Friday, April 26, 2019

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Abridged Edition
Edward Gibbon
Published 1776-89

Check out the chunkiness of the abridged version of this book! It was originally published in six volumes, but I am grateful to have had the whole thing between two covers, and abridged.

This work was beyond impressive, thanks to Gibbon's superb writing style. It is a history of Western Civilization, from AD 98 until 1590, with fascinating detail given to Ancient Rome, the barbaric invasions, Medieval Europe, the Crusades, Byzantium, and comprehensive historical reviews of Christianity and Islam.

Christian Dirce, Siemiradzki, 1897

It took me two and a half months to read, which was not adequate time to spend on such a brilliant work of important history. Someday when I reread this - because I absolutely must - it would be better to stretch it out for at least a year. It is massive in content and context. Unfortunately, because I read quickly, I am not prepared to give an extensive review. 

In a general answer to the question, "Why did the Roman Empire decline and fall?" Gibbon made the argument that Rome's power grew too massive, became ensnared in corruption, and meddled unnecessarily in the Middle East. (This sounds so much like America today.) Furthermore, Gibbon blamed the spread of Christianity (more specifically, the Roman Church) for the decline of Rome, although he gave a positively raving history of Muhammad and the rise of Islam. 

Nero's Torches, Siemiradzki

Gibbon, who published the first volume during America's revolution and birth, in 1776, mentioned the new nation once (that I recall) to demonstrate that the Europeans carried Rome's principles to the Americas, where he hoped liberty would continue. Liberty was a principle Gibbon esteemed above all else.

Furthermore, I want to share the first paragraph of chapter one because I think it parallels our current age, specifically the United States, which is frequently compared to the Roman Empire. Gibbon writes:
In the second century of the Christian Era, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valour. The gentle, but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury. The image of a free constitution was preserved with decent reverence. The Roman senate appeared to posses the sovereign authority, and devolved on the emperors all the executive powers of government. During a happy period of more than fourscore years, the public administration was conducted by the virtue and abilities of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the two Antonines. It is the design of this, and of the two succeeding chapters, to describe the prosperous condition of their empire; and afterwards, from the death of Marcus Antoninus, to deduce the most important circumstances of its decline and fall; a revolution which will ever be remembered, and is still felt by the nations of the earth. 
Pope Leo and Attila the Hun, Raphael

The United States enjoys and abuses great wealth and luxury and has the appearance of a representative government operating under a free constitution, all for the cause of liberty. But our liberties are eroding, if not through voluntary relinquishment, in exchange for a sense of security, excessive affluence, and abundant entertainment, just as the Romans desired. And also like the Romans, America is troubled over what to do about the massive influx of immigrants, is still entangled in the Middle East, and Christianity is nevertheless at odds with Islam (although Christianity is rapidly declining in America).

Gibbon used extensive historical resources to support his arguments and ideas. Though he never made reference (that I can remember), I wonder if he ever read City of God, by Augustine, who rejected earlier arguments that Christianity was the demise of Rome. If I did not know any better, I would say Gibbon wrote this tome in response to Augustine.

Sack of Rome, Briullov

One last thing about this: Gibbon knew how to write well. This history does not read like a boring history text. It reads like a story. Gibbon takes liberty with his adjectives, and it is beautiful. Unfortunately, his choice of adjectives often exposed his personal opinions about a particular person or event; he wore his biases on his sleeve, but it did not spoil the overall experience for me.

Illustration of Ottoman Turks Entering Constantinople, 1543


You have heard it said, "History repeats itself," and "One thing we learn from history is that no one learns from history." Well, we have no excuse for this, and that is why everyone should read it. Do not be intimidated because it is history. This is essential history, well written. It is one of those works that makes you rethink the way you think about the history you have been taught. It forces you to put aside your own preconceived ideas, if only for a moment. And I cannot stress enough how beautifully well written it is. It is too bad that not all history is written this well.

Edward Gibbon, by Joshua Reynolds (1737-1794)


/anchors To Windward said...

