Juvenal Satires

Juvenal wrote just 16 satires but they are considered among the best and most influential in Western literature. Tackling them now, for the first time, I discover that his poems are considerably more strange, gnarly and uneven than that reputation suggests, and also that the man himself is something of a mystery.

Potted biography

Decimus Junius Juvenal was probably born around 55 AD, the son of a well-off freedman who had settled in Aquinum near Monte Cassino, 80 miles south-east of Rome. According to two stone inscriptions found in the area, in 78 a ‘Junius Juvenal’ was appointed commander of a cohort and served in Britain under Julius Agricola (father-in-law of Tacitus the historian). The supposition is that this is the same Juvenal as our author, but scholars disagree. The satires contain a number of surprisingly detailed references to life in Britain which seem to reinforce this view, but…Nothing conclusive. (Introduction, pages 16 to 18)

The same inscription describes the return of this Junius Juvenal to Rome in 80, when he was made a priest of the deified Vespasian. A year later, in 81, Domitian became emperor and it is likely that Juvenal cultivated his position in society, writing verses. But in 93 a lampoon he’d written caused offence and he was exiled to Egypt (at least that’s what some scholars believe; Introduction p.18 to 20).

After Domitian’s assassination in 96, it seems that he was allowed back to Rome. Another decade passed and then, in 110-112 he published his first book of satires, containing satires 1 to 5.

  • Book 2 (published around 116 AD) consists of the long sixth satire against women.
  • Book 3 (around 120) consists of satires 7 to 9.
  • Book 4 (around 124) contains satires 10, 11, 12.
  • Book 5 (around 130) contains satires 13 to 16.

The dates of these publications are deduced from what seem to be contemporary references in some of the poems and are themselves the subject of fierce debate.

Unlike the satires of his predecessors in the genre, Horace and Statius, Juvenal’s satires contain no autobiographical information. They are hard, external, objective.

Contemporary references to Juvenal are few and far between. Martial’s epigrams contain three references to a ‘Juvenal’, the longest being epigram 18 in book 12 where Martial writes to someone named Juvenal, as to an old friend, gloating that while his friend is still living in noisy, stinky Rome, he (Martial) has retired to a beautifully quiet farm back in his native Spain. Scholars assume this is the same Juvenal, though there is no proof beyond the text itself.

The earliest satires are bitter and angry. In the later ones a change of tone is noticeable. Scholars assume this is because he went from being an utterly penniless poet, dependent on the good will of patrons handing out dinner invitations or a small portula or ‘dole’, to somehow acquiring a moderate ‘competency’. We learn from these later poems that he owned a small farm at Tivoli (satire 11) and a house in Rome where he entertained modestly. How did he acquire these? Did a grateful emperor gift them to him, as Augustus gave Horace a farm and a pension? We don’t know.

Scholars estimate that books 4 and 5 appeared in 123-5 and 128-30. It is likely that he survived the emperor Hadrian to die around 140, having lived a very long life. (Green refers to him as ‘the bitter old man from Aquinum’, p.10).

Soon after his death sometime in the late 130s, Juvenal’s work disappears and isn’t mentioned by anyone until the 4th century when he begins to be cited by Christian writers. Lactantius established the tradition of regarding Juvenal as a pagan moralist with a gift for pithy phrases, whose scathing contempt for corrupt pagan and secular society could be usefully quoted in order to contrast with the high-minded moral behaviour of the Christian believer – a tradition which was to hold true for the next 1,500 years.

Peter Green’s introduction

If you’ve read my notes on Peter Green’s translations of Ovid you’ll know that I’m a big fan of his. Born in 1924, Green is still alive, a British classical scholar and novelist who’s had a long and lively career, latterly teaching in America. Green’s translations of Ovid are characterised by a) long, chatty, informative, opinionated notes and b) rangy, freeflowing, stylish translations. Same here.

At 320 pages long, the Penguin edition of the Green translation feels like a bumper volume. This is because, with characteristic discursiveness, it starts with a 54-page introduction, which summarises all scholarly knowledge about, and interpretations of, the satires. And then each of the satires are immediately followed by 6, 7 or 8 pages of interesting, chatty notes.

I found Green’s introduction fascinating, as usual. He develops a wonderfully deep, complex and rewarding interpretation of Juvenal and first century Rome. It all starts with an explanation of the economic, social and cultural outlook of the rentier class.

Rentier ideology

At its most basic a rentier is ‘a person living on income from property or investments’. In our day and age these are most closely associated with the large number of unloved buy-to-let landlords. In ancient Rome the class system went, from the top:

  1. the emperor, his family and circle
  2. the senatorial class and their family and clan relatives
  3. beneath them sat the eques, the equestrian or knightly class

To belong to the senatorial class required a net worth of at least a million sesterces. To belong to the equestrian order required at least 400,000 sesterces.

Beneath these or attached to them, was the class Juvenal belonged to – educated, from a reputable family with maybe roots in the regional administrative class, who had come to Rome, rejected a career in the administration or the law courts, preferred to live by their wits, often taking advantage of the extensive networks of patrons and clients. Both Martial and Juvenal appear to have chosen to live like this. They weren’t rentiers in the strict sense of living off ‘income from property or investments’; but they were rentiers in the sense of not working for a living, not having a profession or trade or position in the administration.

Thus their livelihood depended on the existing framework of society remaining the same. Their income, clothes, property etc , all derived from finding wealthy patrons from the classes above them who endorsed the old Roman value and lived up to aristocratic notions of noblesse oblige i.e. with great wealth and position comes the responsibility to look after men of merit who have fallen on bad luck or don’t share your advantages i.e. supporting scroungers like Martial and Juvenal.

What Juvenal’s satires promote, or sometimes clamour for, is the continuation of the old Roman social structures and the endurance of the good old Roman (republican) virtues.

His approach to any social problem is, basically, one of static conservatism. (Introduction, p.23)

Green sums up the characteristic beliefs of the rentier class as:

  • lofty contempt for trade and ignorance of business
  • indifference to practical skills
  • intense political conservatism, with a corresponding fear of change or revolution
  • complete ignorance of the economic realities underpinning his existence
  • a tendency, therefore, to see all social problems in over-simplified moral terms (p.26)

The rentier believes that, because they are ‘good’ and uphold the ‘old values’ and traditional religion and so on, that they deserve to be rewarded with the old privileges and perks. They cannot process the basic reality of life that just being good, won’t make you rich.

And so the enemy of this entire worldview, of all its traditional values and relationships, is change, and especially economic change.

For in the century leading up to Juvenal’s time, Rome had not only transitioned from being a republic to becoming a full-blown empire but had also undergone sweeping economic changes. The old family farm, which was already a nostalgic fantasy in the time of Virgil and Horace, had long been obliterated by vast latifundia worked by huge gangs of shackled slaves.

But far more importantly, there had arisen an ever-changing and ever-growing class of entrepreneurs, businessmen, merchants, loan sharks, import-export buffs, hustlers and innovators who swarmed through the capital city, the regions and provinces. Sustained peace (apart from the disruption of the bad year, 69) had brought undreamed of wealth. Money, affluence, luxury was no longer restricted to the emperor, his family and the better-off senatorial classes, but had helped to create large numbers of nouveaux-riches. And these people and their obsession with money, money, money seemed to have infiltrated every aspect of Roman society.

It is this which incenses Juvenal and drives him to paroxysms of bile. He wants social relations in Rome to stay the same, ideally to revert to what they were in the fabled Golden Age, before money ruined everything. It is these floods of unprincipled money and the luxury, corruption and loss of traditional values which they bring in their wake, which obsess Juvenal. It expresses itself in different ways:

Money

Money is the root of all evil. It corrupts all social relationships.

Patron and client

Applied to Juvenal’s specific social position as an educated dinner-scrounger, parasite and hanger-on, he is incensed that the Grand and Noble Tradition of patron and client, which he likes to think applied some time back in the Golden Age, has now been corrupted and brought low by a flood of unworthy parasites among the clients, and the loss of all noble and aristocratic feeling among the patrons.

One of his recurring targets is the decadent aristocrat who has betrayed the upper-class code, whose money-mad, sexually profligate behaviour – adultery, gay sex, appearing on stage or in the gladiatorial arena – undermines all the old values Juvenal believes in.

Business

Green makes the excellent point that very often writers who find themselves in this position, dependent on charity from patrons, don’t understand how money is actually made. They’ve never run a business, let alone an international import-export business, so have only the vaguest sense of what qualities of character and responsibility and decision-making are required. This explains why Juvenal’s portraits of the nouveaux riches are so spiteful but also generalised. Somehow these ghastly people have become filthy rich and he just doesn’t understand how. With no understanding of the effort involved, of the changes in the Mediterranean economy or transport and storage or markets which are involved, all Juvenal has to resort to is abuse. The most hurtful spiteful sort of abuse is to attack someone’s sex life.

Sex

The thought of other people having sex is, for many, either disgusting or hilarious. Sex has always been an easy target for satirists. Conservatives like Juvenal, concentrate all their disgust at the wider ‘collapse of traditional values’ onto revulsion at any form of sex which doesn’t conform to traditional values (the missionary position between a married heterosexual couple). Hence the astonishing vituperation levelled at the vast orgy of deviant sex which Juvenal thinks Rome has become. He singles out a) deviant sex practiced by straight people, such as fellatio and cunnilingus; b) homosexual sex and in particular the stories of men and boys getting married: the way these couples (allegedly) dress up in the traditional garb of bride and groom, use the same priests reciting the traditional wedding ceremony etc, drives him to paroxysms of fury.

As so often with angry men, Juvenal’s vituperation is especially focused on the sexual behaviour of women, and indeed Book 2 consists of just one satire, the unusually long sixth satire against women. As Green points out, the focus of Juvenal’s fury is not women in general but aristocratic women for falling so far short of the noble values they should be upholding. What drives Juvenal mad is that their sexual liaisons are with men from the lower classes such as gladiators or actors. He contrasts their irresponsible promiscuity with the behaviour of women of lower classes who actually bear children instead of having endless abortions, and would never dream of performing on the stage or in the arena. There is a great deal of misogyny in the sixth satire but Green suggests that it is driven, like all his other anger, not quite by woman-hating alone but by the failure to preserve traditional values.

Immigrants

As mentioned several times, Rome saw an ‘invasion’ of new money and entrepreneurial rich. What gets Juvenal’s goat is how many of them are foreigners, bloody foreigners, coming over here, buying up our grand old houses, buying their way into the equestrian class, even running for public office, bringing their bloody foreign religions. A virulent strain of xenophobia runs alongside all Juvenal’s other rages and hates, in particular hatred of Egyptians who he particularly loathes. A recurrent hate figure is Crispinus (‘that Delta-bred house slave’, p.66) who, despite originating as a fish-hawker from Egypt, had risen to become commander of the Praetorian Guard!

Freedmen

Alongside loathing of the newly rich and foreigners goes hatred of freedmen, jumped-up social climbers who come from slave families or who were once slaves themselves! My God! What is the city coming to when ex-slaves rise to not only swanky houses on Rome’s grandest hills, but even become advisers to emperors (as Claudius, reigned 41 to 54, had notoriously let state affairs be run by a small coterie of freedmen.) Unhampered by the dignified self-restraint and lofty morality of the old Romans, these base-born parvenus often acquired immense fortunes and thrust themselves into positions of great political power.

This, of course, is precisely the type who Petronius nails with his extended description of the grossly luxurious dinner party of the upstart arriviste Trimalchio, in his Satyricon.

It was not just economic and social power: Juvenal raged against the fact that he and his shabby-genteel friends were kept out of the seats reserved for Knights at the theatre and the games, while the same seats were filled with the sons of pimps, auctioneers and gladiators! They were everywhere, taking over everything! What could any decent person do, he argues in satire 1, except write bilious anathemas of these crooks and careerists and corrupters?

Bad literature

I find it the most predictable and least amusing thread in the satires, but it is a recurring theme that literature itself has been debauched by the collapse of these values. Somehow the old world of mythology, ancient myths and legends, all the twee genres of pastoral and idyll which accompanied them, none of these are appropriate for the current moronic inferno which faces the poet.

All this is entertainingly expressed in Satire 1 which is a justification of his approach i.e. rejecting all those knackered old mythological tropes and forms (idyll, epic, what-have-you) because these are all forms of escapism, in order to write blistering broadsides against the actual real world which he saw all around him.

In other words, wherever he looked, from the details of his own day-to-day livelihood to the counsels of the highest in the land, to the private lives of pretty much every citizen of note, Juvenal was aghast that a tide of money and corruption had tainted every aspect of Roman society, destroying the old aristocratic values, undermining traditional religion, destroying family values, turning the place into an Oriental bazaar run by foreigners who have imported their filthy decadent sexual practices.

Solutions?

Do Juvenal’s 16 satires offer a solution or alternative to this sorry state of affairs? Of course not. The satirist’s job is to flay abuses not fix them. Insofar as a solution is implied by the 16 satires, it is a return to traditional old Roman values and virtues. But as with so much satire, the pleasure comes not from hopes of solutions and improvements, but from sharing the sadistic glee of the demolition. He is a caricaturist, creating a rogues’ gallery of outrageous portraits.

Juvenal does not work out a coherent critique of institutions or individuals: he simply hangs a series of moral portraits on the wall and forces us to look at them. (p.43)

Philosophy

In a similar vein, Green points out that, at moments the poems appear briefly to espouse formulas from one or other of the three main philosophies popular in Rome at the time (Stoicism, Epicureanism and Cynicism), but never enough make you think he understands or cares for them. Generally they’re referred to in order to mock and ridicule their practitioners, as in the extended passage in Satire 3 which accepts the conventional view that most philosophers are homosexual and then exaggerates this idea for comic effect.

An unstructured torrent of bile

Juvenal’s lack of any theory of society or economics, any understanding of business, his lack of any coherent philosophical framework, all these go to explain the lack of structure which critics have always lamented in the satires.

Instead of coherent argument, Juvenal is notorious for bombarding the reader with powerful, vitriolic, scabrous images in paragraphs or couplets which often bear little relation to each other. Each satire has a broad subject but, within it, Juvenal’s ‘thought’ jumps all over the place. Juvenal:

picked a theme and then proceeded to drive it home into his reader’s mind by a vivid and often haphazard accumulation of examples. He is full of abrupt jumps…and splendidly irrelevant digressions. (p.44)

He obtains his effects by the piling up of visual images, paradoxical juxtapositions rather than step-by-step development. (p.46)

A principle of random selection at work, a train of thought which proceeds from one enticing image to another like a man leaping from tussock to tussock across a bog. (p.47)

Green points out that, in addition, although we have many manuscripts of the satires, all of them contain textual problems and issues – at some points there appear to be gaps in the logic of sentences or paragraphs, some passages or lines seem to be in the wrong place.

This has made Juvenal’s satires, over the centuries, a happy hunting ground for generations of editors, who have freely cut and pasted lines and passages from where they sit in the manuscript to other places where editors think they make more sense. Editors have even made up sentences to connect two passages which contain abrupt jumps. Green in his introduction laments that this is so, but himself does it quite freely, with interesting notes explaining each of his edits.

The point is that the problematic nature of all the manuscripts only exacerbate the issue which was always there, which is that Juvenal’s poems lack the kind of logical discursive narrative you find (up to a point) in ‘architectonic’ poets such as Horace or Ovid. Instead they generally consist of illogical but fantastically angry, vivid bombardments of bile and imagery.

The best attitude in a reader, then, is not to look for cool, considered argument, which simply isn’t there; it’s to sit back and enjoy the fireworks. The pleasure is in watching a clever, learnèd man, with advanced skills in writing verse, exploding with anger and bile.

Juvenal’s style

Green mentions ‘Juvenal’s technical virtuosity; his subtle control of rhythm and sound effects, his dense, hard, verbal brilliance.’ (p.7) According to Green few Roman poets can equal his absolute control over the pace, tone and texture of a hexameter, and no translator can hope to capture the condensed force of Juvenal’s enjambed hexameters, his skilful rhythmic variations, his dazzling displays of alliteration and assonance and onomatopoeia (p.59).

He goes on to elaborate that Juvenal’s use of Latin was ‘distilled, refined, crystallised.’ Of the 4,790 words used in the satires now fewer than 2,130 occur here once only and nowhere else. His entire lifetime’s work amounts to barely 4,000 lines. Rarely has a writer’s oeuvre had less spare fat. This helps to explain the number of Juvenal’s pithy phrases which went on to become well-known Latin tags:

  • quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (satire 6) = ‘who will guard the guards themselves?’, also translated as ‘who watches the watchers?’. The original context dealt with ensuring marital fidelity by setting watchers to guard an unfaithful wife, but the phrase is now used to refer to the problem of controlling the actions of persons in positions of power
  • panem et circenses (satire 10) = ‘bread and circuses’, meaning to generate public approval, not by excellence in public service or policy but by diversion, distraction, by satisfying the basest requirements of a population
  • mens sana in corpore sano (satire 10) = ‘a healthy mind in a healthy body’, the phrase is now widely used in sporting and educational contexts to express that physical exercise is an important part of mental and psychological well-being

The 16 satires

Book 1

Satire 1: A justification for satire (171 lines)

He’s sick to death of rubbish poets declaiming the same exhausted stories about old mythology. He too has cranked out suasoria in the school of rhetoric. Why is he writing satire in the mode of old Lucilius? With Rome overrun by money and vulgarity, what else is there to do? Then gives a long list of types of social climber, frauds, embezzlers, men who rise by screwing rich old women, or pimp out their own wives, forgers carried round in litters, chiselling advocates, sneaky informers, the young buck who squandered his inheritance on horses, the lowly barber who used to shave Juvenal but is now as rich as any aristocrat, the distinguished old lady who’s an expert in poisoning. Everyone praises honesty, but it’s crime that pays.

Why, then, it is harder not to write satires, for who
Can endure this monstrous city and swallow his wrath?

Since the days of the flood has there ever been
Such a rich crop of vices? When has the purse
Of greed yawned wider?…Today every vice
Has reached its ruinous zenith…

Though talent be wanting, yet
Indignation will drive me to verse, such as I or any scribbler
May still command. All human endeavours, men’s prayers,
Fears, angers, pleasures, joys and pursuits, these make
The mixed mash of my verse.

An extended lament on the corruption of the relationship of patron and client, and all the thrusting crooks who now join the morning scrum outside a patron’s house for the ‘dole’, including many who are actually wealthy, but still scrounge for scraps. Describes the typical day of a client i.e. hanger-on, trudging round Rome after their patron, getting hot and sweaty and hungry. He rages against the greedy patron who feeds his cadgers scraps while he gorges on roast boar and peacock. One day he’ll have a heart attack but nobody will care.

He ends by saying Lucilius in his day felt confident of shared civil values to name the guilty men; in Juvenal’s day, naming an imperial favourite or anyone with pull could end you up as a burning torch illuminating the games. Better not name names, better restrict himself to using only the names of the dead, safer that way.

Satire 2: Against homosexuals and particularly gay marriage (170 lines)

The hypocrisy of bogus moralists, people who quote the great philosophers, who fill their halls with busts of the great thinkers, but don’t understand a word. Most philosophers are effete fairies. He prefers the eunuch priest of the Mother goddess, at least he’s open about it. Just recently Domitian was reviving laws about public morality while all the time tupping his niece; he forced her to have an abortion which killed her.

He has a courtesan address one such manicured, perfumed moralist for his hypocrisy, going on to say men are far worse than women; women wouldn’t dream of licking each other’s parts; accuses men of pleasuring their boy lovers ‘both ways’. She laments how most women, when they marry, have to take second place to a favoured boy or freedman.

He describes the scandalous advocate who prosecuted a case before the public wearing see-through chiffon, ‘a walking transparency’. It’s a slippery slope which leads to involvement in the secret rites of the Mother Goddess, for men only, who wear elaborate make-up, wear women’s clothing, use women’s oaths and ‘shrill, affected voices’. Throws in an insulting comparison to ‘that fag of an emperor, Otho’ who fussed over his armour in front of a mirror.

What about the young heir who went through a wedding ceremony with a trumpeter? Or the once-honourable priest of Mars who dresses up in ‘bridal frills’.

O Father of our city,
What brought your simple shepherd people to such a pitch
Of blasphemous perversion?

When men marry men why doesn’t great Mars intervene? What’s the point of worshipping him if he lets such things happen? Mind you, they can’t have children, so can’t preserve the family name (and, Juvenal appears to suggest, do try magic remedies so that the passive homosexual can get pregnant. Can that possibly be true, can ancient Romans have really thought a man can get pregnant?)

Juvenal goes on that what’s worse than holding a wedding ceremony to marry another man was that this blue-blooded aristocrat then took up a trident and net to fight in gladiatorial games. This really seems to be the most outrageous blasphemy of all, to Juvenal.

A digression to claim that nobody in Rome now believes in the ancient religion, Hades, Charon the ferryman and all that. But if they did wouldn’t the noble dead, fallen in so many battles to make Rome great, be scandalised to welcome such a degenerate aristocrat into their midst? Wouldn’t Hades itself need to be purified?

Yes, even among the dead Rome stands dishonoured.

Even the barbarians at Rome’s borders are not so debauched; although if we bring them as prisoners to Rome, they soon learn our decadent, effeminate ways and, when released, take our corruption back to their native lands.

Satire 3: Unbricius’ monologue on leaving Rome (322 lines)

His friend Umbricius is leaving Rome to go and live in Cumae. He’s jealous. He gives Umbricius a long speech in which he says he leaves Rome to fraudulent developers, astrologers, will-fixers, magicians, the go-betweens of adulterous lovers, corrupt governors, conspirators. Above all he hates Greeks, actually Syrians with their awful language, flutes and tambourines and whores. Sly slick dexterous Greeks from the islands can turn their hand to anything. These are the people who now wear the purple, precede him at dinner parties, officiate at manumissions. They can blag anyone, which explains why they’re such great actors, especially in women’s roles. Mind you, no woman is safe from a Greek man in the house, ‘he’ll cheerfully lay his best friend’s grandmother.’

This morphs into the misery of the client or hanger-on to dismissive rich men. He describes being kicked out of a prime seat at the theatre to make way for a pimp’s son, an auctioneer’s offspring or the son of a gladiator because they have more money. A plain white cloak is fine for the provinces, but here in Rome we must beggar ourselves to keep up with the latest decadent fashions.

And the misery of living in apartment blocks which are falling down or liable to fire at any moment. (Umbricius implies he lives on the third floor, as Martial does in one of his epigrams.) If your block goes up you lose everything, compared to the rich man; if his house burns down he is flooded with presents and financial aid to rebuild it from clients and flatterers and connections.

No, Umbricius advises to buy the freehold on a nice place in the country rather than a rented hovel in Rome. The worst of it is the noise at night from all the wagons wending through the winding alleyways. Insomnia’s causes more deaths among Roman invalids than any other cause. He gives a vivid description of the muddy, jostling misery of trying to get through Rome’s packed streets without being involved in some gruesome accident.

Walking at night is even worse, with the risk of being brained by a falling roof tile or drenched in slops chucked out the window by a housewife. And then the possibility of being beaten up by some bored, drunk bully. Or the burglars. Or some ‘street apache’ who’ll end your life with a knife.

So farewell Rome, he begs the author won’t forget him and, when he goes back to his home town for a break, will invite him round to celebrate a country festival.

Satire 4: A mock epic of the turbot (154 lines)

Starts off by ridiculing Crispinus for buying a red mullet for the ludicrous price of 60 gold pieces. Then morphs into a mock epic celebrating a fisherman in the Adriatic who catches an enormous giant turbot and carries it all the way to Rome to present to the emperor. This 100 lines of mock epic poetry contains a mock invocation to the Muses, extended epic similes etc. Then – and this appears to be the real point of the poem – it turns into a list of the emperor Domitian’s privy councillors, each one a crook or sadist or nark or creep.

Satire 5: Trebius the dinner-cadger (173 lines)

Is dinner worth every insult which you pay for it?

In the miserable figure of Trebius Juvenal lists the humiliations the ‘client’ must undergo in order to wain a grudging, poor quality ‘dinner’ from his patron (here called Virro), at which he will be offered the worst wine, rocky bread and humiliated by sneering slaves, served half an egg with boiled cabbage while the patron eats a huge crayfish with asparagus garnish.

