There is, perhaps, very little point in reviewing this book. Where would I even start? Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, written between 1776–89, is a monumental work of literature. Distilled: it is a monstrous explanation of the reasons Gibbon believed the Roman Empire fell from the giddy heights of the Republic, notably the period of the Caesars, to just after Constantinople being taken by the Ottoman Empire. Whether or not much of this period, pretty much from the 1st to the 16th Century, was entirely spent in decline, or simply how reliable and judgemental many of the accounts are, remains to be debated by proper scholars. So, instead of struggling to review this monster – which, even abridged, approaches 800 pages – here are 5 very casual observations:
Here be stories. In fact, some of the most stimulating and phenomenal stories a writer could possibly hope to exploit. From the towering and brutal Emperor Maximinus and his march on Rome, to the spread of Christianity and its possible role in the downfall of the Empire, to the sheer brutality of Atilla the Hun and his sharp shock to civilisation. Simply breathtaking exploits – and all of them real(ish). I don’t know why more fantasy writers don’t read history books.
Christianity again – fascinating to see its spread in the context of, and with an equal treatment to, the Roman pagan religions, Jupiter, Bacchus, and so on. I can only imagine how provocative this book was at the time of publication, to treat Christianity as any other religion and not something special, but without being disrespectful. This was all the more poignant for me, as I was casually watching the Christmas services on TV: to think that, with history going a different way, I could have been viewing blood sacrifices instead. Or even just observing the rituals of Christianity for what they were: rituals. This is a useless explanation for what I’m trying to say, but Gibbon’s treatment certainly left a lasting impression.
Belisarius. Why, why is there not more about this general in popular culture? And by more, I mean huge amounts of fiction, art, film, music, books, whatever. That entire age of Emperor Justinian, his wife Theodora, and his remarkable general, Belisarius who, after much of the Western Empire was lost over the decades, rolled his sleeves up and marched back to reclaim half of it. Gibbon paints a remarkable portrait of him, and I’ll certainly be reading more of this period. (Procopius’ Secret History; even the fiction of Robert Graves’ Count Belisarius.)
Power dynamics. There’s something awfully comforting reading about the ebb and flow of territories and empires. Nationalism seems pretty silly, ultimately. The power dynamics of various religions was impressive, too, as Gibbon writes about their origins and spread, and their ultimate importance as different rulers absorbed them into their own national fabric.
Civilisation is nothing new. While Britons were still scratching around in the dirt with their arses painted blue, Roman society had done things that would take us another thousand years to get close to (and even most of that was copied). Much of the contents of Gibbon’s book dealt with events that occurred well over a thousand years old. He depicted a society that, even in its decline, was far more advanced than we could imagine, and from them we’ve inherited nearly everything: from city plans to stadium design to political set-up. Yes, times were different. Yes, the concept of what was civilised is probably different. Yes, people were treated fairly brutally; not to mention appalling women’s rights – though we’ve taken thousands of years just to get to our own barely adequate state of equality. But the presence of such culture, and in such staggering quantities, is (and forgive the cliché) rather humbling, to say the least. We can understand this on a cerebral level, but it’s truly felt here.
So there we go. I’ve not done the book any justice whatsoever. The events, people, places all kind of wash over you. It’s a beautiful reading experience. It’s also a slow reading experience, because what Gibbon talks about requires attention. (Also, I wanted to keep googling what he was talking about, which led to twenty minute interludes while you looked up the various emperors or tribes.)