Sunday, March 4, 2018

Historical Prose

In my mind, reading history is like eating whole-grain bread; it's not always as appetizing as other sorts of reading, but it feels healthy and with enough exposure you can get used to it. To begin my forays into history, I got some books about ancient Rome. It's not a bad starting point because there are so many works not only by modern historians, but also by contemporaries, dealing with the two big questions of the Roman empire: what made Rome great, and what made Rome stop being great? Of course, the great historians themselves put it much more eloquently. Polybius, a 2nd century B.C. Greek politician who was himself conquered by the Romans, says the following:

"For the extraordinary nature of the events I decided to write about is in itself enough to interest everyone, young or old, in my work, and make them want to read it. After all, is there anyone on earth who is so narrow-minded or uninquisitive that he could fail to want to know how and thanks to what political system almost the entire known world was conquered and brought under a single empire, the empire of the Romans, in less than fifty-three years-- and unprecedented event? Or again, is there anyone who is so passionately attached to some other marvel or matter that he could consider it more important than knowing about this?

The content of history, then, is enough to recommend its investigation, but I have also found myself enjoying the style in which these histories are written. Long sentences organized by commas and semicolons bring together a variety of ideas and create a logical flow that can be very satisfying to follow, even if it does take reading some passages more than once. Also, as with most things, practice makes it easier. The following sentence from Gibbon's history gives an verbal flourish to plain facts that is like spreading honey on your whole-grain toast.

"Nor was the legion destitute of what, in modern language, would be styled a train of artillery. It consisted in ten military engines of the largest, and fifty-five of a smaller size; but all of which, either in an oblique or horizontal manner, discharged stones and darts with irresistible violence."

To make a long story short, I feel that a bit of history has made a wholesome addition to my reading routine. In other news, I still don't eat whole-grain bread.

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