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The excellent empire: The fall of Rome and the triumph of the church (The Rauschenbusch lectures) [Hardcover]

Jaroslav Pelikán

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Book Description

1987 The Rauschenbusch lectures (Book 1)
Description: This remarkable account by an award-winning historian details the responses to the fall of Rome by the church fathers, who set the pattern for interpreting this momentous event for all succeeding centuries. ""To speak about the decline and fall of the Roman empire as 'the social triumph of the ancient church' is to look at the events associated with that 'memorable revolution' . . . through the eyes of the victors,"" writes the author. ""The thoroughness of the victors has often seen to it that there remains no other way for us to view those events. Not only are we--for this period as for so many others throughout most of human history--denied access to the mind of the common people as they watched this history in the making, such that we are forced to depend on the documents provided by various of the elites of the fourth and fifth centuries; but among the documents of those elites, only some have been permitted to survive."" Jerome, Christian humanist and translator of the Bible into Latin, represents an apocalyptic view of the crisis. Eusebius, court theologian and founder of church history, saw the fall of Rome as the sign of a new order, the ""Christian Empire."" And Augustine, fountainhead of much of Western thought during the millennium that followed, used it as the basis for his City of God. The unifying theme in this historical panorama is the final revisionist view of the fall by its greatest historian, Edward Gibbon. All of these interpretations of the fall of Rome continue to live today and deeply influence our understanding of Western culture.
--This text refers to the Paperback edition.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 133 pages
  • Publisher: Harper & Row; 1st Edition edition (1987)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0062546368
  • ISBN-13: 978-0062546364
  • Product Dimensions: 23.4 x 15.5 x 2 cm
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 2,701,530 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon.com: 3.0 out of 5 stars  3 reviews
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Gibbon Vs. The Saints 5 Feb 2009
By Slokes - Published on Amazon.com
The core problem with "The Excellent Empire" is that the book jacket and title profess to be about one thing while the book itself is about another.

Author Jaroslav Pelikan may subtitle this "The Fall Of Rome And The Triumph Of The Church", but it's really his take on Edward Gibbon, the 18th century British historian and religious skeptic who wrote "The History Of The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire" and called the fall of Rome "the triumph of barbarism and religion" as if the two were one in the same.

Organized as a series of lectures that take on Gibbon's stance by using a variety of early Christian writers such as Augustine and Jerome, Pelikan proves amiable company, if not exactly diverting. You have to be immersed in some background regarding both Catholic and Orthodox church history and Rome's rise and fall to get the subtext of his arguments, though they are less pointed than observational in tone. Pelikan admires Gibbon but finds his mindset rather limited. Christ didn't kill Rome the way Rome killed Christ, though He may have provided it with a kind of Resurrection, in the form of Christianity's role in the post-Roman world.

All this would be more welcome if the book didn't feel so cobbled together. Published in 1987, just two years after his groundbreakingly popular "Jesus Through The Centuries", "The Excellent Empire" feels slipshod, never landing on one item too long and using Gibbon way too often (the same quotes even) instead of finding its own voice. Pelikan wants to take issue with Gibbon's often snide takes on the role of the early Christian Church in Rome's decline and fall, but the pithy Gibbon seems to elude Pelikan's efforts at landing a solid blow. Too often Pelikan is the one who comes off punchy, easily distracted and not holding on to any particular theme for longer than a page or two.

When Pelikan does break away from Gibbon, it is often to say the same things over and over, namely that Augustine, Jerome, and other founding Christians saw the fall of Rome in different ways, from each other and from Gibbon. What did they say, exactly? They tended to be more sophisticated than Gibbon allowed, Pelikan says, quoting Gibbon's own editor by way of back-up. But again, it's Gibbon's view, right or wrong, which predominates, as Pelikan insists on viewing Augustine, Jerome, Eusebias and the rest through Gibbon's lens.

What he doesn't explain is his own view on Rome's fall. Was the collapse brought on by adherance to a new, gentler religion? Was it imperial overreach? Or was it a "failure of nerve", as Pelikan characterizes one Gibbon tangent?

"The Excellent Empire" will be a more engaging read for those already studying up on Rome and early Christianity, for whom the arguments Pelikan mentions second-hand are indeed readily grasped. But for those looking for a short primer on a crux moment in Western Civilization, thinking they will have something as accessible as "Jesus Through The Centuries" or the follow-up "Mary Through The Centuries", this book will not fit the bill.
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars 7 July 2014
By Steven J Rhudy - Published on Amazon.com
2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars The Fall of Rome and the Rise of the Church 12 Mar 2012
By Irvine H. Anderson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The book is presumably good, but the title is misleading. I was expecting a history of that period, but the book was a series of lectures about events in that period. For that reason, I only read a bit of the first lecture and then put the book aside.
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