The history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire

by Edward Gibbon

Other authorsBetty Radice (Foreword)
Paper Book, 1986



Call number



London : Folio Society, 1986.


The pre-eminent historian of his day, Edward Gibbon (1737-94) produced his magnum opus in six volumes between 1776 and 1788. Reissued here is the authoritative seven-volume edition prepared by J. B. Bury (1861-1927) between 1896 and 1900. Immediately and widely acclaimed, Gibbon's work remains justly famous for its magisterial account of Roman imperialism and Christianity from the first century CE through to the fall of Constantinople and beyond. Innovative in its use of primary sources and notable for its tone of religious scepticism, this epic narrative stands as a masterpiece of English literature and historical scholarship. Volume 4 focuses on the fifth and sixth centuries CE, examining the Vandal sack of Rome and the fall of the Western Empire, the conversion of barbarians to Christianity, the Saxon conquest of Britain, and the wars of the Goths and the Vandals.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member RMMee
I first considered reading this as a teenager some 35 years ago, but never got round to it. I have now put that right.

When you first start the book, unless you are used to late 18th century writing, the style and vocabulary can seem a little daunting, but this doesn't last for long. No, it is not
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at all "light" reading, but nor is it particulalry difficult.

Gibbon has a very personable style, and is quite vocal in his likes and dislikes. I can certainly understand why the work was disliked by the Church when it was published. His forthright views on the impact of Christianity may not have gone down well (indeed, they may not today!).

The history itself is split into two halves. The first half ends with the fall of Rome, and the end of the Western Empire. Personally, I believe that this would have been a better place for Gibbon to stop. The second half deals with the Eastern empire, based on Constantinople, and is more difficult, jumping as it does from one region to another, and moving back and forward in time.

For me the highlight is the chapter on the final demise of paganism, and the adoption of Christianity as the state religion. I felt really quite sad at the loss of heritage and culture that this caused. But there are so many other itens which could be singled out as spectacular in the author's narrative.

I have read the 8 volume Folio Society edition. This has the full text, but its abridgement of Gibbon's footnotes has been critcised by many. Personally, since it is the only edition I have read (or am likely to read), it has not affected me at all - the footnotes are in places quite amusing and illuminating, but in others dull references to his sources.

I am a classicist, but I have learned so much from this work. If you have any interest in the history of Rome, then I would suggest that you don't leave it 35 years to read this book as I did!!!!
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LibraryThing member ACDoyleLibrary
"Were I condemned to spend a year upon a desert island and allowed only one book for my companion, it is certainly that which I should choose. For consider how enormous is the scope, and what food for thought is contained within those volumes. It covers a thousand years of the world's history, it
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is full and good and accurate, its standpoint is broadly philosophic , its style dignified..." --Through the Magic Door, p.70
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LibraryThing member Cole_Hendron
A more succinct and direct testimony of human nature can not be found in any written record. My most lasting impression is one of brevity. No other work attempts to cover such a range of people, time and events. Any one chapter in the work could have been a very interesting and worthwhile book in
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itself. I also found myself deciphering the latin and greek footnotes with increasing pleasure.
My favorite testimony is that of Isaac Asimov, who, after twice reading Gibbon, envisioned a similar but 'galactic' story that would become the Foundation series.
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LibraryThing member Menophanes
Gibbon's greatest achievement was to unite the characters of the 'antiquary' (who collected undigested heaps of learning for others to quarry at will) and the 'historian' (who presented his own selection from such heaps in elegant literary form). He is a master of language, capable not only of
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great dignity and judicious scholarship but also of satire and occasional impish wickedness (as in his famous footnote about the empress Theodora and the geese); but he also recognises the importance of going back to the original sources and leaving a clear record of the fact. It is easy toi forget, too, that in his chapters about the early history of Islam and about the Crusades Gibbon, the great rationalist, shows a decidedly romantic streak. - Bury's Illustrated Library Edition (7 vols.) is the most recent attempt to update Gibbon and is unlikely ever to be superseded.
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LibraryThing member Tendulkar01
who can write like gibbon? who can claim a sharper wit? and how many historians can say they got ir largely right more than 2 centuries later?
LibraryThing member cmdpilot
Classical history of the Roman Empire - Volume One
LibraryThing member datrappert
Dense, but rewarding. Needs to be read in light of more recent scholarship. Love Gibbon's take on Christianity, however.
LibraryThing member garywolfe
great, suburb use of the english language
LibraryThing member bruce.montador
700 pages abridged! But very interesting.
LibraryThing member HadriantheBlind
Truly grand in scope, in subject matter, in style. Some conclusions/sources are out of date, but it is still a joy to read.
LibraryThing member chicjohn
Worth the effort.
LibraryThing member SteveJohnson
One of Gibbons' major theses is that the rise of Christianity, with its emphasis on other-worldly concerns, was a major factor in the decline of the Roman empire. In his notes, Milman, a minister, attempts to counter these conclusions.
LibraryThing member DarthDeverell
In The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon argues that the loss of civic virtue amongst the Romans enabled barbarian invaders to succeed in their conquest. The book traces the period from 98 CE to 1590 CE and, as an Enlightenment thinker, Gibbon spends a great deal of time
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criticizing Catholicism, arguing that Christianity accelerated the fall of the Empire, though he does offer that it may have “mollified the ferocious temper of the conquerors” (ch. 38). In many ways, Gibbon invented modern historical scholarship as he relied wherever possible on primary sources rather than secondhand accounts. Further, he documented all of his sources through footnotes, commenting on the importance of the sources and even injecting some levity into them at points. Though modern historical research and archaeology have disproved his conclusions, the basic summary of events remains a good introduction for those interested in the period Gibbon covers while his footnotes will be of interest to historians looking at Roman historiography. This edition reprints Gibbon’s unabridged text in three volumes with illustrations from Giovanni Battista Piranesi.
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LibraryThing member deusvitae
An 18th century exploration into the events surrounding the Roman Empire and its territories from ca. 180 until the 15th century.

