The Pequod Review:
Edward Gibbon’s eight-volume work The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is a masterpiece of style, one perhaps better read as philosophy or fiction rather than a fully-accurate historical study. The book has an undeserved reputation for being a heavy read; while it is very long (and I confess I have only read four volumes), it is in fact an exceedingly enjoyable reading experience, full of irony, wit, and a biting sense of humor. Gibbon must have enjoyed himself greatly as he was writing perfectly constructed sentences like these:
Trajan was ambitious of fame; and as long as mankind shall continue to bestow more liberal applause on their destroyers than on their benefactors, the thirst of military glory will ever be the vice of the most exalted characters.
Yet every physician is prone to exaggerate the inveterate nature of the disease which he has cured.
The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful.
And his work is not merely useful as a history of the Roman Empire, but has relevance to recurring themes across political and social history.
In the various states of society, armies are recruited from very different motives. Barbarians are urged by the love of war; the citizens of a free republic may be prompted by a principle of duty; the subjects, or at least the nobles, of a monarchy, are animated by a sentiment of honor; but the timid and luxurious inhabitants of a declining empire must be allured into the service by the hopes of profit, or compelled by the dread of punishment.
There exists in human nature a strong propensity to depreciate the advantages, and to magnify the evils, of the present times.
By the Venetians, the use of gunpowder was communicated without reproach to the sultans of Egypt and Persia, their allies against the Ottoman power; the secret was soon propagated to the extremities of Asia; and the advantage of the European was confined to his easy victories over the savages of the new world. If we contrast the rapid progress of this mischievous discovery with the slow and laborious advances of reason, science, and the arts of peace, a philosopher, according to his temper, will laugh or weep at the folly of mankind.
And while Gibbon was not atheist, he distrusted the Roman Catholic Church and other forms of institutionalized religion (which led him to perhaps blame the Church too much for the downfall of the empire):
The influence of the clergy, in an age of superstition, might be usefully employed to assert the rights of mankind; but so intimate is the connection between the throne and the altar, that the banner of the church has very seldom been seen on the side of the people.