About four years ago, I decided that I should read Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire. Over a weekend I read through the first of six volumes in my set, covering the Age of the Antonines until the accession of Constantine the Great. After a long hiatus, I finally committed to finishing the series, which covers the reign of Constantine the Great, all the way down to Constantine the Eleventh, a period spanning more than a millennium. Today, I finished the series.
This effort was quite the undertaking, in my estimation it took me about 100 hours of intense reading to work through and make sense of the series. It was a wholly worthwhile investment of my time.
Gibbon himself spent twenty years researching and writing this series, and it shows throughout the text. It is intensely footnoted and referenced throughout. One of my laments from reading this is that I was unable to appreciate many of the footnotes due to my poor Latin & non-existent Greek skills, so I missed out on many quotations Gibbon felt were important. Interestingly, over time, and knowing a little bit of Greek pronunciation, I was sometimes able to work out a couple of words here and there.
The series neatly divides into two parts, one covering the Western Empire and one covering the Eastern Empire. The first part ends with the life of Clovis, King of the Franks, who brought his people from Belgium to end the last remnants of the Western Roman Empire and reign over what would come to be called France. The second starts with the narrative of the Eastern Roman Empire from its establishment and continuing through till the end of the last capitulations of the city states of Constantinople, Athens and Trebizond to the Ottoman Turks.
The first part is an extraordinary work of history, blending a detailed narrative of the three centuries from the reign of Commodus to the usurpation of Odoacer and the fall of the Western half of the Empire. It is a narrative of Romans squandering their advantages, Germanic peoples coming of age and of great Romans hamstrung by the decay around them and of great Germans securing new homelands for their people.
The shadow of the Huns weighs large in these Volumes. Their westward advance sent shockwaves through all the peoples between the Roman Empire in the West and the Chinese Empire in the East. It isn’t until the Romans organize the Germanic nations for their mutual defense against the incoming armies of Attila that they stop.
Rome, through its defense against Attila and the huge success of the Christian faith with the German tribesmen, preserved the dim flicker of civilization at the cost of the Western Roman Empire. Gibbon points out that Attila attacked the Western Roman Empire because the weakness of the East at that time seemed like something he could save for later, while the more time he gave the West to prepare, the harder it would be to subdue. Without the defense by the West, the East would not have been able to preserve the works of antiquity and provide the spark for the Renaissance.
The second half of the work continues the narrative pace of the first part through the end of the final Roman-Persian War. After this, in the final third of the work, Gibbon presents a survey of the peoples who are relevant to the history of the last 800 years of the Roman empire. This period marks a period of slow decline. At the conclusion of the Roman-Persian War, the first Arab armies emerge from the desert, causing a revolution that results in the loss of most of the Eastern Roman Empire and a reduction of the empire to the north-east Mediterranean for good.
While over a few centuries, the Byzantine Empire recovers and is able to start making gains against the Arabs as their empire fragments, shortly thereafter, the Turks push the Byzantines out of Asia. With the Crusades, the Byzantines regain the coastlines of Anatolia. However, with the 4th Crusade and its aftermath, the fragmented ruins of the Byzantine Empire stumble on for another 250 years as the Turks deal with the Mongol and Timurid threats. In the end though, the Byzantines were able to transfer much of their knowledge and works of antiquity over to Italy which helped launch the Renaissance.
The first half of the series is a seminal work of historical writing. It is captivating, detailed and flows extremely well. While new historical evidence has made some of this book incomplete, and Gibbon does not hide his own thoughts & analysis, it is very much worth reading for the person who enjoys both literature and history.
The history of the east suffers from the breadth of the topic Gibbon is covering. With a chapter dedicated to each of at least a dozen different peoples, and a non-linear progression through history, some of the qualities that made the first part so successful are lost. This part of the work has suffered most from the passage of time, as its value is mostly rooted in its synthesis of huge numbers of texts. The history of any particular people discussed in this half of the work is better done elsewhere, however, the breadth of world history that Gibbon covers is unparalleled.
Also, the second half of the series requires a background in the history of the era to contextualize Gibbon’s work. He does not spend much time explaining what is happening in Western Europe, so when Gibbon makes a reference to the Hundred Years War, he assumes the reader knows the general outline of the conflict.
One criticism Gibbon also receives is that his religious biases show through strongly. Gibbon is very critical of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches and echoes many Protestant arguments. This detracts from the work because these two organizations are so central to the history. This bias is especially true for monasteries, for which his disdain shows no bounds.
The first part of Gibbon’s series is something that anyone who wants to understand late antiquity should read. It provides a complete and coherent narrative, with a philosophically inspired analysis, in contrast to the sociological analysis preferred today. The fall of the West provides ample opportunity for the discussion of enlightenment values and the preservation of civilization.
The final part of the series is something that I would recommend for people who want to learn about the history of the major peoples that made up the Middle Ages, and have a familiarity with that particular millennium of human history.
Reading the series has been a huge undertaking for myself and also something incredibly educational. I am glad I committed to the worthwhile effort of reading this series, and I hope some of you will take up the task as well.