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

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 3The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 3 by Edward Gibbon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The finale volume of Modern Library’s three-volume reprint of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire covers chapters 49 through 71 of the author’s vast magnum opus. Beginning with the Iconoclast controversy in correlation with rise of the Vatican and Holy Roman Empire in the 8th century and ending with a description of the causes and progression of the decay of the city of Roman in the 15th century, Gibbon relates in detail the political, martial, social, and theological developments in both Europe and the Middle East ultimately led to the end of Byzantine Empire with the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans and the state of the city of Roman at time of the Roman Empire’s complete end.

The majority of the 22 chapters deal with the rise of Islam and the resultant political and martial effects that would ultimately determine the fate of the Byzantine Empire. Although beginning with the Iconoclastic controversy that began the schism of the Christian church as the bishop of Rome rose to power in the West, Gibbon used those developments to launch into how Islam rose in Arabia then spread across not only areas once under Roman control but also their long-time Persian rivals in the aftermath of the reconquests of Heraclius. While detailing the internal struggle within the Caliphate period, Gibbon reveals how Emperors attempted to combat this new faith and military force to increasing little effect has time went on.

The thorough retelling of the numerous political changes throughout Asia that affect the fortunes of the Byzantine Empire shifted the focus away from the ‘Roman’ world to locations as far east as China, but revolutions of people in these areas would play into the fortunes of Constantinople. Also playing into fate of Byzantine was the barbarian Christian West that the Emperors called for aid not only from kings but the Pope as well. Unfortunately the resulting Crusades and mercenary arms that went East would inflict a mortal wound to the Empire in 1204 thus beginning a centuries long death spiral that only lasted as long as it did because of internal revolutions with the growing Ottoman Empire until 1453. This dreary recounting of the end of Byzantium is mirrored by Gibbon in his recounting of the history of the city of Rome itself throughout the Middle Ages until the fall of the New Rome in the East.

This finale volume of Gibbon’s life consuming work revealed the struggle of the Eastern Empire of Byzantium to continue against a succession of Islamic powers and its ultimate demise thus completing the fall of the Roman Empire. Yet in retelling the eventual fall of Constantinople, Gibbon paints a huge picture for the reader about how events both near and far away from the Bosporus affected the fortunes for both good and ill of the New Rome. And in recounting the history of the city of Rome throughout the Middle Ages, a reader sheds a tear with Gibbon about the loss of the monuments of both Republic and Empire due to the necessity or vanity of the people of Rome after for the fall of the Western Empire.

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Centuries of Change: Which Century Saw the Most Change and Why it Matters to Us

Centuries of Change: Which Century Saw the Most Change and Why it Matters to UsCenturies of Change: Which Century Saw the Most Change and Why it Matters to Us by Ian Mortimer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Throughout the later part of 1999, many programs were dedicated to showing the impressive change in the 20th Century over any other time in the previous 1000 years. Author Ian Mortimer thought this was presumptuous and decided to research to find which century of Western civilization in the previous millennium saw the most change. In Centuries of Change Mortimer presents the fruits of over decade worth of research to general audience.

From the outset of the book Mortimer gives the reader the scope and challenge about defining and measuring change, especially when focusing in specific 100 year periods. Avoiding the cliché answers of bright, shiny objects and larger-than-life historical figures from the get go, Mortimer looked for innovations of cultural, political, societal, and technological significance that fundamentally changed the way people lived at the end of a given century than when it began. Throughout the process Mortimer would highlight those inventions or well-known historical individuals that defined those innovations of change which resulted positively or negatively on Western civilization. At the end of each chapter, Mortimer would summarize how the ‘changes’ he highlighted interacted with one another and which was the most profound in a given century and then identify an individual he believe was ‘the principle agent of change’.

The in-depth analysis, yet easily readable language that Mortimer wrote on each topic of change he highlighted was the chief strength of this book. The end of chapter conclusions and identification of an agent of change is built up throughout the entire chapter and shows Mortimer’s dedication to providing evidence for his conclusion. Whether the reader agrees or not with Mortimer, the reader at least knows why he came to those decisions. When coming to a decision about which century of the past millennium saw the most change at the end of the book, Mortimer’s explanation of the process in how he compared different periods of time and then the results of that process were well written and easily understandable to both general readers and those from a more scholarly background, giving the book a perfect flow of knowledge and thought.

Centuries of Change was geared for the general reading audience instead of a more academic one. While I do not think this is a negative for the book, it did allow for those editing the book as well as Mortimer in reexamining his text to miss several incorrect statements on events and personages that while minor do to missing a word or two, just added up over the course of the book.

While looking at the progression and development of Western civilization is always a challenging process, Ian Mortimer’s Centuries of Change gives readers glimpse of how different types of innovations impacted just a 100 year period of time. Very readable for general readers and a nice overall glimpse for more academic readers, this book is a thought-provoking glimpse in how human’s bring about change and responds to change.

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A Short History of Byzantium

A Short History of ByzantiumA Short History of Byzantium by John Julius Norwich
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

The fall of Constantinople in 1453 ended what the population always identified as the Roman Empire, but has become known as the Byzantine Empire that John Julius Norwich thought had been given a bad reputation in “the West”. In “A Short History of Byzantium” Norwich condensed his three-volume history of the Greek-flavored Roman Empire into a general history for those interested in history but do not have time for lengthy studies.

