An examination of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, specifically its philosophical base and how it fails to give an accurate assessment of the decline and fall of Rome due to its reliance on metaphysics and Gibbon’s own personal prejudice.Read more
Considered by some to be the greatest work of history ever written, the importance of Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as literature cannot be understated. In its day, the book polarized opinions and put Gibbon on the map alongside historians like Livy and Pliny the Elder.1 Today it has secured Gibbon’s place in history but has become a more important work of historiography than of history. Though a triumph stylistically, his analysis misses the mark. He succeeds in identifying destabilizing forces in the Roman Empire but blows them way out of proportion. At the same time, he overlooks obvious economic and social factors which contributed to the decline and fall of the Roman Empire to a far greater extent. His conclusion, that the integration of barbarians and especially the rise of Christianity weakened and undermined the values that supposedly held Rome together led to the fall of the Roman Empire,2 is just as controversial today as it was then but for totally different reasons – mainly that it’s inaccurate.
The myth of barbarians as an inherently destabilizing force in the Roman Empire is, to be frank, ludicrous. No matter how badly historians wish it was, the Roman Empire was not a place of cultural, ethnic, religious, or philosophical purity. Roman culture, as the culture of any empire is going to be, was a mishmash of cultures which changed and evolved as more non-Roman peoples were integrated into the Empire.3 The barbarians were not a threat to the Roman Empire until its twilight years. By then, the barbarian threat was not a matter of culture or values but of military might. The heavily armored cavalry of the Goths had proved to be far more effective than anything the Roman Empire could muster by the fourth century.4 After the humiliating defeat at the Battle of Adrianople in 378, a loss for the Roman Empire that resulted in the decimation of an entire army and the death of Emperor Valens, Emperor Theodosius hired the very same barbarian forces that defeated them.5 They were no longer a threat but an asset. If the Roman Empire was able to continue paying them they’d have rendered a great and important service to Rome and may very well have been assimilated or opted to be incorporated into the Empire as many barbarian tribes were from the earliest days of the Roman Republic to the last days of Byzantine Empire.6 In many cases, today’s barbarians were tomorrow’s Romans. Even before directly hiring barbarian mercenaries, many Roman soldiers came from non-Roman and barbarian backgrounds.7 Like the empire of Alexander the Great before it, cultural diffusion and adaptation only strengthened the Roman Empire and helped secure their hold on the frontier territories and other more far flung regions of the Roman Empire.8 Seeing as this was published during the height of the American War of Independence, Gibbon the conservative may very well have been influenced by the perceived ingratitude of the miscreant colonists;9 viewing foreign expansion in general as a somewhat perilous venture.
The most controversial aspect of History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is its treatment of Christianity. Gibbon’s unflattering portrayal of the religion’s blood soaked early history10 is remarkable and indeed the book would surely have not reached its level of fame if not for that. As bold as this was, this was not wholly accurate. The spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire was helped largely by the Pax Romana.11 This period of free trade, peace, and the wide scale construction of infrastructure allowed the zealous Christians to spread their message far and wide. The Christian message of equality between classes was as revolutionary then as communism is now. Like communism, Christianity was an ideological reaction to the conditions created by the current economic mode of production, in this case – slave society.12 Christianity did not create social unrest, social unrest created Christianity.
The life of a slave was dismal. With nearly a third of the Roman population made up of slaves and the majority of plebeians living in squalor by the middle of the third century,13 Christians found fertile ground for their message of equality and salvation. What Gibbon fails to realize is that, Christians or no Christians, the problems were already there; if Christianity didn’t destabilize the Roman Empire, another movement would have. There is little doubt that Gibbon’s preoccupation with the harmful influence of Christianity in the Roman Empire was a reflection of his own complicated relationship with religion.14
Gibbon’s goal was to put historical study on a new base. He wanted to add a philosophical aspect to his work.15 Ruthlessly attacked for his style, his critics recognized this but could rarely articulate it.16 Uncoincidentally, his most vocal critics were those who opposed him politically and philosophically.17 Thus, the biggest problem in his work is not his evidence or but with his analysis. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is rife with conservative clichés and metaphysics. Gibbon sees the trees (incursion by barbarians and the influence of Christianity) but not the forest (slave society).
