The editors of this stimulating volume revisit the paradigm of late-antique decadence and decline in a fresh and unique way. Rather than revising the works of revisionists like Peter Brown, Marco Formisano and Therese Fuhrer explore the reception history of the paradigm in western culture. This collection of papers represents the first fruits of their labor. It also is the first volume in a new series, “The Library of the Other Antiquity,” which promotes the study of late antiquity from interdisciplinary approaches. Formisano's introduction states the goal of the volume and the series: “The perception of late antiquity as a decadent age, as wrong as it might have been, has been highly productive not only for the history of scholarship and ideas, but for literary imagination. Late antiquity has been for western civilization the period of decadence par excellence … late antique decadence, taking on the function of a paradigm or metaphor rather than a historical age in its own right, has played a fundamental role in shaping modern Europe's identity” (11, italics original).
The 15 articles that follow are revised versions of papers delivered at conferences on the topic in Leeds (2010) and Berlin (2011). Two thirds of the articles deal with the reception history of the paradigm of decadence and decline. The rest examine the late-antique sources directly.
The first section of the volume contains articles on “Décadence in Antiquity.” In “Das Interesse am menschlichen Scheitern – Antike Konstruktionen des ‘Niedergangs’ einer Kultur,” Therese Fuhrer argues that the paradigm of decline is rooted in the classical sources and was later recycled by patristic authors to serve their own theological agendas. For Gillian Clark, however, Augustine was not one of these authors. In “Fragile Brilliance – Augustine, Decadence, and ‘Other Antiquity’,” Clark contends that Augustine did not compose The City of God with a narrative of imperial decline in mind, nor did he consider the Empire to be on the verge of collapse. Instead, he saw the sack of Rome in 410 CE as part of a sequence of historical events that was unimportant compared to one's personal relationship with God. Individuals mattered to Augustine, not empires, cities, or populations.
The volume's second section is titled “Imagining Late Antiquity: Décadence and Modernity.” In his essay, “Flauberts Versuchung der Spätantike,” Helmut Pfeiffer discusses the influence of late-antique “decadence” in the French novelist Gustave Flaubert's prose-poem, La Tentation de saint Antoine (1874). Carlo Santini's paper, “‘Aus einem Staat, der an einem Sprachfehler zugrundegegangen ist’ – Musil tardo-antico,” investigates the Austrian writer Robert Musil's unfinished modernist novel, Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (1930-43), beginning with its points of contact with Oswald Spengler's conception of the waxing and waning of cultures. Karin Schlapbach's article, “‘Under the Full Impact of a Catastrophic End’ – Augustine and the Fall of Rome in Hannah Arendt's Reading,” contends that Arendt imposed a this-worldly orientation on Augustine's thought, transposing his “terror of the end” from the spiritual-eschatological level to the temporal-historical one. “What Augustine derives from the prospect of eternal happiness in the afterlife,” Schlapbach writes, “Arendt locates instead in man's coming into the world” (106).
The articles in the volume's third section discuss “The Fertility of Décadence.” Michael Roberts's stimulating essay, “Friedrich Mehmel, Pompatic Poetics, and Claudian's Epithalamium for the Marriage of Honorius and Maria” begins with the observation on the part of the German philologist Mehmel that late Roman poetics typically feature a series of loosely connected set pieces in place of the logical narrative structure of the poets of earlier periods. This feature, Roberts explains, is manifested in Claudian's Epithalamium in a ceremonial-processional quality that is characteristic also of late-antique poetry, panegyric, and art. Henriette Harich-Schwarzbauer's paper, “Die ‘Lust’ der Poesie – ‘Décadence’ in den spätantiken Epithalamien (Claudius Claudianus, c.m. 25 und Sidonius Apollinaris, cc. 10-11; 14-15),” explores the genre of the epithalamium at a more granular level. Danuta Shanzer's essay, “Incest and Late Antiquity – Décadence?” considers the pivotal role of late-antique culture in transforming the view of incest as a mark of decadence from one of relative insignificance in the classical world to one of prominence in the mediaeval one.
