Archive for July, 2022

Wolfe: The Book of the New Sun, II

July 28, 2022

The Claw of the Conciliator
The Book of the New Sun, Book II
Gene Wolfe
(Orb, 1994) [1982]
200 p.

The story of Severian, the obscure apprentice in the torturer’s guild who is destined for great things, continues in this second volume. Whereas the first volume had taken place almost entirely in the great, sprawling city of Nessus, this volume follows Severian as he journeys north toward the mountains, where he is to take up a position as town executioner.

In many respects, this stage of the story continues the strengths that I appreciated in the first: the story, though personal, takes place on a truly epic stage that is only gradually revealed. In the last volume it was primarily the sense of deep time, of ages and ages of past history, that impressed me. In this volume the world of the present expands: we become aware that the civilization in which Severian lives is not monolithic — the Autarch might sound like an absolute ruler, but his territories have borders, and a great war against another, still mysterious power rages in the mountains toward which Severian is traveling. It also becomes evident that the world in which Severian lives, despite its rustic, quasi-medieval feel, possesses certain kinds of technologies that are far in advance of anything we possess today, and that the past, and perhaps the present, history of his world includes interstellar travel and contact with alien worlds. So it is a science fiction book after all. Moreover, the hints in the first volume that his world is populated by different kinds of animals than our world, and that humanoid, but non-human, species also exist receives confirmation and elaboration in this volume, though it remains unclear how this has come about. As before, these aspects of the world are revealed mostly through oblique and incidental references.

Some of my concerns about the previous volume were allayed in this segment of the tale. The episodic and halting introduction of characters was justified to some extent in this volume when those same characters came back and assumed a larger role. My sense that there is a controlling hand at the tiller has strengthened in consequence, and that has been reassuring.

This sense of trust is necessary, because some of what happens in this book is peculiar, to put it mildly. I’m not an habitual reader of fantasy or sci-fi, so perhaps I’m more sensitive than most to these oddities, but this is a book in which a green, half-plant man from the future appears as a passing detail, in which we meet a group of glowing ape-men who live underground, in which a gigantic, bloated mermaid appears in a forest brook, and so forth. My appetite for such things is not ravenous, and the formalist in me hopes that they have been introduced for a reason that will pay off later. We will see.

The title of the book refers to a gem that came into Severian’s possession late in the first volume, and which he carries with him throughout this one, attempting to return it to the religious order from which he acquired it. Who the “Conciliator” may be is not clear, and why this jewel should be his “claw” is as yet obscure. We are told that “everyone who has ever lived has died, even the Conciliator”, but that he will one day “rise as the New Sun”. This same New Sun might, perhaps, have something to do with the solar body — there are hints that some kind of physical transformation is in the offing — but is also a person, who will, for instance, open paradise to those who “in their final moments, call upon him”. In another place we learn that the Conciliator has a way of reappearing even after he has been thought dead. He seems to be some sort of Christ figure — if not actually Christ, which is a possibility that I think remains open — who stands close to the center of the religious cosmology of the book, though, oddly, nobody seems to have definite ideas about him.

In any case, the Claw plays a role in the book somewhat analogous to the role of the One Ring in Middle Earth — closer, so far, to its role in The Hobbit than in The Lord of the Rings. I mean that it has a certain gee-whiz quality — the Claw has the power to heal and glows according to a situational logic all its own — but how it fits into the larger scheme of things is still opaque.

I finish this second volume in somewhat brighter spirits than I did the first, having firmer ground to expect a coherent tale out of all this, and intrigued by the many mysterious avenues Wolfe has opened up for exploration. The third volume, The Sword of the Lictor, awaits.

Gibbon: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, V

July 21, 2022

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Volume 5
Edward Gibbon
(Modern Library, 1993)  [1788]
xxiii + 662 p.

In this penultimate volume Gibbon treats us to a sweeping historical tour covering a period of at least 600 years. It is a varied tale, but a few storylines dominate: the rapid rise and expansion of Islam; the slower, but steady rise of the various regional powers that replaced the western empire after its decay; and the gradual contraction of the Byzantine empire.

The previous volume concluded with a rumour of hoofbeats in the distance across the desert sands of Arabia, and in this they burst over the horizon. I am always struck by the rapidity with which the Islamic forces conquered vast territories, both east and west. I hadn’t appreciated the extent to which the war between Persia and Byzantium in the first decades of the seventh century had left both vulnerable to a confident and energetic foe. Under the leadership of Omar, the father-in-law of Mohammad, they made the most of their opportunity:

“In the ten years of the administration of Omar, the Saracens reduced to his obedience thirty-six thousand cities or castles, destroyed four thousand churches or temples of the unbelievers, and edified fourteen hundred moschs for the exercise of the religion of Mahomet. One hundred years after his flight from Mecca, the arms and the reign of his successors extended from India to the Atlantic Ocean.”

