After the Barbarians: From Gibbon to Auden

Essay by MICHAEL DIRDA

Every so often in scholarship a subject suddenly grows hot. Take, for instance, the study of what’s called late antiquity, that is the years from roughly A.D. 300 to 600. Historians once simply skimmed over or dismissed this period as one of transition, the last fitful gasp of the dying Roman Empire. It was viewed as a debased time of poetasters and mystics, of antiquarianism rather than creativity, of heated theological wrangles instead of calm philosophical discourse. The barbarians were no longer at the gates; they were in charge. Having forsaken the ancient temples of their gods, an anxiety-ridden population was turning increasingly to the mystery religions of Christ or Mithra. Travelers even reported hearing the sobbing cry, “Great Pan is dead!” Altogether little remained of the intellectual glory that was Greece and the public grandeur that was Rome. Instead this was clearly an age of decay and decadence, without redeeming cultural value, and its capital was the orthodox, bureaucratic, and stultified Byzantium.

But roughly 40 years ago everything started to change, as a generation of young classicists — many of whom are now distinguished emeritus professors — began to discover in late antiquity a time of passionate intensity, experiment, and renewal. Some of the most prominent of these groundbreaking scholars gradually clustered together at Princeton, either at the university or the Institute of Advanced Study. At their head was Peter Brown, author of the exuberant Augustine of Hippo and the elegant World of Late Antiquity, as well as of numerous studies of spiritual and religious life in the first centuries of the Christian era. Over the years his much-honored associates have included Elaine Pagels, the authority on Gnostic thought; Michael Cook, a specialist in Near Eastern and early Islamic culture; and Edmund Keeley, the translator of C. P. Cavafy, whose poetry found in Hellenistic Alexandria a homoerotic realm of “luxe, calme, et volupté.”

Yet another member of this visionary company is the esteemed Glen W. Bowersock, who joined Princeton in 1980, after leaving Harvard, where he had been chair of the Classics Department and a distinguished teacher of ancient history. Certainly, Bowersock’s own studies — of, for example, the Julian the Apostate, ancient Greek fiction, and Roman Arabia — are firmly based in these early Christian centuries. His most recent book, From Gibbon to Auden, might even be more aptly subtitled “Essays on the (Late) Classical Tradition.”

This handsome collection opens with three pieces focusing on the historian Edward Gibbon, the 18th-century chronicler of Rome’s decline and fall, while three later ones appraise Cavafy’s “historical” poetry, which repeatedly depicts the tension between the pagan and the Christian, the sensual and the ascetic. But there are also appealing short accounts of the unearthing of buried Pompeii and Herculaneum, of Berlioz’s use of Virgil in his opera Les Troyens, and of Edward Lear’s short visit to the legendary Petra, the “rose-red city, half as old as time.” I particularly enjoyed Bowersock’s argument for the influence of Suetonius’ racy Lives of the Caesars on the development of modern biography: unlike Plutarch, who emphasized moral instruction, the “peculiar Suetonian mark,” we are told, lies in the forthrightly modern presentation of “contradictory characteristics” — the good, the bad, and the ugly aspects of a dozen all-too-human emperors.

In perhaps his most substantial essay, “Burckhardt on Late Antiquity from the Constantin to the Griechische Kulturgeshichte,” Bowersock points out how Jacob Burckhardt — best known for his famous study The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy — actually anticipated many of the 20th century’s discoveries about the inner life of the ancient Greeks. An appreciation of Arnaldo Momigliano (1908–87) notes that when that visiting savant offered a course at Harvard on Giambattista Vico — proponent of a cyclical theory of history — almost no one signed up for it. (I suspect it would be a hot ticket these days, given Vico’s influence on Joyce and Beckett.) In “The New Old World,” Bowersock reviews a study of classical learning in America, mentioning in passing that he and Erich Segal — who was to become our leading authority on Roman comedy, as well as the author of Love Story — once starred together in a Harvard performance, in Greek, of Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus. Finally, From Gibbon to Auden ends with some reflections on an essay by W. H. Auden called “The Fall of Rome.”

