The overture has begun!

February 14, 2010

I have finally finished “unwinding” my partially-read stack of books with the completion of “The Angel’s Game” by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (which I still recommend, though the ending was a bit of a letdown given the high standards of most of the book).  So the runway has been cleared, at least for the preliminary background works in Roman history mentioned in my last post.

I am starting with “Romans: From Village to Empire” by Mary Boatwright (click on the image to go to the Amazon page for this book):

It’s actually written by three authors (faculty at Duke, University of Kentucky, and University of North Carolina), who divided up the work according to time period.  I’m only 30 pages in, but so far I find it very well-written, neither dumbed-down nor overly pedantic.  In the chapter I just finished there is a striking statement regarding Italy in the “Archaic Period” (more or less corresponding to the 6th Century B.C.), when war became much more commonplace and widespread, and also when class divisions become more evident in the archaeological record:

“For many, dependence on the rich and powerful was unavoidable.  So long as communal organizations were relatively weak, only powerful families, with their many armed retainers, could offer protection from war and other forms of violence.”

I find this simple point quite compelling. Prior to the appearance in any society of advanced weaponry, armor, and fighting techniques, one man is more or less as good a warrior as another (aside from innate physical capabilities), and no man need depend on another for his defensive needs or aggressive predilections, except as an equal member of a community acting in unison.  But when fighting becomes a specialized skill, the non-warrior becomes dependent on the warrior, or the person who organizes the warriors and procures their services on behalf of the non-warrior.  With that dependency comes power, and suddenly that the equality that had characterized the society has vanished.  Thus, the origins of class lie in the development of the “art” of fighting .  To you this might seem ho-hum (or a wild oversimplification given the other factors that are involved in the appearance of class distinctions), but I’ve never thought of it that way before.

Starting to ramp up

January 29, 2010

Well, nearly a month has gone by and I’m slightly less far from embarking on this exercise in foolishness.

I have been working through my stack of books that I had started but never finished, to “clear the decks”, to to speak, for Mr. Gibbon. In the last month I have wrapped up:

  • Toilers of the Sea, by Victor Hugo (which I highly recommend).
  • The Gates of Life, by Bram Stoker (which I do not).
  • The Forge of Christendom, by Tom Holland (a very interesting work of medieval history).

I am on my last one: Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (which promises to be a real page-turner).

Before diving into the Decline itself, I plan to read a few general works on Roman history. Gibbon assumes a moderate degree of familiarity with Roman history and my prior, abortive attempt to conquer Gibbon’s work left me flummoxed after only a few pages, wondering “who the hell is this Trajan guy he keeps talking about?”. So I have ordered the following books, and anticipate their imminent arrival.  Hopefully ths will bring my background knowledge on the subject to the level of an educated 18th-century Englishman, though perhaps of the feckless, flighty, and snuff-addled variety.

1. The History of Rome by Michael Grant

2. Romans: From Village to Empire by Mary Boatwright

3. The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Rome

So if all goes well, in a few weeks I’ll have made it through those selections and ready to depart on my long journey with Mr. Gibbon. Or maybe I’ll rediscover the joy of Tetris in between now and then and decide to chuck the whole idea!

Not quite the beginning…

January 1, 2010

As the story goes, Edward Gibbon, the 18th-century historian and man of letters, got the idea of writing a history of the end of the Roman Empire while sitting on one of Rome’s fabled seven hills gazing out over its ancient ruins.

As is perhaps fitting, I conceived the far more pedestrian undertaking that this blog will relate (and in fact be part of) under much more prosaic circumstances: Watching Nora Ephron’s film “Julie and Julia” with my wife Eleni.  The film tells the (true) story of a young woman who sets out to cook, over the course of a year, every dish in Julia Child’s landmark cookbook “The Art of French Cooking”, while blogging about it.  She attains fame, fulfillment, a better sense of self, and probably a better sex life and shinier, more lustrous hair.  You get the idea.

Having had an 8-volume unabridged copy of Gibbon’s magnum opus sitting on my bookshelf for several years, something in my mind “clicked” while watching the movie, and I remarked to Eleni afterward “maybe I should read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall all the way through and blog about it.”

It occurs to me that I’m probably only the 10,000th person to get the idea of blogging from watching that movie.  Blogs like this one may be the micro-publishing equivalent of the thousands of chihuahuas purchased in California as “fashion accessories” in recent years in imitation of Paris Hilton.  Or failing that, perhaps I’ll lack the stamina that Julie had and flake out at the first (or fortieth) difficult chapter.  Maybe I’ll get through the whole thing and not write a bloody word worth reading, or who knows?  Maybe I’ll get all the way through and this blog will be brilliant, witty, relevant…and unread.

I don’t plan to begin right away.  I am working my way through a backlog of partially-read books (I have a bad habit of starting one book before finishing another-foreshadowing of danger!) so it will likely be a month or two before I get going.  I plan on using David Womersley’s edition, which (from my limited reading) seems to be the one that is considered most complete and up-to-date in terms of footnotes, bibliographic information, etc.

That’s all for now.  I realize I’ve written nothing about what I hope to gain by doing this; I’ll try to cover that in a later post, but briefly, since I am hoping this blog will be more about the book than me.