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The Decline and Fall of Edward Gibbon

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788) is a monumental achievement. It’s author, Edward Gibbon, blazed new territory by delving into primary sources and documenting every aspect of his work. Along with other Enlightenment figures, such as David Hume and William Robertson, Gibbon set the standard for modern historical studies. Unlike the other epic histories of his generation, however, the Decline and Fall is still cited widely and authoritatively. One recent history text stops short of Rome’s demise and simply points the reader to Gibbon’s “magisterial treatment.”[1]

Edward Gibbon - Decline and Fall

George Washington's copy of the Decline and Fall

“Treatment” is a good word. Gibbon’s approach raises intriguing questions of what academic historians like to call historiography. It is one thing to talk about the factual reliability of the Decline and Fall as a work of history, and there it scores highly; it is another thing entirely to talk about the assumptions driving Gibbon’s interpretation of history, and this gets us into the realm of historiography.

This should interest people of faith, because Gibbon was no friend of faith. He was, in fact, a shining example of Enlightenment skepticism and rationalism. This is repeatedly evident as Gibbon deploys his “weapon of erudite sarcasm” against the early church.[2] It is somewhat ironic, therefore, to find Christians mining Gibbon’s work for insights on the decline and fall of Western civilization, or of the United States in particular, because Gibbon put the blame squarely on Christianity.

In broad outline, Gibbon advanced the thesis that Rome’s decline in fortunes followed their decline in values. One contemporary historian summarizes the point this way: “Rome succumbed to barbarian invasions because of a dramatic disintegration of social codes and civic virtues among its citizens.”[3] Naturally, this perks up our ears. Christians look with concern at the erosion of traditional Western values, strongly rooted as they are in a Biblical worldview, and wonder what horrors may befall our children and our children’s children.

Gibbon, however, saw no value in Christian piety. The Decline and Fall is not a nostalgic longing for Christian virtues, but a progressive manifesto on how much better the world would be without them. “To Edward Gibbon,” writes classics professor Victor Davis Henson, “Christianity offered ancient society no blueprint for ethical improvement, but instead had destroyed Roman civic militarism without offering any consistent, superior morality in its place.”[4]

No doubt Gibbon directs most of his ire against the mainstream “catholic” church of late antiquity, which would eventually become the Roman Catholic Church of the Middle Ages. And yet, like many of his skeptical peers, Gibbon had no interest in making careful distinctions between the medieval Catholic Church and the church of the first century, or between the Catholic Church of his day and the various movements then springing out of the Reformation. As Gibbon saw it, the blame should rest on the Christian religion itself – on Christianity as a new, unwelcome, and ultimately destructive force within Roman society.

The Decline and Fall does not mince its words on the alleged vices of Christianity:

The clergy successfully preached the doctrines of patience and pusillanimity; the active virtues of society were discouraged; and the last remains of military spirit were buried in the cloister; a large portion of public and private wealth was consecrated to the specious demands of charity and devotion. [5]

In other places, Gibbon attributes the phenomenal growth of Christianity to intolerance and brutality on the part of the church. This exposes one of several inconsistencies in Gibbon’s theory: Christianity is supposed to have weakened the empire with a message of patience and peace while simultaneously coercing its people into the church. These claims not only conflict with one another, but also obscure a well-known fact: that the empire imposed its will on the early church, not the other way around. Gibbon is forced to paper over this problem by downplaying centuries of prejudice and persecution at the hands of Roman rulers and their provincial representatives.[6]

These themes, developed at length in chapters 15 and 16 of the first volume, caused a scandal as soon as they were published in 1776. Gibbon’s anti-Christian hostility was evident from the beginning. As the Romans themselves might have said, caveat lector (let the reader beware).

[A version of this article appeared originally in Think, March 2011, p. 23.]

[1] Christopher Kelly, The Roman Empire: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2006, p. 3.

[2] Anthony Kenny, Medieval Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 5.

[3] Hans Beck, “Structures,” in Andrew Erskine, editor, A Companion to Ancient History. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009, p. 503.

[4] Victor Davis Hanson, “History Upside Down,” in Robert Maranto, et al., editors, The Politically Correct University: Problems, Scope, and Reforms. Washington, DC: The AEI Press, 2009, p. 195.

[5] Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Dublin: William Hallhead, 1781, 6.365.

[6] Rodney Stark, Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome. New York: HarperCollins, 2006, pp. 183-184, 190.

© 2011, Trevor Major. All rights reserved.