Sunday, 6 March 2011

Rutilius' Return: Edward Gibbon's Journal

19 December 1763

I read Claudii Rutilii Numantiani Iter, lib. i. v. 1-644; lib. ii. v. 1-68. This is all that remains of a work that contained two complete books. I read it in Burmann's Edition of the Poetae Latini Minores. Leyden, 1731; one of those Dutch editions, cum notis Variorum, in which the text only peeps out amidst a heavy mass of commentary. The 700 verses of Rutilius are spread over 200 quarto pages, crowded with the remarks of Simler, Castalio, Pithoeus, Sitzmanus, and Barthius. Yet Rutilius is not a difficult author; once or twice only I should have been glad of an explanatory note; I looked for it in vain, but knew commentators too well to be surprised at the disappointment. The author of this little poem lived under the Emperor Honorius, by whom he had been raised to the first employments. He was Consul, Praefectus Praetorii, or Governor of Rome [a misinterpretation arising from the first edition. GK]: being a Gaul by birth, he embarked at Ostia the 9th of October 416, A. U. C. 1169; [Cl. Rutilii Iter. lib. i. 183. 205.] to return to his native country. The account which he has left us of his voyage along the coasts of Etruria and Liguria is imperfect, concluding at the town of Luna. His work may be considered in relation, 1. to its subject; 2. Its style and poetry; 3. the personal character of its author.

1. If Rutilius had lopped off the first 180 verses of his poem, the reader would not have been a loser. After briefly mentioning the object of his voyage, and his sorrow at leaving Rome, his adopted country, and the scene of his honours, he expatiates on the glory of the capital, that eternal city, to whose empire Jupiter had not assigned any limits, and which was destined to reign over all nations, and during all ages. Such a subject required a truly poetical genius; and Rutilius is only a cold declaimer, who strains his faculties to string common-place thoughts, without finding in nature and himself colours fitted to adorn his theme. This theme indeed would not have been chosen by a judicious writer; for the reign of Honorius was not a proper period for describing the greatness of Rome; a greatness long since fallen to decay. A veneration, and even terror for her name, had been supported by her antiquity and extent of empire. But the illusion was now over. The barbarians gradually knew, despised, and destroyed her. Great Britain separated from the empire; the Goths, Vandals, and Suevi overflowed the finest provinces of Spain and Gaul; and when Rutilius wrote, Alaric had already been for six years master of Rome [wrong! GK]. I acknowledge that our poet, who was sensible of these calamities, endeavours ingeniously to dissemble their disgrace; comparing them with the defeats of Allia and Cannae, to show that Rome never suffered a reverse of fortune without rising more vigorous from the shock. But the comparison is feeble and false. Since the Punic wars, circumstances were totally changed. In the time of Rutilius the springs of government were worn out; the national character, religion, laws, military discipline, even the seat of the empire, and the language itself, had been altered or destroyed, under the impression of time and accident. It would have been difficult to revive the empire; but even could that have been effected, it would have been the empire of Constantinople or Ravenna, rather than that of Rome. Rutilius might have felt how destitute his panegyric was of truth or probability, from the false and confused ideas excited by his personification of Rome. In the time of Virgil, this figure would have been natural. Rome, regarded as a goddess, and invoked in temples, had an existence in the opinion of the multitude as well as in the fancy of poets. As the mother of the citizens, and the mistress of the provinces, her name recalled the image of her empire; but when this empire consisted in the assemblage of nations, subject to the same prince, Rome was no longer its sovereign; and this city, reduced to an idea merely physical, represented nothing more but walls, temples, and houses, built on seven hills and on the banks of the Tyber. The remainder of Rutilius’ voyage is stamped with a higher value. The objects which he describes have not only more simplicity, but also more reality; and as they were observed with attention, they are painted with those colours of truth and nature, which always distinguish the result of experience from the fruit of study and invention. By a distinct and easy road he conducts us along the coast of Etruria, which was become almost a desert; he points out the ruins of cities, the beauties of the landscape, and all those places which were distinguished either by art or nature. Our traveller forgets not the neighbouring isles; and his curiosity leads him more than once into the interior of the country. The dryness of a didactic poem is occasionally enlivened by digressions either immediately, or not too remotely connected with the subject; [I except his invective against Stilicho, lib. ii. v. 41] such as the character of the Lepidi, the discovery of the use of iron, the Jewish religion, and the Christian monks. He is worthy of commendation for not giving to his narrative, serious as it is, too much of the marvellous; which never becomes a poem, where the author is his own hero. The marvellous is pleasing to our fancy, but is rejected by our reason. When we consider that conditional faith and imperfect delusion with which we are affected in works of fiction, it should seem as if there was a conflict of two hostile powers, by which the mind is kept in a state of suspense, that can only be maintained by distance and obscurity, and an air of mystery hanging over either the actor or the author. When the poet unites both characters in his own person, we are disposed to examine his narrative by the maxims of experience; and our voluntary delusion cannot, without the greatest difficulty, be supported.

