians – Their Inroads in the East and West – The Monarchy of Russia – Geography and Trade – War of the Russians Against the Greek Empire – Conversion of the Barbarians (640 – 1100 CE)

LVI. The Saracens, Franks, and Greeks in Italy – First Adventures and Settlement of the Normans – Character and Conquests of Robert Guiscard, Duke of Apulia – Deliverance of Sicily by His Brother Roger – Victories of Robert Over the Emperors of the East and West – Roger, King of Sicily Invades Africa and Greece – The Emperor Manuel Comnenus – Wars of the Greeks and Normans – Extinction of the Normans (840 – 1204 CE)

LVII. The Turks of the House of Seljuk – Their Revolt Against Mahmud, Conqueror of Hindostan – Togrul Subdues Persia, and Protects the Caliphs – Defeat and Captivity of the Emperor Romanus Diogenes by Alp Arslan – Power and Magnificence of Malek Shah – Conquest of Asia Minor and Syria – State and Oppression of Jerusalem (980 – 1152 CE)


LVIII. Origin and Numbers of the First Crusade – Characters of the Latin Princes – Their March to Constantinople – Policy of the Greek Emperor Alexius – Conquest of Nice, Antioch, and Jerusalem, by the Franks – Deliverance of the Holy Sepulchre – Godfrey of Bouillon, First King of Jerusalem (1095 – 1369 CE)

LIX. Preservation of the Greek Empire – Numbers, Passage, and Event of the Second and Third Crusades – St. Bernard – Reign of Saladin in Egypt and Syria – His conquest of Jerusalem – Naval Crusades – Richard the First of England – Pope Innocent the Third; and the Fourth and Fifth Crusades – The Emperor Frederic the Second – Louis the Ninth of France; and the Two Last Crusades – Expulsion of the Latins or Franks by the Mamalukes (1091 – 1517 CE)

LX. Schism of the Greeks and Latins – State of Constantinople – Revolt of the Bulgarians – Isaac Angelus Dethroned by His Brother Alexius – Origin of the Fourth Crusade – Alliance of the French and Venetians With the Son of Isaac – Their Naval Expedition to Constantinople – The Two Sieges and Final Conquest of the City (697 – 1204 CE)

LXI. Partition of the Empire by the French and Venetians – Five Latin Emperors of the House of of Flanders and Courtenay – Their Wars Against the Bulgarians and Greeks – Weaknesses and Poverty of the Latin Empire – Recovery of Constantinople by the Greeks – General Consequences of the Crusades (1020 – 1261 CE)

LXII. The Greek Emperors of Nice and Constantinople – Elevation and Reign of Michael Palaeologus – His False Union With the Pope and the Latin Church – Hostile Designs of Charles of Anjou – Revolt of Sicily – Revolutions and Present State of Athens (1204 – 1456 CE)

LXIII. Civil Wars, and Ruin of the Greek Empire – Reigns of Andronicus the Elder and Younger, and John Palaeologus – Regency, Revolt, Reign, and Abdication of John Cantacuzene – Establishment of a Genoese Colony at Pera or Galata (1282 – 1391 CE)

LXIV. Conquests of Zingis Khan and the Moguls From China to Poland – Escape of Constantinople and the Greeks – Origin of the Ottoman Turks in Bithynia – Reigns and Victories of Othman, Orchan, Amuath the First, and Bajazet the First – Foundation and Progress of the Turkish Monarchy in Asia and Europe – Danger of Constantinople and the Greek Empire (1206 – 1425 CE)

LXV. Elevation of Timour or Tamerlane to the Throne of Samarcand – His Conquests in Persia, Georgia, Tartary, Russia, India, Syria, and Anatolia – His Turkish War – Defeat and Captivity of Bajazet – Death of Timour – Civil War of the Sons of Bajazet – Restoration of the Turkish Monarchy by Mohammed the First – Siege of Constantinople by Amurath the Second (1361 – 1451 CE)

LXVI. Applications of the Eastern Emperors to the Popes – Visits to the West of John the First, Manuel, and John the Second, Palaeologus – Union of the Greek and Latin Churches Promoted by the Council of Basil, and Concluded at Ferrara and Florence – State of Literature at Constantinople – Its Revival in Italy by the Greek Fugitives – Curiosity and Emulation of the Latins (1339 – 1500 CE)

