Archive for June, 2022

Wolfe: The Book of the New Sun, I

June 30, 2022

The Shadow of the Torturer
The Book of the New Sun, Book I
Gene Wolfe
(Orb, 1994) [1981]
210 p.

Many societies, a significant fraction perhaps, have found it convenient to have torture available as a punitive or coercive measure, and to that end have maintained a certain number of people trained in the art, or the science, of causing pain. This, it turns out, is as true in the future as in the present or the past. The Book of the New Sun, set in the deep future, begins with the story of the apprenticeship of Severian, a young man being trained in the guild of torturers, whose expertise seems beyond doubt but whose commitment to his role, he finds, begins to falter.

What is most impressive about this first volume in the tetralogy, for me, is the sense of deep history that it develops for its story. Tolkien did this too, in The Lord of the Rings; we have a sense, developed partly by a web of allusions to matters never fully explained, of ages upon ages of past time, mostly forgotten but still woven into the fabric of the present moment.  Wolfe’s story differs from Tolkien’s insofar as his story is set in the future rather than the past, so that his story’s “deep past” includes, somewhere, our own time, and we see, here and there, how the world we know has been projected and refracted into the future. For example, there is not a great deal of science in this book — the future society Wolfe depicts looks, in many ways, far more primitive than our own — but relativity theory survives as a kind of lore, imperfectly understood but carrying a kernel of truth.

Part of the enjoyment of the book is trying to figure out just how far in the future it is set. As the book proceeds, and the circle of light by which we see this world expands, it becomes clearer that it is very deep in the future indeed. We get a passing reference to things that happened in “anteglacial days”, from which we infer that a future ice age has come and gone, but even this does not capture the scale, for the sun, we learn, is cooling, which places us many millions of years in the future. These sorts of details gave me a vertiginous feeling as I was reading, similar to what I have felt afloat on the ocean: sustained by a depth swarming with mysteries.

A distinctive characteristic of Wolfe’s future world is that it is permeated at all levels by religion. Much of society appears to be organized into guilds, which reminded me of the medieval guilds, and Severian’s guild of torturers is officially the Order of the Seekers for Truth and Penitence, a fine religiously-tinted name that confirms the impression. A character at one point speaks of “figures who wait beyond the void of death… blazing with glories dark or bright, wrapped in authority older than the universe”, which sounds to me like angelic powers, and we get passing references to “the theocenter” and other such phrases. In fact, much of the religion in the book seems derived from Christianity, although if there is anything like actual Christianity in this society I haven’t seen it yet. But I did see allusions to Gabriel (“His sword blazed in one hand, his great two-headed ax swung in the other, and across his back, suspended on the rainbow, hung the very battle horn of Heaven”), to the paschal candle, to “the Theoanthropos”, to a passage from the Book of Exodus, and to Christian devotions like the Angelus. In every case the impression was like that given by the reference to relativity theory: a sense that these things are shards left over from something that has been shattered, lost from its original context and adrift on currents of language and culture.

A strength of the novel, apart from its impressive world-building, is the way in which, by the technique of oblique allusion already described, it hints at the direction in which the story of our hero, Severian, is going. The tale begins with Severian wrapped in obscurity, a mere apprentice in a guild the existence of which is, we learn, actually doubted by some, and he himself having had almost no contact with the world outside his guild. But here and there we get hints that his trajectory aims at the very apex of this very hierarchical society. Not much upward mobility occurs in this novel, but I’m looking forward to seeing how this aspect of the story develops in subsequent volumes.

On the other hand, this first volume has problems of both structure and execution that caused it to falter as it proceeded. The first half of the book is devoted to carefully developing the character of Severian and describing, gradually, the strange world in which he lives. A lot of effort is invested in the relationships he has and the place where he is. But in the second half he goes on the road, and the story devolves, in my judgement, into a series of episodes bearing no particular narrative relationship to one another. The thread of the story grows dangerously thin through this series of encounters. They are not only episodes, but brief episodes, so that I hardly had adjusted to some new situation or character before it was gone. It might be that these episodes and characters will return later in the story, and that could revise my judgement.

