Books That Matter: The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Masterpiece of Expression We read history for the facts and their interpretation, but we also read it for the deeper enrichment that comes from entering into a first-class mind. We get into our bones the flow of the analysis and the beauty of the language. Accordingly, this course is properly about Gibbon and his work, and only secondarily about the history. You do in fact get a lot of history, but the real value comes (if this doesn’t sound too squishy) from enhanced sensibility and, I hope, enhanced dexterity with language. Churchill devoured the five volumes as a young subaltern during his months of idlelness in the Sudan. You can hear Gibbon in his immortal speeches forty years later. Professor Damrosch presents the vast subject with crisp clarity. Clarity is not the only virtue a good historian needs—accuracy is right up there—but it seems to be the rarest. He gives us a lot of quotes from the work itself. He also makes us feel like we know Gibbon the man. First rate.
Date published: 2021-05-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Comprehensive I found this course to be so interesting and relevant to my current study. Well presented and covered so much material in a comprehensive manner.
Date published: 2021-04-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Compelling and informative Professor Damrosch covers the six volumes of Gibbon's history in a succinct and interesting manner. He not only discusses the historical events but illustrates how the cultural beliefs as well as Gibbon's biases colored the narrative. He admires both the scope and the wisdom Gibbon's displays in the text and spends time going into some of the copious footnotes that Gibbon's included. Professor Damrosch's enthusiasm for the subject comes through with his engaging story telling. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed learning about the major events as well as the major players from this time span. I heartily endorse this series.
Date published: 2021-03-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Enjoyable combination of history and literature Gibbon's Decline is as much literature as history. Even if later historians have improved, even corrected, what Gibbon wrote, it is still a work worth reading Decline for its literary merits. Prof. Damrosch has an excellent voice for dramatizing the text, a must for this book. He also inserts helpful commentaries where needed regarding Gibbon's errors, shortcomings, and historical myopia. He really brought the masterpiece to life. As a separate note, I only listened to the audio. Some reviewers enjoyed the video less; from my perspective, I felt like I was not missing anything with the audio-only version.
Date published: 2020-12-28
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Exactly as advertised I recently finished reading Damrosch's book "The Club," in which Gibbons had a major part. My enjoyment of that book led me to buy his series of lectures on "Decline and Fall." He's every bit as good a lecturer as he is an author. He's warm, knowledgeable, and very good at making the book come alive.
Date published: 2020-10-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Primer for ‘Decline...’ Gibbon’s series is quite long and written in a complex manner largely unfamiliar to the average reader. This course knocks down some of the walls people put up in regards to his work. One is ready to read Gibbon after these lectures. If you do not plan on reading Gibbon, it is still valuable to have a concept of ‘Decline’ to be culturally literate. The same thing can be said for Herodotus, Thucydides, Plutarch, etc. Great course!
Date published: 2020-10-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Damrosch Accomplishes Revealing Literary Overview Damrosch is right on track in this course. I think Gibbon's otiginal 6 volumes take on average about 126 hours if consumed on the Griffith-narrated audiobook. It takes easily twice that if you study the original text and pour through both text and notes at a leisurely pace (mandatory for a classic like this). Saying that the course isn't about history is only partially correct and misses the entire stated premise of the course to be a primer on the work as a literary production of its time and as a companion or background brush-up in preparation for reading Gibbon's monster narrative. Those planning to read Gibbon for his historical accuracy are better off reading a contemporary summary or one of the many luxuriously easy to follow audiobooks on the Roman Empire. These were written by us "last men" (and women) and enjoy the shoulders of giants like Gibbon to make it easier for us lazy mortal plebs. There is also a reasonably enjoyable Western Civilization course by Thomas Noble on Great Courses Plus if you want an overview of the same rough Western history (48 installments). It's not always a breeze to follow, but it's well worth consuming before this course for the familiarity you need early on for Gibbon's masterwork, and helps in this course to focus on the more salient details and create your inner context on the periods and figures, and Gibbon as a product of his own time and context. What you don't get from reading Gibbon directly and without this course is the ability to parse Gibbon's many prejudices and the skepticism in his own context. As Nietzsche often reminded his own "elect" readers, to read a masterwork well is to be prepared and fully armed to critique it with ease, not to gulp it down with wide, accepting eyes entire. Gibbon is a British (only protestant-leaning) agnostic with rather pronounced atheist sympathies (much like Nietzsche in those ways alone) who has seen "Catholic excesses" via his own historical readings and his own personal experience as a youth, even while memorizing Catholic theological problems. As a young man, he couldn't separate his own knack for theology debate and his own rebellious turns along his own development. No doubt, his later distaste for religion may have been partly a product of his own ease with the abstruse subject matter. In the Decline and Fall, Gibbon feels strongly, even if he doesn't always make a show of those feelings. Not surprising for a lifelong bachelor who never really tasted love other than brotherly companionship with his peers and a few desperate people he tried to help. We have to expect his frustrations and resignation to land somewhere, and they land in the Decline and they not infrequently