LXVII. Schism of the Greeks and Latins – Reign and Character of Amurath the Second – Crusade of Ladislaus, King of Hungary – His Defeat and Death (1421 – 1467 CE)

LXVIII. Reign and Character of Mohammed the Second – Siege, Assault, and Final Conquest of Constantinople by the Turks – Death of Constantine Palaeologus – Servitude of the Greeks – Extinction of the Roman Empire in the East – Consternation of Europe – Conquests and Death of Mohammed the Second (1451 – 1481 CE)

LXIX. State of Rome From the Twelfth Century – Temporal Dominion of the Popes – Seditions of the City – Political Heresy of Arnold of Brescia – Restoration of the Republic – The Senators – Pride of the Romans – Their Wars – They are Deprived of the Election and Presence of the Popes, Who Retire to Avignon – The Jubilee – Noble Families of Rome – Feud of the Colonna and Ursini (800 – 1500 CE)

LXX. Character and Coronation of Petrarch – Restoration of the Freedom and Government of Rome by the Tribune Rienzi – His Virtues and Vices, His Expulsion and Death – Return of the Popes From Avignon – Great Schism of the West – Reunion of the Latin Church – Last Struggles of Roman Liberty – Statutes of Rome – Final Settlement of the Ecclesiastical State (1304 – 1590 CE)

LXXI. Prospect of the Ruins of Rome in the Fifteenth Century – Four Causes of Decay and Destruction – Example of the Coliseum – Renovation of the City – Conclusion of the Whole Work (1332 – 1430 CE)