The fourth section of the volume is devoted to “Late Latin Poetics.” In “The Self-Conscious Cento,” Stephen Hinds argues that the Cento vergilianus de laudibus Christi of Faltonia Betitia Proba presupposes a developed interpretative sensibility, while Ausonius's Cento nuptialis displays a high degree of sophistication in its self-conscious embrace of the conventions of its poetic form. Proba's Cento is also the focus of Sigrid Schottenhuis Cullhed's essay, “Proba and Jerome,” which extends beyond the remit implied by its title to survey the reception-history of the cento form over later centuries in light of changing literary styles. Jan Stenger's “Der ‘barocke’ Stil des Ammianus Marcellinus,” revisits the reputation of Ammianus Marcellinus as a “decadent” author with reference to the fifteenth book of his Res gestae. Étienne Wolff, in “Quelques jalons dans l'histoire de la réception de Sidoine Apollinaire,” describes the reception-history of Sidonius Apollinaris as a writer particularly associated with “decadence” until his recent rehabilitation along with many other late-antique authors.
The volume's final section is titled “Décadence: Good to Think With?” In a smart paper on “Décadence Denounced in the Controversy over Origen,” Ilaria L.E. Ramelli explains how, by the start of the fourth century, authors such as Anastasius of Rome could disparage the ideas of the early Christian theologian Origen without ever having read his writings. Writers such as Pamphilus deplored this stance as intellectual decadence, prompting Rufinus and Jerome to translate Origen into Latin in order to support their own views of his theology. In “Décadence? Christliche Theologen der Spätantike über den Verfall von Moral und Glauben seit Kaiser Konstantin,” Christoph Markschies explores the influence of certain patristic texts, particularly the Vita Malchi of Jerome, on the Protestant model of decadence. Finally, Andreas T. Zanker's “Decline and Kunstprosa – Velleius Paterculus and Eduard Norden,” demonstrates the dedication of both writers to the “aesthetic representation of decline.” (323)
The volume terminates with an index locorum and an index nominum et rerum. Both are accurate and comprehensive. The volume has been carefully edited.
The editors allow that the volume's sections and papers might have been arranged differently (4), and I agree. Sections two and five are identical, as their titles and contents demonstrate, and might have been combined. Likewise, the papers of both Roberts and Harich-Schwartzbauer in section three, which examine Claudian's poetic style, could have been included in section four, on late-antique poetics, making its coverage of the subject more comprehensive.
As mentioned, this volume is the first in a new series, and is purposefully meant to be “a laboratory of new ideas” on the subject (4). For this reason it might have benefitted from the inclusion of a historiographic essay (or perhaps an annotated bibliography) outlining the key scholarship on i) the construction and subsequent deconstruction of the paradigm of late antiquity as a “decadent” age and ii) the principal uses (and abuses) to which the paradigm has been put.
The editorial preference for the French word décadence in both the title of the volume and the titles of its papers is confusing, since the papers themselves, in English, German, and Italian, consistently employ “decadence,” Dekadenz, and decadenza. The French word, so we are told, is meant to call to mind “European fin de siècle literature” (3), while the English term presumably refers to the bankrupt paradigm. But whatever the intended distinction, it is lost in the light of statements such as “How can we today, after a phase of rehabilitation, read late antiquity and ‘decadence’ or décadence?” (3) Similarly baffling is the section that appears at the bottom of page 9, which has the sub-title, “The Making of Décadence,” yet begins with the query, “But why decadence?”
