So. This book is a humorous account of some prominent historical figures, from ancient Egypt through John Smith. It was given to me by my brother sometime when I was in middle school – 7th grade, I believe – and I started it but soon put it down. Why, you ask? Well, 1) I didn’t know enough history to know what was actual history and what was silly commentary, and therefore didn’t appreciate the humor, and 2) I was too embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know enough to find it funny.
Now, here I am on the other side of college, and, well, The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody is hysterical. There are still parts here and there I don’t get, but I’m not ashamed to admit it anymore, and mostly, the book provides an opportunity to laugh to your heart’s content at the expense of history.
I love Cuppy’s social commentary:
- “The Egyptians of the First Dynasty were already civilized in most respects. They had hieroglyphics, metal weapons for killing foreigners, numerous government officials, death, and taxes.” (8)
- “He is known as Alexander the Great because he killed more people of more different kinds than any other man of his time.” (38)
- “The Romans were stern and dignified, living hard, frugal lives and adhering to the traditional Latin virtues, gravitas, pietas, simplicitas, and adultery.” (47)
…and his humorous footnotes:
- “Full-grown, Philip was a smallish man with Hapsburg lip and a light yellow beard. Titian painted his portrait three times, but the results were only so-so. [Footnote: Even if you are Titian, you have to have something to work with.]” (107)
- “Forty thousand peasants worked for years to build St. Petersburg. [Footnote: You can’t win. The city is now called Leningrad.]” (136) As a side note, this is when I realized when the book was written: 1950. Because, of course, the city’s name is back to St. Petersburg. I guess Peter the Great did win, after all.
…and then, too, his “translations”:
- “…Imhotep the Wise, architect and chief minister to King Zoser, invented the pyramid, a new kind of huge royal tomb built of stone and guaranteed to protect the body of the Pharaoh and a large amount of his property against disturbance for all time. That is to say, Imhotep the Wise originated the idea of concealing the royal corpse and his treasure in a monument so conspicuous that it could not possibly be missed by body snatchers or other thieves.” (9)
- “He [Louis XIV] was afterwards known as Louis le Roi Soleil, or Louis the Show-Off.” (113)
And then there’s those things that you have to know something about history to get, which are fun too: “Henry VIII had so many wives because his dynastic sense was very strong whenever he saw a maid of honor.” (167) …because, of course, the Wars of the Roses had just ended, years and years of struggle over who would rule because the last undisputed ruler hadn’t had a male heir. It all makes so much more sense now than it did in 7th grade…
I also love Cuppy’s brilliant little stating-of-the-obvious, as here: “Alexander’s empire fell to pieces at once, and nothing remained of his work except that the people he had killed were still dead.” (45)
Finally, he finishes up by discussing some royal pranks: “For some time after the passing of Edward II we find no record of any royal chair puller-outers, the English monarchs doubtless having practiced their favorite sport only in private, where it belongs.” (220)
If you like history at all and want to be entertained, this is a great book for you!