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Time-Travelling with Gibbon,
This review is from: Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire: Vols 1-3: 3 Volume Set (Everyman's Library Classics) (Hardcover)
This review is of a six volume Everyman's edition, which says on its flyleaf first published in 1910 and reprinted in 1960. It has Dawson's introduction and notes along with Gibbon's.
I should say that I read the first three volumes fairly carefully and about half of the fourth, being interested in Justinian and Belisarius but losing interest in the latest adventures of the Goths and Persians. After that I stopped.
It took me several months to read even as much as I did, and I think there were several reasons for this.
1) Gibbon wrote more than two hundred years ago, from a vantage point before the industrial revolution, before modern democracy. Culturally speaking he was far closer to the Roman Empire than we are, and also far less entrenched in the arid rule-of-science mindset than we are today. Nevertheless, living as he did towards the end of the `Age of Reason', his elegant scepticism (not without some devotional aspects) benefited from the earlier influences of the scientific revolution, which allowed him to revere the logic of the classical era and adopt a mixture of piety and scepticism in regard to Christianity.
This viewpoint allows a much fresher take and a much less dry one on Roman history than any modern historian I have read, you can hear him licking his lips as another Emperor rolls into view to be dissected and pinned to his pages.
However this approach takes some getting used to, and to some extent so does the eighteenth century idiom, although that aside Gibbon is highly readable.
2) The other reason Gibbon was slow going for me was that his ideas require a lot of thought and time to absorb. In particular I found what he had to say about the early years of Christianity fascinating. Up until AD300 when Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Empire, what impressed me, despite Gibbon's earnest efforts to downplay unverified stories of martyrdom, was how much the Christians suffered persecution. Not all the time, and not by every Emperor, but for nearly three hundred years they were driven from pillar to post, and if there was a favourable emperor, he was probably only favourable to one sect of the religion. Countless thousands lost their lives, or their livelihoods, or their place of habitation when all they had to do was to deny their faith at a time when they had nothing but their own peers to support them.
Gibbon doesn't really discuss how it was they managed to achieve this however.
What then happened of course, was that after Christianity became accepted, all the energy the Christians had put into survival got turned into fighting each other with incredible ferocity as they argued out the exact status of the holy trinity. Massacres, torture and persecution just as they had suffered from the Romans were now applied to each other, along with endless high level conferences.
Gibbon regards himself as a participant rather than just an observer in this debate, a position quite different I feel to that of any modern historian, but speaking as he does with a constant flow of elegant and not infrequently wicked irony, we are left to infer his views.
I also enjoyed his portrayal of Justinian, Theodora and Belisarius, three amazing characters.
One day I may go back and read the rest, but I think I have enough to think about for a few years!