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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 appeal 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 general 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 singular 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 execution of his immense plan, render the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire an unapproachable subject to 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 compositions. He has first abridged the abyss between ancient and modern times, and connected together the two worlds of history. The great advantage 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 Barbarians 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 confined 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 history, 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 cardinal point from which his inquiries diverge, and to which they bear constant reference : yet how immeasurable 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
Illimitable ocean, without bound,
Without dimension, where length, breadth, and height,
And time, and place, are lost: where eldest Night
And Chaos, ancestors of Nature, hold .
Eternal anarchy, amid the noise
We feel that the unity, the harmony of narrative, which shall comprehend this period of social disorganization, must be ascribed entirely to the skill and luminous disposition of the historian. It is in this sublime Gothic architecture of his work, in which the boundless range, the infinite variety, the, at first sight, incongruous gorgeousness of the separate parts, nevertheless are all subordinate to one main and predominant idea, that Gibbon is unrivalled. The manner in which he masses