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There are books; there are great books; and then there are books that change everything - that test you and change you and impact you permanently and profoundly. Homer, Shakespeare, Dickens...those sorts of authors shake you and challenge you to grow. Gibbon, deservedly considered one the fathers of modern history and the historical method, ranks among those authors. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire displays a fine example of literary genius, representing some of the very best humanity has to offer.
If, faced with the extinction of the human race and the loss of all things we've learned throughout our history, the lone survivors were bequeathed a top ten list of written works aimed at condensing human thought and evolution into the most valuable lessons and wisdom of the ages in the interest of providing the surest and most beneficial foundation for starting anew, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire should be in it. Yes, its that important and that good.
Aptly titled, Gibbon explains not only the historical nuts and bolts of what happened when but more importantly why. As incredibly ambitious as it is valuable, Gibbon traces the history of Rome's demise from its height (around the 1st century) to/through the dark/middle ages (to around 1500A.D.), giving a sweeping and astonishing view of a period of our history that still has no equal.
Gibbon not only shows us Rome; for those willing to look he holds a mirror before humanity...shows us who we are, largely where we came from, emboldens our virtues and warns us of our vices, and shows that while the context and names may change, the essential core of issues human beings face remains the same.Read more ›
I will append a single proviso to my five-star rating: to enjoy this book, you will need a somewhat decent command of the English language and the capacity to unpack dense meaning. Gibbon's prose, to my mind, is almost without par; however, it is very much written in the Enlightenment style, which was more complex than what we accustomed to from today's workman-like scribblers. Therefore, if you dislike long, complicated sentences, it's probable that you won't enjoy this work. Also if you're a teenager, I might suggest you perhaps start with someone like Will Durant, who has a nice style of his own, but is much easier for the youngsters to comprehend. Unless you're a whizz kid, then by all means jump on this immediately.
Perhaps a representative passage will get my point across:
"Of the various forms of government which have prevailed in the world, an hereditary monarchy presents the fairest scope for ridicule. Is it possible to relate without an indignant smile, that, on the father’s decease, the property of a nation, like that of a drove of oxen, descends to his infant son, as yet unknown to mankind and to himself, and that the bravest warriors and the wisest statesmen, relinquishing their natural right to empire, approach the royal cradle with bended knees and protestations of inviolable fidelity? Satire and declamation may paint these obvious topics in the most dazzling colours, but our more serious thoughts will respect a useful prejudice, that establishes a rule of succession, independent of the passions of mankind; and we shall cheerfully acquiesce in any expedient which deprives the multitude of the dangerous, and indeed the ideal, power of giving themselves a master.Read more ›
this is the second time I have read this amazing history. This time, however, I have read it in tandem with the Cambridge Medieval History and lots of Wikipedia links. The thing that impresses me is how accurate Gibbon was 200 years ago and Bury, even with his updates, 100 years ago. If you want to understand the basis of much of our Constitution (freedom of religion, right to bear arms, right to a speedy trial, etc etc) these are good for thought. Both books also give a longterm perspective that one might otherwise not have regarding governments, and the reasons civilizations collapse, and how we all got to where we are today. Not easy reading, but important for people who really want to know "stuff."
All my life I have heard this work referred to with reverence, but hardly met anyone who confessed to having read it. Deep into the first volume, I am convinced that the reverence was not misplaced. The scope and richness of detail is wonderful and the notes and commentary by subsequent editors is both enlightening and reassuring.
However, in another sense the reverence over the years has been misleading. It turns out that Gibbon is not only a very learned scholar but also a great writer, easy to read and from time to time quite funny. He also employs a multi-disciplinary approach that strikes me as remarkably sophisticated for someone writing in the 18th Century.
This methodological characteristic serves to amplify one other aspect of Gibbon's work: the currency of much that he reports. What he has to say about the balance of powers of the political class, military elites, and people in the streets sounds remarkably relevant to what I read, much less eloquently expressed, in the daily press.
Back to the future!
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