Now if you had money, if you got yourself promoted to the Equestrian Order, then at a stroke you’d become Virro’s best friend and be lavished with the finest food. As it is, he serves you the worst of everything out of spite, to amuse himself. He wants to reduce you to tears of anger and frustration.

Don’t fool yourself that you are his ‘friend’. There is none of the honour of the old Republican relationship of patron and client. He simply wants to reduce his clients to the level of a buffoon, the stupidus of Roman pantomime who has his head shaved and is always being kicked or slapped by his smarter colleagues. He wants to make you an abject punchbag.

Book 2

Satire 6: Don’t marry (661 lines)

Postumus, are you really taking a wife?
You used to be sane…

Wouldn’t it be quicker to commit suicide by jumping out of a high building or off a bridge? Surely boys are better: at least they don’t nag you during sex or demand endless gifts or criticise your lack of passion.

Juvenal gives a funny account of the Golden Age, when humans lived in cave and women were hairier than their menfolk, their big breasts giving suck to tough babies. But long ago Chastity withdrew to heaven and now infidelity and adultery are well-established traditions.

Fidelity in a woman! It’s be easier to persuade her to have an eye out than keep faithful to one man! Posh women are mad for actors and entertainers. If he marries his wife will make some flute player or guitarist or gladiator father to his children.

He profiles Eppia the senator’s wife who ran off to Egypt with a gladiator, abandoning her children and her country. Then a searing portrait of Messalina, the nymphomaniac wife of Claudius, who snuck off to a brothel where, wearing a blonde wig and gilded nipples, she let herself be fucked by all-comers, all night long. A profile of Bibula who has her husband in thrall and goes on monster shopping sprees which morphs into a dig at Queen Berenice who lived for many years in an incestuous union with her brother, Agrippa of Judaea.

What point a beautiful wife if she is proud and haughty. Juvenal cites Niobe who was so vain she called down disaster on herself and her 12 children.

Modern girls doll themselves up like the bloody Greeks and express themselves with Greek language which (apparently) reeks of the bedroom.

Our provincial dollies ape Athenian fashion, it’s smart
To chatter away in Greek – though what should make them blush
Is their slipshod Latin. All their emotions – fear,
Anger, happiness, anxiety, every inmost
Secret thought – find expression in Greek, they even
Make love Greek-style.

It may be alright for schoolgirls to act this way, but Roman women in their eighties!

A flurry of sexist stereotypes: Women want money money money. They’ll take control of household spending, veto your business plans, control your friendships. She’ll force you to include her lover’s in your will.

Yet another shocking insight into Roman’s and their slaves when it’s played for laughs that a husband will order ‘crucify that slave’ and Juvenal paints it as typically feminine of a wife to want to know why, what the slave has done, before they’re hustled off to be crucified.

And the mother-in-law! She’ll egg her daughter on to every sin, adultery, spending all your money. Women are behind virtually all law suits, and insist on defending or prosecuting. And what about women athletes! And women fencers! And women who want to fight in the ring, ‘helmeted hoydens’, gladiatresses!

But bed is the place where wives are at their worst, endlessly bitching, about your boyfriends or imaginary mistresses, all the time hiding letters from her lover or making plans to visit her mother as an excuse to meet her lover. Bursting into tears if you accuse her, but quick to insist it was always an open marriage if you find her out.

What triggered all this corruption? In the good old days of relative poverty wives were too busy working, cooking, cleaning, darning to play the whore. All this wickedness is the result of a ‘too-long peace’. The world Rome conquered takes its revenge by afflicting Rome with Luxury, from which all vices spring, money – filthy lucre – leading to ‘shameless self-indulgence’.

He accuses religious festivals: the Floralia which celebrates fertility with phallus images and prostitutes; the worship of Venus; the mysteries of the Great Goddess whose frenzied worship makes women wet between the thighs, get drunk, bump and grind – then they call in the slaves to fuck them and if there aren’t any slaves, a donkey will do. The shrine of Isis might as well be called the brothel of Isis.

Gladiator trainers keep the gay ones segregated from the straight, but in a rich woman’s house queers are encouraged, man with kohl-ringed eyes, see-though clothes and hairnets. Mind you, half of them turn out to be straight after all, and well able to give your wife a good stuffing.

Juvenal accuses a specific fag of being a straight man in disguise. His friends tell him it’s best to lock up a wife and bar the doors. And here comes one of Juvenile’s most famous quotes. Yes, by all means lock up your wife and put a guard on the doors but will keep guard on the guards? ‘quis custodiet ipsos custodes?’ They, also, will be bribed by your whore wife to turn the other eye when her lover calls. Or will screw her themselves.

He profiles a generic aristocratic woman, Ogulna, who’s mad about the games and attends with a big expensive entourage, example of women who spend everything you have then get you into debt.

Then the wives who love eunuchs, if they’ve been neutered the right way they still can get erections and no worries about abortions! Especially the big bull black ones!

Women will lavish your money on music, musicians and musical instruments. The temples are packed with woman asking the gods to favour this or that performer or actor or gladiator or whatnot.

But they’re not as bad as the flat-chested busybody, who runs round town, buttonholing men, interrupting their conversations, an expert on every subject under the sun. overflowing with gossip about politics or military campaigns. Then goes off to the baths after dark, works out with weights, has a massage from an expert who oils her and makes her climax. Making her guests wait till she arrives late and proceeds to drink gallons on an empty stomach then spew it up all over the dining room tiles.

Worse is the bluestocking who holds forth about literature at dinner, comparing Virgil and Homer. God how he hates a female pedant and grammarian, always correcting your speech, ‘a husband should be allowed his solecisms in peace’.

Juvenal gives a description of the elaborate process of an upper class woman putting her make-up on, looking ridiculous in face-pack and thick creams at home, reserving her ugliness for her husband. The kind of woman who has her wool-maid or cosmetician or litter bearers flogged till they bleed while she fusses about her eye make-up or the hem of a gown.

God, the number of helpers and assistants required just to do her hair till it stands up like a ridiculous pomade.

Then a passage ridiculing the absurd requirements of foreign religious cults and superstitions, Bellona, Cybele, requiring total immersion in the Tiber, crawling across the field of Mars on your hands and knees, going a pilgrimage to Egypt. Or admires the shaven-headed devotees of the dog god Anubis who run through the streets wailing for dead Osiris. Or a palsied Jewess arrives ready to interpret the secret laws of Jerusalem.

Then the fortune tellers, Armenians and Syrians, or the Chaldean astrologers, all knowing they’ll get a credulous hearing from the rich woman of the house, the kind of woman who won’t make any decision, who won’t accompany or agree with her husband unless her astrologer says it’s written in the starts, or the augur tells her it’s written in the entrails of some chicken or pigeon or puppy.

Poor women go to the races to consult palmists or phrenologists, but at least they actually bear children, keep their pregnancies to full term. Not like rich women with their drugs to be made sterile or prompt abortions. Well, it could be worse, you could find yourself ‘father’ to a black child, obviously not yours, obviously fathered by a slave or gladiator.

If you start forgetting things, chances are you’re being poisoned by your wife. After all, emperors’ wives have poisoned their husbands and so set an example to us all! Beware step-mothers, scheming to kill the biological son and promote their boy. He cites the example of Pontia, daughter of Petronius, who is said to have poisoned her own two sons.

He doesn’t mind the old myths about women who murdered in a white hot frenzy; what he loathes is modern matrons who cold-bloodedly scheme to do away with husbands or stepsons and care about their lives less than they do about their lapdogs.

Book 3

Satire 7: The misery of a writer’s, but especially a teacher’s, life (243 lines)

Modern poets in Juvenal’s day would make a better living opening a bakery or becoming an auctioneer. The emperor (probably Hadrian who came to power in 118) has let it be known he’s looking for poets to patronise, but the run-of-the-mill writer looking for a decent patron, forget it! The modern patron begrudges funding even a small recital in an out of town hall. After all, he’s probably a poet himself and ranks his work higher than yours!

It’s a very contrast between the lofty diction the modern poet aspires to and the sordid reality of his own life, forced to pawn his coat and dishes for his next meal. Horace on the old days, and Lucan more recently, could write magnificent verse because they weren’t hungry.

He gives an interesting sketch of the poet Publius Papinius Statius and how popular his public recitals were of his great epic, the Thebaid, reeled off in his mellifluous voice. But even has to make a living by flogging libretti to the head of the ballet company. Because:

Today the age
Of the private patron is over; Maecenas and co.
Have no successors.

Does the historian make any more, slaving away in his library, covering thousands of pages? No.

What about lawyers, huffing and puffing and promoting their skills? Look closely and you’ll see a hundred lawyers make less than one successful jockey. He profiles an aristocratic advocate, Tongilus, ‘such a bore at the baths’, who is carried about in a litter by 8 stout Thracian slaves. For what’s valued in a court of law is a dirty great ring, flash clothes and a bevy of retainers. Eloquence is dead. Juries associate justice with a flashy appearance. Cicero wouldn’t stand a chance.

What about teachers of rhetoric, wasting their lives getting boys to rehash tired old topics in stale old catchphrases. Better to drop logic and rhetoric and become a singer, they get paid a fortune.

Juvenal profiles a typical nouveau riche building private baths and a cloister to ride his pampered horses round and a banqueting hall with the best marble and ready to cough up for a first class chef and a butler. But a teacher of rhetoric for his son? Here’s a tenner, take it or leave it.

Really it’s down to luck or Fortune as the ancients called her, ‘the miraculous occult forces of Fate’. Luck makes a first class speaker or javelin thrower, if Fortune favours you can rise from teacher to consul.

In the olden days teachers were respected, even Achilles still feared the rod of his tutor Chiron as he turned man; but nowadays pupils are likely to beat up their teachers who go in fear. God, why be a teacher stuck in some hell-hole cellar before dawn, working by the light of filthy oil lamps, trying to knock sense into pupils who answer back, and all for a pittance, from which you have to give a cut to the boy’s attendant to make sure he even attends lessons?

And if the pupils are awful, what about the parents? Expecting each teacher to be a 100% expert in all knowledge, buttonholing him on the way to the baths and firing off all kinds of impossible questions. All for a pittance which, nine times out of ten, you’ll have to go to court for just to get paid.

Satire 8: Family trees and ‘nobility’ are worth nothing next to personal virtue (275 lines)

What good are family trees?

What good is tracing your family back through venerable ancestors if your own life is a public disgrace?

You may line your whole hall with waxen busts, but virtue,
And virtue alone, remains the one true nobility.

And:

Prove that your life
Is stainless, that you always abide by what is just
In word and deed – and then I’ll acknowledge your noble status.

Unlike the other satires which are often strings of abuse and comic caricatures, this one has a thread of argument and logic and is addressed to a named individual, Ponticus who is depicted as preening himself on his ‘fine breeding’..

Juvenal claims nobility is as nobility does. A racehorse may come from the noblest ancestry imaginable but if it doesn’t win races it’s pensioned off to work a mill-wheel. Just so, claiming respect for having been born to a particular family is ludicrous. Instead, show us one good deed in order to merit our respect.

Lots of the most useful work in the empire, from soldiers on the frontier to the really effective lawyers in the city, are done by ‘commoners’. He is surprisingly programmatic and non-ironic in listing the virtues:

  • be a good soldier
  • be a faithful guardian
  • be an honest witness in law cases
  • be a good governor:
    • set a limit on your greed and pity the destitute locals
    • have staff that are upright and honest (not some corrupt long-haired catamite)
    • have a wife above suspicion not a rapacious harpy
  • observe the law
  • respect the senate’s decrees

This leads into a lament for the way Rome used to govern its colonies wisely, but then came ‘the conquistadors’, the looters, Anthony and his generation, and its been rapacity, greed and illegal confiscations ever since.

Then Juvenal goes on to flay aristocratic wasters, dissipating their fortunes with love of horseracing and gambling, to be found among the lowest possible company down at the docks; or reduced to acting on the stage (clearly one of the most degraded types of behaviour Juvenal can imagine). Or – absolute lowest of the low – appear in the gladiator fights and he names a member of the noble Gracchii clan who shamefully appeared as a retiarius.

This leads to a profile of the most scandalously debased of leaders, Nero, with his insistence on performing as a musician and singer onstage, not only in Rome but at festivals across Greece. Super-noble ancestry (membership of the gens Sergii) didn’t stop Lucius Sergius Catilina planning to burn Rome to the ground and overthrow the state. It was an upstart provincial, Cicero, who saved Rome. Or Marius, man of the people, who saved Rome from invasion by Germanic tribes in 102 and 101 BC.

Achievement is what counts, not family. Juvenal ends with a surprising general point, which is that the very first settlement of Rome was carried out by Romulus who then invited men to join him, men who, according to the Roman historian Livy, were either shepherds, or escaped convicts and criminals. Ultimately, no matter how much they swank, all the ‘great and noble’ Roman families are derived from this very ignoble stock.

Satire 9: Dialogue with Naevolus the unemployed gay gigolo (150 lines)

According to green some scholars think this was an early work, added in to bulk out the book. This is one explanation of why it is, unlike any of the other poems, in dialogue form. A character named Juvenal swaps dialogue with a character named Naevolus.

Juvenal starts by asking why Naevolus, previously a smart man-about-town, a pick-up artists who shagged women by the score (and their husbands too, sometimes) is now so long-in-the-mouth, pale, thin and unkempt.

Naevolus explains that his time as a gigolo has ground to an end and brought him few returns, specially since he was working for a very tight-fisted gay patron, Virro (presumably the same dinner party host who enjoyed humiliating his hangers-on in satire 5). Virro seems to have got bored of him and dumped him.

There is an extremely graphic moment when Naevolus describes how difficult it was having to stuff his hard cock up Virro’s anus, till he was ‘stopped by last night’s supper.’ Yuk.

The dialogue becomes a dialogue-within-a-dialogue as Naevolus imagines a reproachful conversation with Virro. Why does he, Naevolus, have to send his rich patron gifts on his birthday? What’s Virro going to do with his huge estates when he dies, will Naevolus get even a little cottage?

As it is Naevolus doesn’t have enough to clothe and feed his one lousy slave. Naevolus reproaches Virro that he not only had to service the fat man but his wife too!

I sired you a son and a daughter: doesn’t that mean
Anything to you at all, you ungrateful bastard?

(In the Roman context this means Naevolus has only provided Virro with heirs, but with the legal advantages of being a father.) So Juvenal interrupts to ask what Virro says in his own defence. Nothing, apparently, he’s too busy looking for Naevolus’s replacement, a mere ‘two-legged donkey’. Suddenly Naevolus gets nervous. He begs Juvenal not to whisper a word of all this, or Virro will have him bumped off, knifed or poisoned, or his house burned down.

Juvenal mocks the idea that a master can keep any secret from his slaves who will, in turn, blab to everyone they meet. There’s no such thing as secrecy in a slave society.

So Naevolus asks what Juvenal advises him to do. Juvenal replies a) there’ll always be more customers for him, b) ‘chew colewort; it’s a fine aphrodisiac.’

the poem ends with Naevolus saying he doesn’t want much, but then – surprisingly – including in his list of modest requirements a pair of brawny Bulgarian porters to carry him in a chair, a silver engraver and a portraitist, all of which seem wildly extravagant and commentators have worried about for the past 1,900 years.

Book 4

Satire 10: The vanity of human wishes (366 lines)

This is the comprehensive overview of the futility of human ambition which formed the basis for the 18th century English author, Samuel Johnson’s great poem, ‘The Vanity of Human Wishes: The Tenth Satire of Juvenal Imitated‘.

Mankind is gripped by a self-destructive urge. What man was ever guided by Reason? Any man with belongings is the toy of Fate. He invokes Democritus the laughing philosopher and Heraclitus the weeping philosopher and goes on to mockingly describe the progress of a modern consul through the streets preceded by his lictors. Democritus thought the worries of the people as absurd as their joys, the gods listen to neither. So what should we ask the gods for?

He gives Sejanus as an example, not only of Fortune turning her wheel to bring the second highest figure in the land down into the gutter, but at the fickleness of the change, since there was no legal process involved, it all resulted from one single letter from Tiberius in Capri to the Senate. And the mob? They don’t care for proof or law, they just cheer the victors and jeer the losers. They all rushed to kick Sejanus’s corpse or pull down his statues, but if Tiberius had dropped dead of a heart attack, the same mob would have been cheering Sejanus to the rafters as the new emperor. Fickle.

In the olden days, when their votes were vital for the election of consuls, praetors, governors and so on, the public took an interest in public affairs. But in 14 AD Tiberius transferred the election of magistrates from the popular assemblies to the senate, with the far-reaching consequences that Juvenal describes. After nearly a century of non-involvement, now the catchphrase is ‘who cares?’ Now there’s only two things that interest the people: bread and the games. (Another famous tag, panem et circenses in the Latin.)

No, he’d rather be the small-time governor of some sleepy backwater, with no glory but no risk, than rise to the giddy heights of a Sejanus only to be be dragged to his death. Same goes for the first triumvirate, Pompey and Crassus and Julius Caesar – lust for ultimate power took them to giddy heights and then…catastrophic fall, miserable murder.

Setting off on a tangent, Juvenal claims what everyone seeks is eloquence, the gift of swaying crowds, but look what happened to the two greatest orators of all time, Cicero was beheaded at the insistence of his arch enemy Anthony, and the great Demosthenes was forced to commit suicide.

How many national leaders thirst for glory, for the spoils of victory, for triumphs and a triumphal arch.

The thirst for glory by far outstrips the pursuit of virtue.

Vladimir Putin thinks murdering thousands of men, women and children is a price well worth paying for restoring Ukraine to the Russian motherland. Killing pregnant women is worth it to get a place in the history books. ‘The thirst for glory by far outstrips the pursuit of virtue.’

Yet countries have come to ruin
Not once but many times, through the vainglory of a few
Who lusted for power, who wanted a title that would cling
To the stones set over their ashes…

Or take Hannibal, one-time conqueror of the Mediterranean, vaingloriously vowing to capture Rome but, in the end, routed from Italy, then defeated in Africa and forced into exile to become the humiliated hanger-on of ‘a petty Eastern despot’ eventually, when his extradition was demanded by Rome, committing suicide by poison.

Same with Alexander the Great, at one point commanding the entire known world, next moment filling a coffin in Babylon. Or Xerxes whose exorbitant feats of engineering (a bridge across the Hellespont, a canal through the peninsula of Mount Athos) all led up to complete military defeat at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC and Xerxes’ miserable return to Persia.

Juvenal makes one of his jump cuts to a completely different theme, the triumph of old age over all of us. Men start out full of hope and individuality and all end up looking the same, senile sexless old dodderers. All your senses weaken, you can no longer appreciate music, you fall prey to all kinds of illnesses.

And senility. Old men forget the names of their servants, their hosts at dinner, eventually their own families, and end up disinheriting their children and leaving everything to a whore whose expert mouth has supplied senile orgasms.

But if you live to a ripe old age, as so many people wish, chances are you’ll witness the deaths of everyone you loved, your wife, your siblings, maybe your own children. ‘Perpetual grief’ is the reward of old age. Examples from legend: Nestor outliving everyone he loved; Peleus mourning his son; if only Priam had died in his prime he wouldn’t have seen all his sons killed and his city destroyed. And Mithridates, and Croesus.

Then he turns to specific Roman examples: if only Marius had died after his triumph for defeating the Teutons instead of going on to humiliation and then tyranny; if only Pompey had died at the peak of his powers instead of being miserably murdered in Egypt.

Then the theme of beauty. Mothers wish their daughters to be beautiful and their sons handsome but beauty brings great risks and he cites Lucretia raped and Virginia murdered by her own father to keep her ‘honour’. Then handsome young men generally go to the bad, become promiscuous, sleep around, and then risk falling foul of jealous husbands. Even if he stays pure and virginal, chances are he’ll fall foul of some middle-aged woman’s lust, just look at Hippolytus and Phaedra.

Or take the case of Gaius Silius, consul designate, who Claudius’s third wife, Messalina was so obsessed with she insisted they have a public wedding, even though she was already married to Claudius, precursor to a coup. With the inevitable result that when Claudius found out he sent the Praetorian Guard to execute both Silius and Messalina. (The story is told in Tacitus’s Annals 11.12 and 26.)

Juvenal concludes the poem by answering the question he asked at the start of it, what should we pray to the gods for? Answer: nothing. Leave it to them to guide our destinies without our intervention. The gods give us what we need, not what we want. Humans are led by irrational impulses and blind desires so it follows that most of our prayers are as irrational as our desires. But if you must insist on making silly sacrifices and praying for something, let your requirements be basic and practical. Ask for:

a sound mind in a sound body, a valiant heart
Without fear of death, that reckons longevity
The least among Nature’s gifts, that’s strong to endure
All kinds of toil, that’s untainted by lust and anger…
…There’s one
Path and one path only to a life of peace – through virtue.
Fortune has no divinity, could we but see it; it’s we,
We ourselves, who make her a goddess, and set her in the heavens.

So that’s the context of another of Juvenal’s most famous quotes or tags, mens sana in corpore sano – it comes at the end of an enormous long list of the futilities of seeking long life or wealth or power or glory. It is the first and central part of Juvenal’s stripped-down, bare minimum rules for living.

Satire 11: Invitation to dinner at Juvenal’s modest place in the country (208 lines)

This starts out as a diatribe against spendthrifts, against the young heirs who take out big loans and blow it all on luxurious foods. If you’re going to host a dinner, make sure you can afford it.

This leads into an actual dinner party invitation Juvenal is giving to his friend Persicus. He lists the menu and assures him it’s all ‘home-grown produce’: a plump tender kid ‘from my farmstead at Tivoli’; mountain asparagus; eggs still warm from the nest; chicken; grapes, baskets of Syrian pears and Italian bergamots, and apples.

[This mention of the farmstead is what makes Green and other commentators deduce that Juvenal had, by this point, ceased to be the impoverished and consequently very angry satirist of the earlier works, has somehow acquired a ‘competence’ and so his tone is more mellow.]

Juvenal says even this relatively modest menu would have appeared luxury in the good old republican days, and lists various high-minded old Roman heroes (Fabius, Cato, Scaurus, Fabricius) and the tough old Roman legionaries they led, uncorrupted by luxury and money, who ate their porridge off earthenware bowls. Those were the days.

The gods were closer back then, their images made of humble baked clay, not gold, and so they warned us e.g. of the approaching Gauls.

How changed is contemporary Rome whose aristocrats demand obscene levels of luxury in food and ornamentation. Nothing like that for Persicus when he comes round, there won’t be a pupil of Trypherus’s famous school of cuisine where students are taught the correct way to carve antelope, gazelle and flamingo!

His slaves, likewise, are honest lads dressed practically for warmth, a shepherd’s son and a ploughman’s son, not smooth imported Asiatics who can’t speak Latin and prance around in the baths flaunting their ‘oversized members’.

[Green notes that the Roman historian Livy dates the introduction of foreign luxuries to the defeat of the Asiatic Gauls in 187 BC. Whereas Sallust thought the introduction of corrupt luxury dated from Sulla’s campaign in Asia Minor in the 80s BC. Whatever the precise date, the point is the author always thinks things started to go to hell a few generations before their own time.]

And don’t expect any fancy entertainment like the Spanish dancers who wiggle their bums to arouse the flagging passions of middle-aged couples, no such obscene entertainment in his modest home, no, instead he’ll have a recitation of Homer or Virgil.

Like Horace, Juvenal tells his guest to relax. Discussion of business is banned. He won’t be allowed to confide his suspicions of his wife who stays out till all hours, or the ingratitude of friends. ‘Just forget all your troubles the minute you cross my threshold.’

Let all Rome (the Colosseum seated 300,000 spectators) go to the Megalesian Games (4 to 10 April) and cheer the Blues and the greens (chariot racing teams) and sweat all day in an uncomfortable toga. Juvenal prefers to let his ‘wrinkled old skin’ soak up the mild spring sunshine at his nice place in the country.

Satire 12: A storm at sea (130 lines)

The first 20 or so lines describe to a friend a series of sacrifices Juvenal is going to make, and the even bigger ones he wishes he had the money to make. Why? To celebrate the safe arrival in harbour of a dear friend of his, Catullus (not the famous poet, who died 170 years earlier, in 54 BC).

