What was the greatest empire the world has seen? Britannia ruling the waves, carrying capitalism and the Maxim gun to every corner of the world? The Mongols conquering city after city after flooding out of the steppe? Perhaps the modern American empire, a hidden one that has fostered globalization and secured (for now) the preeminence of the almighty dollar and American banking system?
No. The British voluntarily surrendered their empire, the Mongols were brutal savages that destroyed rather than built, and the American Empire of greed and debauchery has, in recent decades, spread only destruction and a degenerate culture.
But the Roman Empire, the subject of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, that one might deserve the title.
Seeing paintings or modern cinematic renditions of the Roman Eagles, emblazoned with the famous S.P.Q.R. and carried forward by legionnaires marching forward in lockstep as they triumph over the barbarians, fills every heroic soul with a sense of glory and majesty.
The extent of the Empire was awe-inspiring, not just because of its total acreage but because the Romans spread their culture and language to every corner of it; the pillars of Palmyra are little different from the pillars of Pompei and the legions that fought and died in Gaul fought, at the Empire’s height, for the same glorious empire that was defended in Dacia, Caledonia, and along the Euphrates.
Roman towns spanned Brittania, Hispania, Egypt, and Asia Minor, the architecture always being excellent and showing Roman superiority. Who today could build the aqueducts, the Pantheon, or the Colleseum by hand? Today, our roads don’t even have the staying power of the Via Appia! What the Romans built they built to last for millennia, not months.
Roman citizens could travel the empire without worrying about marauders or tyrannical soldiers, merchants could sail the Meditteranean without fearing pirates, and the great estates of the Senators and the small farms of the freeholders and veterans were free from being ravaged by barbarian bands.
As Gibbon describes it:
“If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus. The vast extent of the Roman empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of virtue and wisdom. The armies were restrained by the firm but gentle hand of four successive emperors, whose characters and authority commanded involuntary respect. The forms of the civil administration were carefully preserved by Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the Antonines, who delighted in the image of liberty, and were pleased with considering themselves as the accountable ministers of the laws.
It was the happiest period in the history of humankind, a time when the civilized world was at peace but full of opportunities for glory, guided and governed by philosopher kings, defended by well-disciplined and highly effective armies, and more prosperous than at any time before.
But then, after a long period of decline, it was snuffed out. The bright light of civilizations that the Romans lit centuries before Christ was blown out by a bearded barbarian centuries after his death and the world was plunged into darkness, not fully recovering for over a millennium. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire tells the story of why that bright light of civilization and glory was extinguished.
Summary of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon
Totaling about ~12,000 pages, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is far too long to fully summarize here. While I would love to describe the profligacy of Commodus, the campaigns of Justinian, and the temporary revival brought by Constantine and Julian, I must, in the interest of your time, refrain from doing so and instead give a more generalized summary.
At its core, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is a history of Europe. While ostensibly about the fall of Rome, Gibbon’s extensive research and writing make it about far more; rather than ending with the reign of Romulus Augustus and the barbarian sack of Rome in 473, Gibbon continues his work, showing the reader how Rome’s former territories developed under Ostrogoth and Visigoth rule, how Charlemagne united much of the West and the Byzantines slowly lost, after the death of Justinian, bits and pieces of the East until their final death in 1453 at the hands of the Ottoman Turks.
If you read all six of Gibbon’s extensive volumes, you’ll learn about each of the Roman Emperors, many of the Byzantine emperors, and much of what happened across the former territories of the Romans when they fell. You’ll learn about the rise of Christianity, the history of Islam, the inner working of the Parthian Empire, and how Christendom first attempted to stop the rise of Islam with the Crusades and then fought internally with the sack of Constantinople during the 4th Crusade. You’ll learn about the virtues and vices of the emperors, discovering which were weak, sniveling servants of the eunuchs and which were brave men that reformed a collapsing, broken system and defended a crumbling empire in the field. Tales of virtue and prudence are a welcome reprieve from the constant discussions of avarice and perfidy.
But, most of all, beyond the history and biographies, you’ll learn about why the Roman Empire fell. After telling all he can about the history of Rome and the areas that were its territories, Gibbon tells why the empire collapsed. Those four reasons are:
- The injuries of time and nature– these injuries being the constant wear and tear on a sytem resulting from centuries upon centuries of use.
- The hostile attacks of the barbarians and Christians– the Goths and other German tribes invaded, causing extensive damage and costing the Empire vast sums of blood and treasure. Meanwhile, Christian sects, in their fights against both the pagans and “heretics” caused internal strife, a decay in military morale, inefficiencies in civil and military establishments, and much bloodshed.