2. Rutilius's voyage is read with pleasure: it is interesting and useful; but why was it written in verse ? Poetry seems equally to misbecome the subject and the genius of the author. The narrative of a voyage comes very properly from a philosopher, a man of parts, or a fine writer, but has no connexion with verse. When we attempt to adorn with numbers a subject plain and simple, it is scarcely possible that our style should not be either unpoetical or improper. The subject requires ease, perspicuity, precision, and some ornaments introduced seasonably, and with a sparing hand. Rut the poet, in order to affect his reader with enthusiasm, must first feel it himself; he must aim at energy of expression and harmony of numbers; and be willing to sacrifice to them all beauties of an inferior order. The language of poetry suits only those strong passions of the soul by which it aas originally produced; and he who attempts to employ this language on topics which leave the mind in tranquillity, will find himself between two rocks, on one of which he must shipwreck; the brilliancy of his expression will either misbecome the simplicity of his thoughts, or the tameness of his words and phrases will disgrace the dignity of verse. All these reflections are applicable to Rutilius's voyage. His thoughts are ingenious, artfully arranged, and expressed with clearness, precision, and taste. But his poetry is mean and creeping, destitute of strength, and devoid of harmony. We see that he distrusts his natural rigour, and has recourse to contrivances of art; contrivances weak and common, scarcely pardonable in great authors, and for which they seldom stand in need of pardon. 1. Rutilius seems to have thought that swelling words, which best filled the mouth, were also most pleasing to the ear. But I wish such words were resigned to Oriental poets, of whom only they are not unworthy. I doubt whether Bellerophonteis solicitudinibus [Rut. Iter. lib. i. 450] be ever quoted, except on account of the singularity that two words should compose a pentameter verse. 2. He is bold even to licentiousness in forming new words, or giving new combinations to the old. What can be more forced than using connubium for concilium? [Idem. lib. i. 18. – a mistake of the editio princeps GK]. I am pleased however with this epithet legiferi, applied to the Roman triumphs. [Idem. lib. i. 39, 107, &c.] Laws, order, and civility were produced by those triumphs, and were their ordinary fruits. 3. I thought that I had discovered some rhymes, but they are too few to enable us to determine whether they ought to be ascribed to negligence, or were the effect of that bad taste, which the corruption of language and connexion with the barbarians, who were fond of rhyme, gradually introduced among the Romans.

3. Authors describe themselves in their works: a maxim as true as it is ancient. We may add that the shades which appear in the picture certainly were to be found in the original. The character of Rutilius appears to me to have been amiable. I perceive a love for his country, especially in its adversity; a heart susceptible of friendship, and a tender and respectful regard for the memory of his father. Are so many good qualities to suffer a total eclipse from a little too much vanity? Rutilius reviews the stages of his greatness with complacence ; his country, his friends, his father, are endeared to him by their connexion with his own honours. His vanity is contemptible. Cicero boasted not of being consul, but of saving the republic in his consulship. Men may be more easily pardoned for being proud of their actions and talents, than for valuing themselves on their employments and titles, the vain and frivolous distinctions of society. Rutilius detested the Jews, and despised the monks. Was this in him a crime? I could wish indeed that his feelings had been expressed with more philosophical moderation, and rested on a better principle. But he was a Pagan, who beheld his religion sinking under the weight of years, and involving the empire in its fall. The Christians insulted the decline of his sect, which they endeavoured to hasten by persecution. A little bad humour was excusable. Nothing can be more animated than his description of the monks in the isle of Capraria, or more judicious than the reflections with which it is accompanied. The folly of these monks is extreme, in thinking that God took pleasure in the sufferings of his creatures ; but their conduct was conformable with their principles. Had Rutilius lived in the twelfth century, what would he have said of their successors, who availed themselves of their voluntary poverty and humility, to acquire the esteem of the multitude, and of that esteem, to appropriate to themselves temporal power, and half the riches of Europe.


Richard G. Crockett said...


This is my first visit to your blog, and I have only read this one page, but I found it by searching for this particular journal entry by Gibbon. I was delighted. Nice to see another person interested in Gibbon.

I am doing a paper on Gibbon's intellectual development, and this entry is oft cited, but I have only found it in French.

This is an important source. Where did you get this translation?

Best, Rick

Gavin Kelly said...

Rick, Many thanks for your message. It is translated in volume 5 of Lord Sheffield's edition of Gibbon's Miscellaneous Works (New Edition, London, 1814) - I expect the translation can be found elsewhere too. I found it via google books:

I've published (slightly tangentially) on Gibbon in the Cambridge Companion to the Roman Historians (2009)

Richard G. Crockett said...

Ah, excellent. Thank you so much.

I'm off to school now, but I look forward to perusing your work here later and seeing your formally published work as well.