In covering almost 1200 years of history in about 400 pages, Norwich had to trim to the barebones of Byzantine history with only tidbits of detail that whet the appetite to want to know more for those interested. While frustration as it might be for those who want more than a “general history”, for those looking for just a straight-forward informative history this book is concise and lively written to keep you from falling asleep.

For those wondering if they should read Norwich’s three-volume history of Byzantium then this book will let you know the author’s writing style as well as make you want to purchase the multi-volume series. For those looking only for a concise history of a nearly 1200 year old empire this is a book for you.

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The Story of The Moors in Spain

The Story of the Moors in SpainThe Story of the Moors in Spain by Stanley Lane-Poole
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Though originally written and published over 125 years ago, The Story of the Moors in Spain by Stanley Lane-Poole is an quick, easy, and informative read.  Although the book is not up to the scholarship standards of today, Lane-Poole uses the sources at his disposal along folklore, traditional Spanish ballads, and romantic history written by Washington Irving to produce a most engaging book.  Lane-Poole always denoted in the text when he was going on either the folklore, ballads, or romantic history insertions for the reader as a way to bring history alive and when they were contrary to actual history he made note of it.

One of the biggest negatives of the book that one notices is that Lane-Poole engages in perpetuating the Black Legend that has tainted the perception of the Spanish since it’s creation.  At the beginning and ending of the text, Lane-Poole laments that the Spaniards decided to reject the civilization of the Islamic Moors for the backwardness of the Catholic (note I said Catholic not Christian) “crusaders” then points out certain incidents that prove his point.  To be fair to Lane-Poole, one can not use today’s standards to judge him and when a Christian showed “civilized” behavior and a Moor “uncivilized” he did point it out.  However, there was always the perception that these incidents were few and far between.

Even with this negative to the text, The Story of the Moors in Spain is an excellent way to begin learning about the Islamic period on the Iberian peninsula.  However this book should not be your last on the subject.

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The Making of Medieval Spain

The Making Of Medieval SpainThe Making Of Medieval Spain by Gabriel Jackson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Making of Medieval Spain is part of a larger series on European History of short, yet informational volumes written in the early 1970s. Even though the histriography is dated and the volume is less than 200 pages in length, Gabriel Jackson did an excellent job of giving the reader a clear view of the complex political and religious history of as well as giving an good insight of the cultural developments occuring in art and literature.

While I would have preferred a more detailed political and diplomatic history, but the insight into the cultural developments occuring during the period Jackson wrote about and tied to more recent artist and literatry styles was appreciated. Also at many places in the text, Jackson identified the beginnings of practices the Spanish would use in their American colonies. And in the last pages of the book looked at the elements in Spain at the end of the 15th-century that would be used by other, mostly Protestant, nations to create the Black Legend that has presisted in viewing of Spain and Spanish-influenced cultures and nations ever since.

Due to length and have to be general in everything, I can only give this book 3 stars. However it is a nice introduction to medieval Spain to be sure.

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The Legend of Bouvines: War, Religion, and Culture in the Middle Ages

The Legend of Bouvines: War, Religion and Culture in the Middle AgesThe Legend of Bouvines: War, Religion and Culture in the Middle Ages by Georges Duby

My rating: 2.5 of 5 stars

I bought Georges Duby’s The Legend of Bouvines to learn about the impact this battle had on the history of France. Duby’s does excellent work in bring out knowledge from the sources concerning the battle and giving an as accurate detail of the battle that he could. Duby’s also gives an account of the battle in the social and cultural, not just political, context that helps give the reader a full sense of how to view the battle.

However, while all those things are positives for the book, the major negative was how Duby’s structured his book from beginning to end. Duby’s chooses to begin his book with the actual battle itself with political background interlaced throughout the account. Then after the battle he starts shaping the social and cultural worlds in which the historical players came from then referring back to sections of the battle a particular point can be shown in action. It wasn’t until the end of the book which Duby’s then discussed the “Legend” of this battle to conclude his book.

While all the information that Duby’s research and prose brought forward was excellent, it lost a lot of it’s impact with how he decided to give structure to his text. Whether it is because the time at which this book was published (1973) or the historiographical conventions of the French, I do not know, but many days to found myself losing concentration on the text. I can only recommend this book to more academically inclined historians.

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Empress Matilda: Queen Consort, Queen Mother and Lady of the English

Empress Matilda: Queen Consort, Queen Mother and Lady of the EnglishEmpress Matilda: Queen Consort, Queen Mother and Lady of the English by Marjorie Chibnall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had heard of The Anarchy before reading this book, and I knew the cliffnotes version of the battle between Stephen and Matilda for the English Crown.  However it wasn’t until I read The Empress Matilda that I got a fuller view of the conflict and the woman who was central to the conflict.

Marjorie Chibnall used impressive research to write an easy to read biography of the mother of the Plantagenet dynasty, who for a time was also the crowned Empress(-consort) of the Holy Roman Empire.  Chibnall’s attempted to give the reader a full view of Matilda and her actions, though soon speculation is offered due to the lack of sources surrounding a particular event Chibnall does does offer evidence based on previously presented sources.

Overall this is an good biography and I recommend it.

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