I also feel, thus far, that there is a basic problem with the character of Severian. He is the hero of the tale, but he is also, objectively, a monstrous figure: a man who is expert in causing pain and death, and who does so without any particular qualms of conscience. To read the things he does, and to know that he does them in a spirit of conscientious diligence, as a craftsman might shape pottery, is an alienating experience. I am open to this moral numbness being an intentional and necessary part of the story Wolfe wants to tell, but it is affecting my investment in Severian and his fortunes.

A book called The Shadow of the Torturer is one that, absent some reason to adjust my priors, I am unlikely to pick up, but I am, on balance, happy to have embarked on this series. Praise has been lavished on it — each volume won some sort of science fiction or fantasy award when it was published, and that’s fair enough. Wolfe, on the other hand, has been called “the Melville of science fiction”, which, well, I guess could be true too, but in that case the phrase “of science fiction” appears, at this point, to be doing a lot of work.

On Another’s Sorrow

June 27, 2022

William Blake’s poem “On Another’s Sorrow” is the last in his Songs of Innocence. It’s a long-time favourite of mine, and lately, because when I’ve not been comforting crying youngsters I’ve been nursing a baby bird back to health, it has been coming to mind frequently. I took some time to explore musical settings of the poem, and today I’d like to share a few.

First, let’s look at the poem briefly.

On Another’s Sorrow

Can I see another’s woe,
And not be in sorrow too?
Can I see another’s grief,
And not seek for kind relief?

Can I see a falling tear,
And not feel my sorrow’s share?
Can a father see his child
Weep, nor be with sorrow filled?

Can a mother sit and hear
An infant groan, an infant fear?
No, no! never can it be!
Never, never can it be!

And can He who smiles on all
Hear the wren with sorrows small,
Hear the small bird’s grief and care,
Hear the woes that infants bear —

And not sit beside the nest,
Pouring pity in their breast,
And not sit the cradle near,
Weeping tear on infant’s tear?

And not sit both night and day,
Wiping all our tears away?
Oh no! never can it be!
Never, never can it be!

He doth give his joy to all:
He becomes an infant small,
He becomes a man of woe,
He doth feel the sorrow too.

Think not thou canst sigh a sigh,
And thy Maker is not by:
Think not thou canst weep a tear,
And thy Maker is not near.

Oh He gives to us his joy,
That our grief He may destroy:
Till our grief is fled an gone
He doth sit by us and moan.

It falls into three sections, each of three stanzas. In the first we have the picture of the parents attending their child; in the second, the scene widens to consider God’s care of the world; and in the third, an affirmation of God’s solicitude toward those who suffer. The poem uses repetition very effectively: the prevalence of “can” questions in the first stanzas, the repetition of “hear” in the second section, and of “He” in the third. There are a variety of parallelisms that make the whole thing hold together really well. I can testify that when once memorized it rolls off the tongue easily.


Now let’s turn to some musical settings.

I think I first heard Greg Brown’s setting at least 25 years ago. His 1986 record, Songs of Innocence and of Experience, was the means by which I had my first introduction to Blake’s poetry, and I’m particularly fond of the music for this poem. (I add parenthetically that this record, though little-known, is a treasure, and highly recommended to everyone.) Brown captures the building momentum of the short lines very well. It goes like this:

Isn’t that wonderful?


The other folksy setting I found — that I liked — is by a group calling themselves simply Blake. This is the only song I’ve been able to find from them, so how and why this song came about is a bit of a mystery. But it is an effective setting of the poem, capturing the sorrow better than Brown’s setting does, and featuring some lovely harmonizations.


There have been quite a number of “high art” settings of the poem too. I think there’s a tension between the home-spun simplicity of the poetry and the trappings of high art, but let’s take a look at some attempts to join the two.

