The Decline and Fall of the Roman (and American?) Empire: A Free Audiobook

Edward Gib­bon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire – It’s a major work of the Enlight­en­ment, a book that shaped how we mod­erns write his­to­ry (and, for that mat­ter, how we aspire to write in the Eng­lish lan­guage), and it’s now avail­able as a free pod­cast thanks to Lib­rivox. Or at least Vol­ume 1 is. With a run­time of almost 20 hours, this audio­book — click to access indi­vid­ual files or the full zip file — will make it so that you’re not look­ing for the remain­ing vol­umes any time soon. But don’t wor­ry they’re even­tu­al­ly com­ing.

Pub­lished first in 1776, just as the US declared its inde­pen­dence from Eng­land, Gib­bon’s Decline and Fall looked to offer an empir­i­cal expla­na­tion for why Ancient Rome fell as a pow­er, and he gen­er­al­ly point­ed to a decline in civic virtue among its cit­i­zen­ry (why both­er fight­ing the Empire’s wars when you can get mer­ce­nar­ies to do it?) and to the rise of Chris­tian­i­ty (why wor­ry about Rome when a bet­ter life, an eter­nal after­life, awaits you?).

In part, Gib­bon’s work has endured because it speaks to ques­tions that mod­ern pow­ers have on their minds. What brings Empires down, and what (implic­it­ly) allows them to endure? These ques­tions have a cer­tain amount of rel­e­vance these days in an anx­ious US. And indeed Gib­bon’s name was imme­di­ate­ly invoked in a recent pod­cast that asked whether Amer­i­ca, today’s empire, is on the brink. (Click to lis­ten.) The par­al­lels between Gib­bon’s Rome and the con­tem­po­rary Unit­ed States have also been direct­ly explored by the pro­lif­ic, young Har­vard his­to­ri­an, Niall Fer­gu­son. You may want to check out his Octo­ber 2006 piece in Van­i­ty Fair, Empire Falls. And depend­ing on what you think, you can give time to his two books on Empire — the first (and bet­ter) one focus­es on the British Empire, and a sec­ond one devotes itself to the US.

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Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.