Decline and Fall: What I got from reading it

It was at the end of August 2009, twenty-eight months ago, that I started to read Gibbon's Decline and Fall, and two weeks ago that I finished it. I thought then that I could read two chapters a week, and get through the lot in nine months. In fact, I found I needed the space of a weekend without visitors or travel to read and write up each chapter, so the 71 chapters took me 133 weeks (rather than the 36 I had optimistically first imagined). But such a rich diet is best digested slowly, morsel by delicious morsel, rather than trying to rush it. I strongly recommend a structured read-through of the entire work to anyone interested in history.

There are some things I would advise readers to do differently from me. I wish I had used the Bury edition, with its expanded footnotes, which is available online and in various hard copy formats, rather than sticking to the Penguin version, edited by David Womersley, with just the original text. I would also interleave a bit more with other reading – I have the Gibbon and Empire volume of essays sitting on the shelf waiting to be read, and I profited also from Gibbon's own Autobiography. I might even suggest splitting the longest chapters rather than religiously taking one a week: Chapter L, on Mahomet (sic) is 81 pages, and Chapter LI, on his successors, in 90 pages, full of intense detail.

I set this up as a separate LJ community, , more to give the project a framework outside my usual bookblogging than out of any hope that I would build up a cohort of regular readers. Indeed there were a few people who commented regularly at the beginnning and more sporadically as it went on; I don't blame them in the slightest for flagging. I do now wonder what I will do with the entries in the long term, as LJ does not feel like a reliable archive right now. Probably I will simply shift them to my website.

I structured each entry to start with striking quotes from each chapter, followed by a short summary, followed by any points arising from the text. I should of course have put the summary first, then the quotes, then the points arising. I don't make any apology for rambling into favourite topics of mine such as Balkan geography and astrology, rather than more generally interesting points; I'm not an academic specialist in this area and have no ambition to be, and it seemed important to record when my pleasure in reading was enhanced by the intersection of the text with subjects that I already knew something about.

So, what did I learn?

The two things that will linger with me from Decline and Fall are the superb quality of the writing and the fact that Gibbon doesn't really prove his own case. The writing speaks for itself; some of the best passages are long – the fall of Constantinople being the one which most recently springs to mind – and some of the greatest lines are very brief – for example, that Artaxerxes “was driven into exile and rebellion by royal ingratitude, the customary reward for superior merit.” It does sometimes drag a bit – I found the chapters around the fall of Rome rather tough going – but on form Gibbon is one of the best combiners of irony with substance that you will ever encounter.

However, his overall thesis is not especially clear and not especially well proven by his own account. Gibbon blames the decline and fall of the empire on decisions taken in the second century, after which Rome endured another 250 years and Constantinople more than a millennium; he blames Christianity, though his proof of this tends to degenerate into prejudice about monks and Papists; he extols liberty, but exactly what he means by liberty is never very clear; he argues that there is a straight decline from 410 to 1453, which means minimising Justinian’s achievements (while yet giving him five chapters) and blatantly ignoring the later Byzantine empire. The building blocks are solid, and some of them extremely well made, but the overall structure is impressive more because of its size and style rather than its function.

One should not take this too far. This book, published precisely in the interval of years between the American Declaration of Independence and the French revolution, represent the effort of one of the smartest brains of the time trying to get to grips with the greatest historical catastrophe that he knew of, while yet fearing that his world was getting worse rather than better. And he also hopes to communicate his understanding of the past, and its application to the chaos of the present, to those who like him who have visited Rome as secular pilgrims:

Of these pilgrims, and of every reader, the attention will be excited by a History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; the greatest, perhaps, and most awful scene in the history of mankind. The various causes and progressive effects are connected with many of the events most interesting in human annals: the artful policy of the Caesars, who long maintained the name and image of a free republic; the disorders of military despotism; the rise, establishment, and sects of Christianity; the foundation of Constantinople; the division of the monarchy; the invasion and settlements of the Barbarians of Germany and Scythia; the institutions of the civil law; the character and religion of Mahomet; the temporal sovereignty of the popes; the restoration and decay of the Western empire of Charlemagne; the crusades of the Latins in the East: the conquests of the Saracens and Turks; the ruin of the Greek empire; the state and revolutions of Rome in the middle age. The historian may applaud the importance and variety of his subject; but while he is conscious of his own imperfections, he must often accuse the deficiency of his materials. It was among the ruins of the Capitol that I first conceived the idea of a work which has amused and exercised near twenty years of my life, and which, however inadequate to my own wishes, I finally deliver to the curiosity and candour of the public.

