Note: This piece is part of a series. These are my musings of Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Again, musings. This article is looser than my others. I’m putting to paper, the best I can, the musings I had while enjoying this masterpiece.
I got warned.
A lot of chatter came my way before reading the first word of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I talk with a small circle of people, in person, about what I’m reading or going to read. I talk to a bigger circle with Twitter and my email list. In all circles, I heard a lot of warnings regarding Gibbon. I got direct and indirect warnings. The direct looked like, “I heard he was obsessed with primary sources, so why read him?” And the indirect, “Gibbon missed that lowered levels of Testosterone caused the fall of the Roman Empire, you should check out Random Person with a Largely Unread Blog featuring Flat Earth Sounding Theories on The Fall of the Roman Empire.”
Before we read some books, we can hear chatter. This can shape our opinions before we read a word of that book. It’s natural. But Gibbon, for me, came with the most warnings or chatter of any book I’ve ever read. I surmise not many people have read Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. But many have their opinions, theories, and claims regarding Gibbon’s voluminous masterpiece. And given the nature of the work, the downfall of society, I believe that’s why Gibbon surfaces warnings.
Warning: He Was Obsessed with Primary Sources
A bizarre warning I heard a few times: Gibbon overly relied on primary sources.
I’ll hazard some theories to this warning.
One theory, some people wish to mold past periods or past figures into their desired worldview vision. They want the history to fit their beliefs, or prove their ideologies right. But well-written history, one with substance, depth, and heavy use of primary sources, has a nasty habit of wounding those wishes. Often fatally wounding them.
Another theory, and related to the first, people tend to read pop history over rigorous history. Pop history books have their place. They can introduce readers to a topic. And they can be entertaining. The issue is if you never leave pop history’s comforting boundaries. Much of pop history forces the past into a satisfying narrative arc. This makes for satisfying and comforting reading. It’s often reading at a low cost of engagement. But a flaw exists with pop history books. One side of that flaw, a reader’s worldview remains unchallenged. On the other side, if the pop history book aligns with that person’s worldview, it stays shallow, and never delves into the depth of principles (and the ingredients of those principles).
A reader gets an enjoyable narrative on a particular topic, nothing more. And this narrative is the “modern” take. People like modern takes on history. People see the pop books or sources like Wikipedia and ChatGPT to be pure, and correct because they’re modern. These sources make older historians and primary sources seem drab or complicated. But at the heart of this preference for the modern, is something far more unfortunate. That being, the egregious failure of our education and self-eduction: finding sources telling us what to think about something. Instead of engaging with the topic ourselves, we learn to outsource our critical thinking to a fashionable, summarized source. We want a buzzy, homogenized source to tell us about Gibbon or the fall of the Roman Empire. We want a juicy reason for the fall and a satisfying narrative arc that never challenges us.
Gibbon used primary sources, masterfully. But Gibbon goes past basic primary sources. Some historians go chronologically with their telling of the past. They enumerate with a Dragnet like fashion. And there’s nothing wrong with historians who use a pragmatic, Dragnet style. It doesn’t make them less weighty. Yet some historians do layer in philosophy, economics, meaning, hypotheticals, character and disposition of the culture, and so on. This can add weight, but it’s difficult to pull off. It can come across as revisionist, boring, or manipulative. To do it right, it takes a mixture of talent; a combination of an exhaustive understanding and knowledge of primary sources; gobs of cognitive creativity and endurance; and a measured and honest writing method.