Perhaps a better question might be “What is decadence”? This is the central question of the volume, and it is never satisfactorily answered. Shanzer opines that “decadence, like pornography, is in the eye of the beholder, hard to define, but recognized when seen” (153). But is this historically accurate? Is the perception of decadence so personally subjective that what one person (or society) identifies as decadent might go unnoticed by another? There is some truth to this view. “Decadence” is a protean label, the application of which typically indicates more about one's own fears and cultural biases than anything else. It is, of course, essentially reactionary. It can signify moral decay, the erosion of values, or the exhibition of certain behaviors. It can refer to a decline of standards in art, scholarship, or technology, or, more generally, to the senescence of a state, culture, or civilization.
Complicating the issue is the fact that the label “decadent” can be applied retrospectively, by those in later cultures who detect the creep of decadence in an earlier age or another culture, as the early western critics of Japanese woodblock prints characterized artists after Kiyonaga as “decadent.” This, perhaps, explains the definitional fuzziness that pervades the volume and its papers, which seem to proceed from different meanings of the term. Is “decadence” to be equated with a certain moral lassitude? Is it a set of stylistic characteristics? Is it an absence of artistic imagination? Can it be correlated to certain attitudes or behaviors? What is the relationship between decadence and the perception of decline?
On the other hand, one wonders whether the detection of decadence depends solely on the eye of the beholder. Specifically, Roman conceptions of decadence and decline seem to have been limited to a few major tropes that were expressed in various guises throughout the late Republic and the Empire (and beyond). One such trope is the sequential decline of the ages. It has its antecedents in Hesiod's “four ages of man” (Works and Days, 109-201), which was rebooted by Ovid in his Metamorphoses 1.89-150, and also in ancient Persian and Near Eastern sources. The sense of the degeneration of the ages found new expression in apocalyptic historiography (cf. Daniel 2 and 7) and its periodization of history and expectation of progressive decline, which in turn informed the development of the medieval notion of the translatio imperii.
More important is the trope that comprehends decadence in terms of an invasion of the body politic, either from within or from without, which is perceived to sap the state's essential vitality by eroding its core morals and virtues. In Rome, this dynamic was most often expressed in terms of a contamination that comes about as a result of contact with “decadent” foreign cultures. Sometimes the vehicle for corruption was the extraordinary wealth acquired through military conquest or provincial governance. Other times the sentiment was articulated more generally. Livy's invective (39.8-19) against the Bacchanalia of 186 BCE centers on the corruption of Roman morals by an invasive foreign cult(ure), a threat that Octavian later redeployed in his propaganda against Antony and Cleopatra. Some authors went so far as to portray the history of other peoples in light of Roman sensibilities. Thus the historian Quintus Curtius Rufus describes the effects of the beautiful Sogdian princess Roxane on Alexander the Great: “Although only one among a select group, she [Roxane] attracted the attention of all, and particularly that of the king [Alexander], whose control of his passions was weakening amid the indulgences of Fortune, against whom humanity is insufficiently armed” (8.4.24).
The point of this excursus is that the “decadence” which is both the subject and the object of the volume under review—i.e., the old paradigm featuring the decline and fall of Rome in late antiquity—is perhaps not the kind of decadence that was most significant either to the Romans themselves, or, for that matter, to later interpreters, from Edward Gibbon to John Ruskin to Ramsay MacMullin. The disjunction does not detract from the utility of the volume, whose papers proceed from a broad spectrum of meanings of “decadence” and “decline,” and in so doing shed much light on the subject. Yet it does call into question Formisano's introductory claim, quoted above, that late antiquity has been “the period of decadence par excellence” for western civilization.
Despite these critiques, the high quality of the volume shines through in its papers. The number of edited collections, including Festschriften and conference volumes, has multiplied exponentially over the past 20 years. This is as true for classical studies as it is for biblical and mediaeval studies. It is probably fair to say that the overall quality of some of these collections is so uneven that their contribution to scholarship is debatable. Not this volume, however. Every one of its papers is terrific, and many are outstanding. This uniform excellence reflects well on its co-editors, and all the more since the papers cover such a tremendous range of topics. This is a must-have volume for classicists and ancient historians as well as all scholars interested in the theme of decadence and its cultural reception.