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NA612212 - GIBBON, E.: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (The), Part II (Abridged)
English 

Edward Gibbon

Edward Gibbon

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Part II

 

“At the outset all was dark and doubtful: even the title of the work, the true era of the Decline and Fall of the Empire, the limits of the introduction, the division of the chapters, and the order of the narrative; and I was often tempted to cast away the labor of seven years. The style of an author should be the image of his mind; but the choice and command of language is the fruit of exercise.“

Thus in his Memoirs of My Life (posthumously published in 1795) does Edward Gibbon hint of his nervous anticipation concerning the undertaking of his life’s central labor, the composition of his massive, magisterial The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published between 1776-88.

 

This recording is an abridgement of that work’s final three volumes, a previous Naxos AudioBooks issue having covered the first three, up to the collapse of Rome and the Western empire, and the accession of the first barbarian king of Italy, Odoacer, in about AD 480. It thus covers the vast scope of almost 1,000 years, and focuses on the moral, political and military decline of the Byzantine empire, the empire of the East, and in particular its capital city, Constantinople.

The final three volumes are rather more discursive and digressive than the first: there are moments where the complex narrative threatens to come apart, bulging as it does with a vast array of embryonic nations and ethnic groups, all squabbling among themselves like dozens of cats in a sack. This abridgement is aimed therefore at conveying the core narrative line that Gibbon traces.

What became known as the Byzantine empire was in fact the eastern half of the Roman empire. It survived for a thousand years after the collapse and fragmentation into assorted petty feudal kingdoms of the western half. The empire of the east finally succumbed to Turkish onslaughts in 1453, when the last emperor, Constantine XI, died, fighting on the battlements on Constantinople, the capital city of the empire. Constantinople — originally

named Byzantium — had been an ancient Greek colony, founded on the European side of the Bosphorus. When the Roman emperor Constantine I took it over in 330 he decided to name this “New Rome”, capital of the eastern half of his empire, after himself.

 

The eastern part of the empire was very different from that which came under the sway of Rome, being very Hellenistic in outlook and culture, much more commercial and cosmopolitan, and ultimately a far richer place that the original seat of empire. Despite their separation from Rome in both space and time, the Byzantine emperors nevertheless spiritually considered themselves Romans. But they were considerably more gifted than their Roman forebears had been at resisting the diplomatic blandishments and military battering of outsiders. In the case of Byzantium, as the eastern empire also came to be known, those would-be intruders predominantly derived from nations owing allegiance to Islam. The same emperors also felt that it was their duty to be devoted to the ideal, if not the reality, of retaking Rome from the various barbarian armies that followed in the footsteps of Odoacer.

 

Since Gibbon, historians have concurred in his judgment that the greatest of the Byzantine emperors was Justinian I, who reigned between 527-565. Justinian attracts Gibbon because he was both a noble statesman and also a successful warrior. Gibbon is further enchanted by Justinian’s obvious interest in that very 18th century obsession, social and legal reform. But, as ever with Gibbon, the nature of man is to be imperfect: Gibbon gives a very balanced final assessment of Justinian I; his equally powerful wife, Theodora, lets him down, as we hear in this recording.

But beyond Justinian are many other equally colorful characters, and events of great — and low — magnitude. Those listeners who are more familiar with the history of the western empire, of Rome proper, will not be disappointed with the events covered by Gibbon in his final three volumes. The mendacity, brutality, lust, corruption and much else enjoyed — by the Roman emperors did not escape those of their successors in — Constantinople.

 

Gibbon writes in his Memoirs at the end that “twenty happy years have been animated by the labor of my history”, adding that the “freedom of my writings has indeed provoked an implacable tribe; but as I was safe from the stings, I was soon accustomed to the buzzing of the hornets.” It could be argued that, besides the sheer glory of his panoramic depiction of some of the most important characters and events in the sweep of humanity, the greatest contribution of his History is that it teaches us all we ever need to know about the workings of the human heart. Gibbon was a true Augustan, wedded to the values of dispassionate commonsense, rationality above all things, and a refusal to be swayed by the meretricious. His History instructs us (an entirely different process from being lectured to) on the method of achieving the kind of Zen-like indifference to both good and ill fortune that Gibbon himself appears to have embraced towards the end of his life. Here he is in his Memoirs again:

“At the age of twenty, one year is a tenth perhaps of the time which has elapsed within our consciousness and memory; at the age of fifty it is no more than a fortieth, and this relative value continues to decrease till the last sands are shaken by the hand of death... The warm desires, the long expectations of youth are founded on the ignorance of themselves and of the world. They are generally dampened by time and experience, by disappointment or possession; and after the middle season, the crowd must be content to remain at the foot of the mountain, while the few who have climbed the summit, aspire to descend or expect to fall. In old age, the consolation of hope is reserved for the tenderness of parents, who commence a new life in their children; the faith of enthusiasts who sing hallelujahs above the clouds; and the vanity of authors who presume the immortality of their name and writings.”

