The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Summarising Gibbon’s full, unabridged “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” is a little bit intimidating. Nearly as intimidating as the books themselves. It’s essential though. If I read a book but don’t reflect on it then I might as well have never opened the cover. Here’s my attempt at a summary, comparatively brief but longer than average, promoted to a blog post and comments welcome.

In a sense, Gibbon’s book is terribly titled. While it does cover the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, that historical thread rapidly fractals into dozens more. The assembly of historical persons is dizzying. Take Photius. Until reading Decline and Fall, I had never heard of him. Realistically, I never will again. A captain of the guards in the 9th century, he gets a half-dozen mentions in a few paragraphs that delineate his brief stint as Patriarch of Constantinople. One small part of Christianity’s multi-century journey towards the East/West schism.

And so a better title might begin “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the Rise of Christianity, the Development of Islam, the Rise of the Franks, the Rise of the Saracens, the Invasion of Genghis Khan, the Battle for Turkey, the Battle in Turkey, …” and then continue from there. Because Decline and Fall is nothing if not encyclopaedic. It is more than four times longer than Game of Thrones. In fact, it’s total length is greater than Game of Thrones, Silmarilion, the Hobbit, the Lord of the Rings, the Foundation series and Clarke’s 200x novels. It has a lot of meat on the bone.

At one level, the DAF (you know what I mean) can be read as nothing more than a history of events. Actually, it is that, the first significant example of a history backed up by primary texts. In covering the fall of the Roman empire it necessarily covers much else. But looking just at the events is a very limited reading and the reader can also ask why.  Why did the Roman empire, so dominant, fall?

Gibbon suggests a number of reasons. Foremost among them: the domestic quarrels of the Romans and the hostile attacks of the Barbarians and the Christian’s (his phrasing, not mine!). To this, and focused more on the decline and fall of the city of Rome itself, he adds two more reasons in chapter 71. I’ll leave those aside.

A recurring theme throughout the first half millenia or so was the power of the Praetorian Guard, the emperor’s personal guard, in picking the next emperor. It was recurring, because their influence was recurring. The importance and difficulty of leadership transition underpins this focus, and it is an issue he wrestles with more widely – relations, a people’s character and how it changes, a willingness to fight. “Those who renounce the sword must relinquish the sceptre.”

Yet he also recognises that change is not driven solely by the individual. Indeed, the several Crusades are striking examples of the irrepressible power of popular opinion. And how other’s may profit from it, as the Venetian’s Doge did in providing the Crusader’s with transport. So long as they besieged the troublesome Hungarian King’s Adriatic cities first.

I’ll add some broader observations below, but as I read over my notes and reflect on DAF a little bit more I come to a Buddhist conclusion. The Roman empire did fall, but it also did not.

On the one hand, the Roman empire, ruler of all the civilized world from Britain to Persia and Germany to Egypt, lost that influence, was invaded. Rome was sacked at least twice and more if you have a slopier definition. Diocletion might have done much to restore the empire after “the bad emperors”, but in dividing the imperacy amongst himself and three others, then retiring, he also weakened it greatly and condemned it to centuries of civil strife. Having defeated the external enemies within reach, Rome turned on itself.

Yet, while individuals did not always pass on power to their descendants, and while in fact the centre of power moved many times, it is also clear that Rome did not fall.  It was merely transformed – into Christianity, the Holy Roman Empire, the papacy. And the Renaissance. Indeed, as late as the 11th century AD and more than 600 years after the last Roman Emperor had ruled Europe from Rome, the inhabitants of Constantinople still commonly described themselves as Romans.

And all this makes me think about the world I live in today. On a time scale of centuries, and with technology driving change faster and faster, how important is Brexit? What is the significance of the simmering conflict between the West and Russia, between North Korea and everyone else, between ISIL and everyone else? And what will happen to Africa in the 21st century? Maybe none of it matters. Maybe all of it matters more than we could ever imagine. Or maybe both of these points are simultaneously the truth.

Which brings me back to the big long game when I was least expecting it. Or perhaps that’s too much. Since we’re only talking centuries and the European world maybe it’s only the medium long game. Regardless, if there is anything that DAF makes clear it is that long term history is unpredictable. All one can do is what seems best right now. And in a strangely circular loop, reflecting on Marcus Aurelius and Gibbon’s concern with the fading character and integrity of the Roman people, maybe all you can do is be the best person you can. Epictetus would be proud.

As noted above, such a broad survey of so much history allows patterns to emerge. With some reflection, implicit ideas show their shape. I’m sure I would learn more from another reading, but here’s what else I took away:

  • The problem of transition is very difficult – it’s because after the transition is complete you have no power to enforce it (or are dead, whether as expected or somewhat prematurely). Family is one way of solving this problem, but your offspring may not be as grateful as you’d like
  • The Three Estates is a medieval concept – the nobles, the clergy, the peasants. In Rome I think there were four estates – the political leadership, the religious leadership, the military and everyone else
  • Rome’s standing army was essential to its success, but also a powerful corrupting influence. Superficially, it seems like the Western world has solved this problem, or at least displaced it onto companies that are, to a greater or lesser extent, owned by the citizenry (“the military-industrial complex”). Institutions, technology and culture which support accurate sharing of information are probably essential to this
  • A note I took, the context is lost: “Revenge is profitable, gratitude is expensive”. There should be some condition on the first clause at least!
  • Constantine struggled somewhat after he came to power, he got traction only when he created physical, temporal and attentional space for himself and the Roman citizens to act in
  • It’s also very hard to set up incentives correctly. For example, Constantine tried to make the judiciary more impartial by disallowing governors to be from their assigned province, disallowing marriage with someone from the province or disallowing assets purchases their – but it didn’t work
  • How leaders appear is critical for the success of their reign, a point echoed repeatedly by the Dictator’s Handbook. Constantine used his Christian alignment to foment rebellion and dissent amongst the Christian’s who lived in provinces controlled by his rivals
  • What is acceptable changes with the generations. For a long time the emperor was never described as dominus, master, but then it became common

What do you think?

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