After dwelling too long in the realms of fiction, I decided to challenge myself by picking up one of the great western works of non-fiction, in Gibbon’ first volume.
I braced myself for something dry and slightly inaccessible, but to my delight, he weaves a story that is full of character and archetypes that careful readers will recognize from a variety of other media — from careful Augustus to the monster Caligula to the brilliant Diocletian.
Despite reading warnings that Gibbon’s language was formidable, I found his prose to be somewhat refreshing. Reading on the train or in a crowded room sometimes required repeated attempts at some of his longer, indirect statements, but the most part, it was an easy work to sink into.
It’s not a work without flaws, of course. In his zest to cover such a wide tract of material, Gibbon glosses over details, like the circumstances of battles, that would have made for truly terrific reading. His prejudices are also on proud display, making it difficult not to roll one’s eyes whenever he waxes poetic about the weakness of women, the effeminate character of the East, and the unquestionable veracity of Christianity.
Even so, it’s a work that I plan to return to. There are no shortage of lessons to be gleaned that remain applicable to our own age of crumbling empire.