fall all over the figures of his narrative. Maybe not ideal for him, but great, however, for us as readers of a resultingly energized, flowing and sweeping history. The bottom line is that this course is about Gibbon's work, and is a wise investment in time in preparation for committing to reading the Decline and Fall itself. I myself never was sure I wanted to read Gibbon until late in life, as it would have been far too difficult earlier on and I would have been too unsympathetic to his own more obvious prejudices to laugh them off appropriately (which is wise) rather than turn away in a premature disgust from a key work in the understanding of western civilization (no matter what side you're coming at it from -- it's a cornerstone of history to be contended with). Gibbon, as a his own best critic, is intimate only with his subject, and only in this immense book, the culmination of his education, his experience, travels and of his life's work. Imagine the implications of that for a child prodigy turned into a well-educated portly and rather lonely man getting on in years, a man who never found a second chance at a love relationship after being forced to separate from his only lover in the prime of youth. The Decline and Fall was Gibbons' beloved, his purpose, and the leder-hosened and white-wigged Enlightenment figures of his own day all seemed to have typically read the first volume it by the end of the pivotal year of 1776 when it first came out or else had to admit that they hadn't read it yet to their own embarrassment. Influential is an understatement. One has to wonder whether the founding fathers chose their state architecture in part due to Gibbon's eloquently enjoyable and at times impishly ironic tour de force narrative, as Damrosch does point out in the course. The dates certainly seem to line up. As a fellow agnostic and scientifically-leaning Deist, it would not have been the only thing Gibbons and Jefferson had in common, though owning a slave or tolerating the very idea of slavery was certainly not one of those things. Likewise, Gibbons is one of those people educated enough about the history of the ancients to know that slavery was never about race, either, but conquest (very frequently of same-race neighbors of the same faith and culture), and usually the introduction of slavery was done from within the very culture of the enslaved or with their eager help, as is so often missed in most discussions of the history of slavery today. In truth, it's with the help of voices like Gibbons that one can pierce the veil of history and really see modernity we inhabit now, and that the 1770s in America and France were a phase of the onset of that modernity and the beginning of the end of barbaric institutions like slavery, even if in America many land owners in a new plantation-heavy cash crop economy felt the pressure to take advantage of first African and later American slave-traders' human cargo. Perhaps we could all learn that while racism was real and extreme in the past, slavery itself is not inherently about race. It was ignorance about the cultural Other that allowed racism to prolong the institution of slavery in remote parts of the world (in many places today, it continues, but tellingly among same-race people without their own effective barriers to such practices). Students of Edward Said, for example, could read Gibbons with an eye to how the cultural Other was treated throughout history by all cultures we have any record of from any dependable historians in general. Life was harsh in ancient times. Ancient and later a booming Medieval Christianity is admitted to have lessened that harshness by enormous leaps and bounds, even by a non-believing skeptic like Gibbons. Concepts like Manifest Destiny, mythic to we post-moderns today, can be seen as part of the trajectory of modernity itself, only with the help of historians like Gibbons and the sources he draws upon, like Tacitus. Now we recognize it as globalism, but not without Gibbons' early insights. In the histories and the commentaries on those writers he orders for us, we see ourselves where we now are, in our collective initial stages of formation. For example, today no one accepts the idea of slavery if that person considers themselves "modern" (or "post-modern"/contemporary to be more exact). No one thinks democracy isn't preferable to the lack thereof. Nobody thinks it's good to lack education. And no government can stand in good light among the others when it does not uphold the givens of modernity values, which are essentially liberal values, if with a hardy Roman bronze cast to them (that is, a largely Protestant Work Ethic cast). Why these things can be more or less accurately said of modernity to be true is difficult to trace for those who aren't interested in the Humanities in general. But we are a product of Gibbons perhaps as much as we are a part of the rest of the events themselves. He is our Enlightenment era focus on ourselves leading up to the point of global awareness we are fairly accustomed to now as a given commonplace. What we lack from a last man perspective on history, however, is nuance, and an understanding of how it could always go a bit differently here and there in the future if we all simply know more about the evolution of civilization, which is not really "western", but world civilization in a sometimes over-assuming disguise. Christianity as shared humanity. Separation of church and state as protection of stable and humane government, not as a culture war tactic. We haven't yet outgrown liberalism. Gibbons is a useful key as to why if we keep reading widely and wisely, and learn to laugh at human foibles rather than pick up pitchforks at every piercing clarion call.
Date published: 2020-10-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from IN-DEPTH REVIEW OF THE BOOK AND AUTHOR As a historian in the classics I thought this class on one of the ground breaking books on Roman History was fascinating. While this is not a history class anyone how wants a more deeper understanding of the historiography of early classical history this is a must. The class provides great understanding of the author and the sources. Finally the time spend on this will make reading the volumes so much better!
Date published: 2020-09-18
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Books That Matter: The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Course Trailer
The Greatness of Gibbon's Decline and Fall
1: The Greatness of Gibbon's Decline and Fall

