In the greatest work of history in the English language, Edward Gibbon compresses thirteen turbulent centuries into a gripping epic narrative. It is history in the grand eighteenth-century manner, a well-researched drama charged with insight, irony, and incisive character analysis. In elegant prose, Gibbon presents both the broad pattern of events and the significant revealing detail. He delves into religion, politics, sexuality, and social mores with equal authority and aplomb. While subsequent research revealed minor factual errors about the early Empire, Gibbon's bold vision, witty descriptions of a vast cast of characters, and readiness to display his own beliefs and prejudices result in an astonishing work of history and literature, at once powerfully intelligent and enormously entertaining.
Based on David Womersley's definitive three-volume Penguin Classics edition of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, this abridgement contains complete chapters from all three volumes, linked by extended bridging passages, vividly capture the style, the argument, and the architecture of the whole work. ... Read more
Customer Reviews (16)
Monument of the West
The Roman empire speaks of the political and military genius of Western civilization.A tribe of people united, armored, and powered by their love of freedom and virtue first subdues the other tribes of Italy, then the whole of Europe and much of Africa and Asia, and ultimately stand in one way or another for 1,500 years.As Edward Gibbon in his brilliant and sparking, haunting and stunning prose explains, the genius of Rome became manifest in its political system that balanced the factions and interests of Rome with such audacious brilliance that the whole of Rome was dedicated to freedom and virtue, and every Roman would happily and jealously join the banner of the Roman army.If the armies of Rome's deadliest enemies -- the Goths, the Vandals, the Persians, and ultimately the Ottomans -- were driven by greed and fear, then the Roman legions' shield and armor were honor and liberty.Ironically, in defending the republic, Rome's legions were to expand so deep into enemy territory that they became too mired in luxury and corruption that they would bring back such vices to the Roman republic, an inevitable fact of territorial expansion that would help transform Rome from republic to empire.
It was having read Gibbon's masterpiece and too easily seen the parallels between a declining Roman empire and an ascending British empire that prompted Edmund Burke's memorable orations at the Warren Hastings trial -- Burke solemnly and fiercely warned the British people how Indian nabobs were exploiting the wealth of India, and using this wealth to corrupt the political process and liberty back in England.Surprisingly, Gibbon doesn't hark back on the golden days of the Roman republic, and only cursorily mentions Cicero and Cato.Gibbon posits an interesting question -- the question isn't why the Roman empire fell (the rise and fall of empires is as common in the historical landscape as are mountains in the natural) but how it lasted for such a long time.The answer must lie in the inherent genius of the Roman republic, virtues that did not decay with empire but somehow were kept alive in the breasts of Rome's noblest citizens.China's dynasties continuously declined from their inception, duplicity and servility as well as corruption and luxury too firmly rooted in the Chinese soil for anything solid and meaningful to grow.But Rome did not fall and decline continuously, and some heroes arose who bore the promise of republican revival.There is Julian, that noblest of all emperors, who shocked and armored his legions and his people with his intellect and his virtue, his justice and his toleration.Ultimately, he fell when his chief virtue -- his love of fame -- during his rise to power became his chief vice during his rule, as he sought to subdued the Roman empire.(Ironically, Julian has all too many similarities with Zhuge Liang, the hero of the Chinese epic "Romance of the Three Kingdoms," a hero loved by the people but who only brought suffering and misery to his people when he sought to expand his empire.)And then there is that great general Belisarius whose main strength was his loyalty to the Roman empire and whose main failing was his loyalty to a degenerate emperor and a cruel wife.
Edward Gibbon's "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" is a truly exceptional piece of literature.It is difficult and challenging, but it is also decidedly brilliant and memorable.If Rome itself does not stand then what it represents -- republican virtue and love of freedom -- still burns deep in America, its most direct descendant, and Gibbon's words are a testament of the beauty and economy of the English language.
"Eleven hundred and sixty-three years after the foundation of Rome..."
...the "barbarians" took it back. Rome lasted over a millennium, and the length of its rule, and civilizing influence has never been matched, even by China. Edward Gibbon wrote his classic account of this empire's decline in the later half of the 18th Century, an astonishing work of erudition long before Google has simplified the research task. The entire history covers over 3000 pages; even the abridged version is daunting at over 800 pages. This work "nags' any bibliophile. Can I "shuck off my mortal coil" and not have read it? I gratifyingly took the plunge, and was richly rewarded.