Gibbon goes past primary sources. He delves into the philosophy, culture, tastes, and theology of the time. Gibbon knows his King James Bible inside and out. He knows his Koran inside and out. He knows his Stoic texts inside and out. He knows his Aristotle, Plato, sculptors, historians, legal theory, science, medicine, superstition, painters, bankers, and a whole lot more. In other words, he commands chronological history and the influences of the culture. He dives into the currents of what influenced the moral mores, artistic tastes, and political natures of the era he details. This gives the reader atmosphere. We feel what the culture is like. For instance, Boston and Omaha each have distinct cultures. Both are different, often vastly so. But visit both, spend time in both, and you can sense how they share similar character traits. You can feel in the atmosphere how they don’t hate themselves like other American cities. Since each enjoys its rooted culture, while different, this rooted culture, and embracing that culture versus rejecting it, gives a similar atmosphere. Whereas, in some American cities, like Baltimore or Denver, you can tell they hate themselves. Baltimore has a vibe of “we gave up long ago.” Denver keeps trying on different identities to escape its “Western” roots; Denver wants to look modern, hip, sophisticated, and not “flyover country.” Denver and Baltimore are drastically different in their culture, but, again, each city shares a similar atmosphere of hating itself.
Let’s draw out that “does/doesn’t hate itself” aspect. This feeling a city or town or country emanates, comprises culture, law, politics, architecture, art, family structures, leaders, local economics, moral mores, and individual behaviors, inter alia. Each element is influenced and ingrained with its learnings, influences, cultures, faults, and merits. It’s a sense, a feeling. We know it exists, but when we define it, it gets airy; some parts you can describe; some parts, the grounded description is elusive. But you know it when you see it; you know it when you feel it. And Gibbon nails this. Few historians can paint this feeling. Gibbon can and does. You get a feeling, a sense of the dispositional makeup of an emperor, or an agricultural area. This makes Gibbon great.
Warning: I Heard He Didn’t Get It Perfectly Right And He Never Offered My Theory To Fix The World
A warning I heard a few times involves a sentiment I see growing in today’s culture. That sentiment: a sensitivity, or truthfully, a fragility of purity. That purity could be a moral purity of the author or a purity of the work. The purity entails an author or a work must perfectly match and align the current demands of a worldview. And if it doesn’t, then the work is impure. Some go fanatical and say the work is propaganda to mislead you, or that some “group” doesn’t want you to know the real truth. I got various warnings about Gibbon arising from purity fragility.
One warning, Gibbon’s work was criticized by some scholars, so don’t bother reading it. And almost always, this retort got followed up with a recommendation of a historical book, and often a book with red meat of a particular worldview. For instance, on Twitter, you might see “Gibbon got criticized, bro. And plus, neocon beta Alexander Hamilton liked Gibbon, and he’s why we’re now in the mess with Ukraine. Check out The Roman Empire Was Ruined By NeoCons: What NeoCon Ronald Reagan Hid From The American People by Mike Lindell and Michael Malice. Shit’s legit bro, no cap, fr fr.” Twitter is both bizarre, crazy, yet awesome at how delusional it gets. No that book doesn’t exist. But I noticed people saying Decline and Fall is a waste of time because Gibbon got criticized, or it’s a waste because Gibbon didn’t censure something a person wants censured now. As if reading a book criticized or a book not tackling the current news cycle equates contagious impurity.
I haven’t looked up the mistakes of Gibbon. Gibbon was exhaustive in his research. But, today, with technology, we have access to more source materials than Gibbon had. We also have easier access to these materials. Our better access doesn’t mean Gibbon should remain unread, or that Gibbon is impure. His creativity, his critical reasoning, his arguments, and his vision, influenced the Western world. He may have lacked access to certain sources, but what he wrote, his history offers us much. Maybe it came to light that his dates were wrong with a battle. This doesn’t mean ignore Gibbon at all costs. I hope our technology unlocks more from the ancient scrolls and writings yet unknown. It may come to light Gibbon got some other things wrong, but his history, his philosophy, his work, will still stand the test of time.
To touch on the theory bit, I believe I may have gone in looking for “values.” So many people today bandy about “declining values” as the sole reason for the decline and fall of the empire. And many of these people want their vision of bad values as the sole cause of the fall. Values were a solvent in the fall, but not the lone solvent. It’s also high comedy seeing red pill/manosphere men blaming women’s promiscuity for our fall. Yet, in their next breath, they promote a promiscuous lifestyle for men as something to “RETVRN TO TRADITION.”
And they feel this will save us.
