Thursday, 25 August 2011

Review: The Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire (volumes 1-3), by Edward Gibbon

Although six volumes in total, the set is divided into two parts of three volumes each. The version I read was the Everyman’s Library edition (reckoned by people better read than me to be easy to read, with the Penguin version also praised for being more scholarly).

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:



  1. Hello, Mr. Thaddeus,

    Excelent review! I was not sure whether to buy it or not but now I will buy all six volumes!

    I was wondering whether you would accept any book suggestions, or review requests.

    Also, what is the best book on Hannibal that you've read?

  2. Hello, Mr. Biaso.

    Thanks :)

    I've been reading a bit more of Volume V just recently, and certain bits (the rise of Islam, mirroring the rise of Christianity) are a bit of a slog.

    Given the books are pretty pricey you might prefer to buy Volumes I-III to start with, but it's up to you, of course.

    The best book on Hannibal I've read was Theodore Dodge's 'Hannibal'. However, Livy's account of the Hannibalic War and Polybius are also well worth reading (Livy is the easier to read and has a more complete account but Polybius is more accurate and objective).

    I don't take review requests directly, but will consider book suggestions (although my reading list for both fantasy and history is pretty long so even if I like a suggestion it could be ages until I get around to it).

  3. I like to have a long queue of books, it makes me feel objective with my life. I have heard nice things about Niall Ferguson's books, although I'm not very enthused about his political life in America. I plan on buying Simon Schama's Citizens and Eric Hobsbawm's 19th adn 20th century books, I'm a huge fan of the period between the Seven Years' War and WWI and aftermath.

    I've spent a lot of time on iTunes U, there are some very interesting podcasts from Yale like Donald Kagan's 24-part series on the rise and fall of the polis. And a great course on the early middle ages dealing with the fall of the Roman Empire starting from Diocletian, going though the rise of Charlemagne, Justinian, and Mohammed.

    So many books, so little time...

  4. Hmm. It was marked as spam, for some reason.

    Must admit that my own area of preference is earlier. Byzantium is intriguing, but I like Ancient Greece/Rome more than medieval history.

  5. "Must admit that my own area of preference is earlier."

    I've noticed! I'm relatively new to the Roman Empire, I'd like to think that I'm more or less travelling backwards through time. My father is obsessed with WWII, economics and the Cold War. I primarily wanted to understand this situation and how it came to be so I went back to WWI, which took me to the Unification of Italy and Germany, and then through the Revolutions of 1848 and so on and so forth...

    And now I am finally interested in the glory of Rome, just a few more centuries and I should know just about everything I'd like to.

    P.S.: Do you have any interest in the Americas before Columbus? If so there is a marvelous book called 1491 by Charles C. Mann that talks about the Americas at the time of contact, before and waaaay before. (the waaaay before gets a bit boring... still good though.)

  6. I haven't read anything of American history yet, but I'll add your recommendation to my Amazon basket.

    I know very little of the Americas in historical terms, but did see a fascinating mini-series by Niall Ferguson (historian chap) who charted the strange dual development of North and South America. It was fascinating to see how the South had the initial advantage due to greater wealth, but the oligarchal/plundering tendencies of the rulers meant development didn't really happen, whereas North America's democracy gave it a long-term strategic advantage.

    It's quite interesting to see how Rome developed, grew and then declined. Even now it casts a long shadow over everything (the language we speak and alphabet we use, for a start).