The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

I’d heard of Edward Gibbon’s great work even as a child (Dairine Callahan claims it’s the last book she read when her computer is compiling her profile in High Wizardry, but I’d never read it. Then I found an abridged version at a used book sale and bought it up immediately.

It’s very old-fashioned, which is no surprise given it was written in the eighteenth century, but entertaining in a slow way. In some places, in a rapid way. Chapter Fifteen is possibly the most drolly tongue-in-cheek material on the absurdity of Western religion I’ve ever read, and the book was well worth reading for it alone.

It’s very interesting trying to determine which of Gibbon’s conclusions are fully derived from the data, and which are the conclusions he’s building through selective perception and presentation of specific evidence. I have nothing to point to which suggests that he’s skewing the data he’s feeding us, but there is of course the inevitable distortion that all information acquires when passing through a sentient mind. The very vividness of language that makes the history a pleasure to read also makes me wary of its persuasiveness.

Definitely something you should take a look at if you get the chance.

14 Responses to “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”

  1. I’ve never read the book myself, but everyone seems to critique his take on the Byzantines. His “decline and fall” takes an awfully long time.

    For a while I’ve been promoting Armarium Magnum, and recently it hit the big time by appearing in Tyler Cowen’s assorted links. The author tends to be critical of Gibbon’s history.

    • I believe even Gibbons discusses the irony of a ‘decline’ which held sway for a thousand years at least.

      Part of the problem as I see it is that the Empire had conquered and assimilated just about every organized society within its reach – the only things outside it were barbarians and very distant nations with which it had little interaction (i.e. China).

      So even when major flaws began to arise, there was nothing available to take advantage of them – everyone saw themselves as part of the Empire and wanted it to continue, merely because of the benefits to themselves. The primary exception (the Jews organized under Judas) got themselves obliterated.

  2. My impression was that the Persians were way, way less extensive than the Romans were. Is that mistaken?

    • I went looking for shifting maps of empires on youtube, and this one seemed among the most informative. I linked to when the Roman empire first bordered the Seleuclids/Parthians/”Persians” (the last by which I assume it is referring to the Sassanid dynasty). It seems that the Persian empire was about half the size of the Roman one, though geographic area is a different can of beans from population/wealth. Someone at yahoo answers compares their populations here.

      At any rate, I think the Persians qualify as being neither distant nor barbarians. The Armenian buffer state between them was also non-barbaric and retained sovereignty for a surprisingly long time.

      • How very curious. It wasn’t the Persians who looted Rome (AFAIK), but the various ‘barbarian’ tribes from beyond the far reaches of the Empire’s distant borders.

        Perhaps Rome anticipated constant problems with Persia, and so kept up its defenses better in that direction? I have no good explanation.

        Hopefully I’ll know more when I finish reading Gibbons.

      • I had heard that they weren’t from beyond the far reaches, but that Rome had been incorporating barbarians for some time. Many spoke Latin and practiced Christianity (though with the exception of the Franks, generally of the Arian variety).

      • William Barghest Says:

        The Eastern Empire wasn’t taken out of the picture until the crusaders sacked Constantinopolis in 1204, though everything but the Anatolian core was lost to the Arab Muslims after a bit of back and forth with the Sassanids (Persians) in the first half of the 7th century.

  3. […] a completely unrelated note, melendwyr/Caledonian finds it odd that the Roman and Persian empires didn’t conquer one another. People who know something […]

  4. You should look at your copy of “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” again, so you can get the author’s name right.

    Persia didn’t have enough resources to conquer the Roman Empire at its height. However, in the 7th century it almost had enough to conquer the Byzantine remnant (which was comparable in size and other resources). However, the Byzantines had managed to recover North Africa and get it pacified enough that a relief force could be brought from there by a usurper – rather like the relief of Moscow in the 1940s by reinforcements drawn from the Soviet Far East.

    As to why the Romans never conquered Persia, in the beginning they didn’t have the right kinds of forces (thus Crassus’s defeat by the Parthians, and the failure of Marcellus’s Arabian expedition). Later on the need to maintain secure frontiers cost effectively, and the costs of expansion and consolidation, were great enough that they even withdrew voluntarily from the provinces of Dacia and Mesopotamia that Trajan had conquered. This is also why they didn’t conquer Caledonia or attempt to regain Germany (lost by Varus, quite early).

  5. […] The Decline as great as Fall of a Roman Empire « Occluded Sun […]

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