Edward Gibbon.

History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire — Volume 1 online

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Produced by David Reed and Dale R. Fredrickson


Edward Gibbon, Esq.

With notes by the Rev. H. H. Milman

Volume 1

1782 (Written), 1845 (Revised)



Preface By The Editor

Preface Of The Author

Preface To The First Volume

Chapter I: The Extent Of The Empire In The Age Of The Antoninies.—Part
I. Part II. Part III.

Introduction—The Extent And Military Force Of The Empire In The Age Of
The Antonines.

Chapter II: The Internal Prosperity In The Age Of The Antonines.—Part I.
Part II. Part III. Part IV.

Of The Union And Internal Prosperity Of The Roman Empire, In The Age Of
The Antonines.

Chapter III: The Constitution In The Age Of The Antonines.—Part I.
Part II.

Of The Constitution Of The Roman Empire, In The Age Of The Antonines.

Chapter IV: The Cruelty, Follies And Murder Of Commodus.—Part I. Part

The Cruelty, Follies, And Murder Of Commodus. Election Of Pertinax—His
Attempts To Reform The State—His Assassination By The Prætorian Guards.

Chapter V: Sale Of The Empire To Didius Julianus.—Part I. Part II.

Public Sale Of The Empire To Didius Julianus By The Prætorian
Guards—Clodius Albinus In Britain, Pescennius Niger In Syria, And
Septimius Severus In Pannonia, Declare Against The Murderers Of
Pertinax—Civil Wars And Victory Of Severus Over His Three
Rivals—Relaxation Of Discipline—New Maxims Of Government.

Chapter VI: Death Of Severus, Tyranny Of Caracalla, Usurpation Of
Marcinus.—Part I. Part II. Part III. Part IV.

The Death Of Severus.—Tyranny Of Caracalla.—Usurpation Of
Macrinus.—Follies Of Elagabalus.—Virtues Of Alexander
Severus.—Licentiousness Of The Army.—General State Of The Roman

Chapter VII: Tyranny Of Maximin, Rebellion, Civil Wars, Death Of
Maximin.—Part I. Part II. Part III.

The Elevation And Tyranny Of Maximin.—Rebellion In Africa And Italy,
Under The Authority Of The Senate.—Civil Wars And Seditions.—Violent
Deaths Of Maximin And His Son, Of Maximus And Balbinus, And Of The Three
Gordians.—Usurpation And Secular Games Of Philip.

Chapter VIII: State Of Persion And Restoration Of The Monarchy.—Part I.
Part II.

Of The State Of Persia After The Restoration Of The Monarchy By

Chapter IX: State Of Germany Until The Barbarians.—Part I. Part II.
Part III.

The State Of Germany Till The Invasion Of The Barbarians In The Time Of
The Emperor Decius.

Chapter X: Emperors Decius, Gallus, Æmilianus, Valerian And
Gallienus.—Part I. Part II. Part III. Part IV.

The Emperors Decius, Gallus, Æmilianus, Valerian, And Gallienus.—The
General Irruption Of The Barbari Ans.—The Thirty Tyrants.

Chapter XI: Reign Of Claudius, Defeat Of The Goths.—Part I. Part II.
Part III.

Reign Of Claudius.—Defeat Of The Goths.—Victories, Triumph, And Death Of

Chapter XII: Reigns Of Tacitus, Probus, Carus And His Sons.—Part I.
Part II. Part III.

Conduct Of The Army And Senate After The Death Of Aurelian.— Reigns Of
Tacitus, Probus, Carus, And His Sons.

Chapter XIII: Reign Of Diocletian And This Three Associates.—Part I.
Part II. Part III. Part IV.

The Reign Of Diocletian And His Three Associates, Maximian, Galerius,
And Constantius.—General Reestablishment Of Order And Tranquillity.—The
Persian War, Victory, And Triumph.— The New Form Of
Administration.—Abdication And Retirement Of Diocletian And Maximian.

Chapter XIV: Six Emperors At The Same Time, Reunion Of The Empire.—Part
I. Part II. Part III. Part IV.

