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'Game of Thrones' Off-Season Reading: 'The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

By Corey Atad | Book Reviews | July 3, 2014 | Comments ()


map of roman empire.jpg

Those long months between seasons of Game of Thrones are beginning to set in. It’s a depressing time for us all, even those of us who thought the most recent season left a lot to be desired. At the end of the day, it’s a Game of Thrones world and we’re all just living in it. What to do with ourselves while the show is off the air? There are some obvious answers, of course. There are other TV series to watch. The Leftovers just started on HBO and it’s very good, but it’s just not the same. There are plenty of movies to watch, but do any of those movies feature Maisie Williams? I thought not. [Oops: looks like there’s a movie with little Arya Stark out July 4th on VOD!] We could all read (or re-read) George R.R. Martin’s novels, but that’s basically retreading the same territory. That’s why I’m proposing something a little different to keep you in the Game of Thrones mindset until next April. Pick up a copy of Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and try reading the whole damn thing before next season starts.

Edward Gibbon’s storied masterpiece is a hefty challenge. Published in six volumes from 1776 to 1789, the book is about exactly what its title states. It’s a comprehensive history of the latter stages of the Roman Empire, from the Age of the Antonines in the 2nd century AD, all the way to the Papal Schism and the conquest of Constantinople by the Turks in the 14th and 15th centuries. The “latter stages” part is important. I used to be under the misapprehension that the book was called “The History of the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire” and I know that many others have thought the same. But no, those six volumes, coming in at over 3,000 pages and weighing between 8 and 20lbs depending on the edition, is only concerned with the “Decline and Fall” part of Roman history. As it turns out, if you’re a fan of Game of Thrones, Edward Gibbon’s book is like a Good Parts Version of Roman History.

Gibbon sets the stage with the Antonine Dynasty, from the emperor Trajan in 98 AD to the assassination of Commodus in 192 AD. There is plenty of intrigue to be had in those “early” years, but the primary concern is table-setting. Gibbon paints a picture of the Roman Empire as it stood culturally and militarily in the time of the Five Good Emperors and then slowly leads readers down the road of collapse, from one emperor to another struggling to hold things together, sometimes for a few years, sometimes for a few months, usually ending up assassinated or executed.

I’m currently about 55% through Volume I of the book on my Kindle and already I’ve seen the a whole host of emperors meet their end. There have been wars and battles, assassinations, mass slaughters on a scale almost unimaginable, sexual intrigues, stories of noble men cruelly destroyed and cruel men even more cruelly cut down. It’s like a George R.R. Martin wet dream, and at an even faster pace!

My favourite story so far has been that of Pertinax, the successor to Commodus. Pertinax was an all around good guy: a reasonable man who prized honour and courteousness and long term thinking. He was emperor for only three months, and in that time set about to reform Roman life and strengthen the character of the empire. His fatal flaw was in thinking goodness and rightness would win the day. He stood up against the Praetorian Guards’ corruption and they didn’t much care for that. Pertinax was told to flee Rome, but, honourable man that he was, he decided to stay and reason with his dissenters. His reasonableness was wasted on the unreasonable and he was soon assassinated, leading to a year of incredible tumult and four more emperors taking the reins before the year 193 was out.

If that isn’t a Ned Stark kind of character I don’t know what is. The book is filled with those kinds of stories and characters, and I’m not even one sixth of the way through the whole thing. It helps, of course, that Gibbon was a great writer, and his book is filled with delicious bits of prose, and a boatload of writerly character. There are also interesting comments on his part related to his own contemporary Europe that hold fascinating relevance to today. For example, in one bit early on he says of an ancient region:

The inland parts have assumed the Sclavonian names of Croatia and Bosnia; the former obeys an Austrian governor, the latter a Turkish pacha; but the whole country is still infested by tribes of barbarians, whose savage independence irregularly marks the doubtful limit of the Christian and Mahometan power.

In moments like those Gibbon reveals his political stripes as well as his nastier British colonial outlook on the world. As 21st century readers we are treated to an old perspective we have shed in some ways and maintained in others, while given the chance to trace history from the earliest times of the current era to Gibbon’s time and right to today. It may be a lot of old stories, but in their consequences, and in the manner of Gibbon’s telling they are as relevant as they’ve ever been.

I’ve been slowly reading through the book for a few months now, but with Game of Thrones done for the year and some more time on my hands I’m making it my mission to finish the whole damn thing over the next several months. It’s not the easiest read, but it’s surprisingly engrossing, and with all that murder and darkness it certainly fills a hole left by the absence of HBO’s fantasy series. So pick up a copy of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire if your arms are strong enough (or get the weightless ebook for free at Project Gutenberg) and join me in what promises to be a very rewarding reading challenge.


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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • Stu Rat

    When is Gibbon going to finish the seventh book?

  • And to chime in with something non-textual, Dan Carlin's hardcore history set of episodes on the fall of the Roman Republic is one of his better ones.

  • John G.

    Corey,

    If you're into later Roman history, Procopius' secret history is about the eastern half of the later Roman empire, the Byzantines, and it's called a "secret history" because he literally wrote it in secret and published it posthumously to avoid being killed for it. It's a tabloid-esque recall of the emperor Justinian, one of the most important emperors of the eastern side of Rome, which thrived for another 1,000 years after the western side declined and fell.

  • Darek

    Is there any consensus on which is the best edition of this book?

  • BWeaves

    OOOO! Love it.

    I can also recommend Geoffrey of Monmouth's "History of the Kings of Britain," and Suetonius' "The Twelve Caesars." Both ancient books cover the same period of time as each other, only from opposite points of view. They are smaller books and quick reads.

    Suetonius' book was the basis for "I, Claudius." He also wrote, "Lives of Famous Whores" and "Greek Terms of Abuse." His name is pronounced Sweat-Toe-knee-us. I love Suetonius.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Oh, nice to hear a contemporary lay-person's view of them. I haven't read them, but did just start reading "How the Irish Saved Civilization" and Cahill leads with a lot of Gibbon's referencing. This book, btw, perfectly exemplifies the "history in the eye of the beholder" because coming off reading "Justinian's Flea" and its take of the end of the Empire, I can already see the places where I disagree with Cahill's take & priorities. But the whole point in reading this is to flesh out some other reading, so I'll carry on.

    Maybe, eventually, I'll read the full Decline & Fall. But most of my Roman history comes via Colleen McCullough's amazing Rome series...which has all that you mention, plus sex.

  • Gibbon includes some sex, only it's generally referred to indirectly. But you just feel him nudging and winking at you. I should take a look at McCullough's series.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    It is also a couple thousand pages, 6 books. Highly readable. Her Caesar can do no wrong; that would be pretty much the only fault in my eyes. But the story starts before him...

    http://www.amazon.com/First-Ma...

  • Love for history, specially when periods are changing. So much chaos that we, far removed, can see where it will lead, but they can't.

  • I looooooove these books. The footnotes are the most wonderful little mine of Gibbon's repressed cattiness.

  • They're SO catty! The guy did not hold back. I also love some of the modern editor footnotes, like the one that calls out Gibbon's bullshit softening of Roman slavery.

  • Oh I love these books. Histories say as much between the lines about the period that wrote them as the period they are written about. I have the unabridged set in gorgeous white leather from the Folio Society.

  • Sweet, I apparently have recognizable branding!

    Wait a minute, quit infringing on my branding, whippersnapper.

    ;-)

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