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