An Audio-Book Review: Constantinople (Not Istanbul)

The (History of) the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

By Edward Gibbon

Abridged Edition published by Naxos Audiobooks

Read by Philip Madoc with Neville Jason

The Texts:

Whatever possessed me to listen to this? The concept amused me, I suppose. Certainly this is proof positive that anything can be made into an audiobook. Next  week I think I’ll listen to Webster’s Third International Dictionary.

I say that jokingly, but I did find myself looking up the definition of the word “Decline” in Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language. His, definition, by the way is:

DECL’INE. f. The ʃtate of tendency to the worʃe; diminuation; decay. Prior.

I looked it up because I wondered if the meaning of the word had changed since the 18th Century. Apparently it had not, but Gibbon, while supposedly starting his history around  98 CE, goes back and discusses Augustus and the other Julio-Claudian Caesars so often that it is fair to say he covers the entire period of the Empire and since it was still growing up to the time of the Antonines it seemed to me that there might be a more obscure meaning to the word similar to the way in which “Descent” was used in Darwin’s The Descent of Man. Sure it means Man came down through the ages, but I do not believe that Darwin meant to imply that we were a higher form of life as roaming bands of plains apes.  Well maybe we were, just what is a higher form of life anyway? Sounds somewhat humanocentric to me… Moving on now.

Edward Gibbon has been hailed as the first modern historian and  I would not debate that, but he was a very early modern historian and the discipline of historical study only began to  evolve into its current state under his aegis. In a sense, his history is bridge between the more modern histories of the Nineteenth Centuries and onward and that which came before, but certainly his methodology and theories set the course.

My complaints of the work, however, are more about the long rambling and not-completely lineal manner in which he wrote down the history of the Roman Empire. I said above he supposedly starts with the Age of the Antonines, which he is not entirely wrong in placing before us as the height of the Roman Empire. He discusses the extent and military might of the Empire at that time and of its prosperity and unity. Then he goes back to discuss the Emperors from Augustus to Domitian.

Gibbon demonstrates, perhaps to an extreme that no history, whether ancient, medieval or modern, is entirely unbiased and even when attempted with neutrality (not something Gibbon attempts, by the way) it will always reflect the views attitudes and methodologies of the time and culture the historian lives in. Sellar and Yeatman said it best in their classic parody of English history 1066 and All That, “History is not what you thought. It is what you can remember. All other history defeats itself.” Gibbon’s memory of Roman history was phenomenal, but it was tinted by what he considered right and normal in the Eighteenth Century.

Not that his work was non-controversial when published. Much of what Gibbon said, especially about the effects of Christianity on the Roman Empire, spark great debate about and even attacks on his monumental work. Aside from contemporary controversies, he also makes offhanded statements that are not politically correct in the Twenty-first Century. Blame his cultural milieu and how it differs from our own more modern prejudices. I suspect in a couple hundred years people will look back on the works of Twenty-first Century writers and say, “What a load of insufferable gits they were!” Come to think of it, there are plenty who say that today…

In any case Gibbon tend to jump back and forth every so often, but bit by bit he does move forward, probably because he definitely has his favorite characters. Listening to the text I got the impression that in Gibbon’s view the only good emperors of the first two centuries of the Empire were Augustus, Trajan and the Antonines, although he admits that Vespasion’s brief reign was not bad, but considers most of the rest to be monsters. After The Antonines he seems to have respected Severus and then just sort of suffers through the rest until the reign of Julian the Apostate, which was definitely one of his faves.

The Firesign Theater once referred satirically to Benjamin Franklin as “The only President of the United States who was never President of the United States.” In the same way, although with no satiric intent, the famed general, Flavius Belisarius, comes off as the only Emperor of Rome who was never Emperor of Rome, but Gibbon obviously liked and respected him. And I suppose this is quite understandable. Belisarius was a military commander of the traditional Roman mold – a latter day Caesar on the field and yet incredibly loyal to his emperor even when Justinian does not appear to have deserved such loyalty. Under Belisarius’ command, the Roman legions (of Byzantium) reconquered a large portion of the Western portion of the original empire.

