Book review / The end of the Roman Empire (100 years late)
A History of Rome under the Emperors by Theodor Mommsen Routledge, pounds 40
Saturday 10 August 1996
Yet it was never finished. Volumes One to Three appeared quickly within the space of a few years, covering Rome's history during the so-called "Republic" - a period of constitutional government under the Senate and elected magistrates - that Mommsen enthusiastically saw as a model for the new nation-states of Europe; Volume Five followed 30 years, later (a much drier history of the various provinces of the Roman empire). Volume Four, which was to cover Rome under the emperors, after the tyranny and assassination of Julius Caesar, never appeared. There was no doubt what Mommsen thought of this period; he repeatedly referred to it in his writing as a "deeply degenerate age" of "leaden tedium" destroyed by "inner putresence".
In 1980, however, a young German historian walked into a second-hand bookshop in Nuremberg, and came across a pile of old notebooks. These turned out to contain students' notes from Mommsen's courses on the history of the Roman empire in the 1880s - the closest thing, as their discoverer instantly realised, that we would ever get to the missing Volume Four. Edited into connected prose, they were published in Germany in 1992 to front-page headlines and they are now translated into English.
The serendipity of this whole story is astonishing; the chances that (even in well-educated Nuremberg) the books would have been spotted by someone who actually recognised what they were are almost too small to contemplate. But the more hard-headed response must ask whether the final published version lives up to its promise.
There are indeed some engagingly iconoclastic soundbites buried here. Mommsen was a notoriously outspoken oddball - in his academic life as much as in his modern politics (his remarks on Gladstone's Irish legislation, for example, were said to be unprintable). By the 1880s he already had an established reputation as the greatest defender of Roman history and culture in a Germany that was still enthralled by Hellenism. His audience was presumably meant to be amused, as well as shocked, when they heard him dismissing Rome's national poet Virgil as a "sorry comparison" with the Greek Homer, chastising the central episode of his Aeneid, as "a vulgar erotic motif" and lamenting that the whole poem was not burnt on Virgil's death. But such passages are, within a rather dreary historical narrative, few and far between.
The editors do a valiant job in their introduction, trying to catch something of the spirit of this extra-ordinary man: a parodic workaholic, who was once found at seven in the morning outside the Bodleian in Oxford, complaining that the library was not open till nine; a committed citizen, who was for years a member of the Prussian Parliament; a prolific Roman historian, who singlehandedly rediscovered (though some would now say, more critically, "invented") the whole legal basis of the ancient Roman constitution. All the same, to re-read these lectures on the history of the Roman empire inevitably prompts the suspicion that, for all his promses, his failure to produce Volume Four was a calculated (and wise) decision. For once, perhaps, he didn't have much he wanted to say.
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Miley Cyrus' homeless MTV VMAs date, Jesse Helt, is wanted by the police
- 2 Arizona shooting: Gun instructor accidentally killed by nine-year-old girl with Uzi
- 3 Paul Scholes: Manchester City were so good against Liverpool I felt like turning the television off
- 4 Notting Hill Carnival: Woman shares selfie after being ‘punched in face for telling man to stop groping her’
- 5 Pamela Anderson rejects ice bucket challenge because of ALS experiments on animals: 'Mice had holes drilled into their skulls'
Great British Bake Off, episode 4, review: Heat gets turned up as Iain goes into meltdown
Doctor Who kiss sparks Ofcom complaints over 'weird lesbian-lizard perv trip'
Nicki Minaj suffers wardrobe malfunction during MTV VMAs performance with Ariana Grande and Jessie J
Emmys 2014: Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman and Steven Moffat win big awards for Sherlock
Homer Simpson takes the ALS ice bucket challenge because of course he does
Exclusive: We share blame for creating 'jihad generation', says Muslim strategist
Robin Williams Emmys tribute led by Billy Crystal criticised for including 'racist' joke about Muslim woman
The Rotherham child abuse scandal is a tale of apologists, misogyny and double standards
Scottish independence TV debate: Pumped-up Alex Salmond bounces back in bruising second round against Alistair Darling
Do you realise just how foolish the UK looks?
Arizona shooting: Gun instructor accidentally killed by nine-year-old girl with Uzi
- < Previous
- Next >