Edward Gibbon (1737 – 1794) is the greatest historian to write in English, and so far as I can tell in any language. His greatness rests on four pillars. His knowledge of his subject (the Roman world from antiquity to the fall of Constantinople in 1453) is more than encyclopedic; it’s beyond understanding. His use of primary sources made him the first modern historian. He was a very wise observer. And finally his prose style is just about the best in English. His rolling sentences, vivid dependent clauses, startling images, and ironic humor make reading him a pleasurable experience independent of the information he dispenses which is unequaled in a single source. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is a six volume tour de force that is unlikely to be matched. And he did it without a computer!

Here are two brief excerpts from chapter 44 which is devoted to Roman jurisprudence:

A Locrian who proposed any new law stood forth in the assembly of the people with a cord round his neck, and, if the law was rejected, the innovator was instantly strangled. The salutary effect the restoration of this practice would have on civil life is obvious.

[T]he civil jurisprudence …still continued a mysterious science and a profitable trade, and the innate perplexity of the study was involved in tenfold darkness by the private industry of the practitioners. The expense of the pursuit sometimes exceeded the value of the prize, and the fairest rights were abandoned by the poverty or prudence of the claimants. Such costly justice might tend to abate the spirit of litigation, but the unequal pressure serves only to increase the influence of the rich and to aggravate the misery of the poor. By these dilatory and expensive proceeding the wealthy pleader obtains a more certain advantage than he could hope from the accidental corruption of his judge. The experience of an abuse from which our own age and country are not perfectly exempt may sometimes provoke a generous indignation, and extort the hasty wish of exchanging our elaborate jurisprudence for the simple summary decrees of a Turkish cadhi. Our calmer reflection will suggest that such forms and delays are necessary to guard the person and property of the citizen, that the discretion of the judge is the first engine of tyranny, and that the laws of a free people should forsee and determine every question that may probably arise in the exercise of power and the transactions of industry. But the government of Justinian united the evils of liberty and servitude; and the Romans were oppressed at the same time by the multiplicity of their laws and the arbitrary will of their master. The underlining was added by me.