Gibbon’s six volume history traces the collapse of the Roman Empire from the rule of the Five Good Emperors until the end of Byzantium. Gibbon, like Machiavelli who had coined the term over two centuries earlier, believed that Rome had reached its peak during the period from the Emperor Nerva to Marcus Aurelius and that a decline in civic virtue had led to the Empire being gradually overrun by barbarians.
Having previously served with the South Hampshire militia during the Seven Years War, the 25 year old Gibbon was in the midst of the Grand Tour when he arrived in Rome in October 1764. Known as the “Capitoline vision”, Gibbon later recounted the inspiration for his magnum opus in his autobiography:
‘It was at Rome, on the fifteenth of October 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing Vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the City first started to my mind.’
The first volume of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was published on 17 February 1776. It was immediately greeted with praise, and made Gibbon a celebrity. The sixth and final volume finally reached the press over a decade later, in May 1788, six years before his death. Gibbon’s extensive use of primary sources, and the relative objectivity of his writing, has had a lasting impact on the methodology of historians. Consequently he has been called the first “modern historian of ancient Rome” though others have gone further by describing him as truly the first modern historian.