Saturday, October 31, 2009

Decline and Fall

So I recently started re-reading Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Well, re-reading is not completely accurate. I only got about half-way through the first volume last time. And that was close to 20 years ago. I decided to start from the beginning again, and am determined to get through all three volumes of 2777 pages. It's slow going this time, since I'm making it a point of really taking my time, not moving on until I really understand the point Gibbon is trying to make. And this time I'm reading all the footnotes, which I didn't bother to do last time. And therein lies my beef.

Most people will agree that Gibbon's footnotes contain some of the juiciest morsels, and to read D&F without reading the footnotes is missing out on half the fun. But the edition I am reading contains additional footnotes by the editor, Oliphant Smeaton. And it's driving me absolutely bonkers. Mr. Smeaton finds it necessary to include his own footnotes every other page; sometimes several per page. And most of his footnotes are his pathetic attempts to correct Gibbon.

Here's an example. To quote Gibbon:
The influence of the clergy, in an age of superstition, might be usefully employed to assert the rights of mankind; but so intimate is the connection between the throne and the altar, that the hammer of the church has very seldom been seen on the side of the people.

Mr. Oliphant's footnote to this passage is the following:
[Gibbon's remark here is wholly incorrect. --O.S.]

Wholly incorrect, huh? Really? Yes, we all know of Gibbon's bias towards the church. And that he blames the Christian religion as being one of the determining factors in the fall of Rome. But I also happen to agree with him. So do a lot of people. It is Gibbon's book. He wrote it. You may or may not agree with some of his theories. If you don't, keep it to yourself. You pusillanimous little prick.

As I said before, his additional footnotes are really getting on my nerves. Determined not to miss out on any of Gibbon's own footnotes, I've been making it a point to follow up each one. But when you see the number for a footnote, you don't know whose footnote it is until you look down to find it on the bottom part of the page. Although, Mr. Oliphant was kind enough to delineate his by putting them in brackets, and signing them O.S., by the time I've discovered it is one of his, and that I really don't care to read it, the flow of Gibbon's words (and he was a helluva wordsmith) has already been disrupted. And I find myself wanting to find a gladius, and skewering old O.S.

I see his little additions as nothing more than the attempt of a pathetic little man to claim some fame by riding on the back of a giant. I even have a picture in my head of what Oliphant looks like; probably not accurate, but it's still there. I see a tall, severely thin man, bald, and wearing horn-rimmed glasses. His face, long neck and stooping posture reminds me of a vulture. And I suppose the metaphor is not an inaccurate one. Picking over the meaty carcass of Gibbon, he's found a way to sustain himself, and has managed to attain some level of immortality. Which is more than I will ever be able to attain.

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