#131: TACKLING GIBBON. So, you’re talking with friends, and the question comes up: what are you reading? You almost can’t answer The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire without an awful feeling of silliness and pedantry falling over you. Probably no other title would have that forbidding quality—an almost comic frowning weight of seriousness. It’s as if someone said, “What shall we listen to?” and you suggested “How about Wagner—a little bit of “Gotterdammerung,” maybe?” But the prospect of a visit to Rome was calling me on, and I’d always been curious about Gibbon as a stylist, and my knowledge of classical history was spotty anyway. It just seemed like the time. I assumed I’d read twenty pages and then crap out; I’m not really interested in empires when there are poets and artists to read about.
The first shock of it, of course, is the fluency and authority of Gibbon’s style. His language was old-fashioned even at the time of writing, but how better to describe the tragic ironies of Roman history than with Gibbon’s sustained cadences, his grand set pieces, his restrained and polite savagery—like a Rottweiler on a silken leash? Once your ear adjusts to the eighteenth-century rhythms, you realize this is one of literature’s great matchings of subject and manner. Things fall apart—ever so slowly they are built and rebuilt—and then time and human folly place dynamite at the base of that accomplishment—no language better than Gibbon’s captures the slow-motion awfulness of the fall. His narrative can sharpen to focus on the most remarkable range of individuals—from the veniality and cynicism of the worst of the rulers to the nobility and pathos of Boethius—and widen to the varied battlefields and dealings at the edge of the empire. There are longueurs, of course, depending on your interests—I will cheerfully admit to skimming the doctrinal squabbles of the eastern patriarchs, and much heavy breathing on the Monothelite controversy—but every time my interest flagged Gibbon would grab me a few pages further on, sinking his teeth into some new battle or betrayal. And there are unintended ironies as well—when, very late in the day, Gibbon is faced with characterizing the poet Petrarch, you can almost hear the gear-grinding: the scientist trained to deal in pachyderm biology has to dissect a songbird. But those are details, details. E.M. Forster captured it: “It is impossible, through reading alone, to interpret the past. Nor is emotion enough. The historian must have a third quality as well: some conception of how men who are not historians behave. Otherwise he will move in a world of the dead. He can only gain that conception through personal experience, and he can only use his personal experiences when he is a genius. In Gibbon, as in no other English historian, this tenuous circle was complete. He was a genius who read, dreamed, and also knew — knew, by direct contact, a fragment of the rough stuff of society, and extended his knowledge through the ages.” At the end of this huge work—“Another damned, thick, square book!” said the Duke of Gloucester, on receiving the final volume—we have had our knowledge considerably extended as well, and are set on the high places that only the first rank of artists can bring us, in any medium. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire has been described as the greatest of the accomplishments of the Enlightenment, and at last you bow to that judgment.
The edition I read was the Modern Library reprint in three (thick, square) volumes, edited by Oliphant Smeaton, who gets very, very flustered when Gibbon sticks one of his carefully-sharpened knives into the doings of the papacy. Penguin does a more recent edition, also in three volumes. Try an abridgment if the full text intimidates you—you’ll be surprised. While I’m thinking of things for other people to do, someone should do a website with maps matched chapter-by-chapter with Gibbon’s text, as an aid to placing yourself amidst the antique place-names. That failing, a valuable aid is Chris Scarre’s book The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Rome (1995), which will help you get your bearings not only geographically but with an outline history that will help place you amid the welter of Gibbon’s text.
Another splendid—shorter—book to read is Rome: A Cultural, Visual and PersonalHistory, by the great art critic Robert Hughes—it was his last book but, as with his biography of Goya, it’s both readable and commanding. It’s a quick ride through a vast topic, but Hughes never relinquishes his personal feeling or his puckish humor. He’s always willing to follow his topics where they lead him, whether in the influence of Roman artists outside of Rome, or the non-Roman artists who visited and depended on the city for inspiration, and his evocation of the works of art and architecture can be almost as sensuous as the works themselves. (Hughes on a Bernini sculpture: “Nobody had tried to illustrate in sculpture things in transition, to convey what was incomplete or in the very process of change. Yet in “Apollo and Daphne” we do see the change from girl to tree happening before our eyes; the bark enveloping and encasing her little body; softness giving way to ligneous toughness; movement turning into rootedness.”) When he gets on to architecture, Hughes really stretches his wings, placing the buildings in their political and historical settings. He’s at his most mordant when describing works that have gone terribly wrong: he calls Sacconi’s memorial to Vittorio Emanuele II “the largest and most stupefyingly pompous memorial to a national leader in Western Europe” and gives a list of its ruder nicknames. Towards the end he does not spare the city’s current want of new, great art, and ends with a grand slam on the annoyances of overcrowded tourism: “Painting and sculpture are silent arts, and deserve silence (not phony reverence, just quiet) from those who look at them. Let it be inscribed on the portals of the world’s museums: what you will see in here is not meant to be a social experience. Shut up and use your eyes. Groups with guides, docents, etc., admitted Wednesdays only, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Otherwise, just shut the fuck up, please, pretty please, if you can, if you don’t mind, if you won’t burst. We have come a long way to look at these objects, too. We have not done so to listen to your golden words. Capisce?” Capisco bene.
A poem by Eugenio de Andrade on Rome, translated by Alexis Levitin (from ForbiddenWords, New Directions, 2003):