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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The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Modern Library Volume 1 of 3)

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 1The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 1 by Edward Gibbon

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The first volume of Modern Library’s three-volume reprint of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire covers the first 26 chapters of the author’s epic historical work. Beginning with the death of Domitian and ending with Theodosius I’s treaty with the Goths and early reign, Gibbon’s spans nearly 300 years of political, social, and religious history on how the great empire of antiquity slowly began to fade from the its greatest heights.

The history of the decline of Rome actually begins by showing the nearly century long period of rule of the “Five Good Emperors” as Gibbon shows the growth of absolute power of the Principate was governed by able and intelligent men. With succession of Commodus Gibbon illustrated what the power of the Principate would do for an individual who was a corrupt and tyrannical ruler. Gibbon’s then examines the political and military fallout of the death of Commodus with the declaration of five emperors in less than a year and rise of the Severan dynasty by conquest. Gibbon reveals underlining causes of era of the ‘Barracks Emperors’ and what historians call, “the Crisis of the Third Century”.

With the ascension of Diocletian and through him the rise of the House of Constantine, Gibbon explores the political and bureaucratic reforms began and developed that would eventually divide the empire in his view. After Constantine’s rise to sole emperor, Gibbon then delves into the early history of Christianity before its adoption by the founder of Constantinople. Beginning with Constantine, the last half of this particular volume as the history and theological developments of Christianity as a central narrative as one of the contributing factors of the decline of the Roman Empire.

Although the description above might make one pause at starting the heavy work, Gibbon’s style and prose make history come alive with every word and gives the reader a sense of the grand scale of historical forces while not overwhelming them. While every reader will have their own verdict on if Gibbon’s arguments and interruptions of history are correct, each avid history lover will find this opening volume of Gibbon’s magnum opus an engaging beginning in examining how one of the foundation stones of Western Civilization came to its political end while passing on its laws and culture to Europe.

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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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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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