Wednesday, January 13, 2021



James J. O'Donnell, review of P.J. Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire (London: Macmillan, 2005), Bryn Mawr Classical Review:
One aspect of the book was seriously off-putting to this reader, but may be less so for others: the flippant lecture-platform style. Many pages read as if they were taken from the lectures at Oxford on ancient history by Colonel Blimp's great-grandson addressing the grandchildren of Bertie Wooster. I recognize that tastes will differ, and so what is incurably vulgar to me may be witty to others, but I think that borrowing an analytical style from the language of television commentators has a more pernicious effect. When he says, for example (p. 230), "Augustine's immediate answer [to critics of Christianity worried by the sack of Rome in 410] was of the straightforward yah-boo-sucks variety", my taste is repelled, but my intellect regards the description of books 1-3 of City of God, a sophisticated reincarnation of Cicero with sly effect, as simply wrong. So too (p. 263), his words "For one thing, the Visigothic supergroup settled so recently in Aquitaine got uppity again, aspiring to a more grandiose role in the running of the Empire than the peace of 418 had allowed them" left me in the end baffled at just what event or events this referred to, while observing that "uppity" certainly makes it clear whose side Heather is on. (The regular use of "supergroup" for the Visigoths and others left this reader of mature years distractedly thinking with pleasure of Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, and Ginger Baker more often than absolutely necessary.) Le mot injuste comes easily in such a style, leading to this ludicrous mischaracterization of Constantine Porphyrogenitus: 305, "He [Constantine Porphyrogenitus] conceived a maniacal project to preserve classical learning . . . ."
I had a similar reaction to the slang and pop-culture references in a recent book with scholarly pretensions, viz., Brian C. Muraresku, The Immortality Key: The Secret History of the Religion With No Name (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2020):
Suddenly Praetextatus pops into my mind. Why did he schlep here, all the way from his lavish home in Rome? (p. 79)

He schlepped all over the Indian subcontinent and the Himalayas, tracking down eyewitness accounts of spiritual gurus whose physical bodies were said to shrink or disappear after death, often transforming into radiant displays of multicolored light. (p. 173)

If you ever wondered why Jesus was the only Jewish man of first-century Galilee to get the Jim Morrison look, this is why. (p. 223)

Like some corporate gimmick by Amazon Prime, the Son of God from Nazareth had just made it perfectly respectable to order the Drug of Immortality straight to your front door. (p. 248)

Whoever he is, he's definitely rocking the long-haired Jesus look. (p. 269)

On their trip from Velia to Rome, some ideal pit stops appear on the map for the Campanian priestesses. (p. 324)

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