John Sykes was an Englishman (d.1962) who taught music and composed where and when he could; almost all of his music, including a substantial number of William Blake settings, was unpublished at his death and has only slowly found its way onto recordings. This setting of “On Another’s Sorrow”, for soprano and piano, is quite lovely. There’s nothing overly complicated about it — although the pianist cannot be a slouch! — and the musical structure respects the structure of the poem. I like this very much:


If that is a fairly minimal arrangement — just voice and piano — then at the opposite end of the spectrum, at the maximalist extreme, we find William Bolcom’s setting. Bolcom is an American composer who has produced a big body of often very interesting music, and his gigantic Songs of Innocence and of Experience is no exception. At about 2-1/12 hours in length, it’s big, bold, and brash, drawing on all manner of music traditions: big band, jazz, classical, even rock, and he gives it to a big orchestra and choir and a horde of soloists.

The setting of “On Another’s Sorrow” is only about 2 minutes long, but it captures the Bolcomian excess well enough. The herky-jerky rhythms are bizarre and the tune is maybe a little hard to remember. I don’t much like it, but it at least has the virtue of having character. Here we go!


But the best choral setting I found was by an American composer named Shawn Kirchner.  He captures the rhythms of the poem extremely well, and the choral writing is unfailingly lovely. It is been recently recorded by LA Choral Lab. (I can’t find it on YouTube, but I can embed this link to Spotify. If you have a Spotify account you’ll be able to hear the whole thing; if not, only 30 seconds, which is too bad.)

Newstok: How to Think Like Shakespeare

June 20, 2022

How to Think Like Shakespeare
Lessons from a Renaissance Education
Scott Newstok
(Princeton, 2020)

208 p.

The first thing I’ll say is that in my case this book did not deliver on its title. I read it, then tried to write some dramatic verse, and it turned out badly. But authors, I believe, often cannot title their books, so let’s not be dismissive. What we have in How to Think Like Shakespeare is a feisty, multifaceted critique of contemporary education in which Newstok uses pre-modern education as a foil, and an effective one. In education, he writes,

We now act as if work precludes play; imitation stifles creativity; tradition stifles autonomy; constraint limits innovation; discipline somehow contradicts freedom; engagement with what is past and foreign occludes what is present and native.

Shakespeare’s era delighted in exposing these purported dilemmas as false: play emerges through work; creativity through imitation; autonomy through tradition; innovation through constraints; freedom through discipline.

He dives into each of these contradictions of prevailing assumptions to discover what we might learn. The argument is not so much about what to teach, but how. “Education must be about thinking — not training a set of specific skills.”  Along the way, we get critiques of standardized testing, of technology (which, quoting Thoreau, he calls “improved means to an unimproved end”), of attempts to deny the canon (which, citing Wendell Berry, he says undermines one of the central purposes of education, which is to become “the heir of a cultural birthright”), of non-judgmentalism, and of aversion to tradition. And we are introduced to practices designed to teach craft, appropriation, and attention (which, he reminds us, Simone Weil called “the natural prayer that we make to inward truth”).  It is a cri de coeur from a man who, echoing Orwell, believes that “we have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty.”

The book is a broadside, therefore, against modern education and the institutions that sustain it. Its ideas might be startling, unless you’re already steeped in, for instance, David Hicks, Michel de Montaigne, Charlotte Mason, Ryan Topping, Roger Scruton, Dorothy Sayers, and Stratford Caldecott. In that case, the most startling thing about the book is who published it. Perhaps things are not quite so bad as they might be.

For me, the book has been most valuable for its lengthy “further reading” section, which, under the banner “Kinsmen of the Shelf” includes recommendations of a great many books and essays that I hope to investigate. Kinsmen of the Shelf. A good phrase. (It’s from Dickinson.)

So let’s see: Shakespeare, Thoreau, Weil, Orwell, Berry, Dickinson. Good company.

A final note about style. Newstok writes in a punchy, compressed style, and, in a delightful way, integrates phrases from Shakespeare (and others) into his own prose, much as the Church Fathers wrote hardly a sentence without echoing Scripture. It makes for stimulating reading.

