Reader reviews for Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: The Modern Library ...

Oh god this book is dense. For every page I read, 300 years pass and fifteen emperors die. A nice come-down if you're feeling particularly self-important and focused.
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Brutally inclined to an anti-Christian polemic. Presuppositions taint findings on Rome's fall.
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I feel decidedly ambivalent about this book. My rating reflects that ultimately I didn't want to stick with it; I didn't find its pleasures and degree of informativeness worth the slogging through. This is the slowest read I've ever encountered--slower reading than James Joyce's Ulysses. And yet it's not that the prose was difficult or rambling or the subject boring. In fact I found the prose rather elegant. Partly, it's that I felt as if it was going on forever. This is only the first volume of six covering from 180 to 395 AD--and it's 956 pages of very tiny print. Mind you, I've read history books about as dense with delight. And I did like the style and find much of what was related about the Romans fascinating. How could I not be fascinated by the real details about Commodus, the son of Marcus Aurelius and the subject of the film Gladiator? How could I not love reading about Emperor Severus, whose name lives on in Rowling's Severus Snape? Except it was hard to let go and let myself absorb this, because it was so obviously dated. A friend of mine who is fascinated by the Romans, who studied the classics, knows Greek and Latin and teaches it for a living, begged me not to read this. Gibbon, she told me, is a "relic." Go read the real thing she told me--Tacitus and Suetonius are riveting and much closer to being primary sources. Or pick up a contemporary history of Rome that incorporates the latest scholarship. Still, I was determined at first to plow onward, given this is a tremendously influential book, one of the first modern histories to use and cite primary sources. And there is value in reading old non-fiction works such as Darwin's Origin of Species and Frazer's The Golden Bough, even if their biology and anthropology are dated. As another friend put it--it's not so much what Gibbon tells us about Ancient Rome, as what he tells us about 1776 Britain in its own post-Augustan Age. And there's certainly a window on his times to be found here--particularly in the views on women and Asians and race in general. Gibbon lost me in Chapter IX: "State of Germany Until the Barbarians" with its ode to misogyny:The Germans treated their women with esteem and confidence, consulted them on every occasion of importance, and fondly believed, that in their breasts resided a sanctity and wisdom more than human.... The rest of the sex, without being adored as goddesses, were respected as the free and equal companions of soldiers; associated even by the marriage ceremony to a life of toil, of danger, and of glory.... Heroines of such a cast may claim our admiration; but they were most assuredly neither lovely, nor very susceptible of love. Whilst they affected to emulate the stern virtues of man, they must have resigned that attractive softness, in which principally consist the charm and weakness of woman. Conscious pride taught the German females to suppress every tender emotion that stood in competition with honor, and the first honor of the sex has ever been that of chastity. The sentiments and conduct of these high-spirited matrons may, at once, be considered as a cause, as an effect, and as a proof of the general character of the nation. Female courage, however it may be raised by fanaticism, or confirmed by habit, can be only a faint and imperfect imitation of the manly valor that distinguishes the age or country in which it may be found.The above isn't incidental--it's practically the keynote to Gibbon's theory. The Emperor Alexander Severus, who Gibbon overall admires, according to him had two key flaws--he was born in the "effeminate" East--and he listened to his mother too much. At least one-fourth into the first volume, Gibbon's theory seems to be Rome's decline came because Romans lost the manly men virtues. And yes, I know; it's the times in which Gibbon wrote to blame, and I should make allowances for that and take out of his history what good I can. But added to how slow a read this was and feeling fidgety wondering just how much of the facts are just plain wrong... Well. I may try an abridged edition someday. I noticed one shelved at Barnes and Noble that covers the material of the first volume in only 317 pages. I might find that more bearable. Or maybe just try a modern take on the late Western Roman empire such as Peter Heather's The Fall of the Roman Empire. Or just take my friend's advice and next time I'm in the mood to read about the Romans read Suetonius' The Twelve Caesars, which my friend swears is awesome.