There are numerous versions of this epic work extant. I read the Penguin Classics version, but the one edited and with an introduction by Dero A. Saunders. He identified one of the key strengths of Gibbon's work: "...understanding the irrational in human history." How humans will embrace actions and courses of behavior that are not in their enlightened self-interest. Gibbon's scope is broad, ranging from the large, sweeping forces that dominate history to the telling anecdote of individual action that illuminates those trends. He depicts the economic, military, religious, and political forces that eventually led to Rome's downfall. Gibbon has his "biases," and displays them more than the "average" historian, and he reaps some criticism for them, but since they all too often resonate with my own, and there are no subtle attempts to hide them, I give them a "pass."
Time and again, Gibbon's insights on the human condition, not just the Roman Empire, have withstood the test of time; indeed, he has often established the standard. Consider the quote from Diocletian: "...the best and wisest princes are sold to the venal corruption of their courtiers." On the discourse of the defeated, in this case, Mistrianus: "...he expatiated on the common topics of moderation and humanity, which are so familiar to the eloquence of the vanquished." On nostalgia: "Notwithstanding the propensity of mankind to exalt the past and to deprecate the present..." On power: "Of all our passions and appetites, the love of power is of the most imperious and unsociable in nature, since the pride of one man requires the submission of the multitude." Or consider a wryly ironic commentary on the "do nothing" course of action: "...he was deprived of the favorite resource of feeble and timid minds, who consider the use of dilatory and ambiguous measures at the most admirable efforts of consummate prudence."There is nothing stale in Gibbon's prose; just the occasional tendency to the rococo.
Gibbon was a principal force of the Enlightenment, and his work is permeated with a jaundiced view of religion in practice. His work fulfills this sentiment: "The theologian may indulge the pleasing task of describing Religion as she descended from heaven, arrayed in her native purity. A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian. He must discover the inevitable mixture of error and corruption which she contracted in a long residence upon earth, among a weak and degenerate race of beings."Eternal truths concerning the power and the glory: "The influence of the clergy, in an age of superstition, might be usefully employed to assert the rights of mankind; but so intimate is the connection between the throne and the altar that the banner of the church has very seldom been seen on the side of the people." Another strength of this book is his depiction of the intolerance of the early Christians: "the prelates of the third century imperceptibly changed the language of exhortation into that of command..."
This history is often cited as a cautionary tale for those in the American empire. As with all such historical analogies, particularly on broad subjects, there is much that is relevant, as well as the opposite. Gibbon devotes considerable attention to the military aspects of empire, and it is particularly relevant, as I post this review on Memorial Day, that military duty has become irrelevant to the vast majority of the American population, as it did in Rome. Considering jurisprudence, Gibbon's observations could have tumbled out of yesterday's newspaper: "A faithful subject of Syria, perhaps, or of Britain, was exposed to the danger, or at least the dread, of being dragged off in chains to the court... and the defects of evidence were diligently supplied by the use of torture."Or later: "...in all cases of treason, suspicion is equivalent to proof."
There are probably only 100 individuals who have the historical knowledge that would be sufficient to provide context to all the historical figures that Gibbon identifies. Thus, there are aspects of the read that are a humbling slog. Still, with the nuggets of insight available, only a small portion of which have been cited above, it is more than worthwhile, and should be placed on the must-finish list while retaining that proverbial coil. Americans do not have a monopoly of hubris, or just plain irrationality. I had the opportunity to read this book the week I was in Dubai, 2003, now site of the tallest building, Burj Khalifa, and one of the emptiest. Those historical lessons that Gibbon renders can be ignored on a global basis, maybe even in China. Still, 5-stars plus.
edited by Hans-Fredrich Mueller
I finally finished this massive treasure, which isn't even exhaustive.And I can't imagine the colossal task in both time and energy it took to write it.It took Gibbon twelve years, from 1776 to 1788.I find it more than a coincidence that he began writing in the year of our independence.Even in this abridged form (which is what you will more likely come across) it is still a huge undertaking; though Mueller, in his critical forward, tells us it is necessary for it to become readable.Mueller also says he prided himself in being meticulous and accurate while still being manageable.And very helpful is the addition of dates bracketed throughout the text.An index would have been useful.In Boorstin's introduction he cites the major impact this work had on him; he calls it intimate.I would have never thought of it in that way, but now after ingesting all six volumes I understand why he calls it intimate.Gibbon does not mince words either.His work will always be remembered and its impact can still be felt today.He is an artist, like no one I have read before.Keep a dictionary handy.I also recommend reading the forward and the introduction, especially after studying Gibbon's great work.They take into question Gibbon's devotion to Christianity and his offensiveness towards it.I see Gibbon as mixed in his beliefs, though he wrote as he saw it; and I find that he saw the truth when he found it.Did he believe infrastructure was valued over its people?
The role of emperor was not a secure job."Such was the unhappy condition of the Roman emperors that, whatever might be their conduct, their fate was commonly the same."The polytheistic Roman Empire was very much a melting pot (half slaves) and within it were many schisms.I see parallels---such as the oppressive taxes, the corrupt politicians, the tyrannical government, the effemination, and the endless warfare---to our United States, and a warning for our future.
