The decline and fall of the roman empire: Gibbon revisited


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Slides from a lecture given on the World of Late Antiquity module at the University of Warwick in April 2012.

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The decline and fall of the roman empire: Gibbon revisited

  1. 1. Dr Jamie WoodUniversity of Manchester
  2. 2.  Introduce you to Edward Gibbon, a foundational thinker on the end of the Roman Empire Think about the impact of Gibbon’s work Start to prepare for the revision session in two weeks Consider how later historians modified, developed and rejected Gibbon’s ideas about the end of the Roman Empire Provide an overview of modern scholarship on the end of the Roman Empire
  3. 3.  Political  Empire  Absolutism vs. democracy and reform  Revolution  Formation of nations Intellectual  Enlightenment ▪ Rationalism over religion ▪ Science ▪ History as science – historicism in 19th C
  4. 4.  Wealthy family Educated in London and Oxford Passion for theological controversy Conversion to Catholicism and back to Protestantism 5 years studying in Lausanne Essai sur lÉtude de la Littérature (1761): literary celebrity Service in the South Hampshire militia 1762: commences Grand Tour, including travel to Rome, where he says idea for the Decline and Fall took root 1773: appointed honorary professor in ancient history at the Royal Academy 1774: MP for Liskeard, Cornwall 1776-1788: publication of the Decline and Fall in 6 volumes
  5. 5.  “ the distance of twenty-five years I can neither forget nor express the strong emotions which agitated my mind as I first approached and entered the eternal City. After a sleepless night, I trod, with a lofty step the ruins of the Forum; each memorable spot where Romulus stood, or Tully spoke, or Caesar fell, was at once present to my eye; and several days of intoxication were lost or enjoyed before I could descend to a cool and minute investigation.”
  6. 6.  The volumes were a commercial and literary success Negative appraisals:  Strongly criticised for its view of Christianity (chapters 15-16 banned in several countries)  Accused on anti-Semitism  Negative view of middle ages: “I have described the triumph of barbarism and religion.” (3.71)  Rejection of contemporary democratic movements Positive appraisals:  Praised for its style (e.g. by Winston Churchill) and ideas (Isaac Asimov)  Emphasised importance of primary sources rather than secondary accounts (first modern historian?)
  7. 7.  Read the extracts from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall that I have provided In pairs discuss the following questions:  What does Gibbon say were the key factors in the success of early Christianity?  What reasons does he give for the failure of paganism/ polytheism to resist Christianity?  Why were people attracted to Christianity, according to Gibbon?
  8. 8.  Internal factors are pre- eminent Factors built in to the imperial system  the role of the army  the role of the emperor Christianity weakens the Roman spirit  monks rather than legionaries The barbarians defeat an already-decrepit system
  9. 9.  In pairs, spend a bit of time discussing the homework reading by Bowersock Between you, decide on 3 key points that you think Bowersock is trying to make Get ready to present them back to the rest of the class You have 8 minutes
  10. 10.  Spend a couple of minutes thinking about what you’d like to do in the revision class in two weeks. Think about both content you’d like to cover and how you’d like to cover it (= process)  Are there any gaps that you’d like to see filled?  Do you have any concerns about the format of the exam?  Which topics have you particularly enjoyed and would like to focus on?  Is there anything we can learn from other revision classes that you’ve had in the past?
  11. 11.  Over the next few slides we’ll be working through the historians that I asked you to look at for homework ▪ J.B. Bury ▪ Henri Pirenne ▪ Arnaldo Momigliano ▪ G.E.M. de Ste. Croix ▪ Peter Brown Spend 5 minutes (either on your own or with someone who researched the same historian) Think of about 5 key points relating to your historian’s views on the end of the Roman Empire Get ready to feed them back to the rest of the class I will summarise your points on the PowerPoint
  12. 12.  Toronto and Vienna Schools (Goffart and Pohl)  Degree of continuity in personnel  Was there a migration?  Is there more continuity with the Roman period than allowed?  Who writes the histories and what can they tell us? Archaeological perspectives (e.g. Ward-Perkins)  Decline in material conditions is discernable and measurable;  But: Is this the right question to ask? What about the Islamic- Byzantine worlds? Migration is important (e.g. Heather; response by Halsall) Transformations of the Roman World  EU-funded project; the origins of Europe and European nations… What about the medieval world? Should we be viewing it from the perspective of what was lost with fall of Rome?
  13. 13.  Is Gibbon’s model still useful for thinking about the end of the Roman Empire? Why? What might it help us to do? Can we identify common themes in these analyses of the end of the Roman Empire?
  14. 14.  Context of interpretation is extremely important  Modern concern for multiculturalism/ migration  Cf. Gibbon’s Enlightenment concerns (e.g. anti-religion)  Nationalism was important in 19th/early 20th Cs  Europeanism in the late 20th C Sources/methodologies/ theories that are privileged are also vital  Interest in certain kinds of evidence allows certain kinds of interpretations  Methodologies (i.e. ways that you engage with your sources; e.g. textual analysis; social history; political history)  Theories that underpin interpretations (e.g. Marxism) Direction of viewpoint will alter perspective and therefore interpretation:  From perspective of the high empire or from the medieval kingdoms? Or from Byzantium/ Islamic world or W. Europe?
  15. 15.  Read the following article, which summarises some (relatively) recent work on the fall of Rome and the barbarian invasions:  Guy Halsall (1999), ‘Review article: Movers and Shakers: the Barbarians and the Fall of Rome’, Early Medieval Europe 8.1, pp. 131-145 Email me ( if you have any concerns or ideas for the revision session Optional: watch Visiting Scholar Michael McCormick on "Climate Change and the Fall of the Roman Empire” (YouTube, 2011)