Cleared for Takeoff!

Last night I finished Michael Grant’s “History of Rome”.  I highly recommend it if you are looking for a short (350pp.) overview of Roman history.  It has less detail than Boatwright et al. (see below), but it is written with more of the opinionated, subjective tone that is so helpful to a neophyte in wrapping one’s mind around the enormous scope of the topic.  Also, it goes a bit further-to the fall of the Western Empire in 476 A.D., while Boatwright stops with Constantine in the 4th century.

Fun fact: Did you know that the Roman Empire survived until 1453?  The Eastern Roman Empire, that is.  As early as 285 (with Diocletian), Roman emperors had appointed co-emperors for the Eastern part of the empire, recognizing that the empire was too large and complex for one man to command.  While the Western Roman Empire (whose capital was moved to Milan and then to Ravenna) fell to ruin at the hands of foreign invaders in the 5th Century, the Eastern Roman Empire persisted, based in Constantinople, expanding and contracting over time but mainly occupying what is now Turkey, Israel/Palestine, and Greece, and better known these days as…the Byzantine Empire.  Only in 1453, when Constantinople finally fell to the Ottomans, did the Roman Empire truly come to an end.

One other random observation: One of the most interesting chapters (to me) in Grant’s book is that on the spread of early Christianity, particularly the career of St. Paul.  He makes the point that the spread of Christianity from Palestine, north to Asia Minor then beyond to Greece, North Africa, and Italy itself, was greatly facilitated by the Roman system of roads, which had been developed to facilitate movement of Roman troops around the empire to maintain the status quo.  In fact, without Roman roads to make long-distance travel vastly more feasible, Christianity might never have become a world religion, withering and dying out as an obscure sect in the impoverished backwater of Palestine.   How ironic!  A technology, developed initially for military purposes, was exploited to facilitate communication and coordination of a new, subversive ideology, by a community deeply committed to it, to the detriment of the power structure from which the technology originated.  The parallels with our own time are striking.


So, nothing now stands between me and Gibbon’s masterwork (except David Womersley’s 110-page introduction, though I guess I would consider that part of the book itself).  I look upon this as a double adventure: A trip not only through the ancient and medieval world, but also through the mindset of 18th-century Europe, from which the book itself sprang.  This was the age of Voltaire and Rousseau, of Burke and Paine, of Handel and Rameau, of Fielding and Sterne.  An age with a thousand faults (like all of them!) but with so much to admire, above all the astounding intellectual achievements that breathed new life into Western civilization.

I expect the journey to last 2-3 years or so, and I plan not to rush.  There is so much I, and those around me, do in a hurry-out of necessity for the most part, but it gets to be a habit.  Like everyone else, in most things I don’t have the luxury of a measured pace, savoring each nuance of an experience.  But in reading this book I will take my time, reading each footnote, re-reading passages that on the first pass fail to yield the full blossom of their meaning, cross-referencing, making notes…and blogging.  Onward!


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