Books That Matter: The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Leo Damrosch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This was an interesting course. It wasn't quite what I expected or hoped for, but I still enjoyed it and learned from it. I think I was hoping more for something like a cliff notes of Gibbons' work. And Damrosh certainly talks about the book, its ideas, and arguments. But there is also a lot of material about Gibbons life, his time period, and so on. Not uninteresting or even irrelevant, but at the same time wasn't quite what I was looking for.
Damrosh does a great job of communicating the immensity and importance of Gibbons' masterpiece. I didn't realize how much it covered the Eastern Empire and the Islamic world. The amount of information that Gibbons had to go through and analyze to produce this work is an incredible achievement in itself.
One criticism I might have is that I don't feel like I really have a great grasp on Gibbons' explanation for the decline and fall. It seems to be, broadly, that the Western empire lost its ability to repel the repeated Germanic and eastern tribes pushing into their territory and that this was because of its poor constitution that allowed and even encouraged too many weak and corrupt emperors. The immense bureaucracy held for a while, but eventually the internal pressures from centuries of bad governance ate away at the empire's capacity. The Eastern was better defended by natural boundaries and by the boundary of the Persian empire; and so didn't face the same external pressures and therefore was able to hold out much longer despite having similar internal pressures. Still, I would have liked a lecture, towards the end, that really covered and summarized Gibbons account of the causes in a more in-depth way. Partly, Damrosch might not do this because Gibbons own view (at least according to Damrosh) by the end was that the decline and fall didn't explaining -- what was remarkable was that the empire lasted as long as it did (not that it fell).
This course is no substitute for the book. I am not sure I'll ever have the time or focus to read Gibbons whole work myself, so this course at least gives you a framework for the works influence and as well as a guide for jumping into the narrative at certain points that might be of interest.
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