Why is this funny?
The Roman Empire was promiscuous. And I mean exponentially promiscuous compared to today. Almost unimaginable promiscuity. Western societies are largely undergoing a sexual drought. America and other countries are below the replacement rate for children (an awful trend; this happened during the dark times of the Roman Empire, and it wasn’t pretty). But promiscuity and having families are separate from each other. In most Western countries, younger generations are having far less sex than previous generations. People born after 1990 are having significantly less sex than earlier generations (and this goes for casual sex, from what various and multiple sources report). During the Roman Empire, before its decline, and during its decline, it was raunchy. Both men and women indulged in the pleasures of flesh. Some women maintained a large harem of lovers while taking on random and new lovers each day. Going to a bar back then wasn’t just having some honey wine and enjoying the ancient culture, it was drinking and sex for both parties.
I mention this because, if a “woman’s behavior is causing the fall!” guy read Gibbon, he’d see — and this is giving him a brain and thinking abilities, I know I’m being lenient and unrealistic in my expectations — that the ancient times, the times he sees as cultured and honored, wouldn’t fit his vision. Sure, he’d cherry-pick. But he’d ignore that promiscuity pre-dated the decline of the empire. I’m not saying this promiscuity helped the empire, it had terrible effects, but it also occurred during the “golden age.” On the flip side, men who indulged in this behavior the most, the men who made their lives a solipsistic indulgence of money, sex, and women — they were a large solvent in the fall. Soldiers were promised money. And with easy sex, they could retire, indulge in the pleasures of flesh, and do little else. This indulgence had the effect of enervating soldiers. When the soldiers were called back to duty, they then clamored for easier and less rigorous standards. Over time, this degraded courage and resolve, only to have the once mighty Roman military become a laughingstock. The indulgent, teenage dream of “sleep with countless beautiful women and live the dream” promised by some in the red pill resembles the behaviors, morals, and standards that led to the decay.
Absolutely promiscuity had a hand in the decline and fall. I’m not saying otherwise. Absolutely hedonism had a hand in the decline and fall. I’m not saying otherwise. Values had a hand in the fall, but it wasn’t the sole hand. If you go in looking for “poor values” with Gibbon, yes, you will get concerned. Certain similarities with bad values exist today. Many in fact. Yet our promiscuity is now more isolated and solipsistic with the advent of porn (which, again, is not good). But perhaps the worst poor value, the one that had a bigger hand in the decline and fall, is something I see pervasive among those who claim “poor values” caused the fall: a lack of patriotism. Patriotism and its meaning has decayed into a pejorative, especially for most Americans. Many view it as something idiots believe before they go off and die in a pointless war. And that if you believe in it, you somehow are being fooled. This is concerning. One, that isn’t the definition of patriotism. Two, when patriotism degraded in the Roman Empire, life and the world took some awful turns.
And to finish out, many who have never read Gibbon hope their theory to fix the world to is somehow proven inside that work. I have found that multiple theories, especially political ones, are destroyed in Gibbon. The “end the government” concepts happened, it didn’t end well. The idea of not having anyone poor and providing all the food and money for everyone didn’t pan out. Activist courts and judges destabilized laws and led to complete chaos. As I read Gibbon, more and more I realize Western democracies have it right. I believe more and more, America’s Founding Fathers created the BEST system. The wish for national divorce and a RETVRN TO TRADITION played out horribly in the Roman Empire. I don’t see it playing out better today. I think some of these pet theory wishlists, and Gibbon not aligning to them in some way, is why people leave Gibbon unread. Most people want their theories red meat. They look for what proves it right. Anything proving it wrong is somehow specious.
Warning: He’s a Revisionist
“Gibbon is a revisionist!”
I initially gave this retort weight.
