When Iggy Pop Published an Essay, “Caesar Lives,” in an Academic Journal about His Love for Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1995)

Pur­vey­ors of the shock­ing, pri­mal idio­cy of pure rock and roll can in many cas­es be some of the most intel­li­gent peo­ple in pop. Or at least that’s the case with the king of shock­ing, pri­mal idio­cy, Iggy Pop. He has inter­pret­ed Whit­man’s “bar­bar­ic yawp” and deliv­ered the John Peel Lec­ture for BBC Music, becom­ing “a vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor from the School of Punk Rock Hard Knocks,” writes Rolling Stone and bring­ing an elder statesman’s per­spec­tive informed not only by his years in the bow­els of the music indus­try but also by his avo­ca­tion as a schol­ar of the Roman Empire….

Yes, that’s right, Iggy Pop is not only an adroit styl­ist of some of the most bril­liant­ly stu­pid garage rock ever made, but he’s also a seri­ous read­er and thinker who once pub­lished a brief reflec­tion on his rela­tion­ship with Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in the aca­d­e­m­ic jour­nal Ire­land Clas­sics.

“Iggy Pop, like Bob Dylan,” writes E.J. Hutchin­son, “has an avid inter­est in Roman antiq­ui­ty and its genet­ic con­nec­tion to con­tem­po­rary life.” He may also be the sharpest, wil­i­est embod­i­ment of post-indus­tri­al Amer­i­can decline—his entire musi­cal per­son­al­i­ty a punch in the col­lec­tive face of the nation’s delu­sions.

In 1982, hor­ri­fied by the mean­ness, tedi­um and deprav­i­ty of my exis­tence as I toured the Amer­i­can South play­ing rock and roll music and going crazy in pub­lic, I pur­chased an abridged copy of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Dero Saun­ders, Pen­guin). 

The grandeur of the sub­ject appealed to me, as did the cameo illus­tra­tion of Edward Gib­bon, the author, on the front cov­er. He looked like a heavy dude.

Hutchin­son gives us a fine­ly wrought analy­sis of Pop’s “tour de force of clas­si­cal Gib­bon­ian Eng­lish prose, a scrap of Ciceron­ian peri­od­ic­i­ty.” (Gib­bon did, indeed, look like a heavy dude.) Pop’s read­ing of Gib­bon, “with plea­sure around 4 am, with my drugs and whisky in cheap motels,” absorbed him in its “clash of beliefs, per­son­al­i­ties and val­ues,” he writes, “played out on antiquity’s stage by crowds of the vul­gar, led by huge arche­typ­al char­ac­ters.” All of this appealed to him, he writes, giv­en his own role in “a polit­i­cal busi­ness… the music busi­ness, which is not about music at all, but is a kind of reli­gion-rental.”

Gibbon’s mas­sive saga, a mon­u­men­tal exam­ple of sweep­ing Enlight­en­ment his­to­ri­og­ra­phy, so cap­ti­vat­ed Pop that a decade lat­er, it inspired “an extem­po­ra­ne­ous solil­o­quy” he called “Cae­sar,” the clos­ing track on 1993’s “over­looked mas­ter­piece” Amer­i­can Cae­sar. The spo­ken word piece “made me laugh my ass off,” he writes, “because it was so true. Amer­i­ca is Rome. Of course, why shouldn’t it be? All of West­ern life and insti­tu­tions today are trace­able to the Romans and their world. We are all Roman chil­dren for bet­ter or worse.”

But there was much more to Pop’s read­ing of Gibbon—which he even­tu­al­ly enjoyed in a “beau­ti­ful edi­tion in three vol­umes of the mag­nif­i­cent orig­i­nal unabridged”—than a pos­si­bly facile com­par­i­son between one fail­ing empire and anoth­er. Much more, indeed. Read­ing Gib­bon, he writes (sound­ing very much like anoth­er pro­po­nent of the clas­sics, Ita­lo Calvi­no), taught him how to think about the present, and how to think, humbly, about him­self. He ends his essay with a num­bered list of “just some of the ways I ben­e­fit”:

  1. I feel a great com­fort and relief know­ing that there were oth­ers who lived and died and thought and fought so long ago; I feel less tyr­an­nized by the present day.
  2. I learn much about the way our soci­ety real­ly works, because the sys­tem-ori­gins — mil­i­tary, reli­gious, polit­i­cal, colo­nial, agri­cul­tur­al, finan­cial — are all there to be scru­ti­nized in their infan­cy. I have gained per­spec­tive.
  3. The lan­guage in which the book is writ­ten is rich and com­plete, as the lan­guage of today is not.
  4. I find out how lit­tle I know.
  5. I am inspired by the will and eru­di­tion which enabled Gib­bon to com­plete a work of twen­ty-odd years. The guy stuck with things. I urge any­one who wants life on earth to real­ly come alive for them to enjoy the beau­ti­ful ances­tral ancient world.

Read Pop’s full 1995 Ire­land Clas­sics essay on Jstor or Medi­um.

via Han­nah Rose Woods

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Prof. Iggy Pop Deliv­ers the BBC’s 2014 John Peel Lec­ture on “Free Music in a Cap­i­tal­ist Soci­ety”

The Splen­did Book Design of the 1946 Edi­tion of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Iggy Pop Reads Walt Whit­man in Col­lab­o­ra­tions With Elec­tron­ic Artists Alva Noto and Tar­wa­ter

Iggy Pop Reads Edgar Allan Poe’s Clas­sic Hor­ror Sto­ry, “The Tell-Tale Heart”

Stream Iggy Pop’s Two-Hour Radio Trib­ute to David Bowie

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (1)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.