Books: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Here I am. Starbucks Calabasas. Saturday. Page 231 of Volume 1… 2,769 to go

Here I am. Starbucks Calabasas. Saturday. Page 231 of Volume 1… 2,769 to go

I opened my amazon.com account in 2001, the very first item was added to my wishlist on April 15, 2002: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Volumes 1-3 of 6 (Everyman’s Library). I purchased the books 15 years later in 2016 and, finally, this February, I began.

Why did I wait for almost 16 years? Well, the seemingly innocuous remark “Volumes 1-3 of 6” acted as a powerful repellent. The Decline and Fall is a 3,000-page venture and, myself being a completionist when it comes to books, meant that reading page 1 would have suspended all other books until the day I read the last word of page 3000. Also, Decline and Fall was written in the late 1700s (old, therefore obsolete? old, therefore boring prose?)... and what’s cool about ancient history anyway?

When I finally read the first words, it was as if I had jumped into the Amazon river: extensive, mighty, relentlessly flowing east. There was no pain, no struggle deciphering old English, the book effortlessly carried me downstream. I am about halfway volume 1… of 6.

The Decline and Fall covers the period from year 98 A.D. to 1590 A.D.: from Trajan and the Antonines to a century after the fall of Constantinople. Edward Gibbon spent 20 years of his life on this magnum opus. Here are some of the notes I’ve taken so far. 

Gibbon's observations

Gibbon shares delightful and witty reflections in the main narrative and also in the footnotes. Examples:

  • “As long as mankind shall continue to bestow more liberal applause on their destroyers than on their benefactors, the thirst of military glory will ever be the vice of the most exalted characters.”
  • “The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord.”
  • On animal rights: "In the civilized state of the Roman empire the wild beasts had long since retired from the face of man and the neighbourhood of populous cities. To surprise them in their solitary haunts, and to transport them to Rome, that they might be slain in pomp by the hand of an emperor, was an enterprise equally ridiculous for the prince and oppressive for the people.” (Gibbon is referring to emperor Commodus).

Relevance

The study of the Roman Empire is pertinent to the understanding of contemporary times. Unlike many other monarchies or empires where societal order was imposed by force or fear of a powerful soldier or king, the Roman Empire “was raised and preserved by the wisdom of ages.” The rule of law, its institutions, a careful balance of powers, tolerance of the conquered peoples and their adoption as citizens of Rome, were all essential to the flourishing and longevity of the Empire... any resemblance to the United States of our century?

Romans and Greeks

The Romans, unlike the Greeks, adopted their conquered peoples as citizens of Rome, which developed loyalty and created an alignment of ambitions with those of Rome. It was also very important, from the perspective of the empire, to make Latin the prevalent language in its conquered lands. 

It is worth noting that the provinces of the east (i.e., Greeks) were less docile in the adoption of Latin and Latin customs than the colonies of the west. This will have stronger significance during the decline and fragmentation of the empire.

The Greeks thought of themselves of a more refined and superior tradition than the Romans. “The east was in the immemorial possession of arts and luxury; whilst the west was inhabited by rude and warlike barbarians.”

Legions and the Praetorian Guard

Loss of ideals in the legions
Rome’s extensive use of mercenaries or of conquered people may be the explanation for a weakening of principles and ideals. Gibbon notes that the modern civil wars are fought with zeal for an ideal or principle, whereas the Romans, after the fall of the republic, "combated only for the choice of masters." The legions were lured into civil war by donations and promises and, the moment the leader they supported no longer had a chance of prevailing, they would be quick to desert and request the clemency of the victor.

The Praetorian Guard
Established by Augustus in 27 BC, and conformed by elite soldiers, The Praetorian Guard had become excessively powerful in the first two centuries after year zero. The substrate of power migrates from the senate and other civil institutions to the Praetorian Guard. It is directly involved in elevating, deposing, and killing several emperors. In the Guard's awareness of its own power one can glimpse the initial cracks in the Roman edifice.

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Here I am. Starbucks Calabasas. Page 231 of Volume 1… 2,769 to go.