But a few pages into Gibbon’s work, it’s clear he wasn’t at all a revisionist. Yes, he’s a man of his period. He’s a man well aware of the battle between America and his home country, England. And sewn into the fabric of his work are the questions of the American Revolution, the English Revolution, the works of Adam Smith, and the warnings of Edmund Burke regarding France, inter alia. And sewn into the fabric are the questions and concerns of Gibbon’s time. Now, many people mistake this for revisionism. It isn’t. Gibbon contextualizes the past and offers the reader a moral, societal, and cultural analysis of the current day. In other words, he’s able to show you the past, while also allowing you to see how the past fits currently. And Gibbon does it without being revisionist. He does this with the fabric of his language. And does it without being manipulative, condemning the past, or holding the past through the impulsive, mob mentality desires of the present. This makes him timeless.
Gibbon’s worldview is sewn into the fabric of the work. Gibbon sees man as tragic versus a view that man can be perfected. He also sees society as flawed, and that it can’t be perfected. And he shows how war, politics, power, and more have an inherent nature. A nature comprising a spectrum from horrific to beautiful. But with good government, and with good individual standards, society can function at a high level; he doesn’t believe society is akin to a chessboard, where things can be moved without consequence. All that is sewn into his work, as any good historian would sew into their work. Why? It builds a rigorous thesis. Again, it isn’t manipulative, it’s in the background, and it’s take it or leave it versus an agenda. All of it, it’s part of his brushstroke. He paints his masterpiece with his brilliant technique. But if you stand closer to the painting, you can see the brushstrokes and the painting takes on new dimensions. It’s stunning. So no, revisionist he is not; a master he is.
Warning: Twitter Reply Guys
Some funny warnings I got were not quite warnings, but what’s known as the “Twitter Reply Guys.” In various corners of Twitter, the “decline” is an easy accusation to toss around. You’ll find Gibbon Bombs, “This is just like the decline of the Roman empire, read Gibbon.” The Gibbon Bomb makes it sound as if the replier wields penetrating cultural insights. Elsewhere, someone sees Joe Biden stumbling on stairs and says that a Roman emperor stumbled on stairs and then the Roman empire collapsed (that’s all it takes, I guess). In my estimation, Edward Gibbon still remains in no danger of ever being read by the “reply guys,” and this is even truer for those who hurl Gibbon Bombs.
To play armchair psychologist, and to make blatant assumptions, I sense a fear around reading Gibbon. I understand the fear. The work is gigantic. Even the abridged edition is big. People today are intimidated to tackle a work like Gibbon’s. That intimidation to some might resemble the belief that the volumes will fly over their head; that they won’t understand it. That intimidation to others might resemble the belief the writing will be boring; that they will have to battle through stuffy, academic sounding Victorian sentences. That intimidation also might resemble a melting pot of reactions: that it’s going to take forty years to read; that it’s going to be impossible to understand; that you’ll read it too slow; and who knows what else. I understand all of that. I had fears. When I see a Niall Ferguson soundbite on Decline and Fall I get worried he’s going to say a deep theme I missed; and what I missed is glaringly obvious and a lynchpin into a deeper philosophy discussing moral consequences. I also worry if I read Ferguson’s soundbite, it will sway my reading, and I will force it through Ferguson’s lens. Yes, I admire and respect Ferguson, but I enjoy life through the lens of Jim Clair. An anxiety exists around classic books. It’s natural. We have fears we’re going to be bored when we’re “supposed to like it” and understand it. We have fears we’re not going to understand a critical work in the Western canon. We tend to think everyone else gets it but us. And if we read a soundbite on a classic from a respected thinker, we fret why we didn’t see that glaringly obvious yet uber deep point. Add to that anxiety, if the book is of a massive size. Add in three books of that size, and that might bring up other worries. The fears are natural.
Reply guys are a humorous distraction. Before we tackle a classic, we can hear all types of claims and theories. And many will be a distraction, yet they leave their traces. You will find that many people are unfamiliar with the classic as you read it. And with a behemoth work like Gibbon, it becomes clear, not many people have read it. The same goes for Don Quixote. People think it’s some crazy guy attacking windmills. Despite your best efforts to ignore these remarks, when you read a classic, these claims will surface. And that’s ok. The beauty is, you’ll discover who owns substance, depth, and breadth.
