The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. 1 (1877)The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. 1 by Edward Gibbon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have this book in a Victorian copy inherited from my great-grandfather, one of the only books left from such a long time ago, mostly Dutch Bibles. I’ve thought about reading it since I was in high school–this looming, solid, six-volume set of reddish-brown books, the spine reading only “GIBBON’S ROME”. Finally this spring I finished The Dispossessed, which I really hated (many of you may wish to discount the following review on that basis) and I was feeling disgruntled, because I had thought I would love it. I said to myself, “I want to read something really good and really long,” and as I looked over my shelves, one thing presented itself to me above all the others: ROME. So far, I’ve read the first volume, that is, Chapters I through XX, covering the Empire up to the early career of Julian the Apostate. I’ll read some other books in between volumes, but I plan on reading the whole thing.

Because this book is truly amazing. I was surprised how readable it is–compared to even some later books, like Carlyle’s French Revolution (which I also love), it read as smoothly as an airport-rack thriller. Gibbon is usually clear and always entertaining. Even when he’s not snarking, practically every sentence has some choice of words or turn of phrase which is surprising and delightful. And when he’s snarking, there is simply no one better: “Twenty-two acknowledged concubines, and a library of sixty-two thousand volumes attested the variety of his inclinations; and from the poductions which he left behind him, it appears that the former as well as the latter were designed for use rather than for ostentation.” Or: “Virtue, or the appearance of virtue, recommended Albinus to the confidence and good opinion of Marcus; and his preserving with the son the same interest which he had acquired with the father, is a proof at least that he was possessed of a very flexible disposition.” But once you start quoting Gibbon, you never want to stop.

It’s true that my interest did flag at some points, but it was not really the fault of Gibbon, but rather the repetitive nature of Roman history–emperor after emperor being crowned by the army, then killed. Anyone who reads a very long book finds some kind of handholds to latch onto when their attention fails them. One reader (here?) kept track of the use of “rapine”; I kept my eye out for a favorite Gibbonian construction, “that {adjective} {noun}”, used to describe in passing something or someone previously mentioned. “That worthless minister”. “That crafty prince”. “That artful usuper”. “That imperfect species”. He even uses it in the notes, to refer to some of his sources: “That partial historian”. “That ignorant Greek”. “That contemptible author”. And my favorite, “That philosophical compiler”.

My edition was edited by Rev. H.H. Milman, a Victorian historian, who frequently borrows the notes of a French translator of Gibbon, a M. Guizot, who himself apparently borrowed some of the notes from the German edition by Wenck. This leads to a sort of amazingly postmodern feeling of conversation, indeed bickering, in the footnotes–almost like a comment thread on a blog or Facebook. At first I was baffled by Milman’s decision to include these notes translated from translations, but in the infamous chapters on Christianity, the reason became clear. Gibbon (to the Victorian reader) is the condescending skeptic, Guizot is the fiery zealot, and Milman is the voice of moderation finding the reasonable center. Generally to the modern ear Gibbon comes out the best (overall Gibbon can be astonishingly modern, though of course just as often full of the prejudices of his time), but I found these notes to be an interesting and valuable addition. I’m sure there are many errors of fact which I didn’t learn, not having modern notes, but then I wasn’t really reading to learn, but enjoy Gibbon’s prose and knowledge.

And Gibbon is one of those authors who seem to know everything. Not only about Rome, in both a vast macro scale and on the level of entertaining and amusing anecdotes, but about the Early Church, the Goths, Zoroastrianism, writers of every kind. I’m looking forward to seeing what more he’s got up his sleeve–five volumes more.

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