A Discussion of Taste

September 2, 2016

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire certainly discusses the idea of taste. He has a very rigid understanding of what classical Roman art should be. In fact, according to Gibbon, the stagnation of Rome's art is one indicator of Rome's decline. Gibbon writes,

“The triumphal arch of Constantine still remains a melancholy proof of the decline of the arts, and a singular testimony of the meanest vanity. As it was not possible to find in the capital of the empire a sculptor who was capable of adorning that public monument, the arch of Trajan, without any respect either for his memory or for the rules of propriety, was stripped of its most elegant figures. The difference of times and persons, of actions and characters, was totally disregarded.” 

Admittedly, reusing the head of a previous emperor, does seem a tad cheap and weak.

For Gibbon, another indication of Rome's fall is when Roman artists begin to incorporate ideas from neighboring communities which they have conquered. One example arrives in the time of Alaric's rise and sack of Rome. During this time, Christianity was also in flux. With so many changes outside of Rome, change within is inevitable also. Gibbon notes that at this time, people began to adorn statues with jewels. He finds this gaudy and unnecessary. He writes, “We may observe the bad taste of the age, in dressing their statues with such awkward finery.” In his view, the embellishments demonstrate excess, not taste.

Ironically, during this same time of decline, Gibbon praises the superior skills of a single poet. He adds another layer to our understanding of Gibbon's idea of taste when he writes about Claudian. He says,

“These imperfections [of the times], are compensated in some degree by the poetical virtues of Claudian. He was endowed with rare and precious talent of raising the meanest, of adoring the most barren, and of diversifying the most similar topics; his colouring, more especially in descriptive poetry, is soft and splendid; and he seldom fails to display, and even to abuse, the advantages of a cultivated understanding, a copious fancy, an easy and sometimes forcible expression, and a perpetual flow of harmonious versification. To these commendations, independent of any accidents of time and place, we must add the peculiar merit which Claudian derived from the unfavourable circumstances of his birth. In the decline of arts and of empire, a native of Egypt, who had received the education of a Greek, assumed in a mature age the familiar use and absolute command of the Latin language; soared above the heads of his feeble contemporaries; and placed himself, after an interval of three hundred years, among the poets of ancient Rome.” 

This complicated passage about Claudian gives the reader more of an impression of Gibbon's taste. First, he appreciates Claudian's exacting language, soft and subtle, not overly dressed or forced. Second, Claudian is original. It is important to Gibbon that art be original and that imitation, again, lacks taste. Finally, the reader learns that Claudian's first language was not Latin. Gibbon clearly looks down upon his Greek education, and therefore praises him all the more for rising above it in order to grasp a clear understanding of the power and grace of Latin.

All of this leads me into a discussion of taste as supplied by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin's The Physiology of Taste. Obviously, here the word taste offers two different meanings. Brillat-Savarin's entire book discusses the enjoyment of food. More than that, however, it is a discussion of Taste, with a capital T. The category of taste, which Merriam-Webster lists as an individual preference or inclination, is an important indicator of virtue in both of these works. Much like Gibbon, Brillat-Savarin links virtue to elements of good taste. He judges food in the same way that Gibbon judges art, poetry and character. One gains access only through experience. Therefore, education is linked with taste in some primal way. The following excerpt comes from his meditation on the “Philosophical History of Cooking” in which he dedicates an entire section to “Roman Banqueting”. Brillat-Savarin concludes that the foreigners who sacked Rome were unfamiliar with fine foods. Gibbon labels all foreigners of little skill and education as barbarian races. Both Brillat-Savarin and Gibbon arrive at the same conclusion: they look down upon those without an educated sense of taste.

