Chronicles of Empire

“I have not read all of the books in the English language, but of such as I have read, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall is far and away the most readable.”—Hilaire Belloc

Belloc celebrates Edward Gibbon as one of the masters of English prose, though he is highly critical of him as an historian. Indeed it is hard not to be impressed by these opening lines:

In the second century of the Christian Era, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valor. The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury…. During a happy period of more than fourscore years, the public administration was conducted by the virtue and abilities of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the two Antonines.

Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, in the modern edition, fills three volumes amounting to over 3,500 pages. It is not a work I would tackle its entirety (except perhaps in retirement). Fortunately, I have an older Penguin Classics abridgement, edited by Dero Saunders, which trims Gibbon’s chronicle down to just a fifth of the original.* There is something to be said for judicious selections as they provide the reader an opportunity of sampling a classic that might otherwise go untouched given the imposing size of the complete work.

In the early chapters the author informs us that the “principal conquests of the Romans were achieved under the republic,” from Spain and Gaul in the west, to the German frontiers in the north, to Asia Minor, Syria-Palestine and Eygpt in the east, and Libya and Mauritania in the south. The first emperor, Augustus, set an important precedent of setting a limit to ambition, beyond which, says Gibbon, Rome “had much less to hope than to fear from the chance of arms.” In a witty turn of phrase, Gibbon adds that “Happily for the repose of mankind, the moderate system recommended by the wisdom of Augustus, was adopted by the fears and vices of his immediate successors.”

One cannot help but think that these observations were an oblique warning to the leaders of contemporary of England against overextending the boundaries of Pax Britannica, especially since the first volume went to press in 1776, at a time when the American colonies were asserting their independence. As I delve further into Gibbon’s masterpiece, I hope to comment on it future posts.

* In 2001 a new one volume version was issued by Penguin, edited by David P. Womersley.

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