Christianity in the Roman World
Symbols of Church and Kingdom: A Study in Early Syriac Tradition
The Fall of the Roman Empire: A Reappraisal
For books on the Roman Empire and on the rise of Christianity to come before a reviewer in 1976 brings author and reviewer alike into the disturbing presence of a mighty shade. Two centuries ago, in 1776, Edward Gibbon published the first volume of his Decline and Fall. It was twelve years previously, in 1764, “as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing Vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind.”
In January of this year, with pardonable hubris, the participants of a congress on Edward Gibbon and his Decline and Fall, organized by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, posed for a group photograph on that spot. The forthcoming issue of Daedalus will range widely and deeply in the immediate intellectual background of Gibbon, and will present a picture less of Gibbon’s relevance to modern scholarship in ancient and medieval history than of the deep roots of Gibbon’s thought and erudition in the religious and social preoccupations of post-Renaissance Europe.
In this review, a group of authors on the period of history that Gibbon himself covered is presented to the shade. An excellent short survey of Roman Social Relations by Professor Ramsay MacMullen; a short work of characteristic intellectual distinction on Christianity in the Roman World by Professor Robert Markus; a sensitive and pioneering study—the most specialized and the most original in our group—of the religious language of a Christian community that stretched from the Roman shore of the eastern Mediterranean deep into Asia, Symbols of Church and Kingdom: A Study in Early Syriac Tradition, by Robert Murray; and The Fall of the Roman Empire: A Reappraisal, skillfully written by Professor Grant, and magnificently illustrated.
The shade would have inspected this group with some curiosity, and would have inspired no little trepidation. For Gibbon’s range was awesome. Within twenty years he had covered the history of a millennium, and in so doing he had scanned almost every society in the Eurasian land mass. What is even more disturbing: before he set pen to paper, he had amassed vast knowledge which he did not even consider worth his while to put into the Decline and Fall, so great was his sense of relevance and of the overriding importance of his main themes. On page ninety-eight Professor MacMullen presents us with a diagram illustrating the distribution of wealth in an Italian region in the reign of the Emperor Trajan: the salient features of Roman society—its “verticality” and the accumulation of wealth and status in the hands of a tiny few—spring to the eye. This is a characteristically felicitous exploitation of data from an inscription—the Veleia tablet. It is the way history is done, and done well, in the 1970s. But Gibbon had seen the Veleia tablet in 1764. He had copied it out:
C’est un travail sec et ingrat, mais quand on construit un Édifice…
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