Great Ideas Collection: Edward Gibbon

In the sixth of our series exploring the books of Penguin’s Great Ideas Collection, Sophie Kingham reviews Edward Gibbon’s ‘The Christians and the Fall of Rome’. The essay is taken from Gibbon’s ‘The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’. This was considered a groundbreaking work for its substantial use of primary resources and has become a model for the work of later historians.

The topic of religion has cropped up numerous times in this Great Ideas Collection. Here, Gibbon provides “a candid but rational enquiry into the progress and establishment of Christianity” and how it is “a very essential part of the history of the roman empire.”

While that great body was invaded by open violence, or undermined by slow decay, a pure and humble religion gently insinuated itself into the minds of men, grew up in silence and obscurity, derived new vigour from opposition, and finally erected the triumphant banner of the cross on the ruins of the capital.

Although taken out of the context of its original work, this book discusses Christianity more than the Roman Empire itself. It comments on the history of religion and how it spread across the world, for “the progress of Christianity was not confined to the Roman Empire”. Gibbon discusses the evolution of this religion, taking into consideration pagan traditions, early Christian churches and the formation of the Papacy.  “Christianity offered itself to the world, armed with the strength of the Mosaic Law, and delivered from the weight of its fetters.”

Throughout the book, Gibbon comments on several reasons why Christianity lead to the empire succumbing.  The principal reason being the promise of an afterlife, therefore creating the need for maintaining a rigid virtue in this life.

The idea of an eternity in paradise was very appealing to the Romans. Rather than just referring to this place as heaven, Gibbon describes it rather poetically as “the invisible country which is destined to receive the souls of men after their separation from the body”.  The idea of immortality, their souls separating from bodies and living for eternity in paradise was well received among those of the empire. “When the promise of eternal happiness was proposed to mankind, on condition of adopting the faith, and of observing the precepts of the gospel, it is no wonder that so advantageous an offer should have been accepted by great numbers of every religion, of every rank, and of every province in the Roman Empire.”

A rigid virtue was accepted by the Romans because “a simple and mortified appearance was more suitable to the Christian who was certain of his sins and doubtful of salvation”; doing whatever possible to ensure that eternal happiness would greet them when their soul separated from its anatomical prison. As well as a simple appearance and humble attitude, a reduction of sexual relationships was another indicator of rigid virtue. “The loss of sensual pleasure was supplied and compensated by spiritual pride.”

As Gibbons himself so aptly summarises, “It was by the aid of these causes … that Christianity spread itself with so much success in the Roman Empire … these causes united their courage, directed their arms, and gave their efforts that irresistible weight, which even a small band of well-trained and intrepid volunteers has so often possessed over an undisciplined multitude, ignorant of the subject, and careless of the event of war.”



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