Posts filed under “Books & Literature”

SPEAKING OF ROBERT LUDLUM…

Here is an interesting observation: According to the omniscient Wikipedia, Robert Ludlum wrote 27 books in the 30 years of his writing career while he was alive, from 1971 to 2001, and in the 22 years since then has produced 30 books. Simple arithmetic shows us that Robert Ludlum has been much more productive dead than alive. Think how many books he might have written if someone had killed him in 1971!

THE CATILINE CONSPIRACY.

Here is a book that deserves more readers. The Catiline Conspiracy is not the latest thriller by the increasingly late Robert Ludlum, though he could have come up with the title. It is one of the last historical works by the great Gaston Boissier, one of the Im­mortals of the French Academy (though he died in 1908), and the Permanent Secretary of the Academy (though we suppose he is slacking off a bit on his duties these days). Boissier’s full name was Marie-Louis-Antoine-Gaston Boissier, which is quite a name. One imagines his mother calling young Marie-Louis-Antoine-Gaston: “Marie-Louis-Antoine-Gaston! You promised to take the trash out an hour ago! Get back in here, Marie-Louis-An… Oh, forget it.”

The Catiline conspiracy is one of the most dramatic episodes in Roman history, because Cicero made sure we would remember it that way. Boissier’s specialty was bringing Roman history to life, and his portrait of Cicero is delightful. All the great characters—the haughty villain Catiline, the old grump Cato, the disappointed and cynical Sallust, the ruthlessly focused Caesar—are painted in indelible colors.

Until now, though, the book has never been available in English, even though several other books by Boissier were quite successful in English translation. Dr. Boli has remedied that omission for you, and once again our friends at Serif Press were kind enough to allow the preface to be reprinted here.


The Translator’s Preface.

Gaston Boissier was known and loved in his time for his ability to make ancient history come alive for us. A writer of today, setting that as his goal, would probably write his history like a popular novel, with a straightforward narrative and short chapters with cliffhanger endings. Boissier takes almost exactly the opposite approach. He builds piles of fascinating little details; he takes amusing and enlightening detours to explore a character or a custom; he carefully lays out how he has come to his conclusions—all in a conversational style that soon makes us regard him as an old friend. A book by Boissier is an evening in front of the fire with a brilliant historian who loves his subject and is delighted to find someone to talk to about it.

Because Boissier writes conversationally, his personality comes through everywhere. He was in his early eighties when he wrote The Catiline Conspiracy, which came out in 1906; with a bit of subtraction, we can calculate that he lived through a very eventful period in French history. Marie-Louis-Antoine-Gaston Boissier (to give his full name, which we promise to do only this once) was born in 1823, so we can be sure that he remembered the June Rebellion of 1832; the attempted assassination of Louis Philippe in 1835; the February Revolution of 1848, and the revolutions of the same year all over Europe; Napoleon III’s coup and the establishment of the Second Empire; the disastrous Franco-Prussian War, the Commune, and the Bloody Week; and the Dreyfus Affair. In addition, the papers brought daily news of socialist protests and anarchist outrages. Boissier was not wrong to compare this lifelong instability with the last decades of republican Rome—the more so because the characters in French history were constantly comparing themselves with the characters in Roman history. Napoleon III, in particular, thought of himself as the heir of Julius Caesar, and wrote a biography of Caesar that Boissier found a little naive.

Boissier’s attitude to all this tumult is, we are tempted to say, typically French. He is at heart a conservative, but he accepts turbulence with a Gallic shrug as the price of freedom. Given that it is inevitable, we can at least gain something from it by applying it to our understanding of the past.

This is really the secret of Boissier’s success as a historian. It is his creed that “Man changes only on the surface. We often run to doubtful and distant documents for explanations of events in the ancient world, when it would suffice to look around us to understand them.” The people of ancient Rome are just like us; they have different costumes and different customs, but the fundamental human motivations are the same. Therefore, once we know what their customs and costumes were, we can know them as well as we know our neighbors.

Many of Boissier’s works were translated into English shortly after they were published—including a book about Cicero and His Friends, which necessarily covered some of the same ground as this book. As far as we know, though, The Catiline Conspiracy (La Conjuration de Catilina) has never appeared in English before. This is therefore the place for your translator to make the usual excuses: that he undertook this work because better translators had neglected it; that he knows he has not done justice to the original, but any kind of Boissier in English is better than no Boissier at all; and that he offers his own labor as a small tribute to the many hours of entertainment M. Boissier has given him.

As for the method of this translation, it hardly has any. The intent is to give Boissier’s book in as close to the original form as possible, but in English rather than French. It was tempting to add some notes for modern readers about the French history to which Boissier sometimes refers; but to weigh down the text with notes would be to interrupt our conversation with M. Boissier, and the book’s conversational style is one of its chief attractions. Even this preface is perhaps more of an indulgence than the translator ought to have permitted himself; and having made that observation, he is glad to bring it to an end and leave you to a very pleasant evening with the distinguished French gentleman who is waiting for you by the fire.


Order The Catiline Conspiracy at Amazon. It is available in paperback or, for only a few dollars more, in a durable casebound hardback edition that may also be used for self-defense.

From DR. BOLI’S UNABRIDGED DICTIONARY.

Dark Ages (proper noun).—In Western European history, a time of barbarous ignorance, superstition, and brutality that succeeded the civilized ignorance, superstition, and brutality of the Roman Empire.

HOW AMERICANS READ THE BIBLE.

American Christians read the Bible as an encyclopedia of discrete verses, each one complete unto itself, containing an indivisible nugget of doctrinal or scientific knowledge, with no connection to the text before or after.

You probably think Dr. Boli is being too harsh on his fellow American Christians. But consider the case of Ezekiel 4:9.