Troubles After The Abdication Of Diocletian.—Death Of
Constantius.—Elevation Of Constantine And Maxen Tius. ­ Six Emperors At
The Same Time.—Death Of Maximian And Galerius. —Victories Of Constantine
Over Maxentius And Licinus.— Reunion Of The Empire Under The Authority
Of Constantine.

Chapter XV: Progress Of The Christian Religion.—Part I. Part II.
Part III. Part IV. Part V. Part VI. Part VII. Part VIII.
Part IX.

The Progress Of The Christian Religion, And The Sentiments, Manners,
Numbers, And Condition Of The Primitive Christians.


Preface By The Editor.

The great work of Gibbon is indispensable to the student of history. The
literature of Europe offers no substitute for "The Decline and Fall of
the Roman Empire." It has obtained undisputed possession, as rightful
occupant, of the vast period which it comprehends. However some
subjects, which it embraces, may have undergone more complete
investigation, on the general view of the whole period, this history
is the sole undisputed authority to which all defer, and from which
few appeal to the original writers, or to more modern compilers. The
inherent interest of the subject, the inexhaustible labor employed upon
it; the immense condensation of matter; the luminous arrangement; the
general accuracy; the style, which, however monotonous from its uniform
stateliness, and sometimes wearisome from its elaborate art., is
throughout vigorous, animated, often picturesque always commands
attention, always conveys its meaning with emphatic energy, describes
with singular breadth and fidelity, and generalizes with unrivalled
felicity of expression; all these high qualifications have secured, and
seem likely to secure, its permanent place in historic literature.

This vast design of Gibbon, the magnificent whole into which he has cast
the decay and ruin of the ancient civilization, the formation and birth
of the new order of things, will of itself, independent of the laborious
execution of his immense plan, render "The Decline and Fall of the
Roman Empire" an unapproachable subject to the future historian:* in the
eloquent language of his recent French editor, M. Guizot: -

"The gradual decline of the most extraordinary dominion which has
ever invaded and oppressed the world; the fall of that immense empire,
erected on the ruins of so many kingdoms, republics, and states both
barbarous and civilized; and forming in its turn, by its dismemberment,
a multitude of states, republics, and kingdoms; the annihilation of the
religion of Greece and Rome; the birth and the progress of the two new
religions which have shared the most beautiful regions of the earth; the
decrepitude of the ancient world, the spectacle of its expiring glory
and degenerate manners; the infancy of the modern world, the picture of
its first progress, of the new direction given to the mind and character
of man - such a subject must necessarily fix the attention and excite
the interest of men, who cannot behold with indifference those memorable
epochs, during which, in the fine language of Corneille -

'Un grand destin commence, un grand destin s'achève.'"

This extent and harmony of design is unquestionably that which
distinguishes the work of Gibbon from all other great historical
compositions. He has first bridged the abyss between ancient and modern
times, and connected together the two great worlds of history. The great
advantage which the classical historians possess over those of modern
times is in unity of plan, of course greatly facilitated by the narrower
sphere to which their researches were confined. Except Herodotus, the
great historians of Greece - we exclude the more modern compilers, like
Diodorus Siculus - limited themselves to a single period, or at least
to the contracted sphere of Grecian affairs. As far as the Barbarians
trespassed within the Grecian boundary, or were necessarily mingled
up with Grecian politics, they were admitted into the pale of Grecian
history; but to Thucydides and to Xenophon, excepting in the Persian
inroad of the latter, Greece was the world. Natural unity confined
their narrative almost to chronological order, the episodes were of rare
occurrence and extremely brief. To the Roman historians the course
was equally clear and defined. Rome was their centre of unity; and the
uniformity with which the circle of the Roman dominion spread around,
the regularity with which their civil polity expanded, forced, as it
were, upon the Roman historian that plan which Polybius announces as
the subject of his history, the means and the manner by which the whole
world became subject to the Roman sway. How different the complicated
politics of the European kingdoms! Every national history, to be
complete, must, in a certain sense, be the history of Europe; there is
no knowing to how remote a quarter it may be necessary to trace our
most domestic events; from a country, how apparently disconnected, may
originate the impulse which gives its direction to the whole course of

