The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire


Middlemarch is back on the shelf, and my next big read is Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon's monumental work originally appeared in six volumes between 1776 and 1788, and is available in various modern editions, including the hefty three-volume Penguin edition elegantly introduced and edited by David Womersley. Pictured above is the 1114-page first volume.

There are some interesting affinities between George Eliot, the philosophic novelist, and Gibbon, the philosophic historian. Both probe into the dark recesses of human motivation; both approach their subjects with an equal measure of irony and sympathy. David Womersley, in his introduction, writes: "[T]he belief in unintended consequences naturally led the philosophic historian to form surprisingly nuanced judgements prompted by unexpectedly broad sympathies... Individuals and institutions, which he could only condemn as in themselves criminal or perverse, at moments contributed positively to human society, while, in obedience to the same principle, those he admired or loved may, despite their best endeavours, have exerted a harmful influence" (xxiii).

Thus Gibbon praises and admires the good emperor Marcus Aurelius, but shows us that, through his indulgence as a father, Marcus bequeathed to Rome the troubled reign of his unstable son Commodus. On the other hand, he dates the beginning of the end of Rome to the reign of the murderous and self-interested Septimius Severus, who temporarily restored a measure of peace and justice to the empire.

Of Marcus Aurelius, Gibbon writes: "The mildness of Marcus, which the rigid discipline of the Stoics was unable to eradicate, formed, at the same time, the most amiable, and the only defective, part of his character" (108). This is typical of Gibbon's style, contrasting, in the same sentence, a positive and negative assessment of a person's character or actions. "The most amiable, but only defective, part of his character." There's a kind of dizzying, dazzling even-handedness about Gibbon as he performs his stylistic juggling act, making judgments while seeming to keep judgment suspended in the air.

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