Through Chapter 5

Pages read: 247
Pages left to read: 3,058

I have been remiss both in blogging and reading, the former more so than the latter.  148 pages into Gibbon’s writing, I am enjoying it immensely.  Gibbon’s style is eloquent without being fussy.  Despite his awe-inspiring scholarship, his writing is immensely readable and he is a wonderful storyteller.  I am sure that he has filled in some of the gaps in details with subjective speculation (or worse, romanticization of the “golden age” of the empire in the early 2nd century A.D.), and he definitely assigns to most of the characters in his history the role of hero or villain.  He also has a strong tendency to generalize (unflatteringly) the characters of entire swaths of humanity, as when he states, of Pannonia (a Roman province encompassing primarily parts of modern-day Hungary and Austria) “the climate [is] adapted…to the production of great bodies and slow minds” or refers (repeatedly) to the “effeminacy” of the nations of the modern-day Middle East and the “savagely independent…barbarians” of Bosnia.  But he certainly makes the history he relates coherent and riveting.  Last but not least, his language is plain-He makes little enough use of obscure words that it was not until page 68 that I had to make use of a dictionary (but there are a few Scrabble words in this blog posting; see below).

The topic of Gibbon’s sources is rather interesting.  In his preface he states “I have carefully examined all the original materials that could illustrate the subject which I had undertaken to treat”-A testament not only to his scholarly diligence but also to the lamentable paucity of primary sources in Roman history.  For most of the first five chapters (the last of which I have just finished) his footnotes refer to a handful of sources, such as the Historia Augusta or the history of Cassius Dion.  One cannot help but wonder whether the virtue of Pertinax or the degeneracy of Commodus, as they appear in Gibbon, are true to life, or the invention of a chronicler working a century later based on hearsay and legend.  Gibbon does on occasion show some of the instinct of a modern historian in interpreting the ancient chroniclers through the overall context of their work and that of their contemporaries, as where he points out, with regard to one of the ministers of the Emperor Commodus: “Dion gives a much less odious character of Perennis, than the other historians.  His moderation is almost a pledge of his veracity.”

It’s a bit hard to know what else to say about the 148 pages I’ve read so far and the 100-odd years of Roman history it covers.  For the latter, it is a pageant of savagery punctuated with brief moments of  nobility, too sweeping to say anything coherent about here.  I will try to make more frequent-and shorter-blog posts that focus in on individual events or personages as they come up in future reading.  It does, however, seem worth setting down a few memorable quotations that are very revealing of Gibbon’s overall attitude towards history and humanity:

As long as mankind shall continue to bestow more liberal applause on their destroyers than on their benefactors, the thirst of military glory will ever be the vice of the most exalted characters.

Caesar had provoked his fate, as much by the ostentation of his power, as by his power itself…Augustus was sensible that mankind is governed by names; nor was he deceived in his expectation, that the senate and people would submit to slavery, provided they were respectfully assured, that they still enjoyed their ancient freedom.

History…is, indeed, little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.

It is the part of a wise man, to forget the inevitable calamities of human life in the enjoyment of the fleeting hour.

The power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy, except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous.

One last thought.  I was struck by this passage (emphases are mine):

The wide extent of territory, which is included between the Inn, the Danube, and the Save; Austria Styria, Carinthia, Carniola, the Lower Hungary and Sclavonia, was known to the ancients under the names of Noricum and Pannonia.

Most of the “modern” place names cited by Gibbon are now obsolete.  How long will today’s national identities and boundaries remain, and what will replace them?

And now for this posting’s allotment of Scrabble words!

manumission: Formal release from slavery or servitude

celerity: Swiftness, speed; usually applied to the actions of humans rather than objects

tutelar: Synonym of “tutelary”, i.e. having the position of supernatural protector or guardian

lucubration: Literally, the act of working by artificial light; in common usage, the act of nocturnal study


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