The Content of Our Character: Lessons from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Volume One


Besides being an object of general intellectual curiosity, the decline and fall of the ancient Roman Empire has long held a special fascination for those concerned with the health and well-being of a subsequent empire. After all, if the later empire could understand the mistakes of the former one, perhaps they — and the attendant imperial decline — could be avoided. Edward Gibbon, who wrote his monumental, six-volume History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as the British Empire was arising and the American Empire was aborning, certainly seems to have thought so. This lecture will survey Gibbon’s account of “the beginning of the end” for Rome as told in volume one of his work, with special attention to the lessons Gibbon believed he had gleaned from that pivotal period — most of which deal with a perceived decline and fall of the Roman national character. Continue reading

Hubris and Empire: Livy on the Early History of Rome


The Roman Empire is frequently evoked as a cautionary tale for modern America. Rising from humble beginnings, Rome dominated the western world for over 600 years before falling to barbarian hordes and its own dysfunction. As a Republic, Rome developed institutions based on law and justice that were used by the Founding Fathers of the United States as models for their own government, but which may also have contained the seeds of their own destruction. In this course we will read and discuss the first five books of Livy’s history, Ab Urbe Condita (From the Founding of the City), often known in English as The History of Rome. These books begin with the semi-mythical founding of Rome by Romulus and chronicle the early development Republic. Through his discussion of early Rome, Livy also gives us a commentary on the contemporary upheavals that he witnessed during his own lifetime as Rome moved from Republic to Empire under Julius and Augustus Caesar. Continue reading

Aeneas Gets an Epic: Virgil’s Aeneid and the Invention of the ‘Greco-Roman’ World


Both in its conception and in its execution, Virgil’s Roman epic the Aeneid is intimately dependent upon Homer’s Greek epics the Iliad and the Odyssey.  Indeed Virgil goes out of his way to both imitate Homer’s poems and to connect his story with Homer’s stories.  This lecture will explore the various relationships between Virgil’s work and Homer’s works in order to better understand both the Aeneid as a work of literature and Virgil’s cultural project to portray Rome as an integral part of the classical Greek world. Continue reading

Delivered from Destruction: The Bible’s Exodus and Virgil’s Aeneid


Origin or foundation epics are common to many cultures. In this course we will examine two such epics side-by-side: the Exodus epic (Exodus-Joshua) from the Bible, in which the Israelites are transformed from slaves in Egypt into masters in Canaan, and Virgil’s Aeneid, in which the vanquished at Troy are transformed into the victors at (what will become) Rome. Through careful consideration of both stories we will seek to better understand each epic in its own right as well as what the two stories have in common and what makes each story unique. Continue reading

Divine Epics [3]: The Qur’an and The Aeneid


Both the Aeneid and the Qur’an can be viewed as the culmination of divine trilogies — the Aeneid completes the story begun in the Iliad and Odyssey, and the Qur’an follows the Hebrew Bible and New Testament (or, more precisely: the Torah and the Gospel).  This course will examine these “sequels,” both as independent works and in terms of their relationships to their precursors.  In addition, we will also compare and contrast Virgil’s account of the “Trojan exodus” of Aeneas, which culminates in the foundation of Rome, with the Exodus from Egypt, which culminates in the foundation of Israel. Continue reading