Friday, October 27, 2017

`Read Livy Against Livy'

Some will remember the stately procession of Edward Gibbon’s finale, his summation to “the greatest, perhaps, and most awful scene in the history of mankind”:

“ . . . the disorders of military despotism; the rise, establishment, and sects of Christianity; the foundation of Constantinople; the division of the monarchy; the invasion and settlements of the Barbarians of Germany and Scythia; the institutions of the civil law; the character and religion of Mahomet; the temporal sovereignty of the popes; the restoration and decay of the Western empire of Charlemagne; the crusades of the Latins in the East: the conquests of the Saracens and Turks; the ruin of the Greek empire; the state and revolutions of Rome in the middle age.”

I have just started reading Victor Davis Hanson’s The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won, and Hanson’s panascopic lens reminded me of Gibbon’s great book and his observation that history is “little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.” He also reminded me of Zbigniew Herbert’s “Transformations of Livy,” in which the Pole contrasts how four generations of the men in his family read the Roman historian. The poem was translated into English by John and Bogdana Carpenter in Elegy for Departure and Other Poems (2000), but was written in the 1980s while Poland remained under Communist domination:

“and so they read Livy—O season of blossoms—
in the smell of chalk boredom naphthalene for cleaning the floor
under a portrait of the emperor
because at that time there was an emperor
and the empire like all empires
seemed eternal”

That is how his grandfather and great-grandfather read Livy. In contrast: “Only my father and myself after him / read Livy against Livy / carefully examining what is underneath the fresco.” For the older readers among his relations, “the empire like all empires / seemed eternal,” as did the Soviet Union and its puppet states. Herbert’s poem concludes: “and the empire will fall.”

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