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History of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire


There are books that have a lasting impact on men. The Social Contract de Rousseau is an example of these. TheHistory of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire ofEdward Gibbon is one of them. This monumental sum published between 1776 and 1788-1789 a formed from generations of historians and politicians. Entering into this work and the history of its reception is also entering into the cultural formation of the western world (or even beyond) between the 19th and 20th centuries.

A Book of Lights

It is helpful to remember the cultural background when developing this book. This book is written during the last quarter of the 18th century at the end of the Enlightenment. The rediscovery of Herculaneum and Pompeii at the beginning of the century triggered a real intellectual, cultural, historical and archaeological infatuation for Roman civilization. The Grand Tour, a cultural trip for young European elites, allows young men to discover the recently discovered ruins as well as the remains of Rome or Athens. Johann Joachim Winckelmann publishes his famous work in 1755 Reflections on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture : this one will have a considerable impact and brings back the beauty of the antique (he theorizes it in any case because the taste for the antique had not disappeared). This cultural context allows the emergence of the neoclassical artistic movement. The work and life of Edward Gibbon fits perfectly into this context. After studying at a college in Oxford, the latter converted to Catholicism. His father sent him to Lausanne to put him back on the right track under the authority of Calvinist pastor Daniel Pavillard. He quickly converted to Protestantism. Thanks to this stay, he gets to know the French language and culture. Back in England in 1758, he published his first book in French three years later. Literature review essay. In 1763, he lives in Paris and becomes acquainted with French philosophers. Then he made his tour of Italy where he went notably to Rome and Naples. He returned to England in 1765 and joined good English society, became interested in politics and was initiated into Freemasonry.

When we talk about Rome, we also talk about our time and ourselves

We know that Gibbon read Montesquieu's book Considerations on the causes of the greatness of the Romans and their decadence. This book, although criticized by Voltaire, paves the way for a more philosophical story: does history make sense and what are its factors? Moreover, Montesquieu in this book is not only interested in the great historical figures as he was used to, but in the Romans as a whole. It can be noted that for him one of the causes of the fall of the Roman Empire was the luxury which seized the population. We remind our readers that luxury was a hot topic in the 18th century. We also note that Montesquieu's book encompasses the entire history of Rome as well as that of the Byzantine Empire. Gibbon's book L ’History of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire it only begins at the end of the 1st century but also ends with the fall of Constantinople. He highlights a hyphenation that he places in 476, the date of the end of the Western Roman Empire. The title immediately gives the direction of the work: from the end of the 2nd century AD until the 16th century, there is a long history of unfolding decadence. Like Montesquieu, he considers that the loss of civic values ​​contributed to the fall of the Empire. But Gibbon also considers Christianity to be one of the reasons for Roman decadence. However, historians today consider that these factors do not explain the fall of the Roman Empire and that we cannot speak of the decadence of Rome. There is no clear break in 476 that would have tipped the West into barbarism: on the contrary, recent studies converge on the fact that the "barbarians" were in fact very Romanized! There is no question here of developing this question in more detail, the literature is abundant on this point. This book is now largely outdated from a historiographical point of view. On the other hand, it remains very interesting for understanding certain later cultural facts.

The prophet of the end of empires

The books of the'' History of the Decadence and Fall of the Roman Empire very quickly sold very well. François Guizot proposed from 1812 a French translation which is still in use. Gibbon, beyond explaining the causes of the fall of Rome, ultimately explains that empires are mortal and they have an end. The loss of the Thirteen Colonies to the United States of America seems to confirm this point to the British. The latter then do everything to protect their empire and prevent its decline. Throughout the 19th century, the British were obsessed with this issue. How to prevent Canada from shifting to the American side, etc. This legacy did not end in the 19th century alone. We know that Churchill particularly appreciated this work. Even today, some titles remind us of the significance of this book, such as The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1781-1997 published in 2008. There is also a boom in the production of books on the decline of the American Empire. In the cinematographic field, The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) or Gladiator (2000) are a good illustration of the still perennial anxiety of decline. To prophesy the end of empires is to have a cyclical view of history: empires are born and die. It is from this observation that the writer Isaac Asimov writes the cycle Foundation. The influence of Gibbon's work is evident here: it is to describe the decline and fall of the Galactic Empire. But unlike the Romans, they know their empire will decline! It is therefore for them to save their prodigious civilization and to remake a more grandiose empire without being able to halt the decline and fall of the Empire. I leave the reader with the pleasure of discovering one of the greatest classics of science fiction for himself. Star wars is also in this lineage. However, the contributions of Gibbon’s work are different, but the reference to the fall of an empire is obvious. Here, Gibbon’s work is outdated, in the sense that Georges Lucas does more than just trace the fall of an empire. For example, Episode III openly refers to the advent of the principate of Augustus which is not mentioned in Gibbon's work. The world of Star Wars encompasses different historical references: Nazi Germany is the most obvious and the uniforms of the soldiers of the Empire remind us of this. In the end, a decadence emerges which would not begin at the end of the 2nd century but with the advent of the principate according to Georges Lucas (we find here the criticism of the loss of moral values). The end of the Republic, despite its faults, is the beginning of decadence. The question of the origins of decadence, apart from the fact that decadence, in history, is a questionable theme or concept, poses numerous epistemological problems on the origins of an event in history, causality and finally the role of actor in history. If decadence is inevitable, what is man's place in history if it escapes him?

