Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

The History Of The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire
Edward Gibbon

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The History Guide

The Enlightenment found many of its virtues ready-made in the world of ancient Rome: economic abundance, and international political structure and a common language for many people. Of course, the greatness of Rome also led to its eventual collapse and fall, and this singular fact has exercised the mind of the historian ever since. Gibbon was perhaps the first to make such a sustained investigation of this kind of event. The following selection is from Chapter XXXVIII: General Observations on the Fall of the Roman Empire in the West. A brief list of resources follows the excerpt.

Wikipedia: The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Intellectus journal of the Hong Kong Institute of Economic Science: Edward Gibbon, Historian of the Roman Empire [Part I]; [Part II]
by Eugene Y. C. Ho, Hong Kong

What led first to Rome's decline and ultimately to her fall? Gibbon discovers many causes, which he discusses in various parts of his work. For instance, the long period of peace and the uniform government of the Romans gradually extinguished the industry and creativeness of the people, as well as the military discipline and valour of the soldiers (Chs. 2 and 7); the indulgence in luxury, which originally remained confined to the nobles and residents of the Imperial Court, was later extended to the troops, totally corrupting their morals (Ch. 17); the enrolment of mercenary barbarians in the armies, which served to excuse the Roman themselves from military responsibilities, at the same time encouraged the barbarians within the Empire to grow in power and influence (Ch. 17); the multiplication of oppressive taxes was countered and evaded by the rich, who shifted the burden to the poor, who in turn also dodged them and fled to the woods and mountains to become Rome's rebels and robbers (Ch. 35).

Notwithstanding the importance of these many contributing causes, Gibbon considers another two to be the most important and decisive: (1) the invasion of the barbarians, and (2) the growth of Christianity within the Empire. "I have described the triumph of barbarism and religion," he writes in the concluding chapter of his History. Every student of ancient Roman history would be familiar with the foreign enemies of the Roman Empire, most of whom were barbarians: the Goths, Lombards, Vandals, Alemannis, Huns, Persians, Turks, etc. As they had invaded Rome at one time or another, it is easy to appreciate their respective role in her fall. However, it is less easy to understand the role Christianity played as an accomplice. How was it possible that a religion whose humble founder preached love and peace and who later found himself gruesomely nailed to a cross contributed to Rome's collapse? Let us analyze this position of Gibbon in more detail.

In Gibbon's view, Christianity made for the decline and fall of Rome by sapping the faith of the people in the official (pagan) religion, thereby undermining the state which that religion supported and blessed. To be sure, Gibbon is not blind to the fact that other cults and sects within the Empire were also competing with one another in their attempt to attract believers. As he admits, "Rome, the capital of a great monarchy, was incessantly filled with subjects and strangers from every part of the world, who all introduced and enjoyed the favourite superstitions of their native country" (Ibid., Ch. 2). However, Christianity was to be distinguished from the other flourishing sects in its claim to exclusivity, or in other words, in its claim that it alone held the key to "Truth" and to Heaven, and that all its competitors were vicious and damned. Moreover, as the early Christians believed in the imminent end of this world, they all put their thoughts in the "next" world. This other-worldly attitude proved most disastrous to the Empire during the barbarian invasions, since the Christians, instead of bearing arms to serve the state and the public good, diverted men from useful employments and encouraged them to concentrate on heavenly and private salvation. Needless to say, Gibbon's anti-Christian position aroused the fury of his Christian contemporaries.

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