Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Caesar and Christ by Will Durant (1944)

Another bulky big (but delightfully so) Durant door stopper is put to bed.  The Durants are able to speak knowledgeably about everything and anything, which I find most impressive.  As I read these tomes, I am struck by their reading, research and reasoning that went into these books.  70 some years before the internet and databases, the Durants traveled the globe, spent 14 hours a day researching and writing, and were able to synthesize all that they learned into this incredible work of history; a true story of civilization (western, though).  

I love Durant's writing style; he is quite adept at elegant, often witty, always thoughtful turns of phrase. His books are full of sentences that can be taken out of context and used in various memes, with or without kittens. Maybe even dogs. Definitely gladiators. All kidding aside, I love collecting meaningful little bon mots and quotes like these:

"Life’s final tragedy is unwilling continuance—to outlive one’s self and be forbidden to die."  Describes the poor sad years of Augustus, with scheming relatives and a slutty daughter, plus a famous poet to exile to a cold, dark island.  But also a personal fear of mine, and I suppose of many middle aged people and older.  I don't think young people ever think of this.

"No nation is ever defeated in its textbooks."  Clearly written before the advent of revisionist history.  Now aren't all nations defeated in their textbooks?  Except in Texas, of course.  

This is a sentence that doesn't have any meaning other than what it says, but it says it in such a witty, wonderfully written way, that says everything:  "The Gauls believed in a variety of gods, now too dead to mind anonymity."  That last phrase is fantastic, a witty aside.

Whenever one reads about Rome, one always thinks about the Decline and Fall of the United States, right?  We are Rome (except, of course, when we aren't Rome).  Durant was writing 70 years ago, but he occasionally injects some 1944 worthy commentary throughout:  

"But antiquity took slavery for granted, and would have contemplated with horror the economic and social effects of a wholesale emancipation, just as the employers of our time fear the sloth that might come from security."  Class struggle always plays a part in anything Durant is writing; he was also writing in a time when class struggle had just come to a big, bad fruition in the form of World War II.  Employers of OUR time fear the same thing; so not much has changed.

"Contentment is as rare among men as it is natural among animals, and no form of government has ever satisfied its subjects."  Someone is always complaining about the government, and probably someone is always plotting, no matter how silently and in small ways, to overthrow it.

Durant isn't just interested in the strong men and this isn't a military history.  His story of civilization, at least for 1944, seems to stretch out to include the rising power of women in Roman society; and he once again has pretty nice things, if brief, to say about the gays of yore.  Well, perhaps not nice things, but he was cruel or dismissive or brushed them under the carpets of history.  They - like women - existed.  On race, at least African Americans, he's not a inclusive; Mary Beard's thoroughly modern takes fix some of Durant's errors.

I think this is what Durant is aiming at though, and occasionally he succeeds:  "We must not think of such banquets as the customary end of a Roman day, or as more frequent in a Roman’s life than the dinners-cum oratory so popular today. History, like the press, misrepresents life because it loves the exceptional and shuns the newsless career of an honest man or the quiet routine of a normal day. Most Romans were like our neighbors and ourselves: they rose reluctantly, ate too much, worked too much, played too little, loved much, seldom hated, quarreled a bit, talked a great deal, dreamed waking dreams, and slept."  He does spend much of the book talking about the banquets, but common people do walk through his pages, as much as he is able in this large tome.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I bought his entire set at a used book sale, sans the last volume (which had not yet been read) and I'm making my way through them. I love Durant's style of writing, which is this wonderful combination of academic and witty. It's sometimes like being a cocktail party with a really smart professor of history who tells great stories, but is also full of amazing pithy bits of wisdom that you want to remember forever, or maybe even make a poster out of it. "Life’s final tragedy is unwilling continuance—to outlive one’s self and be forbidden to die" he says of Augustus, alone and friendless in old age, surrounded by scheming family and an adulterous daughter (not to mention her disreputable friends like Ovid the poet); he also is writing to you 70 years in the future, contemplating old age. Or this one: "The Gauls believed in a variety of gods, now too dead to mind anonymity." That's historian wit; perhaps not slap your knees laugh out loud, but still humorous enough to make you smile and your eyes gleam because you've just read such a great line of prose. The book is full of too many of them. It's also full of great stories of Caesar, Cleopatra, Jesus and his apostles, the early martyrs, the various pagans, Greeks, Egyptians, Syrians, Gauls, Germans, the whole cast of characters spanning a thousand years. Especially interesting are the lessons of Roman government and politics, which is haunting the world today; imperial autocracy doesn't take all that long to burrow in and take hold. 

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