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Eighteenth-Century Studies 34.2 (2001) 287-298

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Review Essay

A City Endlessly Rewritten: Some Versions and Appropriations of Rome in the Long Eighteenth Century

Kevin Berland

Philip Ayres. Classical Culture and the Idea of Rome in Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997). Pp. 266. $ 64.95 cloth.

Peter Cosgrove. Impartial Stranger: History and Intertextuality in Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" (Newark: University of Delaware Press; London: Associated University Presses, 1999). Pp. 290. $43.50 cloth.

Catharine Edwards, ed. Roman Presences: Receptions of Rome in European Culture, 1789-1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999). xii + 279 pp. $64.95 cloth.

Catharine Edwards. Writing Rome: Textual Approaches to the City (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996). xii + 146 pp. $19.95 paper.

Edward Gibbon. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 3 vols., ed. J. B. Bury, illus. Gian Battista Piranesi (New York: Modern Library, 1995). Pp. 928. $ 26.95 cloth.

Edward Gibbon. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 3 vols., ed. David Womersley (London: Allen Lane/Penguin Press, 1994). Pp. 1120. $59.88 cloth. [End Page 287]

Edward Gibbon. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 6 vols. (New York: Everyman's Library, 1993-94). Pp. 1872. $92.00 cloth.

Paul Hammond. Dryden and the Traces of Classical Rome (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999). Pp. xiii + 355. $75.00 cloth.

Joseph M. Levine. The Autonomy of History: Truth and Method from Erasmus to Gibbon (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999). Pp. xviii + 249. $27.50 cloth.

Christopher Charles Parslow. Rediscovering Antiquity: Karl Weber and the Excavation of Herculaneum, Pompeii, and Stabiae (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995). Pp. xx + 394. $27.95 paper.

Alina Payne, Ann Kuttner, and Rebekah Smick, eds. Antiquity and Its Interpreters. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000). Pp. xv + 324. $90.00 cloth.

At first glance, it may seem that no common theme links these books; they approach Rome from many directions, each author focusing on divergent topics. However, they all agree that eighteenth-century writers filter evidence about ancient civilizations through peculiar selective and interpretive processes, and that these processes are governed by cultural and intellectual assumptions which need to be explored and understood. This common element marks a welcome shift in the study of the historiography of ancient civilizations. The term "neoclassical," as it was once used to indicate a supposedly unified field of cultural production, now appears to be one of the great oversimplifications of modern history writing. Among earlier scholars of the legacy of classical traditions and influences, there often seems to be an assumption that Greece and Rome were somehow complex but stable ideas, fixed in time as never diminishing sources of value always amenable to rediscovery through study and imitation. Today we are more inclined to step back and examine the interpretive framework that allowed early modern thinkers to conceive of a past that helped make sense of their present. This framework allows the interpreter to select or reconstruct a coherent past; such reconstructions bear the unmistakable marks of the interpreter's cultural background, sometimes almost effacing the ancient original.

Thus, of course, in the eighteenth century there are many Romes. Travelers arriving in the "eternal city" brought with them their own personal vision and expectations, acquired by reading the classics and perhaps the accounts of other travelers. Boswell, for instance, declared in a letter to Rousseau, "I entered Rome with full classical enthusiasm." 1 Though his eagerness was soon dispelled by encounters with living Romans, he found time (among other pursuits) to observe antiquities and muse on the notion that poets once walked these streets, and he observed the striking disparity between past greatness and present ruins, the "wretched huts" of the artisans in the Forum, the corridors of the Coliseum serving as dung-filled animal pens. Boswell's observations are typical, for the strangeness of the material Rome always produced an effect of defamiliarizing the known Rome learned through years of classical education and gentlemanly devotion to ancient texts.



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