In one particularly dreary subplot of Gilmore Girls, Richard Gilmore moves into his pool house with not a lot to do. In one episode, he reports to his granddaughter that he has finally finished The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. For a show that loves books as much as this one does, the tone was surprisingly negative, as if spending the time to complete Gibbon’s monumental history showed Richard to have hit rock bottom in life. On the contrary, it sounded like a good use of his quiet hours to me and made me momentarily reconsider my decision to stop at the end of volume 1, at least for a few years.
But maybe the Gilmore’s writers just used the book for the emotions suggested in its name. Here at the end of my ten-year plan, I’ve reached the focal point of the book. (I almost said “the climax,” but of course it would have to be a nadir, wouldn’t it?) The Empire has fallen. And the calamity definitely raises emotions. (Or does it lower them? I feel like Gene Hackman in The Poseidon Adventure. “Down is up!”) In any case, it moved me to a meager sadness, a resigned regret like the sag you feel when you see kitchen mess the morning after a big party. You know the thing happened, but you feel the emptiness in your gut when faced with the evidence.
The story brought many surprises. I didn’t realize, for instance, how quickly the Visigoths and Burgundians became Christian. I didn’t realize how chummy they got with Rome and the Church, even allying with them against other intruders from time to time. I suppose those historical relationships make themselves apparent in France’s use of a language derived from Latin. If the barbarians who conquered Gaul hadn’t been willing to adopt Roman ways and Roman religion, the French would be speaking something more like Dutch or German today.
The biggest surprise came at the official moment of dissolution. I knew as a memorized fact that Romulus Augustulus was the last Emperor of the West and that his reign ended in 476. But I had assumed that he stepped down unwillingly at the point of an Ostrogothic sword. Actually, he resigned willingly, uninterested himself in ruling and satisfied that the Gothic king Odoacer would run the Italian peninsula just fine. The Roman Senate actually wrote to the Eastern Emperor and told him they were happy with the new arrangement. I couldn’t help but think of Eliot’s lines: This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but with a whimper.