The Perils of Popular History: The Swerve — Greenblatt on Lucretius [2011 CE; 2017 CE]

A lawyer and a software engineer, both of whom I respect greatly, enthusiastically recommended to me Stephen Greenblatt’s book on the rediscovery of the Latin poet Lucretius during the Renaissance.  My appreciation of his presentation of the history of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura was tempered by concerns raised by egregious errors in Greenblatt’s Preface, which provide critics of Greenblatt all too easy an excuse to reject his admirable scholarship and humanism.

Sic October 2014:  On page 11, referring to “the Sack of Rome,” Greenblatt states “Attila’s army quickly withdrew from the imperial capital.”

Sic July 2017:  On page 11, referring to “the Sack of Rome,” Greenblatt states “Alaric’s army quickly withdrew from the imperial capital.”

Rome had not been the imperial capital for 8 years before it was taken by the Visigoths, but correcting one grievous error out of two in the sentence is a move in the right direction.

October 2014:

Stephen Greenblatt is a learned Harvard University professor specializing in the Renaissance and Shakespeare. In 2011 CE he won a National Book Award and in 2012 he won a Pulitzer Prize for The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.

It tells the story of the Renaissance rediscovery of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, that first century BCE Latin poem on Epicurean physics and morals that contains, among other things, discussion of pre-scientific atomism and an astonishing opening invoking Venus. Greenblatt’s professional emphasis on historical and cultural context is as welcome as his willingness to write for the educated non-specialist, and his bestsellers have doubtless improved the general level of knowledge, culture, and the commonweal on a number of matters.

I read The Swerve hoping it would provide a complement to W.R. Johnson’s Lucretius and the Modern World, which ends with a discussion of Leo Szilard. In some ways, it does.

When Greenblatt deals with the Renaissance he writes with considerable authority. All of which makes it the more lamentable that I could not finish Greenblatt’s Preface without encountering a schoolboy howler.

On page 11, referring to “the Sack of Rome,” Greenblatt states “Attila’s army quickly withdrew from the imperial capital.”

Attila’s army never besieged much less took or sacked Rome. Whether this was because of the famine and disease prevalent in the Italian peninsula during 452 CE, or a Papal delivery of gold, or the miracle of pious legend is debatable, though a lack of supplies seems to me the most convincing explanation. Attila probably had the capability to take and sack Rome, but declined to do so for logistical reasons.

Furthermore the Western “imperial capital” had been moved to the more defensible Ravenna well before Rome’s first sack in the 5th Century: Ravenna served in this role from 402 CE to 476 CE.

Greenblatt appears to have confused the leader of the Huns with Alaric, whose Visigothic troops briefly sacked Rome in 410 CE. It wasn’t until 455 CE that the Vandals carried out a thorough pillage of the city.

Almost certainly Greenblatt intended to write something like “Alaric’s army quickly withdrew from the traditional imperial capital” or “The Goths quickly withdrew from the traditional imperial capital.”

But I doubt many readers worried about his confusing an Asiatic leader with a Germanic king, or his misplacement of more than 40 years of very busy history. After all, the English promoted confusion of the Germans with the Huns as a national propaganda policy during the First World War. And few college educated English speakers would be familiar with the name Alaric, though most have heard of Attila. And though forty years may seem like a lot from the perspective of an individual’s lifetime, it dwindles when considered from a vantage of a millennium or a millennium and a half. Still, I would expect better of a Harvard professor and Norton editors. I cannot speak for the Pulitzer and National Book Award committees.

Greenblatt’s gaffe stands as a useful reminder to check your facts, especially when writing outside your area of expertise; to proofread carefully; to avoid relying too much on your editors; and to maintain a healthy skepticism regarding the accuracy of historical writing.

Even Homer nods, as Horace noted with annoyance [indignor quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus].

Further Reading:

• Useful summaries of modern scholarship regarding the history of the Goths and Huns in relationship to Rome can be found in Peter Heather’s The Fall of the Roman Empire, his Empires and Barbarians, and Adrian Goldsworthy’s How Rome Fell.

• E.A. Thompson’s The Huns and Otto J. Maenchen-Helfen and Max Knight’s The World of the Huns provide English speakers with useful overviews of Hunnic history in Europe and their culture, respectively.

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