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The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Volume 1Edward Gibboned: J.B. BuryThe first volume in this printing by AMS press, based on a 1909 edition from Methuen. In this volume are the preface, chapters one to fourteen, notes on illustrations and editor’s notes. The narrative starts with the age of the Antonines, a time Gibbon regards as the height of the Roman power, and describes the succession of emperors and wars until the accession of Constantine. It is as is said, that Gibbon is a master of the historical narrative, and his prose is the most lucid written.Some quotes:Chapter 2: “The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord”Chapter 7: writing of the election of a monarch: “Experience overturns these airy fabrics, and teaches us that in a large society the election of a monarch can never devolve to the wisest or to the most numerous part of the people. The army is the only order of men sufficiently united to concur in the same sentiments, and powerful enough to impose them on the rest of their fellow citizens; but the temper of soldiers, habituated at once to violence and to slavery, renders them very unfit guardians of a legal or even a civil constitution.”Chapter 8: a saying of the Zend Avesta, the treatise of Zoroaster: “He who sows the ground with care and diligence acquires a greater stock of religious merit than he could gain by the repetition of ten thousand prayers.”Chapter 13: “From the monuments of those times, the obscure traces of several other victories over the barbarians of Sarmatia and Germany might possibly be collected, but the tedious search would not be rewarded either with amusement or with instruction.”Chapter 18: “At the same time that Diocletian chastised the past crimes of the Egyptians, he provided for their future safety and happiness by many wise regulations, which were confirmed and enforced under the succeeding reigns. One very remarkable edict which he published, instead of being condemned as the effact of jealous tyranny, deserves to be applauded as an act of prudence and humanity. He caused a diligent inquiry to be made "for all the ancient books which treated of the admirable art of making gold and silver, and without pity, committed them to the flames; apprehensive, as we are are assured, lest the opulence of the Egyptians should inspire them with confidence to rebel against the empire." But if Diocletian had been convinced of the reality of that valuable art, far from extinguishing the memory, he would have converted the operation of it to the benefit of the public revenue. It is much more likely, that his good sense discovered to him the folly of such magnificent pretensions, and that he was desirous of preserving the reason and fortunes of his subjects from the mischievous pursuit. It may be remarked, that the ancient books, so liberally ascribed to Pythagoras, to Solomon, or to Hermes, were the pious frauds of more recent adepts. The Greeks were inattentive either to the use or to the abuse of chemsitry. In that immense register, where Pliny has deposited the discoveries, the arts, and the errors of mankind, there is not the least mention of the transmutation of metals and the persecution of Diocletian is the first authentic event in the history of alchemy. The conquest of Egypt by the Arabs diffused that vain science over the globe. Congenial to the avarice of the human heart, it was studied in China as in Europe, with equal eagerness, and with equal success. The darkness of the middle ages insured a favorable reception to every tale of wonder, and the revival of learning gave new vigor to hope, and suggested more specious arts of deception. Philosophy, with the aid of experience, has at length banished the study of alchemy, and the present age, however desirous of riches, is content to seek them by the humbler means of commerce and industry”
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A classic of historical literature, in two volumes. The author details the history to the fall in the first volume, and the byzantine period in the second volume.
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That I didn't give this book five stars is only indicative of my annoyance at the slow patches, the fact that there was no index (a cursory index is included in the third volume of the Modern Library edition), and my annoyance with myself for not being better read in Roman history than I was at the time that I read this. (And yes, annoyance with myself for not knowing Latin, particularly since it is in that language in which Gibbon salted away the "naughtiest bits.") Gibbon's style is nearly intoxicating at times, but in a rich, mellow way, like that of a fine brandy (Courvoisier, perhaps): definitely not plonk or rotgut to swill, but rather a finely aged spirit to savour. Much of the eight or nine years since I read Vol. I has been spent in gradually (very gradually, I'm afraid...) reading other books on Roman history in an attempt to be somewhat better prepared to enjoy and profit from Vol. II; I hope to be able to read Vol. II next year (2007). We'll see....And yes, this volume does contain Gibbon's (in)famous Chapter XV ("The Progress of the Christian Religion, and the Sentiments, Manners, Numbers, and Condition of the Primitive Christians;" p. 382-444), which exercised so many of his detractors.
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I first considered reading this as a teenager some 35 years ago, but never got round to it. I have now put that right.When you first start the book, unless you are used to late 18th century writing, the style and vocabulary can seem a little daunting, but this doesn't last for long. No, it is not at all "light" reading, but nor is it particulalry difficult.Gibbon has a very personable style, and is quite vocal in his likes and dislikes. I can certainly understand why the work was disliked by the Church when it was published. His forthright views on the impact of Christianity may not have gone down well (indeed, they may not today!).The history itself is split into two halves. The first half ends with the fall of Rome, and the end of the Western Empire. Personally, I believe that this would have been a better place for Gibbon to stop. The second half deals with the Eastern empire, based on Constantinople, and is more difficult, jumping as it does from one region to another, and moving back and forward in time. For me the highlight is the chapter on the final demise of paganism, and the adoption of Christianity as the state religion. I felt really quite sad at the loss of heritage and culture that this caused. But there are so many other itens which could be singled out as spectacular in the author's narrative.I have read the 8 volume Folio Society edition. This has the full text, but its abridgement of Gibbon's footnotes has been critcised by many. Personally, since it is the only edition I have read (or am likely to read), it has not affected me at all - the footnotes are in places quite amusing and illuminating, but in others dull references to his sources.I am a classicist, but I have learned so much from this work. If you have any interest in the history of Rome, then I would suggest that you don't leave it 35 years to read this book as I did!!!!
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I have not read more than the occasional passage from this, nor do I really expect to. It's a big chunk of book, though, and it's an old enough edition that it smells lovely.
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Gibbon's greatest achievement was to unite the characters of the 'antiquary' (who collected undigested heaps of learning for others to quarry at will) and the 'historian' (who presented his own selection from such heaps in elegant literary form). He is a master of language, capable not only of great dignity and judicious scholarship but also of satire and occasional impish wickedness (as in his famous footnote about the empress Theodora and the geese); but he also recognises the importance of going back to the original sources and leaving a clear record of the fact. It is easy toi forget, too, that in his chapters about the early history of Islam and about the Crusades Gibbon, the great rationalist, shows a decidedly romantic streak. - Bury's Illustrated Library Edition (7 vols.) is the most recent attempt to update Gibbon and is unlikely ever to be superseded.
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Truly grand in scope, in subject matter, in style. Some conclusions/sources are out of date, but it is still a joy to read.
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