Centre for Continuing Education

History Course: The Decline of the Roman Empire

History. See the future. It’s in the past.

It was at dusk on 15th October 1764 when Edward Gibbon, sitting amidst the ruins on the Capitoline Hill at Rome, first conceived the idea of writing about the decline and fall of the city. His classic work which emphasised the negative effects of autocracy, barbarism and religion, has long dominated views of the Roman Empire. More recently, historians have questioned Gibbon’s ‘good’ and ‘bad’ periods, or suggested other socio-economic factors, climate change and even lead poisoning and plague, as reasons for decline. Yet Gibbon’s Decline and Fall paradigm remains compelling and is still influential on modern political discourse.

Join us as each week we will read excerpts from Gibbon, consider recent scholarship, and together discuss the big issues: economic and social dislocation, military autocracy, religious fanaticism and barbarian invasion in the Roman World. Should we be talking of the ‘Transformation of the Roman World’ rather than its decline?


This course aims to provide you with an awareness of the importance of Gibbons, both as a literary stylist and a historian, and to increase your knowledge of the Later Roman World and the reigns of significant emperors. Open debate will centre on how satisfactory Gibbon’s explanations are, and how the relative values of other historical explanations were advanced by other writers in the 20th and 21st centuries.


By the end of this course, you should be able to:

  • identify the key rhetorical devices employed by Edward Gibbon, in his publication The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
  • outline the chronology of the Later Roman Empire in East and West
  • demonstrate an awareness of the social, political and religious divisions in the later Roman World as discussed by Gibbon
  • debate issues such as later Roman autocracy, the influence of Christianity, economic problems and the barbarian threat in explanations of Roman decline
  • differentiate between Gibbon’s explanations and those of other more recent historians
  • argue a case for and against views
  • formulate and articulate a view of Gibbon’s explanation for the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.


Week 1: Gibbon’s decline and fall in the context of enlightenment rationalism

  • Readings for discussion: Commodus and the Five Good Emperors (Jasper Burns, 2012), The Roman Empire: The Third Century Crisis and Crisis Management (United States Marine Corps Command and Staff College, 2015) - the army, usurpation, economic crises

Week 2: Diocletian and the reordering of the Roman world

  • Gibbon’s assessment of Diocletian
  • Reading for discussion: Diocletian and the Tetrarchy (Roger Rees, 2004) - the views of modern historians

Week 3: Religion and the fall of the Roman Empire

  • Discussion of Constantine and his sons

Week 4: Army and autocracy

  • Decline of Institutions
  • Presentation on the Late Roman Army, its organisation, strength and weakness
  • Evaluation of the Roman response to enemies
  • Class discussion of key passages on the army taken from Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Week 5: Accommodating the barbarians

  • The enemy within
  • Presentation of key battles with barbarian forces and the defeat of Roman armies
  • Roman policies towards barbarians
  • The Romans system of hospitalitas
  • The personality of the law in the Later Roman World
  • Accommodation? Integration? Infiltration?

Week 6: Decline and fall or transformation of the Roman world

  • The nature of the modern debate about the decline and fall of the Empire, and the different explanations that have been advanced
  • Gibbon’s decline and fall paradigm – its influence on political discourse in the 20th and 21st centuries
  • Discussion of readings – Gibbon and modern writers

Intended audience

Suitable for anyone interested in the history of the Middle Ages and the Late Antiquity and Byzantium periods. It would also benefit those interested in 18th century literature.

Delivery style


Recommended reading

Bond, H L 1960, Gibbon’s Language, The Literary Art of Edward Gibbon, Oxford.

Brownley, M W 1981, 'Gibbon’s Artistic and Historical Scope in the Decline and Fall', in Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 42, pp. 629-642.

Gibbon, E (any edition), The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

McGill, S, Sogno, C and Watts, E 2011, From the Tetrarchs to Theodosius: Later Roman History and Culture 284-450 CE, Cambridge.

McKitterick, R and Quinault, E (eds.) 1997, Edward Gibbon and Empire, Cambridge.

Mitchell, S 2015, A History of the Roman Empire AD 284-641, Malden Mass.

Porter, R 1988, Edward Gibbon: Making History, London.

Webster, L and Brown, M 1997, The Transformation of the Roman World AD 400-900, Berkeley.


Handouts including maps, historical timelines and excerpts from Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire will be provided in class.


  • Expert trainers
  • Central locations
  • Free, expert advice
  • Course materials – yours to keep
  • CCE Statement of Completion

What others say.

  • The lecturer was knowledgeable, approachable, and presented well. The course was excellent and I will be back for more!
  • Well presented. The tutor had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the subject.