Thoughts on “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”

So, I managed to finish a version of “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” by Edward Gibbon that was abridged by Hugh Trevor-Roper. I found that I really struggled to read the book, so much so that I ended up treating reading it like I was reading something for a course: I read about a chapter a day, and read other things in my more general reading time. This is not how I generally read history books. And all of this is despite the fact that I am in general interested in the Roman Empire. So what was it that so bored me about that book?

I think the main issue is that the books doesn’t really seem to have a focus. Gibbon uses lots of florid and evocative language and a lot of descriptive asides, which is not a bad thing, as long as we have a context for it. But Gibbon doesn’t seem to be just writing a descriptive narrative, telling us what happened in roughly chronological order, where we can see the asides as things that happen to come up in that discussion. He doesn’t even always follow a chronological order. However, he also doesn’t seem to have an overall thesis that he’s trying to convince us of, such as giving an explanation for why the Roman Empire fell that he is trying to prove, where we can see the asides as the details of things that we need to know to understand in order to see how the events fit into his thesis. So the descriptive asides are too long and detailed to be simply ignored as asides, but don’t seem to serve either the narrative of the events themselves or the overall thesis of the work. Because of that, I think I kept wondering why they were there and so felt that they were out of place and distracting from the book itself. If I was interested in what the asides were describing, it went better, but still the book really did seem to drag at times, which is why I enjoyed it more when I limited how much I was reading it.

My opinion is that the book would work well as a textbook, but not as a book that is just read. The descriptions and language mostly work, but what it lacks is the context to keep the descriptions interesting. As a textbook, the teacher/professor and the structure of the course would provide the context and allow the reader to skip over things that don’t add to the context they’re exploring. Trying to do this yourself for the entire work is far too difficult, especially since the events described might not fit what you’re interested in and so you’d be constantly struggling to find some meaning in what you’re reading, which is, well, pretty much what happened to me, actually.

I don’t regret reading the book, but I am very happy that I’ve finished it and am almost certainly never going to read it again.

One Response to “Thoughts on “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire””

  1. Thoughts on “The Storm of War” | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] “The Storm of War” by Andrew Roberts. In a way, his book is directly comparable to Gibbon’s “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, since it seems to recount WWII in a similar way, and with at least a potentially similar dual […]

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