Gibbons Thesis Of The Fall Of The
Roman Empire Essay, Research Paper
Edward Gibbon says the decay of Rome was inevitable. He writes that instead of inquiring why the Roman Empire was destroyed, it is surprising that it subsisted so long. Gibbons argument comes down to four major arguments, divided into rulership, the abuse of Christianity, the expansion of the Barbarians, and finally the loss of the Roman military power.
Edward Gibbon was one of the greatest English historians of the late 1700 s. His father entered him in Magdalen College, University of Oxford but shortly after his enrollment in 1753 he decided to convert to Roman Catholicism. Magdalen college only accepted Anglicans so he was barred from the school. His father then sent him to Switzerland, in care of a Calvinist pastor, who by Christmas, 1754, had reconciled him to Protestantism. After many years in Switzerland Gibbon returned home and decided to devote his life to scholarship and writing. In 1764, while visiting Rome, Gibbon decided to write about the city s history. His work The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was one of his greatest works and despite the availability of new factual data and a recognition of Gibbon s western Bias, Decline and Fall is still read and enjoyed.
In Gibbons first argument of divided rulership, he states that there simply was no central power in the Roman Empire. He writes, “The throne of Constantinople was erected in the East; while the West was still possessed by a series of emperors who held their residence in Italy and claimed their equal inheritance of the legions and provinces. This dangerous novelty impaired the strength, and fomented the vices, of a double reign.”
As in any historical reference, when one divides their forces it weakens their strength.
Gibbons makes this out to be a very important reason for the collapse of Rome. Even thought Constantinople was strong at this time, Gibbon points out that, “The Byzantine court beheld, perhaps with pleasure the disgrace of Rome, and the misfortunes of Italy.”
Edward Gibbon s second argument, the abuse of Christianity, has much to do with the new virtues of society brought with the new religion. Gibbons states, “The clergy successfully preached the doctrines of patience and pusillanimity; the active virtues of society were discouraged.” These active virtues of ambition and power were what made Rome great. “The church and even the state, were distracted by religious factions, whose conflicts were sometimes bloody, and always implacable; the attention of the Emperors were diverted from camps to synods. Here Gibbons is writing about the inner religious conflicts that were happening within the Roman Empire, and how they weakened the unity of the country. This in turn set up the Roman Empire for vulnerability from outside attacks, which leads to Gibbon s third reason for the collapse of Rome.
“The savage nations of the globe are the common enemies of civilized society.” The Barbarian tribes from the north began to push southward into Rome about the same time that Rome was going through much inner turmoil. Gibbons points out, “The Romans were ignorant of the extent of their danger, and the number of the enemies.” The endless column of Barbarians pressed on the Roman empire with accumulated weight. The Huns moved westward pushing with them many other Barbarian tribes. Gibbon
writes, ” The northern countries of Europe and Asia were filled with innumerable tribes of hunters and shepherds, poor, voracious, and turbulent; bold in arms, and impatient to ravish the fruits of industry.” The Barbarians saw Rome as the fruits of Industry.
Finally Gibbons points to the loss of Rome s military power as a major reason of the decline of Rome. The Romans became very dependent on outsiders fighting in their armies and ruling over them. As Gibbon puts it, “This union was purchased by the loss of national freedom and military spirit; and the servile provinces, destitute of life and motion, expected their safety from mercenary troops and governors, who were directed by the orders of a distant court.” The Civilized Rome came to rest to heavily on their technology and not enough on what had kept them powerful for hundreds of years, their military prowess. “The warlike states of antiquity, Greece, Macedonia, and Rome, educated a race of soldiers; exercised their bodies, disciplined their courage, multiplied their forces by regular evolutions , and converted the iron which they possessed , into strong and serviceable weapons. But this superiority insensibly declined in their laws and manners; and the feeble policy of Constantine and his successors armed and instructed, for the ruin of the empire, the rude valor of the Barbarian mercenaries.”
Gibbon has a strong thesis and supports it well. Historians now know more about the time period and would argue against Gibbon s thesis, however, considering what he had to go on his work is detailed and supported. Opposing arguments would be made from Pirenne s thesis that Rome did not fall in 476 AD but in the 700 s due to the Moslems. Gibbon s work on the Roman Empire is extensive and is very popular to historians today.