Thursday, July 26, 2007


I am on page 188 of Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”—Chapter IX, in which the author speculates on the effect of the northern climate on the warlike Germans. It promises to be incredibly politically incorrect before its time. Chapter VIII was about Zoroaster. Chapter VII contains a felicitous sentence or two (among thousands) about the younger Gordian: “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 ostentation.” This sentence rates an explanatory footnote: “By each of his concubines, the younger Gordian left three or four children. His literary productions were by no means contemptible.”

I have not only resigned myself to Gibbon’s footnotes but embraced them, and am determined to follow in his footnotesteps. In one on Maximin, a barbarian who became emperor, we learn that Maximin was more than eight feet tall and could drink seven gallons of wine a day. “He could move a loaded waggon, break a horse’s leg with his fist, crumble stones in his hand, and tear up small trees by the roots.” In a footnote to a sentence about Maximus and Balbinus, the dual emperors elected after the murder of Maximin—“Their silent discord was understood rather than seen”—Gibbon quotes his Latin source, the Augustan History (“Discordiae tacitae, et quae intelligerentur potius quam viderentur”), and adds, “This well-chosen expression is probably stolen from some better writer.” And here is a footnote to the siege of Aquileia: “A temple was ... built to Venus the bald, in honour of the women of Aquileia, who had given up their hair to make ropes for the military engines.”

In a footnote to a footnote, Oliphant Smeaton informs us that the third Gordian was married to a woman with the wonderful name Tranquillina.

There are no Tranquillinas in our family, but the maiden name of my father’s father’s wife, my great-grandmother, was Mary Gibbon. I used to like to think that through her I might be related to the great Edward Gibbon, but that is unlikely for many reasons, chief among them the fact that he never married and had no children. Still, I am proud to be a descendant of Mary Gibbon, who worked in Cleveland’s grand hotel the Hollenden House, from which she is said to have acquired the family silver.


erieblue said...

Your excerpts almost make me want to read Gibbon. Almost.

Emily Barton said...

I'm saving Gibbon for retirement, a time when I imagine having hours to read every day, but I'm with erieblue: I almost want to read him now.

lucette said...

I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be willing to give up my hair!
I have read Gibbon, long ago, when I took a lot of classes in the 18th century, but frankly I was just trying to get through it. Maybe I should give it a more leisurely try.

Judith Weingarten said...

Much more about Queen Zenobia on my websiteand about lots about her times on the blog Empress of the East.

There's a book behind both, almost as big as Gibbon's :-)