Chesterton on Aesop

June 14, 2022

We haven’t had enough Chesterton here of late. Today, being the anniversary of his death, seems a good day for a remedy.

I was recently leafing through a few editions of Aesop’s Fables and I came across one, published in 1912, to which Chesterton contributed a brief introduction. My eyes lit up. A finer pairing would be hard to come by. Here it is in its entirety.


Aesop embodies an epigram not uncommon in human history; his fame is all the more deserved because he never deserved it. The firm foundations of common sense, the shrewd shots at uncommon sense, that characterise all the Fables, belong not to him but to humanity. In the earliest human history whatever is authentic is universal: and whatever is universal is anonymous. In such cases there is always some central man who had first the trouble of collecting them, and afterwards the fame of creating them. He had the fame; and, on the whole, he earned the fame. There must have been something great and human, something of the human future and the human past, in such a man: even if he only used it to rob the past or deceive the future. The story of Arthur may have been really connected with the most fighting Christianity of falling Rome or with the most heathen traditions hidden in the hills of Wales. But the word “Mappe” or “Malory” will always mean King Arthur; even though we find older and better origins than the Mabinogian; or write later and worse versions than the “Idylls of the King.” The nursery fairy tales may have come out of Asia with the Indo-European race, now fortunately extinct; they may have been invented by some fine French lady or gentleman like Perrault: they may possibly even be what they profess to be. But we shall always call the best selection of such tales “Grimm’s Tales”: simply because it is the best collection.

The historical Aesop, in so far as he was historical, would seem to have been a Phrygian slave, or at least one not to be specially and symbolically adorned with the Phrygian cap of liberty. He lived, if he did live, about the sixth century before Christ, in the time of that Croesus whose story we love and suspect like everything else in Herodotus. There are also stories of deformity of feature and a ready ribaldry of tongue: stories which (as the celebrated Cardinal said) explain, though they do not excuse, his having been hurled over a high precipice at Delphi. It is for those who read the Fables to judge whether he was really thrown over the cliff for being ugly and offensive, or rather for being highly moral and correct. But there is no kind of doubt that the general legend of him may justly rank him with a race too easily forgotten in our modern comparisons: the race of the great philosophic slaves. Aesop may have been a fiction like Uncle Remus: he was also, like Uncle Remus, a fact. It is a fact that slaves in the old world could be worshipped like Aesop, or loved like Uncle Remus. It is odd to note that both the great slaves told their best stories about beasts and birds.

But whatever be fairly due to Aesop, the human tradition called Fables is not due to him. This had gone on long before any sarcastic freedman from Phrygia had or had not been flung off a precipice; this has remained long after. It is to our advantage, indeed, to realise the distinction; because it makes Aesop more obviously effective than any other fabulist. Grimm’s Tales, glorious as they are, were collected by two German students. And if we find it hard to be certain of a German student, at least we know more about him than we know about a Phrygian slave. The truth is, of course, that Aesop’s Fables are not Aesop’s fables, any more than Grimm’s Fairy Tales were ever Grimm’s fairy tales. But the fable and the fairy tale are things utterly distinct. There are many elements of difference; but the plainest is plain enough. There can be no good fable with human beings in it. There can be no good fairy tale without them.

Aesop, or Babrius (or whatever his name was), understood that, for a fable, all the persons must be impersonal. They must be like abstractions in algebra, or like pieces in chess. The lion must always be stronger than the wolf, just as four is always double of two. The fox in a fable must move crooked, as the knight in chess must move crooked. The sheep in a fable must march on, as the pawn in chess must march on. The fable must not allow for the crooked captures of the pawn; it must not allow for what Balzac called “the revolt of a sheep” The fairy tale, on the other hand, absolutely revolves on the pivot of human personality. If no hero were there to fight the dragons, we should not even know that they were dragons. If no adventurer were cast on the undiscovered island—it would remain undiscovered. If the miller’s third son does not find the enchanted garden where the seven princesses stand white and frozen—why, then, they will remain white and frozen and enchanted. If there is no personal prince to find the Sleeping Beauty she will simply sleep. Fables repose upon quite the opposite idea; that everything is itself, and will in any case speak for itself. The wolf will be always wolfish; the fox will be always foxy. Something of the same sort may have been meant by the animal worship, in which Egyptian and Indian and many other great peoples have combined. Men do not, I think, love beetles or cats or crocodiles with a wholly personal love; they salute them as expressions of that abstract and anonymous energy in nature which to any one is awful, and to an atheist must be frightful. So in all the fables that are or are not Aesop’s all the animal forces drive like inanimate forces, like great rivers or growing trees. It is the limit and the loss of all such things that they cannot be anything but themselves: it is their tragedy that they could not lose their souls.

