The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

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The History of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Vol. 1, 1776; Vols. II-III, 1781; Vols. IV-VI, 1788) by Edward Gibbon. One of the most famous historical works written in any language and covering over 1000 years of history, from the end of the Antonine dynasty to the fall of Constantinople.

Volume I[edit]

  • Trajan was ambitious of fame; and as long as mankind shall continue to bestow more liberal applause on their destroyers than on their benefactors, the thirst of military glory will ever be the vice of the most exalted characters.
    • Chapter I
  • The terror of the Roman arms added weight and dignity to the moderation of the emperors. They preserved peace by a constant preparation for war; and while justice regulated their conduct, they announced to the nations on their confines, that they were as little disposed to endure, as to offer an injury.
    • Chapter I
  • Yet Phoenicia and Palestine will forever live in the memory of mankind; since America, as well as Europe, has received letters from the one, and religion from the other.
    • Chapter I
  • That public virtue which among the ancients was denominated patriotism, is derived from a strong sense of our own interest in the preservation and prosperity of the free government of which we are members. Such a sentiment, which had rendered the legions of the republic almost invincible, could make but a very feeble impression on the mercenary servants of a despotic prince; and it became necessary to supply that defect by other motives, of a different, but not less forcible nature; honour and religion.
    • Chapter I
  • The masters of the fairest and most wealthy climates of the globe turned with contempt from gloomy hills, assailed by the winter tempest, from lakes concealed in a blue mist, and from cold and lonely heaths, over which the deer of the forest were chased by a troop of naked barbarians.
    • Chapter I
  • The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful.
    • Chapter II
  • But the zeal of fanaticism prevailed over the cold and feeble efforts of policy.
    • Chapter II
  • We may be well assured, that a writer, conversant with the world, would never have ventured to expose the gods of his country to public ridicule, had they not already been the objects of secret contempt among the polished and enlightened orders of society.
    • Chapter II
  • Under a democratical government, the citizens exercise the powers of sovereignty; and those powers will be first abused, and afterwards lost, if they are committed to an unwieldy multitude. From the foot of the Alps to the extremity of Calabria, all the natives of Italy were born citizens of Rome. Their partial distinctions were obliterated, and they insensibly coalesced into one great nation, united by language, manners, and civil institutions, and equal to the weight of a powerful empire. The republic gloried in her generous policy, and was frequently rewarded by the merit and services of her adopted sons. Had she always confined the distinction of Romans to the ancient families within the walls of the city, that immortal name would have been deprived of some of its noblest ornaments.
    • Chapter II
  • Opinions of the Academics and Epicureans were of a less religious cast; but whilst the modest science of the former induced them to doubt, the positive ignorance of the latter urged them to deny, the providence of a Supreme Ruler.
    • Chapter II
  • In Etruria, in Greece, and in Gaul, it was the first care of the senate to dissolve those dangerous confederacies, which taught mankind that, as the Roman arms prevailed by division, they might be resisted by union. Those princes, whom the ostentation of gratitude or generosity permitted for a while to hold a precarious sceptre, were dismissed from their thrones, as soon as they had performed their appointed task of fashioning to the yoke the vanquished nations.
    • Chapter II
  • The situation of the Greeks was very different from that of the barbarians. The former had been long since civilized and corrupted. They had too much taste to relinquish their language, and too much vanity to adopt any foreign institutions. Still preserving the prejudices, after they had lost the virtues, of their ancestors, they affected to despise the unpolished manners of the Roman conquerors, whilst they were compelled to respect their superior wisdom and power.
    • Chapter II
  • Without destroying the distinction of ranks, a distant prospect of freedom and honors was presented, even to those whom pride and prejudice almost disdained to number among the human species.
    • Chapter II
  • The two Antonines (for it is of them that we are now speaking) governed the Roman world forty-two years, with the same invariable spirit of wisdom and virtue. ... Their united reigns are possibly the only period of history in which the happiness of a great people was the sole object of government.
  • Antoninus diffused order and tranquillity over the greatest part of the earth. His reign is marked by the rare advantage of furnishing very few materials for history; which is, indeed, little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.
    • Chapter III This has often been truncated to : History...is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.
  • The principles of a free constitution are irrevocably lost, when the legislative power is nominated by the executive.
    • Chapter III
  • But the power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy, except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous.
    • Chapter IV, part I
    • In describing how Marcus Aurelius summoned men of virtue and learning to attempt to broaden the mind of his son Commodus.
  • Augustus was sensible that mankind is governed by names; nor was he deceived in his expectation, that the senate and people would submit to slavery, provided they were respectfully assured that they still enjoyed their ancient freedom.
    • Chapter VII
  • Twenty-two acknowledged concubines, and a library of sixty-two thousand volumes, attested the variety of his inclinations; and from the productions which he left behind him, it appears that the former as well as the latter were designed for use rather than for ostentation.
    • Chapter VII

