Childe Harold's Pilgrimage "When Rome Falls–the World"

Lord George Gordon Byron

"When Rome Falls–the World"

Context: Changing his style of narrative, from the thoughts of its typical Byronic hero, Harold, to the personal reactions of the poet himself, Byron continued while living in Venice to work on the final canto of the travel poem that he had begun publishing in 1812. He writes of the great authors of old Italy, Petrarch, and Dante the "Bard of Hell," and of Ariosto, the "Bard of Chivalry." How many enemies have overrun the country, leaving many ruins never rebuilt! Byron shows his thorough familiarity with Italy, its history and its literature, by references that for the average reader require footnotes. Speaking of Ariosto, he is reminded how the iron laurels on the bust melted when struck by lightning while the poet's remains were being moved to the Ferrara Library. He calls the city of Florence ungrateful for not providing burial for some of her most distinguished citizens. Many of the poetic references are more interesting, however, to a historian than to a lover of poetry. Coming to a consideration of Rome, Byron calls it "My country! City of the soul," and in another stanza, "Niobe of Nations," after the Queen of Thebes whose scorn of a goddess with only two children, while Niobe had fourteen, caused the gods to kill all of them and leave her petrified, weeping for them. So Rome is bereft of her children. Its sepulchers have been plundered by barbarians, floods, and fire, and what has been called "The Eternal City," has suffered from the destructive hand of time. Byron comments on the destruction of one tyrant by another, and laments: "Can Freedom find no champion here such as Columbia saw arise in George Washington?" The efforts of France to achieve freedom have ended in a Saturnalia of blood. Everywhere he sees the sequence: Freedom, glory, and then corruption and barbarism. However, with Rome, each period of degradation has been followed by an upsurge of life. Rome is Eternal. Time's scythe and tyrants' rods have failed to bring it down. And the Coliseum is proof of that fact. In the phrase "While stands the Coliseum, Rome shall stand," Bryon is quoting a sentence from The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–1788) by Edward Gibbon (1737–1797), which the English historian found in reports by Anglo-Saxon pilgrims about the end of the seventh century. Gibbon used it to prove that at that time the edifice was still entire and not the ruins seen by tourists today.

"While stands the Coliseum, Rome shall stand;
When falls the Coliseum, Rome shall fall;
And when Rome falls–the World." From our own land
Thus spake the pilgrims o'er this mighty wall
In Saxon times, which we are wont to call
Ancient; and these three mortal things are still
On their foundations, and unalter'd all;
Rome and her Ruins past Redemption's skill,
The World the same wide den–of thieves, or what ye will.