Ground your understanding of Gibbon's masterpiece with this helpful introductory lecture. Why was Rome so important to Gibbon and his readers? What makes the periodic style so essential to the Decline and Fall's accessibility? Why should we want to read it today in the 21st century?

32 min
The Making of Gibbon the Historian
2: The Making of Gibbon the Historian

Follow Edward Gibbon's intellectual development: his childhood obsession with reading, his military service, his disappointed love, his social circles, his personal politics, and his life as a "gentleman scholar of leisure." Your primary source for this biographical study: fragments from Gibbon's posthumously published Memoirs.

29 min
The Empire at Its Beginning
3: The Empire at Its Beginning

Before plunging into the Decline and Fall, which starts in the second century A.D., you need a little background in early Roman history. Professor Damrosch reviews the Empire's important provinces (including their strange names), the excessive influence of the Roman military, the emergence of imperial dictatorship, and other facts Gibbon's original readers took for granted.

30 min
The Theory and Practice of History
4: The Theory and Practice of History

It's no accident that the Decline and Fall survives as a great work of history. Here, explore how Gibbon understood the role of the historian; consider what he thought of Hume, Voltaire, and other Enlightenment writers; and discover how he revolutionized the use of extensive documentation in his work.

29 min
The Golden Age of the Antonines
5: The Golden Age of the Antonines

Meet the Antonines: the subject of the first three chapters of the Decline and Fall. From Nerva to Hadrian to Marcus Aurelius, these "five good emperors" ruled "the only period of history in which the happiness of a great people was the sole object of government."