If you walk into any large supermarket in the United States, you will find something called “Ezekiel Bread” in the bakery section. It is a very popular brand, and it has been sold for decades. Prominent on the label is a quotation from Ezekiel 4:9, which we quote here in the Authorized Version:

Take thou also unto thee wheat, and barley, and beanes, and lentils, and millet, and fitches, and put them in one vessell, and make thee bread thereof…

Look! It’s a divinely inspired recipe! We can make bread like that and sell it to eager consumers!

But would American consumers be quite so eager if they read Ezekiel as a book rather than as a directory of isolated atomic verses?

In the fourth chapter of Ezekiel, the eponymous prophet is commanded to perform the sort of practical prophetic demonstration that prophets often had to act out. (It was not easy being a prophet of the Lord, which is why the lazier prophets all worked for Baal.) He must lie on his left side for three hundred ninety days and demonstrate the kind of privation that will come on Israel when it is conquered. (Then he will have a similar message for Judah.) And in that context, the Lord tells him,

Take thou also unto thee wheat, and barley, and beanes, and lentils, and millet, and fitches, and put them in one vessell, and make thee bread thereof according to the number of the dayes that thou shalt lie upon thy side; three hundreth and ninetie dayes shalt thou eate thereof. And thy meate which thou shalt eat, shalbe by weight twentie shekels a day: from time to time shalt thou eat it. Thou shalt drinke also water by measure, the sixt part of an hin: from time to time shalt thou drinke. And thou shalt eate it as barley cakes, & thou shalt bake it with doung that commeth out of man in their sight. And the Lord said, Even thus shall the children of Israel eat their defiled bread among the Gentiles, whither I will drive them. (Ezekiel 4:9–13.)

So now you know the point of the divinely inspired bread recipe given to Ezekiel. It is a demonstration of how bad things will be when Israel is destroyed. You will be driven far away, says the Lord, and you will be so wretched that you will have nothing to eat but this filthy horrible bread, and nothing to bake it on but human dung, and even then you will have so little of it that you will have to measure it carefully in tiny portions.

If Ezekiel were a book, then no one would walk into the supermarket and ask, “Hey, have you got some of that bread like the stuff the Israelites had to bake on human dung when they were starving to death?”

But since Americans read nothing but the individual verses out of context, Ezekiel 4:9 is the foundation of a legendarily successful marketing campaign.

By the way, we should point out that Ezekiel’s own story has a happy ending. After Ezekiel complained that this stuff was really gross (Ezekiel 4:14), the Lord permitted him to bake his bread over cow’s dung instead of human dung.

CHARLES ANTHON.

Charles Anthon by Mathew Brady
Charles Anthon as seen by Mathew Brady.
Charles Anthon by one of his students
Charles Anthon as depicted by one of his students in the end papers of one of his textbooks.

The first American classicist to develop an international reputation, Charles Anthon, finally has his own page in our Eclectic Library.

Professor Anthon had much to do with the high standards of learning in nineteenth-century American universities. Much of Anthon’s work was devoted to bringing the best products of English and German scholarship to America in editions that he improved and expanded. His textbooks on the ancient languages were widely admired, and the proof of their utility may be found in the fact that many professors resented them for making the students’ work too easy. The same was often said of his editions of the classics for students: “The editor…has been charged with overloading the authors, whom he has from time to time edited, with cumbersome commentaries; he has been accused of making the path of classical learning too easy for the student, and of imparting light where the individual should have been allowed to kindle his own torch and to find his own way.” (Preface to Anthon’s edition of Horace.) “His minute and copious annotations at first encountered some opposition,” says his obituary in Harper’s Weekly, “but so little effectual has been the force of prejudice, and so generally acceptable, both at home and abroad, have the Professor’s comments approved themselves that many, even of those who at first were loudest in their denunciations of the system thus introduced, have been compelled, by the positive advantages and rich results of this same system, to adopt as far as possible a similar fulness of annotation in their own publications.”

Professor Anthon’s editions were also usefully expurgated, so that a Victorian schoolmaster could confidently expect nothing shocking or embarrassing to mar the perfect decorum in the classroom. As Anthon wrote in the preface to his edition of Xenophon’s Memorabilia of Socrates, “The great merit of the present text, however, consists in its being an expurgated one. Every passage has either been rejected or essentially modified that in any way conflicted with our better and purer ideas of propriety and decorum, for even in the ethical treatises of the Greeks expressions and allusions will sometimes occur which it is our happier privilege to have been taught unsparingly to condemn.”

Professor Anthon is also famous in Mormon lore as the Columbia professor who was shown a transcribed “Egyptian” inscription from the Golden Plates and pronounced it a hoax, which has been interpreted in Mormon history as “authenticating” it. Dr. Boli is not sure what it would have meant for the supposedly Egyptian characters to be authenticated by Professor Anthon. You might take your diamond ring to be authenticated by Neil deGrasse Tyson, and he would reasonably tell you, “I am not a jeweler.” “But you are a famous person with a brain,” you might object. “Just authenticate it and stop beating around the bush.” At that point Dr. Tyson might begin to nod his head, make some indistinguishable affirmative noises, and back away toward the nearest exit, and you would have as much authentication as you were going to get. That is how we imagine Professor Anthon authenticating the inscription brought to him.

At any rate, to wander through Charles Anthon’s prodigious output is to enter a lost world, where a well-annotated edition of Horace could make a man’s name a household word on two continents. It is also to wander back to those heady days when the young American republic was just beginning to earn a place in the republic of letters, and to see an American name on the title page of a European textbook filled his patriotic countrymen with justifiable pride. Now that the cultures of other nations are simply gross parodies of the grossest American popular culture, it is pleasant to spend a few nostalgic hours in a world where it seemed as though the future of American culture might be determined by one American’s remarkable facility with Latin and Greek.