Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Stories of Rome. Gibbon to Asimov to Lucas.

Some stories have such strong themes, such resonance to our lives, that they get told again and again in different forms.  Sometimes the re-telling strengthens the tale.  More commonly the story gets muddled over time especially in the hands of lesser bards.

Consider the Fall of Rome as told by three story tellers.

We start with Edward Gibbon.  This classically educated young Englishman took the then common "Grand Tour" and claims in his autobiography to have visited the ruins of the Forum in 1771 and there been struck with a desire to write the history of Rome, of its Decline and Fall.

His work of the same name is a classic, one that ties together all the untidy threads of surviving literary sources and attempts to relate them to the possibly analagous situation of the British Empire. Gibbon was an excellent writer, a keen wit, a confident of Samuel Johnson and at least acquainted with the King and most other notables of the day.

Isaac Asimov was born in Russia in late 1919 or early 1920.  He immigrated with his family to New York City when he was three years old.  Asimov was one of those rare polymaths, a man whose interests spanned science, history and literature.  In 1942 he wrote the first of the short stories that would become The Foundation Trilogy.  Asimov in his commentary on the Trilogy admits his debt to Gibbon, saying he had read Decline and Fall in its entirety twice. (I have managed about 3/4 of it once, the later stuff on Byzantium is difficult and depressing).

Asimov being a first rate writer is very adept at retelling the ancient stories, with what he admits as "a little cribbin' from Edward Gibbon".  The tragic, heroic story of Belasarius for instance is taken almost unedited and dropped into Foundation and Empire as the story of General "Bel Riose".  But Asimov added his own contribution, the literary conceit of Psycho History, an invisible hand that guides the events of mankind.  With a little help from immortal robots but that is another tale.

George Lucas is neither a polymath nor a Classically educated gentleman.  He is a guy from Southern California who attended junior college and later film school.  His impressive cinematic and editing accomplishments aside I consider him to be a hack story teller.  Star Wars is a agglomeration of themes including World War Two propaganda films, Kurosawa samurai movies and Lord knows what else.  A fair dollop of Gibbon made it in as well.  The first movie in the series features the collapse of "The Republic" and the assumption of personal rule by an Emperor. And later we get to see Coruscant, the home planet of the Empire and basically a straight crib from Asimov's Trantor, each being a world entirely covered with grand buildings and entirely dedicated to the administration of a great Empire.

Here in words and pictures are how the three men saw Rome, even if two of them called it something else!

Gibbon saw the Forum looking like this (roughly contemporary print from Piranesi)

In Gibbon's own words: the distance of twenty-five years I can neither forget nor express the strong emotions which agitated my mind as I first approached and entered the eternal City. After a sleepless night, I trod, with a lofty step the ruins of the Forum; each memorable spot where Romulus stood, or Tully spoke, or Caesar fell, was at once present to my eye; and several days of intoxication were lost or enjoyed before I could descend to a cool and minute investigation

As to what Rome looked like in its prime, various reconstructions exist.  If Gibbon was blessed with enough imagination to look back in time he might have imagined this:

Isaac Asimov never visited Rome.  He was famously afraid of air travel and very much a creature of New York City.  He described Trantor in its glory as:

The lustrous, indestructible, incorruptible metal that was the unbroken surface of the planet was

the foundation of the huge, metal structures that mazed the planet. They were structures
connected by causeways; laced by corridors; cubbyholed by offices; basemented by the huge
retail centers that covered square miles; penthoused by the glittering amusement world that
sparkled into life each night.

An artist's conception of Trantor:

Asimov was, as I said, not at all apologetic in his cribbing.  In the Foundation Trilogy it is even said that "All roads lead to Trantor, and that is where all stars end."

Of course Asimov's vision had Trantor eventually destroyed.  In Foundation and Empire there is a chapter called The Ruins of Trantor:

"It was only as they submerged into the welter of metal that the smooth beauty apparent from
the air dissolved into the broken, twisted near-wreckage that had been left in the wake of the

George Lucas has yet to show us a vision of Imperial destruction.  Since he has now signed the rights to Star Wars over to Disney he won't get the chance.  But we may one day see the ruins of Coruscant, Disney will keep making sequels for a very long time.  But for comparison with his more literate predecessors, here is the Lucas vision of Rome/Trantor/Coruscant:

Monuments and towers everywhere, an Eternal City.

As an afterthought, Asimov is the most fun of the three.  Gibbon tends to be ponderous as befits a man devoting his life to a Great Study.  Lucas combines dime store plot lines with awe inspiring visuals.  But Uncle Isaac always makes you think.  One plot line in the Foundation Trilogy involves a quest, a hunt for truth that ranges from the ruins of once great Trantor to the farthest, most remote outpost of the Old Empire.  It is a journey I will be repeating in the weeks ahead, first visiting Rome "where all roads lead" then heading out to excavate at the Roman fort at Vindolanda, where just over the hill was the boundary between civilized men and the "woad stained" barbaric tribes!

I'm off, back in touch when jet lag and internet connections permit.

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