Imposing Gibbon

This year marks the centenary of the publication of Johannes Brahms’s First Symphony. An international colloquium, largely funded by American taxpayers, will be held at Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, and twenty scholars from various countries will discuss Brahms’s life, work, and influence.

Fact or fiction? Someone may know. But at a time when “junketing” by our politicians is much in the news, and the new Ethics Code has refused to put serious restrictions on it, the present volume comes as a reminder that there are foundations as well as government agencies that deserve the order of the Golden Fleece. In his preface to the issue of Daedalus (Summer 1976) in which these papers first appeared, the chief editor and organizer, Stephen R. Graubard, acknowledged generous grants from four foundations, thanks to which the colloquium was held in Rome, “the only possible city…. Any other would have been wrong.” This volume, like the issue of Daedalus, contains no record of the “animated discussions” which, according to Professor Myron Gilmore’s introduction, took place at the sessions. As far as the reader is concerned, the papers might as well have been mailed to an editorial board at Harvard. Would that have been “wrong”?

In any case, there are anniversaries and anniversaries. Almost any occasion can be commemorated when it suits someone to do so. In the Roman Empire that was Gibbon’s subject, the vow, the foundation, and the completion of a public building could provide matter for separate anniversary commemoration. The centenary of a great man’s birth or death is a legitimate occasion. Not all important figures are as fortunate as Gibbon in finding affluent sponsorship for their posthumous fame: I do not know of any conference commemorating the bicentenary of the birth (also in 1776) of Barthold Georg Niebuhr, whose important contribution to the development of modern historical scholarship could do with major reevaluation. The centenary commemoration of Gibbon’s death, in 1894, was (as Myron Gilmore reminds us) a memorable event for scholarship in various ways. But what is actually commemorated here is the appearance, in February 1776, of the first volume of the History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Perhaps we may expect major commemorative efforts for the bicentenary of the appearance of volumes 2 and 3 (March 1781); of the completion of the work, just before midnight on June 27, 1787—as Gibbon takes care to specify, in a formal companion-piece to the description of the supposed conception of the work on the Capitol; and of the publication of the last three volumes in 1788. By then we shall be well on the way toward the bicentenary of his death.

This volume reproduces the twenty papers that appeared in Daedalus, with one substitution (Myron Gilmore’s introduction for Stephen Graubard’s preface), with the order changed (we are not told why), and with an inadequate index added. A few typographical errors have been corrected, but most—even serious ones …

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