Volume II[edit]

  • In the various states of society, armies are recruited from very different motives. Barbarians are urged by the love of war; the citizens of a free republic may be prompted by a principle of duty; the subjects, or at least the nobles, of a monarchy, are animated by a sentiment of honor; but the timid and luxurious inhabitants of a declining empire must be allured into the service by the hopes of profit, or compelled by the dread of punishment.
    • Chapter XVII
  • The general peace which [Constantine] maintained during the last fourteen years of his reign, was a period of apparent splendour rather than of real prosperity; and the old age of Constantine was disgraced by the opposite yet reconcilable vices of rapaciousness and prodigality.
    • Chapter XVIII
  • Corruption, the most infallible symptom of consitutional liberty.
    • Chapter XXI

Volume III[edit]

  • The son of Theodosius passed the slumber of his life, a captive in his palace, a stranger in his country, and the patient, almost the indifferent, spectator of the ruin of the Western empire, which was repeatedly attacked, and finally subverted, by the arms of the Barbarians. In the eventful history of a reign of twenty-eight years, it will seldom be necessary to mention the name of the emperor Honorius.
    • Chapter XXIX
  • Yet every physician is prone to exaggerate the inveterate nature of the disease which he has cured.
    • Chapter XXVII, part II, footnote.
    • In this case remarking on the works of Gregory Nazianzen.
  • There exists in human nature a strong propensity to depreciate the advantages, and to magnify the evils, of the present times.
    • Chapter XXXI, part IV
    • In this case recent injuries to Rome from the Goths compared to those from the Gauls in former times.
    • Similar "Notwithstanding the propensity of mankind to exalt the past, and to depreciate the present," in volume I, chapter II, part IV.

Volume IV[edit]

  • A material difference may be observed in the games of antiquity: the most eminent of the Greeks were actors, the Romans were merely spectators. The Olympic stadium was open to wealth, merit, and ambition; and if the candidates could depend on their personal skill and activity, they might pursue the footsteps of Diomede and Menelaus, and conduct their own horses in the rapid career… But a [Roman] senator, or even a citizen, conscious of his dignity, would have blushed to expose his person or his horses in the circus of Rome. The games were established at the expense of the republic, the magistrates, or the emperors; but the reins were abandoned to servile hands; and if the profits of a favourite charioteer sometimes exceeded those of an advocate, they must be considered as the effects of popular extravagance, and the high wages of a disgraceful profession.
    • Chapter XL
    • contrasting active Greek and passive Roman sport
  • From the capital this pestilence was diffused into the provinces and cities of the East, and the sportive distinction of two colours produced two strong and irreconcilable factions, which shook the foundations of a feeble government… Every law, either human or divine, was trampled under foot; and as long as the party was successful, its deluded followers appeared careless of private distress or public calamity.
    • Chapter XL
    • on the fighting between the Blue and Green factions of chariot race fans
  • I am not insensible of the benefits of elegant luxury; yet I reflect with some pain, that if the importers of silk had introduced the art of printing, already practised by the Chinese, the comedies of Menander and the entire decads of Livy would have been perpetuated in the editions of the sixth century.
    • Chapter XL
  • The more stubborn Barbarians sacrificed a she-goat, or perhaps a captive, to the gods of their fathers... Gregory the Roman supposes that they likewise adored this she-goat. I know but of one religion in which the god and the victim are the same.
    • Chapter XLV
  • In every deed of mischief he had a heart to resolve, a head to contrive, and a hand to execute.
    • Chapter XLVIII
  • Our sympathy is cold to the relation of distant misery.
    • Chapter XLIX

Volume V[edit]