I’ll Close with My Warning
My warning isn’t “Don’t read the book.” My warning isn’t, “read thirty books to prepare for Gibbon.”
My warning can be found inside Thomas Sowell’s quote, “The book that permanently made me a sadder and wiser man was Edward Gibbons’ The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.”
Gibbon’s work has had a grounding effect on me. Walking with Gibbon, through thousands of years, seeing various societies, people, cultures, and everything entailing all that and more has been moving. The most moving part, seeing man’s inherent nature. It took thousands upon thousands of years for man to shape into the man we know today. We’re not much different from our brethren alive during the Roman Empire. Sure, we’re taller. That’s due to better nutrition, higher standards of living, advances in science, and so on. While it’s debated, IQs today are higher. That, again, is due to a lot of the same reasons mentioned with height, but also better access to education has helped (Aristotle, from what is believed, enjoyed an IQ of 190 or 200). Regardless of various advances helping humans unlock wider human development, on the whole, we’re still the same. And one element that has never changed, despite all our advances, is human nature. Our base desires and impulses, our emotions, our internal and inherent nature, have remained the same. Man can’t escape this fact. This makes man tragic.
When man creates an institution, or works to better a society, his tragic element ingrains itself into everything he touches. And how man operates, he gives inanimate things a nature. For instance, power has a nature. When a vacuum of power exists, someone or a group will seek to fill that vacuum. Fanaticism has a nature. Politics has a nature. And war, as Gibbon portrays, has a nature that is often horrific. War removes what tempers the basest and most vile elements of man and unleashes chilling horrors. Even religion, and its various systems and faiths, has a nature. I don’t buy into the idea man sets up an institution for a myth. I believe something calls him to set up a religion. But even in the name of God, the institution man sets up to worship and honor a perfect being will be imperfect. Religion will have power grabs, politics, bickering, and violence, along with all the benefits it can and does often bring. Why? Because man’s hand is on it. Also in man’s nature, are the population of men and women who believe they can perfect man or perfect society. That they can ignore and cast away the lessons of their ancestors and deliver a utopia. That man can move others as if the world works like a chessboard. The consequences of this belief are often awful. Yet man has a nature of forgetting those consequences, and instead believes, “Well, it wasn’t really done…”
But ingrained in the bosom of man is the knowledge that we’re tragic. What makes man special, we’re ingrained with morals, reasoning, and recognition of good and evil (despite the post-modern attempts to repudiate this ingrained belief). We know we have base impulses, but we know giving into those base impulses each time we feel one can create chaos, can degrade our community, and can keep us from moving the needle forward. Even though the Roman Empire was wildly promiscuous (maybe it’s the togas), man recognized the degrading effects of this. Man knew being choosy — for both men and women — and faithful to your partner worked better. Man knew virtues of courage, temperance, wisdom, and justice proved fruitful for individual happiness and societal happiness. Even something like cultivating taste and intellect, and keeping yourself in good shape, and working to be a good father, husband, mother, wife, all did something beneficial. And it’s not easy. It’s work to uphold this. If you’re a Christian, it’s work to live up to the image of God. It isn’t just believe and you’re set. It’s work. Regardless of your faith or non-faith, man is built with morals and reasoning, and more.
My warning, when you read Gibbon, you see human nature play out. You realize how we’re no different. Sure, our life and society is vastly different. But as humans, we’re still the same. I find this grounding. I find it inspiring.
 Ron Chernow and Niall Ferguson are two examples of historians who do this correctly. Doris Kearns Goodwin and Yuval Noah Harari are two historians who do this terribly. ↩
 Families and marriage worked a little differently then. But the choosy man was considered highly valuable, especially when he upheld high standards of civic virtue. And chastity in women, along with civic virtues, was esteemed. Due to the death rates and political tides, many men and women remarried and did so multiple times. But even if it was a multiple remarriages, their reputations contained value. ↩
 Sowell also says Gibbon’s is one of the few books that changed his life. ↩