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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Volume One

Edward Gibbon's timeless classic, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, continues to be in the twenty first century the historical standard it was when it was written in the late Eighteenth century. Gibbon's reputation has taken a hit in recent years for his emphasis on the role of Christianity on the fall of Rome and his trashing of Byzantium.

Volume One covers the period of time from the end of the Pax Romana (180 AD) to Constantine's victory at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge outside Milan in 312 AD. The gist of the volume focuses on a narrative of the confusing third century which saw usurpers and despots claim the Roman throne and breakaway provinces claim their own right to rule the Roman world. After Diocletian ascended to the throne in 284 AD, the Roman world's luster was restored and order prevailed. However, it was Diocletian's persecution of Christians beginning in 297 AD that has undermined the reputation of the last truly great Roman Emperor.

Gibbon spends the last two chapters of volume one discussing Christianity and its origins. The author makes an impassioned defense of Roman paganism and its impact on developing the culture and knowledge of the Roman world. Gibbon also spends much of these chapters stating that the persecution of Christians by Roman authorities while unjust has been greatly exaggerated throughout history. In Volume Two, he picks up with this theme and follows it through the reign of Constantine's family. Shortly I will review that work as well.

What is apparent is that unlike many modern historians who simply write narratives, or others that simply right cause/affect type books, Gibbon's emphasis on primary sources leads him to interweave both together. Very few works give you an explanation not only of when events happened by why actually they happened, and what the background was that created an environment for this to happen. David McCullough, much celebrated these days in the United States is the worst violator of this principle. His major works, including the now re-created John Adams has very little background material discussed in it. McCullough's Pulitzer Prize winning biography of Harry Truman is one of the least substantial works about the great former President, I have read. Yet, McCullough always fascinates and impresses me as a TV host and as former narrator of Ken Burns' PBS specials. In other words, McCullough is a very good TV historian turned poor author. Trained historians and those simply fascinated by history like myself need to give Gibbon a re-read if for no other reason, to understand his methodology.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good write up. Nice blog, especially the shots at McCullough!

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I am the host of the Major League Soccer Talk and EPL Talk Podcasts and am frequent guest on other (world) football shows. I am also the publisher of various other websites including this one. I work in public/government relations in addition to my soccer work and have a keen interest in history, politics, aviation, travel,and the world around us.