  1. Womersley, David P. "Introduction," The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (London: Penguin Classics, 1994), xi-cvi.
  2. Grafton, Anthony. The Footnote: A Curious History (Cambridge (u.s.): Harvard University Press, 1997), 101-103
  3. For example see this humanist society biography: Humanist Heritage - Edward Gibbon (1737–1794).
  4. I agree that this is an exceptionally ugly acronym. However, referring constantly to "Gibbon's Decline and Fall," which tends to make it sound like the discussion is about him personally or as "Decline and Fall" as if no other empire or society ever did such a thing struck me as worse.
  5. I am deliberately not identifying the specific abridgement beyond giving the detail that it had no introduction. Any well-done abridgement will have one, including the 2001 penguin classics version abridged by David P. Womersley.
  6. Seriously. It all seems to have started with an apparently real statement by historian Philip Guedalla to the effect that Gibbon "lived out his sex life in his footnotes" as paraphrased in a 1997 stanford review article, The Decline and Fall of Footnotes. I have my doubts about the claim, and it does strike me as a mean-spirited indirect reference to his later health issues, which are widely believed to include scrotal swelling that forced him into social isolation and a lengthy struggle to manage the condition before his death. The wikipedia biography is remarkably subtle in its coverage of Gibbon's later life ill-health.
  7. This edition was more substantially rebound than I originally appreciated. It is titled The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, from The Modern Library, which is now an imprint of Random House. Based on my further research, this was originally a two volume edition, which can be viewed in the internet archive at Volume 1 and Volume 2. I still can't find an identification for the person with the initials "O.S." who added their annotations among Gibbon's footnotes.
  8. Gibbon, Edward. John Murray, editor. The Autobiographies of Edward Gibbon. London: William Clowes and Sons Limited, 1896. (Online edition). He describes his acquisition of latin on page 44; greek, 53; latin, greek, and french 133-134.
  9. Womersley, "Introduction."
  10. As evidenced by his publications and ongoing research including: The Transformation of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1988 cambridge university press), the already mentioned critical and abridged editions of HTDFRE, and ongoing study of Gibbon's writing style such as that mentioned in University of Oxford News and Events: Gibbon's "Earliest Use of Irony" Revealed by Manuscript, 21 august 2012. Very interested readers may want to follow up further details from Womersley's oxford university faculty biography.
  11. Original edition (1777-1782) online: Volume One (1776) | Volume Two (1781) | Volume Three (1781) | Volume Four (1788) | Volume Five (1788) | Volume Six (1788) | A Vindication of Some Passages of the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Chapters of the History of the the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1779).
  12. H.H. Milman edition (1836-1838): Volume One | Volume Two | Volume Three | Volume Four | Volume Five.
  13. J.B. Bury's edition (1896-1900): Volume One | Volume Two | Volume Three | Volume Four | Volume Five | Volume Six | Volume Seven.
  14. Womersley, "Introduction."
  15. The debt relationship issue is not my opinion, it reports in extremely high level and simplified terms a part of Michael Hudson's research on lending and debt relations in the ancient world. See his website and his book ...and Forgive Them Their Debts and his upcoming The Collapse of Antiquity.
  16. Womersley, David P. The Transformation of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (cambridge: cambridge university press, 1988), 41-43; also see the publication dates on the copyright pages of the scans of the first edition.
  17. Besides Gibbon's autobiographies, his wikipedia page also assisted with identifying important dates for the man himself. The other dates are widely known, and may be checked against the OED and of course, wikipedia. For more on england's eighteenth century history, there is a six volume account by William E.H. Lecky which includes excellent and detailed table of contents for each volume. Just reading over those 6-8 pages at the start of each one will provide a solid overview. A History of England in the Eighteenth Century: Volume 1 | Volume 2 | Volume 3 | Volume 4 | Volume 5 | Volume 6
  18. Complementary course materials posted for the manuscript studies program at the university of alberta defines a critical edition as "an attempt to establish a "best text" (closest to the author's "ur-text") through comparison of various versions (study of "variants"); the editor chooses a "copy text" (usually that of the most authoritative manuscript) and "corrects" it using the variants from other manuscripts." See Manuscript Studies Medieval and Early Modern V.iii. Textual Bibliography: Kinds of Edition from Manuscript Studies Medieval and Early Modern Course Notes by Stephen Reimer, last revised may 2015. To study Reimer's excellent notes and bibliography, he provides an excellent overview page and site map.
  19. See Milman's wikipedia page for a basic account of his life and writing. For those interested in another example of an early modern history wrestling with how to handle footnotes, citations, and whether to reproduce documents and lengthy quotes, it is worth checking out his The History of the Jews From the Earliest Period Down to Modern Times.
  20. The discussion of authorities and bibliography are well worth examining.
  21. Today this is even more true, regardless of whether a person could literally afford a copy of the books. An anonymous person opted to put together a wordpress site of Decline and Fall Resources to address this issue. Unfortunately most of the links go to files hosted in googledocs.
  22. Wikipedia: J.B. Bury. A History of Freedom of Thought (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1913).
  23. University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences: Emeritus Faculty.
  24. Palmeri, Frank. "The Satiric Footnotes of Swift and Gibbon," The Eighteenth Century, 31(3), 1990: 245-262. Page 259.
  25. The best short introduction to the Octavian's efforts to control the record of his reign is in Richard Miles' 2000 article, "Communicating Culture, Identity, and Power," pages 29-62 in Experiencing Rome: Culture, Identity, and Power in the Roman Empire, edited by Janet Huskinson (London: Routledge).
  26. The historical city of troy was originally near the coast of modern-day turkey, in an excellent position to manage access to the black sea and beyond. It was sacked multiple times in its long history, but in the end it was probably the receding sea that ended the trade and military power that could be exerted from the site.
  27. The number of nations bordering on the roman empire of course varied depending its extent at the time. The quickest online access point for learning about these is the Roman History section of the World History Encyclopedia.
  28. Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon books, 1978.
  29. Yes, I am using the name "italy" anachronistically here.
  30. For example, see Almut Hofert, Matthew M. Mesley and Serena Tolino (Editors), Celibate and Childless Men in Power: Ruling Eunuchs and Bishops in the Pre-Modern. New York: Routledge, 2018.
  31. I would need to re-read much more closely and do considerably more research to make a serious argument on this point, though.
  32. HDFRE, Volume Six (1788), 278-279.
  33. According to my OED, "a Renaissance cultural movement that turned away from medieval scholasticism and revived interest in ancient Greek and Roman thought."
  34. Strezova,Anita. Hesychasm and Art: The Appearance of New Iconographic Trends in Byzantine and Slavic Lands in the 14th and 15th Centuries. Canberra: Australian National University Press, 2014. 1-2.
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