Edward Gibbon on public virtue and the collapse of the Roman Empire


Indeed, from the beginning, his praise of the Antoine age is qualified: for he sees, even in that age, in the very structure of the imperial system, the seeds of its decay. For the centralized Roman empire, by its very definition, excluded a certain vitalizing principle necessary to the health of society. That principle was public spirit, what Machiavelli had called virtu.

‘That public virtue,’ writes Gibbon, ‘which among the ancients was denominated patriotism, is derived from a strong sense of our own interest in the preservation and prosperity of the free government of which we are members. Such a sentiment, which had rendered the legions of the Republic almost invincible, could make but a very feeble impression on the mercenary servants of a despotic prince.’ This animating principle of ‘public virtue,’ expressed in active participation in public life, is to Gibbon the great contribution of classical Antiquity, and its extinction, in imperial times, its transfer (as Machiavelli would say) to the ‘barbarian’ successor-states in Western Europe, is a major theme of his work. Later, dealing with Byzantine history, he makes the same point more explicit. ‘In the last moments of her decay,’ he writes, ‘Constantinople was doubtless more opulent and populous than Athens at her most flourishing era’ when a far lesser wealth was divided among far fewer citizens. But each Athenian citizen was a freeman who dared to assert the liberty of his thoughts, words, and actions – whose person and property were guarded by equal law; and who exercised his independent vote in the government of the Republic. Against this, ‘the subjects of the Byzantine empire, who dishonor the names both of Greeks and Romans, present a dead uniformity of abject vices which are neither softened by the weakness of humanity nor animated by the vigour of memorable crimes.’ It was on this account this account that Gibbon quickened his pace when dealing with Byzantine history. In Byzantium he could find no evidence of theMachiavelli’s virtu, and so he transferred his interest to the barbarians who had in their societies those seeds of growth.

How is this virtue born, how nourished, how stifled and killed? Essentially, it depends upon the discovery, cultivation, and systematic teaching of the natural dignity and equal rights of man. But since man, as Montesquieu had argued, is conditioned by his environment, and the ‘spirit’ of his institutions, there is always a danger that such ideas, which are not native everywhere, and are often inconvenient to rules, will be suppressed and extinguished by orthodoxy and interested power. For even if power is exercised by liberal rules, there is always the danger of illiberal successors. A Marcus Aurelius may be followed by Commodus. For this reason, Gibbon, though he may praise the virtuous emperors, cannot praise the system; and he adds that, even under the ‘Antonine’ emperors, excellent rulers though they were, the inherent vices of the system were positively aggravated by ‘two peculiar circumstances’ which exposed the subjects of the Roman empire to a condition ‘more completely wretched than the victims of tyranny in any other age or country.’ These two circumstances were the memory of past freedom and the universality of imperial power. ‘The division of Europe into a number of independent states…is productive of the most beneficial consequences to the liberty of mankind.’ The heretic, the nonconformist, could always find a base, and so ideas and experiments unwelcome, could always find a base, and so ideas and experiments unwelcome to present power could not be completely stifled. But the monopoly of the Roman emperors was absolute. They ruled effectively over the entire civilized world. ‘Wherever you are,’ said Cicero to the exiled Marcellus, ‘remember that you are equally within the power of the conqueror.’

Virtue therefore depends for assured survival, not only on a continuing tradition of freedom, but also on a plural society, on the division of power between separate authorities Ideally, it requires independent, competing states, preferably with different political systems; independent authorities within particular states; economic and intellectual competition. In the Roman empire these conditions did not obtain. There the emperor exercised a complete monopoly of power, and this monopoly, by stifling freedom, inevitably stifled all forms of progress. At one moment, Gibbons tells us, in the decline of the Western Empire, the emperor Honorius sought to devolve power in Gaul to provincial assemblies. ‘If such an institution, which gave the people an interest in their own government, had been universally established by Trajan or the Antonines, the seeds of public wisdom and virtue might have been cherished and propagated in the empire of Rome,’ which ‘under the mild and generous influence of liberty’ … might then ‘have remained invincible and immortal.’ But the Antonine had granted no such devolution of powers, and now it was too late. The over-centralization of the Empire had already stifled the spirit of freedom which alone could have revived it, and ‘the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight.’

For virtue, to Gibbon, is not as the Stoics, merely a private possession, enabling a man to bear with equanimity all the blows of fortune. It is essentially on active principle. It depends on freedom, demands freedom, and creates freedom. It also, since it nourishes science, forwards material progress. Conversely, monopoly of any kind is its enemy: monopoly of power, monopoly of wealth, monopoly of knowledge or of alleged access to truth. The centralized power of the imperial bureaucracy was one such impediment to virtue: by its mere structure ‘the empire of the Caesars undoubtedly checked the activity and progress of the human mind.’ The vast hereditary estates of the Roman landlords were another. So was the immobility of labour -the hereditary obligation of the Roman middle class as much as the hereditary serfdom of the early medieval peasant. Gibbon hated all forms of immobilization: mortmain of land, thesaurization of wealth, tied labour. So he would rejoice when the Crusades incidentally broke up the baronial wealth and power and would record without pain the sacrilegious dispersal of clerical wealth, ‘most wickedly converted to the service of mankind.’…

…Public spirit, public service – this to Gibbon, was the human motive force of progress; and it was nourished, in his view, by the kind of society which, in turn, it created and preserved: a plural, mobile society. It had created the city-states of Greece, the republic of Rome; and from those city-states and that Republic – not from the Roman Empire – the ideas had been born which were the intellectual means of its preservation. The centralization, the immobility, the monopoly of the Roman Empire had gradually destroyed that pluralism, stifled those ideas, and so progress had been retarded, public virtue had declined, and in the end an inert, top-heavy political structure had fallen to external blows which a healthier organism could have survived. For it was not the barbarians – ‘those innocent barbarians’ – who had destroyed the Western Empire. ‘If all the barbarians conquerors had been annihilated in the same hour, their total destruction would not have restored the empire of the West.’ It had been rotted from within.


  1. Gibbon, Edward, and Hugh Trevor-Roper. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993. Print. lxxxvii-xci.




1 Comment

Filed under History, Notes on History, Philosophy, Politics

One response to “Edward Gibbon on public virtue and the collapse of the Roman Empire

  1. Ken

    Although I’m no expert on Rome, I’m pleased to see how closely this discussion of Gibbon’s ideas parallels those I presented in my own book about freedom in the US:


    To my mind, freedom of the kind worth having is simply impossible in an empire, since public virtue is also impossible. I also happen to argue in my book that this freedom worth having contrasts with Stoic freedom, which to my mind is the dominant form of freedom in the (essentially imperial) US today.

    An implicit debate about Roman history is whether the decline of virtue caused the decline of the republic, or whether the decline of the republic caused the decline of virtue. Moralists then and forever after have assumed that virtue declined first, but I suspect that the decline of virtue was more of an effect than a cause of the decline of the republic. (I too see the shift from citizen soldiers to mercenaries as a prelude to both.) The way I read this article, Gibbon veered toward the interpretation I favor, which intrigues me.

    Also intriguing is the thesis that public virtue is a feeble thing that doesn’t necessarily flourish even when conditions are conducive to it. I suspect this thesis is more wrong than right. That is, I would be inclined to argue that when the social, political, and economic conditions are conducive to public virtue, it will almost automatically arise. To argue otherwise I think is to overemphasize the voluntaristic component of morality, even to slip into a little unwitting Stocism. However, I would be hesitant to press my view to any deterministic extreme, since I suspect that there is a voluntaristic component operating too.

    All in all, I found this as interesting post, as I often do posts on this blog.

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