Preface to the Hypertextual Decline and Fall

Edward Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was originally published in six volumes--71 chapters--issued as follows: 1 volume in 1776, two more volumes in 1781, and three concluding volumes in 1788. I propose to experiment with a hypertextual edition of it. This experiment is hardly begun, and the chapters to which there are links below are not necessarily equally far along in their hypertextual form.    (The chapters currently available are listed at the end of this document. Each may be downloaded or printed separately.) Note that each paragraph has a number, and that any paragraph may be reached by using its number as a bookmark (these targets are not ordinarily visible). The columns, presently to be found only in the list of shoulder captions that corresponded in the eighteenth-century quartos to the analytical table of contents for each chapter, link back to the corresponding paragraph or subparagraph of the history.. This list can be used as a rough outline or index of the work. N.B.  It must be downloaded with the chapters if these links are to be followed.  Its name is dfcaps3.htm.

Hypertext is peculiarly appropriate for Gibbon's work, if only because he had grave conceptual difficulties with either of the available placements of notes.  His first volume was first published with the notes at the end of the volume, but David Hume urged him to place them at the foot of the page, and in the third edition of his history, he did so. Yet in his autobiography he says that he is still not certain that he was right to do so. Hypertext links to notes allow readers to choose when and whether they should read the notes, and hypertextuality portrays the text and notes as distinct but intricately interrelated bodies of discourse.  Gibbon, like the erudite, antiquarian authors of his day but unlike the philosophes, regarded notes indicating sources as indispensable and notes commenting on and sometimes challenging the text itself as an irresistible opportunity for personal opinion and intercourse with the reader, as well as for development of interesting sidelights that would interrupt the flow of story or argument were they included in the main text.

In addition, Gibbon planned in the last years of his life to add a "seventh volume" to his history that would have included not only changes and additions to notes and text, but a number ofappendices, a bibliographic description of his sources, maps, chronological tables, and the like.  In other words he wanted to contextualize the history both more broadly and more specifically, but he did not wish to alter the fundamental boundaries , chronological and thematic, that he had previously established.  The strength of his (perhaps unconscious) commitment to the general structure he had achieved is indicated, perhaps, by an odd fact. In the course of the abortive attempt at this seventh volume, he makes his now modestly famous remark that he should have "deduced" the decline from an earlier date, without considering (apparently) that he could have added an extension to his narrative--a prequel, in our jargon. Hypertext, I suggest, is a form of publication he would have welcomed, since it permits one to have anything both ways.

Of course it also forces one to share with the reader the freedom to control access to the parts of the structure. That freedom for the reader would presumably be unacceptable to a truly "neoclassical" artist, but though Gibbon's history is carefully structured, that structure is not like a classical or neoclassical building, with an inflexible plan, elaborate and fundamental symmetry, and singularity of effect and prospect.  The foundational principle of the Decline and Fall, in contrast, is internal cross-reference, in both details and broad outlines.  Such cross-references obviously lend themselves to hypertextual representation--indeed, the technology of hypertext simply reveals links that were built in from the beginning.  Also, like all referential works that propose their information and arguments as falsifiable, the text and the notes constantly refer outside themselves to the works of other authors and to all kinds of evidence.  In Gibbon's case, especially, the text itself abounds in unlabelled allusions, verbal echoes of the words of other writers that invite the knowledgeable reader to have a different, more complex experience from that available to the ignorant.  The appropriate architectural analogy, it has several times been suggested, is with Gothic cathedrals--but we might also cite Gibbon's favorite style in public architecture, the baroque.

Hypertext can put all readers in the place of the most learned reader, and web documents, in particular, can allow the poster to invite and request readers to contribute their own recognitions and information about other documents whose relevance tthey have discovered. For this hypertextual edition in progress, I urgently request such contributions from interested readers, as well as comments about the project.. Mail may be sent to me at

Links of the following kinds are or will be available for the posted chapters:
    Gibbon's footnotes--superscript numerals1.
    Links to varying readings in different eighteenth-century editions are signalled by highlighted text.  I follow the first edition for "accidentals"--the features of the text that might have changed only by accident or by intervention of someone at the printing house, and the third edition for all "substantive" differences (the second edition was the only one we know Gibbon revised personally, but many of the changes in the third edition, which was the first to have the notes at the foot of pages and which therefore had room for more extended changes than the second, could only have come from the author).  However, Gibbon wrote some changes and comments into two different copies of the history that were in his personal library.  If these changes were alterations of the text, they have been incorporated into the text of this version, and both the first and the third edition versions are linked to the text here.  If the changes were new notes, they are inserted in their proper sequence with an asterisk to distinguish them from the preceding note.

Occasionally the new material seems to be an authorial comment, with no obvious place in the text or notes. Such comments are signalled by a Gothic or by the letter {M}

Shoulder captions that were provided in the eighteenth-century quartos are signalled with the following image  or {SC} if the reader is not using images.

If the caption is a date, however, the relevant signal is   or {D}.

To return from any link to the main text, please use your "back" button. Please note that these chapters are in different stages of editing, and probably none is entirely free from typographical errors. Since handset type cannot be scanned, all have been keyboarded (by me) from photocopies of the eighteenth-century quartos. Chapters I and XV are at present (May 20, 1998) the most fully edited.

The whole Decline and Fall is already available on the Internet, thanks to the work of David Reed, who originally posted a version scanned and corrected from H. H. Milman's nineteenth-century edition and who has continued to work on and improve his versions, with the most recent, including italics, bold, and foreign characters, posted at Project Gutenberg and an earlier version, converted to HTML by another hand, available through the back door--list of additional books--of the Wheaton College Christian Classics Etherial Library. Why then this edition? Milman was one of the best of the nineteenth-century clerical editors, and the inclusion of Milman's notes might have any number of valuable results, including that experienced by the youthful Winston Churchill when he first encountered Gibbon: "I devoured Gibbon. I rode triumphantly through it from end to end and enjoyed it all. I scribbled all my opinions on the margins of the pages, and very soon found myself a vehement partisan of the author against the disparagements of his pompous-pious editor." (My Early Life: A Roving Commission, 1930). These HTML versions admirably achieve the admirable version of providing a free, downloadable version of Gibbon's history exactly similar to a print copy, and every admirer of Gibbon must be grateful to Reed for his pioneering and continuing efforts. I particularly recommend them to teachers, who need not be limited to chapters XV, the one most often anthologized, when teaching Gibbon in courses in eighteenth-century literature or history.

But a critical text, as described above, must be based on the eighteenth-century editions controlled by the author, not on nineteenth-century editions, and an HTML version of a printed text is hardly the equivalent of the truly hypertextual Decline and Fall to which at present I can only aspire.. .

The "Edward Gibbon" link in the first sentence leads to a brief biography and selected list of commentary on Gibbon and his work, including my own Edward Gibbon: A Reference Guide, which lists most of the print sources published prior to 1985.  I am also working on a Supplement to that guide, which is presently at a very early stage.

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Fifteen