I have recorded the triumph of barbarism and religion. –Edward Gibbon
When Edward Gibbon (1737–1794) was 27 years old, he visited Rome and, standing in the ruins of the forum, he imagined he saw the ghosts of Scipio, Caesar, Pompey, and the other heroes of the Republic. He spent days lost in imagination, thrilled simply to walk on the same ground that they had walked. Later, in a more melancholy mood, he wondered, how had the greatest empire the world had ever seen been reduced to rubble and phantasms? He resolved to dedicate his life to writing a new history of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776, 81, 89). The strain ruined his always fragile health and led to an early death, but he left a lasting legacy to humankind.
In Decline and Fall he argued that the collapse of Rome was attributable to the corrosive effects of Christianity on the institutions and character of Rome. For the first two centuries of the Empire, from Augustus to Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Empire was the principle civilizing force in the world. Its invincible legions unified the Mediterranean under the Pax Romana and defended the frontiers, while within its borders a wise and moderate government established laws, protected commerce, and encouraged the arts.
This precarious accomplishment rested ultimately on the character of the Roman people. They lived simple lives on small farms, raised their crops and their families, venerated the old gods, and respected laws but not men. When the state called, they answered. These qualities, combined with the leadership of a ruthless and farseeing aristocracy, forged their empire.
However, their descendants gradually lost these virtues. They fell into debt as the grain of the empire flooded Italy’s markets, and one by one they were forced from their little farms and into the city, where bread and circuses transformed the proud citizens of the Republic into the rootless proles of the Empire. Military service became voluntary rather than obligatory, and the burden of defense increasingly fell on newly conquered peoples and barbarians. The old aristocracy was swept away by the autocracy of the Caesars. Finally, the last and greatest bulwarks of the old character were destroyed: the old gods and the old philosophy were swept away by ecstatic mystery cults from the East, and above all, by Christianity.
The Christian ethic, according to Gibbon, is private rather than public. That is to say, they aim at the well-being of the individual rather than of the community. Christianity discouraged military service by preaching pacifism, family by preaching virginity, industry by preaching poverty, kindness by preaching fanaticism, and reason by preaching faith. Many believers shut themselves up in monasteries, where they were never heard from again, while those that remained slaughtered each other with gusto in order to settle disputes about a ridiculous fairy tale. All the while, the tribes beyond the Rhine grew larger and more ferocious with every passing year. The temples were shuttered, the schools of philosophy were closed, and the light of reason was vanquished for a thousand years.
Eventually, the dam had to break: on New Year’s Day, 406 CE, barbarian tribes stormed across the frozen Danube. They were never repelled. In the West, a hollowed-out Empire, now little more than a name, survived until 476, while in the East, the feeble Byzantine Empire awaited destruction at the hands of a new power: Islam. The Age of Reason was over. The Dark Ages had begun.
The Roman Empire has had a central place in the political mythology of the West since it was founded. During the middle ages, kings, popes, czars, emperors, and even sultans claimed its legacy as their own. Gibbon continued this tradition by appropriating the myth of Empire for the Enlightenment, which he believed heralded a new Empire of reason and virtue. From it we derive the tripartite division of Western history into Ancient, Mid Eval, and modern periods, as well as the official architecture of the United States, which imitates that of Greece and Rome in order to underline the point that it is the legitimate inheritor of the Roman tradition. Decline and Fall is also a polemic against the principle opponent of the Enlightenment in Gibbon’s own time, the Church.
Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the history of Science, Technology, and Society of nineteenth-century Germany. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.