Saturday, January 10, 2015

Book Review: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

This is one of those above-mentioned old vintage forgotten classic retro book reviews, mentioned above, that's been sitting on my hard drive. I'll post these periodically, in no particular order. This one, from 2012, I'm rather fond of.

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Edward Gibbon
It was lately brought to my attention that I had neglected the works of Mr. Edward Gibbon: an author no less celebrated for the felicity of his language, than for the depth of his scholarship. In that happy marriage may be seen the fons et origo of the twinned streams of the historian’s art. Mr. Gibbon’s sedulous reliance on ancient sources, combined with his earnestness to profess a thesis of cause and effect, have distinguished him as the Father of academic history; but it is no less true, that in making of his inchoate materials a finished body, he may with equal justice be nominated as the Father of narrative, or popular, history: which glories less in the dry and stable skeleton of Theory, than in the lively sinew of Story. I consider that it adds some lustre to these laurels to note that the work is the model for one of the grandest of the science-fiction epics, viz. the Foundation series of the noted Dr. Asimov.
It is not necessary to accept uncritically Gibbon’s inferences, to admire his methods. Modern scholars may deny that a spirit universally tolerant existed among the Pagans; they may decline to fix the entire weight of the decay of Empire upon one or two causes; they may deprecate the lack of weight given to oeconomical arguments. It is nonetheless worthy of remark, that in debating the specific conclusions, modern historians make use of the identical tools, that Gibbon has espoused: a disinterested spirit of enquiry; a reliance upon primary sources; a sceptical eye towards partiality; and a fixed devotion to the veridical, over the fabulous. I must particularly admire his technique in selecting, from sources stained with prejudice and bigotry, those facts least creditable to their authors.
The present author, it is true, enjoyed the advantages of a limited audience. Any person disposed to read his opus might be presumed to possess a respectable acquaintance with Classical antiquity, and to therefore regard with easy familiarity a passing reference to Tarquinius Superbus, and nod sagely at the mention of Domitian’s crimes. The evolutions of above two centuries have broadened the reach, even as they have perhaps lessened the depth, of the curriculum. The occasional and modest student of Roman history, into which category I should place myself, will have no difficulty with Mr. Gibbon’s general thesis, though he may be mildly perplexed by a name or an event half-remembered. A reader whose familiarity with the aera is more doubtful will be correspondingly more gratified if he has at his elbow some general scheme of the Republic and early Empire. This will at the least mitigate, if it does not entirely excuse, Gibbon’s inexplicable disinclination to include dates in his otherwise admirable design.
It is true as well that the narrative impetus of Gibbon’s opus flags somewhat in its latter chapters. The evolutions of the Roman polity give way to the monotonous convulsions of Byzantium, which insensibly degenerate into an endless round of riot, rebellion, and the putting out of eyes. The opposite of a slave is a free citizen, and an edifying contrast can be drawn between those states; but the opposite of a fanatick is too often merely another fanatick. Only in his closing chapters, as the final doom of Constantinople approaches, does Gibbon escape from the stagnant pool of the Grecian Empire, which in synopsis appears as a long-drawn shambles, interrupted by brief bursts of competence.
It remains for me only to remark, that Rome and Byzantium alike must blush with respect to the philosophical clime (known latterly as the Enlightenment) which in its nativity both informed, and was informed by, Gibbon’s masterpiece. The fathers of the present Republic have profited by the example of its antique predecessor.  In their deliberations they were deeply anxious to avoid the perils of faction; but it is rather the law of succession, wherein the pupils have most clearly surpassed their teacher. A state in which absolute power is held by a permanent tenancy must inevitably excite the flagitious ambition of those able or avaricious men who stand near, yet below, the purple.  In the present constitution the fever permits of an easy remedy. The mere passage of four, or five, or ten years, occasions the regular and predictable alteration of the regime; the would-be usurper chooses rather to bide his time; the injuries of the base or foolish leader are perforce limited; and the dreary and profitless cycle of rebellion and repression, of virtuous and vicious monarchs, is thereby broken. It is surely no coincidence that Rome’s meridian came under those emperors who preferred the surety of adopted merit, over the hazard of paternity, in fixing their successors. The terminus of this salutary practice forms the first, and not the least, of the misfortunes attendant upon the accession of Commodus. Had it become universal and customary, Rome might yet survive.

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