While there is no question about Bowersock’s overall admiration for the scholars, writers, and books he discusses, he doesn’t hesitate to be critical. See, for instance, “A Modern Aesop,” where he notes Polish journalist Ryszard Kapucinski’s flawed understanding of Herodotus, or his review of a book about Neapolitan hand gestures, where he shakes his head over the 19th-century author’s misguided attempt to link this sign language to ancient times. Similarly, while Bowersock reveres Momigliano, he makes clear that the old scholar shows an excessively rationalist approach to religion in his late book, On Pagans, Jews and Christians. Bowersock also reminds us that Gibbon relied almost wholly on secondary sources and was, in key ways, less a learned scholar (à la Theodor Mommsen) than a great prose artist who happened to choose Roman history as his subject. That roly-poly historian — I’ve always thought he looked just like Porky Pig — was, moreover, rather transparently obsessed with reputation and worked diligently to shape posterity’s view of his life and achievements.

Like Gibbon, the polymathic Jacob Burckhardt might be regarded as something of an amateur, at least as a scholar of antiquity. But this outsider status allowed him to ignore the strictures and petitesse of traditional classical scholarship and to boldly explore what were in the 19th century rather unusual subjects. As Bowersock writes:

What marks Burckhardt’s work as distinctive is his attention to the irrational side of Greek life nearly a century before E. R. Dodds wrote his pioneering book, The Greeks and the Irrational. Burckhardt’s treatment of ghosts and demons, of vampires and werewolves in Greek popular tradition was precisely an area in which deep knowledge of the later periods served him well. He drew heavily for this material on the second-century A.D. traveler Pausanias and the third-century chronicler and novelist Philostratus. In a brilliant stroke he compared the supernatural figures in pagan popular belief with the heavenly army that Constantine believed was fighting on his side.

Being a great admirer of C. P. Cavafy, I learned much about his work from Bowersock’s three slightly labored essays, the first analyzing some newly published poems focusing on Julian the Apostate, another teasing out the importance to the poet’s imagination of the wonderworker Apollonios of Tyana (frequently regarded as Jesus’ pagan rival), and a third surveying some newly published manuscript material. But these pieces presuppose a real passion for Cavafy, as they are pitched at a high level of sophistication and detail. For those unfamiliar with this wonderful poet, the best starting point remains the essay by E. M. Forster that introduced Cavafy to the English-speaking world, and which famously described him as “standing at a slight angle to the universe.”

Unlike the pieces on Cavafy, Bowersock’s essay about W. H. Auden’s rejected 1966 Life magazine article on “The Fall of Rome” is genuinely prefatory: after some opening remarks, Bowersock reprints Auden’s entire piece, one packed with that writer’s usual brilliancies. Nonetheless, the preface skirts some arguably important details. When Auden notes that the Son of God’s birth in a manger, to humble parents, allowed poets to take up people of low estate as serious subjects for art, Bowersock calls this a reflection of the author’s “personal tastes.” No doubt. But it is also a central thesis of Erich Auerbach’s thought (see the early chapters of Mimesis), which Auden clearly knew, since he quotes that scholar by name. Furthermore, Auden concludes his reflections on Roman culture by appending his own 1947 poem, itself titled “The Fall of Rome,” which Bowersock links to Auden’s fascination with Cavafy. Yes and no. The poem was originally dedicated to a modern exemplar of the pagan spirit, that constant mourner for an antique temps perdu, the critic and sybarite Cyril Connolly.

In “The New Old World,” Bowersock mentions the sonorously named Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve, our country’s leading 19th-century classicist — and an ardent apologist for the Confederate cause. One can read more about the great Gildersleeve in Ward Brigg’s contribution to British Classics Outside England, edited by Judith P. Hallett and Christopher Stray and just published this spring (Baylor University Press). Also in that volume is editor Hallett’s account of the career of Edith Hamilton, whose Mythology has long been a staple of the elementary school curriculum. Hallett writes again, and at greater length, about Hamilton’s life and work in American Women and Classical Myths, edited by Gregory Staley (also published this spring by Baylor University Press). That volume’s other contributors take up the influence of the classics on writers as various as Phillis Wheatley, Margaret Fuller, Willa Cather, and H.D. Several thematic pieces then examine the images of Athena, Antigone, Penelope, and the Amazons in American culture.

All three of these complementary essay collections strike a common chord: classical studies are still vital. Fewer of us may know how to conjugate Latin verbs, let alone decipher Greek papyri, but new translations of Sappho and Homer and Virgil still pour from our presses, and sometimes make the bestseller list. Our modern fascination with Gnosticism must now rival that of late antiquity. But even the more purely classical aspects of the classics are still deeply embedded in our buildings, our culture and our imaginations. How could it be otherwise? In many ways, the old saw remains true: “Nanos gigantium humeris insidentes” — We are dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants.

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