Juvenal gives a vivid description of a storm at sea, ending with the sailors seeing ‘that lofty peak so dear to Ascanius’ in diction which evokes Virgil’s Aeneid with no irony or mocking. And he’s just as sincere when he returns to describing how he’ll burnish his household gods, make oblations to Jupiter, burn incense and so on.

Up to this point this combination of devout piety and picturesque description are very much not the viciously angry Juvenal of the Roman streets that we are used to. But in the final 30 or so lines Mr Angry reappears a bit, to make the distinction between his genuine, devout sacrifices and those of legacy hunters and it turns into a stock diatribe against this class of parasites who seek out the wealthy but childless and do anything, including making extravagant sacrifices for them when they’re ill, in the hope of being included in their wills. May all their tricks and scams work but ‘May they love no man and be loved by none.’

[Incidentally, this last section has a passage about elephants, saying the legacy-hunters would sacrifice elephants if they could but none live naturally in Italy except for those of the emperor’s personal herd, near modern Anzio. Elephants are mentioned in quite a few Juvenal poems. At some level they fascinated him, maybe because they’re the biggest animal and so attracted a poet interested in extremity and exaggeration.]

Book 5

Satire 13: The futility of revenge, the pangs of a guilty conscience (249 lines)

On putting up with life’s vicissitudes. Juvenal reproaches someone called Calvinus for making a big fuss and going to court about a loan not being repaid. Doesn’t he realise the age he’s living in? Honour long since departed. It’s not like it was back in the good old days, in the Golden Age when there were only a handful of gods who dined modestly, back in those days youth respected the elderly, everyone was upstanding and dishonesty was vanishingly rare. The decent god-fearing man is a freak like the sky raining stones or a river issuing in milk.

While guilty people, whether they believe in the gods or not, tell themselves they’ll be OK, the gods won’t get round to punishing them yet and so on. In fact many make a histrionic appeal to the gods to vouchsafe their honesty, banking on ‘brazen audacity’.

Juvenal mentions the three philosophies current in his day, Cynicism, Stoicism and Epicureanism, only to dismiss them all. Instead he mocks Calvinus for making such a fuss about such a common, everyday bit of dishonesty and goes into a list of far worse crimes starting with the temple robbers who steal devoted statues or plate and melt them down or sell them off. Think of arsonists or poisoners or parricides. If you want to find the truth about human nature you should visit a courtroom.

Many unusual things are taken for granted in the appropriate context, for example big breasted women in Upper Egypt or blonde, blue-eyed men in Germany, or pygmies in Africa. Well, so does this kind of embezzlement or fraud feel completely at home in its natural setting, Rome. What’s the point of pursuing his legal vendetta. Rise above it.

Benign
Philosophy, by degrees, peels away our follies and most
Of our vices, gives us a grounding in what’s right or wrong.

[This is surprisingly reflective and thoughtful of Juvenal, supporting the thesis that the poems are in chronological order and the later ones reflect middle-age and having come into some property and generally stopped being so vitriolically angry at the world.]

He goes on to say that paying off scores is for the small-minded. Anyway, people who break laws and commit crimes are often punished most of all in their own minds, by their own guilt. ‘The mind is its best own torturer.’ He gives examples of people who suffered the pangs of conscience but what’s striking is:

  1. how didactic he’s become; instead of depicting bad behaviour with satirical glee, now he’s lecturing the reader on good behaviour
  2. how much he sounds at moments like a Christian, preaching about the power of conscience; when he says that he who meditates a crime is as guilty as he who commits one, he sounds like Christ (‘I tell you that everyone who gazes at a woman to lust after her has committed adultery with her already in his heart.’ Matthew 5. verses 27 to 28)

The guilty man is wracked with conscience, can’t eat or drink or sleep. In fact it turns into a vivid proto-Christian depiction of the miseries of Guilt, interpreting the weather as signs from God, the slightest setback as punishment, the slightest physical ailment as payback.

Satire 14: The disastrous impact of bad parenting (331 lines)

Again this satire has a direct addressee, Fuscinus. Juvenal takes the theme that parents hugely influence their children, generally for the worse. ‘Bad examples are catching.’ By the time he’s seven a boy’s character is fixed for life. He gives examples of terrible parents starting with ‘Rutilus’ who is a sadistic brute to his slaves.

[As with so much Roman literature, the examples of brutality to slaves tend to eclipse all the subtler argumentation: here, Rutilus is described as ordering a slave to be branded with a red-hot iron for stealing a couple of towels.]

Or the girl who’s brought up into a life of adultery and sexual intrigues by her mother. We are all corrupted by examples of vice in the home. This is a spur to good behaviour – that our bad behaviour is quickly copied by our children.

All this turns into a surprisingly preachy lists of dos and don’ts and turns into almost a harangue of bad parents, telling them to set better examples.

For some reason this leads into a short passage about the Jews who Juvenal sees as handing on ridiculously restrictive practices, circumcision and avoiding certain foods, along with taking every seventh day off for idleness, to their children. So Judaism is taken as an example of parents handing down bad practices to their children in an endless succession.

Then a passage attacking misers, characterising them especially by their recycling scraps of leftover food at revolting meals. And insatiable greed for more land, the kind of men who won’t rest till they’ve bought up an estate as the entire area cultivated by the first Romans. Compare and contrast with pensioned off Roman legionaries who are lucky to receive 2 acres of land to support themselves and their families.

then he invokes the old mountain peasants and the wisdom of living simply and plainly on what a small parcel of land provides. [This strikes me as straight down the line, entry level, the good old days of the Golden Age clichés, such as centuries of Roman writers had been peddling.]

The logical corollary of praising the simple lives and virtues of his farming forefathers, is dislike and contempt for the vices of luxury which are attributed to foreigners, especially from the exotic East.

[I always thought Edward Said, in his lengthy diatribe against ‘Orientalism’, should have started not in the 18th century, but 2,000 years earlier, with the ancient Greeks writing pejoratively about oriental despotism (with Persia in mind), a discursive tradition which was handed on to the Romans who also associated decadence and luxury with the East (Cleopatra of Egypt, Mithridates of Pontus and so on), centuries of stereotyping and anathematising the East and the Oriental to which Juvenal adds his own contribution and which was merely revived, like so much other ancient learning, in the Europe of early modernity – xenophobic clichés and stereotypes which were dusted off and reapplied to the Ottoman Empire.]

Juvenal then gives an interesting portrait of the ambitious father of a modern youth, recommending all the ways he can get on and rise in the world, studying to become a lawyer, or aiming for a career in the army, or becoming a merchant. Juvenal reprimands this made-up figure, telling him to lay off inculcating greed and deceit quite so early; his kids will learn it all by themselves in good time. ‘But’, claims the made-up father, ‘I never taught my son his criminal ways!’ Yes, replies Juvenal, but you taught him the principles of greed at an early age, and all the rest follows. You set the spark, now watch the forest fire rage out of control.

And you’ll have created a peril for your own life. For such a greedy offspring will grow impatient to see his parent snuff it so he can inherit his patrimony.

In the final passage he compares the life of a merchant with that of a tightrope walker at the circus and says watching greedy merchants trying to juggle their many deals is far more entertaining. He mocks harbours packed with huge merchant ships, prepared to go to the ends of the earth and beyond to make a profit.

Juvenal goes so far as to say these far-trading merchants are mad, as mad as mad Ajax at Troy, mad to risk his life and fortune and for what? Little silver coins printed with someone else’s head. One minute he’s at the prow of his mighty ship, laden with precious cargo; next moment it’s sunk in a storm and he’s clinging to the wreckage. Only a madman would commit his life and wealth to capricious Fortune and then…he’s a beggar in the streets, waving an artist’s impression of the storm which ruined him at passersby. Right at the end he cites Diogenes the Cynic, who abandoned all earthly possessions in order to have a calm mind. Compared to the merchant who risks losing everything and even drowning at sea:

The tub of the naked Cynic
Diogenes never caught fire: if it broke, he could pick up another
The following day – or put some lead clamps in an old one.
Alexander perceived, on seeing the tub and its famous
Occupant, how much happier was the man who desired nothing
Than he whose ambitions encompassed the world, who would yet
Suffer perils as great as all his present achievements.

And he concludes with another straight, unironic recommendation of the bare minimum required by philosophers and the old Roman tradition, in phrasing very similar to the barebones advice at the end of satire 10.

If anyone asks me
Where we’re to draw the line, how much is sufficient, I’d say:
Enough to meet the requirements of cold and thirst and hunger
As much as Epicurus derived from that little garden,
Or Socrates, earlier still, possessed in his frugal home.

Satire 15: In praise of kindness (174 lines)

Addressed to Volusius of whom we know nothing. The poem opens by reviewing the fantastical beliefs of the Egyptians in their animal gods, then takes a comic view of Odysseus’s telling of his adventures at the court of King Alcinous whose guests, if they had any sense, would dismiss such a pack of lies.

The point of this introduction is to contrast fantastical myths and legends with what Juvenal now intends to tell us about which is a real-life atrocity which happened in the recent past. In fact, Peter Green in a note tells us it took place in 127AD. Juvenal goes on to describe the rancorous feud which broke out between the neighbouring towns of Ombi and Tentyra (real neighbouring towns in ancient Egypt).

the fighting becomes savage, involving thousands. One of the leading Ombites stumbled, fell and was immediately seized by the Tentyrans who tore him to pieces and ate every morsel. This gives rise to a digression about cannibalism practiced by the Spanish in the besieged town of Calagurris who were reduced by starvation to eating human flesh. Then onto the Tauri in Crimea who worshipped Artemis by making human sacrifices of travellers who fell into their hands.

But the Tauri don’t actually eat the victims they kill and the Spaniards had the excuse of starvation. nothing excused the horror of contemporary men tearing each other to pieces and eating each other’s raw bodies. It triggers an outburst of virulent xenophobia.

And then, to our complete surprise, Juvenal turns mushy. Describing these horrors turn out to have been preparation for a hymn to tenderness and kindness.

When nature
Gave teas to mankind, she proclaimed that tenderness was endemic
In the human heart: of all our impulses, this
Is the highest and best.

We weep at funerals of children, or to see adolescents in court cases. ‘What good man…thinks any human ills outside his concern?’

It’s this
That sets us apart from the dumb brutes, it’s why we alone
Have a soul that’s worthy of reverence, why we’re imbued
With a divine potential, the skill to acquire and practice
All manner of arts…

Who are you, O wise Stoic teacher, and what have you done with the angry, fire-breathing Juvenal?

When the world was still new, our common Creator granted
The breath of life alone, but on us he further bestowed
Sovereign reason, the impulse to aid one another…

Juvenal identifies this God-given sovereign reason with everything noble and altruistic in man, proof of his difference from the animals and that he has a soul. This makes him a Stoic, doesn’t it?

Then, right at the end, the poem returns to the disgusting story of the Egyptian torn apart and eaten raw, and laments that man, blessed with all these gifts, creates swords and spears, man alone of the animals, goes out of his way to kill and massacre his own kind.

Satire 16: The military life (60 lines; incomplete)

The final satire in the series is incomplete. It is addressed to one Gallius, about whom nothing is known. Were all Juvenal’s addressees fictional or real people? No-one knows.

the poem obviously set out to ironically praise the great advantages of the soldier’s life. First is that you can beat up anyone you like and either be too intimidated to take legal action against them or, if you do, you’ll end up in a military court where the judge and jury will find for the soldier and you’ll end up being beaten up a second time.

Next advantage is that, whereas most people caught up in law suits have to endure endless delays and adjournments, a soldier will get his case seen straightaway. Plus, if you earn money as a soldier it is exempt from control by your father (which other earnings aren’t). The reverse; doddering old fathers court their sons to get a cut of their pay…

Here the poem simply breaks off. Scholars speculate that Juvenal died before he completed it. or maybe the emperor Hadrian censored this mocking of the Roman army. But Green sides with the Juvenal expert, Gilbert Highet, who thinks the earliest version of the manuscript, from which all surviving manuscript copies derive, early on lost its final few pages.

Common tropes

1. Juvenal’s position really is based on a profound belief that the olden days were best, the Golden Age of Saturn, when Rome’s ancestors lived in mud huts and farmed small allotments, and lived frugally, and taught honour and respect to their sons and daughters.

Mankind was on the decline while Homer
Still lived; and today the earth breeds a race of degenerate
Weaklings, who stir high heaven to laughter and loathing.
(Satire 15)

2. The logical corollary of thinking his primitive ancestors knew best is Juvenal’s virulent xenophobia, blaming Rome’s decline into luxury and decadence on the corrupting wealth and example of foreigners, especially the tyrannies of the East (note p.238).

3. As usual, I am left reeling by the casual way he describes the brutal, savage, sadistic treatment meted out to Roman slaves. Branded with a red-hot iron for stealing a few towels, crucified for speaking out of turn, horse-whipped for trivial mistakes serving dinner. What a brutal, cruel, inhumane society. ‘Cato, in his Res Rustica, recommends the dumping of worn-out horses’ harnesses and worn-out slaves in the same breath,’ (p.276)

Thoughts

Very simply, Juvenal is the Lionel Messi of satirists, producing high-octane, intense, bitterly angry and often very funny masterpieces of the genre.

Second thought is that Augustus had Ovid exiled, supposedly for the amorality of his ‘Art of Love’ which is a guide for pick-up artists. How things had changed a hundred years later when Juvenal not only mentions the places to hang out if you want to pick up women (or boys) but goes way, way beyond Ovid in his depiction of a pungently promiscuous society with, apparently, no consequences from the powers that be.

Summary

Final thought is that this is another brilliant volume from Peter Green, containing not just a zingy, stylish translation from the Latin but also long and fascinating introduction, and then encyclopedic notes which are full of fascinating titbits of information, opinion and insight. Of course most editions of ancient texts have notes, but Green’s are distinguished by their length and engaging chattiness. Here’s a random selection of brief but typical nuggets:

  • Women swore by Juno. (page 83)
  • After the sack of Jerusalem by Titus in 70 AD many Jews made their way to Rome and eked out a living as fortune tellers or beggars. (99)
  • No wheeled traffic was allowed in Rome for ten hours after dawn, so the city was incredibly noisy all through the night as farmers and merchants drove their carts through the narrow cobbled streets. (102)
  • Any of the (six) vestal virgin caught having sex was buried alive. (111)
  • Nine days after a funeral, offerings of eggs, salt and lentils were left on the grave of the deceased. (125)
  • It is hard to realise the influence which the Roman ballet (or pantomimus) exerted on Roman citizens. It was not only immensely popular but formed a centre for violent factions like those of the chariot races and sometimes led to riots and bloodshed. (153)
  • The secret rites of the Bona Dea were held at the home of one of the consuls. It was attended by women only. The house owner and all male slaves had to leave the premises. Even statues or images of men were covered up to protect the secret ceremonies. (156)
  • Eclipses of the moon were said to be caused by witchcraft. Beating pots and pans was said to put the witches off their wicked spells. (158)
  • A lawyer who won a case could advertise the fact by hanging palm branches outside his door.
  • People who survived a shipwreck often commissioned a painting of the event either to hang in a temple as an offering or to display to passersby in the street, if they were begging. (246)
  • the emperor kept a herd of elephants on a ranch at Laurentum, near Ardea. (248)

Among his many fascinating comments, one theme stood out for me:

Useless natural history

It’s odd that 2,000 years of writers or scholars in the humanities continue to quote, praise or base their writings on the literature or philosophy of the ancient world, when the ancients’ knowledge of the natural world, the world around them, its geology, and geography, and weather, and all the life forms we share the planet with, was fantastically ignorant.

As Green points out in a note, it is staggering that all the ancient authors whose writings have survived held ludicrous and absurd beliefs about animals and nature which you’d have thought the slightest actual observation by any rational adult would have disproved in a moment (note, page 238).

No, elephants do not get rid of their over-heavy tusks by thrusting them in the ground (satire 11). No, sparrows are not more highly sexed than other birds (satire 9). No, cranes flying south do not engage in pitched battles with pygmies in Ethiopia (satire 13). No, stags do not live to over 900 years old (satire 14).

‘A collector of natural history fallacies would do quite well out of Juvenal’ (note, page 291).

It is testament, maybe, to the way their culture preferred book learning to even the slightest amount of actual observation. And on a par with their credulous belief in no end of signs, omens and portents. Not only are these reported in all the histories as preceding momentous occasions but most official ceremonies in Rome, including whether to do battle or not, depended on the reading of the weather or flight of birds or entrails of sacrificed animals. It was an astonishingly credulous culture.

Only with Francis Bacon in the 1600s do we have an author who bravely declares that we ought to throw away most ancient ‘learning’ and make our own scientific observations about the phenomena around us. Such a long, long time it took for genuinely rational scientific method to slowly extract itself from deadening layers of absurd and nonsensical ‘learning’.


Credit

Sixteen Satires by Juvenal, translated by Peter Green, was published by Penguin Classics in 1967, then reprinted with revisions in 1973. Page references are to the 1982 paperback edition.

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The Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus – 2

Introduction

In the first of these two reviews of Tacitus’s Annals I briefly explained the background to the Annals and the development of ‘history’ as a genre up to Tacitus’s time, then went on to summarise Tacitus’s account of the reign of Tiberius, 14 to 37 AD.

Frustratingly, the manuscript we have of the Annals breaks off at the death of Tiberius and omits the four-year rule of Gaius (Caligula) from 37 to 41 AD, and the first six years of Gaius’s successor and uncle, Claudius i.e. from 41 to 47. Gaius’s reign is colourfully depicted in Suetonius’s Life of Caligula but Tacitus is invaluable because he embeds the scandal which Suetonius focuses on into a much more sober, year-by-year account of the humdrum legal and administrative acts of each emperor. They complement each other perfectly, which makes it all the more vexing that there’s such a big lacuna for the vital years of these key emperors.

To summarise the missing early part of Claudius, which we know from other sources: In 38 or early 39 AD, Claudius had married a third wife, Valeria Messalina, who was his first cousin once removed. Soon afterwards she gave birth to a daughter, Claudia Octavia. A son, initially named Tiberius Claudius Germanicus, and later known as Britannicus, was born just after Claudius’s accession in 41.

The translator of the Penguin edition of the Annals, Michael Grant, divides his text into two big parts, separated by this huge gap in the original text. Within each part he groups clumps of annals, or individual years, into long ‘chapters’, and gives these informative, dramatic titles. Grant’s divisions over-write Tacitus’s division of his work into 16 books and specific years. Grant’s chapters are as follows. (My previous review summarised part one of Grant’s text. This review addresses part two.)

Part two: Claudius and Nero

  1. The fall of Messalina (book 11)
  2. The Mother of Nero (book 12)
  3. The fall of Agrippina (book 13 to book 14 section 13)
  4. Nero and his helpers (book 14 sections 14 to 65)
  5. Eastern settlement (book 14 sections 1 to 32)
  6. The burning of Rome (book 15, sections 32 to 47)
  7. The plot (book 15, sections 48 to 74)
  8. Innocent victims (book 16)

As I described in my previous post, on a careful rereading of the text I think it would have been better to have divided the text up by year rather than chapter, as Grant does. Starting a new section/chapter for each new year would reflect Tacitus’s intention, of producing a year-by-year ‘chronological sequence of events’, in Tacitus’s own words (p.269).

The annalistic approach is very formulaic: the account of each year starts with the announcement of who were the two consuls for that year (still, despite decades of imperial rule, very important figures, not least as the Romans’ main way of dating events). Then each year ends with a short list of notable Romans who died during that year. In between the two, Tacitus lists key events of that year in foreign policy and military campaigns, its notable laws and prosecutions, fires, food shortages and so on. That is the basic annalistic scaffold on which Tacitus then hangs his longer, more flowing descriptions of the activities of the emperors and royal family, along with (generally scathing) comments on their characters.

There is another, distinct strand to Tacitus’s work, which is his interest in foreign affairs i.e. the management of the Roman provinces (the appointment of new governors, the impeachment of existing governors for corruption). This covers the numerous tribal rebellions and wars on the borders, be they on the Rhine with the Germans, in the Middle East against the Parthians, or elsewhere. Tacitus devotes a lot of space to these, giving detailed accounts of diplomatic manoeuvrings, envoys to Rome etc, as well as vivid accounts of military campaigns and battles. Notable is the section about Britain under Claudius, including Caractacus’s noble plea for mercy when he was led in triumph through Rome (pages 264 to 269). But this whole area is so complex that (with the exception of Boudicca’s revolt) I’ve omitted it from my summary.

Claudius (reigned 41 to 54)

Historians nowadays consider Claudius to have been a ‘painstaking and bold administrator and reformer’ but, in Tacitus’s hands, the most memorable aspects of his reign are the portraits of his scheming and amoral third and fourth wives, Messalina and Agrippina.

(Just a reminder: these chapter titles are not in Tacitus, they are Michael Grant’s additions. And the years I give are also not in the text. The system of dating by BC or AD wasn’t invented until 500 years later, and wasn’t widely adopted till the Middle Ages. See M.I. Finley’s essay on the subject.)

In the summary that follows, the chapter titles in Heading 2 are Michael Grant’s. Sitting under them, in heading 3, are the years which Tacitus covers. I’ve made these. They are not clearly indicated in Grant’s text, or the original Tacitus. (Remember, Tacitus didn’t use the BC/AD system, he dated every year by the two consuls who served during it; whereas I have just used the year as per our Christian calendar). Where the year is notable for something important, such as the murder of Claudius or the revolt of Boudicca, I’ve added these into my year headings.

Chapter 9 The Fall of Messalina

47 AD

The big gap in Tacitus’s text resumes in 47 AD, in the middle of hectic events, as Claudius’s third wife, Messalina, takes aim at a rival, Poppaea Sabina.

Chronologers reckoned it was the 800th year since the founding of Rome (traditionally 753 BC) and so Claudius held Secular Games. Prominent in them were Claudius’s son, Britannicus, who was six years old (b.41) and Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, who was 10 (b.37) who would soon be adopted as Claudius’s son and heir.

(Nero’s mother was Agrippina the Younger, who was herself the daughter of Germanicus and Agrippina the Elder. So Nero was popular with the mob for being the only surviving male descendant – the grandson – of the hugely popular Germanicus. Agrippina was also one of three sisters to Gaius, who had ruled as the emperor Caligula from 37 till he was assassinated in 41. Gaius was said to have had incestuous relations with all three of his sisters. Agrippina managed to survive Gaius’s short reign and lived on into Claudius’s, when she became one of the many targets of Claudius’s malevolent third wife, Messalina. However, Agrippina not only survived Messalina but, after the latter’s downfall and execution, replaced her as Claudius’s fourth and final wife.)

At about this time Messalina became infatuated with the best-looking man in Rome, Gaius Silius. She forced him to divorce his wife, Julia Silana, and host her at not particularly concealed assignations. They carried on their affair openly while the obtuse Claudius pursued his responsibilities as Censor.

Tacitus portrays Claudius as responsible and sensible: he carries out the census, he commands the building of a new aqueduct, he suggests three new letters are added to the Roman alphabet, he proposes to the senate the creation of a Board to support the art of soothsaying. In foreign policy Claudius forbade further aggression against the Germans and ordered Roman troops – who were building camps in recently occupied German territory – back across to the west bank of the Rhine.

48 AD

Claudius makes his famous intervention in a debate in the senate about whether Gauls, by now Roman citizens for three or four generations, should be allowed to run for office in Rome. Claudius argued strongly that they should, pointing out how Rome’s strength derived from its policy of assimilating neighbouring towns and tribe and then entire regions, turning enemies into loyal citizens. (This speech is regularly cited by historians as exemplifying the core secret of Rome’s success, which was assimilating territories and peoples into the empire.)

Claudius promoted senators of long standing to patrician rank as many patrician families had died out. He concluded his census which showed a citizen body of 5,984,072 (which presumably included all men, women and children; neither Tacitus nor Grant clarify whether this included slaves or not).

Meanwhile, Messalina pursued her affair, and while Claudius was busy at Ostia, she openly and bigamously married Silius. It might seem incredible that a consul designate and the emperor’s wife should marry:

But I am not inventing marvels. What I have told, and shall tell, is the truth. Older men heard and recorded it. (p.246)

According to Grant the reign of Claudius saw a great increase in the power of the secretaries of state, often ex-slaves, and three of these now informed Claudius, not only that his wife had bigamously remarried but had, in legal terms, divorced him – and that this opened the way for her new husband, Silius, to seize power.