30 min
The Hidden Poison Begins to Work
6: The Hidden Poison Begins to Work

After the peace of the Antonines, things quickly began to fall apart. Describing the horrific reigns of emperors like Commodus, Caracalla, and Elagabalus, Gibbon illustrates the "hidden poison" by which one-man rule produced a vicious cycle of incompetent, power-corrupt emperors.

30 min
Diocletian and the Triumph of Constantine
7: Diocletian and the Triumph of Constantine

Get a close reading of Chapters 8 to 14 of Gibbon's masterpiece. In these pages, follow the first assaults of the barbarians who would eventually bring the Empire to its knees: the Goths. Also, meet two emperors who would radically reshape the structure of the Roman Empire: Diocletian and Constantine.

31 min
Enlightenment Skepticism
8: Enlightenment Skepticism

Consider just how dangerous Gibbon's sociological treatment of Christianity in Chapters 14 and 15 (while grounding the faith in extremely detailed historical analysis) seemed to most of his readers. Rather than focusing on divine providence, the Decline and Fall documents the human causes behind Christianity's evolution into the dominant ideology of the ancient world.

32 min
The Rise of Christianity
9: The Rise of Christianity

Continue your look at Chapters 14 and 15 of the Decline and Fall. In these pages, Gibbon takes up five causes for Christianity's success, including proselytizing zeal the promise of a future life in heaven, but also unprecedented organizational ability. What Gibbon leaves out, however: any imaginative empathy with religion.

30 min
Constantine and Athanasius
10: Constantine and Athanasius

Chapter 17 is the major turning point in the Decline and Fall. What are Gibbon's thoughts on the transferring of the capital to Constantinople, and on Constantine's famous vision of the cross? Why does he give so much attention to theological controversies, and why was he so impressed by Athanasius, the archbishop of Alexandria?

31 min
Julian and the Return to Paganism
11: Julian and the Return to Paganism

Paganism in the Empire didn't go down without a fight. Enter Julian the Apostate, who tried to reinstate the Olympian gods. Here, study Chapters 22 to 24, which are devoted to this last dying gasp of paganism-struck down by Julian's death during an ill-advised military campaign, and afterward by pushback from the Christians.

30 min
Barbarian Advances and Theodosius
12: Barbarian Advances and Theodosius

In the wake of Julian's death there was great confusion, which occupies Chapters 25 to 28. Topics covered here include increased barbarian threats from in Britain, Germany, the Middle East, the Danube, and North Africa; the "chaste and temperate" rule of Theodosius; and Gibbon's intriguing thoughts on Christian veneration of saints' relics.

31 min
East and West Divided
13: East and West Divided

With Rome's fracture into eastern and western camps, the story of the empire's decline begins to get complicated. Learn how to navigate the tricky waters of Chapters 29 to 33, which examine cataclysmic events including the sack of Rome in 410 A.D. and the loss of North Africa to the Vandals.

31 min
Huns and Vandals
14: Huns and Vandals

Professor Damrosch guides you through successive waves of barbarian invaders, beginning with the assault of the Huns, led by Attila. You'll also get Gibbon's insights on the development of barbarian kingdoms, a sequence of nine Roman emperors in just 20 years, and his biased views on the growth of monasticism.

30 min
Theodoric and Justinian
15: Theodoric and Justinian

The first was a Gothic king; the second Rome's eastern emperor. Theodoric and Justinian (along with his general, Belisarius, and his wife, Theodora) dominate Chapters 39 to 44 of the Decline and Fall, which also examines Constantinople's massive building program (including the Hagia Sophia) and the codification of Roman Law.

31 min
The Breakup of the Empire
16: The Breakup of the Empire

After the fall of the empire in the West, how did Byzantium in the East persist for another nine centuries? Start with this look at Chapters 45 to 47, which cover the consolidation of France under Clovis, the establishment of the papacy as the center of Christendom, and a new swarm of religious heresies.

