Politics & Policy

Gibbon, the Muses, and the Decline of Rome

Detail of Edward Gibbon portrait by Joshua Reynolds
The greatest historian still has much to teach us about the empire-ending consequences of internal decay.

Rome — I am sitting on the steps of the Capitoline Hill, as close as I can approximate the spot where, exactly 250 years ago today, on October 15, 1764, the 27-year old Edward Gibbon was struck by the muses, leading to perhaps the greatest work of historical scholarship in the English language.

Though the anecdote in his biography recalling the moment has been called into question, it is both sufficiently famous and sufficiently inspiring to anyone with a historical bent to warrant retelling. Gibbon’s recollects the moment:

It was at Rome, on the fifteenth of October, 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing Vespers in the temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the City first started to my mind.

That history would consume much of the rest of his life. The first volume of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was published in 1776, became an immediate best seller, and vaulted its author into the most exclusive ranks of British letters. The final volume appeared in 1788, and the sixth edition of the first volume appeared in 1789, just five years before Gibbon’s death. There remains a historical poignancy that Decline and Fall first appeared the same year that the American Declaration of Independence was expressing perhaps the loftiest sentiments of Enlightenment political philosophy, while its last installment came on the heels of the French Revolution, which guillotined the hopes of liberalism.

Much of Gibbon’s work has been superseded by subsequent discoveries, though its sweep and grandeur have never been surpassed. Only half of his work, that dealing with the Western Roman Empire, is any longer read and known, and his dismissal of the Eastern (Byzantine) half of the empire no longer stands up to historical scrutiny.

Most significantly, Gibbon’s core thesis has long been controversial, to wit, that Rome ultimately fell through internal weakness and loss of civic virtue, owing in no small part to Christianity. This failure of the ruling class and its sclerotic governing mechanism allowed barbarian tribes to overrun Rome’s borders. Many authors now consider it definitively disproved, and there are many other more plausible explanations for the empire’s decline: from internal political fighting to the change in the nature of the army. Two and a half centuries after Gibbon, historians are still fighting over the causes, and two of the best recent books on the subject are Bryan Ward-Perkins’s The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization and Adrian Goldsworthy’s How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower.

Yet while Gibbon may have missed his mark in looking for sources of decline, his central insight that it was an internal decay that most fatally weakened the empire seems more and more relevant to our own times in the democratic, liberal West. The tally of our problems is sobering, including endemic political corruption combined with governing incompetence, much of our sordid popular culture, widely profligate lifestyles, politicization of the media and education, and recent horrors such as Rotherham, a town in which 1,400 girls (by a “conservative estimate”) were brutally sexually abused by gangs of Muslim men over a decade and a half, with the tacit acceptance of the authorities. Is it so inconceivable that we are now a full generation into a similar moral, ethical, and social decline as the one that Gibbon limned?

Like Rome, we in the West have an enormous patrimony to draw on and squander. This makes our continued strength and political dominance seem self-evident to so many. Much of Western society has indeed proved so resilient and so stable that those who worry about our slouching toward Gomorrah are mocked as crackpots (not dissimilar to the ancient Israelite prophets). Yet the very point of Gibbon’s work is that we must measure such changes in decades and longer, not months. Just as crucially, once chosen, a path leading to economic, political, or social decline becomes increasingly difficult to exit over time.

Liberalism might well revitalize itself in the 21st century, and utopian excesses of the type represented most virulently by the Islamic State could consume themselves on the altar of their own violence. Regardless, it will be a long game with many setbacks along the way. For now, however, on this day, those who believe that history speaks still to our attempt to understand and better our world can only pop open a bottle of fine wine and celebrate the spark of genius that propelled Edward Gibbon into immortality.

— Michael Auslin is a frequent contributor to National Review Online.

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