Some mercy may be discovered
October 21, 2013 7:41 PM   Subscribe

"One of the greatest stories, true or fictional, in all literature is Gibbon’s account of the life and martyrdom of Boethius under the Ostrogoth Theodoric. Senator, poet, philosopher, man of reason, he was the last of his kind in all these categories. The story is an incomparable masterpiece of prose. From the opening sentence, "The Senator Boethius is the last of the Romans whom Cato or Tully could have acknowledged for their countryman," Gibbon builds a mighty organ toccata. He always seems to see ahead to every echo and resonance and inversion of rhythm, through the idyllic description of The Consolation of Philosophy to the terrible climax — the philosopher garroted and clubbed to death in the last gloomy hours of Theodoric, followed by the swift cadence, and the coda of the martyrdom of his fellow Senator Symmachus — four crowded pages of the most solemn music. Each man speaks in his own style. Gibbon speaks with such sublimity because, sitting in his quiet study, he was totally involved in the defense of reason against the triumph of barbarism and superstition and the ruin of all bright things."
At the beginning of the fall of Rome, Saint Augustine wrote The City of God; and Gibbon, looking back in his book from the walls of burning Constantinople in the final fall, on the eve of a new age of enlightenment, is in fact committed to the same interpretation of history as Augustine. Against the destructive irrationality of circumstance and the folly of mankind stands the community of the elect. In Augustine it is the community of faith; in Gibbon the elect of reason, a society that transcends history. The ideal Rome that Gibbon describes in his opening chapters on the Antonines is a passing avatar of the enduring City of Enlightenment. This, after all, is the subject of all tragedy: the defeat of the ideal by the real, of being by existence.
The above is from Kenneth Rexroth's characteristically beautiful essay on The Decline and Fall, originally published as a chapter in his Classics Revisited. Metafilter's own Ken Knabb hosts another Rexroth piece on Gibbon's letters at the sterling Bureau of Public Secrets. (Previously.)

More commentary on The Decline and Fall can be found at Nicholas Whyte's Reading Gibbon, a chapter-by-chapter journal of his 133 week trip through the history.
posted by Iridic (21 comments total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
Awesome post! Gibbon is so great.
posted by Chrysostom at 7:52 PM on October 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Senator, poet, philosopher, man of reason, barber.
posted by three blind mice at 12:30 AM on October 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

The case for construing Boethius as a "martyr" seems to be that Theodoric was the wrong kind of Christian (Arian). Oh, and that he was a "Barbarian".

I don't shed a single tear for the Romans. They were psychopathic tyrants who finally overreached, as far as I'm concerned.
posted by thelonius at 12:30 AM on October 22, 2013

The roads and the aqueducts were cool, though.
posted by Justinian at 12:50 AM on October 22, 2013 [5 favorites]

Senator, poet, philosopher, man of reason, he was the last of his kind in all these categories.

That's a trifle hyperbolic. More of a transitional than a terminal figure?
posted by Segundus at 1:43 AM on October 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Gibbon is so great.

He's funky.
posted by Segundus at 2:23 AM on October 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

Guys. My adorable black pug is named Gibbon. You might be able to imagine how weird it was to read this after Gibbon woke you up and you're not fully awake yet.
posted by fluffy battle kitten at 2:55 AM on October 22, 2013

Don't be scared of Gibbon! Sure, D&F is huge and epic and everything, but it's also a rollicking tale. I'm finding it quite readable.
posted by whuppy at 3:53 AM on October 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Romans never did anything for me.
posted by fraxil at 4:58 AM on October 22, 2013

Basically everything is more transitional than terminal. These days, I think you'd be hard pressed to find a historian who believes in the "fall" of the Roman empire as a discrete event, only the decline.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 5:06 AM on October 22, 2013

Well, even Gibbon called it DECLINE and fall.
posted by Chrysostom at 5:44 AM on October 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh, absolutely, that wasn't meant as a knock on Gibbon, but more of a statement about historians conceptions of events, which tend to be about gradual change and continuity, and popular conceptions which are about important dates and stark periodization. I'll leave insulting Gibbon to the Byzantinists.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 5:57 AM on October 22, 2013

Bulgaroktonos: I'll leave insulting Gibbon to the Byzantinists.

posted by alasdair at 6:28 AM on October 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

"Another damned thick book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh, Mr. Gibbon?"

Attributed to Prince William Henry, Duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh, 1781, upon receiving the second (or third, or possibly both) volume(s) of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire from the author.
I heard it from Robert Jordan as parting words to a little crowd of his fans as he boarded the elevator after a reading from the sixth(?) volume of his Wheel of Time.
posted by jamjam at 8:27 AM on October 22, 2013

Thanks for this. "A Confederacy of Dunces" made me want to dip into some Boethius, which I still haven't done. Where to start?
posted by jetsetsc at 9:16 AM on October 22, 2013

I think "The Consolations of Philosophy" is the main course. It's a beautiful book.
posted by thelonius at 9:36 AM on October 22, 2013

posted by resurrexit at 8:01 PM on October 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

Also--and this is kind of cool for me--Boethius, or St. Severinus as he's known to some, has his feast day tomorrow, October 23.
posted by resurrexit at 8:05 PM on October 22, 2013

I'll leave insulting Gibbon to the Byzantinists.

Man, Gibbon. I wrote a longer thing taking him to task for causing the whole English-speaking world to write off the Byzantine Empire, but it's not really worth it when what I'd rather do is just add to the number of Byzantine-derived usernames in this thread.
posted by Copronymus at 10:37 PM on October 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Now I recently learned that there were indeed very severe persecutions of (Trinitarian) Christians in North Africa by the (Arian) Vandals, when they controlled that territory. By persecution, I mean, cruelty, death, or other harsh measures that are motivated by religious difference. And that wasn't really what led to Boethius' arrest and execution, was it? But, he is a Christian martyr and saint. I should go read up on this.
posted by thelonius at 5:54 AM on October 23, 2013

Early Church history is an interest of mine, and yes, Arian persecutions were a thing. Basically, any doctrinal variances seemed to translate pretty quickly into major nastiness. See, the history of my namesake, for example.
posted by Chrysostom at 6:22 AM on October 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

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