Friday, July 25, 2014

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Final Review

As I have always been fascinated by the Ancient Rome, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire seems to be a required reading for me. And indeed, I have always been curious about the cause of Roman’s fall. It is tragic to think that the most civilized portion of mankind could possibly end in such a great ruin. It would be interesting to know, in what point exactly the decline began. Gibbon’s history on this subject has been published in three volumes for thirteen years, but the copy I read for History Reading Challenge 2014 is the abridged version. And now I’m so glad I have picked it in the first place!

Gibbon opened the story with Pax Romana (an era of stability and prosperity of the Empire) which was brought firstly by Augustus. Augustus’ reign was the beginning of Roman Empire, after 500 years of being a Republic. He set the Principate, the ideological foundation of the Empire (strengthening civic life, economic, cultural, legal, and religions). During the first two centuries Roman people lived in peace and prosperity, until the reign of the Antonines. Commodus could perhaps be pointed out as the culprit of Roman’s descent due to his capricious character. Later on Severus conversed from the Principate to military monarchy, a first sign, I think, of the end of the stability era.

After that Diocletian appointed Maximian as co-emperor and two others as junior co-emperors; thus shared the Empire in a tetrarchy. It was the first version of Western-Eastern division of Rome. Constantine then moved the capital of Rome to the east, Constantinopel. He was also the first Emperor who converted to Christian, and thus the vast establishment of Christianity. But it was Theodosius who later made Christian as official state religion. The definitive separation of Roman Empire took place during Valentinian’s reign. He retained the Western Rome, and trusted the Eastern to his brother Valens. The Western Rome fell completely after series of attacks from the Barbarians in 476 AD, during the reign of Agustulus.

The most famous emperor of the Byzantine Empire (the Eastern Rome) was Justinian, who shared his throne with his wife Theodora. He tried to renew the Roman Empire with several conquests, but it appeared to weaken it instead. In the meantime, and along the slow descent of the great empire, there were the rises of some sects (Paulicians and Manichean); Mahomet with his new religion (Islam); the increasing power of the Ottoman Empire (the Turks); and at last the Crusades and the besiege of Constantinopel. Finally, 1453 AD marked the fall of Byzantine Empire, the last remnant of once the greatest civilization ever existed on earth.

To me, this book is a very long journey, and sometimes it felt too tedious (and this is the abridged version, don’t forget!) Maybe it’s just me who is not familiar with history, but I think Gibbon has often painstakingly overstretched the history coverage. For instance, he wrote very detailed story about Christianity as religion, or the character of Mahomet as a prophet. I mean, this is about Rome, and although I know that Christianity and Mahomet both had great influence in the decline and fall of Rome, we didn’t need to learn about them so deeply it made you sometimes think you are studying a history of the Church.

But apart from that, I loved Gibbon’s beautiful poetic style to write this history, making the serious topic became quite entertaining. Although I think Gibbon had skepticism with him when Christianity was concerned, while I believe a historian should be neutral. In the end Gibbon concluded that the decline and fall of Roman Empire was influenced by so many different circumstances. First, it was the weakness of her own (Roman) Emperors; then the rise and establishment of Christian and Islam; the Crusades; and the rise of the Barbarians, the Saracens, and the Turks.

After reading this, I still believe that Rome should stick on being Republic instead of becoming Monarchy. The disadvantage of Monarchy is the entire kingdom is in one’s hand. And quite often the Emperor is not capable to handle it. Especially for Rome which was at the time Augustus ruled has been too large. By being Republic, at least the Consul did not rule by himself, there are the Senate and the Tribune. Of course there are several weaknesses in Roman Republic as I have learned from Cicero’s biography by Antony Everitt, and even with ambitious men like Julius Caesar every now and then, I think Roman Republic is still better than Monarchy, as long as they did not fall into the hand of a dictator or tyrant. By the way, I still also think that Julius Caesar is the culmination point of Roman’s greatness. Yes, Roman would see a Pax Romana later, but Caesar’s reign was the crucial point; it was him who opened the way of a Monarchy.

Anyway, as Gibbon has said: “Instead of inquiring why the Roman empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it had subsisted so long.” And that is so true. The fall of Roman, after so long of dominating the world, would have come in any time anyway. The world needs a revolution from ancient to modern, and I think Roman—Republic and Empire—have provided us with valuable legacy on almost every aspects of life.

Three and a half stars for The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire!


I read Penguin Classics edition

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Thursday, July 24, 2014

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: The Three Level of Inquiries

Grammar-Stage Reading

Does the writer state his purpose for writing?

As the copy I read is the abridged edition, Gibbon did not speak much in his Preface. But from first chapter, I gather that he would like to deduce how such an empire as Roman (the fairest part of the earth and the most civilized portion of mankind) could have declined and finally fallen. It is something that all nations will remember; probably the most extreme revolution that ever happened?

What are the major events of the history?

Click the image to bring you the the complete list of events.

Who is this story about?

It is about an empire; but since Roman was once the largest territory including Asia, Africa, and Europe, and the most civilized portion of mankind, this history is actually the history of mankind. It is also a story about our religions.

Who or what causes this challenge?

There are several causes that work together; the incapable emperors, the threat of the conquered provinces/tribes (Barbarian, Goths, German, Persian, etc), and the rising of both religions: Christian and Islam.

Logic-Stage Reading

Look for the historian’s major assertions

The cause of the decline and fall of Roman Empire is very complex; it involves almost the whole human civilization and its circumstances, and they are all connected each other. The single power of the monarchs is the first cause, then the rise of the barbarian nations, and even the establishment of Christian and Islam religions, as well the reign of their leaders. So, perhaps, Roman history has brought the biggest influence over the history of our mankind.