In imitation of his classical models, Gibbon places Rome as the cardinal
point from which his inquiries diverge, and to which they bear constant
reference; yet how immeasurable the space over which those inquiries
range; how complicated, how confused, how apparently inextricable the
causes which tend to the decline of the Roman empire! how countless the
nations which swarm forth, in mingling and indistinct hordes, constantly
changing the geographical limits - incessantly confounding the natural
boundaries! At first sight, the whole period, the whole state of the
world, seems to offer no more secure footing to an historical adventurer
than the chaos of Milton - to be in a state of irreclaimable disorder,
best described in the language of the poet: -

"A dark Illimitable ocean, without bound,
Without dimension, where length, breadth, and height,
And time, and place, are lost: where eldest Night
And Chaos, ancestors of Nature, hold
Eternal anarchy, amidst the noise
Of endless wars, and by confusion stand."

We feel that the unity and harmony of narrative, which shall comprehend
this period of social disorganization, must be ascribed entirely to the
skill and luminous disposition of the historian. It is in this sublime
Gothic architecture of his work, in which the boundless range, the
infinite variety, the, at first sight, incongruous gorgeousness of
the separate parts, nevertheless are all subordinate to one main and
predominant idea, that Gibbon is unrivalled. We cannot but admire the
manner in which he masses his materials, and arranges his facts in
successive groups, not according to chronological order, but to their
moral or political connection; the distinctness with which he marks his
periods of gradually increasing decay; and the skill with which, though
advancing on separate parallels of history, he shows the common tendency
of the slower or more rapid religious or civil innovations. However
these principles of composition may demand more than ordinary attention
on the part of the reader, they can alone impress upon the memory the
real course, and the relative importance of the events. Whoever would
justly appreciate the superiority of Gibbon's lucid arrangement, should
attempt to make his way through the regular but wearisome annals of
Tillemont, or even the less ponderous volumes of Le Beau. Both these
writers adhere, almost entirely, to chronological order; the consequence
is, that we are twenty times called upon to break off, and resume the
thread of six or eight wars in different parts of the empire; to suspend
the operations of a military expedition for a court intrigue; to hurry
away from a siege to a council; and the same page places us in the
middle of a campaign against the barbarians, and in the depths of the
Monophysite controversy. In Gibbon it is not always easy to bear in mind
the exact dates but the course of events is ever clear and distinct;
like a skilful general, though his troops advance from the most
remote and opposite quarters, they are constantly bearing down and
concentrating themselves on one point - that which is still occupied
by the name, and by the waning power of Rome. Whether he traces the
progress of hostile religions, or leads from the shores of the
Baltic, or the verge of the Chinese empire, the successive hosts of
barbarians - though one wave has hardly burst and discharged itself,
before another swells up and approaches - all is made to flow in the same
direction, and the impression which each makes upon the tottering fabric
of the Roman greatness, connects their distant movements, and measures
the relative importance assigned to them in the panoramic history. The
more peaceful and didactic episodes on the development of the Roman law,
or even on the details of ecclesiastical history, interpose themselves
as resting-places or divisions between the periods of barbaric invasion.
In short, though distracted first by the two capitals, and afterwards
by the formal partition of the empire, the extraordinary felicity of
arrangement maintains an order and a regular progression. As our horizon
expands to reveal to us the gathering tempests which are forming
far beyond the boundaries of the civilized world - as we follow their
successive approach to the trembling frontier - the compressed and
receding line is still distinctly visible; though gradually dismembered
and the broken fragments assuming the form of regular states and
kingdoms, the real relation of those kingdoms to the empire is
maintained and defined; and even when the Roman dominion has shrunk
into little more than the province of Thrace - when the name of Rome,
confined, in Italy, to the walls of the city - yet it is still the
memory, the shade of the Roman greatness, which extends over the wide
sphere into which the historian expands his later narrative; the
whole blends into the unity, and is manifestly essential to the double
catastrophe of his tragic drama.

But the amplitude, the magnificence, or the harmony of design, are,
though imposing, yet unworthy claims on our admiration, unless the
details are filled up with correctness and accuracy. No writer has been
more severely tried on this point than Gibbon. He has undergone the
triple scrutiny of theological zeal quickened by just resentment, of
literary emulation, and of that mean and invidious vanity which delights
in detecting errors in writers of established fame. On the result of
the trial, we may be permitted to summon competent witnesses before we
deliver our own judgment.