Of course, they claimed not only territories belonging to Persia and the eastern Roman empire, but also those throughout north Africa. By the year 710 they were ready to cross the Strait of Gibraltar. Gibbon describes the journey of a small advance party:

“One hundred Arabs and four hundred Africans, passed over, in four vessels, from Tangier or Ceuta; the place of their descent on the opposite shore of the strait, is marked by the name of Tarif their chief; and the date of this memorable event is fixed to the month of Ramandan, of the ninety-first year of the Hegira, to the month of July, seven hundred and forty-eight years from the Spanish era of Cesar, seven hundred and ten after the birth of Christ. From their first station, they marched eighteen miles through a hilly country to the castle and town of Julian; on which (it is still called Algezire) they bestowed the name of the Green Island, from a verdant cape that advances into the sea.”

(Parenthetically, I thrilled to this passage. A few years ago I myself visited Algecira, as it is now called by the Spaniards, and crossed the Strait to Tangiers, and then, a few weeks later, made the reverse voyage. I did not realize at the time that I was retracing this historic crossing. I can still see the shoreline, the forests, and the great rocky mount of Gibraltar, and smell the salt sea.)

Within a few decades the Iberian peninsula was largely in Islamic hands, and, famously, the expansion was only stopped in 732 at the Battle of Tours, when the Franks, led by Charles Martel, handed them a decisive defeat. The story is well-known, but I was surprised to learn from Gibbon that the surname ‘Martel’, meaning ‘hammer’, is actually an honorific “expressive of his weighty and irresistible strokes”. Whether he received the honorific before or after the Battle of Tours, I do not know.

I was likewise surprised to learn that Charles Martel, whom I regard as a heroic figure, or at least as having done all European civilization a signal service, was vilified in the aftermath of the battle and immediately after his death. The reason? He had paid his soldiers using church funds. Gibbon elaborates:

“The Arabs never resumed the conquest of Gaul, and they were soon driven beyond the Pyrenees by Charles Martel and his valiant race. It might have been expected that the savior of Christendom would have been canonized, or at least applauded, by the gratitude of the clergy, who are indebted to his sword for their present existence. But in the public distress, the mayor of the palace had been compelled to apply the riches, or at least the revenues, of the bishops and abbots, to the relief of the state and the reward of the soldiers. His merits were forgotten, his sacrilege alone was remembered, and, in an epistle to a Carlovingian prince, a Gallic synod presumes to declare that his ancestor was damned; that on the opening of his tomb, the spectators were affrighted by a smell of fire and the aspect of a horrid dragon; and that a saint of the times was indulged with a pleasant vision of the soul and body of Charles Martel, burning, to all eternity, in the abyss of hell.”

I think I am right to say, however, that this infernal vision has largely passed out of remembrance and credibility, and that Charles Martel survives in the popular imagination as an able and courageous man who defended Europe in an hour of peril.

But history is complicated, and my belief that Martel’s victory at Tours had contained and ended the Islamic threat was not quite right. I was startled to discover, for instance, that one hundred years later, during the reign of Pope Leo IV (847-855), Rome itself was under siege by a Muslim army. In fact, it was on account of that danger that the mighty walls surrounding the Vatican were erected:

“The design of enclosing it with walls and towers exhausted all that authority could command, or charity would supply: and the pious labor of four years was animated in every season, and at every hour, by the presence of the indefatigable pontiff. The love of fame, a generous but worldly passion, may be detected in the name of the Leonine city, which he bestowed on the Vatican; yet the pride of the dedication was tempered with Christian penance and humility. The boundary was trod by the bishop and his clergy, barefoot, in sackcloth and ashes; the songs of triumph were modulated to psalms and litanies; the walls were besprinkled with holy water; and the ceremony was concluded with a prayer, that, under the guardian care of the apostles and the angelic host, both the old and the new Rome might ever be preserved pure, prosperous, and impregnable.”

A marvellous scene! I must say that Leo IV emerges in these pages as a heroic figure in his own right. Gibbon, who is rarely lavish in his praise of churchmen, contends that “the courage of the first ages of the republic glowed in his breast; and, amidst the ruins of his country, he stood erect, like one of the firm and lofty columns that rear their heads above the fragments of the Roman forum.”