Well done, Mr Gibbon; well done.

Book I
Chapter I
Chapter II: Of the Union and Internal Prosperity of the Roman Empire in the Age of the Antonines
Chapter III: Of the Constitution of the Roman Empire in the Age of the Antonines
Chapter IV: The cruelty, follies and murder of Commodus [with added Pertinax]
Chapter V: mostly about Septimius Severus
Chapter VI: Septimius Severus, Caracalla, Macrinus, Elagabalus and Alexander Severus; and taxation
Chapter VII: The Year of Six Emperors, and Philip the Arab
Chapter VIII: Of the state of Persia after the restoration of the monarchy by Artaxerxes
Chapter IX: The state of Germany till the invasion of the Barbarians
Chapter X: mostly about the Goths
Chapter XI: mostly about Aurelian
Chapter XII: Tacitus, Probus, Carus, and the rise of Diocletian
Chapter XIII: Diocletian
Chapter XIV: The Rise of Constantine
Chapter XV: Early Christianity
Chapter XVI: Early Christianity and the Emperors

Book II
Chapter XVII: Constantinople and Constantine’s system of government
Chapter XVIII: Constantine and his successors
Chapter XIX: Constantius, Gallus and Julian
Chapter XX: The conversion of Constantine and the establishment of Christianity
Chapter XXI: Heresy and paganism
Chapter XXII: The Rise of Julian the Apostate
Chapter XXIII: Julian and his Apostasy
Chapter XXIV: Julian’s Persian campaign, and his death
Chapter XXV: Jovian, Valentinian, Valens, Valentinian’s sons & the final division of the empire
Chapter XXVI: The Goths infiltrate

Book III
Chapter XXVII: Mostly about Theodosius
Chapter XXVIII: The Destruction of Paganism, and Worship of Relics and Saints by Christians
Chapter XXIX: The Sons of Theodosius; also Rufinus and Stilicho
Chapter XXX: The Goths are coming
Chapter XXXI: The Sack of Rome
Chapter XXXII: Arcadius, St John Chrysostom, and Theodosius II
Chapter XXXIII: The Vandals conquer Africa
Chapter XXXIV: Attila the Hun
Chapter XXXV: The End of Attila
Chapter XXXVI: The End of the Western Empire
Chapter XXXVII: Monks and Arians
Chapter XXXVIII: France, Spain and Britain
General Observations On The Fall Of The Roman Empire In The West

Book IV
Chapter XXXIX: Theodoric and Boethius
Chapter XL: Justinian, Part I
Chapter XLI: Justinian, Part II
Chapter XLII: Justinian, Part III
Chapter XLIII: Justinian, Part IV
Chapter XLIV: Justinian, Part V – his legal legacy
Chapter XLV: After Justinian’s death: The Lombards and Italy
Chapter XLVI: The Persians, the Avars and Heraclius
Chapter XLVII: Christianity in the East

Book V
Chapter XLVIII: Plan of last two volumes, and later Byzantine emperors
Chapter XLIX: Iconoclasm, Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire
Chapter L: Mahomet
Chapter LI: the successors of Mahomet
Chapter LII: The limits of the early caliphate
Chapter LIII: The Byzantine Empire in the Tenth Century
Chapter LIV: The Paulicians and the Reformation
Chapter LV: The Bulgarians, the Hungarians and the Russians
Chapter LVI: Italy and the Normans
Chapter LVII: The Turks

Book VI
Chapter LVIII: The First Crusade
Chapter LIX: The Later Crusades
Chapter LX: The Fourth Crusade
Chapter LXI: The Latin Empire, the Crusades and the Courtenays
Chapter LXII: the East in the later thirteenth century
Chapter LXIII: The East in the early 14th century
Chapter LXIV: Genghis Khan, and the return of the Turks
Chapter LXV: Tamerlane / Timour, and the Turks again
Chapter LXVI: The Eastern Empire and the Popes
Chapter LXVII: The Beginning of the End
Chapter LXVIII: The Fall of Constantinople
Chapter LXIX: Rome, 1100-1300
Chapter LXX: Rome, 1300-1590
Chapter LXXI: The End

Vindication of some passages in the fifteenth and sixteenth chapters