“The five or six hundred years [referring to the Greek and Roman times] which we have run through in the past few pages were happy times for cookery, as well as for those who nurtured and enjoyed it, but the arrival or rather the invasion of the Northerners changed everything, upset everything: those days of glory were followed by a long and terrible darkness.
The art of eating disappeared, at the first sight of these foreigners, with all the other arts of which it is the companion and solace. Most of the great cooks were murdered in their masters' palaces; others fled rather than prepare feasts for the oppressors of their country; the small number who remained to offer their services had the humiliation of finding them refused. Those snarling mouths, those leathery gullets, were insensible to the subtleties of refined cookery. Enormous quarters of beef and venison, quantities beyond measure of the strongest drink, were enough to charm them....
However, it is in the nature of things that what is excessive does not last long. The conquerors finally grew bored with their own cruelty: they mingled with the conquered, took on a tinge of civilization, and began to know the pleasures of a social existence.
Meals showed the influence of this alleviation. Guests were invited to them less to be stuffed than delighted, and some even began to understand that a certain attempt was being made to please them; a more amiable pleasure affected everyone, and the duties of hospitality had something gentler about them than before.
These betterments, which emerged toward the fifth century of our era, became even stronger under Charlemagne, and we can read in his Capitularies that this great king gave his own attention to making his lands furnish their best for the fine fare of his table.”

Perhaps there are cultural indicators which link Gibbon and Brillat-Savarin, since they were contemporaries of a sort. However, the idea of our education of taste is a broader discussion. Next week will continue with a discussion of art as it relates to taste.

Read more from Brillat-Savarin here.

Read more about Gibbon here or here or here or here or here.

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Reading Gibbon

April 29, 2016

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

The following list compiles ten things I learned about Gibbon by reading the footnotes from The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. First of all, I highly recommend his footnotes, just for the fun of trying to puzzle out what Gibbon deems worthy of being source-material. But also, because his notes guide the reader to understand how he uses source materials, which is very relevant to his historical work. Gibbon's sources span the spectrum from poetry to legal documents to government decrees to military speeches. Without the footnotes, it is impossible to weed out fact from possible fiction. At times, too, he includes sarcasm without alerting the reader (outside of the footnote reference). And at times, he acts as if in mid-conversation with the reader, expecting us to know the reference and text as thoroughly as he does. He also expects us to know Latin and Greek. The following list is far short of all of the hilarious notes I have compiled, but it gives a sense of Gibbon's tone, irony, sarcasm, writing style, and most of all, his ego.

1] Gibbon plays fast and loose with translations. One example of this is footnote 34, Chapter XXXI, which reads: “It is incumbent upon me to explain the liberties which I have taken with the text of Ammianus. 1. I have melted down into one piece the sixth chapter of the fourteenth and the fourth of the twenty-eighth book. 2. I have given order and connection to the confused mass of materials. 3. I have softened some extravagant hyperboles and pared away some superfluities of the original. 4. I have developed some observations which were insinuated rather than expressed. With these allowances my version will be found, not literal indeed, but faithful and exact.” I laugh out loud at his idea of faithful representation every time. Of course, he could very well be much depends upon our own perspective. (I give him much credit for incorporating the original text in the footnotes so that the reader can measure the citation for himself (if one is able to read foreign languages)). Which brings me to point number two.

2] Gibbon incorporates a lot of Greek, Latin and some French in his footnotes. He does not offer the translation for the reader because we are meant to understand the context from his text. He fluidly jumps back and forth and he expects much from the reader's ability too. (I find no need to place an example, but his footnotes are riddled with foreign languages).

3] Gibbon clearly read as much material as possible in preparation for writing The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. As much as he relies on these sources, he rarely grants a full compliment to the writer. Even to Ammianus, who is the most highly esteemed source in the text, I believe, he offers some remark of dissatisfaction. Gibbon usually couples a compliment with a derogatory remark of nearly equal weight. In the following example, he speaks harshly of St. Ambrose (one of his least favorite sources, who he, ironically, cites quite a bit). In footnote 96 from Chapter XXVII, he writes: “His epistle is a miserable rhapsody on a noble subject. Ambrose could act better than he could write. His compositions are destitute of taste or genius; without the spirit of Tertullian, the copious elegance of Lactantius, the lively wit of Jerom, or the grave energy of Augustin.” (It should be noted that all of the authors whom he compliments here, he also derides at some point, though not with such harshness).

