Few people today have read the whole of Edward Gibbon’s masterpiece, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The full text, originally published between 1776 and 1788 in six volumes, and recently repackaged in three volumes for the Penguin Classics series,1 comprises a daunting three-thousand-plus pages. However, many more have read excerpts or chapters selected to illustrate certain attributes of the author, especially his elegant literary style, his civilized values and the famous drollery of his wit. Gibbon is widely regarded as a typical man of the Enlightenment, dedicated to asserting the claims of reason over superstition, to understanding history as a rational process, and to replacing divine revelation with sociological explanations for the rise of religion. He is probably cited most often for...


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