Kemp Ridley’s #CBR4 Review #16: The History of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 1, by Edward Gibbon
While I’ve always loved history, and I’ve always especially loved ancient Rome, I’ve never gotten around to reading Decline and Fall. At first this was because…well, damn. Have you seen that thing? It’s enormous. The Nook version I have is 6,808 pages. That makes the most egregiously self-indulgent Neal Stephenson manuscript look dainty by comparison. It was also written in the Times of Olde (1776 for Vol. 1, I think), and so, I assumed, prone to that old-school every-sentence-should-contain-at-least-150-words-and-no-fewer-than-seven-semicolons style of writing, real Faulkner-on-a-bender territory. And who in their right mind wants to subject themselves to that? And so, for years, I avoided it assiduously, in the same way I avoid certain exes and that one editor who told me I had a problem with hyphens.
Recently, however, I decided what the hell, sure, why not, let’s wade in. I need a challenge. If nothing else, it’ll feed nicely into the sorts of literary dick-measuring contests people around me tend to engage in (an unsightly, if common, drawback to a workplace composed nearly entirely of writers). “Oh, you read that new Murakami? It was 946 pages? That’s 13 percent of a Gibbon! No, you dolt, not the monkey.”
Here’s the thing: once you get past the long-ass sentences, and the apparently random sprinkling of commas, it’s really…good. Gibbon is a talented historian with an obvious love for the subject, and he’s also, most surprisingly of all, damn funny, albeit in a dry, extremely sarcastic way. And who doesn’t love dry, lacerating sarcasm?
Gibbon starts by setting up his baseline of Roman awesomeness: the reign of the emperors Antoninus Pious and Marcus Aurelius. Gibbon goes so far as to say that there was no better time to be alive in history than this period in Rome; one assumes he means “as long as one is a dude and wealthy,” but whatever. Rome is stable, Rome is prosperous, Rome is the single biggest and most stupendous badass in the Mediterranean. Things are good. Then Marcus Aurelius dies, and the wheels begin to fall off of the empire. Marcus’s son, Commodus, thinks he’s the reincarnation of Hercules and takes to the arena, where he tries to prove his martial ability by beating amputees and cripples to death. He is eventually assassinated, leading to a protracted period of civil wars and barbarian invasions; in one 50-year period in the third century, the empire goes through something like 26 emperors. Vol. 1 ends with Diocletian becoming emperor and, at least temporarily, slowing the decay.
Beyond the flavor-of-the-week emperors and humiliating military defeats, the other big development during this period is the emergence of Christianity. The latter bits of Vol. 1 are given over to a lengthy and deeply irreverent history of the Christian church in which he takes the church to task for straying from its early, charitable origins and attacks the number of martyrs reported by the early Christians as being grossly inflated. (Here I intended to cite his numbers and comments directly, but, due to some kind of snafu with my Nook, all the passages I’ve highlighted have disappeared, and I’m too lazy to try to track them down via the internet.) He also points out that, for an institution based on the veneration of an itinerant holy man who couldn’t shut up for five seconds about the poor, the church has a remarkably unimpressive track record when it comes to opposing oppressive governments: “The influence of the clergy, in an age of superstition, might be usefully employed to assert the rights of mankind; but so intimate is the connection between the throne and the altar, that the banner of the church has very seldom been seen on the side of the people.” Ouch.
While I’m really enjoying Gibbon so far, I would give some warnings to anyone considering tackling this thing. The language does take some getting used to. Imagine Tolkien, but with less singing and a perceptible sense of humor, and you’ve got the general idea. Gibbon also presupposes a certain amount of knowledge of the earlier empire; the book is, after all, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, not The History of the Roman Empire. He tends to toss off references to earlier emperors and events with the assumption that the reader knows what he’s talking about. If you know your Julio-Claudians and Flavians you’ll do pretty okay, otherwise you’re going to be running for the Wikipedia rather a lot.
I’m gnawing away at Vol. 2 right now, and I hope that I’ll be able to read and review all six parts by the end of the Cannonball. Then again, I’ve also read and failed to review at least 10 books over the past month or so, so who knows?