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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