A much more convincing argument is made by F.W. Walbank in The Decline of the Roman Empire in the West and Louis C. West in “The Economic Collapse of the Roman Empire.” According to Walbank, the very thing that built Rome led to its collapse: slave labor.18 The mass of slave labor allowed for a minority to achieve great things during the Roman Empire’s rise. However, this disallowed a large internal market for the vast majority of people living in the Empire. This inability to absorb its products forced the state to rely on conquest and external markets. It is this economic pressure that forced Emperor Trajan into his Parthian campaign which, though ultimately successful, did not result in the total annexation of Mesopotamia or the defeat of the Parthian Empire which were considered part of the “grand strategy” of the Empire.19 This resulted in Emperor Hadrian, Trajan’s successor, attempting to consolidate the military, building up frontier defenses and improving Trajan’s welfare program which had the aim of creating a larger pool of young men eligible for military service in Italy.20 Barely a century later, their and the rest of the good emperors’ achievements would be erased.21 The internal contradictions present in the Roman Empire could be resolved by the abolishing of slavery or significantly improving the living conditions of the plebeians, but this would destroy the patricians and the land owners as a class. Unwilling to commit class suicide, the old methods of pursing external markets through conquest were intensified, forcing the state to overextend the military.22
Manufacturing failed to evolve, having been purposely retarded in order to preserve the current mode of production. From the beginning of the Christian era to the fifth century, technology stood still.23 Priority was given to agriculture by the upper strata of society.24 Trade and other industries were looked down upon by respectable society and discouraged by the state. Agriculture was the only field given much thought and support and, thus, the only technological improvements made from the dawn of the first century were related to agriculture.25 The generally low standard of living and total inability to purchase luxury goods for most of the population created a sense of complacency and hopelessness. The desires of a small leisure class were unable to sustain any industry aimed at supplying people with comforts.26 Not that this bothered the patricians whose ideology of complacency, unlike that of the plebeians, was a comfort. They felt assured that their class and their families would remain on top for as long as the Roman Empire existed. It is interesting to note that slave society did not advance into feudalism until the fourth and fifth centuries as Rome lost more and more territory. In the areas once under Roman rule, local generals and land owners, better equipped to manage the land than the dying and far away empire, took control of the land and the military, making the people there pay a tribute to them but ending the ever increasing taxation by the Empire.27 In most cases, this (or the victory of barbarians over Roman forces who would then establish similar systems), was a relief for the plebeians, overburdened by the steep taxes and despotism characteristic of the late Roman Empire.28
Undoubtedly, Gibbon deserves his fame. History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is a fascinating book but was clearly influenced by Gibbon’s relationship with religion and the decline of the British Empire more than anything else. Gibbon’s failure to address economic and social issues ultimately discredits this as a truly great work of history, as it does his philosophy and politics.
- H.R. Trevor-Roper, “Gibbon and the Publication of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire 1776-1976,” The Journal of Law & Economics v. 19, No. 3 (October, 1976): 489-490.
- Edward Gibbon, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, (Salt Lake City: Project Gutenberg, 1996), <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/25717/25717-h/25717-h.htm> Accessed on January 15, 2018.
- Jackson J. Spielvogel, Western Civilization (Boston: Cengage Learning, 2016), 111-119.
- Eugen Weber, “The Western Tradition,” Internet Archive video, 15:35, posted by “Classical Kosmos,” November 30, 2017, <https://archive.org/details/14TheWesternTraditionTheFallOfRome> Accessed on February 1, 2018.
- Ibid., 16:34.
- Ibid., 2:22.
- Ibid., 16:02.
- Spielvogel, 98-107.
- H.R. Trevor-Roper, 491-492.
- Spielvogel, 168-169.
- Ibid., 170-171.
- Weber, 3:14.
- H.R. Trevor-Roper, 490.
- Ibid., 491.
- Ibid., 489-490.
- Ibid., 491.
- F.W. Walbank, The Decline of the Roman Empire in the West, (London: Cobbet Press, 1946), 3.
- Spielvogel, 150.
- Ibid., 151.
- Weber, 15:35.
- Walbank, 67.
- Louis C. West, “The Economic Collapse of the Roman Empire,” The Classical Journal v. 28, No. 2 (November, 1932): 98.
- Ibid., 99.
- Weber, 3:04.
- Ibid., 13:23.