Enough writers I respect mention it, so I started reading “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, by Edward Gibbon. The title is not the Rise and Fall, it is the Decline and Fall, down hill all the way. And it is not a book. The original printing is a volume of books a yard long. Interestingly, the Google, Gutenberg and other electronic editions are poorly prepared. While in Ann Arbor, I could not afford an original printing, but I happened on the Great Books double volume. It appears to be the original text, but has very helpful maps and a great timeline in the index.
You hear a grand eloquent tone, re-meaning of words, and the sentencing. It is such a pleasure, I often read sentences out loud. I imagine James Mason intonating in his airy reserved voice:
In the second century of the Christian Aera, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind.
In writing about the principled four hundred year decline, Gibbon chronicles the rule of the occasionally good, but mostly snowballing horror of corruption in rulers, tyrannical emperors and their hideous children. The variations of decline include powerfully flawed characters, a maniacal laboratory of runs at governance, jealous rivalries that divide the land, murder as a way to power, locust-like riots that leave empty thrones. The continued root cause is the failure to establish rule of law in the face of the unmanageable and immoral military rule by terror. A repeated pattern is of the gifted ambitious honorable soldier who learns the way to become a corrupt powerful Praetorian. Through military attacks on his capital he destroys any possible hope of a sustaining a Roman civilization. Occupation after the victory results in surrounding throngs of the suspicious and the envious defeated. Everyone gets their revenge in the end. Rome’s own military divides the nation, generation after generation. You watch generations of original vigorous productive people succumb to the heavy corrupt rulings that sap output through a national method of ownership. This comes through forcible theft or official demands for tribute and taxation.
Gibbon produced the Decline in 1776. He sat in the English Parliament neutral on the American Revolution. You cannot help but wonder that he wrote about the character failures of men and women, government, economy, and military as suggestions to the King. THOFTDAFOTRE seems parenthetical to the unwinding British Empire. Consider the broad histories of civilization. Military vs State (Rome); Church vs State (W. Europe); Business vs State (United States). When one complex dictates governance a people become stunted and may not long endure.
The Decline and Fall. What a TV Show. If ever there were a premise for a Sitcom, the plots and cast have that winning quality of bizarreness and inconceivability. Does anyone sit and snack on generations of ambition and pitiful failure? A morality play per emperor. Fun for the family. Romans rule. If you ever thought Homer Simpson’s family was dysfunctional come take the transcendental bus to Roma. Dysfunctionality, idiocy and ruin, the best show in the Television kingdom. With such an onslaught of devastation it is hard to rise above it all to know where mankind must recede next.
Gibbon often has this Highlights for Children, Goofus and Gallant, bad boy and good boy, way of characterizing the stories of obscure emperors. The personalities are richly defined and he writes in a voice that let’s you distance yourself from the action and make human conclusions. It is inspirational, in an academic way. Just needs a hack or two for a har har.
PS – Best ecopy so far is free for your IPAD in EPUB form at http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/25717