More recent historians of antiquity have tended to reject the idea of a "decline," emphasizing instead a gradual transition to a post-Roman world. Still, the drastic decline in political order and literacy following the end of Roman Mediterranean rule does seem to indicate a diminishing of social organization. Gibbon accounted for this, in part, by arguing that the very success of the Romans introduced stresses that ultimately caused the organization to come apart. We might regard him as the true originator of the "imperial overreach" idea that Paul Kennedy revived a couple of decades ago. Rome stretched itself to the point where it could not effectively control its vast territories, in the process becoming vulnerable to attacks from tribal groups that learned its techniques of warfare and to incompletely Romanized immigrant settlers. These same tendencies may still exist for political powers today, although we can legitimately ask whether the power of political organization is today much greater as a result of our far superior technologies of communication and transportation.
Tuesday, February 7, 2012
Made of Paper: Gibbon, Toynbee, and Spengler
In my early twenties, I developed a strange fondness for multi-volume, philosophically inclined historical works. The best of these was Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I was captivated by Gibbon's literary style, the elaborate irony of his balanced clauses, that seemed the perfect expression of his cool analyses. Gibbon did not originate the idea of decline, nor was he the first to ask why the Roman Empire declined and disappeared. He was arguably thinking about his own time as he looked back to antiquity, and this adds an extra irony to the great book, since Britain was then not in decline, but at the beginning of its ascent to empire. Or maybe this just made Gibbon more prophetic.