The title of Palmer’s book is generally familiar, and he acknowledges directly that he’s writing a similar book to Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in the introduction. However, this is a ’90s book for a more casual audience, and so isn’t anywhere near as long or as moralizing as Gibbon’s classic.

And… maybe a little moralizing would help. He does a good job describing a lot of the events of the Ottoman Empire’s slow breakup, but never really tries to posit any real reason why such a strong state should come apart, and why it took so much longer to do so than many outside observers assumed. A large part of this, is that you never get a good picture of the Empire as a whole, with the bulk of the attention being tied up with the person of the Sultan, and innermost circle of advisers and diplomats.

Palmer picks the failure of the second siege of Vienna (1683) as the starting point of his book, which seems to be a good one. I had not realized just how battered the Empire was in the next few years, with revolts in Greece, and various European powers picking up what they could. But like the Byzantine Empire before them, the Ottomans recover, and retake almost everything that was lost.

After a decent amount of detail in this section, coverage becomes light, but slowly picks up detail again, with the 19th Century (understandably) taking up a fair amount of the book. The various diplomatic maneuverings of Europe around the ‘sick man’ are covered in more and more detail as time passes. WWI itself isn’t as detailed, but the actual fighting of the war is not the primary focus. Instead, we get good broad accounts of the activity on the fronts, increasing Arab restlessness, and the maneuverings of the men at the top. The ‘post WWI’ struggles of Kemal, and the final fall of the Sultanate and Caliphate are handled in some detail.

It’s a very good introductory account of all these events, and probably at its strongest at the beginning and the end, which deal with subjects that don’t get enough coverage in histories. The real shortcoming is the lack of any kind of look at how it all came to be. There’s a good amount on the efforts to ‘Westernize’ (and to resist Westernizing) the Empire late in its life, but Palmer does little to show just how the Ottomans ended up with with a dysfunctional system that left them unable (or likely, unwilling) to adapt, and unable to impose its will within its own borders.