06 Jul 2019

At Age 70

, , , ,

Marble Bust of Antoninus Pius, Emperor 138-161 A.D., British Museum.

Peter Quennell, The Wanton Chase — An Autobiography from 1939 (1980):

Here and elsewhere, I am often surprised to notice, the landscape of my life shows comparatively little change. I love the same pictures and, generally, the same books; and, both in painting and literature, I admire the same qualities. Human existence, the Etruscans maintained, was divided into seven-year periods; and, when the tenth had passed, the individual, having run through his allotted span, need expect no further signs from heaven. This, happily, I have so far found untrue. Flashes of illumination still descend; yet a single change has certainly occurred; as soon as one enters that ominous eighth decade, the prospect of one’s own death becomes, if not a morbid obsession, a regular preoccupation, obstinately lodged at the back of the mind, though the foreground may continue to be peopled with amusing and distracting fancies. What chiefly haunts one is less a primitive fear of death, the medieval timor mortis, than a problem that defies solution – how to accept the idea of nothingness and of one’s future non-existence. That idea, like the ‘black holes’ modern astronomers have located in the fabric of the universe, totally baffles the imagination; and, should one attempt to build up a detailed picture of some familiar friendly room –- books, chairs, eighteenth-century prints, a large window surrounded by broad leaves, and the window-sill on which a cat alighted –- but then deliberately exclude oneself, one feels a sudden touch of horror, so difficult is it think of the world surviving without one’s own invaluable aid.

I have long collected evocative ‘last words’ and the philosophic pronouncements of great men when they felt that death was drawing near; and my friend Alan Hodge, now himself dead -– he died, alas, while I was halfway through this chapter -– used to describe a revelatory conversation that, about 1955, he had had with Winston Churchill. Allan was then assisting him to produce his History of the English-Speaking Peoples, and often spent a working holiday at a villa in the South of France. His business was to prepare a series of drafts, on which the great man would then impose a fine sonority and Churchillian dignity; but, when that had been accomplished, they often dined together and, after dinner, sat beside the fire. The great man had passed his eightieth year, and his heroic life lay far behind him. His mood was sometimes pensive; and, one evening, the logs in the fire were damp, and spat reproachfully and hissed and smoked. The spectacle arroused him from a lengthy silence. ‘Curious’, he said, ‘to imagine oneself a log –- reluctant to be consumed -– but obliged eventually to give way. … Further than that his reverie did not go; but the effect it made was deeply solemn.

Sir Winston had still ten years to live; and among memorable last words, pronounced under the shadow of death itself, I particularly admire the farewell utterance of the Emperor Antoninus Pius, Hadrian’s adopted son, father of Marcus Aurelius, and one of the ‘good emperors’, the virtuous and industrious Antonines we were expected to admire at school. Gibbon, however, with his usual flippancy, makes gentle fun of Antoninus. At least, he remarks that, whereas the life of Hadrian had been ‘almost a perpetual journey’, and that he had ‘marched on foot, and bareheaded, over the snows of Caledonia, and the sultry plains of upper Egypt’, his successor seldom left home; ‘and during the twenty-three years that he directed the public administration, the longest journeys of that amiable prince extended no further than from his palace in Rome to the retirement of his Lanuvian villa.

Yet Antoninus, Gibbon freely admits, was a by no means idle ruler; at home he codified the Roman legal system; beyond the Italian frontier, he ‘diffused order and tranquility over the greatest part of the earth’. Nor was he a grim ascetic; ‘he enjoyed with moderation, the conveniences of his fortune, and the innocent pleasures of society’; and Gibbon adds, in a footnote, that he ‘was fond of theater, and not insensible to the charms of the fair sex’. He also appreciated the pursuits and pastimes of the Roman country gentleman; and on his estate, especially when the grapes were gathered, he liked attending rustic feasts. A tall, impressive man, he had a loud but pleasant voice, and was renowned for his civilitas, his unwillingness to take offense and his easy-going courtesy. The Emperor was even prepared to tolerate Christians – or so Christian writers themselves declared — although, if they were judicially accused and convicted, he might allow the law to take its course. His own religious faith was quietly conservative; he built and restored temples, and did his best to encourage the worship of the ancient Roman gods. Still practicing this calm and temperate philosophy, Antoninus reached his seventy-fifth year. Then, in the spring of 161 A.D., he, too, recognized the approach of death, and retired to his country house near Rome, where, at dinner, he ate some Alpine cheese, and woke up feverish next morning. On March 7, the Tribune of his bodyguard asked him to give the watchword of the day. ‘Aequanimitas’ he firmly answered, and withdrew into his private apartments, from which he never reappeared.


Please Leave a Comment!

Please note: Comments may be moderated. It may take a while for them to show on the page.

Entries (RSS)
Comments (RSS)
Feed Shark