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The History of the Decline and Fall of the…

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume 1

by Edward Gibbon

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And so begins the Cecil B. DeMille of historiography. A sword and sandal epic with a cast of thousands. The Decline and Fall of one of the greatest empires the world has ever seen, in glorious Technicolor and at a bookshop near you.

In this first volume, which traces the history of the Roman Empire from the death of Marcus Aurelius (AD180) to Constantine's accession as sole Emperor in AD325, Gibbon nails his constitutional colours firmly to the mast. The ideal state is one headed by a constitutional hereditary monarchy, devolving its authority to a patrician parliament i.e. Britain in the late 18th century.

To Gibbon, the failure of the Roman system of government rested on Emperors who had despotic powers but were (largely) incapable of wielding them. Being one amongst equals of the Roman nobility they fell prey to the ambitions of others and their own indulgences. Rival claims to the throne and the high turnover of Emperors in the Third Century (donning the Purple was effectively the equivalent of signing your own death sentence) caused massive instability and fatally weakened the Empire.

Gibbon's history is of the Great Person or Persons who cast their reflective light downwards on society. No account is made of societal or economic factors at work, the vast majority of the population are excluded from the discussion. Reading Gibbon you won't find what day-to-day life was like for ordinary Roman citizens, or an explanation of administrative superstructure which still managed to make this large empire function despite the vicissitudes of its rulers.

One of the pleasures of reading history, and especially historiography which is itself now part of history, is the way it illuminates the present of the writer as much as the events it is describing. No work of history is a faithful recreation of the facts. Decline and Fall is a product of the Enlightenment. David Hume is a great influence, particularly in the last chapter on Christianity, which is the most controversial part of the whole work.

Edward Gibbon, one can guess, must have been an excellent after-dinner speaker. D&F flows like one great erudite speech, with many sentences you want to read over and over again just to enjoy Gibbon's fluid prose style. It is no surprise he is one of the most quoted English historians. One of my favourites is: "The incredible speed which Maximin exerted in his flight is much more celebrated than his prowess in the battle."

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1 vote David106 | Jul 1, 2015 |
I feel decidedly ambivalent about this book. My rating reflects that ultimately I didn't want to stick with it; I didn't find its pleasures and degree of informativeness worth the slogging through. This is the slowest read I've ever encountered--slower reading than James Joyce's Ulysses. And yet it's not that the prose was difficult or rambling or the subject boring. In fact I found the prose rather elegant. Partly, it's that I felt as if it was going on forever. This is only the first volume of six covering from 180 to 395 AD--and it's 956 pages of very tiny print. Mind you, I've read history books about as dense with delight. And I did like the style and find much of what was related about the Romans fascinating. How could I not be fascinated by the real details about Commodus, the son of Marcus Aurelius and the subject of the film Gladiator? How could I not love reading about Emperor Severus, whose name lives on in Rowling's Severus Snape?

Except it was hard to let go and let myself absorb this, because it was so obviously dated. A friend of mine who is fascinated by the Romans, who studied the classics, knows Greek and Latin and teaches it for a living, begged me not to read this. Gibbon, she told me, is a "relic." Go read the real thing she told me--Tacitus and Suetonius are riveting and much closer to being primary sources. Or pick up a contemporary history of Rome that incorporates the latest scholarship. Still, I was determined at first to plow onward, given this is a tremendously influential book, one of the first modern histories to use and cite primary sources. And there is value in reading old non-fiction works such as Darwin's Origin of Species and Frazer's The Golden Bough, even if their biology and anthropology are dated. As another friend put it--it's not so much what Gibbon tells us about Ancient Rome, as what he tells us about 1776 Britain in its own post-Augustan Age. And there's certainly a window on his times to be found here--particularly in the views on women and Asians and race in general. Gibbon lost me in Chapter IX: "State of Germany Until the Barbarians" with its ode to misogyny:

The Germans treated their women with esteem and confidence, consulted them on every occasion of importance, and fondly believed, that in their breasts resided a sanctity and wisdom more than human.... The rest of the sex, without being adored as goddesses, were respected as the free and equal companions of soldiers; associated even by the marriage ceremony to a life of toil, of danger, and of glory.... Heroines of such a cast may claim our admiration; but they were most assuredly neither lovely, nor very susceptible of love. Whilst they affected to emulate the stern virtues of man, they must have resigned that attractive softness, in which principally consist the charm and weakness of woman. Conscious pride taught the German females to suppress every tender emotion that stood in competition with honor, and the first honor of the sex has ever been that of chastity. The sentiments and conduct of these high-spirited matrons may, at once, be considered as a cause, as an effect, and as a proof of the general character of the nation. Female courage, however it may be raised by fanaticism, or confirmed by habit, can be only a faint and imperfect imitation of the manly valor that distinguishes the age or country in which it may be found.

The above isn't incidental--it's practically the keynote to Gibbon's theory. The Emperor Alexander Severus, who Gibbon overall admires, according to him had two key flaws--he was born in the "effeminate" East--and he listened to his mother too much. At least one-fourth into the first volume, Gibbon's theory seems to be Rome's decline came because Romans lost the manly men virtues. And yes, I know; it's the times in which Gibbon wrote to blame, and I should make allowances for that and take out of his history what good I can. But added to how slow a read this was and feeling fidgety wondering just how much of the facts are just plain wrong... Well.

I may try an abridged edition someday. I noticed one shelved at Barnes and Noble that covers the material of the first volume in only 317 pages. I might find that more bearable. Or maybe just try a modern take on the late Western Roman empire such as Peter Heather's The Fall of the Roman Empire. Or just take my friend's advice and next time I'm in the mood to read about the Romans read Suetonius' The Twelve Caesars, which my friend swears is awesome. ( )
2 vote LisaMaria_C | Aug 20, 2012 |
A classic of historical literature, in two volumes. The author details the history to the fall in the first volume, and the byzantine period in the second volume. ( )
1 vote Devil_llama | Apr 17, 2011 |
My interest in this six volume history by Gibbons is NOT the Roman Empire, but the history of the rise of the Christian church. Unfortunately, he begins with circa 150 C. E. on page 504 of this volume, and many of his "pronouncements of fact" are qualified by annotator Milman. A nice set in need of minor repairs (mostly spine backing replacement). ( )
  andyray | Mar 31, 2008 |
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