  • In a private condition, our desires are perpetually repressed by poverty and subordination; but the lives and labors of millions are devoted to the service of a despotic prince, whose laws are blindly obeyed, and whose wishes are instantly gratified. Our imagination is dazzled by the splendid picture; and whatever may be the cool dictates of reason, there are few among us who would obstinately refuse a trial of the comforts and the cares of royalty. It may therefore be of some use to borrow the experience of the same Abdalrahman, whose magnificence has perhaps excited our admiration and envy, and to transcribe an authentic memorial which was found in the closet of the deceased caliph. 'I have now reigned above fifty years in victory or peace; beloved by my subjects, dreaded by my enemies, and respected by my allies. Riches and honors, power and pleasure, have waited on my call, nor does any earthly blessing appear to have been wanting to my felicity. In this situation, I have diligently numbered the days of pure and genuine happiness which have fallen to my lot: they amount to Fourteen: - O man! place not thy confidence in this present world!' ... This confession, the complaints of Solomon of the vanity of this world... and the happy ten days of the emperor Seghed... will be triumphantly quoted by the detractors of human life. Their expectations are commonly immoderate, their estimates are seldom impartial. If I may speak of myself, (the only person of whom I can speak with certainty), my happy hours have far exceeded, and far exceed, the scanty numbers of the caliph of Spain; and I shall not scruple to add, that many of them are due to the pleasing labor of the present composition.
    • Chapter LII
  • A latent motive of affection or vanity might influence the choice of Urban: he was himself a native of France, a monk of Clugny, and the first of his countrymen who ascended the throne of St. Peter. The pope had illustrated his family and province; nor is there perhaps a more exquisite gratification than to revisit, in a conspicuous dignity, the humble and laborious scenes of our youth.
    • LVIII
  • But the nations of the East had been taught to trample on the successors of the prophet; and the blessings of domestic peace were obtained by the relaxation of strength and discipline. So uniform are the mischiefs of military despotism, that I seem to repeat the story of the praetorians of Rome.
    • Chapter LII

Volume VI[edit]

  • In the profession of Christianity, the variety of national characters may be clearly distinguished. The natives of Syria and Egypt abandoned their lives to lazy and contemplative devotion; Rome again aspired to the dominion of the world; and the wit of the lively and loquacious Greeks was consumed in the disputes of metaphysical theology.
    • Chapter LIV
  • In the year 1238, the inhabitants of Gothia (Sweden) and Frise were prevented, by their fear of the Tartars, from sending, as usual, their ships to the herring fishery on the coast of England; and as there was no exportation, forty or fifty of these fish were sold for a shilling... It is whimsical enough, that the orders of a Mogul khan, who reigned on the borders of China, should have lowered the price of herrings in the English market.
    • Chapter LXIV
  • By the Venetians, the use of gunpowder was communicated without reproach to the sultans of Egypt and Persia, their allies against the Ottoman power; the secret was soon propagated to the extremities of Asia; and the advantage of the European was confined to his easy victories over the savages of the new world. If we contrast the rapid progress of this mischievous discovery with the slow and laborious advances of reason, science, and the arts of peace, a philosopher, according to his temper, will laugh or weep at the folly of mankind.
    • Chapter LXV
  • But no sooner had he introduced himself into the city, under color of a truce, than he perfidiously violated the treaty... and animated his troops to chastise the posterity of those Syrians who had executed, or approved, the murder of the grandson of Mahomet. A family which had given honorable burial to the head of Hosein, and a colony of artificers, whom he sent to labor at Samarcand, were alone reserved in the general massacre, and after a period of seven centuries, Damascus was reduced to ashes, because a Tartar was moved by religious zeal to avenge the blood of an Arab.
    • Chapter LXV
  • The winds and waves are always on the side of the ablest navigators.
    • Chapter LXVIII
  • His defence, at Florence, of the same union, which he so furiously attacked at Constantinople, has tempted Leo Allatius... to divide him into two men; but Renaudot... has restored the identity of his person and the duplicity of his character.
    • Chapter LXVIII
  • 'When he was master of Normandy, the chapter of Seez presumed, without his consent, to proceed to the election of a bishop' upon which he ordered all of them, with the bishop elect, to be castrated, and made all their testicles be brought him in a platter.' Of the pain and danger they might justly complain; yet since they had vowed chastity he deprived them of a superfluous treasure.
    • Chapter LXIX
  • Vicissitudes of fortune, which spares neither man nor the proudest of his works, which buries empires and cities in a common grave.
    • Chapter LXXI
  • All that is human must retrograde if it does not advance.
    • Chapter LXXI

Quotes about "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire"[edit]

  • "Another damned fat book, Mr. Gibbon? Scribble, scribble, scribble, eh Mr. Gibbon?" — variously attributed to King George III or Henry, Duke of Gloucester, upon receiving a volume of Gibbon's book.

External links[edit]