The commander of ‘the Guard’ was summoned, confirmed the story and said Claudius must move fast to retain their loyalty. Claudius was panicking thinking this was a real coup attempt. Command was taken by Narcissus, ex-slave and secretary general. He it was who lined up a series of witnesses to testify to Messalina’s promiscuity, many affairs, degenerate behaviour, and now this bigamous marriage. Tacitus describes a bloodbath of officials who had helped or slept with Messalina and then how, at dinner that evening Claudius began to soften against his (absent) wife and so Narcissus moved quickly, instructing another slave to go to her house where he found her wretched, weeping on the ground beside her mother, and quickly run her through with a sword. The senate ordered all statues and public memorials to her name to be removed. Claudius never referred to her again.

This two or three pages of breathless narrative are rightly considered among Tacitus’s greatest passages, by which scholars mean it has the immediacy, pace and bloody inevitability of a thriller.

Chapter 10 The Mother of Nero (Agrippina)

Central to Tacitus’s critique is that Claudius was in thrall to the advice of his secretaries who were all freedmen, namely Narcissus who took the lead in getting rid of Messalina. Now they all proposed to Claudius various candidates for his next wife. But Agrippina took advantage of being Claudius’s niece and so often being in his company, plus being allowed to give him caresses and kisses. She seduced him and won the competition. Weak and easily led, Claudius asked the senate to pass a law allowing an uncle to marry his niece (Claudius was brother of the long-dead Germanicus, whose daughter Agrippina was.)

Tacitus describes how Lucius Vitellius worked his way into Agrippina’s good books by a) managing to derail the marriage of Claudius’s daughter, Octavia, to Lucius Junius Silanus Torquatus by falsely accusing the latter and having him dismissed – thus making Octavia available to be engaged to Agrippina’s son; and b) making a big speech in the senate asking for the law to be changed to allow uncles to marry nieces and for the senate to give Agrippina to Claudius as a kind of national gift.

Once in post Agrippina sought power in every way she could. This included recalling Lucius Annaeus Seneca, from exile. He had been banished by Claudius for adultery with Germanicus’s daughter, Julia Livilla. Now Agrippa recalled him (earning his gratitude) and made him tutor to her son. She enforced the suicide of one of her rivals, Lollia Paulina. Another lady whom the emperor casually praised, Calpurnia, was struck down.

Claudius decided to extend the boundaries of Rome, leading Tacitus into an interesting digression about the various sets of boundary markers (p.262).

50 AD

Responding to pressure from Agrippina’s agents Claudius adopted her son, Lucius Domitius, as his own. It was at this moment that the boy, previously a member of the Ahenobarbus clan, was awarded a name which ran in the Claudian clan, ‘Nero’, marking his entry into the prestigious (haughty and arrogant) gens Claudii. At the same time Agrippina was given the honorific ‘Augusta’.

In this year Tacitus gives detailed description of uprisings and wars in Britain.

51 AD

On the basis of a supposedly trivial incident – when Britannicus and Nero met and Nero greeted the other by his name but Britannicus greeted Nero as ‘Domitius’ – Agrippina claimed this was a alight against the decision of the senate and people of Rome and persuaded Claudius to banish or execute all Britannicus’s tutors. His guards and slaves loyal to him were dismissed. Some of the Guard commanders were loyal to Britannicus so they were replaced by Sextus Afranius Burrus, who knew who his boss was: Agrippina.

52 AD

Senators who couldn’t comply with the House’s financial requirements were expelled. Lucius Arruntius Furius Scribonianus was exiled for enquiring from astrologers about the emperor’s death. Claudius suggested a law that any woman marrying a slave should herself be enslaved. A tunnel was built linking the Fucine lake and the river Liris. Claudius held naval games on the lake to celebrate. Rebellion broke out in Judaea.

53 AD

Nero, now aged 16, married the emperor’s daughter, Claudia Octavia, born in 40 and so aged 12 or 13. This was arranged by Agrippina to solidify Nero’s position as the heir apparent. Agrippina continued her power-hungry and aggressive behaviour. She coveted the gardens of Titus Statilius Taurus and so got his deputy as governor of Africa to accuse and discredit him in the senate. Titus committed suicide. Agrippina got his gardens.

Claudius handed over sweeping powers to the order of knights, the issue at the heart of the civil war between Marius and Sulla back in the 80s BC. He exempted the island of Cos from taxation. The city of Byzantium pleaded for a remission of their taxes and this was granted.

54 AD – Murder of Claudius

Bad omens. Bees landed on the Capitol. Deformed animals were born. Agrippina decided to dispose of Domitia Lepida, her cousin once removed and Nero’s aunt, mother to Claudius’s previous wife, Messalina. She manoeuvred Claudius into having her executed (p.282).

Britannicus was now approaching his 14th birthday, traditionally the age when a Roman aristocrat began to play a part in public life. Agrippina began to worry that Claudius was beginning to regret adopting Nero and coming round to preferring his own son as successor so she moved quickly to poison her husband. She had poison supplied by the arch-poisoner, Locusta, and administered by the emperor’s taster, Halotus. She blocked anyone coming to see the body, giving out a story that the emperor was alive but ill, while she organised the smooth accession of Nero.

On 13 October 54 the palace doors were opened, and Nero appeared accompanied by a battalion of the palace guard and their commander, Sextus Afranius Burrus (who owed his position to Agrippina). Nero was carried in a litter to the Guards’ camp where he was acclaimed emperor, a decision quickly ratified by the senate and then the provinces.

Chapter 11 The Fall of Agrippina

The final section of the Annals is devoted to the reign of Nero. It is quite substantial (70 pages in the Penguin translation). Grant divides it into five chapters:

  1. Nero and his helpers (book 14 sections 14 to 65)
  2. Eastern settlement (book 14 sections 1 to 32)
  3. The burning of Rome (book 15, sections 32 to 47)
  4. The plot (book 15, sections 48 to 74)
  5. Innocent victims (book 16)

The Nero chapters are notable for the kind of melodramatic set-pieces which Tacitus excelled at, in this case describing the Great Fire of Rome or Agrippina’s murder. At moments like this you can very much see how, for the ancients, no amount of dedication to the ‘historical truth’ or the moralising urge to judge and assess, can trump the more basic aim of inflaming awe and wonder with dramatic effects.

Nero’s reign opened with a flurry of murders. Agrippina got agents to poison governor of Asia Marcus Junius Silanus because he was brother to Lucius Junius Silanus Torquatus, whose engagement with Octavia she had broken and forced to commit suicide, and because Marcus was a descendant of Augustus. Then she secured the imprisonment and suicide of Narcissus, freedman and secretary to Claudius, the central figure in the downfall of Messalina.

Tactitus notes the restraining effect of two key figures, the commander of the Guard Sextus Afranius Burrus, and Nero’s tutor Lucius Annaeus Sextus. Burrus was all soldierly efficiency and seriousness of character; Agrippina had appointed Seneca Nero’s tutor in which role he taught the teenager Stoic principles and public speaking.

It was Seneca who wrote the funeral oration for Claudius which Nero delivered. Nero went on to insist the senate would reassert its ancient rights and decisions. Nero’s first acts were all leniency and forgiveness.

55 AD – Murder of Britannicus

Quite quickly Nero fell in love with a former slave girl, Acte, and became slowly alienated from the virtuous wife, Claudia Octavia, who Agrippina had engineered his marriage to. Agrippina was infuriated at Nero’s love for a common slave girl and tried to ban it. Division grew between mother and son. Nero next deposed the freedman Pallas, who had virtually run the empire for Claudius and been instrumental in Claudius choosing Agrippina as his fourth wife.

Tacitus gives a vivid almost farcical account of the florid events surrounding Nero’s decision to poison his rival, Claudius’s biological son, Britannicus (p.290). Britannicus was the last male heir of the Claudian clan whereas Nero was a Claudian only by adoption.

Realising her position was now seriously threatened, Agrippina made common cause with Nero’s spurned wife Octavia, and cast around for supporters. To isolate Agrippina, Nero withdrew her guard and expelled her from the imperial palace. Then her rival, Junia Silana, had a spy report to Nero that Agrippina was conspiring with one Rubellius Plautus to overthrow and replace him. Nero was terrified, but spared Plautus, for the time being. Tacitus tells us one of his sources claims Seneca restrained the emperor, and also from executing Burrus as being somehow implicated. The plot rebounded and Junia Silana was exiled, her accomplices executed.

56 AD

Echoing Suetonius, Tacitus claims Nero dressed up and went about the streets, from tavern to brothel, beating up passersby, stealing stuff from shops. The emperor’s example emboldened other criminals. ‘Rome at night came to resemble a conquered city.’ A senator who beat up Nero when he assaulted him, apologised when he realised his identity but was forced to commit suicide.

Nero egged on disputes among rival gangs of ballet dancers, encouraging them to degenerate into real gang fights. Tacitus devotes a page to a debate in the senate about whether misbehaving freed slaves should be re-enslaved.

57 AD

Tacitus takes the opportunity to differentiate his kind of history from mere almanacs. Talking of the completion of a huge amphitheatre in the Field of Mars, he says:

But that is material for official gazettes, whereas it has traditionally been judged fitting to Rome’s grandeur that its histories should contain only important events. (p.298)

An interesting indication of the way that history was conceived as a literary genre, with appropriate tone and subject matter; lofty subject matter; important events and imperial players.

A law was passed that provincial officials were banned from giving gladiator or animal shows. These a) cost provincials a fortune b) were used as cover by governors to hide their irregularities.

Another law decreed that if a man was murdered by a slave, not only all the slaves, but all the freed slaves in his household would be executed as punishment.

58 AD

The endless war between Rome and Parthia for possession of the kingdom of Armenia heated up.

A detailed account of how Nero was introduced by his fellow libertine, Otho, to his lover Poppaea, how she then seduced Nero and eclipsed Acte as his chief concubine. As a result Nero fell out with Otho, eventually consigning him to Lusitania as governor. (This Otho was to return and seize power in the Year of Four Emperors, 69 AD, following Nero’s death, events Tacitus describes in detail in his ‘Histories’.)

Various cities (Puteoli, Syracuse) petitioned Rome for favours. Persistent complaints about tax farmers led Nero to contemplate scrapping all indirect taxes. Rebellious tribes in Germany fought the Romans or each other.

59 AD – Murder of Agrippina

Tacitus puts Nero’s decision to finally eliminate his mother down to the taunts of his new lover Poppaea. Agrippina tried to counter this by appearing before Nero in lascivious clothes and seduced him to incest. Seneca commissioned Acte to re-enter his life and warm him that such sacrilege would alienate the Guards on whom his power rested. Interestingly, Tacitus openly states various versions of these stories attributed to other historians (whose works are now lost).

Tacitus openly states in several places that when the sources agree he won’t mention them; but where they disagree he will cite them and the disagreements and let the reader decide.

The death of Agrippina takes 6 pages to describe and is semi-farcical. After rejecting poison and the dagger, Nero settled on the madcap scheme of getting Agrippina onto a ship with a collapsible section which would fall on her. And this is what he did, inviting her to a long friendly banquet at Baiae, then seeing her off in a beautifully appointed ship whose ceiling, at a signal, caved in. This killed Agrippina’s attendant and when another cried out that she was the emperor’s mother, she was beaten to death by the crew, so Agrippina disguised herself. Then the galley slaves all went to one side of the ship in order to capsize it, but Agrippina managed to get free and swim to safety. This sounds like a fairy story.

Nero was waiting for news and was appalled to learn it hadn’t worked. So he called in his most senior advisers, Seneca and Burrus. Burrus declared the Guard would not touch a member of the imperial family and descendant of Germanicus. So they conceived a plot whereby Nero would drop a sword by the feet of the servant Agrippina had sent to tell Nero she had survived this terrible accident – and then claim he was an assassin sent by Agrippina.

This is as farcical and laughable as the collapsible boat gambit.

Nero promptly had a freedman, Anicetus, take soldiers and surround Agrippina’s house. Slaves fled. Anicetus, a naval captain and lieutenant then beat and stabbed Agrippina to death. Her body was quickly cremated with no ceremony.

Nero cringed in fear all night long until Burrus got colonels and captains of the Guard to come and congratulate him on escaping the conspiracy, at which he recovered his spirits. Nero then sent a long letter to be read out in the senate justifying his actions with a long list of Agrippina’s incriminating behaviour leading up to the supposed ‘conspiracy’. This was written by Seneca and reflected badly on him.

Many bad omens. And Nero was scared of the public response. But there was much thanksgiving for his safety and he returned to Rome amid cheering crowds as at a triumph.

Chapter 12 Nero and his Helpers

With Agrippina out of the way, Nero finally let rip. ‘There was no stopping him.’ (p.320) Tacitus describes Nero’s addiction to singing to his own accompaniment on the lyre, and chariot racing. He goes into less detail than Suetonius but is much more damning. When Nero institutes the ‘Youth Games’ and:

In the wood which Augustus had planted around his Naval Lake, places of assignation and taverns were built, and every stimulus to vice was displayed for sale…Promiscuity and degradation throve…Never was there so favourable a climate for debauchery as among this filthy crowd. (p.321)

Nero performed for the crowd on the lyre. He formed a corp of young knights known as the Augustiani, to maintain ‘a din of applause day and night’. He fancied himself a poet and sat around at dinner parties extemporising verses with cronies.

This method is apparent from Nero’s poems themselves which lack vigour, inspiration and homogeneity.

Tacitus, like Suetonius, had copies of these poems, all now lost to us. Meanwhile, back in the annalistic list of political events: the senate settled a riot which had broken out between citizens of Pompeii and Nuceria. Cyrene secured the expulsion of a governor. Two famous men died (Cnaeus Domitius Afer and Marcus Servilius Nonianus). It’s Tacitus’s listing of these kinds of humdrum events which provide the scaffolding or background hum of his year-by-year annals.

60 AD

Nero institutes 5-yearly games on the Greek model. Tacitus stages a set-piece debate between its critics who thought games should only be held in temporary buildings put up for the events, and that permanent buildings were an incitement to sloth and vice; and its proponents who thought they had to change with the times and permanent buildings saved money in the long run. (p.323).

It’s worth mentioning that ‘ballet dancers’, in all these ancient accounts, are closely associated with booing, hissing, throwing chairs and rioting. In a note, Grant explains that:

These were the highly popular, sophisticated dances of the pantomimi who danced traditional themes in dumb-show, with music and chorus. These performances were first seen in Rome under Augustus. (p.402)

Many bad omens and portents. A comet, which was universally taken as the sign of a change of emperors. Much talk that Nero’s successor would be Rubellius Plautus. Rumour spread that a bolt of lightning had hit and split a table at which Nero was sitting (!). Nero, with notable restraint, didn’t have Plautus killed, simply told him to move with his family to their estate in Asia. According to his Wikipedia article:

Plautus appears to have been a follower of Stoicism. According to Tacitus, Tigellinus wrote to Nero: ‘Plautus again, with his great wealth, does not so much as affect a love of repose, but he flaunts before us his imitations of the old Romans, and assumes the self-consciousness of the Stoics along with a philosophy, which makes men restless, and eager for a busy life.’ When he was exiled from Rome by Nero, Plautus was accompanied by the famous Stoic teacher Musonius Rufus. He was associated with a group of Stoics who criticized the perceived tyranny and autocratic rule of certain emperors, referred to today as the Stoic Opposition.

What interest me about this passage is the idea that Stoicism, as well as being a reputable philosophy, was also a fashionable pose and allowed its proponents to swank and pride themselves on maintaining the values of ‘the old Romans’. So I noticed when, later on, the corrupt head of the Guard, Gaius Ofonius Tigellinus, in calumniating Plautus, says:

Plautus is rich and does not pretend to like retirement. He parades an admiration of the ancient Romans but he has the arrogance of the Stoics, who breed sedition and intrigue. (p.339)

‘The arrogance of the Stoics’, eh?

More about the never-ending war in Armenia, prosecuted by Cnaeus Domitius Corbulo. The ancient town of Puteoli was given the status of a Roman settlement and named after Nero. Tacitus describes the challenge of keeping colonies of Roman soldiers consistently populated since many didn’t marry or have children, and many came from different regiments and were even different nationalities.

Nero sorts out a squabble about who’s elected praetor (15 men apply for 12 places). A knight called Vibius Secundus was convicted for extortion when governor of Mauretania and expelled from Italy.

61 AD – Boudicca’s revolt

Disaster in Britain. The ambitious new governor, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, appointed in 58, continued his predecessor’s policy of aggressively subduing the tribes of modern Wales, and was successful for his first two years in the post. Tacitus gives a vivid description of his amphibious assault on the island of Mona (modern-day Anglesey), its shores lined with the enemy, shrieking women and spooky druids. The Romans conquer the island and chop down the groves sacred to the Druids, who conducted human sacrifices there.

But while he was Paullinus was subduing Anglesey rebellion broke out on the other side of the province. Since this is a legendary part of our history it’s worth citing at length:

Prasutagus, king of the Icenii, after a life of long and renowned prosperity, had made the emperor co-heir with his two daughters. Prasutagus hoped by this submissiveness to preserve his kingdom and household from attack. But it turned out otherwise. Kingdom and household alike were plundered like prizes of war, the one by Roman officers, the other by Roman slaves. As a start his widow, Boudicca, was flogged and their two daughters raped. The Icenian chiefs were deprived of their hereditary estates as if the Romans had been given the entire country. The king’s own relatives were treated like slaves.

The huge temple to the god Claudius could be seen from everywhere, symbolising their oppression, and its priests used their power to bleed households dry with taxes and levies. The greed of the Roman agent, Catus Decianus, had driven the entire province to rebellion.

So the Iceni rebelled and raised neighbouring tribes. They stormed the Roman settlement of Camulodonum. Omens were, of course, seen everywhere. The empty theatre echoed with shrieks. At the mouth of the Thames a phantom settlement was seen in ruins. The sea turned blood red and left human corpses on the ebb tide. The garrison and a small cohort of reinforcements sent from London were massacred.

Suetonius marched his army all the way back from Wales to London. Interestingly:

Londinium did not rank as a Roman settlement, but was an important centre for business men and merchandise.

Nonetheless Suetonius realised he couldn’t hold it against massed tribes, so abandoned it. When Boudicca’s forces stormed into it all the men were killed and all the women raped. Same happened at St Albans (Verulamium). Tacitus says 70,000 perished, for the Britons did not take prisoners with a view to exchanges:

They could not wait to cut throats, hang, burn and crucify, as though avenging in advance, the retribution which was on its way. (p.329)

Tacitus gives us a typical rhetorical set-piece: first he gives Boudicca a genuinely inspiring speech as she rouses her troops to face the Roman army, which has followed and now set up opposite them. Then he gives verbatim what he claims is the pre-battle speech of Suetonius. Both are effective in their different ways. It was a massacre. The Romans killed all the Britons and their camp followers. Boudicca poisoned herself.

However, the Romans then fell out among themselves. The newly arrived imperial agent didn’t like Suetonius and briefed against him. A former imperial slave, Polyclitus, was sent to assess the situation. Suetonius was relieved of duty and his replacement took a softly-softly approach. Peace of a sort returned to the province.

Tacitus returns to his annalistic approach with notes on two noteworthy trials. What strikes me is that, despite existing for hundreds of years, the Romans were continually finding loopholes or omissions in their laws, which the senate patched up and emperors approved or modified.

The City Prefect, Lucius Pedianus Secundus, was murdered by one of his slaves. The traditional punishment was that every other slave in the household would be executed. Popular sentiment protested against this, rioting began and the senate house was surrounded. Tacitus uses this to give us another of his verbatim speeches, this time by Gaius Cassius Longinus in favour of enforcing the traditional law. The speech reveals that Pedianus had 400 slaves. His peroration is striking:

Our ancestors distrusted their slaves. Yet slaves were then born on the same estates, in the same homes, as their masters, who had treated them kindly from birth. But nowadays our huge households are international. They include every alien religion – or none at all. The only way to keep down this scum is by intimidation…Exemplary punishment always contains an element of injustice. But individual wrongs are outweighed by the advantage of the community. (p.334)

Many argued to spare the innocent, or the women slaves, but Cassius’s view prevailed, and the emperor Nero backed it up, lining with troops the route along which those condemned for execution were taken.

Bithynia secured the condemnation of its governor. In Gaul a census was carried out. The noble Publius Memmius Regulus passed away. Nero dedicated a new gymnasium.

62 AD

Big fuss about an ex-praetor who read out verses satirising Nero at a dinner party. He is condemned by the senate and Tacitus summarises the positions of various senators to show how the politics of the time worked, with some arguing for execution, others for exile. The senate referred their decision for leniency to Nero who was cross but accepted it. Another aristocrat included in a so-called will insults against senators and priests. Nero ordered him exiled from Italy and his writings burned.

Commander of the Guard Burrus died, probably of a throat tumour, though maybe poisoned by Nero. He was replaced by two commanders, one responsible, the other a crony of Nero’s private debaucheries.

Burrus’s death weakened Seneca’s position. One mentor is less powerful than two. His critics queued up to bad-mouth him to the emperor, attacking:

  1. his wealth, enormous and excessive for any subject
  2. the grandeur of his mansions and beauty of his gardens, which exceeded the emperors (!)
  3. his alleged bids for popularity

Nero listened to Seneca’s detractors and began distancing himself from him. This is the opportunity for Tacitus to put into Seneca’s mouth a noble and persuasive speech, asking to be allowed to retire (he was now 64 years old and had been tutor to Nero for 14 years) and happily handing most of his property over to Nero. Tacitus then has Nero reply with a speech even more eloquent and organised. Nero refuses to take back his gifts lest it reflect badly on him. But Seneca withdrew from Rome, terminated his large receptions and dismissed his entourage, in a bid to deflect criticism.

Tigellinus achieves sole command of the palace Guard and plays on Nero’s fears. As a result of his calumnies, Nero orders the killing of two exiles, Faustus Cornelius Sulla Felix at Massilia. When his head is brought to Nero the emperor jokes that he’s gone grey. More elaborate are the measures taken to kill Plautus, in exile in Asia, but he too was killed and decapitated. When Nero was given his head, he is said to have exclaimed: ‘Nero! How could a man with such a long nose have frightened you!’

Nero wrote a letter to the senate denouncing Plautus and Sulla as traitors at which the senate voted him a thanksgiving. This occasioned disgust among freethinking men and led Nero to believe he could do anything. So he divorced his wife, Octavia and married Poppaea. The new wife swiftly set about disposing of the old one, concocting an accusation that Octavia was guilty of adultery and getting her exiled to Campania. (As usual, it’s the fact that Octavia’s slaves were tortured to extract false confessions, which I find so upsetting.) But this set off protests among the people who clamoured for Octavia’s return, overturning new statues of Poppaea. For a while Nero appeared to cave in – wild rejoicing – but then returned to his former stance – protests and rioting.

Poppaea is beside herself and renews her please to be rid of Octavia. So Nero concocts a second adultery confession, this time persuading admiral of the fleet Anicetus (who had played a leading role in dispatching Agrippina) to admit to adultery with Octavia. He was rewarded with peaceful retirement in Sardinia. Octavia was banished to the island of Pandateria. Much sympathy for another innocent royal woman exiled cf Julia the Elder, the Younger, Agrippina the Elder and Julia Livila.

Within days she was ordered dead. Soldiers arrived and forced the opening of veins all over her body in a hot bath. She was just 20. The senate ordered another thanksgiving and Tacitus breaks cover to record how disgustingly sycophantic that body had become.

Chapter 13 Eastern Settlement

63 AD

Latest episode of the war with Parthia over Armenia. Corn ships are destroyed by fire or storm, and some has rotted. Some people were adopting ‘children’ in order to count as fathers and so gain advantage in elections for posts where fatherhood gave an advantage (ever since Augustus’s laws designed to increase the population). Then, once elected, they repealed the adoptions. The senate decreed that these fictitious adoptions should carry no weight.

Prosecution of a governor of Crete who suggested his power was above the senate. At Nero’s prompting a decree was passed forbidding votes of thanks to governors at provincial assemblies. I’m including stuff like this to show what the nuts and bolts of ruling the empire really consisted of.