In the end, the Leonine defences stood, and the Islamic forces withdrew. At later dates cities in southern Italy were occasionally subject to renewed pressures, but for the most part the Islamic armies made no further inroads into western Europe. Around the turn of the 11th century a new wave of invasion beset Italy, this time — again, to my considerable surprise! — spearheaded by Normans come down from France. This was just a few decades prior to their invasion of England in 1066. In fact, under the leadership of men like Rainulf Drengot and Robert Guiscard they obtained control of Sicily and of several territories around Naples. I didn’t know any of this.


Meanwhile, in the east, Byzantium was carrying forward, at least formally, the Roman flag. Gibbon gives us one remarkable chapter in which he unspools a litany of emperors covering a period of 600 years, in which, he says, “at every step, as we sink deeper in the decline and fall of the Eastern empire”. It is a long tale in which the common theme is retreat and reduction:

“From the time of Heraclius, the Byzantine theatre is contracted and darkened: the line of empire, which had been defined by the laws of Justinian and the arms of Belisarius, recedes on all sides from our view; the Roman name, the proper subject of our inquiries, is reduced to a narrow corner of Europe, to the lonely suburbs of Constantinople.”

This formidable chapter concludes with one of his most striking moral reflections, on the transitory nature of power and fame, that is worth quoting for our edification:

“A being of the nature of man, endowed with the same faculties, but with a longer measure of existence, would cast down a smile of pity and contempt on the crimes and follies of human ambition, so eager, in a narrow span, to grasp at a precarious and shortlived enjoyment. It is thus that the experience of history exalts and enlarges the horizon of our intellectual view. In a composition of some days, in a perusal of some hours, six hundred years have rolled away, and the duration of a life or reign is contracted to a fleeting moment: the grave is ever beside the throne: the success of a criminal is almost instantly followed by the loss of his prize and our immortal reason survives and disdains the sixty phantoms of kings who have passed before our eyes, and faintly dwell on our remembrance.”

He doesn’t expect us, then, to remember much about the individual men passing in parade before us, but there were several who stood out for their particular ability and virtue, and I think it is worth saying a word or two about them, as they were all previously unknown to me.

One, for instance, was Basil I (811-886), who came to power through violence but ruled well: “he dissembled his ambition and even his virtues, and grasped, with the bloody hand of an assassin, the empire which he ruled with the wisdom and tenderness of a parent.” He founded a dynasty which ruled for almost 200 years, and is now largely forgotten, which underlines Gibbon’s melancholy reflection.

An interesting character was Andronicus Comnenus, who was emperor from 1183-85. Gibbon describes him as “one of the most conspicuous characters of the age”, and remarks that his “genuine adventures might form the subject of a very singular romance.” It’s quite true. But, as sometimes happened in romances of the medieval variety, his tale ended when he was deposed and brutally executed.

The greatest of the Eastern emperors was, in Gibbon’s judgement, John Comnenus (reigned 1118-1143). He was an able military leader who won victories against the Venetians, the Turks, the Hungarians, and Syrians, and in the process expanded and consolidated Byzantine territories. But, in a seemingly random incident that adds fuel to our ruminations on the transience of things, he died in a hunting accident:

“As he began to indulge the ambitious hope of restoring the ancient limits of the empire, as he revolved in his mind, the Euphrates and Tigris, the dominion of Syria, and the conquest of Jerusalem, the thread of his life and of the public felicity was broken by a singular accident. He hunted the wild boar in the valley of Anazarbus, and had fixed his javelin in the body of the furious animal; but in the struggle a poisoned arrow dropped from his quiver, and a slight wound in his hand, which produced a mortification, was fatal to the best and greatest of the Comnenian princes.”

Sic transit gloria mundi, he must have said, or might have said, had he spoken Latin like a Roman.


A curiosity in this volume is a chapter devoted to a religious sect called the Paulicians who thrived in Anatolia from the seventh to the ninth centuries. My knowledge of Christian history is reasonably broad, but this sect was new to me, and I was rather surprised to see how much they interested Gibbon, especially considering how little we know about them. Doctrinally, they seem to have had certain similarities with the (earlier) Manichaeans and the (later) Albigensians. They rejected the Old Testament and parts of the New; they may have rejected the Trinity; and they were iconoclasts. Gibbon, largely, it seems, on the basis of this last item and on their general rejection of the prevailing religious traditions, sees them as proto-Protestants, and finds them interesting and valuable on that account.

To make an understatement, we can say that Gibbon did not love Catholicism; we can infer as much from many bits of evidence sprinkled throughout his book. Yet his attitude toward Protestantism is less clear, no doubt because this branch of Christianity doesn’t come into his history at all. In his maturity he was seen as one of the exemplars of Enlightenment, but whether and how this affected his own religious beliefs I do not know.

