“The Roman Empire and its decline and fall remains to this day the dominant historical event of Europe and the Near East…” So wrote DM Low in the introduction to his masterly abridgement of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. The Roman Empire is like a ghost, whose presence haunts every development since the real one breathed its last. Charlemagne, the Reniassance and Enlightenment are inexpicable without reference to its cultural and political legacy. The modern world is haunted by pillars, columns, priests, senators, sports amphitheatres, drains, empires and elections. Romans still sell books, films, tv shows and games by the wheelbarrow load. Was their Fall a Good Thing or a Bad Thing?
Some like Isaac Asimov and Lord Clark came down unhesitatingly on the bad side. The centuries after Rome were indeed a land of derelict towns, lawless violence and unlettered ignorance, especially in the former western provinces. Gibbon himself seems to deplore it, but at the same time points a gleeful finger at Romans forced to suffer the consequences of their own degeneracy all the way to the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Some scholars denied much happened at all, seeing the whole sorry tale as one of transformation. Now along come Walter Scheidel,Catherine Kennedy and Daniel Grossman on the aeon website,who aver that, however inconvenient the Fall of Rome was to contemporaries, it has overall been a blessing, especially for western peoples. It cleared the way, they say, for the developments of freedoms in thought and enquiry which were unknown to the subjects of tyrannical empires in places such as China, the Middle East and India and of course, Byzantium. These freedoms in turn lead to much higher standards of western achievement in things like science and economics.
At this point The Devil whispers in our ear “Oh, Really?” Was China always under a single monolithic empire? Did they not invent a couple of things to teach western barbarians like printing and silk? Do we not recall the Islaamic Calpihates as the real guardians , researchers and above all teachers of knowledge through many centuries, and who possessed trading and banking systems which left the muddy inhabitants of Francia bewildered? Anyway who was more significant-Constantine or James Watt? But away with that. The best histories are always polemical, for they elicit thought. No one now thinks that Henri Pirenne, Karl Marx or even Edward Gibbon said the last word on anything. But their provocative works stimulated learning and research on an industrial scale. So it will be with these authors. For westerners, Romans are like parents, like family. By asking about them we are asking about ourselves. The results will be interesting.
we thank Mr Peter Seymour of Hertfordshire for drawing outr attention to this provocative essay
Edward Gibbon The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
isaac Asimov Foundation Trilogy see especially vols 1 and 2
Kenneth Clark Civilisation see chap 1
Henri Pirenne Mohammed et Charlemagne
#romanempire #edwardgibbon #history #china #islaam #abbasid #omayyad