Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (published in six volumes between 1776 and 1788) must rank among the best known of unread or partly read books. At over 3,000 pages it is written in the sometimes convoluted style of the eighteenth century and lingers over details which mean little now to most readers, not least disputes over the nature of the Holy Trinity. Yet this Everest of a book asks to be scaled and in the end retirement offered me leisure and the necessary oxygen to make the attempt.
Four months of page-turning were amply rewarded, thanks to Gibbon’s native wit and irony which make light work of his evidently serious theme. The opening paragraph itself entices the reader in with the author’s trademark tone of amused scepticism at the foibles of human nature. At its height during the second century AD , he writes, the Empire ‘comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind’ where the ‘peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury’ – a typical pairing (‘enjoyed and abused’) of contrasting terms which tell you that this author commands judgement but also detachment. Only three pages in, British readers find their own land on stage. Gibbon notes that the latest imperial acquisition was the province of Britain ‘after a war of about forty years, undertaken by the most stupid [Claudius], maintained by the most dissolute [Nero], and terminated by the most timid of all the emperors [Domitian]’. The Roman conquest was made easier, notes Gibbon in a remark which may apply beyond the period in question, by the behaviour of the various British tribes who ‘possessed valour without conduct, and the love of freedom without the spirit of union’. Our mountain guide, though taking us over challenging ground, does so with a sense of humour.
Gibbon’s vast narrative has been justly described as the bridge between the ancient
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