We also get to hear about a host of bad emperors and other whacky characters, the one I remember most was Constantine V who was also known as Copronymus due to having an… ahem… accident while being dunked in the baptismal font.

Well, there’s a lot more of the history of the Roman Empire to go even from that point and Gibbon covers not only that but the establishment of the Merovingian and Carolingian empires, the rise of Tamberlain to the throne of Samarkand and his conquests and influence and, as the range and influence of Byzantium starts to shrink, Gibbon follows it down through the ages until it’s conquest in 1453. So while halfway through the history, Gibbon declares that the Empire was no longer Roman in any meaningful way, the empire did persist for over fifteen hundred years. Not a bad run as empires go, really.

But wait! There’s more. After the end of the Byzantine (or Greek as Gibbon refers to it) Empire, he goes on to discuss Church schisms and then finishes up discussing how little material culture is left from the Roman Empire. He does not use that term “material culture,” of course, he merely discusses how few ruins from the ancient world are left. Ironically we have more of them to see now that he did, but keep in mind that Gibbon lived before the birth of modern archaeology. The only ruins he knew about were those that somehow managed to remain standing and in plain view, like the Coliseum.

So, what we have here is a monumental work of history at the turning point in the history of the Discipline of History. Yes it is biased – I said above all histories are slanted in some way. It was very controversial in its day because he blamed Christianity for the Fall of Rome (and ironically for its stability at times. Apparently you can have it both ways) and is debated widely today for some of the same reasons, but in this case because modern historians use economic and military analysis to describe the decline of Rome and tend to discount the effects of religious belief. I have encountered one, somewhat compelling theory that it was a large eruption of Krakatoa that caused the cooling temperatures, crop failures and economic decline that began the final decline from Justinian onwards. In a century, they will probably look at Rome, based on how often one visited the public baths.

The Audio Book:                                                     

I was rather surprised to discover how many recordings there were of Gibbon’s famous work on Ancient Rome. I suppose it should not have surprised me. The book is justifiably famous; a landmark of the evolution of history in general and it is public domain so no royalties need be paid to the Gibbon Estate. Still it is amazingly long (well, not that amazing, it did take twenty years to write) and I am thankful this edition was abridged. Even in its shortened form, I found myself humming “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” throughout much of the latter sections of the work. Eventually I worked out a rendition of it to sing while playing my ukulele. Depending on your opinion of ukulele music, you might add that to the crimes of Edward Gibbon.

This version was mercifully shorter than it might have been. Both narrators have those educated British accents I jokingly refer to as the authoritative Roman way of speaking. Actually, for an abridged edition I think they do it correctly. One reader (Philip Madoc, I think) reads Gibbon’s actual text and the other (Neville Jason, probably) reads the summations of the passages that take place between the actual texts. The two men’s voices are just different enough for the listener to easily distinguish whether they are listening to Gibbon’s words or to someone’s summary.

The one thing I personally found jarring, but which other might not was the choice of Nineteenth Century orchestral music used to usher in and out each chapter of the book. Had the music been something Baroque, say Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, I would have assumed the producers were trying to give us a sense of the world as Gibbon experienced it. Had they used music played in some recent reconstruction of ancient instruments (we don’t know what they really sounded like, but these are educated guesses that have a fair degree of plausibility depending on the culture – in fact there has been some interesting work done from description on cuneiform tablets), I could have believed they were setting the mood for the period of the subject matter. And that music could have evolved from water organ music to early polyphony right on to the Ars Nova period and a bit beyond. But no, they chose a selection of monumentally imposing (and slow) tracks from the Romantic period which has a connection to neither Gibbon nor Rome, save for the coincidence of its linguistic roots.

Warning, this is a very long set of tracks and if you have no interest in history, especially the history of the latter Roman Empire, this is not for you. If this sort of thing does interest you, well just keep in mind that the nature of history, cultural prejudices and much more has changed in over two centuries. Otherwise, enjoy it. it’s educational and a lot 0f the long boring parts have been excised from this edition.

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