The Gymnasium was struck by lightning and burned down. A statue of Nero inside was melted into a shapeless mass. An earthquake demolished Pompeii (not the famous volcanic eruption of 79 AD).

Poppaea gave Nero a daughter. Both were awarded the honorific ‘Augusta’, according to the law of inflation of titles (at first rare and precious, eventually standard and ordinary). The senate voted a thanksgiving (of course), Nero instituted some games. Four months later the baby died, but the sycophancy continued. The dead baby was declared a goddess and a temple and priest created.

Latest episode of the war against the Parthians, also known as The Armenian Question. The figure to emerge most clearly from this is the Roman general, Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo, now awarded plenary powers comparable to those awarded to Pompey to fight the pirate menace in 67 BC. Corbulo brings off an honourable truce with the Parthian prince Tiridates.

Back in Italy, Latin rights are awarded to the tribes of the Maritime Alps. Magnificent gladiatorial displays but Tacitus deprecates the number of women and senators ‘disgracing themselves in the arena.’

Chapter 14 The Burning of Rome

64 AD

Frustrated at giving only private performances of his singing and lyre playing, Nero now vows to take part in public performances. First one is Naples then he crosses to Greece. In the event Nero abruptly cancelled his trip to Greece, and another one to Egypt. Maybe he was scared. he gave it out that he couldn’t let the people of Rome be without him.

Tacitus describes a typical public banquet. Nero gave magnificent ones but the most extravagant was given by his creature, Tigellinus. It was held on a raft in the middle of a lake. On the shore were brothels populated by aristocratic women, opposite them naked women posing. Tigellinus had collected birds and animals from remote countries.

Nero went through a public wedding with one of his pervert cronies named Pythagoras, in which Nero wore a bridal dress, and then marriage night sex was performed in view of the invited guests.

Then the Great Fire of Rome, ten days in July 64. When it was finally brought under control two-thirds of Rome had been destroyed. Nero was at Antium when it started. He took steps: he threw open the Field of Mars and his own gardens and constructed emergency accommodation for the homeless. He reduced the price of corn.

Of Rome’s 14 districts only 4 remained intact. Three were completely destroyed. The other seven were reduced to a few mangled ruins. Nero determined to build back better. He had a huge new palace built full of extravagance. New streets were built on an orderly plan. Houses had a height limit. Nero sagely offered to pay for the building of many of these and to ensure builders rubble was cleared away before houses were occupied.

Sensible fire provisions were put into place: a fixed proportion of each house was to be of stone; guards were appointed to ensure a better water supply; each building had to keep firefighting equipment.

But old timers remembered the huge number of ancient shrines and temples and treasures from the earliest times which had been consumed. And thought the old plan was healthier because the winding narrow alleys provided many bits of shade whereas the new more open streets were more exposed.

Nonetheless, despite all Nero’s wise ordinances, his reputation still suffered. It was said that while the city burned he took to his private stage and performed a song about the Fall of Troy. Others said he had actively started the fire because he wanted to rebuild the city and name it after himself. To distract attention away from himself he blamed the Christians. This is so important I quote at length:

To suppress this rumour [that he started the fire] Nero fabricated scapegoats – and punished with every refinement the notoriously depraved Christians (as they were popularly called). Their originator, Christ, had been executed in Tiberius’ reign by the governor of Judaea, Pontius Pilate. But in spite of this temporary setback the deadly superstition had broken out afresh, not only in Judaea (where the mischief had started) but even in Rome. (All degraded and shameful practices collect and flourish in the capital.)

First, Nero had self-acknowledged Christians arrested. Then, on their information, large numbers of others were condemned – not so much for incendiarism as for their anti-social tendencies apparently the original Latin could also be translated ‘because the human race detested them’].

Their deaths were made farcical. Dressed in wild animals’ skins, they were torn to pieces by dogs, or crucified, or made into torches to be ignited after dark as substitutes for daylight. Nero provided his Gardens for the spectacle, and exhibited displays in the Circus, at which he mingled with the crowd – or stood in a chariot, dressed as a charioteer. Despite their guilt as Christians and the ruthless punishment it deserved, the victims were pitied. For it was felt that they were being sacrificed to one man’s brutality rather than to the national interest. (15.44)

Meanwhile Italy was ransacked for funds and all the provinces ruined by exactions to pay for the rebuilding of Rome. Gold statues and offerings were stolen and melted down. Agents were sent out to plunder Greece and Asia, emptying temples of all their valuables.

Seneca tried to avoid the unpopularity of being involved in any of this policy by asking leave to go to his country retreat. When this was forbidden he very publicly kept to his house, feigning illness. Rumour had it that a slave was despatched to poison him but Seneca forestalled all such efforts by living on fruit and running water.

A group of gladiators revolted at Praenaste and there was a naval disaster, caused by Nero ordering the fleet to return on a set date, when a storm drove it ashore at Cumae, destroying many ships. Many omens portended mighty changes!

Chapter 15 The Plot (65 AD)

Gaius Calpurnius Piso had going for him that he was a member of the aristocratic gens Calpurnii with an extensive network of influential connections; he was popular, he defended his fellow citizens in court; he was a loyal friend, affable to all including strangers; and he was tall and handsome. On the downside, he lacked seriousness and self control, was superficial, ostentatious and sometimes dissolute. But then, as Tacitus remarks in a telling comment:

Many people are fascinated by depravity and disinclined for austere morals on the throne.

Maybe the common people, then as now, enjoy royal gossip and identify with ‘bad’ behaviour. As Tacitus himself remarks at several points – people enjoy gossip and scandal (‘Discreditable versions are always popular’, p.376).

Tacitus describes in detail the growth of the conspiracy to assassinate Nero and replace him with Piso, the Pisonian Consipracy, listing the recruitment of the main conspirators, but then the problems: delay while they squabbled about where the murder should take place, and Piso’s fears that several equally well-qualified alternatives might replace him (accurately anticipating the anarchy of 69).

They decided to kill Nero at some games, in front of the crowd, but the night before, the lead conspirator, Flavius Scaevinus, had a banquet, freed all his favourite slaves, made his will and ordered a freedman, Milichus, to take his dagger to the sharpeners. This Milichus saw all these signs and nerved himself to go, next morning, to Nero’s gardens and ask for an interview with the emperor’s freedman and secretary.

After initial scepticism, Nero was persuaded, and suspects were brought in who, under terrible torture, implicated each other. The conspiracy unravelled. Men implicated their family and friends. One strand was the implication of Seneca, who probably wasn’t in the conspiracy, but Nero had wanted to get rid of for some time. On flimsy evidence an officer was sent to execute him. Seneca had time to address his household and tell them to follow his Stoic philosophy and staunch their tears. His wife insisted on dying with him and they both cut open the veins in their arms.

Seneca took some time to die, his blood flowing weakly, he ordered veins to also be opened at his ankles and behind his knees. He had time to dictate a dissertation (!). Seeing as he was not dying, he asked for poison (hemlock) to be administered, but this didn’t work, either. Then he was placed in a bath of warm water, which didn’t work. And then into ‘a vapour-bath, where he suffocated’. What is a vapour-bath?

Nero ordered Seneca’s wife’s wounds to be bound and she lived on for several years. Tacitus lists all the conspirators and their ends. The most famous one to posterity, beside Seneca, was Seneca’s nephew, the poet Lucan, who was just 25 and had joined the conspiracy because he was angry at Nero for blocking his career.

At least 41 individuals were accused, 19 senators, seven knights, 11 soldiers, and four women. 20 were executed or forced to commit suicide, 13 were sent into exile.

There was an outbreak of sycophancy with various senators calling for a thanksgiving, a Triumph, creation of a temple specifically to thank the gods for Nero’s survival and lots of other bum kissing.

Chapter 16 Innocent Victims

Nero believed the fantasies of a Carthaginian, Caesellius Bassus, who swore he had discovered the ancient treasure of Dido on his land and would give it to Nero. This encouraged the emperor to even more spendthrift behaviour, digging the nation deeper into debt.

Nero presided over the second five-yearly games and insisted on competing as a singer and lyre player. Tacitus echoes the claim made in Suetonius that audiences weren’t allowed to leave the theatre during Nero’s performances, and some fell sick and died, others were killed in the crush. He adds that Guards were stationed throughout the audience to cuff anyone who didn’t cheer loudly enough. Aristocrats such as Vespasian were reported for not cheering enthusiastically enough, but he was destined to survive and become emperor himself in 69.

Poppaea died. She was pregnant. In Tacitus’s account Nero, in a fit of anger, kicked her just once and that was enough (Suetonius gives the impression that Nero kicked her to death). Tacitus thinks it was an accident because a) he genuinely loved her b) he was desperate for a son and she was pregnant. Nero read her eulogy. She was buried in the Mausoleum Augustus built.

Nero continues enforcing the deaths of those he suspects, forcing the senate to denounce some of its own members. The gruesome triple suicide of Lucius Antistius Vetus, his daughter Antistia Pollitta and mother-in-law Sextia. Bum-licking toadyism reached new heights: one Servius Cornelius Orfitus suggested the names of the months should be changed to celebrate Nero’s family, so that April became ‘Neroneus’, May ‘Claudius’ and June ‘Germanicus’.

Campania was hit by a hurricane. Rome was hit by a plague. A disastrous fire at Lugdunum (modern Lyons) was alleviated when Nero assigned 4 million sesterces to its reconstruction (the same amount its people had contributed to Rome’s rebuilding after the fire). This kind of incident gives a welcome break from the hothouse, blood-soaked atmosphere of imperial politics, but also remind us that a lot of the political events were of sublime indifference to the 60 million or so citizens who just got on with their day-to-day lives, working, shopping, trading, eating, teaching children, managing households, across the vast expanse of the huge empire.

66 AD

A sordid conspiracy by banished Antistius Sosianus to alleviate his punishment by incriminating Publius Anteius and Marcus Ostorius Scapula, who paranoid Nero suspected, both of whom were forced to commit suicide. If this succession of worthy citizens who are snitched on by informers who pandered to Nero’s paranoia and jealousy of anyone richer than him gets a little wearing, Tacitus agrees:

Even if I were describing foreign wars and patriotic deaths, this monotonous series of events would have become tedious both for me and for my readers. For I should expect them to feel as surfeited as myself by the tragic sequence of citizen deaths – even if they had been honourable deaths. but this slavish passivity, this torrent of wasted bloodshed far from active service, wearies, depresses and paralyses the mind. (p.388; book 16, section 14).

Tacitus goes onto lament the death of the author, Petronius, devoting a page to his unconventional life, his dissipation, and witty popularity. Without trying Petronius was admitted to Nero’s inner circle and became his arbiter of taste. However, this inflamed Nero’s chief crony, Tigellinus, against him, and Tigellinus concocted the usual accusations, which easily triggered Nero to order his court arbiter’s death. Petronius opened his veins but continued attending a banquet and listening to light verse as he expired. Then he dictated a letter detailing all Nero’s sexual partners and perversions which he had sent to the emperor, who was shaken to see how much was known about him.

The final passage of the Annals describes yet another indictment of a good man, Thrasea, and his family, by the sycophantic toadies in the senate, inspired by Nero. Then the manuscript breaks off.

The missing portion of the work described the visit of King Tiridates to Rome, the start of the Jewish Revolt, Nero’s visit to Greece, the revolt of military commander Gaius Julius Vindex in Gaul, which triggers a general revolt against Nero and the selection by the senate of Servius Sulpicius Galba, governor of Hispania, to replace Nero. Nero fled to the villa of a freed slave, Phaon, and there got slaves to help him commit suicide.

Thoughts

Suetonius’s Life of Nero is a more enjoyable read than the Tacitus. It’s shorter and more to the point. It goes into more detail about Nero’s addiction to singing, playing the lyre and chariot racing than Tacitus does, and presents a more coherent and persuasive profile of the emperor. Tacitus embeds all this in annals which report all the important events of each year so that the sheer welter of events becomes tiring and, as Tacitus himself concedes, towards the end, really wearing.

I suppose the Annals is a great work, but probably best read in chapters or sections: the cumulative effect of so many cruel murders, villainous informers, of so much slavish sycophancy to the emperor and the suicides of so many aristocrats, eventually becomes numbing.


Credit

Michael Grant’s fluent, energetic translation of Tacitus’s Annals was published by Penguin Books in 1956. References are to the revised 1971 edition, as reprinted in 1988.

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Roman reviews

Black Sea Letters by Ovid, translated by Peter Green

I lie at the world’s end in a lonely wasteland.
(Black Sea Letters book 1, poem 3, line 49)

One cry for help, many addresses.
(3.6 line 42)

My review of Ovid’s Tristia praises Peter Green’s compendious notes and fluent, flowing translations of the 50 or so poems from exile which that volume contains. Alongside the Tristia, Ovid wrote another 50 or so verse letters from exile which were collected in a different volume titled Epistulae ex Ponto (‘Letters from the Black Sea’). The difference between the two sets is that whereas the poems of Tristia sometimes address anonymous figures as part of his generalised lament about exile, each of the ‘Black Sea Letters’ is very much addressed to a specific, named individual, and the poems devote space to describing this person’s career, relationship with Ovid, before he turns to his familiar refrain of asking them to intervene for him.

Green gives the collection a slightly different title, calling it the Black Sea Letters, and both his translations – of the Letters and Tristia – are included in the same Penguin paperback omnibus edition, which is collectively titled Poems from Exile.

The reason for Ovid’s exile

In late 8 AD the Roman poet Ovid, at the age of 51, was sent into exile by the (ageing) emperor, Augustus. Although he wrote about 100 poems from his exile (which he endured from late 8 AD until his death in 17 AD) and describes his miserable plight endlessly, he nowhere specifies what crime he had committed to justify this harsh sentence.

He does mention that there were two causes: the official one, given out by the regime, was that the tendency of Ovid’s light, sophisticated and fashionable love poetry, in particular the scandalous Art of Love – which is an extended guidebook on how to pick up and conduct affairs with married women – flew in the face of Augustus’s legislative attempts to promote marriage and traditional morality (collectively known as the Leges Iuliae).

But Ovid himself, and all commentators since, regard this as camouflage, not least because the Art of Love had been published around 1 AD so had been in public circulation for nearly a decade when Ovid was suddenly summoned for an audience with Augustus, given a dressing down and told his fate.

No, the real reason is that Ovid saw something incriminating and failed to alert the authorities. He insists again and again and again that he committed no crime, intended no bloodshed or to break any laws; instead, in poem after poem he insists that he committed an error (he uses the original Latin word) of witnessing and seeing something, something criminal, something scandalous, something with infuriated the emperor but…what, exactly?

Infuriatingly, he never tells us. In an early poem in Tristia he tells us he was sworn to secrecy. In other poems he says he doesn’t want to discuss it, it is best buried in darkness and oblivion. With the result that we have 100 or so poems self-pityingly lamenting his fate – and not one clear explanation of what it was that he saw that so infuriated the emperor. Leading to 2,000 years of scholarly speculation.

Peter Green’s view is that Ovid was present at either a meeting of a group or cabal who discussed a plot to overthrow Augustus or a secret marriage which created an alliance between players and families which was a preparation for the overthrow of the dynasty.

The last decade of Augustus’s long rule (from 31 BC to 14 AD) was troubled with military defeats, famine and unrest, and numerous plots.

In 2 BC Augustus surprised Rome by arresting his own daughter, Julia (who he had forced to marry his wife’s son, Tiberius), and exiling her under very harsh conditions to a stony island off the coast of Italy, forbidden to have any visitors or travel anywhere. She was charged with adultery and treason. Augustus must have known for some time about Julia’s sexual promiscuity – which was the official reason given for this surprise move; so it was (presumably) details of a plot to overthrow him which prompted Augustus’s harsh action. We know that at the same time several of Julia’s lovers were exiled and one was forced to commit suicide. The assumption is that her sexual activities overlapped with assembling a cabal of men who were conspiring to a) get her divorced from Tiberius, then b) get rid of both Augustus and Tiberius and crown Julia and her lover. All this occurred just before Ovid published the second edition of his stylish love poems, the Amores. The assumption is that Ovid’s stylish, cynical, anti-establishment poems were popular among the promiscuous, privileged set which surrounded Julia.

What makes things a little confusing is that Ovid’s actual banishment, 8 or so years later, coincided with Augustus exiling a second Julia, Julia the Younger, the daughter of the Julia I just described, Julia the Elder, and her husband Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. Born in 19 BC, Julia the Younger was 27 when she was banished in 8 AD.

According to ancient historians Julia was exiled for having an affair with one Decimus Junius Silanus, a Roman senator. She was sent to Tremirus, a small Italian island, where she gave birth to a child. Augustus rejected the infant and ordered it to be left on a mountainside to die. Harsh, eh? Absolutely unforgiving. Silanus went into voluntary exile. The plot thickens when you learn that sometime between 1 and 14 AD, Julia the Younger’s husband, Paullus, had been executed as a conspirator in a revolt.

So: modern historians theorise that Julia the Younger’s exile was not actually for adultery but for involvement in her husband, Paullus’s, revolt. And, to come back to Ovid, the view of people like Green is that Ovid’s witty, cynical, erotic poetry formed a kind of soundtrack to the amoral lifestyle of this very upper class set and that somehow, during that fateful year of 8 AD, hanging out with Julia the Younger’s people, he saw something take place which he failed, out of loyalty to the fast set, to report to the authorities, and it was this failure to speak out which was the error which he talks about obsessively in poem after poem.

But what it was, exactly…we’re back at the dead end. Again and again he says he never planned anything, never intended bloodshed, was entirely passive, that he saw something incriminating without himself intending anything criminal. Again and again Ovid insists he made a mistake but didn’t commit a crime. So you can see why scholars like Green speculate that what he saw, if it was just one activity, was either a group of conspirators discussing a seditious plan or swearing an oath or, the rather more florid speculation, that he witnessed the secret marriage of Julia the Younger which somehow bound her into the conspiracy to overthrow the emperor. Nobody knows.

Repeatedly Ovid compares himself to the mythological figure Actaeon, who accidentally stumbled into a clearing and saw the hunter goddess Diana bathing naked and so, as punishment, was transformed into a deer and torn to pieces by his own hunting hounds. Ovid says he was just as innocent as Actaeon, had no intent to do harm, stumbled upon a scene he barely understood, but has been just as harshly punished.

The condition of exile

Thus it was that in December 8 AD Ovid was ordered to make his way by ship from Italy, past all the islands and promontories of Greece, through the Dardanelles and into the Black Sea and onto the frontier settlement known as Tomis (modern-day Constanța in Romania), 70 miles south of the massive marshy delta where the river Danube empties into the Black Sea. And this was to be his home for the remainder of his life, for the next nine years (scholars think he died sometimes during the winter of 17/18).

Here in Tomis, as the Tristia poems make abundantly clear, Ovid fell into a deep depression, lost his appetite and weight, grew pale, suffered anxiety, often felt suicidal. The reasons included:

  • the miserable scenery about Tomis, which was flat and bleak and windswept
  • the extreme cold, such that during the long winter the Danube and even parts of the Black Sea froze over
  • the lack of even one person in the town who spoke Latin; almost everyone spoke one of the two or three local tribal languages – this was crushing for a man who had spent his entire life enjoying and playing with the Latin language, and whose art depended on reading his poems out loud to an audience and getting intelligent feedback; not in Tomis
  • but above all, the constant fear of attack by the fierce tribes who lived outside the town, who routinely swept into the area, looted all farmers’ properties, either taking them off to slavery or murdering them on the spot – several times Ovid mentions being forced to buckle on a sword and take part in the defence of the town, which only survived these assaults because of its good defensive position and wall (which Ovid perpetually worries about being too low and too weak)

One minute he was a pampered poet sauntering through the salons of fashionable Rome, a few weeks later he was frozen, isolated, unable to talk to anyone, and terrified for his life

Poems of exile

In exile Ovid wrote two distinct volumes of poems. The Tristia (which can be translated as ‘Poems of Desolation’ or ‘Lamentation’) consists of five ‘books’ of 50 or so short poems (a page or two in length, with the exception of book 2 which consists of one 580-line poem, which is a sustained address to Augustus proclaiming his innocence and asking for his exile to be ended). I have reviewed the Tristia in the excellent translation by Peter Green.

The other set of poems he wrote is the Epistulae ex Ponto or ‘Letters from Pontis’ (Pontis being the name of the Roman province on the north coast of the Black Sea). Green translates this as Black Sea Letters. Both the Tristia and the letters are included in one excellent Penguin edition, translated with extensive notes by the America-based English academic Peter Green.

Black Sea Letters

The ‘Black Sea Letters’ is a collection of verse epistles describing Ovid’s exile in Tomis written in elegiac couplets (the ‘six-five beat’ as he calls it in book 3 poem 3) and addressed to his wife and a wide variety of friends and contacts back in Rome.

The academic consensus is that the first three books were composed between 12 and 13 AD. They give every evidence of having been carefully assembled and ordered to create an artistic effect. The fourth book, by contrast, is believed to have been published posthumously, not least because it has a more miscellaneous feel.

The themes of the poems are identical with those of the Tristia (‘same theme different title’, as Ovid himself puts it in 1.1) namely:

  • the grimness of his place of exile, the cold, the wretched scenery, the lack of company
  • his deteriorating state of health
  • terror at the constant threat of violence from rampaging tribesmen
  • requests to intercede with the emperor on his behalf, if not to rescind his exile, to at least post him somewhere less bleak and terrifying: both the Julias were sent to islands off Italy, why can’t he get the same?
  • excoriations of his enemies and critics back in Rome

So a lot of the subject matter is already very familiar from the Tristia. The main difference with the Tristia is that all these poems are in epistolary format which means that almost all the poems are addressed to named individuals, unlike the 50 poems in Tristia which all address unnamed, anonymous figures. Ovid highlights this difference in the very first poem of the collection.

Augustus features heavily in the collection, as he does in Tristia, as absolute arbiter of Ovid’s fate. In between these begging passages, are appeals to Germanicus, nephew and adopted son of the emperor Tiberius, who was widely seen as a civilised, gracious, moderate influence.

All to no avail. No-one in authority gave any hint of relenting and Tiberius, when he replaced Augustus at the latter’s death in August 14 AD was, if anything, even more adamant against Ovid. When his highest-ranking correspondent, the senator Paullus Fabius Maximus, died in the same year as Augustus, Ovid’s last hopes petered out, and the collection ends on a deeply depressed note, the final letter being to an enemy who is bad mouthing him. Then…silence.

Books 1 to 3 were conceived of as one unit and are topped and tailed by poems to Ovid’s publisher and editor in Rome, one Brutus. Green, as usual, gives very thorough summaries of other scholars who have found deeper patterns in the structuring of the three books. There’s no doubt they were carefully arranged.

Book 1 (10 poems)

Letters to Brutus, Paullus Fabius Maximus, Rufinus, his wife, Cotta Maximus Messalinus, Publius Pomponius Graecinus, Messalinus, Severus, Flaccus.

1.1 To Brutus

The set opens with an envoi to Ovid’s publisher, Brutus, asking him to accept this volume of verse letters and slip them into the gap created by Ovid’s now-banned Art of Love. He argues that the works of more subversive figures (Mark Anthony and Brutus the assassin) remain publicly available. He makes some fancy comments about worshippers of Isis or the Great Mother but then bursts out in anguish:

I repent, I repent! If the damned have any credence,
I repent, I’m tormented by the thing I did.

Misery: his mind is melting like snow, being eaten away like rust, being eaten into like bookworms eat books, suffers a perpetual canker of anguish. Maybe, maybe, the all-powerful Jove will remit his punishment and move his place of exile to somewhere less appalling.

1.2 To Paullus Fabius Maximus (150 lines)

Ovid’s most high-ranking contact, who had married a first cousin of the emperor and accompanied Augustus himself on a secret mission to Agrippa Postumus in exile. Ovid rehearses the same old themes, giving a vivid variation on the theme of the terrifying tribesmen who regularly assault Tomis’s walls and fire off their poisoned arrows. The cold is endless, winter turns into winter. It’s his fourth year and he weeps continually with misery.

What is my life? Stark bitterness never-ending,
torment exacerbated by time.