The author is an 18th century Brit who has granted the ancient Romans their conceit, and the work must be read and understood in that light. One of the great
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opportunities for reflection in reading this work in the early 21st century is to consider what Europe, north Africa, and western Asia must have looked like to someone living in 1776, and the different forms of continuity and discontinuity which are maintained. As an example, Gibbon confesses how there are some areas of Italy which, in his day, had not yet recovered in population from the Byzantine-Gothic wars and the bubonic plague of the middle of the 6th century; we would not be able to make such an observation on the other side of the population boom which has attended to the industrial revolution.

Gibbon does well at considering not just secondary but especially primary sources, and he is rather opaque about his biases and prejudices regarding them. The length of discourse ebbs and flows with the amount and quality of these witnesses: the introductory books set forth the condition of the Empire in the days of the Antonines, the generally confessed high point of the Roman Empire, and fills in some of the details about the infrastructure of the Empire as it had developed from the days of Augustus. Then over a few books Gibbon covers the long/awful "third century" of 180-280 and all of the trials of the Empire. The fourth century resurgence and crisis defeats of 280-400 are covered in many books, including discussions of the development of Christianity, and thus ends the first modern volume. Then Gibbon gets to the collapse of the Empire at the hands of the German tribes in the West, and the maintenance of the Empire in the East. Over many books we read of Justinian, his conquests, and his law code; Gibbon has precious little to say about the Justinian plague beyond its virulence. Gibbon quickly covers Justinian through Heraclius, and the second modern volume ends with his characterization of the various Emperors from Heraclius until Isaac Angelus and the Latin conquest of Constantinople. The third modern volume covers the medieval period, and does so in two phases: from 600-1200, looking in across the world of the former Roman Empire and the exploits in Italy, Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire, Muhammad, the rise of Islam, the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates, the Bulgarians, Russians, Normans, the Turks, and then the Crusades, leading to the Fourth Crusade. Then Gibbon does something similar with the 1200-1450 period: the Greek loss of Constantinople, their fragmented empires, and recovery of Constantinople; the Mongols and the rise of the Ottomans; relationship between Byzantium and the West; the final loss of the Eastern Roman Empire; and Gibbon concludes by considering Rome itself from the tenth century until the end of the Great Schism. He then renders some conclusions.

Gibbon is often criticized for how he blames the fall of Rome on Christianity. I did not perceive in his work any truly monocausal explanation of this sort. In places where he would presume Christianity would have loosened the "martial spirit" of the Romans, he would be misguided. While Gibbon is a man of the Enlightenment - and in his notes you can tell he is a big fan of Hume and the Scottish Enlightenment in particular - his explorations of the various doctrinal controversies are well expressed and reasoned, and he seems less condemnatory of the religion itself and much more fatigued with the constant in-fighting over ultimately speculative matters. And in truth the divisions within Christianity absolutely weakened the standing of the Empire: when the Coptic Christians of Egypt welcomed the conquest of the Muslims so they would no longer be under the yoke of Constantinople, that tells you something; a big part of the ultimate end of the Byzantine Empire was the division and hostility engendered between them and the Catholics to the west.

What should stand out about this narrative, both as told by Gibbon and in general, is not about how Rome declined and fell, as if we can thus read the tea leaves about how such powers decline and fall in order to ameliorate our own, because all powers invariably rise, decline, and fall. Instead, it should be about the resilience of the Roman Empire: the miracle is not that it collapsed, but that it endured for so long in reality, and has never been exorcised from the mentality of Europeans ever since. "Caesars" as Kaisers and Czars and Sultans ruled in Europe until only a century ago; one cannot understand medieval and modern European history without grappling with how the Roman Empire continually captured their imagination.

The most modern research leads us to put far more weight on the role of climate change and its attendant consequences: more challenging food growing conditions which can quickly lead to greater ravaging and repine, the ferret and the transmission of the bubonic plague, and thus a devastation in the 6th century which leaves its mark in the archaeological record for over a century and which the world of Late Antiquity could not adequately recover (and, as seen above, in some respects, had not even recovered by the time the United States of America came into being!). If we're looking for a big lesson from Rome about how powers fall, that's the one we should heed.
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LibraryThing member cmayes
My gosh this was a slog! Six books of 600 pages each. It was definitely worth the effort, though. I must admit that the level of detail was daunting, but the patterns that such detail exhibited the rhyming history that Mark Twain remarked upon.

I have neither the time nor the inclination to
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comprehensively rate the series. My favorite aspects of the series are the comprehensive research against primary sources (I gave up trying to read the footnotes after about the second book) and the double-history perspective of a late-18th-century writer examining Roman and Byzantine history. This is an impressive feat of scholarship!

Another motivation for my reading the series was to fill the gaps of my understanding of this massive span of time. Naturally, the interminable list of emperors' names blended together after a while, but the sweep of the narrative will guide me when I next encounter these names, times, and places. The podcast Hardcore History had already done a pretty comprehensive job covering the Mongolian Empire, so it was satisfying to see that narrative mesh with Gibbon's description of the period. I expect this will happen many times over the course of my future reading.

If you're interested in the history of Western Civilization, I'd recommend putting in the effort to read the entire series. Although I found the level of detail to be tedious at times, I am glad that I persevered.
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Original publication date


Physical description

394 p.; 25 cm


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