The historiographic legacy

Today Gibbon's historic work, from an academic perspective, is widely questioned. In the second half of the 20th century, Henri-Irénée Marrou and Peter Brown opposed this vision. The first, in his posthumous work Roman decadence or late antiquity?, undermines this Declinist vision. The Roman Empire from the 3rd to 5th centuries was not decadent. On the contrary, it is in a deep movement of cultural and intellectual renewal. This historiographical trend is very present today: it strongly emphasizes the deep continuity between the end of the Roman Empire and the period that followed. The fall of Rome in 476 was not a rupture. On the contrary, it would be a non-event. However, the debate is not completely closed. Indeed, the religious question is important to understand this period and the debates it provokes. For some, the spread of Christianity is a major contribution of the culture of Late Antiquity. Others, however, do not see this contribution as progress. Polymnia Athanassiadi discussed this notion of Late Antiquity in her book Towards the Single Thought, The Rise of Intolerance in Late Antiquity where you can read the article fromStory for All. It is not isolated and other books are in the same vein: the Italian historian Andrea Giardina has also been critical of an overestimated Late Antiquity. The title of his article (only available in Italian to our knowledge to date) is revealing in this regard: Esplosione di tardoantico. The author criticizes the fashion for a concept which is not new but which today occupies a very important or even too important place with its specialized magazines, its university chairs, etc ... In this article, he shows that Antiquity late, in addition to the fuzzy limits, is basically only a concept which ends today by defining a period (and therefore the objects of research focusing on socio-cultural mutations) and becoming institutionalized. In addition, he points to the fact that, for example, the art of this period would ultimately be assimilated to a certain modernity and no longer as a decadent art. The success of this concept would therefore be in fine in line with our present concerns and illustrates once again that history is well written in the present. In a less serious genre, the film Agora also illustrates the rise of dark vision of this period. The religious fanaticism of the film’s protagonists leads to the exclusion and destruction of knowledge in Alexandria. It is also the sidelining of women from the society of letters and knowledge at this time that is recounted in this film through the figure of Hypathia. I also refer to the article by ’Story for All on this film for those who want to know more. Thus, although Gibbon’s Declinist view seems outdated, the debate is not over, as illustrated by the many recent productions on the subject.


We realize that this book is a great tool for reflecting on many issues specific to the historical discipline. What the book History of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire shows that sometimes history books have had a lasting influence in various ways on literary and political production for centuries. The article was not intended to give a vision or an answer on the controversial reality of late Antiquity but to open avenues for reflection so that everyone can form their opinion and better understand the political, ideological and cultural background behind this concept. In any case, the historiographical legacy of Gibbon's book has not finished up for debate.

Indicative bibliography

- Recent edition of theHistory of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire

- GIBBON Edward, History of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Rome from 96 to 582, translated from English by GUIZOT François, Robert Laffont, Paris, 2010.

- GIBBON Edward, History of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Byzantium from 455 to 1500, translated from English by GUIZOT François, Robert Laffont, Paris, 2000.

Books and articles cited

- ATHANASSIADI Polymnia, Towards the Single Thought, The Rise of Intolerance in Late Antiquity, Les Belles Lettres, Paris, 2010.

- BRENDON Piers, The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1781-1997, Alfred A. Knopf, New York 2008.

- GIARDINA Andrea, "Esplosione di tardoantico", Studi storici, 40, 1, 1999, p. 157-180.

- MARROU Henri-Irénée, Roman decadence or late Antiquity? (3rd-6th century), Seuil, Paris, 1977.

Other references on the concept of Late Antiquity

- BROWN Peter, Genesis of Late Antiquity, translation by ROUSSELLE Aline, Gallimard, Paris, 1983.

- BROWN Peter, The world of late Antiquity, from Marcus Aurelius to Muhammad, translation by MONNATTE Christine, Éditions de l'Université de Bruxelles, Bruxelles, 2011.

- INGLEBERT Hervé, "Late Antiquity", in : DELACROIX Christian, DOSSE François, GARCIA Patrick, OFFENSTADT Nicolas (dir.), Historiographies. Concepts and Debates, Volume II, Gallimard, Paris, 2010, p. 967-972.


Video: The Collapse of the Roman Empire. Roman Documentary (November 2021).