M. Guizot, in his preface, after stating that in France and Germany, as
well as in England, in the most enlightened countries of Europe, Gibbon
is constantly cited as an authority, thus proceeds: -

"I have had occasion, during my labors, to consult the writings of
philosophers, who have treated on the finances of the Roman empire; of
scholars, who have investigated the chronology; of theologians, who have
searched the depths of ecclesiastical history; of writers on law, who
have studied with care the Roman jurisprudence; of Orientalists, who
have occupied themselves with the Arabians and the Koran; of modern
historians, who have entered upon extensive researches touching the
crusades and their influence; each of these writers has remarked and
pointed out, in the 'History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman
Empire,' some negligences, some false or imperfect views some omissions,
which it is impossible not to suppose voluntary; they have rectified
some facts combated with advantage some assertions; but in general
they have taken the researches and the ideas of Gibbon, as points of
departure, or as proofs of the researches or of the new opinions which
they have advanced."

M. Guizot goes on to state his own impressions on reading Gibbon's
history, and no authority will have greater weight with those to whom
the extent and accuracy of his historical researches are known: -

"After a first rapid perusal, which allowed me to feel nothing but
the interest of a narrative, always animated, and, notwithstanding its
extent and the variety of objects which it makes to pass before the
view, always perspicuous, I entered upon a minute examination of the
details of which it was composed; and the opinion which I then formed
was, I confess, singularly severe. I discovered, in certain chapters,
errors which appeared to me sufficiently important and numerous to
make me believe that they had been written with extreme negligence; in
others, I was struck with a certain tinge of partiality and prejudice,
which imparted to the exposition of the facts that want of truth
and justice, which the English express by their happy term
misrepresentation. Some imperfect (tronquées) quotations; some passages,
omitted unintentionally or designedly cast a suspicion on the honesty
(bonne foi) of the author; and his violation of the first law of
history - increased to my eye by the prolonged attention with which I
occupied myself with every phrase, every note, every reflection - caused
me to form upon the whole work, a judgment far too rigorous. After
having finished my labors, I allowed some time to elapse before I
reviewed the whole. A second attentive and regular perusal of the entire
work, of the notes of the author, and of those which I had thought it
right to subjoin, showed me how much I had exaggerated the importance of
the reproaches which Gibbon really deserved; I was struck with the same
errors, the same partiality on certain subjects; but I had been far from
doing adequate justice to the immensity of his researches, the
variety of his knowledge, and above all, to that truly philosophical
discrimination (justesse d'esprit) which judges the past as it would
judge the present; which does not permit itself to be blinded by the
clouds which time gathers around the dead, and which prevent us from
seeing that, under the toga, as under the modern dress, in the senate
as in our councils, men were what they still are, and that events took
place eighteen centuries ago, as they take place in our days. I then
felt that his book, in spite of its faults, will always be a noble
work - and that we may correct his errors and combat his prejudices,
without ceasing to admit that few men have combined, if we are not to
say in so high a degree, at least in a manner so complete, and so well
regulated, the necessary qualifications for a writer of history."

The present editor has followed the track of Gibbon through many parts
of his work; he has read his authorities with constant reference to
his pages, and must pronounce his deliberate judgment, in terms of
the highest admiration as to his general accuracy. Many of his seeming
errors are almost inevitable from the close condensation of his matter.
From the immense range of his history, it was sometimes necessary to
compress into a single sentence, a whole vague and diffuse page of a
Byzantine chronicler. Perhaps something of importance may have thus
escaped, and his expressions may not quite contain the whole substance
of the passage from which they are taken. His limits, at times, compel
him to sketch; where that is the case, it is not fair to expect the
full details of the finished picture. At times he can only deal with
important results; and in his account of a war, it sometimes
requires great attention to discover that the events which seem to
be comprehended in a single campaign, occupy several years. But this
admirable skill in selecting and giving prominence to the points which
are of real weight and importance - this distribution of light and
shade - though perhaps it may occasionally betray him into vague and
imperfect statements, is one of the highest excellencies of Gibbon's
historic manner. It is the more striking, when we pass from the works of
his chief authorities, where, after laboring through long, minute, and
wearisome descriptions of the accessary and subordinate circumstances, a
single unmarked and undistinguished sentence, which we may overlook
from the inattention of fatigue, contains the great moral and political

