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[Review] “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” Book by Edward Gibbon

The Roman Empire itself was formed on the legacy of earlier cultures, and it had a long-lasting and vast territorial influence on a wide range of cultural features, including political structures, law, social traditions, religious beliefs, scientific developments, and language.

The Roman Empire was one of the largest in history, with territories expanding in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. It was one of the most powerful and mightiest empires that the world has ever seen and left its mark on a myriad of different geographical locations.

The Six Volumes of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

The Roman Empire has impacted cultural aspects, religious beliefs, technological advances, engineering, language, law, and so much more in various aspects.

It is inevitable, then, for one to be curious and to wonder how exactly the mighty empire fell after it was one of the strongest in history. If you are curious and wondering where to start reading about it, I have the perfect suggestion for you.

Edward Gibbon, an English historian, has penned a six-volume book series called The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He details the history of the decline of the Roman Empire.

Let’s briefly look through the six volumes together to see what exactly he has in store for us.

#1.  The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire – Volume I

Gibbon’s work is lauded for not just its elegant, graceful prose but also for its remarkable historical accuracy. His work traces the history of more than 13 centuries, exploring both significant events and general historical progression.

As you start reading, you will become acquainted with Gibbon’s primary thesis, which states that repeated barbarian invasions led to the great Empire’s collapse. He asserts that the citizens of Rome turned their back on civic virtues, which made it the “Eternal City.” He also states his own beliefs that the citizens of Rome are responsible for their own destruction.

#2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire – Volume II

Volume II, which covers chapters XVI-XXVI, and picks up right where Volume I ended. He continues his narration, particularly highlighting the best-known figures as well as how these people impacted the growing influence of Christianity.

Some of these figures include Nero, followed three centuries later by Constantine, the latter responsible for the division of the Empire into East and West. He also explores the role of Julian in a rather sympathetic light, whose wisdom, clarity, and courage represent the hallmarks of a great emperor – exactly what Rome needed.

#3. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire – Volume III

In Volume III, Gibbon follows the fall of the Western Empire. He begins by first exploring the reign of Emperor Gratian (d. AD 383), followed by a survey of political and religious issues in the East and West. Gibbon then goes on to talk about the increasing power of the Barbarians and mentions how often a Roman general would try to intervene and attempt to salvage the empire.

However, he notes that the internal power struggles continued to weaken the Western empire. The volume finally concludes when Gaul, Spain, Britain, as well as some other territories found themselves at the onset of the fifth century because they found themselves to be unable to rely on Rome’s defense.

#4. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire – Volume IV

Volume IV, from chapters XXXVII–XLVI, Gibbon details the state of the Roman province post-dissolution of the Western Empire. He examines the reasons that led to its fall.

The author leads an exploration of the Eastern Empire, particularly under the rule of Justinian from 527- 565. He mentions that the leadership of Justinian was the reason behind the re-fortification of Constantinople and the frontier of the Eastern Empire.

However, Constantinople was not out of dangerous waters yet, particularly with the attempts of the Persians’ siege. This volume concludes with the weakened post-war state of the Eastern Empire in the sixth century. 

#5. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire – Volume V

This volume, covering chapters  XLVII-LVI, explores the influence of Christianity on the fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon looks at the worship of Christian images and the resultant prosecution by the emperor of the East, Leo III.

The conflict intensified as a split between Eastern and Western churches was engendered. This encouraged the attacks from Lombardy. This volume also explores the foundation of Islam and the attempts by the Arabs to besiege Constantinople.

#6. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire – Volume VI

Volume VI, from chapters LVII – LXXI, is the culmination of this remarkable series. He concludes by charting the rise of the Turkish nation and the birth of the Ottoman Empire.

He talks in detail about the Ottoman empire, which he claims was the unstoppable force that eventually captured the Eastern Empire. Constantinople, a strategically important site, became an easy target for Sultan Mohammad II due to its weakened state caused by the continued divisions between the Greek and Latin Christians. 

Final Thoughts

There are a variety of other works that detail the decline of the Roman Empire. You may come across the works of Peter Heather, Ronald Syme, and others, all esteemed scholars.

However, what makes The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon so great is its comprehensive nature. The set is an elaborate study of the decline of one of the strongest empires of history by a historian who was very learned and accomplished.

I believe there is no better place to start learning about the Roman Empire than Gibbon’s work – a significant part of the Western Canon. Good luck, and happy reading!