Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, abridged. (Gibbon)

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Amanuensis
Gibbon, Edward. Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Abridged. Introduction by Daniel Boorstin. Modern Library Classics.

This is an abridged edition. It is 1300 pages long. If you feel like you would get bogged down from the whole work, this is a welcome addition. If you are the type where you want to soak in Gibbon’s magnificent prose, then get the Penguin edition of the full text, which is edited by David Womersley.

Before we begin we need to spend time on Gibbon’s prose style. Like Samuel Johnson he was a master of the “periodic style.” His use of compound and subordinate clauses bring us to a sharp conclusion. Also note the parallelism:

“With regard to Spain, that country flourished as a province and has declined as a kingdom” (ch. 2). Do you see the point (flourished) and counterpoint (declined)?

Gibbon describes the prosperous condition of the Roman Empire at the end of the 2nd century and deduces the causes of its decline (ch. 1). On a sub-level he is showing England the superiority of a life of virtue, which leads to public liberty.

Rome’s problems are caused by her success, and especially as that success brings luxury. As Gibbon notes later on, “[T]he simplicity of Roman manners was insensibly corrupted by the stately affectation of the courts in Asia. The distinctions of personal merit and influence, so conspicuous in a republic, so feeble and obscure under a monarchy, were abolished by the despotism of the emperors” (ch. 17).

Look for the historian’s assertions. Gibbon asserts that the Church grew because of (1) intolerant zeal; (2) doctrine of a future life, (3) testimony of miracles; (4) pure morals; and (5) union of the Christian republic (ch. 15).

Gibbon asserts an implicit return to the morals and virtues of a free Republic. Obviously, this cannot be of Rome, so is he asking what would it look like of England?

As a classical liberal, Gibbon prizes liberty above all else. But not the liberty we see today. He believes liberty should be married to public virtue.

Gibbon doesn’t say Christianity caused the Roman Empire to fall. Rather, it hastened its demise. This is correct. A more immediate answer is that success brings decadence and few men are virtuous enough to resist degeneration. He notes of the Byzantine emperors’ fall from the original ideal that “the form of government was a pure and simple monarchy; the name of the Roman Republic, which so long preserved a faint tradition of freedom, was confined to the Latin provinces; and the princes of Constantinople measured their greatness by the servile obedience of their people. They were ignorant how much this passive disposition enervates and degrades every faculty of mind….They were equally incapable of guarding their lives and fortunes from the assaults of the Barbarians” (ch. 32).

What of Gibbon’s skeptical remarks and his notorious comments on homoousion? Take them for what they are worth. You aren’t going to Gibbon for conciliar theology--but even regarding the church he isn’t always wrong. His comments on monasticism are quite funny.

This is a book you read off and on for about 10 years. Let his prose penetrate your entire being. It’s no accident that all of the theologians of the 19th century, almost all of them fair rhetoricians, schooled themselves on Gibbon.
 

JM

Puritan Board Doctor
I have the unabridged 3 volume edition with annotations. It's chewy...
 

Stephen L Smith

Moderator
Staff member
Jacob, I have taken an interest in this subject for some time though I have not read as much on it as I would like. I take it you are saying Gibbon is as good as any on the subject?

I have wondered if there are any astute writers drawing links between the fall of Rome and the state of modern Western society?
 

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Amanuensis
Jacob, I have taken an interest in this subject for some time though I have not read as much on it as I would like. I take it you are saying Gibbon is as good as any on the subject?

I have wondered if there are any astute writers drawing links between the fall of Rome and the state of modern Western society?
Gibbon is good in the sense that he has written a classic. He had perfect command of the English language. That said, scholarship has come a long way.
 

Relztrah

Puritan Board Freshman
I am reading the full version on my iPad in 20 minute segments while on the elliptical machine and stationary bicycle at the YMCA. By my calculations I'll finish at age 168.

I love Gibbons's language and writing style. What I miss are dates which give me helpful markers to understand history. Is there an edition with footnotes providing dates for the reigns of the emperors, battles, deaths of significant figures, etc. I'm wondering also if anybody through the years has compiled a cast of characters, their titles, roles, and how they relate to one another.
 

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Amanuensis
I am reading the full version on my iPad in 20 minute segments while on the elliptical machine and stationary bicycle at the YMCA. By my calculations I'll finish at age 168.

I love Gibbons's language and writing style. What I miss are dates which give me helpful markers to understand history. Is there an edition with footnotes providing dates for the reigns of the emperors, battles, deaths of significant figures, etc. I'm wondering also if anybody through the years has compiled a cast of characters, their titles, roles, and how they relate to one another.
Most editions (printed ones) have footnotes. That's actually Gibbon's unique contribution to historiography.
 
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