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Leisure • Literature

Edward Gibbon — The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

The news is often determined to tell us that we live in uniquely critical times, beset by political disasters and afflicted by terrible crises and that the demise of human civilisation is surely imminent. We are encouraged to view the world — and our own lives — in bleak, apocalyptic terms. Oddly, history can be powerfully consoling, not because it tells us that our times are great, but because it shows us how normal large societal troubles really are. 

Roman ruins in Jerash, Jordan. Photo by Kin Wai Cheung on Unsplash

The English 18th century historian Edward Gibbon is particularly helpful with this task of bringing us to a less frightened perspective. His massive, elegantly written work covers 1500 years, from the pinnacle of Roman power around the year 180 AD, through the collapse of the Western Empire to the final fall of its last outpost, the city of Constantinople, in 1453.  Gibbon started work on the series of volumes  around 1770 and completed the final volume on a summer’s evening in 1787 while he was on holiday in Switzerland. 

Portrait of Edward Gibbon by Henry Walton, c. 1773

The immense story he tells moves from one disaster to another, century after century. There are mad, despotic Emperors, the barbarians invade again and again, the plans for reform fail, the key institutions become corrupt, the government loses control of the army, there are plagues that last for decades, the harvests decline, there is insane factionalism, the economy collapses, the Roman Forum — once the heart of the Empire — is abandoned and sheep graze amongst the ruins. Only Constantinople holds out, getting weaker and weaker. The vastly prolonged decline ends with the fall of the city — where the people still called themselves Romans — to Muhammed the Second in the middle of the 15th Century. 

And yet the world didn’t end. The main beneficiaries of the demise of the last fragment of the Empire was the city state of Venice, which became the most widely loved place on earth; and the exodus of scholars to the West was pivotal in the story of the Renaissance.  And all the time — in the centuries of decline — new forces had been developing in the background. The wild people of the North who the Romans so feared became, eventually, Danish interior designers and German intellectuals and Parisian socialites. The Picts and Scots who were seen as the least civilised people on earth would, one day, renew their capital city, Edinburgh, as an architectural homage to Roman culture. The disasters are always happening on the surface: they are what we hear about. The gradual process of renewal and elevation escapes our notice at the time. 

Ruins of the forum, Rome. Photo by Christoph Schmid on Unsplash

It’s nice to read Gibbon late at night, at the end of a day when the news seems unbearably grim, and to skim through his placid account of yet another moment of apparent catastrophe and think of him sitting learnedly in his study reflecting on disaster and yet being himself the obvious heir — with his classical prose, his quiet dignity and his sense of balance — of the very empire he thought he was lamenting.

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