The history of Edward Gibbon

FOR its vastness of scope, general accuracy of facts, freedom from bias and sustained dignity of literary style, Gibbon's great work is entitled to be regarded as the supreme historical masterpiece. The author starts with the Empire under Augustus and brings his narrative to an end with the taking of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453. Of the many editions undoubtedly the finest is that of Professor J.B. Bury published by Methuen.


IN the second century of the Christian era, the Empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind. On the death of Augustus, that emperor bequeathed, as a valuable legacy to his successors, the advice of confining the empire within those limits which nature seemed to have placed as its permanent bulwarks and boundaries--on the west, the Atlantic Ocean, the Rhine and Danube; on the north, the Euphrates; on the east and towards the south, the sandy deserts of Arabia and Africa. The subsequent settlement of Great Britain and Dacia supplied the two exceptions to the precepts of Augustus, if we omit the transient conquests of Trajan in the east, which were renounced by Hadrian.

By maintaining the dignity of the empire, without attempting to enlarge its limits, the early emperors caused the Roman name to be revered among the most remote nations of the earth. The terror of their arms added weight and dignity to their moderation. They preserved peace by a constant preparation for war.

The soldiers, though drawn from the meanest, and very frequently from the most profligate, of mankind, and no longer, as in the days of the ancient republic, recruited from Rome herself, were preserved in their allegiance to the emperor and their invincibility before the enemy by the influences of superstition, inflexible discipline and hope of reward.

The peace establishment of the Roman army numbered some 375,000 men, divided into thirty legions, who were confined, not within the walls of fortified cities, which the Romans considered as the refuge of pusillanimity, but upon the confines of the empire; while 20,000 chosen soldiers, distinguished by the titles of City Cohorts and Praetorian Guards, watched over the safety of the monarch and the capitol.

As the authors of almost every revolution that distracted the empire, the Praetorians will demand attention; but, in their arms and institutions, we cannot find any circumstance that discriminated them from the legions, save a more splendid appearance and a less rigid discipline.

The navy maintained by the emperors might seem inadequate to their greatness, but it was fully sufficient for every useful purpose of the government. The ambition of the Romans was confined to the land; nor was that warlike people ever actuated by the enterprising spirit which had prompted the navigators of Tyre, of Carthage, and even of Marseilles, to enlarge the bounds of the world and to explore the most remote coasts of the ocean. To the Romans the ocean remained an object of terror rather than of curiosity; the whole extent of the Mediterranean, after the destruction of Carthage and the extirpation of the pirates, was included within their provinces. The policy of the emperors was directed only to preserve the peaceful dominion of that sea and to protect the commerce of their subjects. With these moderate views, Augustus stationed two permanent fleets in the most convenient ports of Italy, the one at Ravenna, on the Adriatic, the other at Misenum, in the Bay of Naples.

'Wheresoever the Roman conquers he inhabits, was a very just observation of Seneca. Colonies, composed for the most part of veteran soldiers, were settled throughout the empire. Rich and prosperous cities, adorned with magnificent temples and baths and other public buildings, demonstrated at once the magnificence and majesty of the Roman system. In Britain, York was the seat of government. London was already enriched by commerce and Bath was celebrated for the salutary effects of its medicinal waters.

All the great cities were connected with each other, and with the capital, by the public highway, which, issuing from the Forum of Rome, traversed Italy, pervaded the provinces and was terminated only by the frontiers of the empire. This great chain of communications ran in a direct line from city to city, and in its construction the Roman engineers showed little respect for the obstacles either of nature or of private properry. Mountains were perforated and bold arches thrown over the broadest streams.

The middle part of the road, raised into a terrace which commanded the adjacent country, consisted of several strata of sand, gravel and cement, and was paved with granite or large stones. Distances were accurately computed by milestones, and the establishment of post-houses, at a distance of five or six miles, enabled a citizen to travel with ease a hundred miles a day along the Roman roads.

These roads united the subjects of the most distant provinces by an easy and familiar inter-course; but their primary object had been to facilitate the marches of the legions, nor was any country considered as subdued till it was pervious to the arms and authority of the conqueror.

This freedom of intercourse, which was established throughout the Roman world, while it extended the vices, diffused likewise the improvements of social life. Rude barbarians of Gaul laid aside their arms for the more peaceful pursuits of agriculture. The cultivation of the earth produced abundance in every portion of the empire, and accidental scarcity in any single province was immediately relieved by the plentifulness of its more fortunate neighbours.

Since the productions of nature are the materials of art, this flourishing condition of agriculture laid the foundation of manufactures, which provided the luxurious Roman with those refinements of conveniency, of elegance and of splendour which his tastes demanded. Commerce flourished, and the products of Egypt and the East were poured into the lap of Rome.

THOUGH there still existed within the body of the Roman Empire an unhappy condition of men who endured the weight, without sharing the benefits, of society, the position of a slave was greatly improved in the progress of Roman development. The power of life and death was taken from his master's hands and vested in the magistrate, to whom he had a right to appeal against intolerable treatment. These magistrates exercised the authority of the emperor and the senate in every quarter of the empire, inflexibly maintaining in their administration, as in the case of military government, the use of the Latin tongue. Greek was the natural idiom of science, Latin that of government.

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