This is the immortal justification of the Fable: that we could not teach the plainest truths so simply without turning men into chessmen. We cannot talk of such simple things without using animals that do not talk at all. Suppose, for a moment, that you turn the wolf into a wolfish baron, or the fox into a foxy diplomatist. You will at once remember that even barons are human, you will be unable to forget that even diplomatists are men. You will always be looking for that accidental good-humour that should go with the brutality of any brutal man; for that allowance for all delicate things, including virtue, that should exist in any good diplomatist. Once put a thing on two legs instead of four and pluck it of feathers and you cannot help asking for a human being, either heroic, as in the fairy tales, or un-heroic, as in the modern novels.

But by using animals in this austere and arbitrary style as they are used on the shields of heraldry or the hieroglyphics of the ancients, men have really succeeded in handing down those tremendous truths that are called truisms. If the chivalric lion be red and rampant, it is rigidly red and rampant; if the sacred ibis stands anywhere on one leg, it stands on one leg for ever. In this language, like a large animal alphabet, are written some of the first philosophic certainties of men. As the child learns A for Ass or B for Bull or C for Cow, so man has learnt here to connect the simpler and stronger creatures with the simpler and stronger truths. That a flowing stream cannot befoul its own fountain, and that any one who says it does is a tyrant and a liar; that a mouse is too weak to fight a lion, but too strong for the cords that can hold a lion; that a fox who gets most out of a flat dish may easily get least out of a deep dish; that the crow whom the gods forbid to sing, the gods nevertheless provide with cheese; that when the goat insults from a mountain-top it is not the goat that insults, but the mountain: all these are deep truths deeply graven on the rocks wherever men have passed. It matters nothing how old they are, or how new; they are the alphabet of humanity, which like so many forms of primitive picture-writing employs any living symbol in preference to man. These ancient and universal tales are all of animals; as the latest discoveries in the oldest pre-historic caverns are all of animals. Man, in his simpler states, always felt that he himself was something too mysterious to be drawn. But the legend he carved under these cruder symbols was everywhere the same; and whether fables began with Aesop or began with Adam, whether they were German and mediaeval as Reynard the Fox, or as French and Renaissance as La Fontaine, the upshot is everywhere essentially the same: that superiority is always insolent, because it is always accidental; that pride goes before a fall; and that there is such a thing as being too clever by half. You will not find any other legend but this written upon the rocks by any hand of man. There is every type and time of fable: but there is only one moral to the fable; because there is only one moral to everything.



Gibbon: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, IV

June 7, 2022

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Volume 4
Edward Gibbon
(Modern Library, 1993)  [1788]
lxviii + 598 p.

The structure of Gibbon’s great history is troubled by a threat of anti-climax. The third volume ended with the sack of Rome and the extinction of the Western empire, and in the minds of many readers that’s the end of the story, as it was, I believe, the end of the story as Gibbon originally intended to tell it. But of course in the east there remained an imperial power centered on Constantinople that, despite its Greek language and its very different feel, understood itself as the continuation of the Roman empire, called itself the Roman empire, and, in truth, was firmly rooted in the Roman empire, and its history was to continue for another thousand years. The final three volumes of Gibbon’s book, therefore, are devoted to tracing the contours of that millennium-long extension of the Roman inheritance, as well as to describing the powers that arose to replace the empire in the west, and to showing how, eventually, those two spheres, the eastern and the western, came into contact and mutual influence again.

