Many chronicles of Late Antiquity, whether their authors recorded contemporary events or reflected on a recent past, are full of anguish. Ammianus Marcellinus mourns the death of Julian and the Battle of Adrianople, Zosimus decries the Empire's Christianization and crumbling institutions, John of Ephesus catalogues the horrors of the plague, Salvian finds the Huns more virtuous than his fellow citizens. It is no wonder that Edward Gibbon, Rome's first modern historian, named his account of the Roman Empire's last millennium The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Gibbon's frame so indelibly imprinted itself on the modern consciousness of this period that people seldom noticed its fundamental incoherence: A polity...

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