- The use and abuse of the materials– emperors and their ministers wasted away the Empire’s treasury on games, palaces, and luxury. Rather than being faithful stewards of the taxes taken in by the state, they viewed their subjects as lemons to be squeezed.
- The domestic quarrels of the Romans– had the Romans not constantly led armies against each other, bickering over who would wear the purple, the barbarians never could have won. Whether it was the Praetorians massacring good emperors and replacing them with emperors that would satisfy their avarice or rival claimants to the purple leading legions against legions, the Romans weakneed themselves, thus allowing the barbarians to invade and eventually win.
All of those four causes stemmed from a common one: moral degeneration. In its heyday, the Roman Republic and Empire were governed by just, moral men that worked for similarly virtuous citizens. Augustus rebuilt the family unit, Cato the Elder defended virtue, and Marcus Aurelius was a philosopher-king that set the standard for his fellow Romans. But, as it declined, the empire was ruled by scheming eunuchs and vain emperors that lived in luxury reminiscent of Oriental despots. Those who donned the purple were no longer the Empire’s best, but rather its worst.
As a result, the subjects felt no need to defend their state. Oppressed as they were by degenerate tyrants, they’d rather suffer under the barbarians than die trying to defend themselves. As Gibbon says:
If such an institution, which gave the people an interest in their own government, had been universally established by Trajan or the Antonines, the seeds of public wisdom and virtue might have been cherished and propagated in the empire of Rome. The privileges of the subject would have secured the throne of the monarch the abuses of an arbitrary administration might have been prevented, in some degree, or corrected, by the interposition of these representative assemblies; and the country would have been defended against a foreign enemy by the arms of natives and freemen. Under the mild and generous influence of liberty, the Roman empire might have remained invincible and immortal.
And so, the empire gradually dissolved. First went the West, which fell under the repeated blows of barbarian invasions. Then, almost a thousand years later, all that was left of the dream that was Rome was the city of Constantinople, ruled by the last Roman Emperor, Constantine XI. He, in the glorious tradition of his best ancestors, ruled diligently and fought to the end, dying on his feet at the hands of the Ottomans rather than attempting to live on his knees. When Rome died, its emperor died as a Roman should, being proud and valiant rather than a sniveling coward. That is about where The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire ends.
My Thoughts on The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon
It’s incredibly painful to read The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. While the horrible stories of the cruelty, poor leadership, and greed of many of the emperors are horrible to read, they’re not the reason why. Rather, it’s knowing that the greatest civilization in the history of the world was snuffed out is.
Aquaducts brought clean water into Roman cities, giving them safe water to drink and bathe in for one of the few times in history. No European monarch, perhaps until the Napoleonic Wars, could build an army that rivaled the legions in size and discipline. Feudal lords were above the law and their peasants suffered in degrading poverty. Islam conquered much of Christendom, travel was, up until quite recently, never as safe as it had been under the good emperors, and learning was neglected for thousands of years.
A mighty civilization of marble was toppled and replaced with sparsely-populated fields of mud, all because of internal strife and moral degeneration.
That makes it hard to read, and the immense length adds to the challenge.
However, that’s no excuse to avoid The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Reading it is important because the lessons from it are timeless. Who can read about internal strife without thinking of the Freikorps and communists causing the fall of the Weimar Republic or, in the present, BLM and Antifa attacking the pillars of our civilization? Who can read about the avarice of the emperors without thinking of the greed of our globalist elites, or learn about barbarian invasions and migrations without thinking about the crisis at the southern border?
Our civilization, one built on reason, Christian morality, and a free market, seems to be collapsing for many of the main reasons that Gibbon says the Roman Empire collapsed. Learning the “why” and avoiding it, however difficult doing so is, is the only way to stave off civilizational collapse and plunging into another Dark Age. That’s why you should read The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and why I forced myself to get through all six volumes.
Additionally, Gibbon’s writing in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is brilliant and majestic. His writing inspired Churchill for good reason; his brilliant prose describes some of the most titular events in the history of the world.
Overall, it’s excellent despite being about a devastatingly sad topic. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
The glory that was Rome at its height, the era described by Gibbon as the happiest period in human tendencies, must be remembered so that the dream of rule by brave, virtuous, philosopher-kings can be revived. Who now wouldn’t trade Biden and Pelosi for Augustus or Hadrian? Even if we don’t achieve Curtis Yarvin’s dream of a modern Caesar, perhaps we can defend our civilization from the causes that ended Rome. The only way to do so is to read about why Rome fell. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is the best way to do so. If you want to defend America from the barbarians at the gate and revive the spirit of our ancestors, you must read it.