Many of the emperors and empresses who pass before our view here have long been forgotten, perhaps undeservedly in some cases. But Edward Gibbon is a name that has survived them all.

 

Chapters XXXIX-XLV (476-582 AD) (Cassettes 1-2)

 

‘The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness’

 

The fall of the Western Empire, marked by Odoacer’s sack of Rome in 476 AD, was followed by a fragmentation of rule in Europe. Into this breach stepped Euric, the king of the Visigoths, though an early death let control pass to Clovis, King of the Franks, who established the French monarchy in Gaul. Gibbon then briefly considers the fate of Britain in this post-Roman period, and the reign of Theodoric the Ostrogoth, who, after defeating Odoacer, ruled Italy until his death in 526 AD.

 

Only then does Gibbon switch his principal focus to Constantinople, the seat of the Byzantine throne. He begins his survey with the 38-year rule of Justinian, whose empire encompassed 64 provinces and 935 cities. It was a prosperous and largely successful period both at home and abroad — with the aid of the faithful general Belisarius, who, briefly, reclaimed Rome from Vitiges, king of the Goths. But it was marred by the promiscuous behavior of Theodora, a pantomime comedian who rose to become Empress. A licentious wife, Antonina, who was often involved in political subterfuge at home, also dimmed the military glory of Belisarius.

There were problems, too, in controlling the popular factions in Costantinople. The games of antiquity so central to life in Rome were continued in the empire of the East, and meant more than the mere outcome of chariot races. Four factions developed and the rivalry between two in particular — the greens and the blues — was sufficient to rock the empire periodically. Justinian, among most of the sovereigns, had to manage the swings of power between the two sides.

 

Justinian died in 564 AD and was succeeded by his nephew Justin. The Byzantine empire needed change and the youth was welcomed. However, as Gibbon remarks: ‘The annals of the second Justin are marked with disgrace abroad and misery at home’. The crown then passed to the more capable but short-lived Tiberius and in 582 AD to Maurice, a cold but mainly just ruler.

 

Chapters XLV- LXI (582-1204 AD) (Cassettes 3-4)

 

Gibbon looks back at Rome at the close of the sixth century by which time it had sunk far below its former glory. However, it remained a city of importance because it was the seat of Christianity. And, during the reign of Maurice in the East, that seat was occupied by the commanding figure of Pope Gregory the Great, a pontificate that lasted for 13 years.

 

In Constantinople, the tyrant Phocas, who ruled for eight brutal years, followed the violent death of Maurice and five of his sons. He was supplanted by Heraclius, the more honorable founder of the Heraclian dynasty that was to rule the Byzantine empire for a century. At this point, Gibbon moves more swiftly over the historical span: ‘ As we sink deeper in the decline and fall of the Eastern empire, the annals of each succeeding reign would impose a more ungrateful and melancholy task,’ he says.

 

The Isaurian dynasty produced no better a ruling family after its founder, Leo III, in its allotted century; nor did the Macedonian dynasty for its two centuries, or even the century of the Comnenus dynasty, despite the virtue of John Comnenus, which closed with Andronicus I Comnenus in II85 AD.

These centuries of turmoil took place against the backdrop of the growth of Islam as a powerful political as well as religious force, in the expansion of the Ottoman empire; and the first of the bloody and fanatical Crusades.

 

Chapters LXI-LXXI (1204-1453 AD) (Cassettes 5-6)

 

The 13th century saw the accession of the last dynasty of the Roman empire at Constantinople, founded by the Palaeologus family, but it proved a time of protracted internal disputes. In Asia, meanwhile, a powerful force turned its eyes westward. Genghis Khan, having already invaded China, set his Mongols and Tartars to battle against Mohammed, Sultan of Carizme and, with the continuing efforts of his four successors, including Kublai, subdued almost all Asia and a large portion of Europe. Scarcely had the Mongol hordes abated when a new conqueror appeared in the East — Timour, or Tamerlaine. His wars with the Sultan Bajazet and the Ottoman empire at the opening of the 15th century had the effect of delaying the final Turkish victory over Constantinople. But the fall was inevitable. In 1453 Mahomet II laid siege to Constantinople, and, with the help of gunpowder, fulfilled an astrological prophecy and took the city on May 29. This was the end of the Roman empire.

 

Late in his narrative, Gibbon recounts the nature of the schism between the Christian churches of the west and the east, one of the remaining legacies of the Byzantine civilization.

 

In conclusion, he declares the four causes of destruction of the Roman empire, and draws his momentous history to a close.

 

Notes by Gary Mead


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