Iggy Pop and Cicero

Iggy Pop and Cicero

Probably, when one hears the phrase “the classical tradition,” the first name that comes to mind is not “Iggy Pop.”

And yet Iggy Pop, like Bob Dylan, has an avid interest in Roman antiquity and its genetic connection to contemporary life.

This startling fact is perhaps made most clear in a short missive called “Caesar Lives” that Pop penned for the guild journal Classics Ireland in 1995, a note that is at once darkly comic and genuinely illuminating. In it, the frontman of The Stooges describes his love affair with Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

The incipit:

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.

Let us pause here. Did you notice what a good stylist Pop is? In fact, the opening sentence is a tour de force of classical Gibbonian English prose, a scrap of Ciceronian periodicity. He begins with a temporal marker, followed by a participle modifying the long delayed subject (“I”), itself filled out by a tricolon (“meanness, tedium and depravity”),[1] followed by a subordinate clause (“as …”) with two participles of its own (“playing … going crazy”), and then, at long last, the main clause (“I purchased …”). The vocabulary is overwhelmingly Latinate: “horrified,” “tedium,” “depravity,” “existence,” “public.” A shorter, but still Roman, sentence comes hard on the heels of the opener. Again, notice the Latinity: “grandeur,” “subject,” “appealed,” “illustration,” “author.” Cicero would often follow a long and intricate sentence with a short and punchy one for contrastive effect. Pop does the same, but for a vehicle uses a version of the so-called “Saxon finish.” After the sonority of the long words in the previous two sentences, he now gives us forceful northern monosyllables, and nothing else. The Latin has been replaced entirely by the Germanic: “He looked like a heavy dude.”

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