He dreams of home, of his wife, but that makes awaking even harder to bear. Often he prays for death. He asks Maximus to aid his exile ‘with a kind word or two’. He optimistically claims that Augustus (‘that god’) can’t possibly have known how bleak and horrible it was in Tomis, otherwise he wouldn’t have sent him. And God forbid he dies and is buried there, far from all his friends and family, his spirit abandoned on a bleak windswept shore. Ovid’s wife came from Maximus’s household so, if only for her sake:

Speak up for me…Petition to have my place
of exile moved nearer home.

1.3 To Caius Vibinius Rufinus (94 lines)

A senior figure who shared in Tiberius’s triumph of 12 AD and went on to serve as proconsul in Asia. The poem makes it clear that he has sent Ovid a consolatio or message containing philosophical precepts designed to cheer him up. Ovid thanks him and tells him it has been some comfort (‘I was down but your message revived me’) but cannot fully heal his heart. He gives examples from medicine, of which he obviously knew something.

But all humans want to return to the land of their birth, even to a wretched hole like Tomis, and he cannot find peace till he returns to Rome. Lines repeating the wretched flat landscape and continual fear of attack by tribals. Nobody in all history has been exiled to a remote of nastier spot.

1.4 To his wife (58 lines)

A sad poem to his wife saying he has aged, his hair is white, his face is lined, she’d no longer recognise him. It’s not just age, it’s ‘unremitting hardship, distress of mind.’ He embarks on an extended comparison (known as a synkresis) between himself and Jason who led the Argonauts because the land of Colchis that they sailed to was identified with the east coast of the Black Sea. But the comparison is designed to bring out how Jason was surrounded by comrades and friends, whereas it is Ovid’s complete isolation, with no friends or support, which has ground him down.

He hopes to be reunited with her soon, soon, and vividly imagines the tears and hugs of their reunion.

1.5 To Cotta Maximus (86 lines)

By all accounts an unpleasant young man, Cotta was, nonetheless, rich.

Ovid apologises for the poverty of his verse, claims his talents have atrophied and the Muse cannot be persuaded to visit distant Scythia. This poem, like others of the same ilk, were forced out of his mind with no pleasure. Now he regrets having written so much frivolous verse. So why does he keep writing? Because he can’t give it up. Every man has his vocation: Ovid’s is writing. There it is. He doesn’t expect fame or reward. He writes because it passes the long empty days and fills his mind, distracting him from his misery.

1.6 To Caius Pomponius Graecinus (54 lines)

Graecinus was suffect consul in 16 AD, an old friend of Ovid’s. He is quoted in Amores 2.10 arguing that no man can love two women at the same time. Graecinus had now become a friend and drinking buddy of the heir apparent, Tiberius, so Green detects in this poem a cooling of the friendship, now that Ovid is persona non grata.

Ovid testifies to their friendship and Graecinus’s interest in the liberal arts, says Graecinus was one of the bulwarks of his heart, repeats that it isn’t ‘safe’ for him to describe his ‘culpable error’ explicitly.

Strikingly, Ovid lets slip that he has contemplated suicide, held a sword in his hand, but the goddess Hope intervened. He begs that Graecinus add some words in his favour to the emperor.

1.7 To Valerius Messalla Messalinus (70 lines)

Messalinus was a distinguished soldier and consul who accompanied Tiberius on his campaign in Pannonia. (Pannonia was a Roman province consisting of present-day western Hungary and parts of eastern Austria several Balkan states.) Ovid wrote Messalinus three poems/letters because of the poet’s friendship with Messalinus’s influential father, but all betray a certain nervousness as if he knew that Messalinus’s closeness to Tiberius meant he would do nothing for the disgraced poet.

Ovid nervously acknowledges that Messalinus might not be pleased to receive a letter from him, or it might be inappropriate for him to reach out to a friend of the Caesar’s. He nervously repeats that he committed no ‘crime’ just a ‘folly’, which leads him on to bless Augustus’s clemency, mildness and restraint. Maybe they weren’t that friendly, maybe he attended his brother’s house more than his: still, would Messalinus mind lending his voice to his cause.

1.8 Severus (74 lines)

Opens, as always, with a brief summary of his woes – illness, depression, bitter cold and the ever-threatening natives with their poisoned arrows. He sadly describes how in his mind’s eye he walks through Rome, visiting his wife and daughter, strolling past the theatres and temples. He remembers the scenery of the Field of Mars, canals, orchards which he helped plant with his own hand. Are they still there? In fact he’d love to be a farmer here, plough the soil and sow and water it – but that’s impossible because of the endless raids by the barbarian Getans, murdering farmers, burning down their farms, carrying survivors off into slavery.

He asks Severus to intercede with Augustus with a modest request: to have him moved somewhere peaceful, not exposed to warfare, to somewhere he could farm land in peace.

1.9 To Cotta Maximus (56 lines)

The poem opens with a lament for the death of one Albinovanus Celsus. Green points out in his notes that both Cotta and Celsus had dodgy reputations, Celsus (according to Horace) for plagiarising other people’s poetry. The fact that Ovid refers to them as his bestest friends reflects poorly on the poet.

Ovid tells Cotta that Celsus was one of the few friends to stick by him when disaster struck, came to visit him, put his arms round him, shed tears and restrained Ovid when he talked about suicide, telling him Augustus was merciful so he should live in hope of a reprieve.

He praises Celsus for his loyalty, laments his death, wishes he could have attended the funeral, praises Maximus for supervising the funeral obsequies with ceremony and honour. Well, just as he behave honourably and dutifully for Celsus – so should he now do the same for his suffering friend Ovid.

1.10 To Licius Pomponius Flaccus (44 lines)

Flaccus was brother to Graecinus addressed in 1.6 and was another high-ranking soldier and drinking companion of Tiberius. Suetonius claimed he was given the governorship of Syria solely for accompanying Tiberius on a long drinking session. He may or may not have shared the future emperor’s predilection for kinky sex but his general profligacy makes it (deliberately) ironic that this poem is devoted to describing how Ovid’s physical appetites have all atrophied.

He’s lost his appetite, is pale and listless, has lost weight. Green speculates he might have had recurring diarrhoea caused by the bad or brackish water of the region (he claims never to have been a drinker of wine). He ends, as usual, by begging that Flaccus and his brother Graecinus put in a good word for him with ‘Caesar’s godhead’, not to be allowed to return, just the milder request to be exiled somewhere less appalling and depleting.

Book 2 (11 poems)

Letters to Germanicus, Messalinus, Cotta Maximus Messalinus, Atticus, Salanus, Publius Pomponius Graecinus, Cotys of Thrace, Macer and Rufus.

2.1 (68 lines)

Ovid imagines Tiberius’s triumph through Rome on 27 October 12 AD.

Ovid had obviously received an account of it, either by letter or from a visitor, because he describe the way the weather was rainy for days beforehand but cleared up at the last moment. It’s noticeable that although it was Tiberius’s triumph, Ovid chooses to not to name him but instead to address Germanicus, the much more charismatic figure (‘flower of our youth in peace and war’) who, he hoped, would intercede for him.

2.2 To Marcus Valerius Corvinus Messalinus (126 lines)

Same addressee as (probably) Tristia 4.4. Same appeal, mentioning his father, praising Augustus and the health of his extended family – then asking Messalinus to use all his charm, exert all his influence, to win Ovid a change of exile.

2.3 To Cotta Maximus (100 lines)

The usual themes and pleas: notable because it describes the scene when Ovid was holidaying on Elba and Augustus’s abrupt, angry summoning of the poet arrived along with rumour of what his offence was. Ovid describes how Cotta was shocked, disappointed, but then persuaded that Ovid had committed no crime, merely made an ‘error’ – and then it was all tears and condolence.

2.4 To Atticus (34 lines)

All that’s known about this Atticus derives from Ovid’s two or three poems to him, namely that the friendship was of long standing, back in Rome they went everywhere together, he criticised Ovid’s work and, since Ovid’s fall, had grown cool towards him.

2.5 To Cassius Salanus (76 lines)

Not much is known about this Cassius Salanus except that he was tutor to Germanicus. To paraphrase Wikipedia:

Germanicus Julius Caesar (15 BC to 19 AD) was a Roman general noted for his victories in Germany, and a powerful member of the Julian-Claudian dynasty. He was the son of Nero Claudius Drusus and Antonia the Younger and was the nephew of the future emperor Tiberius. In 4 AD he was adopted as legal son by Tiberius. His connection to the Julii was consolidated through a marriage between himself and Agrippina the Elder, a granddaughter of Augustus. The agnomen Germanicus was added to his full name in 9 BC when it was posthumously awarded to his father in honour of his victories in Germania. Germanicus was central to the line of emperors in that he was the older brother of Claudius, the father of Caligula and the maternal grandfather of Nero.

Obviously the later emperors were in the future. For Ovid’s purposes, Germanicus had emerged as a young, successful, charismatic figure, far more open and sympathetic than his grouchy adoptive father, Tiberius. In the Black Sea Letters the reader can increasingly see Ovid adopting what Peter Green calls ‘the Germanicus gambit’ with more and more space given to praise of ‘that Prince of the Youths’ (line 41).

Green points out that, as the letters progress, old patrons are dropped (the family of Messalla Corvinus) or die (Paullus Fabius) and Ovid focuses on figures in Germanicus’s circle. However, this didn’t exactly endear him to the adoptive father, Tiberius – especially the way Ovid chose to end his poem describing Tiberius’s ‘Pannonian triumph’ of 12 AD with a digression in praise of Germanicus, which – Green says – friends pointed out to him had offended more than pleased Tiberius.

This poem is interesting to me because of a throwaway reference to the fact that Ovid’s heard that Salanus liked and praised the poems he’s sent from the Black Sea and that his approval ‘helped them’. This raises, for me, an issue Green doesn’t clarify, which is: what was the status of these poems of exile? Was each of the five books of Tristia despatched as he completed them to Rome? Who published them, the shadowy Brutus addressed in poem 1 of the Letters? If the Ars Amatoria had been banned from Rome’s libraries, how come the emperor allowed these poems, obsessed as they are with Ovid rehearsing his unhappiness and grievances, to be published? Were they copied and so freely available that someone he didn’t know very well, like Salanus, came across or was given a copy?

If they were made generally available, what was the feedback from Rome? What did contemporaries make of them? Do we know?

And even more mystifying, how did Ovid find out what contemporaries thought? Green makes a passing comment to the possibility that a visitor to Tomis gave Ovid an eye-witness description of Tiberius’s triumph. But this raises the huge question did Ovid receive visitors from Rome? He never mentions any in the poems. Or did Green mean something more like a visiting trader or merchant or government official?

Now I reflect on it, many of the poems in Tristia and the Letters respond to things he’s heard about from Rome, from word that this or that individual is bad mouthing him or has insulted his wife. So he was receiving letters from Rome, but how many and how regularly? Ovid repeatedly asks people to write to him more but this begs the question of how much mail he received and how often.

Back to the poem itself, the sickly sweet over-praising of Germanicus is astonishing.

2.6 To Caius Pomponius Graecinus (38 lines)

Also addressed in 1.6. Ovid is clearly replying to a letter in which Graecinus chided him, telling him to count his blessings, and that his ‘crime’ merited a much worse punishment (death?). Ovid replies, what’s the point warning him now and being wise after the event? It’s too late.

Ovid delivers a perfunctory blessing for Graecinus’s family before delivering a far more powerful denunciation if he should abandon his hapless friend (‘shame on you’). Then delivers a little list of mythological figures famous for the steadfastness of their friendship (Pylades, Orestes, Theseus, Pirithoüs) winding up by promising that, if Graecinus continues his support, and if Ovid’s verse endures, then he will make his name immortal. As he has done.

2.7 To Atticus (84 lines)

Also addressed in 2.4. It’s worth copying Green’s summary of the poem as a good example of what had, by this stage, become a very stereotyped layout:

  • Ovid admits he exaggerates his fears (5 to 20)
  • he gives a list of adynata ‘I’d sooner number the ears in a Libyan wheatfield’ than reckon up all the woes he’s suffered (25 to 30)
  • he parades the usual troubles and worries (31 to 48)
  • over-sensitivity produced by excess of suffering (37 to 45)
  • others achieved fame through the liberal arts, but they have destroyed him (47 to 48)
  • his prior life was blameless (49)
  • his friends have failed to be active enough on his behalf (51 to 52)
  • he was not on the spot when the storm broke (53 to 54)
  • he was forced to take ship at the worst possible time of year (with the stock comparison of himself to long-suffering Ulysses) (57 to 60)
  • his travelling companions robbed him (61 to 62)
  • his place of exile is a hellhole with constant threats to life, impossible to pursue agriculture (63 to 70)
  • endless cold, undrinkable water (71 to 74)
  • all that keeps him going is hope that Augustus’s anger will abate (79 to 80)
  • he addresses ‘you few friends’, begging them to continue the battle on his behalf

In fact so standardised has this list of complaints become that you can almost feel him going through the motions. I wonder why he didn’t just write the same stock letter and just change the first few lines of greeting and a few details in the middle and send them to everyone he knew back in Rome? Is it because he knew they’d be handed round, read widely, that he had to go to the trouble of making each one individually tailored to its recipient?

2.8 To Cotta Maximus Messalinus (76 lines)

Cotta has sent the poet two images in silver, two ‘Caesars’ (presumably Augustus and Tiberius) and one of Livia (Green debates whether they might have been statuettes or medallions).

The poem is one of the most embarrassingly fulsome acts of lavish sycophancy in Roman literature. He calls Augustus:

  • that Celestial being
  • he embodies our country’s image
  • his virtues eclipse the boundless cosmos
  • imperishable glory of our era
  • lord of the world

Plus extravagant praise of Livia and his extended family, all leading up to grovelling begging to have his place of exile moved to somewhere less appalling.

2.9 To King Cotys IV of Thrace (80 lines)

Because in 12 AD Augustus divided the kingdom of Thrace between two client rules, King Cotys IV and his uncle Rhescuporis. Ovid is writing a celebration of Cotys because his kingdom would form a buffer between the Hellenised colonies of Moesia and the savage tribes of the hinterland. (According to the Wikipedia article, Ovid must be talking about Moesia Inferior, which you can see on the map [just about] forming a buffer between the coast at Tomis and the untamed interior.)

He hails Cotys and straightaway asks him to grant his plea to be moved to a less dire location. He argues that the great feature of power is to grant appeals for the powerless, otherwise what is the point of the sacrifices made across the Mediterranean by everyone from peasants to emperors to the mighty gods, unless they hear and grant appeals?

Let him be worthy of his noble father. The liberal arts, which he is known to cultivate (Cotys wrote poetry) soften a man’s heart. In fact the writing of poetry creates a bond between them. As ever he mentions he is guilty of two offences, 1) writing the Ars Amoris 2) one which cannot be named.

2.10 To Macer (52 lines)

Precise identity unknown, maybe the companion of Ovid’s Grand Tour of Greece when he was a student and, according to the poem, some kin with Ovid’s wife. Macer is, apparently a poet, but unlike the foolish subjects which got Ovid into trouble, he apparently wanted to write another poem about the Trojan War. So Ovid repeats the stock trope that all poets are linked by their trade (‘a cult they all share in common’). Then moves onto a vivid description of their tour round the sights of the Mediterranean (lines 21 to 42).

2.11 To Rufus (28 lines)

We know nothing about this Rufus except what Ovid tells us in this short poem (Rufus was one of the most common cognomina or surnames in ancient Rome). Green makes the point that the addressees of book 2 become more peripheral to the centres of power, more literary and familial as it progresses. He has worked through his list of influential powerful contacts and is getting to the bottom of his address book.

Briefly, Ovid thanks him for his tears of sympathy back in Rome when the news was announced. He thanks Rufus for guiding and advising his wife (apparently he was her uncle). And thanks him for carrying out Ovid’s ‘instructions’.

Book 3 (9 poems)

Letters to his wife, Cotta Maximus Messalinus, Paullus Fabius Maximus, Rufinus, an unknown friend and a group of unknown friends.

3.1 To his wife (166 lines)

The longest poem in the entire exilic corpus, complex and problematic. The first page (30 lines) gives a vivid portrait of how awful Tomis was, in the style of his earlier poems i.e. full and detailed. One of the best passages in the poems. Only at line 31 does he address his wife and then in bitter ungracious terms, accuses her of not doing enough for him. He says some call her a model wife, but she must up her game and work harder to get him freed. In return he will make her name last for ever, give her the immortality of other famous wives from mythology. (The massive irony is that we don’t, in fact, know her name for sure.)

He goes on at length about how their marriage contract, her upbringing, the house she came from, and a host of classical examples, all demand she do more for her tragic husband’s cause.

The poem ends with a passage about Livia (‘possessing Venus’ beauty, the character of Juno’), second only to Augustus in wisdom etc etc. Ovid advises his wife to be cautious about approaching her; do it now, when the city is at peace, when there have been no deaths, no public grief – not if she’s busy and distracted with other matters; and only on an auspicious day, if the auguries are favourable; kindle a fire on the altar of Augustus, offer incense and wine – that’s the time when his wife should make her approach.

Ovid tells his wife not to try to defend him, it’s best to simply admit his guilt: but be free with tears, bow down, fall prostrate, reach out your arms, ’embrace those immortal feet!’

Worth noting that Livia was 71 when this poem was written (so much for Venus’ beauty) and Juno was famous, if anything, for prolonged spiteful vendettas against heroes (Hercules, Aeneas). So, as Green points out, Ovid doesn’t seem above to prevent ironic and ambiguous elements entering everything he wrote; even when he’s trying to be grovellingly sycophantic, he still manages to give the impression that Livia is a monstrous ogre.

3.2 To Cotta (110 lines)

The fifth appeal to Cotta in the letters, with one more to come. Ovid praises Cotta for his loyalty to him and magnanimously forgives those friends who quickly abandoned him – he understands they were just scared to death of Augustus’s anger. He gives the usual roll call of loyal friends from mythology (Orestes, Theseus) before letting slip that he has learned how to speak ‘the native tongue’. This triggers a note by Green discussing just how much of the native tongues Ovid knew. His own testimony is mixed and confusing. Sometimes he writes that he’s learned enough Getan to contemplate writing poems in it. Other times he emphasises that he can only make himself understood by sign language and that the natives laugh at his Latin and attempts to speak their language. Green’s conclusion is that Ovid probably learned the local Greek-based pidgen or patois, used to facilitate trade but not the two local languages we know about, Getic and Sarmatian.

The poem is notable for introducing a mythical story, in the manner of the Metamorphoses, in this case he uses the device of having an local old man tell the story to him of Iphigeneia and Orestes, the point of which is to say that, if these local barbarians can value friendship, then how much more so should a civilised Roman like Cotta.

3.3 To Paullus Fabius Maximus / Eros (108 lines)

This is an interesting departure from the grind of repetitive poems. Same could be said of the opening section of 3.1 and the old man’s story in 3.2.

Anyway 3.3 opens with Ovid telling Cotta about a dream he had, first painting the picture of a balmy evening, him sleeping and dreaming he had a visit from the god of Love, so familiar to him from his umpteen appearances in the Amores. And the poem turns into a dialogue with Eros, son of Venus, with his bow and arrow. Ovid blames Eros for inspiring him to write that ‘stupid poem’ which got him into so much trouble, then mounted a spirited defence that it was never intended to lure married women into adultery and thus (the key point, from Augustus’s point of view) ‘raise doubts about whose heir is whose’.

To which Eros gives a very tendentious reply, affirming that Ovid’s poems never misled or corrupted anyone and concludes with an uplifting assurance that Augustus will change his mind and relent. This is all interesting, colourful and much more dramatic than most of the poems.

Then the poem concludes with grovellingly sycophantic praise and thanks to Cotta (93 to 108).

Green makes the interesting point that the setting – falling asleep on a divan – recalls the famous Amores 1.5.

3.4 To Rufinus (116 lines)

Ovid asks Rufinus to support the poem describing Tiberius’s triumph which he sent him. In fact it goes on to be an extensive lament on what he missed out on, and how his poem must fall short, by virtue of not seeing it at first hand, but only hearing second hand reports.

Then he laments the poem will have been poor because he is simply unaccustomed to joy and celebration, seeing as he lives in a land of woes: he has forgotten happy words!

And then he claims it can take up to a year for a poem of his to travel the journey from Tomis to Rome so that, by the time it arrives, everyone is glutted and bored with the subject so his poem is ignored.

As with quite a few of these letters, Ovid repeats the idea that poets make up a secret fraternity (with the implication that he misses the support, the practical criticism and advice he enjoyed from belonging to the fraternity of Roman poets).

The last 30 lines of the poem claim to be direct inspiration from ‘the god’ who predicts a second German triumph for Tiberius (though not mentioning him by name; Ovid had a strange reluctance to do so) though he does mention Livia and tells her to hasten to make the elaborate arrangements for her son’s soon-coming parade!

3.5 To Cotta Maximus (58 lines)

Cotta has thoughtfully sent Ovid copies of ‘the clever speeches you made to a packed forum’, which the latter has enjoyed reading and asks for more. In exile modes he laments the fact that he wasn’t there in Rome to witness the speeches being given and no approval in person. In his mind’s eye he can escape his wretched location ‘among the shaggy Goths’ and walk around Rome once more and meet and chat to Cotta like in the old days. Then he asks querulously, have people forgotten him? Do they still read his poems? Do they still talk about him?

3.6 (60 lines)

Ovid tetchily writes to an unknown addressee asking why he insists on not being named in the letter: what has he to fear from the cosmically magnanimous Augustus – ‘no god’s more moderate than our Prince’? If Ovid sent letters not naming the addresses that wasn’t out of doubt of Augustus’s wisdom and mercy, but more out of his own panic fear when the bombshell struck. Now he’s calmed down a bit he doesn’t mind adding the name but will politely wait till his correspondent gives him permission to.

The poem mentions Augustus’s establishment of a cult and shrine of Justitia Augusta, on 8 January 13 AD. Unsurprisingly, Ovid argues that ‘Justice’ must necessitate moderation of his punishment i.e. removal to somewhere less hostile.

3.7 To his friends (40 lines)

Now I’m out of words, I’ve asked the same thing so often;
now I feel shame for my endless, hopeless prayers.
You must be bored stiff by these monotonous poems…

For the first time Ovid acknowledges that maybe his exile won’t be abated, he won’t even be allowed to move somewhere nicer. Maybe all his pleas and poems and letters have been a waste of time. Why kick against the pricks and swim against the current? Hope brings only endless disappointments. Some wounds are made worse by meddling. Better than drown than prolong the agony of thrashing around in ‘mountainous seas’. He adds the bitter sting that he expected hope and remedy from his friends’ efforts but won’t make that mistake again. So it’s bitter recrimination as much as Stoic acceptance.

3.8 To Maximus (24 lines)

This is a spirited little number, one of the best of the poems because it is short and pithy and mostly empty of self pity. He wonders what present to send the addresses (one of the Maximuses, either Cotta or Fabius) and the poem consists of a miserable list of all the facilities and goods Pontus does not possess, until he comes to the sting in the tail and says the one thing it is notes for is its poisoned arrows. So he’s sending a quiverful so that they may ‘be reddened with your enemies’ blood!’

3.9 To Brutus (56 lines)

Green repeats the scholarly consensus that the first 3 books of Black Sea Letters weren’t just assembled at random but carefully arranged to form a pattern of addressees. The most basic proof of this is the way the collection starts and ends with a poem to the same person, Ovid’s publisher in Rome, Brutus.

Ovid writes in reply to Brutus who has, apparently, told him that critics back in Rome are criticising Ovid for the monotony of theme of his poems. (Green humorously summarises the message of the entire Black Sea Letters as ‘Get me out of here!’)

He gives an insight into his poetic practice i.e. initial creation, then going back over the verse to amend words and phrases. He apologises to Brutus but says, know what? He can’t be bothered any more. It hardly seems sane taking the immense trouble required to polish his poems amid savage Goths who don’t understand a word of Latin.

As to the accusation that his Pontic poems are monotonous, well, guess what?

Cheerful, I wrote cheerful verses; sad, I write sad ones. (line 35)

And:

Of what should I write but the faults of this bitter region,
what pray for, but to die in a better place?

One last point: when a poet makes something up he is free to introduce the themes and variations he wants. But Ovid’s theme was dictated by his pitiful situation. He didn’t write these poems to achieve high poetic repute but a bread-and-butter practical means to a practical end. The variation, such as it is, came from varying the exact content to be appropriate to each addressee:

Not to make a book, but to send the appropriate letter
to each person – this was my object and my care.

