I ordered this in early February and it’s taken me this long to get through the nearly two thousand pages. I already knew the basics of the early Empire and something of its latter stages, and very much enjoyed reading of the emperors after Commodus in more detail, as well as a fuller account of the downfall of the Western Empire.
Gibbon wrote in the later 18th century and his style is not something that can be read with utmost rapidity. It is certainly enjoyable, but any notion of devouring the book should be knocked on the head. Immense detail abounds, particularly with regards to numerous footnotes (which must make up 20-25% of the total word count).
The first three volumes takes the reader from the golden age of Imperial Rome to the latter stages of the 5th century. The general trend is one of decline, occasionally arrested or even reversed by significantly excellent men (Aurelian stands out especially) but never permanently changed. It is equal parts fascinating and saddening to read of a glorious people and empire sink into the mire of degeneration and servile weakness, and provides many lessons that are important and relevant today. (One of these is seen in recent looting: when a people love the fruit of labour but will not even bear the necessity of labour they are barbarians if poor and degenerates if rich, and a society comprised of such people is in a poor state of health).
The great size of the book (around two thousand pages to cover a few centuries) enables greater detail than I’ve read before, including little snippets that I rather enjoyed (such as Mascezel and Gildo, the former of whom fought and defeated his rebellious brother only to end up betrayed). However, this also means that there are some digressions of significant length though less than significant interest (whilst parts of early Christianity seem interesting a lot of it seems… less so). Sizeable digressions from the strict business of Rome and Byzantium include early Christianity and the migration of the Huns. On the whole, these add to the value of the book, I think, but are not universally to my taste.
Reading it reminded me slightly of Thucydides, in that Gibbon is not afraid to go into detail, which usually adds to the historical narrative. Little anecdotes or substantiated stories about individuals and events help paint a more accurate picture of their character. The context of historical occurrences is also well-founded, with helpful descriptions regarding the degeneration of later Rome making stark the contrast between the days of Punic and Trajan glory and the latter days of weakness.
Rome conquered Italy, then defeated Carthage before acquiring the provinces of Iberia and Gaul, and others further east. This book helps explain why and how the greatest superpower in Europe (probably the world) fell by small degrees from undoubted supremacy, as its martial spirit fled, the worth of Roman citizenship was devalued and the virtues that made the republic great were unwittingly abandoned during the reign of the emperors.
It is not always an easy book to read. If someone is new to the subject or a bit impatient of the occasional slog I would not recommend it to them. However, if a prospective buyer knows a little about the topic already and is content to work their way through a book that is largely excellent but occasionally digresses into obscure areas Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (volumes 1-3) would make a fine addition to their collection.
Incidentally, for those after an easier read of Roman history [admittedly of a different era], I can heartily recommend the accounts of Polybius and Livy regarding the Second Punic War. (Reminds me, actually, I still need to acquire Appian’s account, which I think can be found in an online format here: http://www.livius.org/ap-ark/appian/appian_hannibal_00.html).