Ian Jack and Robert Inglesfield (eds), The Poetical Works of Robert Browning, Vol. 5: Men and Women

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The speaker is acting as a guide to some of the antiquities of Rome. The greater part of the poem (ll. 8–54) is a quotation from an imaginary chronicle. The idea may well have come to Browning between the end of 1853 and the first five months of 1854, when he and EBB were living in Rome. Protos is Greek for first, so the name is ironical: the 'First' is Last. So far as chronology is concerned, Browning has deliberately muddied his tracks. The Huns suggest the fourth or fifth century, 'John the Pannonian' at latest the reign of Justinian (between the reconquest of the West and the Longobardic invasion), while the dispatch of a scholarly ex-emperor to the monastery implies a date much later. The point seems to be to reproduce the ethos of the Byzantine empire: classical beauty and learning mixed with the brutal politics of power.

As for 'Half-emperors and quarter-emperors', there were two emperors between 161 and 169 and again between 177 and 180; and thereafter it was not unusual for emperors to make their sons Augusti. In 293 Diocletian and Maximian each took on a deputy and designated successor, called a Caesar: this tetrarchy may be the point of 'quarter-emperors'. Long after the fall of the Western empire in 476 there were often two or three emperors in Constantinople, the senior emperor and his brother or son, or the power behind the throne.

There is irony in the narrator's undiscriminating praise of the two emperors, so completely different, yet equally unfortunate in the end: the beautiful child, thrust aside by the 'hard hand' of John the Pannonian, and John himself, murdered by his sons after six years' reign.

The couplets are so muted that one may well remember the poem as being in blank verse.

  • Date: 1854
  • 1863: Dramatic Romances

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