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THE DECLINE AND FALL
R O M A N E M P I R E.
PREBENDARY OF ST. PETER'S, AND VICAR OF ST. MARGARET's, WESTMINSTER.
IN FOUR VOLUME 8.
HARPER & BROTHERS, 82 CLIFF-STREET.
BY THE EDITOR.
The great work of Gibbon is indispensable to the student of history. The literature of Europe offers no substitute for “ The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” It has obtained undisputed possession, as rightful occupant, of the vast period which it comprehends. However some subjects which it embraces may have undergone more complete investigation, on the general view of the whole subject this history is the sole, undisputed authority to which all defer, and from which few ap. peal to the original writers or to more modern compilers. The inhe. rent interest of the subject, the inexhaustible labour employed upon it; the immense condensation of matter; the luminous argument ; the gen. eral accuracy; the style, which, however monotonous from its uniform stateliness, and sometimes wearisome from its elaborate art, is through. out vigorous, animated, often picturesque ; always commands attention, always conveys its meaning with emphatic energy; describes with sin. gular breadth and fidelity; and generalizes with unrivalled felicity of expression; all these high qualifications have secured, and seem likely to secure, its permanent place in historic literature.
This vast design of Gibbon, the magnificent whole into which he cast the decay and ruin of the ancient civilization, the formation and birth of the new order of things, will of itself, independent of the laborious ex, ecution of his immense plan, render the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire an unapproachable subject 10 the future historian :* in the elo. quent language of his recent French editor, M. Guizot :
“ The gradual decline of the most extraordinary dominion which has ever invaded and oppressed the world; the fall of that immense empire, erected on the ruins of so many kingdoms, republics, and states, both barbarous and civilized; and forming in its turn, by its dismemberment, a multitude of states, republics, and kingdoms ; the annihilation of the religion of Greece and Rome; the birth and the progress of the two new religions, which have shared the most beautiful regions of the earth; the decrepitude of the ancient world, the spectacle of its expiring glory and degenerate manners; the infancy of the modern world, the picture of its first progress, of the new direction given to the mind and character of man ; such a subject must necessarily fix the attention and excite the interest of men, who cannot behold with indifference those memorable epochs, during which, in the fine language of Corneille,
• Un grand destin commence, un grand destin s'achève.'” This extent and harmony of design is unquestionably that which dis. * A considerable portion of this preface has already appeared before the public in the Quarterly Review.
tinguishes the work of Gibbon from all other great historical composi. tions. He has first abridged the abyss between ancient and modern times, and connected together the two worlds of history. The great ad. vantage which the classical historians possess over those of modern times is in unity of plan, of course greatly facilitated by the narrower sphere to which their researches were confined. Except Herodotus, the other great historians of Greece—we exclude the more modern compilers, like Diodorus Siculus—limited themselves to a single period, or, at least, to the contracted sphere of Grecian affairs. As far as the Bar. barians trespassed within the Grecian boundary, or were necessarily mingled up with Grecian politics, they were admitted into the pale of Grecian history; but to Thucydides and to Xenophon, excepting in the Persian inroad of the latter, Greece was the world: a natural unity con. fined their narrative almost to chronological order, the episodes were of rare occurrence and extremely brief. To the Roman historians the course was equally clear and defined. Rome was their centre of unity; and the uniformity with which the circle of the Roman dominion spread around, the regularity with which their civil polity expanded, forced, as it were, upon the Roman historian that plan which Polybius announces as the subject of his history, the means and the manner by which the whole world became subject to the Roman sway. How different the complicated politics of the European kingdoms! Every national his. tory, to be complete, must, in a certain sense, be the history of Europe ; there is no knowing to how remote a quarter it may be necessary to trace our most domestic events ; from a country, how apparently disconnected, may originate the impulse which gives its direction to the whole course of affairs.
In imitation of his classical models, Gibbon places Rome as the car. dinal point from which his inquiries diverge, and to which they bear constant reference : yet how imineasurable the space over which those inquiries range ! how complicated, how confused, how apparently inex. tricable the causes which tend to the decline of the Roman empire ! how countless the nations which swarm forth, in mingling and indistinct hordes, constantly changing the geographical limits, incessantly confounding the natural boundaries! At first sight, the whole period, the whole state of the world, seems to offer no more secure footing to an his. torical adventurer than the chaos of Milton ; to be in a state of irreclaim. able disorder, best described in the language of the poet :
“ A dark
Of endless wars, and by confusion stand.”
his materials, and arranges his facts in successive groups, not according to chronological order, but to their moral or political connexion; the distinctness with which he marks his periods of gradually increasing de. cay; the skill with which, though advancing on separate parallels of history, he shows the common tendency of the slower or more rapid re. ligious or civil innovations : however these principles of composition may demand more than ordinary attention on the part of the reader, they can alone impress upon the memory the real course and the rela. tive importance of the events. Whoever would justly appreciate the su. periority of Gibbon's lucid arrangement, should attempt to make his way through the regular but wearisome annals of Tillemont, or even the less ponderous volumes of Le Beau. Both these writers adhere almost entirely to chronological order; the consequence is, that we are twenty times called upon to break off and resume the thread of six or eight wars in different parts of the empire; to suspend the operations of a military expedition for a court intrigue; to hurry away from a siege to a council ; and the same page places us in the middle of a campaign against the barbarians, and in the depths of the Monophysite controversy. In Gibbon it is not always easy to bear in mind the exact dates, but the course of events is ever clear and distinct; like a skilful general, though his troops advance from the most remote and opposite quarters, they are constantly bearing down and concentrating themselves on one point, that which is still occupied by the name and by the waning power of Rome. Whether he traces the progress of hostile religions, or leads from the shores of the Baltic, or the verge of the Chinese empire, the successive hosts of barbarians, though one wave has hardly burst and discharged it. self before another swells up and approaches, all is made to flow in the same direction, and the impression which each makes upon the tottering fabric of the Roman greatness, connect their distant movements, and measures the relative importance assigned to them in the panoramic his. tory. The more peaceful and didactic episodes on the development of the Roman law, or even on the details of ecclesiastical history, interpose them. selves as resting-places or divisions between the periods of barbaric inva. sion. In short, though distracted first by the two capitals, and afterward by the formal partition of the empire, the extraordinary felicity of arrange. ment maintains an order and a regular progression. As our horizon expands to reveal to us the gathering tempests which are forming far beyond the boundaries of the civilized world, as we follow their succes. sive approach to the trembling frontier, the compressed and receding line is still distinctly visible; though gradually dismembered, and its broken fragments assuming the form of regular states and kingdoms, the real relation of those kingdoms to the empire is maintained and defined ; and even when the Roman dominion has shrunk into little more than the province of Thrace, when the name of Rome is confined, in Italy, to the walls of the city, yet it is still the memory, the shade of the Roman greatness, which extends over the wide sphere into which the historian expands his later narrative ; the whole blends into the unity, and is man. ifestly essential to the double catastrophe of his tragic drama.
But the amplitude, the magnificence, or the harmony of design, are, though imposing, yet unworthy claims on our admiration, unless the de. tails are filled up with correctness and accuracy. No writer has been