Gibbon's method of arrangement, though on the whole most favorable
to the clear comprehension of the events, leads likewise to apparent
inaccuracy. That which we expect to find in one part is reserved for
another. The estimate which we are to form, depends on the accurate
balance of statements in remote parts of the work; and we have sometimes
to correct and modify opinions, formed from one chapter by those of
another. Yet, on the other hand, it is astonishing how rarely we detect
contradiction; the mind of the author has already harmonized the whole
result to truth and probability; the general impression is almost
invariably the same. The quotations of Gibbon have likewise been called
in question; - I have, in general, been more inclined to admire their
exactitude, than to complain of their indistinctness, or incompleteness.
Where they are imperfect, it is commonly from the study of brevity, and
rather from the desire of compressing the substance of his notes into
pointed and emphatic sentences, than from dishonesty, or uncandid
suppression of truth.

These observations apply more particularly to the accuracy and fidelity
of the historian as to his facts; his inferences, of course, are more
liable to exception. It is almost impossible to trace the line between
unfairness and unfaithfulness; between intentional misrepresentation
and undesigned false coloring. The relative magnitude and importance of
events must, in some respect, depend upon the mind before which they are
presented; the estimate of character, on the habits and feelings of the
reader. Christians, like M. Guizot and ourselves, will see some things,
and some persons, in a different light from the historian of the Decline
and Fall. We may deplore the bias of his mind; we may ourselves be on
our guard against the danger of being misled, and be anxious to warn
less wary readers against the same perils; but we must not confound
this secret and unconscious departure from truth, with the deliberate
violation of that veracity which is the only title of an historian
to our confidence. Gibbon, it may be fearlessly asserted, is rarely
chargeable even with the suppression of any material fact, which bears
upon individual character; he may, with apparently invidious hostility,
enhance the errors and crimes, and disparage the virtues of certain
persons; yet, in general, he leaves us the materials for forming a
fairer judgment; and if he is not exempt from his own prejudices,
perhaps we might write passions, yet it must be candidly acknowledged,
that his philosophical bigotry is not more unjust than the theological
partialities of those ecclesiastical writers who were before in
undisputed possession of this province of history.

We are thus naturally led to that great misrepresentation which
pervades his history - his false estimate of the nature and influence of

But on this subject some preliminary caution is necessary, lest that
should be expected from a new edition, which it is impossible that it
should completely accomplish. We must first be prepared with the only
sound preservative against the false impression likely to be produced
by the perusal of Gibbon; and we must see clearly the real cause of that
false impression. The former of these cautions will be briefly suggested
in its proper place, but it may be as well to state it, here, somewhat
more at length. The art of Gibbon, or at least the unfair impression
produced by his two memorable chapters, consists in his confounding
together, in one indistinguishable mass, the origin and apostolic
propagation of the new religion, with its later progress. No argument
for the divine authority of Christianity has been urged with greater
force, or traced with higher eloquence, than that deduced from its
primary development, explicable on no other hypothesis than a heavenly
origin, and from its rapid extension through great part of the Roman
empire. But this argument - one, when confined within reasonable limits,
of unanswerable force - becomes more feeble and disputable in proportion
as it recedes from the birthplace, as it were, of the religion. The
further Christianity advanced, the more causes purely human were
enlisted in its favor; nor can it be doubted that those developed with
such artful exclusiveness by Gibbon did concur most essentially to its
establishment. It is in the Christian dispensation, as in the material
world. In both it is as the great First Cause, that the Deity is most
undeniably manifest. When once launched in regular motion upon the bosom
of space, and endowed with all their properties and relations of weight
and mutual attraction, the heavenly bodies appear to pursue their
courses according to secondary laws, which account for all their sublime
regularity. So Christianity proclaims its Divine Author chiefly in its

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