The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Modern Library Volume 2 of 3)

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 2The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 2 by Edward Gibbon

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The second volume of Modern Library’s three-volume reprint of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire covers chapters 27 through 48 of the author’s vast magnum opus. Beginning with the reign of Gratian and ending with the reconquests of Heraclius in 628 A.D., Gibbons relates in detail the political, martial, social, and theological developments that saw the ultimate split of the Roman Empire, the fall of the West, and the continuance of Roman tradition in the East centered in Constantinople before glancing at the lives of the next 60 emperors of Byzantium over the next 600 years.

The deterioration of the Rome picks up with the reign of Gratian and his eventual overthrow leading to the unification of the Empire under Theodosius the Great before its finale split with the inheritance of his sons and then their successors over the next 50+ years. Throughout the era of House of Theodosius, the various barbarian tribes made inroads into the Western Empire which included two sacks of Rome itself by the Visigoths and Vandals, as the long ineffectual reign of Honorius and his successors allowed the Empire to slip out of their fingers. In the vacuum arose the genesis of future European states such as England, France, and Spain while Italy declined in population and political cohesion as the Pope began to fill not only a religious but political role.

The Eastern Emperors in Constantinople, unlike their family and colleagues in the West, were able to keep their domain intact through military force or bribes to turn away. The bureaucratic framework established by Constantine and reformed by Theodosius was used to keep the Eastern Empire thriving against barbarian incursion and Persian invasions while creating a link to the Roman past even as the eternal city fell from its greatness. Yet as the Eastern Emperors kept alive the Roman imperial tradition while continually orienting it more towards Greek cultural heritage, the internal conflicts of Christianity became a hindrance to social and imperial stability leading to rebellions of either a local or statewide nature or allowing foreign powers to invade.

This middle volume of Gibbon’s monumental work is divided in two, the first focusing on the fall of the Western Empire and the second on how the Eastern Empire survived through various struggles and for a brief time seemed on the verge of reestablishing the whole imperium. Yet throughout, Gibbon weaves not only the history of Rome but also the events of nomadic peoples as far away at China, the theological controversies within Christianity, and the numerous other treads to create a daunting, yet compete look of how Rome fell but yet continued.

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How the Irish Saved Civilization (Hinges of History #1)

How the Irish Saved CivilizationHow the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The titular question of Thomas Cahill’s first Hinges of History book is one that gets people interested in picking it up. Yet the length of How the Irish Saved Civilization brings into question on if Cahill adequately answers his own question with such a slender book that promoted becoming a bestseller.

Cahill’s focus is on the end of the Western Roman Empire and how the literary tradition, in fact literacy itself survived the end of the Roman era and begin in the new Germanic aftermath of the fall of Rome. The survival of literacy in Europe is thanks to the efforts of the newly Christianized Irish, the people not considered worth the conquest by Rome that keeps the legacy of Rome alive in Western Europe. The Irish through the missionary effort of the future St. Patrick turn from a non-literate oral society into a literate and learning center in less than a century. The proud warrior-centered culture became “warriors” for learning that attracted scholars all over Europe to learn and read at the many monasteries, but then the Irish started spread away from their island home first across the Irish Sea to Great Britain than all across Europe founding monasteries as they went to continued their tradition.

Cahill attempts to create portraits of the Irish before and after their conversion to display how their culture changed, but also how it stayed the same and influenced the Celtic Christian tradition of the British Isles. In contrast, Cahill portrayed the Roman worldview and culture including how it influenced Roman Christianity. Although both these attempts were somewhat successful, the result in the book came off as a little disjointed in cohesion. The lack of firm historical data or sources for some of Cahill’s depiction of St. Patrick, acknowledged in the book’s bibliographic sources hurts of the quality of the overall work as well.

How the Irish Saved Civilization is a nice history for the general reader, however unlike later installments of the Hinges of History series it is lacking in a quality connected structure and solid sources. Cahill should be praised in giving readers understanding in how the society of Western Europe both changed and stayed the same with the fall of Rome and the beginning of the early Middle Ages, however the quality of the book is only so-so.

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The Discovery of King Arthur

The Discovery of King ArthurThe Discovery of King Arthur by Geoffrey Ashe
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

The question of the reality of King Arthur has been answered in various ways and Geoffrey Ashe gives his answer in “The Discovery of King Arthur”. One of the most preeminent Arthurian scholars in the world, Ashe’s thesis brought the possibility of a real Arthur to the public by guiding them through the layers of myth and legend.

Ashe begins his presentation by establishing how the Arthur we have come to know in was first widely distributed, through Geoffrey of Monmouth’s “Histories of the Kings of Britain”. Ashe begins dissecting Geoffrey’s account through the lens of various sources during the supposed time of Arthur’s career as well as giving context to the nature of medieval literary work thus gleaming clues to the real events that Geoffrey based his writing on. Ashe’s analysis of several sources from Roman Gaul, sources from Britain closer to Arthur’s time, and history of the last Western Roman Empire together with clues from Geoffrey’s histories help Ashe narrow in on the individual who was the starting point of the Arthur mythos, the Briton High King named Riothamus.

After naming this candidate whose career inspired the Arthur legend, Ashe then details how over the centuries to Geoffrey of Monmouth and afterwards the embellished and fantasies were created about an individual who seemingly revived Roman Briton’s fortunes and was seen on the Continent as someone to help restore the civilization—as the Roman was viewed. Yet, while this information is intriguing in seeing how the mythos was created and expanded Ashe’s somewhat dry writing style makes the last half of the book somewhat less of an engaging read as compared to the first half when Ashe “discovers” the man behind the legend.

This is my first time reading this book in almost 20 years and frankly this book is not how I remember it, frankly I remembered the information Ashe put in the first half of the book in making his case and willing forgot the second half of the book when he discussed the legend building. This can be put down to Ashe converting a scholarly paper into a book for mass consumption, which is telling as it would be expected that the writing style would be more lively for book for public consumption while a more scholarly work would have a different tone. But that doesn’t mean this is not an overall good book, it is but it does have some drawbacks that potential readers should be aware of before cracking it open.

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