So what caused the fall?For Gibbon, the gradual decline began after Christ, until the eventual fall some fifteen hundred years later.Chapters are built upon the reigns of the emperors as they came to power, except where he periodically inserts chapters concerning the Christian influence, the Christian persecutions, the corrupt church, the persecution of the church toward others, the Crusades, the rise of Islam, the debilitating taxes and, towards the end, he concentrates on the impact by the surrounding nations.The Empire became a black hole and split to form an East and a West---the West to totally collapse.There were many causes: the slow introduction of Christianity over Paganism and the conversion to it, the collapse of the military, the always and increasing threat of outside peoples, alienating allies and provoking enemies, the corruption within (the people), and of course the self righteous emperors.Entropy would take over and finally lead to the collapse of the infrastructure.
Rome was both a curse and a blessing for Christianity.Many were converted, but the power of Catholicism and the Pope led to the eventual corruption and apostasy of the church.We have our many deists and polytheists just as the Romans.Do you not find a familiarity to us and the Romans?
Magisterial and accessible foundation stone of the Enlightenment
There is an inevitable element of lèse majesté in reviewing a work of this stature, even in the abridgement. A contemporary of Voltaire and Smith, and a personal acquaintance at least of the latter, Gibbon laid one of the foundation stones in the rationalist revolt which came to be known as the Enlightenment. Gibbon's view of the church in history, however, is more nuanced than I had come to believe before tackling his original text and is not a one-dimensional condemnation. It has to be said, of course, that Gibbon's subtle barbs are in any case more telling than a straightforward attack. In fact, the whole, magisterial work is very engaging and accessible reading even today and I found myself heartily entertained.
If I have one quibble, it is with the practice, common at the time and up until the 19th Century, of the promiscuous use of footnotes*. Further, these were intended for, let us say, use rather than for ostentation, and it is not advisable to skip them. It makes the reading somewhat hard in places as sentences can be footnoted four or five times and the footnotes can run over onto the next leaf. Gibbon also belonged to a generation of scholars who referred to Cicero by the nickname of "Tully", and as such, his notes presume a fluency in Latin and Greek to which I sadly cannot presume. His use of English, however, is an example to us all.
I was interested to find that Gibbon follows the history of the Empire all the way to the fall of Constantinople, and thus has to treat of the Arabs and the rise of Islam. This is an area of special interest of mine and I have to say that Gibbon's reading still appears very balanced. He does not resort to the cheap character assassinations of the Prophet Muhammad common in the Europe of that time and ours, but neither does he perpetrate a hagiography. Gibbon is doing history as a rationalist and he seeks causes and explanations rather than support for an agenda.
It is in this sense that Gibbon can be said to have founded history as a field of formal research. It is a commonplace of all formal research fields today that the supernatural is not taken into consideration. Opponents of the Enlightenment, of whom we are still visited with a plague, describe this as a "bias". In fact, it is a precondition, and its recognition can be traced directly back to Gibbon and his contemporaries. Gibbon's methodology renders history accessible to research by treating yesterday as pretty much like today, in that natural laws obtained. Given this presumption, it is possible to make sense of fragmentary evidence by induction from the familiar. As soon as we admit of the literal truth of reports of miracles, the familiar basis for induction is eliminated. This means not that we can accept that historical evidence and the presumption of natural law are valid except when a miracle worker made an exception, but that the very concept of drawing inductions from historical evidence itself must be suspended. It literally abrogates the possibility of inferring anything at all from historical evidence, since our very model of the way evidence is generated from cause is disrupted. One cannot even trust the reports of miracles!
The rationalist model requires a means of investigating the world which does not self-abrogate in this fashion. The miraculous, therefore, is not a valid assumption in dealing with the world as a researcher. One can have one's private convictions, but when it comes to publication one must be able to draw conclusions from evidence based on rules which can be justified to others. All modern investigatory fields proceed on this basis, and the idea took root in the Enlightenment. No parting of seas, no changing cities into salt deposits, no unseen intelligent designers - instead, we have the invisible hand of the market, painstakingly modelled as a set of self-regulating feedbacks. We have the laws of thermodynamics. We have the fall of Constantinople as a result of internecine squabbling between Latin and Greek churches when faced with a more numerous Turkish foe armed with cannon capable of firing a 600-lb round. This is history as a science. This is Gibbon.
*See what I mean?
Might be fine if i could read it
Type is way too small for my tired old eyes, hence the low rating.You can't rate highly that which you can't read.From snippets I was able to read it looks like a fabulous rendition of the story of the Roman Empire.
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