I found, therefore, the following passage quite intriguing. It is one of the few occasions on which he hints at his views on the Reformation, and it’s worth looking at:

“Since the days of Luther and Calvin, a secret reformation has been silently working in the bosom of the reformed churches; many weeds of prejudice were eradicated; and the disciples of Erasmus diffused a spirit of freedom and moderation. The liberty of conscience has been claimed as a common benefit, an inalienable right: the free governments of Holland and England introduced the practice of toleration; and the narrow allowance of the laws has been enlarged by the prudence and humanity of the times. In the exercise, the mind has understood the limits of its powers, and the words and shadows that might amuse the child can no longer satisfy his manly reason. The volumes of controversy are overspread with cobwebs: the doctrine of a Protestant church is far removed from the knowledge or belief of its private members; and the forms of orthodoxy, the articles of faith, are subscribed with a sigh, or a smile, by the modern clergy. Yet the friends of Christianity are alarmed at the boundless impulse of inquiry and scepticism. The predictions of the Catholics are accomplished: the web of mystery is unravelled by the Arminians, Arians, and Socinians, whose number must not be computed from their separate congregations; and the pillars of Revelation are shaken by those men who preserve the name without the substance of religion, who indulge the license without the temper of philosophy.”

He favours toleration, manly reason, liberty of conscience, freedom, and moderation, and he implies, perhaps, that these were part of the inheritance bequeathed by Luther and Calvin. Yet he also seems quite edified that this inheritance has hollowed out the doctrinal backbone of the Protestant churches, whose clergy subscribe to the articles of faith with a sigh, or a smile. On this view, Protestantism is a bridge from Catholicism to secularism. That this is so has, of course, been a consistent claim of Catholics ever since the Reformation, as Gibbon also confirms. From a Catholic point of view, therefore, this is a valuable passage, assuming I’ve interpreted it correctly; it’s gratifying when your opponent not only finds your argument sound, but adopts it as his own.


One last topic on which I’d like to touch in these notes is the state of Byzantine intellectual life and scholarship. It is unquestionable that European culture owes a major debt to the generations of Byzantine scholars who studied and preserved ancient manuscripts until the time when, as a result of the Islamic conquest of Constantinople, they came flooding into the west, bringing their books, and their knowledge of Greek, with them. Although, in fact, they had access to numerous ancient works that, tragically, never made it safely into western hands either through eventual neglect or through destruction:

“Some estimate may be formed of the literary wealth of the twelfth century: Constantinople was enlightened by the genius of Homer and Demosthenes, of Aristotle and Plato: and in the enjoyment or neglect of our present riches, we must envy the generation that could still peruse the history of Theopompus, the orations of Hyperides, the comedies of Menander, and the odes of Alcaeus and Sappho.”

But if we pause for a moment, and call to mind the original masterpieces of Byzantine literature, we might find that our minds are blank. Were there any great Byzantine poets? Any great historians? Any great philosophers? My ignorance is nearly boundless, so I’ll not answer definitively, but I will confess that I can’t think of any. Neither can Gibbon, and he has given us a lengthy, but absolutely delicious, scathing appraisal of Byzantine letters:

“They held in their lifeless hands the riches of their fathers, without inheriting the spirit which had created and improved that sacred patrimony: they read, they praised, they compiled, but their languid souls seemed alike incapable of thought and action. In the revolution of ten centuries, not a single discovery was made to exalt the dignity or promote the happiness of mankind. Not a single idea has been added to the speculative systems of antiquity, and a succession of patient disciples became in their turn the dogmatic teachers of the next servile generation. Not a single composition of history, philosophy, or literature, has been saved from oblivion by the intrinsic beauties of style or sentiment, of original fancy, or even of successful imitation. In prose, the least offensive of the Byzantine writers are absolved from censure by their naked and unpresuming simplicity: but the orators, most eloquent in their own conceit, are the farthest removed from the models whom they affect to emulate. In every page our taste and reason are wounded by the choice of gigantic and obsolete words, a stiff and intricate phraseology, the discord of images, the childish play of false or unseasonable ornament, and the painful attempt to elevate themselves, to astonish the reader, and to involve a trivial meaning in the smoke of obscurity and exaggeration. Their prose is soaring to the vicious affectation of poetry: their poetry is sinking below the flatness and insipidity of prose. The tragic, epic, and lyric muses, were silent and inglorious: the bards of Constantinople seldom rose above a riddle or epigram, a panegyric or tale; they forgot even the rules of prosody; and with the melody of Homer yet sounding in their ears, they confound all measure of feet and syllables in the impotent strains which have received the name of political or city verses.”