4] Gibbon's sources span the spectrum of poetry, history, philosophy, religious and legal texts. This does not mean that he places equal importance on each of these styles. Instead, he offers the reader his personal account of the individual author of these accounts. Some of which he finds decent historians (regardless of their genre) and some of them he finds false and witless. He draws meaning from many texts and then presents it so that one can understand how Gibbon reads a text and what he might be looking for (as historian and/or philosopher). Footnote 149 from Chapter XXXI reads: “I have disdained to mention a very foolish, and probably a false, report..., that Honorious was alarmed by the loss of Rome till he understood that it was not a favourite chicken of that name, but only the capital of the world, which had been lost. Yet even this story is some evidence of the public opinion.”

5] Sometimes I do not know if Gibbon is being ironic or not. But I take this footnote as an honest desire to save the beauty and perfection of his contemporary British society. (In which case, this tremendous history of Rome may have been written as a cautionary tale). In footnote 15, from Chapter XXXIX, Gibbon writes, “The merit of discovery has too often been stained with avarice, cruelty, and fanaticism; and the intercourse of nations has produced the communication of disease and prejudice. A singular exception is due to the virtue of our own times and country. The five great voyages, successively undertaken by the command of his present Majesty, were inspired by the pure and generous love of science and mankind. The same prince, adapting his benefactions to the different stages of society, has founded a school of painting in his capital, and has introduced into the islands of the South Sea the vegetables and animals most useful to human life.”

6] Gibbon can be quite pointed. If he doesn't like something, the reader will likely know. Footnote 23 from Chapter XXXVII reads, “All that learning can extract from the rubbish of the dark ages is copiously stated by Archbishop Usher in his Britannicarum Ecclesiarum”.

7] Gibbon is not overwhelmingly sympathetic or flexible. Footnote 27 of Chapter XXXI reads, “[A]mbiguity is an inexcusable fault in the language of laws.”

8] Sometimes Gibbon treats the authors of religious texts a bit harshly. On his hierarchical scale of a source's credibility, he would probably place religious texts at the lower end. For example, footnote 77 of Chapter XXX reads, “How many interesting facts might Orosius have inserted in the vacant space which is devoted to pious nonsense.” (In other words, Orosius was writing of miracles and religious history, but not 'credible', 'factual' history that Gibbon desired. And yet, Gibbon uses Orosius as a source and the reader only knows of Gibbon's feelings from the footnotes).

9] Gibbon clearly has a preconceived notion of the 'true Roman'. Footnote 75 from Chapter XXX reads, “Yet the Jupiter of Radagaisus, who worshipped Thor and Woden, was very different from the Olympic or Capitoline Jove. The accommodating temper of polytheism might unite those various and remote deities; but the genuine Romans abhorred the human sacrifices of Gaul and Germany.” I wonder, what exactly did Gibbon believe was “the genuine Roman”?

10] Gibbon likes sarcasm and employs it liberally, particularly in reference to any religious miracle. For example, Gibbon laughs off the notion of a miracle in the form of a dead man talking. Footnote 76 from Chapter XXVIII reads, “Martin of Tours...extorted this confession from the mouth of a dead man. The error is allowed to be natural; the discovery is supposed to be miraculous. Which of the two was likely to happen most frequently?”

11] Just for a bonus: Gibbon loves his own wit and sometimes cannot stop himself from making a ridiculous comment. For example, footnote 118 from Chapter XXXVII discusses corrections to the Bible. Gibbon quips: "Notwithstanding these corrections, the passage is still wanting in twenty-five Latin MSS... the oldest and the fairest; two qualities seldom united, except in manuscripts."

I have compiled pages of notes on Gibbon's notes and I sincerely suggest any serious reader of Gibbon to do the same. It's absolutely fun and instructive. Please add any additional comments on Gibbon or his footnotes. Thanks for reading!


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From Severus to Severe

December 11, 2015

Tracing a word back to its origins offers a fun experiment, even a well-known word that is easily understood. This simultaneously enables the ancient contexts and the word to come alive. For example, reading about the Roman emperor Septimius Severus, the word 'severe' often comes to mind, which is not entirely a coincidence. Severus was severe in his treatment of enemies, opponents and those who felt entitled to goods without earning them. His strict policies did restore an element of harmony to the Roman world, and for a short time, the people enjoyed adequate food and peace. However, when Severus softened his strict authority over the Praetorian guards, they became lazy, indulgent and vain. As a result, the Roman world once again crumbled. Ironically, a certain severity somehow maintains a balance against easy and appealing luxuries that seem to condemn a nation. Severus was felled by illness, but the walls were already disintegrating about him.

