Edward Gibbon's Theory on the Rise and Fall of Empires

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Kevin Jon Fernlund:

"The Enlightenment worked out schemes for how societies evolved or, as the case may be, devolved.

Edward Gibbon famously advanced (the first of his six-volume history of Rome appeared in 1776) a two-part explanation for the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. The Latin West succumbed, he contended, to the spread from within of an increasingly intolerant monotheism, namely Christianity, and it failed, in the end, to repulse the barbarian invasions of the Goths, Vandals, and Huns. The Greco East, on the other hand, was assailed from without by barbarian Arabs and later, from without by the barbarian Turks who had converted to another monotheism, Islam. Thus, both halves of the Roman Empire were destroyed by barbarism and monotheism.

Barbarians were, by definition, less civilized than the Romans. monotheists were, by definition, intolerant of other faiths. In this respect, differences in culture and cultural or social development were crucial to Gibbon’s narrative. These differences were in no way baked into anyone’s DNA or racially determined. Enlightenment evolutionism was universal and self-evident — it applied to all peoples, in the past and in the present. Indeed, Gibbon pointed out that the very barbarian territories that had been carved out of the Roman Empire would one day evolve into the civilized states of Europe, such as Gibbon’s own England. In time, these new states not only caught up with Rome but improved upon and eventually surpassed Roman civilization in terms of social development. As Gibbon saw it, the period of the “Renaissance,” a term coined by the nineteenth-century historian Jules Michelet, marked the rebirth of Rome, which had been destroyed centuries before by barbarism and superstition. With the Scientific Revolution and the transatlantic Enlightenment—Benjamin Franklin was as much a product of this era as was Voltaire — these Moderns were convinced that they would soar past the Ancients. The situation across the Atlantic was different. In the New World, members of Europe’s transplanted civilization believed they were surrounded on every side by “savages” or “barbarians.” Later, nineteenth-century historians, e.g., Francis Parkman and William H. Prescott, who continued to look at history through a Gibbonian lens, saw the rise of an independent Latin South and Anglo North as triumphs of Western civilization over Ameri-can savagery and barbarism. A fear that these victories would be reversed haunted the Romantic imagination of the nineteenth century."