In fact, in his commentary Green comes down quite hard on Ovid, accusing him of, ultimately, defeating his own ends by boring his readers with the monotony of his subject matter and complaints until they stopped listening. Better if he’d made the effort to diversify his subject matter; that might have had more impact. Maybe. Unlikely, though.

Book 4 (16 poems)

Letters to Sextus Pompeius, Cornelius Severus, Brutus, Vestalis, Suillius, Graecinus, Albinovanus, Gallio, Carus, Tuticanus and an unnamed enemy.

Scholars think that books 1, 2 and 3 of the Black Sea Letters were carefully assembled and shaped by Ovid, a literary operator to the end. However, the scholarly consensus is that the fourth book of letters was added later, possibly after his death, for several reasons:

  • it’s longer than all the others, 16 poems 880 lines
  • its addressees are new to the series
  • Ovid’s wife is conspicuous by her absence
  • in some places Ovid displays embarrassment at not having communicated with new addressees before

So it’s considered a mopping up exercise, collecting the best of the rest.

What the new addressees almost all have in common is service under or support for Germanicus (see 2.5, above), for example Sextus Pompeius, recipient of four epistles, related to Augustus and an adherent of Germanicus.

Because when Augustus died in August 14, Ovid stood no hope of clemency from Tiberius, sterner than Augustus and under the powerful dominance of his mother Livia. So Ovid turned his hopes towards the emperor’s adopted son, the famously charming, civilised and accessible Germanicus.

4.1 To Sextus Pompeius (36 lines)

Pray accept a poem composed, Sextus Propertius,
by one who owes you his life…

Pompeius takes over the role of prime addressee performed in earlier books by Fabius Maximus and the sons of Messalla Corvinus. Ovid sounds nervous and embarrassed that he hasn’t written to him before, saying he meant to, often wrote his name by mistake at the head of previous letters etc. In a moment of weird hyperbole, Ovid claims that Propertius made him into a work of art.

4.2 To Cornelius Séverus (50 lines)

What you are reading, Séverus, great bard of mighty monarchs,
comes to you all the way from the long-haired Goths…

Séverus was an epic poet (he wrote an epic poem about the Sicilian War) and in the same literary circle as Ovid, that of Messalla Corvinus. Like many of the other poems, he apologises for not having addressed a poem to him before but, interestingly, writes that they have been keeping up a correspondence in verse. What happened to all those letters to and from Ovid for those ten long years?

The poem is an opportunity to complain that his inspiration has left him, he is ploughing the seashore. He has writer’s block because he has no intelligent audience or critical feedback. Paradoxically this poem about poetic barrenness throws up one of the most quotable lines in all the 100 exilic poems:

Writing a poem you can read to no-one
is like dancing in the dark.
(lines 33 to 34)

4.3 To Unnamed (58 lines)

A generic poem castigating a close friend, known since boyhood, who has not only not written to him, but denied they were ever a friend of his. Traitor and dissembler. Ovid warns him just how fickle Fortune is, as light as a breeze, and lists great men brought low (Croesus, Pompey). One day he might fall low and need other people’s help, then he’ll regret abandoning his friends.

4.4 To Sextus Pompeius (50 lines)

A variation on a stock poem or subject, the laudatio consulis i.e. in praise of someone about to be appointed consul for a year. Scholars point out it resembles stock letters that Cicero sent to about-to-be-installed consuls. It invokes and plays against the conventions of the form. Also notable because Ovid introduces the figure of Rumour which gives the sense, not often mentioned in the poems, that he was, all the time, carrying on a busy correspondence in prose with friends and family back in Rome.

He paints a scene of himself walking along the barren seashore when the voice of the allegorical figure of Rumour whispers in his ear that the coming year will be one of joy for ‘the consul will be Pompeius, your dearest friend in the world’ and this leads him into a vivid imagining of the sights and scenes involved in a consul’s entry into power, which Ovid conjures up to console himself.

4.5 To Sextus Pompeius (46 lines)

The poem is an envoi, conceived as a messenger sent to Pompeius who has now commenced his consular year (14 AD).

Go, lightweight elegiac, to our consul’s ultra-learned
ears, take this message for the man of honours to read.

And paints an interesting picture of how the poem-messenger must make his way through the throng around Pompeius as he performs his duties, until he can speak to him and remind him of its sad author. Interestingly, Ovid says he owes his life to Pompeius, that he ‘ensured safe passage for [Ovid] through the wilds’ and has, subsequently, given him ‘life-sustaining gifts.’

The imperial family feature in the poem as those Pompeius must praise and placate but it’s interesting that Germanicus gets the longest mention, 6 lines, Augustus 2, and Tiberius isn’t mentioned at all.

4.6 To Brutus (50 lines)

Ovid’s publisher and literary confidante whose full name we don’t know. He says he’s moving into his second five-year spell in exile (14 AD) and that he’s heard the new that Augustus is dead (August 14) so it must have been written about October-November of that year. Ovid optimistically writes that Augustus ‘had begun to forgive my unwitting error’. Seems optimistic. He says he’s sent Brutus a poem celebrating the new deity i.e. the deification of Augustus. He mentions it in other exile poems, too. it hasn’t survived, but it would have been a treat to see just how oleaginous Ovid could be.

The poem praises Brutus for being compassionate and so surprising many by his forensic ferocity in prosecuting law cases. And implies he’s fat (‘the great frame of yours!’) And claims that ‘the greater part of [his] private circle] abandoned him, denying all knowledge of him.

4.7 To Vestalis (54 lines)

Vestalis was the ‘son of a native prince’ and ‘scion of Alpine kings’, who rose through the ranks of the Roman army and was appointed prefect to the coast of Pontus i.e. across the Black Sea from Tomis.

Since you’ve been posted to the Black Sea’s shore, Vestalis,
to keep the peace in these sub-polar lands,
you can see for yourself the kind of country I lie in,
can testify that mine are no feigned complaints.

The poem turns into a long list of Vestalis’s achievements as a soldier and commander, vividly describing various battles and victories, notably Aegisos. To quote A.S. Kline’s notes, “Aegisos was a Moesian town on the Danube delta. The modern Tulcea, it lies about forty miles inland from the southern mouth of the delta and about seventy miles north of Tomis. It was retaken by Roman forces led by Vestalis in AD12 after a Getic incursion.” hence this poem in praise of Vestalis, comparing him to Ajax before Troy:

conspicuous in your gleaming armour,
ensuring your brave deeds could not be missed,
with great strides you charged the swords, the strong position,
stones thicker than wintry hail,
and neither the downflung rain of javelins could halt you
nor arrows envenomed.

4.8 To Publius Suillius Rufus (90 lines)

Ovid was connected to Rufus twice over. He had married Ovid’s step-daughter, Perilla, in around 12 AD, 5 or 6 years after Ovid’s relegatio; and he was quaestor to Germanicus, Ovid’s last best home of forgiveness.

This explains why the poem morphs into an appeal to Germanicus, in three parts: a) Ovid cannot offer Germanicus money but he can offer him poetic immortality:

Let opulent houses and cities present you with temples; Ovid’s
gratitude will be shown through his sole riches – verse.

b) His (Ovid’s) praise will amplify his fame and reputation. This launches an extended example of the common trope that poems of praise are the best and longest lasting monument. Not only famous contemporaries but the great men of legend and even the gods themselves are to some extent kept alive – we have heard of them – because of poetry.

Than time
there’s nothing in existence has greater strength.
The written word defies the years.

c) Germanicus is himself an author – they have ‘rites in common’ – and so all the more should free Ovid from his horrible exile among ‘the savage Goths’.

4.9 To Graecinus (134 lines)

Same addressee as 1.6 and 2.6, Graecinus was an old friend of Ovid’s but also a drinking buddy of Tiberius’s so had probably made the sensible move of dropping his old friend.

Graecinus was appointed suffect consul in 14 AD so in this poem Ovid: a) imagines the scene of his installation, saying how much he’d have liked to have been there to offer congratulations in person; b) hopes Graeconus will use his position to intercede with the emperor.

Ovid then goes on to celebrate the happy fact that Graecinus will be replaced as consul by his brother, Lucius Pomponius Flaccus. Since Flaccus served as commander of a district on the Black Sea coast (where he distinguished himself in a campaign of 12 AD), Ovid asks Graecinus to get his brother to confirm Ovid’s descriptions of the miserable climate, warlike tribes and so on.

Ovid describes how he is esteemed in Tomis, how his behaviour has won him privileges and exemptions. He goes on to describe how he has a shrine to the entire royal family, Augustus, Livia, Tiberius and the two adopted grandsons Drusus and Germanicus. He asks Graecinus to ask anyone how zealous he is in offering incense to this little group of statuettes every single morning – poor desperate grovelling man.

It’s an unusually long poem and ends with a vision of Augustus, now deified, up in heaven looking down on Ovid, appreciating the poems on his deification which Ovid mentions having recently written.

4.10 To Albinovanus Pedo (84 lines)

Ovid says he’s writing this in his sixth summer. If he departed Rome in December 8 and arrived in the spring of 9, this makes it 15 AD. Albinovanus Pedo was a soldier who’d served under Germanicus. Some of his exploits are described in Tacitus’s Annals and, rather amazingly, he wrote an epic poem about the huge storm which wrecked Germanicus’s fleet in the North Sea in 16.

Anyway, this poem is unusual because, although it raises some super-familiar topics about Tomis – the bleakness of the flat plain, the sea freezing over, the barbarian Goths with their poisoned arrows – there is, surprisingly, no pitiful begging and pleading for help. On the contrary, Ovid, for once, boasts about his toughness, his duritia, at having survived it all.

Can you
compare any flint or steel, dear Albinovanus,
to my endurance?…
All things but me, then, time that great corrosive,
will destroy: even death holds off, quite overcome
by my toughness…

He has heard that people back in Rome simply don’t believe his stories about the cannibal tribes or the sea freezing over, let them come and see for themselves! In fact he goes on to give a technical explanation of why the shore-sides of the Black Sea do freeze over in the winter which Green, in his notes, points out is, unlike most natural history written by the ancients, scientifically correct.

4.11 Junius Gallo (22 lines)

Gallo was a noted rhetorician and friend of the elder Seneca. In one of his typically full and fascinating notes, Green tells us that Gallo’s senatorial career was cut short years later, in 32 AD, when he suggested that ex-praetorians should be given seating privileges in the theatre. ‘Tiberius reprimanded him, removed him from the Senate and sent him into exile.’ Crikey! This fact is more interesting than the poem, a striking insight into the immense importance of hierarchy and precedence and procedure in ancient Rome. Sent into exile! For suggesting a minor change in the seating plant at the theatre?

Anyway, in this short poem Ovid greets Gallo, apologises for not having written earlier, and commiserates on the death of his wife. He laments it takes so long for his letters to travel to Rome (Green, in his notes, says the period of a year is a gross exaggeration). So Ovid speculates that, given this long delay in Gallo’s letter reaching him, maybe he has remarried!?

4.12 To Tuticanus (50 lines)

Although Ovid describes him as an old friend (‘through all the long years we’ve enjoyed together/I’ve loved you like a brother’) and that they developed a very close relationship through sharing and critiquing each other’s poems, Tuticanus hasn’t appeared in any earlier poem and so Green detects a (by now fairly familiar) tone of embarrassed apology in this poem.

Ovid tries to make a joke by pointing out that it is impossible to fit Tuticanus’s name, which consists of a double trochee, into the tight metrical scheme of his elegiac metre. Ovid runs through the various distortions he could make of his friend’s name to fit it in, but says they’d all be laughed at. You don’t have to totally understand the metrical variations which he describes to grasp the point that the kind of verse Ovid (and his contemporaries) wrote was extremely strict in every single syllable of its beats and measures. So when he read his poetry aloud to a literary audience and they critiqued it, as often as not it would be about the strict mathematical count of the metre as about the things we moderns care more about (metaphors and sentiment). Maybe it can be summarised as saying that Roman poetry as considerably more mathematical than we are used to.

Tuticanus has clearly asked in a poem what Ovid wants, but by now, demoralised and defeatist, Ovid confesses he doesn’t know:

I can find nothing to do, or want, or not want,
nor do I clearly know what’s best for me.

4.13 To Carus (50 lines)

We know little about Carus except that he, too, was a poet and, according to this poem, a tutor to Germanicus’s two young sons (Nero and Drusus III). Well-placed, then.

But this poem is noteworthy because in it Ovid claims he has mastered enough of the local lingo to be writing poetry in it and to have become ‘a Getic bard’. Green doubts this means Ovid had become fluent in the local tribal language. More likely he had mastered the bastardised Greek or Greek patois used at this remote trading post. Thus Ovid’s verse technique, based on counting syllables, would still work in a language which retained Greek syllable counts. It is extremely unlikely this syllabic technique could be applied to a non-Mediterranean language based, more than likely, on stresses and beats.

Anyway, he tells Carus he’s had a popular hit among the natives with a poem praising the imperial family, describing how Augustus’s soul had gone to heaven and his virtues been inherited by his wise and good successor (as usual, he can’t bring himself to use Tiberius’s name). Then he jokily describes the scene of assembled Goths, who have listened in silence, at the poem’s end breaking into applause, nodding and shaking their quivers full of arrows – a cartoon scene.

Then he has one of the Getic leaders asking why, when he writes such wonderful praise of Caesar, Caesar doesn’t recall him to Rome.’ But it’s too late. This is his sixth winter. Ovid asks Carus to intercede for him with Germanicus, but it’s half-hearted. His sixth winter is approaching. He’s worn out.

4.14 To Tuticanus (62 lines)

Same addressee as 4.12. It quickly becomes an angrily desperate plea to be moved somewhere, anywhere but wretched Tomis. But this leads into a new and interesting topic: turns out that his incessant bitching about how dreadful Tomis is has vexed the locals. Which leads into a self-pitying lament that whatever he writers, his poetry seems to get him into endless trouble. Maybe he should cut off his fingers so he can’t write any more. Rather unconvincingly he now addresses the ‘men of Tomis’ and assures them that, deep down, he loves them, it’s just their land and its wretched climate he hates. Nice try, Publius.

Then he moves on to positive praise of the way the people of Tomis have welcomed, celebrated and even honoured him. (My God, it would be fascinating to know more about this.) He has been granted a tax exemption. A wreath has been placed around his head ‘by popular acclamation’. Tomis has proved ‘ever loyal and hospitable’. If only it wasn’t so close to the frozen pole!

4.15 To Sextus Pompeius (42 lines)

For once this is a poem of thanks to someone who clearly has given Ovid material aid, and more than once. He writes that he owes all his welfare to him, after the gods he takes first place, his kindnesses have been as many as grapes in a vineyard.

In exchange Ovid describes himself as a chattel and a possession which now belongs to Pompeius, going far beyond the dutifulness described in a usual client-patron relationship. Ovid’s abandonment of himself to Pompeius is abject, complete.

He then apologises for writing the same old thing; whatever subject he sets out to address it always comes back to the same old rut, his plea for forgiveness.

4.16 To anonymous (52 lines)

The final poem in book four and therefore the entire Black Sea Letters is an angry execration of an unnamed person who is bad-mouthing him back in Rome. He adopts from the start the pose he has created before that Ovid is dead – the fashionable man-about-Rome who wrote all those witty poems died the day he was sent into exile and everything since has been written by a corpse. So what on earth is the point of calumniating and criticising a dead man?

The poem opens with an impressive roll call of contemporary poets (listed below), long and exhaustive, leading up to the defiant conclusion that Ovid was, and knew he was, head and shoulders among this packed competition. But what does any of it matter? Ovid is dead now. So, Malice, sheathe your bloody claws. Ovid has lost everything. What’s the point stabbing a dead body?

There is no space in me now for another wound.

Thoughts

1. Ovid more of a hanger-on than we thought

The letters shed light on the real nexus of relationships Ovid navigated back in Rome and it is not a pretty one. More than once you get the impression Ovid was a hanger-on to much more important, powerful, rich men, leading figures in politics or the army, who indulged the wimpy poet because of his quick tongue and his outrageous wit, but never really liked him and, now he’s in trouble, have promptly dumped him and wouldn’t dream of jeopardising their standing with the old or new emperor for such a hanger-on. Not flattering.

2. Why repetition works for love but not for exile

It’s difficult not to get worn down by the sheer repetition of the same half dozen tropes repeated in almost all the 100 poems, illustrated by the same half dozen metaphors and the same half dozen mythological references (endlessly comparing himself to storm-tossed Ulysses, long-suffering Philoctetes, Capaneus, comparing his dutiful wife to Penelope, Andromache, Evadne et al).

But there’s a point to be made here: the Amores mercilessly reshuffled half a dozen tropes about love – about the poet being a slave for love, shackled for love, love’s servant, love’s soldier, love’s long-suffering victim, twanged through the heart by love’s arrows etc – and these are endlessly enjoyable.

My suggestion is that from Ovid’s time right up to the present, we are so indoctrinated by the mass media with the importance of ‘Love’ that we accept reading the same love tropes in poetry, reading the same love stories in novels, watching the same half dozen love plots (competition for the pretty girl, marriage then infidelity, torn between two lovers etc) without complaint.

As a Darwinian materialist I see the never-ending and enormous obsession of all our media and cultural productions with ‘love’ and sex as reflecting the central concern of human beings (when regarded as mammals just like all the other mammals on the planet) which is to mate, to nest and to reproduce.

When Ovid applies the same half dozen tropes about love (in the Heroides, Amores, Art of Love) we lap it up, the repetition doesn’t seem to matter, the expression of the same old love plaint seems fresh and new and heartfelt each time we read it.

But when he applies the same technique of endless repetition of a half dozen tropes regarding a different subject, namely his unhappy exile in windswept, tribe-infested Tomis, we react with growing boredom and exasperation.

It’s because this highly specific situation doesn’t have anything like the same basic, animal, evolutionary interest for us that sex and love do. This is why we mostly remain on the outside of his poems and don’t take them to heart as we do his love poems. And helps to explain why the constant repetition eventually becomes really wearing.

The extent of repetition with variation is comparable in both cases: but one subject is core to almost everyone’s central purpose as human beings (love and sex), the other is marginal and niche.

3. More poets than you’d expect

Neither Green nor anyone else I’ve read makes much of this last point, but a surprising number of the people Ovid writes too wrote poetry. It was clearly a really common activity among the educated classes of Rome which must, therefore, have created a highly qualified audience for Ovid’s recitations, and plenty of feedback and criticism. Only towards the end did I start listing people he writes to who are described either in the poem itself or in Green’s notes as poets and then discovered that the final poem in the entire book, 4.16, includes a handy list of the poets among Ovid’s contemporaries:

  • Cornelius Severus (4.2) author of an epic poem about the Sicilian Wars
  • Albinovanus Pedo (4.10) wrote an epic poem on Theseus and on the exploits of Germanicus
  • Tuticanus (4.12) wrote a Phaeacid a reworking of the Phaeacian books in Homer’s Odyssey
  • Carus (4.13) wrote a poem about Hercules
  • Domitius Marsus (4.16) wrote an epitaph on Tibullus
  • ‘bombastic’ Rabirius (4.16) wrote an epic on the civil wars which the critic Velleius Paterculus thought equal to Virgil
  • Clutorius Priscus (4.16) wrote a lament on the death of Germanicus
  • Julius Montanus (4.16)
  • Sabinus (4.16) wrote verse replies to Ovid’s Heroides and ‘an almanac in verse’
  • an unnamed poet (4.16) ‘who versified Rome’s wars in Libya’
  • Marius (4.16) who could turn his hand to anything
  • Camarinus (4.16) wrote an epic account from the death of Hector to the end of the Trojan war
  • Rufus (4.16) a lyric poet, ‘one man performer upon Pindar’s lyre’
  • a ‘Sicilian friend’ (4.16) wrote a Perseid
  • Lupus (4.16) who described Menelaus and Helen’s adventures on the journey back to Sparta
  • Turranius (4.16) author of unnamed tragedies
  • Gaius Melissus (4.16) developed a new type of social comedy
  • Lucius Varius Rufus (4.16) wrote tragedies, a panegyric to Augustus, an epic On Death, and was commissioned by Augustus, along with Plotius Tucca, after Virgil’s death, to edit and produce a publishable version of the Aeneid
  • Graccus (4.16) composed a poem on Thyestes
  • Proclus (4.16) an imitator of the Greek poet Callimachus and so one of the ‘neoteric’ poets, most famous of whom was Catullus
  • Grattius (4.16) author of a 540-line poem on hunting and the training of hunting dogs
  • Fontanus (4.16) ‘tossed off the amours of nymphs and satyrs’
  • Capella (4.16) ‘crammed phrases in the elegiac mould’
  • Cotta Maximus (4.16) rich, powerful patron and dabbler in poetry

Where are they now? Well, Green dolefully informs us, of the 16 poets I’ve mentioned above, who Ovid references in 4.16 (plus two or three I haven’t mentioned because they are referred to by work not name), none of their works have survived intact, with the one rather sad exception of the hunting poem by Grattius.

The collected works of all the others, including all those epic poems about death, the Trojan war, the civil war, all those plays…all vanished into oblivion.


Credit

Peter Green’s translation of Ovid’s Black Sea Letters was included in Ovid: The Poems of Exile, published by Penguin Books in 1994. All references are to this 1994 paperback edition.

Related links

Roman reviews

The Art of Love by Ovid

ego sum praeceptor Amoris
I am Love’s teacher
(The Art of Love, book 1, line 17)

Ovid the pickup artist

Anyone expecting a treatise on the philosophical types of love à la Plato or Castiglione, or expecting a text about sentimental or romantic forms of love, will be very disappointed and possibly repelled. This is a hard-headed book by a professional pickup artist and consists of practical advice to young men on where and how to pick up, chat up, seduce and take to bed women married or single, young or old.

‘Love’ suggests a steady state, an ongoing condition. That bores Ovid. He is interested in the chase, the pursuit. His premise is that any woman can be seduced but only if you have technique, and that’s what he’s going to teach. Any fool can try to chat up a woman just as any fool can try his hand at sports, angling or taming horses. But all these things have a technique, an expertise, traditions and methods to guarantee success. He, Ovid, the teacher of love, pickup artist extraordinaire, seduction guru par excellence, is going to share his top tips with the excited young reader.

Vexing Augustus

Over half of Peter Green’s immense introduction to the Penguin edition of Ovid’s love poems is taken up speculating about why the emperor Augustus abruptly exiled Ovid to the furthest outpost of the Roman Empire, to the miserable frontier town of Tomis, on the Black Sea. To cut a long story short, Green thinks it’s because Ovid was witness to some kind of meeting or evidence about a conspiracy to overthrow Augustus in 8 AD and didn’t report it. In his wretched Letters From Exile Ovid hints at the nature of his crime, but to the immense frustration of scholars for 2,000 years, nowhere spells it out explicitly. He simply insists that he, personally, was never treacherous, never acted against the emperor or planned to poison or kill or hurt anyone. It wasn’t enough. Augustus, and his successor Tiberius, refused to rescind Ovid’s exile and he died miserably in Tomis in 17 or 18 AD.

The point is that Green has to piece this together, and present it as a theory, because Augustus and his people gave it out that the official reason Ovid was banished was for corrupting morals, that Ovid had deliberately undermined Augustus’s programme of moral revival, and they cited this poem, The Art of Love, as the prime example of his corrupting influence.

To grasp the background to this you have to know that, once he had secured a position of complete power, Augustus set about a wholesale programme or reviving Rome in every way: building new roads and aqueducts, encouraging the building of cities in the provinces and roads connecting them, reviving trade. And in Rome, building a grand new forum, rebuilding the temples of various gods, encouraging the revival of ancient religious ceremonies and rituals.

And when it came to the population of Rome, Augustus embarked on a campaign to reform morals and, above all, to encourage the upper classes to marry and have many sons. The series of civil wars from 91 to 31 BC had decimated many venerable old families. Augustus embarked on a series of laws designed to revive them.

In 18 BC he passed the Lex Julia de maritandis ordinibus (all laws passed under Augustus began with ‘lex Julia‘ because he saw himself continuing the Julian family of Julius Caesar). This law required all citizens to marry, and granted numerous benefits to fathers of three children or more; conversely, there were penalties for the unmarried and childless. Senators were forbidden from marrying freedmen (ex-slaves).

