13. Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

This week’s post is a report on my personal rereading of the great books instead of on our Thursday evening Life group meeting because two of  the group’s members were in jail (see below) and so we didn’t have a meeting.

The conversion of the West to Christianity defies easy explanations. There is something mysterious about the process by which the faith of a handful of men in one generation became the religion of millions upon millions over the centuries. In these two chapters [chapters XV and XVI] of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon acknowledges the mystery while at the same time undertaking to examine what happened with critical detachment in the light of historical evidence.

Whether or not we accept Gibbon’s views on the natural and supernatural causes at work, whether or not we share his skepticism, we are left in a state of wonder that is appropriate to the extraordinary character of the events described. (Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, volume 1 of The Great Ideas Program, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959, pages 147-48)

In my rereading of selections from Great Books of the Western World guided by The Great Ideas Program, I’ve reached Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the thirteenth reading in the first volume of The Great Ideas Program, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education by Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959).

After introducing The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Adler and Wolff survey the history of the Roman Empire treated by Gibbon in earlier chapters, consider Gibbon’s attitude toward Christianity and his style, and discuss four specific questions on the reading. Here I’ll sketch Gibbon’s life, comment on his attitude to Christianity and style, and share the questions which Adler and Wolff ask about the reading.

The Life of Edward Gibbon

Edward Gibbon was born May 8, 1737, in Putney, Surrey. The only one of his parents’ seven children to survive infancy, he attributed his survival to the care of his mother’s sister, Catherine Porten. It was she who encouraged him in his love of reading.

Gibbon’s father sent him to Oxford when he was 15. Later he viewed his 14 months there to be “the most idle and unprofitable [time] in my life.” While there he converted to Catholicism. When he let his father know, his father sent him to Lausanne, Switzerland, where guided by a Calvinist minister, Daniel Pavillard, he reconverted to Protestantism.

While in Lauzanne Gibbon formed a friendship with George Deyverdun (see below) and became engaged to Suzanne Curchod, a pastor’s daughter. However his request to his father to marry her was refused. He acceded, writing later, “I sighed as a lover, I obeyed as a son.”

Gibbon returned to England in 1758. From 1759 to 1762 he served as a captain under his father in the Hampshire Militia. Publication in 1761 of Essay on the Study of Literature (in French; it was published in English in 1764 ), which he had begun while still in Lausanne, gained him some recognition as a writer. Upon his release from the militia, he embarked on a long-projected tour of Europe, which lasted until 1765, when he returned to his father’s house.

Although Gibbon got the idea of writing on the decline and fall of the city of Rome while visiting it in 1764, it wasn’t until 1772, two years after his father’s death, that he settled in London and concentrated on the history. The first volume of The Decline and Fall of the Romans Empire was published in 1776 and was immediately acclaimed as a classic and attacked for its discussion of Christianity. The second and third volumes followed shortly afterwards.

In 1782 Gibbon lost his seat in the House of Commons, to which he had been elected in 1776, and it became impossible for him to maintain himself in London. He arranged to live in Lausanne with his long-time friend, George Deyverdun. There he completed the last three volumes of The Decline and Fall of the Romans Empire, writing the last lines on June 27, 1787.

After completing it, his lifework, Gibbon began work on his autobiography. In 1789 Deyverdun died and the French Revolution broke out, both distressful to Gibbon. In 1793 he returned to London where, after a series of operations for his physical problems, he died January 16, 1794.

My primary sources for the above are the biographical note on pages v-vi of the first volume on Gibbon in Great Books of the Western World (volume 40; Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952) and “Gibbon, Edward” in The New Encyclopedia Britannica (volume 8; Encyclopedia Britannica, 1974). For more on Gibbon, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Gibbon.

Gibbon’s Attitude Toward Christianity and His Style

Adler and Wolff claim that these two things, Gibbon’s attitude toward Christianity and his style, are probably most characteristic of chapters XV and XVI of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. They quote the first sentence of Chapter XV as showing how he conceived his task:

A candid but rational inquiry into the progress and establishment of Christianity may be considered as a very essential part of the history of the Roman empire (Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, volume 40 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, page 179).

After giving some examples of Gibbon’s candour and rationality, Adler and Wolff note that he raised the question why sages of antiquity refused to take up the Christian religion and imply that he viewed early Christianity as not being entirely candid and rational.

Adler and Wolff identify Gibbon’s balancing word against word and phrase against phrase, such as in “candid but rational,” as a characteristic feature of his style.


1. Is Gibbon’s work invalidated because of his attitudes and opinions?
Although Adler and Wolff concede that because of Gibbon’s prejudices many of his judgments cannot be take at face value, they affirm that we cannot maintain that his work is completely invalidated.

2. How does the rise of Christianity relate to the decline and fall of the Roman Empire?
Adler and Wolff observe that some of the effects, especially in the early days of Christianity, were disruptive of the general peace and harmony of the empire, but they also observe that some effects must have been of benefit to the empire.

3. Is Gibbon a determinist in history?
Adler and Gibbon claim that Gibbon appears to be at least a partial determinist, giving as evidence Gibbon’s view that the growing luxury and degeneracy of Rome in the second century A.D. made her eventual fall inevitable.

4. What were the strengths and weaknesses of the Christian religion?
Adler and Wolff say that “we must find a middle course between one extreme view which finds the history of the early church riddled with foolishnesses and abuses and the opposite extreme which simply ascribes all successes of the church to divine intervention” (Adler and Wolff, page 155).

“Two of  the group’s members were in jail.” They were part of a group from our church which was visiting a local correctional center.


2 thoughts on “13. Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

    1. Bob Hunter Post author

      According to Encyclopedia Britannica, Gibbon was inspired to write of the decline and the fall of the city of Rome while musing amid the ruins of the Capitol. Later he decided on the history of the empire instead of just the city.


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