Francisco de Quevedo was the contemporary of Fray Luis de Leon and of Gongora, but somehow his poems come across as more hard-edged, more austere, hard-hitting and direct. He composed love poems, tribute poems and satirical poems. This is a sonnet reflecting on the causes of the fall of the Roman Empire. I find it amusing for its brevity and conciseness relative to Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall” from 200 years later, while containing the essence of Gibbon’s argument.
Francisco de Quevedo
Las causas de la ruina del imperio romano
En el precio, el favor; y la ventura,
venal; el oro, pálido tirano;
el erario, sacrílego y profano;
con togas, la codicia y la locura;
en delitos, patíbulo la altura;
más suficiente el más soberbio y vano;
en opresión, el sufrimiento humano;
en desprecio, la sciencia y la cordura,
promesas son, ¡oh Roma!, dolorosas
del precipicio y ruina que previenes
a tu imperio y sus fuerzas poderosas.
El laurel que te abraza las dos sienes
llama al rayo que evita, y peligrosas
y coronadas por igual las tienes.
The sonnet contains a litany of the perceived vices which led to the fall of the Roman Empire – corruption, avarice, envy, pride, oppression of the weak, neglect of science and reason, all leading inevitably to the decadence and fall of Rome as the greatest world power.
My hypothesis is that the reader of the 16th century would read a poem like this as a criticism of the shortcomings of the Spanish Empire, then at the height of its powers due to the influx of gold from the Indies; and would see the same vices leading to the same downfall.
Which turned out to be true… I hope Quevedo got satisfaction from his poetic prescience as much as we get pleasure from his poems.
The Poetry Dude