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

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
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Analysis of a Brilliant Historian I binged the course as I could not but forge on to the next lesson...I will redo the course once I have read the books myself...I am an older learner of 75 plus. I wish could have had the time to enjoy an in person lecture of Professor Damrosch years ago...I feel fortunate to have found this presentation...He has a dry humor I find pleasant and a knowledge of the subject I find amazing...I highly recommend the course...
Date published: 2020-08-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from History within History Professor Damrosch's elegant delivery and deep knowledge of Gibbon's classic history of the Roman Empire...its decline and fall...makes this set of lectures much more than a Cliff-Notes type survey of a book. His insights of Gibbon as an author, as well as an historian, gives this student a much more intimate look at the Roman Empire as seen through the eyes of a man living at the height of the British Empire. Those insights have influenced historians, as well as political theorists, ever since it was published in the late 18th century. I'm barely into reading the first book of Gibbon six volume tome and, I must confess that I find Professor Damrosch's summations much easier to understand. I will persevere, however...I owe that to Eddy! I found the audio version (mine from Audible) to be perfectly adequate...the guidebook is just OK. As always, a sale makes sense...a coupon is divine!
Date published: 2020-05-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Gibbon's " Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire" Magnificent analysis of Edward Gibbon's "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire". Professor Leo Damrosch reveals how the Enlightenment of the 18th Century influenced Gibbon's view of the Roman Empire and places the book in its time. Nice summations of many chapters of this massive work. Highly recommended.
Date published: 2020-05-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Terrific! What a terrific, balanced, thoughtful and thought-provoking course. Definitely one of my favorite Great Courses so far. It really deepened my understanding of both the Roman Empire (etc.) and Enlightenment thought. "Decline and Fall" covers such a large period of history, the course can't really go in depth in covering all of it, so it would likely be difficult to digest everything if you don't have some grounding in at least some of it, but the course did give me some incredibly valuable perspectives that I deeply missed in many of the more standard history courses. It was a pleasure from beginning to end. I would love to see more courses from Damrosch.
Date published: 2020-04-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great overview of an important book Great and thorough oversight of a classic book, giving you the man and his opus. I learned a lot, particularly as to why Gibbons' book was so anti-Christian.
Date published: 2020-04-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I was a History major many years ago, but never had a chance to Really get into Roman history. Now I do. Great Course's DVD and small book with it are bringing in an immense amount of detail that I never knew about this part of the world. Thank you, Great Courses. I'll always be buying your various subjects, but especially, History.
Date published: 2020-03-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from History as Literature Professor Damrosch provides an overview of Gibbon as a person and as a historian that helps orient us to the way Gibbon approaches -- and interprets -- his effort to cover more than 1,200 years that spanned the "golden age" of Rome to the final fall of the Eastern Roman Empire late in the 15th century. His lectures make it clear that Gibbon was a remarkable writer whose language repeatedly enchants and draws in the reader. I confess that I am now actually inclined to read the work for myself, despite the fact that it is thousands of pages long. After all, I am currently slogging through the thousands of pages of Livy's History of Rome, and I have read -- and deeply enjoyed -- the 11,000 page history by Will and Ariel Durant, "The History of Civilization." I have avoided doing so before this because I was under the (mistaken) impression that many of Gibbon's interpretations had been exposed as biased by later historians. Professor Damrosch does not shrink from speaking of the inevitable shortcomings that Gibbon, indeed, any writer inevitably brings to the table -- points of view, even prejudices, that -- common to a specific time and place -- are somewhat invisible to the writer. Thus Gibbon, very much a child of the Enlightenment, joins his personal inclination to regard "history" as primarily the story of what great leaders and generals have accomplished (he writes relatively little of the common person nor of larger cultural developments, for instance). He also, like many of his educated colleagues, regards "religion" as generally a weakness, one that not only reveals the superstition(s) of the believer but which also, all too frequently, lamentably causes waves of persecutions against those that some regard as "heretics" or "infidels." It is also very clear, however, that so many "religious" figures throughout history have behaved abominably, even towards many of their co-believers, and the period covered by Gibbon's work includes many of the worst examples of these. Nonetheless, with these and other reservations allowed for, Damrosch convincingly insists that Gibbon's work remains a towering work of both history and literature. Gibbon worked tirelessly to establish the factual basis on what he wrote, and willingly quoted earlier writers whom he regarded as trustworthy in their account of their own times. Lastly, I concur with Damrosch's closing comments in which he said that the decline and fall of the Roman Empire (east and west) was both a transformation and an ending. Many of the invading tribes in the West did settle down and maintain many of the administrative and cultural aspects of the former empire, thus becoming inheritors of much that the empire represented. But it was also a time of definite changes that marked significant endings: dramatic decline in trade and literacy, increased instability and violence, and vast dislocations of whole peoples. For anyone interested either in Gibbon's masterwork or in the period, I highly recommend this course.
Date published: 2019-09-27
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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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