Friday, April 27, 2012

Edward Gibbon wrote of Roman Empire

Edward Gibbon
It is the birthday of English historian Edward Gibbon (1737*), who devoted much of his life to writing (and revising) The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788), an exhaustive six-volume work (published over 12 years) in which Gibbon advances his theories about why the Roman Empire failed. Gibbon lay the cause of the fall to the weakness of Roman citizens (whom he said had become effeminate), their lack of a sense of civic duty, the outsourcing of the defense of the empire to barbarian mercenaries from the north, the rise of the Praetorian Guard (the emperors' bodyguards), and the rise of Christianity, which, in Gibbon's estimation, made Roman citizens indifferent to the present, holding hope for a better life after death. Numerous writers have taken Gibbon to task for his attack on Christianity, noting that nothing in history indicates that Christians were disinclined toward war to defend the empire. Most historians laud Gibbon for his use of primary sources for much of his work and his exhaustive pioneering of the use of footnotes, which later became standard in scholarly works. Even after publication, Gibbon continued change and revise his work. He noted in his autobiography that the book occupied much of his adult life. The publication of each volume he compared with the birth of a child. (*A note on Gibbon's birthday: He was born April 27, 1737 according to the Julian calendar but in 1752, England started using the Gregorian calendar, putting Gibbon's birthday on May 8. We're sticking to the Old Style calendar for this one.)

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