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Did Christianity lead to Rome's downfall?
on 25 January 2012
Gibbon was a genius. He spent practically his entire lifetime writing and researching this book. The mere scope of his survey is astounding, extending from the splendor of the Antonine age to the decadence of Rome in the seventeenth century. This is not only a work about the Roman Empire, but also about Europe and the Catholic Church. It stands as the legacy of a brilliant mind, no doubt one of the great accomplishments of European Literature.
What Gibbon is writing about is the destruction of the classical world, and its replacement by a more authoritarian feudal society. This was a brutal process because it meant destroying an entire civilization. People enjoyed a high degree of social mobility in the classical world. But by the time of the Middle Ages, most of the population were slaves. The Church, in Gibbon's view, was the principal culprit in this upheaval. For this reason, "Decline and Fall" was banned in several countries when it was published.
Gibbon is often called the first "modern" historian, due to his extensive use of primary sources and rigorous methodology. Many of his footnotes contain amusing anecdotes and trivial details. His writing style is elaborate, and he can seriously upgrade your vocabulary! Ironically, most classical scholars today dismiss him as unreliable because he influenced romantic portrayals of classical antiquity. This is a fair criticism; nevertheless, no work of modern scholarship has surpassed Gibbon's masterpiece to date.
Womersley's edition is very well-organized and arranges the narrative's historical chronology as follows:
Volume 1 - covers the Antonine period down to the end of the fourth century. It includes the controversial chapters on the birth of the Church and examines the transition from paganism to Christianity under Constantine and Julian.
Volume 2 - covers the barbarian invasions (including tribes, their leaders and kingdoms), the division of the Roman Empire and subsequent fall of its western half, and the resurgence of Byzantium during the reign of Justinian.
Volume 3 - covers the rise of Islam, the gradual decadence of Byzantium, the Great Schism of the Church, the Norman invasions, the Seljuk Turks, the Crusades, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, the Ottomans and the fall of Constantinople. It also offers an overview of the medieval papacy, a history of Rome up to the seventeenth century, and the author's conclusions to the entire work.
All history enthusiasts should cherish Gibbon's study. His work displays an unrivaled mastery of its subject, and is written in the graceful prose of a bygone era. Along with Theodore Mommsen's "History of Rome" (which covers the rise of Rome and serves as a useful counterpart), Gibbon's "Decline and Fall" is the all-time modern classic of Roman history.