Justin Evans's Reviews > The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon
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Nov 25, 11

bookshelves: history-etc
Read in November, 2011

Hard to know where to begin with this.

His much praised style? Sure, it's better than most historians, but it still bears the scars of the eighteenth century in general, and eighteenth century self-importance in particular. Yes, there's the odd ironic gotcha, but I got the distinct impression that he was shooting fish in a barrel. With a shotgun. An automatic shotgun, like in a video game. Compare, for instance, Swift- he was hunting big game.

The ideology? Only one kind of person could read this and think 'oh, it's refreshing how fair and balanced he is.' Basically, if you're the kind of person who thinks there are two (and only two) sides to every story, who also reads revisionist histories without understanding why the authors of said histories feel the need to 'revise,' and who thinks that anything that's been said more than twice deserves to be revised... you'll find this fair and balanced. If, on the other hand, you think that someone who comes to history with an absolute determination to read it through their own highly idiosyncratic beliefs (here- and I say this without knowing what Gibbon actually believed, so I might be wrong- classical republicanism, classical liberalism, and Voltaire-induced anti-clericalism) is likely to write from a skewed perspective... well, you might disagree with the idea that he's anything other than an extraordinarily, perhaps uniquely intelligent, well-read eighteenth century liberal.

I should, though, have started with the breadth of the thing, which is fabulous. Even in abridgment, it's more wide-ranging than almost any history I've ever read. And I was particularly thankful for the editor's work: he included chapters from all the volumes, including a great chapter on the origins of Islam, and a speculative chapter linking 'Paulicianism' to the Cathars (no idea if this is at all accurate). On this basis, I'd far rather read the final volumes in full and skip the first one. I know most people would rather read about Rome than about medieval Europe, or the Eastern Empire, and so on. But I still can't work out why.

So this has all the strengths and all the weaknesses of non-scholarly history, but is stronger and less weak than most of it. In the absence of statistical or archaeological research, the best thing you could do was read everything and try to weed out the facts from the legend, and Gibbon did that better than anyone. This is history as a moral discipline, in which you pick your heroes and your villains and then write (about individuals- groups are ipso facto villainous, except for heretics, merchants and intellectuals) accordingly; it's closer to Dante than historiography. That said, you will learn something; and if you're anything like me, you'll learn the most from the closing chapters.
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