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Gibbon: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

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Gibbon, Decline and Fall

The world of the Greeks and Romans remained of foremost importance across many centuries of European history. In the eighteenth century the ancients were greatly admired for their philosophy and high ideals: they were thought of as exponents of universal truths, as relevant to the eighteenth century as to their own day. We see evidence of this reverence for the ancient world in the eighteenth century taste for neoclassical architecture and in the taste among the rich to have themselves painted or sculpted in classical dress. The excavations of Pompeii prompted a craze for classical antiquity and many young men set off from Britain to undertake the 'Grand Tour', visiting the sites in Greece and Italy in order to imbibe their spirit of knowledge and wisdom. Most of these young men spent their time imbibing a quite different sort of spirit but it was, by his own account, while sitting in the ruins of the Roman Forum that the writer Edward Gibbon decided to undertake the massive task of writing a full account of the decline and fall of the great city and its empire.

Unlike Suetonius, therefore, Gibbon’s scope was much broader and his central character is the Roman world itself, rather than any individual emperor. His work dwarfs Suetonius’ short sketches: it covers the story from the height of the empire’s strength and prosperity in the 2nd century AD, through the fall of Rome in AD 476 through to the fall of Constantinople, capital of the eastern Roman or 'Byzantine' Empire in 1453. Gibbon’s task was not simply to recount the events that traced Rome’s decline but to identify its root causes.

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