As ever, dear readers, welcome.
In late 1951, I imagine that Tolkien
must have been a man with very ambivalent feelings. He was parting from Allen & Unwin, who had been his publisher since The Hobbit, in 1937, over the matter of The Silmarillion, which Tolkien wanted to be published with The Lord of the Rings. When Allen & Unwin rejected that combination, Tolkien tried his luck with a new publisher, Collins. To provide an idea of what he had created, and why the two should be published together, he sent, at the publisher’s suggestion, a letter with a very extensive description of his work to them and, in it, was this:
“In the south Gondor rises to a peak of power, almost reflecting Numenor, and then fades slowly to decayed Middle Age, a kind of proud, venerable, but increasingly impotent Byzantium.” (to Milton Waldman, “probably written late in 1951”, Letters, 157)
Byzantium had originally been a Greek colony on the European side of the Bosphorus.
In 324AD, the emperor Constantine I ( c.272-337AD)
renamed it “New Rome” and made it the eastern capital of the Roman Empire, which, with his work and that of his successors, turned it into a large and elegant city
at the heart of an extensive empire, the Byzantine Empire.
(You’ll note, by the way, for all that Constantine may have renamed Byzantium New Rome, everybody actually called it “the city of Constantine”—Constantinople.)
Like all empires, it gradually faded, being reduced, just before the capital fell in 1453, to the up-and-coming Ottoman Empire, to Constantinople and a few weak enclaves.
(And you can see, in this illustration, one reason for the capture of the capital: the Ottoman Sultan, Mehmet II, was a very forward-thinking man and employed an Hungarian gun-founder to cast a series of early cannon to shake the sturdy, but ancient, walls.)
It’s easy, then, to understand what JRRT means about Gondor, but I think we might add that there’s something not only Byzantine about Gondor, but Roman, as well. Below, I make a few suggestions, but, the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve realized that this might be the topic for a much longer piece, or even a short series.
Rome had been all around Tolkien during his growing up. Britain itself, after all, had been in Roman hands from more or less the end of the first century AD, after the emperor Claudius’ ( 10BC-54AD),
invasion in 43AD,
being divided into two provinces at the end of the 3rd century AD and, by the later 4th century, into five.
By the time of Tolkien’s birth, in 1892, most of what might survive after the Roman government’s abandonment of the provinces in the early 5th century lay below the surface, but certain things popped through—bits of Roman road
and the stumps of Hadrian’s wall,
for example. And here we might see the ancestor of the Greenway, as well, perhaps, as the Rammas Echor, the great wall which surrounded the fields of the Pelennor (and was in need of repair, at least along its northern end).
Although various Victorians had poked at the remains of Roman occupation, this was before the creation of modern archaeological techniques, so they generally dug, extracted artifacts, then reburied sites, only a few, it seems, being very careful to chart where and what they had excavated.
Still, the Classical Studies, for which he was originally intended, had given the young Tolkien Julius Caesar (100-54BC)
and his account of his brief invasion of southern Britain in 55-54BC,
Suetonius’ (c.69-122AD) biography of Claudius with its account of the second invasion
(with an elephant, no less),
and Tacitus’ (c.56-120AD) continuation of the invasion, including the revolt, in 60-61AD, of a portion of the population under the guidance of the queen of the Iceni tribe, Boudicca.
(This is Thomas Thornycroft’s statuary group, which, although he began it in 1856, wasn’t completed and erected till 1902—just across the road from Parliament. Every time Tolkien would have crossed Westminster Bridge, walking towards Parliament, he would have seen it to his right.)
History aside, there was also the mythological aspect. Rome was said to have been founded by descendants of refugees from fallen Troy, led by the Trojan prince, Aeneas,
as Tolkien would have read in Vergil’s (70-21BC)
unfinished Latin epic, the Aeneid.
It’s no stretch, I think, to see that this would have been in the back of his mind when he wrote, in that letter to Milton Waldman:
“Elendil…flees before the overwhelming storm of the wrath of the West, and is borne high upon the towering waves that bring ruin to the west of the Middle-earth. He and his folk are cast away as exiles on the shores. There they establish the Numenorean kingdoms of Arnor in the north…and Gondor…further south.” (Letters 156-157)
As JRRT moved from Classics to the study of Old and Middle English literature, the Roman world would still never be far away. The late 12th-early 13th-century poem by the priest, Layamon, standardly called Layamon’s Brut, is a history of Britain, but it begins with the story of Aeneas’ great-grandson, who, with his followers, sails west to an island of giants, whom they defeat before colonizing the island under a new name, “Britain”, from the name of their leader (in a rather corrupt form). And, finally, even older, there is the Old English poem from the Exeter Book (c.950AD)
called “The Ruin”, which many scholars—and, though no Old English scholar, I would agree—believe describes the remains of the Roman town of Bath (Aquae Sulis,”[the] Water of Sulis” who was a local goddess) in the 8th or 9th century, AD.
(It’s important to note that, although Roman Bath was gone, the hot springs which gave it its name continued to be popular and, as you can see from this picture, were the subject of much newer construction in later times. The Roman portion of the baths stops at the bases of the columns.)
Here’s a translation, along with the original, of the full—but fragmentary–text: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ruin . It’s a beautiful work, but, for today’s posting, I would only point out that, although the poem probably is about a nearly-lost Roman town, that Roman town is described as “the work of giants”, which, in Old English, is enta geweorc and, in this phrase, we see that some of the oldest beings on Middle-earth, though described in another language, also have a strong Roman connection—although, at their most dramatic, they’re destroyers, not builders…
(One more splendid Ted Nasmith.)
As ever, thanks for reading.
Remember that Rome isn’t dead, but immortal,
And know that there’s always