Your post, and in particular your personal observations about America makes me think of the Latin phrase "panem et circenses" Bread and circuses, or bread and games. The Roman government kept the Roman people pacified by offering them free food and rousing entertainment in the Roman Colosseums. And history does repeat itself. As Churchill once paraphrased George Santayana, "Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it." The idea that people can be pacified by food and entertainment when they should be rallying to their prescribed civic duties isn't a new one is it? This was a fitting post and great descriptor for us as American citizens. Thanks again

Ruth said...

Interestingly, you mention Churchill...I think (I hope I remember this correctly) Churchill admired Gibbon.

That first paragraph of the entire work really sets up the story Gibbon is about to tell. Man is the same everywhere, and as he becomes content and lazy, he just wants easy access to wealth and to be entertained. It makes me sick! Then that is how the powerful take advantage of our liberties and freedoms, which is what is happening to America today. We are ripe for losing our country. : (

Anchors To Windward said...

You recall your history quite well. I'm a great admirer of Churchill and know the influence of these historians on Winston Churchill was deeply profound. Although not what we would now call heroes, nonetheless, the writing style of both Gibbon and Macaulay was so monumental to Churchill that he basically adopted their writing styles and blended them, making the conglomeration his own. Churchill began reading them while he was stationed in India. Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire helped shape Churchill’s entire worldview, including his view on religion, while whole passages from Macaulay 's The Lays of Ancient Rome were memorized. Have a blessed weekend.

Ruth said...

Yes, that's where I got it from...Churchill read Gibbon's while in India. Thanks for reminding me.

You have a great weekend, too.

Thanks for commenting.

Keely said...

I once had to write an essay on whether the seeds of the United States' ultimate destruction was sewn into the very fabric of the USA itself... and used Rome as a comparison. It's quite interesting. Great review. I've read bits of pieces of this massive undertaking hopefully one day I'll be able to read it all.

Michelle Ann said...

Thanks for this great review. I still find the thought of reading it intimidating, but knowing there is a two volume version means it will go onto my 'one day' list. It is interesting that there have been more modern books on the fall of Rome which blame everything from disease to lead poisoning from the water pipes, but it does sound the reason is more fundamental - people become complacent, which allows room for corruption and decay. As somebody said (who is disputed) "All it needs for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing".

Marian H said...

This sounds fascinating! I think I will go for the abridged version as well.. but I'll read City of God first. Then maybe Churchill afterwards.

Ruth said...

That sounds like a good plan.

Ruth said...

That was Edmund Burke: The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. Yep.

Civilizations become complacent, and powerful men take advantage. Gibbons recognized that happened within the Roman Empire.

Ruth said...

America could learn a lot from the Roman Empire. But I'm afraid it may be too late.

I hope everyone has opportunity to read this - even sections of it are better than nothing. It is worth it.

Cleo @ Classical Carousel said...

I'm surprised that it was so engaging but pleased as well, as sometime I will pick up the WEM thread and continue. I'm going to (for once) be sensible though and opt for the abridged version. The fact you say that you'll read it again, inspires me!

Ruth said...

Cleo, you will definitely like it...but it is a commitment.

Carol said...

We have the six volume set (Folio) which are lovely...but unread & we've had them for about 20 years! I loved all the art work you posted, especially the Raphael. Well done on getting through it :)

Ruth said...

Hi, Carol,
Do you plan to read them someday? Even just a little at a time would work b/c he goes through the 2nd century through the 14th or 15th, I think. So you can read slowly through it and cover different centuries. He does completely butcher the Roman Church, and it was so hard to get through. He shows lots of favoritism toward the history of Islam. I tried not to take it personally and just read it for the beauty of the language and the love of history.

I love the art, too. It was hard choosing the best ones. I wish artists still painted history in this way.

Paula Vince said...

I just might dare to read it some day. I would have been too intimidated, but your comments about the fascination and readability of Gibbons' style does encourage me.

Carol said...

I'm not sure if I'll ever get around to it, Ruth. But you never know. Maybe I could dip into it in places.

Ruth said...

Definitely readable and enjoyable. Some chapters are short, so you can take breaks easily. Let it be something that you take slowly through the course of a year. That's how I would do it next time.