British parliamentarian and soldier Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) conceived of his plan for Decline and Fall while "musing amid the ruins of the Capitol" on a visit to Rome. For the next 10 years he worked away at his great history, which traces the decadence of the late empire from the time of the Antonines and the rise of Western Christianity. "The confusion of the times, and the scarcity of authentic memorials, pose equal difficulties to the historian, who attempts to preserve a clear and unbroken thread of narration," he writes. Despite these obstacles, Decline and Fall remains a model of historical exposition, and required reading for students of European history.
"I set out upon Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire [and] was immediately dominated by both the story and the style," recalled Winston Churchill. "I devoured Gibbon. I rode triumphantly through it from end to end and enjoyed it all....I was not even estranged by his naughty footnotes." In the two centuries since its completion, Gibbon's magnum opus--which encompasses some thirteen hundred years as it swings across Europe, North Africa, and Asia--has refused to go the way of many "classics" and grow musty on the shelves. "Gibbon is a landmark and a signpost--a landmark of human achievement: and a signpost because the social convulsions of the Roman Empire as described by him sometimes prefigure and indicate convulsions which shake the whole world today," wrote E.M. Forster. Never far below the surface of the magnificent narrative lies the author's wit and sweeping irony, exemplified by Gibbon's famous definition of history as "little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind."
The third volume contains chapters forty-nine through seventy-one of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
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