Monday, August 15, 2016

Conjectural histories

I have completely succumbed, by the way, to the allure of Gibbon.  Excited about working on this project!  Here are two small bits that may convey some of the quality I find so irresistible in Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:

On Gordianus, father and son:
When he reluctantly accepted the purple, he was above fourscore years old; a last and valuable remains of the happy age of the Antonines, whose virtues he revived in his own conduct, and celebrated in an elegant poem of thirty books.  With the venerable proconsul, his son, who had accompanied him into Africa as his lieutenant, was likewise declared emperor.  His manners were less pure, but his character was equally amiable with that of his father.  Twenty-two acknowledged concubines, and a library of sixty-two thousand volumes, attested the variety of his inclinations; and from the productions which he left behind him, it appears that the former as well as the latter were designed for use rather than for ostentation.  
(The note to that last sentence reads: "By each of his concubines, the younger Gordian left three or four children.  His literary productions, though less numerous, were by no means contemptible.")

Or again, in a more contemplative vein (on the difficulty of writing about the empire c. 248-268 CE):
The confusion of the times, and the scarcity of authentic memorials, oppose equal difficulties to the historian, who attempts to preserve a clear and unbroken thread of narration.  Surrounded with imperfect fragments, always concise, often obscure, and sometimes contradictory, he is reduced to collect, to compare, and to conjecture: and though he ought never to place his conjectures in the rank of facts, yet the knowledge of human nature, and of the sure operation of its fierce and unrestrained passions, might, on some occasions, supply the want of historical materials.


  1. One of the delights of so many Gibbon sentences is his robust underlying response to Christianity.I recently noticed this plaque on a London Church dedicated to a man who died in 1776. It starts off stating that it is
    "Sacred to those virtues that adorn a Christian and a Tradesman"
    Can you conjure up Gibbon's likely reaction to this plaque? A wry smile? A brief debate as to whether the author(s) saw the two spheres as having significantly overlapping, or entirely different but equal, virtues? Or perhaps too commonplace a sentiment to provoke a reaction?

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