Rhetoric-Stage Reading

What is the purpose of history?

With The Decline and Fall, Gibbon wanted to connect the ancient and modern history of the world.

What does it mean to be human?

The Roman Empire could be powerful for so long (and in so large territory) because of their qualified values: dignity, discipline, and valour.

Why do things go wrong?

With all the expansions, the Republic of Rome became very large. But then, Julius Caesar, with his great ambition, proclaimed the first triumvirate, and after the bloody civil war, Roman became an Empire, with one Caesar (Augustus) to lead the whole nation. Then came Pax Romana; but with the prosperity came the lack of discipline in Rome. And when they were weakening, their enemies got stronger.


Friday, July 11, 2014

My Personal Readathon #3: Idul Fitri Holiday 2014

In my country, Indonesia, Idul Fitri is the biggest national holiday. This year, we would have nine days holiday, from 26th July to 3rd August (yay!), and so, I think it would be a perfect time for another (long) personal readathon…

There are two books which I am very excited to read from my August schedule:

The first one is obvious, because it’s another Zola! :) But the second book would be my first encounter with Edith Wharton. Like Zola, she was a naturalist, so, it will be very interesting to read them one after the other.

Right now I am in the middle of Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of Roman Empire and Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, but I think I would have finished both before the holiday. As Zola’s The Debacle would be my first choice for the readathon, I might start it earlier, if I have finished my present reading before the 26th. I don’t have any reading target, and will just enjoy the readings; I’m so… excited!

What about you? Will you be on holiday too at the last week of July? Are you planning on having a personal readathon?

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Classics Club’s July Meme: Biography on Classic Authors

The question for July's meme is: 

Have you ever read a biography on a classic author? If so, tell us about it. If you had already read works by this author, did reading a biography of his/her life change your perspective on the author’s writing? Why or why not?

I am not a biography fan, so I have not read much of it. But I was really interested in Dickens’ life, particularly in his love affair with Nelly Ternan. I felt like there were two different personalities in Dickens which I’d like to know more. However, instead of reading Claire Tomalin’s biography on Charles Dickens, I picked her The Invisible Woman, which is Nelly Ternan’s biography. Maybe I thought seeing Dickens from Nelly’s perspective would be more interesting….and honest.

Reading it changed my thoughts about Dickens personalities, which I have been gathering from his writings all these times. Now I see him just as a imperfect human being who can make mistakes. He had principles, and he knew what’s right and wrong, but like us, he could not resist the temptation.

Did it change my perspective on his writings? It did, but in a positive way. Now that I know Dickens better, my thoughts towards conflicts and characters in his books change a bit. And whenever I read about some cases, I might think to myself, could they be influenced by a certain experience in his life? Knowing Dickens better only makes me more related to his books, and makes the reading experience more familiar.

Now I am curious about Émile Zola’s biography: The Life and Times of Emile Zola by F.W.J. Hemmings. That will be the next biography of classics author I am going to read. How about you? Have you read any biography on Dickens and Zola? How about other authors’?

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

In honor of the late Maya Angelou—the honorable author, poet, and activist—who died on May 28, 2014, I decided to read her beautiful autobiography: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Really, before actually reading it, I have never realized that this book is really an autobiography of Maya Angelou, not just an autobiographical fiction. I just realized my fault when Marguerite told how her brother, who loved her so much, used to call her Maya (from Mya sister). It was then that I realized that is has been Maya Angelou herself who was telling her story.

Maya was only three years old when her parents divorced. They sent her and her big brother Bailey (four years old) to Stamps, Arkansas, by train, with only a porter to accompany them, to live with their grandmother. This journey (and the sense of abandonment) wounded both children. In Stamps, the grandmother, Annie Henderson, lived with her crippled son Willie (Uncle Willie). It was the two of them who raised Maya and Bailey. Momma Henderson (Maya’s appellation for her grandmother) ran the Store where the Blacks (mostly very poor cotton pickers) shopped their daily needs. Mrs. Henderson was a strong and respectable woman, and the way she maintained her dignity against the Whites’ insults was tremendous. During her life in Stamps, Maya witnessed the struggles as well as the bitter hopes of the Blacks amidst the Whites dominion. All these built the inferiority (if not hatred) in little Maya towards the Whites, although she almost never saw them in reality. She even felt guilty of having Shakespeare as her favorite author because of his whiteness.

When Maya was still nine or ten years old, her father came to Stamps and brought the brother and sister to St. Louis, to stay with their beautiful mother. One day Maya was raped by her mother’s boyfriend, and this changed her life completely. She became very quiet, and suddenly Maya grew much more mature than her age. I think Maya’s turning point optimism of being black was in her eight grade graduation, when Henry Reeds led the audience to sing Negro National Anthem with pride. It was then that Maya started to realize of her own value, as a Black, and as a human being. Her visit to her daddy’s home was another phase of Maya’s transformation, where she eventually found her own strength.

I liked this book from the first page; in fact, it did not feel like reading an autobiography at all. Maya Angelou was certainly a great story teller, and her way of re-telling her own bitter past was filled with hope and optimism, instead of condemnation or lamentation. As a title, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” offers a deeper meaning of Angelou’s sight of her people. I found an interesting article about this, which revealed that the title was taken from a poem by an African poet: Paul Laurence Dunbar—and it is a beautiful poem! When the world has not been free from prejudices and discrimination—even until now—what the oppressed must do is to maintain hope, and to keep in mind that as long as they think they are free, no one can snatch that from them.

A beautiful and inspiring reading indeed! Four stars for Maya Angelou!


I read Ballantine Books Mass Market edition

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