For today's blog, the import rests on the fact that Severus, trained in the military, devoutly adhered to a militant view of his person and the majority of his rule. His name, Severus, is the root of the word that we currently use to mean 'severe'. In contemporary diction, we understand this word in a variety of ways, all of which relate back to Severus's policies and attitude. Today's blog looks at the various current definitions of severe (as defined by Merriam-Webster) paired with citations regarding Severus' character and reign (all taken from Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire). May they both come alive.


Severe, adj., from Latin Severus. First known use: 1548.

1] rigidly restrained in style, taste, manner, etc. simple, plain or austere.

“Till the reign of Severus, the virtue and even the good sense of the emperors had been distinguished by their real or affected reverence for the senate, and by a tender regard to the nice frame of civil policy instituted by Augustus. But the youth of Severus had been trained in the implicit obedience of camps, and his riper years spent in the despotism of military command. His haughty and inflexible spirit could not discover, or would not acknowledge, the advantage of preserving an intermediate power, however imaginary, between the emperor and the army. He disdained to profess himself the servant of an assembly that detested his person and trembled at his frown; he issued his commands, where his request would have proved as effectual; assumed the conduct and style of a sovereign and a conqueror, and exercised, without disguise, the whole legislative as well as the executive power.”


2] rigidly exact, accurate, or methodical: severe standards

“The uncommon abilities and fortune of Severus have induced an elegant historian to compare him with the first and greatest of the Caesars. The parallel is, at least, imperfect. Where shall we find, in the character of Severus, the commanding superiority of soul, the generous clemency, and the various genius, which could reconcile and unite the love of pleasure, the thirst of knowledge, and the fire of ambition? In one instance only they may be compared with some degree of propriety, in the celerity of their motions and their civil victories. In less than four years (A.D. 193-197), Severus subdued the riches of the East, and the valour of the West. He vanquished two competitors of reputation and ability, and defeated numerous armies, provided with weapons and discipline equal to his own. In that age, the art of fortification, and the principles of tactics, were well understood by all the Roman generals; and the constant superiority of Severus was that of an artist who uses the same instruments with more skill and industry than his rivals.”


3] causing discomfort or distress by extreme character or conditions, as weather, cold, or heat; unpleasantly violent, as rain or wind, or a blow or shock.

“[H]is unforgiving temper, stimulated by avarice, indulged a spirit of revenge where there was no room for apprehension. The most considerable of the provincials, who, without any dislike to the fortunate candidate, had obeyed the governor under whose authority they were accidentally placed, were punished by death, exile, and especially by the confiscation of their estates. Many cities of the east were stript of their ancient honours, and obliged to pay, into the treasury of Severus, four times the amount of the sums contributed by them for the service of Niger.”


4] difficult to endure, perform, fulfill, etc. : a severe test of powers.

“Such rigid justice, for so he termed it, was in the opinion of Severus, the only conduct capable of ensuring peace to the people, or stability to the prince; and he condescended slightly to lament, that, to be mild, it was necessary that he should first be cruel.”


5] harsh; unnecessarily extreme: severe criticism, severe laws.

“Yet the arts of Severus cannot be justified by the most ample privileges of state reason. He promised only to betray, he flattered only to ruin; and however he might occasionally bind himself by oaths and treaties, his conscience, obsequious to his interest, always released him from the inconvenient obligation.”


6] serious or stern in manner or appearance: a severe face.

7] grave; critical: a severe illness

“The contemporaries of Severus, in the enjoyment of peace and glory of his reign, forgave the cruelties by which it had been introduced. Posterity, who experienced the fatal effects of his maxims and example, justly considered him as the principal author of the decline of the Roman empire.”

Synonyms: brutal, extreme, hard, harsh, intense, rigorous, serious.

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