Sunday, July 5, 2020

Books That Matter: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Yesterday, I finished listening to the Great Courses lecture series, Books That Matter: The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire presented by Professor Leo Damrosch of Harvard (I listen to audiobooks while I exercise!).  Although Professor Damrosch summarizes the content of the actual volumes, he is more focused on analyzing the lifestyle and Enlightenment thinking of Edward Gibbon and those he associated with as he wrote the great work.  As a rather impoverished member of Britain's aristocracy, Gibbon apparently thought aristocrats both in ancient Rome and in his late 18th century homeland should be entitled to a life without the drudgery of manual labor so they could explore and discuss ideas and study the writings of other great thinkers as well as the cultures of the past.

I have heard Gibbon frequently criticized by modern historians but Professor Damrosch makes it clear that Gibbon's research was meticulous and he did not shy away from conflicts in religion or fail to salute those individuals of the past that clearly excelled in their endeavors.  One of his main blindspots, though, (according to Damrosch) was Gibbon's dislike of the Byzantine period and his disregard for most of the Byzantine emperors who he described as "feckless" with the exception of Justinian.  I noticed, though, that he did not appear to have addressed the jealous rivalry between Belisarius and Theodora and seems to have welcomed the writings of Procopius as a reliable source. Although Procopius appears to be accurate during his early years on campaign with Belisarius, his later "Secret History" describes such ridiculous events as the emperor's head being able to disassociate itself from his body and float through the halls of the palace in Constantinople.  Maybe one of these days I'll have time to read Procopius in its entirety and I'll try to determine at what point in the narrative he sort of "runs off the rails."  (The hazard of reading for research purposes is that you usually only read the portion of a work that pertains to your inquiry and not the work in its entirety!)

Damrosch also thinks Gibbon was a bit too dismissive of religion in general and the internicene conflicts within the Christian church in particular.  Damrosch said Gibbon essentially attributes the decline and fall of the Roman Empire to barbarian incursions and the "triumph" of religion (not in a positive way). Some scholars call Gibbon an atheist but he was actually more of a theist who simply didn't ascribe to the myriad of divine relationships  identified by various religious sects. Gibbon was far more comfortable explaining events as much as possible by the actions of influential individuals and  factual evidence, as far as can be determined from reliable ancient sources, not by attributing anything to the vagaries of divine preference or will.

Gibbon lived in a time before archaeology was developed into a procedural discipline so his only sources were ancient records, many fragmentary at best. So, obviously, Gibbon may have interpreted some events differently if he had access to some of the analysis of remains we have today.  But, all in all, Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, is considered a masterpiece of both history and literature, and a worthy monument to the twenty years Gibbon spent in this endeavor.
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