1996-07-18: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788)

by Edward Gibbon (1737-1794)

This work was recommended by Rexroth, on the basis of Gibbon’s use of language among others.

I have started the work several times, and still not completed it. In fact I am only up to 193 (p. 104 in the Modern Library edition), the accession of Septimius Severus to end “the year of the four Caesars”. Still, I have some observations.

Gibbon writes of a fallen great empire from the vantage point of a rising one. Naturally, he finds the institution of empire an attractive way to impose order on the world. He writes from the vantage point of a society that values individual initiative within an orderly system; that system does not value the arbitrary disruption of a despotic ruler. These two facts should indicate the tone of his writing.

Gibbon writes with great self-confidence. Even where the historical facts are not clear, he is certain of their meaning. Such writing naturally is attractive, as long as the reader doesn’t question the implications behind certain statements. So far, I have not found it as meritorious as Rexroth did.

Gibbon wrote during and after the American Revolution, and was a member of Parliament during it. I am curious to know his position on the American view of liberty and tyranny. (According to Encyclopedia Americana, Gibbon voted with his Prime Minister until 1778, when he opposed sending more British soldiers to America.)

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