Modern criticism of Gibbon to keep in mind during reading?
June 19, 2015 12:25 PM   Subscribe

I'm embarking on Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," and won't be dissuaded (plus, I already bought a great, modern edition). I am, however, aware that some parts of it have aged better than others. What should I be keeping in mind as I read?

I'm not looking for an exhaustive chapter by chapter breakdown, of course. But scholarship has advanced and primary sources may have been found or discredited over the last few centuries. I can parse his opinions from stated facts (I think), but I want to be prepared for things that are simply no longer considered true or possible. I expect the modern intro/preface to address this to some extent as well but I'd like to get your opinions.

And feel free to recommend alternative, concise, more modern histories as well (or extra-good primaries) if you like! I have no qualms with expanding my library. Thanks in advance!
posted by BlackLeotardFront to Society & Culture (3 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Gibbon is a compelling and engaging writer whose central thesis about the fate of the Roman Empire post-Christianity is the basis for most of our modern popular-culture conceptions about Byzantium: i.e. that it was effeminate, god-bothering, overly political, decadent, corrupt, and derivative, and that all of this resulted primarily from the incorporation of Christianity into Roman imperial ideology.

I'm a professional Byzantinist. We've been trying to undo Gibbon's pervasive effect for DECADES. *g*

I actually love reading Gibbon, because he's a wonderful writer. However he is incredibly committed to his narrative of decadence, and he's alternately flat-out wrong and just missing the complexity of a thousand-year civilization which had its own complex, rich, and multifaceted culture.

So I'd recommend you read a modern survey of Byzantium in parallel. One of the best for a popular audience written recently is Judith Herrin's Byzantium: the surprising life of a medieval empire. More academic is Mark Whittow's The Making of Orthodox Byzantium. If you're particularly interested in the Late Antique period, I'd add Michael McCormick's Origins of the European Economy along with John Haldon's Byzantium in the Seventh Century and another Herrin volume, The Formation of Christendom.

Actually, the Herrin Formation of Christendom is a good antidote to Gibbon in general, not just for Byzantium, and she's a lovely prose stylist, too.

Have fun!
posted by byzantienne at 12:40 PM on June 19, 2015 [46 favorites]

Response by poster: Exactly the kind of feedback I'm looking for, thank you! I'll definitely take this into account.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 12:52 PM on June 19, 2015

I love Gibbon's Decline & Fall. He's a witty erudite lively writer. He makes history come alive! Yeah, he's also full of cultural bias, dated data, and personal interpretation, but that's just like many of the greatest old historians have been. An abstract pure historical truth is a platonic ideal that we aspire towards, but maybe just being aware of the complexity of bias gives some old writings a bit of breathing room.

Gibbon followed the general consensus about doddering old Emperor Claudius before Robert Graves suggested rewriting that page. Original source documents about Claudius were often propaganda screeds written by Nero's house writer, the conflicted philosopher Seneca, who has been mentioned in some new recent biographies.

(Just this week I read 'The Persian Expedition' by Xenophon. Highly recommended.)
posted by ovvl at 6:14 PM on June 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

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