Decline and Fall

I’ve recently been listening on Audible to Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, one of the greatest works of history ever written. It’s great for a number for reasons, not least its size: I seem to have been listening for an eternity but I’m still only in part three of five and have about 16 hours to go.

Another reason for its greatness is the combination of vast breadth of scope with the most minute details, but for me, the best aspect is Gibbon’s writing style. His use of language is stately, considered and absolutely gorgeous. Perhaps a tad archaic by today’s standards, but anyone who can use words like ‘animadversion’ and ‘invidious’ with such practiced ease has my vote.

Here’s one random line about the imperial quaestor that illustrates the point:

“But as he wasn’t oppressed with the variety of subordinate business, his leisure and talents were employed to cultivate that dignified style of eloquence which, in the corruption of taste and language, still preserves the majesty of Roman laws.”

Just magnificent.

Some people don’t like Gibbon. They accuse him of watering down the Roman treatment of the Christians and being over-critical of the Christian church once it rose to prominence in the empire (which possibly says more about their religious beliefs than their objective analysis of history). They also attack his language style and call him racist, imperialist and all manner of things. Well we can only assume he was all those things, as he was writing in the 1770s, before the American Revolution, when Britain was as mighty as Rome herself, and what we would call arrogance today was just ‘being British’.

I’ve also been dabbling in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, which is an extremely difficult read as it’s  about 90% conversation between a large number of characters with titles and Russian patronymics. I struggle with Dostoevsky, possibly because his style is so unlike anyone else’s, but it’s invariably worth persevering. I remember reading Crime and Punishment years ago and being so filled with loathing for the main character that I had to put the book down for a few months and come back to it. I’m glad I did, because the character of the detective introduced some humour and lo and behold, it became a murder investigation, albeit one that dealt with the psychological aspects of crime in an intensely detailed way.

The Idiot is a challenge because the motivations of the characters are not explicit, and the subject of the title is himself an insubstantial personality, subject to much doubt, criticism and self-effacement. Just deciding who in each scene is being antagonistic to whom takes concentration, and you can’t help wondering whether this book would be better presented as a play, although it would take some memorising by the actors.

Two very different books, the first published in 1776, the second as a series in 1868. Both worth reading.

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