This fourth volume covers — excluding a few tendrils that reach forward or backward in slender lines — a period of approximately a century and a half, beginning in the 470s and ending early in the seventh century.

It launches, rather unpromisingly, with a chapter devoted to religious matters such as the rise of monasticism, the conversion of the northern Europeans, and the demise of Arianism. Gibbon is not at his best on this ground, and this chapter, especially, does little more than underline his lack of sympathy for monasticism. We learn that the monks were “a swarm of fanatics, incapable of fear, or reason, or humanity” who were in thrall to a “savage enthusiasm which represents man as a criminal, and God as a tyrant”. These men he sees simply as “unhappy exiles from social life” who were “impelled by the dark and implacable genius of superstition”. He just doesn’t get it, and that’s a limitation that we, his patient readers, have to put up with.

But this is followed by a brilliant chapter — the 38th, if anyone is counting — in which he pauses to sum up and take stock of the big picture at the end of the fifth century, writing

I have now accomplished the laborious narrative of the decline and fall of the Roman empire, from the fortunate age of Trajan and the Antonines, to its total extinction in the West, about five centuries after the Christian era. At that unhappy period, the Saxons fiercely struggled with the natives for the possession of Britain: Gaul and Spain were divided between the powerful monarchies of the Franks and Visigoths, and the dependent kingdoms of the Suevi and Burgundians: Africa was exposed to the cruel persecution of the Vandals, and the savage insults of the Moors: Rome and Italy, as far as the banks of the Danube, were afflicted by an army of Barbarian mercenaries, whose lawless tyranny was succeeded by the reign of Theodoric the Ostrogoth. All the subjects of the empire, who, by the use of the Latin language, more particularly deserved the name and privileges of Romans, were oppressed by the disgrace and calamities of foreign conquest; and the victorious nations of Germany established a new system of manners and government in the western countries of Europe.

From this vantage point he pauses to summarize the main argument of the book thus far, highlighting for us a few of the factors that, in his mind, were principally responsible for the decline and fall of the empire. He puts the matter in this way:

The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight. The story of its ruin is simple and obvious; and instead of inquiring why the Roman empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it had subsisted so long. The victorious legions, who, in distant wars, acquired the vices of strangers and mercenaries, first oppressed the freedom of the republic, and afterwards violated the majesty of the purple. The emperors, anxious for their personal safety and the public peace, were reduced to the base expedient of corrupting the discipline which rendered them alike formidable to their sovereign and to the enemy; the vigor of the military government was relaxed, and finally dissolved, by the partial institutions of Constantine; and the Roman world was overwhelmed by a deluge of Barbarians.

Rome was too big to sustain itself, weakened by prosperity (and the softness of character that accompanied it), compromised by a too-powerful and insufficiently disciplined military, and subjected to too many outside pressures on its integrity. He also highlights the divided loyalties arising from the “double reign”, east and west, that troubled the empire after Constantine’s founding of Constantinople, with its potential for internal tension and multiplication of internal bureaucracies.


Before I began reading this book, the one thing I’d have thought that I could tell you was that Gibbon lay the blame for Rome’s decline at the feet of the Christians. He does do so, as we’ll see in a moment, but his claim is not so bald nor so simple. We’ve just seen that he cites quite a number of contributing reasons for Rome’s fall. When he does get around to criticizing Christianity, he says:

The clergy successfully preached the doctrines of patience and pusillanimity: the active virtues of society were discouraged; and the last remains of military spirit were buried in the cloister: a large portion of public and private wealth was consecrated to the specious demands of charity and devotion; and the soldiers’ pay was lavished on the useless multitudes of both sexes, who could only plead the merits of abstinence and chastity. Faith, zeal, curiosity, and the more earthly passions of malice and ambition, kindled the flame of theological discord; the church, and even the state, were distracted by religious factions, whose conflicts were sometimes bloody, and always implacable; the attention of the emperors was diverted from camps to synods; the Roman world was oppressed by a new species of tyranny; and the persecuted sects became the secret enemies of their country.

