You can’t doubt Mary beard’s academic credentials, but she has written SPQR for the general reader. She starts the story with Cicero and the Cataline conspiracy. We get the characters involved and we get a description of what the world the action is taking place in looked like. This is history as entertainment, and it is very entertaining. But that doesn’t stop it also being very informative.
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is permeated from beginning to end with the atmosphere of the Enlightenment. But at the end of the third volume, he comes out and says directly what he believes in.
Gibbon wonders whether some unknown threat could arise that would once again destroy the civilisation of the western world of his time. After all the Arabs had appeared out of nowhere in the eighth century. Could the same thing happen again? Luckily the existence of gunpowder had changed the rules of the game. Mounted bow wielding horsemen no longer needed to be feared – Attila’s Huns would be no match for a column of men with muskets. And it is not just gadgets. The whole of Europe has progressed and moved forward to a brighter age.
Although Roman influence in Britain ended before it did in Gaul, Gibbon chooses to place it in the narrative afterwards. You can see why. The situation in Gaul steadily evolved and are developed. It’s very much part of the story of the fall of the Western Empire. What happened in Britain seems to be a very different story indeed, it does feel very much like a footnote to the rest of the book.
At the end of Volume 3 of Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and Gibbon is in a reflective mood. It feels very much like he is intending on finishing his story here with the end of the Roman Empire in the West as a legal entity. In fact I think that is exactly what his intentions were. This is how he puts it.
Hi, this is the History Books Review and I am Colin Sanders, currently engaged on mopping up operations. We have seen that the last Roman emperor had been removed by Odoacer in Italy, and in this episode we follow the ramifications to Roman Gaul in Chapter 38 Part 1 of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
It isn’t too hard to explain why Christianity became the predominant religion in the Roman Empire. It was well organised. It provided social security at a time of great insecurity. It also had all the coercive power of the state behind it. But how did the conversion of the barbarians make such inroads into the German tribes?
There are many reasons for reading the Decline and Fall of the Roman empire. For a start you get to know a lot about Roman history. You also learn a lot about 18th Century Britain. I hope, or at least aspire, to get these across to people who haven’t read the book itself. But one thing my paraphrasing can never get across is just how good a book it is simply from the point of view of style. Nobody writes like that anymore. I have already done quite a few quotes that hopefully give a flavour. But here is a passage that demonstrates Gibbon’s writing style extremely well and which stands alone as a piece of writing.
Leo was an unlikely man to end up being called ‘the Great’. Emperors had become mere figureheads. Military strongmen of barbarian origin actually called the shots and decided who sat on the throne in Constantinople. Leo looked very much like a figurehead. He had no particular credentials for joining the imperial ranks, and only got the job as the frontman for the army chief Aspar.
Chalons was hardly a victory in the tradition of Rome. When you look at the Roman victory over the Dacians portrayed on Trajan’s Column you see a large professional organisation using technology to wipe out a brave but outmatched enemy. They display tactics, well drilled formations and sophisticated logistics. It is clear that the Romans are more advanced than the people they are fighting against. Three hundred years later we are in a world of tribal battles with both sides indistinguishable from each other. Individual feats of arms are important – so Thorismund the son of Theodoric becomes a hero by dint of his bravery. Men are inspired to great deeds by orations and martial music. Omens are sought and used to influence morale. It wasn’t really a Roman victory in anything other than name and certainly did not herald any kind of rebirth of Roman power in the west.