reading pile

Holiday Reading

I’m halfway through this, which though abridged, is still a huge book. Not an easy read and one you’ll benefit from by Googling bits and pieces throughout, but it is remarkable – not only in its historical achievements, but that it offers a treasure trove of inspiration for writers. I’ve already a dozen ideas for good stories. Quite a nice time of year for reading – I don’t think I’d ever have as much free time to really tackle something major as this.

I’m also listening to the unabridged audiobook of Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff, a vibrant and detailed biography, and a fascinating glimpse into a ruling woman of the ancient world (a nice contrast to the male-dominated histories I’ve come across so far).

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

4 replies on “Holiday Reading”

I really enjoyed the Schiff Biography. One of the public radio hosts really liked it as well, and invited the author not only for a radio interview, but to one of her “talking volumes” events, where she discussed the book with the author at length.  Very very fascinating stuff.

Sounds good. Nice to know it’s got quite a bit of coverage. I only really bought it on account that it was one of the only audio biographies of Cleopatra available on Audible in the UK… but it turned out to be a good bet. 

I love Gibbon. Even the abridged. I have a nice copy with illustrations by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, which adds a lovely visual context to the rot of antiquity.

Of course some of that rot, may be just that. Gibbon definitely conveys his time-period’s fascination with a “decadent empire.” He was in part responsible for forming it, or at least its lasting power in the minds of most lay people and many writers to come. And there is also a whiff of Christian Schadenfreude to it, tying in the decline of the title to a moralistic judgement on late Antiquity – or as Gibbon saw it, the damage inflicted on the old Roman cohesiveness by their new faith.

The Romans of course, may have felt this way as well, but there are a number of scholars since who feel that there may have been very little decline at all. Rather than a corrupt and morally suspect empire buckling under its own weight and mismanagement, they suggest that is was more of a sharp, shuddering break. Like the bursting of a dam, which in this case, was the sound of thousands of Germanic tribespeople crossing the rivers of the Rhine and the Danube.

I recommend reading “The Fall of Rome, And the End of Civilization” by Bryan Ward-Perkins. He argues that the evidence simply doesn’t support Gibbon’s model. There was possibly very little or virtually no decline. An examination of the archeological record especially as it relates to the production and distribution of high-quality, sophisticated consumer goods like ceramics, seems to support a sudden and catastrophic collapse – not a slow slide into the “barbarism” that we equate with local production and governance of far-flung provinces. 

Instead, it is possible that the Germanic tribes who in terror of the new threat pressing into their homelands from the east, the Huns, crossed en masse into the empire. At first, apparently willing to even lay down their arms (which was no small thing for a culture where armed combat was part-and-parcel with their identity) but soon this flow of war-like refugees became a deluge and an armed one. It was an invasion that the Western empire never really contained, nor recovered from once the fleeing Gothic warriors discovered how easy it was to set up their own fiefdoms within the soft belly of Gaul or by breaking off chunks in places like Spain and Britain.

And it might not have even been all that much of a fall either, but more of transfer to new, Germanic management. But new mangers have new ideas, or at least cultures do. And what was seen as the defining standards of the old empire: sophisticated trade, the production of standardized comfort and its widespread export to all corners of the Roman world, was not perhaps shared by the new local overlords. The Romans had used their civilization almost as effectively as they had their legions, to bind new territories and their peoples into their own. The Germans had different ideas, and far more fluidity to their own sense of identity.

As for the idea that the Pagan world and the Pagan faith could no longer provide the moral backbone that it had sustained during the golden age of the Republic – this too seems to be a convention that has been itself, overturned. Or at least tempered.

I recommend “Pagans and Christians” by Robin Lane Fox on this topic. Though there are, like Perkins, many more books and scholars who support a similar approach.

So perhaps an end which came swiftly – and certainly must have felt like a bolt out of the blue to those citizens caught at the moment of transition – but perhaps not the complete destruction of a civilization nor a plunge into darkness. And likewise, the transition from Pagan to Christian was a slower, more progressive march. The Roman empire didn’t fall after all – in the East – not until after its fatal weakening by the fourth crusade and the final victory by the Ottomans in 1453, but it did change and diminish where it existed in the West.Or at least, became something new.

Thanks for sharing, Eric, and lots to think on. 

I often wonder just how much Rome itself looked back on its former glories and leaders – especially Caesar, Augustus – with so much affection and pride that it set itself the subtext of decline and fall. How much were the speeches of later leaders about the glories of the past? Even the terms Caesar and Augustus themselves became terms of quality and prestige. 

The Bryan Ward-Perkins book looks interesting – have added it to my wish-list! 

Yes, I’m also very interested in the transfer to Byzantium. I have John Julius Norwhich’s history on the shelf to pick up at some point in the Spring. Having seen some of those splendid Byzantine objects in the Met Museum in NY, it’s certainly stoked the imagination somewhat. 

Comments are closed.