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.
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.
Maximus had achieved almost nothing in his short reign. And certainly, setting up the most humiliating sack of Rome itself earns him pretty much the uncontested medal for the most unsuccessful holder of the purple. But his foreign policy did bear one fruit. He had sent the seasoned veteran politician Avitus to negotiate with the Visigoths. The negotiations went well and Avitus got the support of the Visigothic king Theoderic.
The death of Attila was greeted with enthusiasm and relief by most of the courts of Europe. It must have been like having a troublesome neighbour finally move away. But in Carthage there was one man who was sad to see him go. His alliance with Attila had been Genseric’s trump card which had prevented the long overdue reassertion of the empire’s authority over the fertile strip of northern Africa that the Vandals and their Alan allies had wrested from them.
Alaric died suddenly after a short fever. He was somewhere around forty years old. For all his urbane sophistication and his desire to become a Roman, he was given a truly barbarian funeral. The course of the river Busento was diverted and his body buried under its bed. Then the river was restored to its normal course and the captives who had worked on it were killed. The location of his body has remained a secret ever since. The secret of what exactly he was doing in southern Italy has remained just as obscure. Gibbon assumes that his interest in Sicily was as a stepping stone to Africa. Africa fed Rome, so if he wanted to control one he had to control the other. Maybe this marks his ambition to become in effect the ruler of the Roman world. Or maybe his reasoning was that Africa represented a defendable home for his people with the resources that they needed.
I am working through the chapters of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire translating the majestic sweep of the original narrative into modern English. There are times when this gets tough, and this is one of them. Gibbon is a great writer and this is one of his greatest sections. I will do my best, but please bear with me here. Right, on with the story.
Before describing the sack of the city Gibbon treats us to a portrait of the city that is about to be destroyed.
Surviving documents enabled Gibbon to paint a very full and revealing picture of just what Rome was like in the reign of Theodosius, just before the final collapse of the western empire. We have just ploughed through thirty chapters largely composed of one military disaster after another accompanied with a relentless increase in authoritarian government, religious intolerance and the rise of what was in effect a police state. So it is quite surprising to find that in Rome itself quite a lot of people were doing rather nicely, thank you.