In other words, Christianity softened the Roman virtues and fostered division within Roman society. Yet, not stopping there, he goes on to recognize that Christianity also brought important benefits, both by attempting to unite society under one faith, and by moderating the conflict between Rome and the barbarians, who themselves often adopted the faith:

If the decline of the Roman empire was hastened by the conversion of Constantine, his victorious religion broke the violence of the fall, and mollified the ferocious temper of the conquerors.

So I would judge that when it comes to the overall, broad-strokes role of Christianity in the decline of the Roman empire, Gibbon is at least making an effort to be even-handed.


The weight of the narrative, from this point forward, falls in the east. Insofar as the Western powers come into it, it is mostly a tale of woe. We see the Ostrogoths, led by Theodoric, establishing themselves as the principal power in Italy for about 50 years before yielding again to the Eastern empire, which was itself subsequently overrun by the Lombards come down from the north. The Lombards founded a long-lasting kingdom that persisted for several hundred years. I was intrigued to learn that it was during the period of Lombard rule (from, say, about 565 until the reign of Charlemagne in the late 8th century) that the Latin language began to break apart into regional dialects. The Lombards, it seemed, spoke a native tongue less inflected than Latin, and gradually produced a less inflected form of Latin that better suited them. Presumably it was this evolved (or devolved, according to taste) form of Latin from which the relatively uninflected Romance languages emerged.

The Lombard kingdom was ruled from Pavia, in northern Italy, and Rome, during this period, suffered from neglect. Gibbon dilates on the fate of the city at the end of the sixth century in a passage so lovely and characteristic of his strengths as a writer that I cannot resist quoting it at length. Rome, he writes, had at this time reached “the lowest period of her depression.”

By the removal of the seat of empire, and the successive loss of the provinces, the sources of public and private opulence were exhausted: the lofty tree, under whose shade the nations of the earth had reposed, was deprived of its leaves and branches, and the sapless trunk was left to wither on the ground. The ministers of command, and the messengers of victory, no longer met on the Appian or Flaminian way; and the hostile approach of the Lombards was often felt, and continually feared. The inhabitants of a potent and peaceful capital, who visit without an anxious thought the garden of the adjacent country, will faintly picture in their fancy the distress of the Romans: they shut or opened their gates with a trembling hand, beheld from the walls the flames of their houses, and heard the lamentations of their brethren, who were coupled together like dogs, and dragged away into distant slavery beyond the sea and the mountains. Such incessant alarms must annihilate the pleasures and interrupt the labors of a rural life; and the Campagna of Rome was speedily reduced to the state of a dreary wilderness, in which the land is barren, the waters are impure, and the air is infectious. Curiosity and ambition no longer attracted the nations to the capital of the world: but, if chance or necessity directed the steps of a wandering stranger, he contemplated with horror the vacancy and solitude of the city, and might be tempted to ask, Where is the senate, and where are the people? … The edifices of Rome were exposed to the same ruin and decay: the mouldering fabrics were easily overthrown by inundations, tempests, and earthquakes: and the monks, who had occupied the most advantageous stations, exulted in their base triumph over the ruins of antiquity.

About all that was left to interest the world about Rome was the papacy, and if it was true that the last years of the sixth century were the nadir for Rome, Gibbon largely credits the pontificate of Pope St Gregory the Great (590-604) for beginning the long, slow process of turning things around.

(Before passing on from the Lombards, I cannot resist a personal aside about Pavia, their capital. Today it is a relatively small city reachable by train from Milan in under an hour. I have been there myself. In one of its churches, San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro (which Dante mentions in the Paradiso), are interred two of the great men of our tradition: St. Augustine and Boethius. I went there on a personal pilgrimage to honour Augustine, whose tomb, I was grateful to discover, is stunningly beautiful; pictures can hardly do it justice. Sadly I didn’t learn about Boethius’ tomb until years later, so I was not able to pay my respects to him. Nonetheless, visiting Pavia remains one of the best and most rewarding things I’ve ever done.)