31 min
The Byzantine Empire and Charlemagne
17: The Byzantine Empire and Charlemagne

Turn now to the fifth volume (of the original six) of the Decline and Fall, where the narrative starts to speed up. In addition to covering historical moments like the reign of Charlemagne and the Comnenian dynasty, you'll also consider the implications of Gibbon's "great man" approach to history from the 7th to 11th centuries.

29 min
The Rise of Islam
18: The Rise of Islam

Step back in time to get Gibbon's account of the rise of Islam. Occupying Chapters 50 to 52, this narrative emphasizes how, in Gibbon's view, Islam arrived at a fortunate historical moment when it faced only weak opposition from surrounding powers; he also pays warm tribute to Muhammad's qualities of character.

30 min
The Byzantine Empire in the 10th Century
19: The Byzantine Empire in the 10th Century

At the end of the Decline and Fall's fifth volume, you'll survey the ever-shrinking form of the Byzantine Empire (Chapter 53), early Russians (Chapter 55), Norman conquests in the Mediterranean (Chapter 56), and the expanding dominion of the Turks (Chapter 57).

32 min
The Crusades
20: The Crusades

Gibbon's account of the Crusades focused on the way religion was used to rationalize European military and territorial aggression. Learn what this master historian has to say about the rivalry of Richard the Lionheart and Saladin, the birth of the Crusader States, and military orders like the Knights Templar.

33 min
Genghis Khan and Tamerlane
21: Genghis Khan and Tamerlane

Unpack another turning point in the Decline and Fall: Genghis Khan and the dawn of the Ottoman Empire. Central to this lecture is another of Gibbon's charismatic figures: Tamerlane (known as the "scourge of God"). Then, end with Gibbon's account of the discovery of gunpowder-which would forever change history.

30 min
The Fall of Constantinople
22: The Fall of Constantinople

Chapters 66 to 70 chronicle the final defeat of Byzantium. Topics you'll explore in this lecture include the exiled papal court at Avignon, Mahomet the Second's capture of Constantinople, and the Great Schism from 1378 to 1417.

31 min
The End of Gibbon's Work
23: The End of Gibbon's Work

How did Gibbon keep the Decline and Fall from simply petering out in its final chapter?What were some of his assumptions about the "darkness and confusion" of medieval Europe? See how his visit to the physical ruins of Rome inspired Gibbon's final thoughts on the collapse of the empire and helped to bring his great work to a close.

29 min
Decline and Fall in Modern Perspective
24: Decline and Fall in Modern Perspective

Professor Damrosch ends his course with a reflections on the Decline and Fall in the 21st century. You'll consider why some historians reject the term "fall" in favor of "transformation," together with insistence by recent specialists that there truly was a fall; and also three major blind spots Gibbon exhibits in his history: toward religion, toward Byzantine civilization, and toward the persiste...

33 min
Leo Damrosch

I think the greatest novels make you all too conscious of people's limitations and wounds.


Princeton University


Harvard University

About Leo Damrosch

Dr. Leo Damrosch is the Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Literature Emeritus at Harvard University, where he has been teaching since 1989. He earned a B.A. from Yale University, an M.A. from Cambridge University, where he was a Marshall Scholar, and a Ph.D. from Princeton University. At Harvard, Professor Damrosch was named a Harvard College Professor in recognition of distinguished teaching. He has held National Endowment for the Humanities and Guggenheim research fellowships and has also directed National Endowment for the Humanities summer seminars for college teachers. Dr. Damrosch is the author of several books, including Tocqueville's Discovery of America, Samuel Johnson and the Tragic Sense, Symbol and Truth in Blake's Myth, The Imaginative World of Alexander Pope, Fictions of Reality in the Age of Hume and Johnson, and The Sorrows of the Quaker Jesus: James Nayler and the Puritan Crackdown on the Free Spirit. He also published a biography, Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius, which was one of five finalists for the 2005 National Book Award in Nonfiction, and won the PEN New England/Winship Award for best work of nonfiction.

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