skip to primary navigationskip to content

Gibbon: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Language

Gibbon does not shy away from strong language to convey his judgement on his characters. The most striking example is his characterisation of the Roman emperors Claudius, Nero and Domitian as stupid, dissolute and timid; later he refers to the emperors as weak and vicious. Elsewhere he talks in disapproving terms of the Romans' avarice, which he terms "ignoble". This portrait of the Romans is rescued by the capable Roman generals, especially the "virtuous Agricola".

Gibbon often uses the language of slavery to emphasise the fate of the Britons: they submit to the "Roman yoke", they cannot avoid the "slavery of their country" and they have to "wear their chains", though Agricola hopes that conquering Ireland too will make things easier for the Britons. This use of the imagery of slavery would have struck the eighteenth century British very forcibly: they prided themselves on being a free people, often contrasting themselves with the slaves and serfs they saw in other countries, and popular patriotic songs like Thomas Arne's Rule, Britannia! written in 1740 or the verses of "God Save the King" stressed that Britons would never be slaves.

<< Commentary :: Sources >>