Tuesday, September 29, 2020

The emperor, in his turn, viewing every rank of his subjects with the same contemptuous indifference, asserted without control his sovereign privilege of lust and luxury.

Because the world of classical music live performance has been mostly suspended of late, I've been spending too much time on youtube, watching chamber music performances. While I tell youtube quite explicitly that I am looking for chamber music, the algorithm insists that not only am I interested in violins and pianos, I am also certainly interested in "reaction videos," which are recordings of people looking at other youtube videos. Despite the exhortations of youtube's viewer-satisfaction-programming, I have not actually watched any of these reaction videos, and I confess that I rather sneer in their general direction, more than once catching myself thinking along the lines of, "why would anyone care how anyone else feels about this crap?" and then, predictably, having the epiphany that these reaction videos are essentially just reviews, and they are not all that different from what Frank Kermode or Lionel Trilling, for example, were about in their heyday. Some distinctions, yes, and I do believe there is such a thing as expertise, but the root matter is something I don't much care to examine because for me at least it swings into Beckettesque comedy, which is never so comfortable. If you see what I mean.

Nonetheless. I've been meaning for some time to write a word or two about reading The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume I, by Edward Gibbon. This post is a reaction video, as it were. I attempt to forgive myself in advance, or in medias res, as the case may be. Off we go.

Gibbon's book (really two separate books, each in three volumes but considered a single work by most people) is famous; I've known about it since my childhood and have stumbled across references to it for decades. It's one of those things that I've long told myself I'd read "someday" given time and opportunity. I don't really have more time or opportunity these days than I've ever had, but I do have the six-volume Everyman Library edition on the shelf (not four feet from my head as I sit typing this), and as one is always reading something, it may as well be six volumes of 18th-century historical writing about ancient Rome. Having always assumed that Gibbon's book would be difficult, writ in stilted dusty academic prose that would induce headaches and then sleep, I am delighted to discover that the book is, frankly, great. It's The Stuff, really it is, lively and witty and opinionated and penned with tremendous verve. The footnotes alone are worth the price of admission. I open the book at random:

Though the author of the Life of Alexander mentions the sedition raised against Ulpian by the soldiers, he conceals the catastrophe, as it might discover a weakness in the administration of his hero. From this designed omission, we may judge of the weight and candour of that author.
Gibbon tells us how to read history carefully, and of course there was a contingent of his readers who judged the weight and candor of him as author. Gibbon's royalist bent, his northern European provincialism and bigotry, and his scorn for organized religion are all quite visible on the page. During his own lifetime, only that last quality was noticed by English readers, and their attacks on Gibbon were met with a spirited and withering defense. I see that I continue to talk around the book, not so much directly about it.

Gibbon has a particular aim in mind with The Decline and Fall. It is to promote the idea of empire, and to reassure his English reader that the Imperium Brittanica will not suffer the fate of Rome.

Whatever evils either reason or declamation have imputed to extensive empire, the power of Rome was attended with some beneficial consequences to mankind; and the same freedom of intercourse which extended the vices, diffused likewise the improvements of social life. In the more remote ages of antiquity, the world was unequally divided. The east was in the immemorial possession of arts and luxury; whilst the west was inhabited by rude and warlike barbarians, who either disdained agriculture, or to whom it was totally unknown. Under the protection of an established government, the productions of happier climates, and the industry of more civilized nations, were gradually introduced into the western countries of Europe; and the natives were encouraged, by an open and profitable commerce, to multiply the former, as well as improve the latter.

I recognize those arguments. But many of Gibbon's observations and theories of government point in different directions. He mourns, with the Roman senate, the loss of the republic. "Civil governments, in their first institutions, are voluntary associations for mutual defense. To obtain the desired end, it is absolutely necessary that each individual should conceive himself obliged to submit his private opinion and actions to the judgment of the greater number of his associates." Gibbon tells us that the vanity and greed of the Roman emperors, and more especially as time went on that of the Roman legions, was the root cause of the fall of Rome. Once the machinery of government was taken away from the citizens, they became little but a source of revenue for the emperor and his family and the armies, and were encouraged in their laziness and ignorance of current events. I recognize that, too. Huh.

I have not really gotten to the good stuff, the character sketches, the dramatic irony, the comedy, the endless assassinations of emperors who have served a year, a few months, a few days. Centuries of generals being elevated to the throne by the army, who not long after get second thoughts and murder their beloved emperor at midnight on some barbarian frontier, declaring a new emperor minutes later to begin the cycle anew. The new emperor wastes no time in declaring the allies and relatives of the just-murdered predecessor to be traitors to Rome, and the army exacts vengeance. A very backward-looking way of living. Restituere maiestate Roma, etc.

The most worthless of mankind are not afraid to condemn in others the same disorders which they allow in themselves; and can readily discover some nice difference of age, character, or station, to justify the partial distinction.
Maybe in a day or so I'll talk about the actual people and events with whom Gibbon concerns himself.