Ken Umbach (researchguy) wrote,
Ken Umbach

Ken's Corner for October 14, 2014

Ken’s Corner, October 14, 2014
Ken Umbach

For years the first four volumes (in the Folio Society edition) of Edward Gibbons’ vast The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire have been lurking on a shelf always in view in my living room. At last, I decided that I’d start reading the books. So far, a couple of weeks into the project, I’m midway through the third of the eight (in total) volumes. (The boxed set of volumes 5 – 8 is elsewhere in the house.)

Gibbon was an Englishman, writing in the latter part of the Eighteenth Century (around the time of the American Revolution and creation of the Constitution, 1770s – 1780s). That alone makes for a different style of writing, and many differences in word meanings and usages, from our time. But Gibbon also had a roundabout way of saying things, often used indirection or delicate choice of words to obscure occasionally alarming facts, and had the leisure and resources to explore a great deal of detail. In short, it’s not the easiest reading. Nonetheless, it’s hard to put down, even if I often find I have to read a sentence or paragraph two or three times (and even them am sometimes left wondering just what he was saying).

Be that as it may, Gibbon paints a grim picture. Emperors (styled Augustus, for the top dog, or Caesar, for a sort of second in command) came and went as fast as flavors revolve at Baskin Robbins, but with more fatal results. One of the most dangerous conditions for centuries was to be named Augustus by the troops, a condition often soon followed by murder, or to be thought of as a potential Augustus or Caesar, and hence a threat to the incumbent, a condition also often followed by murder.

Readers can get an overview at notice such headings as “Year of the Five Emperors and Severan dynasty” and “Year of the Four Emperors and Flavian dynasty.” It is difficult to keep track of who is who, a task made even more difficult by often-similar names and complicated family relationships. (The roman emperors were not real big on “family values,” by the way.) The third and fourth centuries A.D. (or C.E., for Common Era, as is the style used now), saw especially rapid and perplexing turnover at the top.

Here are a couple of excerpts to give the flavor of Gibbon’s style:


The Extent And Military Force Of The Empire In The Age Of The Antonines.

In the second century of the Christian Aera, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valor. The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury. The image of a free constitution was preserved with decent reverence: the Roman senate appeared to possess the sovereign authority, and devolved on the emperors all the executive powers of government. During a happy period of more than fourscore years, the public administration was conducted by the virtue and abilities of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the two Antonines. It is the design of this, and of the two succeeding chapters, to describe the prosperous condition of their empire; and after wards, from the death of Marcus Antoninus, to deduce the most important circumstances of its decline and fall; a revolution which will ever be remembered, and is still felt by the nations of the earth.

[From Chapter XXIII: Reign Of Julian. — Part I]

In every age, the absence of genuine inspiration is supplied by the strong illusions of enthusiasm, and the mimic arts of imposture. If, in the time of Julian, these arts had been practised only by the pagan priests, for the support of an expiring cause, some indulgence might perhaps be allowed to the interest and habits of the sacerdotal character. But it may appear a subject of surprise and scandal, that the philosophers themselves should have contributed to abuse the superstitious credulity of mankind, and that the Grecian mysteries should have been supported by the magic or theurgy of the modern Platonists. They arrogantly pretended to control the order of nature, to explore the secrets of futurity, to command the service of the inferior dæmons, to enjoy the view and conversation of the superior gods, and by disengaging the soul from her material bands, to reunite that immortal particle with the Infinite and Divine Spirit.

Some readers will recognize Julian as Julian the Apostate, the emperor who followed Constantine the Great (who was not all that great in the eyes of Gibbon) and reversed, for a time, his policy of Christianity as the official religion.

Despite the dry and wry style and the plethora of detail, the narrative of the rise of Christianity is pretty hot stuff, incendiary, even. I’ve done enough background reading that I recognize many names and theological terms that figure in the story, and some of which Gibbon thoroughly ridicules. Who would have thought that a slight difference between two words (one letter in English) would have ignited cascades of torture, murder, and revolution? Readers not at all versed in that history will be greatly perplexed, and very much surprised.


Again, of course, the first pages of the New York Times of one century ago, October 14, 1914, were dominated by news of war in Europe. But this, also, appeared above the fold on the first page, a reminder that random violence is not a new thing in our time:


Attempt to Wreck Cathedral Is Followed by Another at St. Alphonsus's. PRIEST AND A BOY INJURED Fifth Avenue Edifice Suffers Little

- $1,000 Damage to West Broadway Rectory. I.W.W. [International Workers of the World, radical labor group] ARRESTS RECALLED Tannenbaum Was Seized at Downtown Sanctuary

- Two Infernal Machines Identical. BOMBS IN CHURCHES, ONE IN CATHEDRAL

A dynamite bomb was exploded in the nave of St. Patrick's Cathedral, Fifth Avenue and Fiftieth Street, a few minutes past 5 o'clock yesterday afternoon, and another of similar nature was exploded at ten minutes after 12 o'clock this morning in front of the rectory, adjoining the Roman Catholic Church of St. Alphonsus in West Broadway near Canal Street.

Copyright © 2014, Kenneth W. Umbach.

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