Why was this so, if it was so? In Gibbon’s view this lassitude was rooted in complacent self-satisfaction that was itself a consequence of a lack of competition with rival powers. Byzantium, he says, was too secure to be spurred to great things. I’m not sure this answer fits the evidence, for we’ve already seen the eastern empire contending for its life against Islamic and Persian foes, but perhaps those were not the right kind of competitor. Think of the Islamic and Persian masterpieces of the same period and your mind might be blank again. (And, again, I admit ignorance, especially of Persia.) But, in any case, the advent of the Crusades brought a breath of fresh air to the Byzantine world:

Alone in the universe, the self-satisfied pride of the Greeks was not disturbed by the comparison of foreign merit; and it is no wonder if they fainted in the race, since they had neither competitors to urge their speed, nor judges to crown their victory. The nations of Europe and Asia were mingled by the expeditions to the Holy Land; and it is under the Comnenian dynasty that a faint emulation of knowledge and military virtue was rekindled in the Byzantine empire.”

It’s an interesting and appealing claim that the west, which in the fifteenth century would reap a harvest from the east, perhaps, in some small way, had itself planted the seed, or at least watered it, several centuries earlier.


We conclude this volume in a state of some uncertainty. The eastern empire looks as weak as it ever has, beset by troubles on every side. It seems to lack internal dynamism, and though it is blessed, from time to time, with wise and able emperors, they are mostly not conspicuously either. Off in the west, Rome still exists, but has become a pale shadow of her former self. After five of six volumes, the decline and fall are far advanced.

[military aphorism]
In a light of precaution, all conquest must be ineffectual, unless it could be universal, since the increasing circle must be involved in a larger sphere of hostility.

Rome 1300

July 11, 2022

Rome 1300
On the Path of the Pilgrim
Herbert L. Kessler & Johanna Zacharias
(Yale, 2000)
237 p.

Rome is a city that sprawls through time like no other. Buildings separated by centuries sit cheek-by-jowl, and the span of the city’s memory stretches back to an ancient pedigree that few can rival. A stimulating thought experiment is to take a time-slice of the city: what would it have looked like in the year X?

That is just what Kessler & Zacharias have done in this book. They imagine what it might have been like to be a pilgrim coming to Rome in 1300, the year in which Pope Boniface VIII declared the first Jubilee. Modern visitors to Rome tend to think first of ancient Rome and of Renaissance Rome, so the choice of 1300 is a very good one; it gives us an opportunity to imagine the city as we probably have not done before.

What would a pilgrim have seen and heard at that time? No Michelangelo, no Raphael, no Borromini, no Bernini. St Peter’s basilica, as we know it, was not there. Go further back.

They put us in the shoes of a pilgrim who arrived, at the city’s south side, on August 14, the eve of the Feast of the Assumption. On that night there was an annual procession through the city from St John Lateran to Santa Maria Maggiore that passed by many sacred sites. Over the course of the book, we walk to the marvellous church of San Clemente, then past the Colosseum and through the ancient Roman Forum, visiting the church of Sts Cosmas and Damian before turning north to pray at Santa Prassede and then, in the early hours of the morning, at Santa Maria Maggiore. After a brief rest, our pilgrim then makes her way down to St Paul’s Outside the Walls, and, finally, to St Peter’s to conclude her pilgrimage.

Reading the book has been an unalloyed delight for me, bringing back so many wonderful memories of my time in Rome. San Clemente is my favourite church in the city; when I was last there I rented an apartment from which, leaning out the window, I could touch the façade of Santa Prassede; I have myself followed a procession from the Lateran to Santa Maria Maggiore (although it was for the Feast of Corpus Christi, and followed a much more direct route). At every turn of the page more wonders were in store.

Although many of the sites and sights were familiar to me, not all were. Some things have changed in the intervening 700 years, though not as many as you might think. The book spends a good deal of time on the Sancta Sanctorum at the Lateran, which I not only have never visited (few have), but did not know about. And of course St Peter’s is radically different today; the earlier basilica was, in structure, much more similar to St Paul’s than to the new church, and I read this section with fascination. But the great candlestick at St Paul’s is still there.

The narrative device used by the authors to organize the book — of pilgrimage — is an appealing one, but it is a device. In its bones, this is an art history book, dedicated primarily to describing and understanding the architecture and art of the churches. The pilgrim would have had to be unusually thorough to apprehend all of the details the authors describe, and would have been accustomed to thinking in unusually academic prose to boot, but this didn’t bother me. The book is illustrated with over 200 photos, many of them in colour. It’s a wonderful book.