'This is exactly how civilisations fall': Historian Niall Ferguson's dramatic take on the Paris attacks

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Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is one of the great works of written history. It comes in six volumes, and was published over 12 years starting in 1776. It covers how the Roman Empire fell from its glory over centuries, eventually crumbling to nothing.

Over the weekend prominent historian Niall Ferguson, the presenter of the TV series Civilisation, has drawn an analogy between the bloodshed in Paris last Friday and what was the beginning of the end for the Roman Empire.

Ferguson declares he is here “to tell you that this is exactly how civilisations fall.”

He continues:

Here is how Edward Gibbon described the Goths’ sack of Rome in August 410AD: “ … In the hour of savage licence, when every ­passion was inflamed, and every restraint was removed … a cruel slaughter was made of the ­Romans; and … the streets of the city were filled with dead bodies … Whenever the Barbarians were provoked by opposition, they ­extended the promiscuous massacre to the feeble, the innocent, and the helpless…”.

Now, does that not describe the scenes we witnessed in Paris on Friday night? True, Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published in six volumes between 1776 and 1788, represented Rome’s demise as a slow burn. Gibbon covered more than 1400 years of history. The causes he identified ranged from the personality disorders of individual emperors to the power of the Praetorian Guard and the rise of Sassanid Persia. Decline shaded into fall, with monotheism acting as a kind of imperial dry rot.

He later says that modern Europe is starting to display some of the characteristics of Rome at its apogee. He says:

… Europe has allowed its defences to crumble. As its wealth has grown, so its military prowess has shrunk, along with its self-belief. It has grown decadent in its malls and stadiums. At the same time, it has opened its gates to outsiders who have coveted its wealth without ren­ouncing their ancestral faith.

The forces that lead to the crumbling of an entire hegemony are incredibly complex. But the parallels are powerful and the full piece, first published in Britain’s The Sunday Times, is in The Australian today, and worth a read.

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