Meanwhile, in Constantinople, the sixth century is dominated by the life of Justinian, an emperor who, perhaps nearly as much as Constantine himself, left a legacy that shaped politics and culture for centuries afterwards. My judgement, prior to reading Gibbon, was that Justinian’s reign was primarily a beneficial one, though marred by serious faults (such as, to cite a case hard to ignore, the execution of Boethius). Gibbon is inclined to see things the other way around; for him, Jusitinian is a rather nasty character: superstitious, violent, and lacking nobility. He was, we learn, “neither beloved in his life, nor regretted at his death”. The obvious bright light in his reign, which for Gibbon survives as practically the only bright light, was his decision to reform the legal framework of the empire. The Justinian Code survives to this day in the legal regimes of numerous European nations. (Gibbon pauses at this point to devote an entire chapter of his book to a history of Roman jurisprudence. It’s a brilliant performance, I am told, though I am here skipping lightly over it.)

Justinian is overshadowed for Gibbon by his most eminent general, Belisarius, and we are treated to a fine encomium on the man’s merits:

Amidst the perils of war, he was daring without rashness, prudent without fear, slow or rapid according to the exigencies of the moment; that in the deepest distress he was animated by real or apparent hope, but that he was modest and humble in the most prosperous fortune. By these virtues, he equalled or excelled the ancient masters of the military art. Victory, by sea and land, attended his arms. He subdued Africa, Italy, and the adjacent islands; led away captives the successors of Genseric and Theodoric; filled Constantinople with the spoils of their palaces; and in the space of six years recovered half the provinces of the Western empire. In his fame and merit, in wealth and power, he remained without a rival.

He was executed by Justinian, who was allegedly jealous of his success and fame.

A pleasure of reading a long, involved history such as this is that it turns up admirable characters where I hadn’t known them to be. Belisarius is one, and the emperor Tiberius II, who came to the throne about a decade after Justinian’s death, is another. I had no notion of him at all, but Gibbon regards him highly, writing:

After recording the vice or folly of so many Roman princes, it is pleasing to repose, for a moment, on a character conspicuous by the qualities of humanity, justice, temperance, and fortitude; to contemplate a sovereign affable in his palace, pious in the church, impartial on the seat of judgment, and victorious, at least by his generals, in the Persian war. The most glorious trophy of his victory consisted in a multitude of captives, whom Tiberius entertained, redeemed, and dismissed to their native homes with the charitable spirit of a Christian hero. The merit or misfortunes of his own subjects had a dearer claim to his beneficence, and he measured his bounty not so much by their expectations as by his own dignity.

Here, it seems, was a man worthy of remembrance. But for every such, there were an armful of tyrants, squabblers, loafers, or worse. Just a few years after Tiberius’ death, for instance, the throne was seized by one Phocas, a violent careerist who is best remembered today for being drawn into an epochal conflict with the Persian empire. The war outlasted Phocas, but was continued through the long reign of Heraclius, and ended, in 628, in a state of depletion and exhaustion for both powers.

This whimper of an outcome was epochal because a new force was ready to sweep into the power vacuum created by the war, and the thunder of its hoofbeats could be heard, faintly at first, but not faintly for long:

An obscure town on the confines of Syria was pillaged by the Saracens, and they cut in pieces some troops who advanced to its relief; an ordinary and trifling occurrence, had it not been the prelude of a mighty revolution. These robbers were the apostles of Mahomet; their fanatic valor had emerged from the desert; and in the last eight years of his reign, Heraclius lost to the Arabs the same provinces which he had rescued from the Persians.

The tale of how the Islamic armies conquered the Persians, the Byzantines, the North Africans, and the Iberians in just one hundred years will be one of the principal narrative threads in the succeeding volume. I look forward to it.


[Gibbon’s Whiggish optimism defies his main theme]
Every age of the world has increased, and still increases, the real wealth, the happiness, the knowledge, and perhaps the virtue, of the human race.

[Limits of reform]
It is the first care of a reformer to prevent any future reformation.