The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Volume 1

I have been reading this for several years, sporadically. I took it with me to Shanghai a couple of years’ ago, when I was working there for 2 weeks. I imagined I would never look at it much, since Shanghai is such an interesting place I thought I would be too busy to read. But, unsurprisingly perhaps to readers of a book blog, I ended up spending quite a lot of time with Gibbon, enjoying the sharp distinction between his world and the world of modern Shanghai.

I decided to read the full version, rather than the abridged, out of a misplaced desire for authenticity and an overestimation of the length of a human life. But I am glad I did, since the full version, in the Penguin edition, is a great read in all sorts of ways.

The style is fantastic and constantly entertaining. Ironic, humorous, aphoristic. Some subjects can’t be made engrossing by it, however, such as the ebb and flow of wars between the Roman Empire and various barbarian tribes, like the Huns and the Goths. These drag a bit.

The most interesting part of this, the first volume, is Gibbon’s account of the early Christians. He got into trouble with the Church at the time, as he pointed out that the persecution of Christians was by no means severe or mainstream under the Roman administration, which was polytheistic and very tolerant of religious diversity. Indeed, he suggests that it was Christianity’s aversion to idolatry, and its zeal in rejecting all beliefs that their own, that contradicted the essential ‘live and let live’ approach of the imperial authorities.

And we see echoes of these issues in our own world today. Certainty of religious belief, taken as a justification for extreme acts, is with us in many countries.

I may take a break before tackling volume II.


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