A year later Augustus passed the Lex Julia de adulteriis coercendis. This law punished adultery with banishment. The two guilty parties were sent to different islands and part of their property was confiscated. Fathers were permitted to kill daughters and their partners taken in adultery (!). Husbands could kill unfaithful partners, under certain circumstances, and were compelled to divorce adulterous wives (!). Augustus himself invoked the law against his own daughter, Julia (Julia the Elder, who was banished to the island of Pandateria in 2 BC) and then against her eldest daughter (Julia the Younger who was exiled in 8 AD).

In 9 BC Augustus passed the Lex Papia et Poppaea which encouraged and strengthened the institution of marriage. It included provisions against adultery and against celibacy after a certain age. Specifically, it forbade the marriage of a senator or a senator’s children with a libertina (an emancipated slave), with a woman whose father or mother had followed one of the ars ludicra (i.e. been a dancer, actor, gladiator, or other entertainer), with a prostitute, and also the marriage of a libertinus with a senator’s daughter. The provisions against celibacy included, for example, a provision that any unmarried person could not inherit a bequest or legacy; to qualify for the bequest, they had to marry within 100 days. All else being equal, candidates with children were preferred in elections or court cases over candidates with none.

So: Rebuilding Rome, ongoing military campaigns (to pacify northern Spain, parts of Gaul and Switzerland), reviving venerable religious ceremonies, erecting fine new public buildings, enforcing sexual morality, these were all key policies of the new emperor – and, in the Art of Love, Ovid mocks every single one of them.

Ovid’s book says that being a layabout sex pest is a much more worthy lifestyle than being a boring old soldier. He mocks the empire’s military campaigns. He thinks the gods are a load of lies and fancy stories. He thinks the only use of Rome’s fine new buildings is for hanging round so you can pick up women. And above all, he targets married women. The Art of Love encourages and gives tips about precisely the kind of marital infidelity and sexual aberrance which Augustus passed laws and went to great lengths to try and prevent.

Let me instruct you in all
The way of deceit.
(3.617)

In line after line, topic after topic, Ovid seems to be deliberately, calculatedly, spitting in the face of everything Augustus dedicated his life to achieving. The only wonder about all this is why it took till 8 AD for Augustus to banish Ovid given that the Ars Amatoria was published around 1 BC i.e. 8 or 9 years earlier. And also the fact that, by the time of his banishment, Ovid himself had moved on from his erotic period and had only just published the Metamorphoses, his huge collection of ancient myths and legends, far more acceptable to Augustus and his regime, although with a strong, amoral emphasis on sex and violence.

Hence Green’s elaborate theory that the accusations of corrupting public morals which the regime used to justify exiling Ovid so far away were really just a cover for something else, in Green’s view Ovid’s passive participation in some kind of political conspiracy against Augustus.

Comparison with Oscar Wilde

So, in a way, reading the Ars is like reading Oscar Wilde. Obviously you can just read Wilde for the immediate pleasure of his wit and style but…the experience changes when you learn that many passages of his work were read out in court and interpreted in a blunt, literal sense in order to be used as evidence against him, evidence that he mocked Victorian values, mocked decent ‘morality’, and promoted irresponsible sensuality and gross immorality i.e. homosexuality.

What made Wilde’s defence so difficult was that he had written all these subversive thoughts, albeit in a wonderfully witty style. Wilde thought his style would save him but it didn’t. Therefore, reading Wilde with this in mind can be unintentionally harrowing, because each time he pokes his tongue out at conventional Victorian values you shudder for the wretched fate it was to bring him (two years hard labour in a series of grim prisons, which utterly broke his spirit and led to his early death).

Same with Ovid. Having read Green’s very long introduction, which dwells on the miseries of his Black Sea exile, means that, every time Ovid pokes his tongue out at and mocks all the po-faced solemnities of official Roman morality, you shiver a little with a premonition of what is to befall him, the miserable fate that all these witty little jokes would end up bringing down on his head.

The theatre’s curving tiers should form your favourite
Hunting ground: here you are sure to find
The richest returns, be your wish for lover or playmate,
A one-night stand or a permanent affair.
As ants hurry to and fro in column, mandibles
Clutching grains of wheat
(Their regular diet), as bees haunt fragrant pastures
And meadows, hovering over the thyme,
Flitting from flower to flower, so our fashionable ladies
Swarm to the games in such crowds, I often can’t
Decide which I like. As spectators they come, come to be inspected:
Chaste modesty doesn’t stand a chance.
(lines 89 to 100)

Proem

Back to the poem itself, the first 30 or so lines make up the proem, an ancient term for preface or prologue. It is here that Ovid explains his aim of systematically teaching the technique of the pickup artist. It does include a half line invocation of the goddess Venus, but in an almost insultingly cursory manner, compared to the five lines he spends explaining that this book isn’t theoretical – he has lived and practiced all the tricks he describes himself. He emphatically insists everything the book is based on personal experience and is fact.

There follows a brief, 10-line partitio (‘a logical division into parts or heads’, ‘a descriptive programme of contents’) where he lays out the subject matter the poem will address, which is easily summarised:

  • Book 1 is about finding and wooing a woman
  • Book 2 is about keeping her

The text contains a book 3, just as long, in fact longer than either book 1 or 2, so the fact that it isn’t mentioned in the partitio makes scholars think it was a later addition.

Book 1 (773 lines)

After the proem and partitio, book 1 is divided into two halves: part one is a description of all the best places in Rome to pick up women, namely the colonnades, foreign temples (the synagogue is a good place), the theatre, the circus (for chariot racing), during triumphal processions, at dinner parties and at coastal spas, notably the notorious resort of Baiae.

Part two lists ploys and strategies for winning women. Cultivate their maids (but don’t end up sleeping with them) so they’ll put in a good word for you at the opportune moment, like when the mistress has been snubbed by another lover.

Don’t let the target woman con you into giving them expensive presents: he lists some of the scams women use to try and wangle gifts from their lovers, and how to resist them. (This was a prominent theme in the elegiac love poems of Tibullus and Propertius, too.)

Soften them up with love letters. Use language carefully, softly, sweetly. And persist: Time breaks stubborn oxen to the yoke, Time accustoms wild horses to the bridle. Same with women.

Be clean in your personal hygiene, though not effeminately so: ‘Real men shouldn’t primp their good looks’ (line 509). Take exercise, work up an outdoor tan. Hair and beard demand expert attention. Trim your nails and your nose hairs. Avoid male body odour.

Don’t drink too much at dinner parties (though it can be handy to pretend to be more drunk than you are as this gives you licence to be more forward than a sober man would be, in order to test the waters). Become knowledgeable in the language of secret signs. Drink from her cup, accidentally brush your hand against hers. If she’s with a companion, butter him up. Let him have precedence, award him the garland so he looks favourably on you.

Promise anything; lovers’ oaths don’t count.

Don’t be shy about promising: it’s promises girls are undone by. (1.631)

You can’t flatter too much, every woman is vain of her appearance.

Undermine them with devious
Flatteries: so a stream will eat away
Its overhanging bank. Never weary of praising
Her face, her hair, her slim fingers, her tiny feet.
Even the chaste like having their good looks published,
Even virgins are taken up with their own
Cute figures.
(1.619 to 624)

Look pale and thin to prove your sincerity. Lean and haggard, reek of sleepless nights, make yourself an object of pity so passersby comment, ‘He must be in love.’

Mocking Romulus

Describing the theatre as a good location to pick up women leads Ovid into an extended comparison with the legend about early Rome, that Romulus and his band of earliest settlers invited members of the nearby Sabine tribe to a very early version of a theatrical entertainment and then, at a pre-arranged signal, all the Romans grabbed a Sabine woman and ran off with them. The so-called Rape of the Sabine Women. It was a traditional story, told in many texts, what makes it Ovidian is the way he satirises and mocks Romulus’s high-minded speeches, and makes the entire story a kind of justification for the contemporary theatre being a good pickup location, an ironic mocking use of ‘tradition’ to justify his current cynical activities.

Ever since that day, by hallowed custom,
Our theatres have always held dangers for pretty girls.

In his notes (p.341) Green points out that Augustus, as part of his programme of restoring Roman values and traditions and religions, took the figure of Romulus very seriously indeed, in fact he had for a while considered renaming himself Romulus before the negative connotations outweighed the positive and he settled on the title ‘Augustus’ (awarded him by the Senate in 27 BC). So in this passage Ovid is going out of his way to take the mickey out of a figure very dear indeed to Augustus’s heart, and remodel him as a sponsor for Ovid’s own brand of cynical sexual predatoriness. Can you imagine how furious Augustus must have been?

The gods are expedient

Book 1 contains a line which became famous, it’s line 637 in Green’s translation:

The existence of gods is expedient: let us therefore assume it.

This sounds like a grand philosophical statement. In fact it’s more to do with the fact that the gods of the Graeco-Roman pantheon behaved scandalously, indulging human passions, mad with lust or jealousy…so let’s copy them with a clear conscience. Jupiter seduced umpteen women so…so can I! Again, you can imagine Augustus reading this kind of thing and grinding his teeth with anger.

Book 2 (746 lines)

Just when you thought it couldn’t get much more offensive, it stops. Book 2 is about keeping your beloved and is considerably more emollient and less sexist than Book 1.  Obviously it has the same underlying ideology, which is that women are passive animals while men are the smart manipulators, which 50% of the population may find grossly offensive, but a lot of the actual advice could have come out of a contemporary advice column. Maybe…

To be loved, you must prove yourself lovable.

(So much so that Green in his notes is regularly lampooning the triteness of some the agony aunt truisms he spouts. Maybe. Maybe not.)

Ovid opens Book 2 with ironic cheers for the man who has followed his advice and managed to ‘bag’ himself a lady love. Well done, sunshine. But now the real challenge in this whole business is how to keep her. So that’s what this book will be about:

If my art
Caught her, my art must keep her. To guard a conquest’s
As tricky as making it. There was luck in the chase,
But this task will call for skill.

Don’t mess with witchcraft, aphrodisiacs or drugs. Didn’t work for Medea or Circe. Instead (surprisingly) cultivate the life of the mind.

… to avoid a surprise desertion
And keep your girl, it’s best you have gifts of mind
In addition to physical charms…

Then build an enduring mind, add that to your beauty:
It alone will last till the flames
Consume you. Keep your wits sharp, explore the liberal
Arts, win a mastery over Greek
As well as Latin. Ulysses was eloquent, not handsome…

Be pleasant. Be tactful, be tolerant and understanding. Keep clear of all quarrels and recriminations. Love is sensitive and needs to be fed with gentle words. Leave wrangling to wives; a mistress should hear what she wants to hear.

He emphasises the distinction between married couples who have law to keep them together, and the kind of couples he’s describing where ‘love substitutes for law’. a) the kind of thing calculated to get Augustus’s goat b) a shrewd distinction. Married couples have not only the law, but shared responsibilities for raising children and the expectations of family, plus social reputation, to keep them together; illicit lovers have none of that. So it behoves them to be more considerate and tolerant. In another throwaway line which mockingly equates Rome’s mighty military enterprises with his frothy adulterer’s handbook:

Fight Parthians, but keep peace with a civilised mistress.
(2.175)

Do not use brute force. Go with the natural bend of the bough, don’t force it. Go with the current. Laugh when she laughs, cry when she cries, approve what she approves, criticise what she criticises. Open her parasol, clear a path through the crowd. Help her on and off with her slippers. Don’t bridle at menial tasks like holding her mirror for her. Always be early for dates. If she asks for you at her country residence, Go, no matter what the weather or obstacles.

About now I began to wonder what the point of all this is? The aim doesn’t appear to be to have sex at all. Sex isn’t mentioned anywhere in Book 1 and only appears a bit in the last couple of pages of Book 2 (see below). It’s nice, but it doesn’t appear to the be the prime aim. It feels more as if the whole point of the chase is the thrill of the chase itself and the achievement of…. what exactly? Winning a woman’s what? Heart? Allegiance? Devotion? When he writes that ‘Love is a species of warfare’, I don’t take it in the sexist sense to mean warfare between men and women, but warfare between male suitors for.. for what? For the beloved’s love? All the elegiac poets complain bitterly when their lady love is taken off them by another man: the embittered poem to The Rival is a genre unto itself.

Is it just about a sense of possession, of ownership? Is it about winning a woman as a trophy and then….then not really knowing quite what to do with her?

Anyway, the reference to Parthia allows Ovid a passage comparing the soldier of love with the actual soldier in the army, and make witty comparisons with the hardships both have to endure, a trope which is beginning to feel done to death in the Amores and here, let alone in all the other elegiac poets.

It may sound ludicrous but the rhetoric about the need to humble your pride, humiliate yourself, debase yourself before your beloved, accept that no task is too great to please her is reminiscent of Christian rhetoric, with its emphasis on humility and service. At moments Ovid steps out of the 1st century BC and sounds like a medieval troubador or Renaissance lover.

(Personally, as a Darwinian materialist, I would venture that this is because human nature is finite and only capable of a fixed array of emotions, feelings and strategies. The same kind of rhetoric is found in communist propaganda, which tells you to mortify your bourgeois pride in order to throw in your lot with The People, accepting any task, no matter how humble, for the sake of the Revolution. I appreciate the contexts are wildly different but the same phrases and attitudes can be found in numerous ideologies and religions. We humans think we’re fabulous but are, in practice, very limited, very predictable animals.)

Back to Ovid’s Top Tips for Lovers: Don’t give your mistress costly presents – give small ones, but chosen with skill and discretion. Poetry? Girls might be impressed by it as by a cute little gift, but what most women really want is money, rich presents. That’s why this is truly ‘the Golden Age’, he says, with heavy irony.

Very casually he mentions slaves that are going to be manumitted, or about to be flogged, or sent to a chain gang. As usual, I find references to slavery profoundly disturbing (as I do the references to upper class women scratching the faces of their slave maids or stabbing them with pins, if they make a mistake). The context is that if you were thinking of forgiving your slaves their punishments, wangle it so your mistress pleads for mercy, then do what you were going to do anyway.

Praise her beauty. Praise anything she’s wearing. Compliment her hair, or her dancing, or her singing. Lay it on with a trowel. Praise her technique in bed. The one golden rule is don’t overdo it and get caught out obviously lying. Then your reputation’s ruined.

If she gets ill, attend her sick room, cry, be all sympathy, bring an old crone to purify the room.

The key is to be always present, get her accustomed to you, hearing your voice, seeing your face. Then, when you’ve reached peak presence, arrange to be absent and make her miss you. Absence makes the heart grow fonder…up to a point. Not too long. In a page-long passage he doesn’t blame Helen for eloping with Paris but Menelaus for going off and leaving her by herself (2.357 to 372) (a theme he explored in some detail in the Heroides supposedly written by Helen and Paris).

In a very throwaway manner he says, obviously he’s not imagining you’re restricting yourself to just one lover. God forbid! So in order not to get caught out, don’t give X presents that Y might recognise; make sure you erase all previous messages from a wax tablet letter you send lover Y; don’t meet different lovers in the same places, cultivate different locales for each.

If she catches you out, deny everything, if that fails go for it, in bed. Hard ‘cocksmanship’ is its own proof that a) your not shagging anyone else b) you’re still devoted. Some aphrodisiacs might work and he gives a characteristically Roman quirky list of foodstuffs and ingredients (white Megarian onions, colewort, eggs, Hymettus honey, pine nuts).

If things get boring you could strategically let slip that you’re seeing someone else. Handled correctly, with the right kind of girl, this could lead to terrible scenes and recriminations, sure, but if you navigate your way through the tears, beg forgiveness, take her to bed and have great make-up sex, this can rejuvenate a relationship.

The last couple of hundred lines become chaotic. I found this with Horace’s last few epistles, as well. Roman poets are not great at structure. Their poems often take unexpected turns and detours. Out of nowhere the god Apollo appears by Ovid’s side and delivers a 20 line lecture, telling lovers to employ the famous motto over his oracle in Delphi, namely to know yourself. So if you’re handsome, always present your profile; if you’re clever, fill the space at dinner parties with brilliant talk; if a good drinker, show it and so on. It’s puzzling and random that Apollo pops up like this, given that he was name-checked in the opening lines of the poem as a god who had not inspired the poet (who insists everything he teaches derives from his own experience).

After this interruption, there’s a more puzzling digression as he appears to say that all lovers should know when to quit. It is not gentlemanly to become a bore. Know when to leave, before she starts complaining that you’re always hanging around (2.530). You’d have thought this – advice on how to end a relationship – would come right at the end of the book.

Instead the book still has 200 lines to run and continues with a section on how to cope with a rival, which is accept him with sang-froid – advice Ovid immediately goes on to say he finds hard to follow himself. He advises lovers to let their mistress have another lover and turn a blind eye. Snooping, opening letters, eavesdropping, those are the mean-minded activities of a husband, a lover should rise above them.

There’s more contradiction here, because Ovid had (unnecessarily and briefly) asserted that he doesn’t have in mind, he never has in mind, respectably married matrons. And yet here and at many other places, he mentions the husband of the ideal target of all this seduction technique. It’s a flat contradiction which has no clever or literary impact – it just comes over as confused and contradictory, either badly planned or contradictory passages have been cut and pasted together, for some reason.

The final section seems repetitive. He (again) advises flattery: if the mistress is black as pitch call her a ‘brunette’ to flatter her; if she squints, compare her to Venus; if she croaks, tell her she’s like Minerva; if she’s a living skeleton, call her ‘svelte’.

Never ask a woman her age, specially if she’s past her girlish prime. Anyway, age is good, it brings experience, sophistication and skill. They know a thousand different positions. And then he surprised me by making the most explicit reference I’ve read in any Roman poet. Green has Ovid saying he likes it when both partners reach climax during love making. That’s his main objection to sex with boys, he loves making his mistress gasp with sex, and making her climax (2.683 to 691).

He gives sex advice: touch her where she wants to be touched; watch her eyes assume that expression, rapture, gasps and moans. Take your time. Don’t hurry to climax and don’t come before your mistress.

Book 2 ends with a comic conclusion in which he says he excels all the soldier heroes of legend for his skill and excellence in teaching, so may every man who uses his advice to win and keep a mistress carve a trophy with the words: ‘Ovid was my guide’!

This feels like a very neat tying up of the poem and many scholars feel it was the original ending, emphasised by the fact that two of the heroes he mentions – Achilles and Automedon – were mentioned right at the start of Book 2.

But there then appear 2 additional lines, claiming that now – the girls want his advice, which most scholars think were tacked on in order to justify the later addition of Book 3.

Book 3 (812 lines)

A prologue explaining that he’s equipped men against women, now he’s going to do the reverse and offer the girls the benefit of his ‘wisdom’. The same kind of sweeping generalisations he made against women in books 1 and 2 he now makes for women. It reminds me of Cicero the lawyer, arguing sometimes for, sometimes against, the same client. It makes you realise the extent to which this poem obviously, but maybe Roman literature as a whole, was always much more of a rhetorical exercise than we are used to. Was always more of a performance of the poet’s skill in a certain style, in a certain metre, on a certain topic – than anything like our notion of poetry in particular as expressing genuine personal feelings and views.

All this explains his sudden volte-face and attempts to prove the opposite of what he was asserting a few pages back.

Men are often deceivers, girls hardly ever.

I was president of my school debating society. I recognise the signs of being given a topic you don’t have much sympathy for, and being told to present a case, first for it, then against it. You don’t win prizes for sincerity. You win prizes for the skill with which you select and present your points.

He invents the notion of Venus appearing to him and complaining that men are benefiting from his 2 books of advice; give the girls a chance.

In fact, his advice kicks off by not being particularly woman-friendly. He spends a couple of pages striking the carpe diem note i.e. your youth will pass, you’ll grow old and wizened and grey-haired so seize the day, give into love. Maybe your lover will turn out a cheat and a liar, who cares? What’s lost? Have a shower and move onto the next one. Some goods wear out with use, but your privates won’t wear out (line 92) so let your lovers come to the well a thousand times.

I naively thought the book would be a guide to women on the art of seducing men, so was disappointed when it turned out to be more like a woman’s magazine-type set of articles about how to make the most of yourself. Don’t overdo jewellery and accessories. Advice on the best hairstyle to match the shape of your face. A page on different colours for dresses. Shave your armpits and your legs. Clean your teeth. Make-up, powder and rouge. Mascara. As traditional, the best make-up remains unobtrusive (3.211).

Keep all this hard work hidden. ‘There’s a lot men are better off not knowing.’

Beauties don’t need him, his advice is for the less than perfect, the ugly or plain or short (just as his advice to men wasn’t to the handsome and rich, who need no help, but the less well-off and physically ordinary). He goes on to give advice for the skinny, the pale, the swarthy, those with skinny calves or ugly feet, buck teeth or bad breath.

Learn to cry on demand. Learn to walk elegantly with a nice sway of the hips (3.302).

Girls should know how to sing and play a musical instrument. And, of course, poetry, leading into a much-cited passage mentioning the appeal of various poets, the love poetry of Catullus, Tibullus or Propertius, the heroic history of Virgil (‘the most publicised Latin poem of all time’) maybe even his own products, the Amores and Heroides (proudly boasting that the heroic epistle is an art form he invented himself).

A girl should know how to dance. And how to play board games, which leads into a page about Roman board games which is infuriatingly light on detail (apparently, historians don’t know how to play even one single Roman board game). Ovid points out the key thing about playing is to maintain control while men, all too easily excited by games, lose theirs.

A confused section contrasts women’s limited social freedoms with men being able to exercise on the Field of Mars and go swimming in the Tiber; which quickly cuts back to places women can go to, a surprisingly large amount i.e. temples, the colonnades, the theatre, the circus, the forum. Somehow this morphs back onto a passage about poets and how they used to be respected in olden times, not so much nowadays. As towards the end of Book 2, it feels like Ovid is just cutting and pasting passages in willy-nilly, with no logic and unnecessary repetition. Somehow the passage about poetry ends with the conclusion that a good place to find a husband is at your last husband’s funeral, when you’re there with dishevelled hair and tear-stained eyes, which some men find very sexy.

Beware of smart-looking young beaux with a handsome profile and rings on their fingers – they’re cheaters and users.

By line 470, sensing that he’s becoming chaotic, Ovid tells himself to rein his muse in and try and be more structured in how he’s presenting this advice.

How to handle letters from passionate lovers i.e. wait a bit then get your maid or boy to reply. Don’t be taken in by feigned passion.

Riskily he refers to Augustus as ‘our great leader’ and just as he places men in various positions, advises a woman to do the same to her prospective lovers.

Confusingly there’s now a third section about poets, this time including some famous lines about how they get their inspiration from heaven, the God is within them etc. Sure, but why weren’t these three separate passages about poets gathered together and ordered more logically?

Back to lovers. Lock them out sometimes. Make them sweat. When things are getting boring drop hints that you have another lover, he has a rival. Juice him up. Pretend your husband’s a tyrant who’s having you watched. In the middle of an assignation have a maid come running in shouting, ‘The master’s coming,’ and then both bundle him out the window in a panic. That’ll keep him interested.

He gives a couple of pages on how to evade the watchful eye of your husband or guardian, by smuggling messages in and out, arranging illicit meetings, using a friend’s apartment, dates at the theatre or circus, let alone the baths, or the religious ceremonies supposedly restricted to women only etc.

Don’t trust girlfriends. Or your own maid. Ovid confesses to having seduced many a maid when her mistress just made herself too unavailable. The theme of jealousy prompts him to insert a lengthy telling of the story of Cephalus and Procris (3.687 to 746). This feels like padding out and is immediately followed by a note to himself to stop all these digressions.

Final burst of advice: regarding parties, already arrive late, after dark, when the torches have been lit. Eat sparingly and daintily. Final part is another surprisingly candid section of sexual advice. Just as he recommended different hairstyles and dress colours for different faces and physiques, here he runs through half a dozen different sexual positions which are appropriate for different body types (if you have a pretty face, do it missionary position; if a strong back, from behind; if you’re petite, ride him like a horse etc).

This and the parallel passage in Book 2 are the only descriptions I’ve read in the 50 or so Roman texts I’ve read. As this is a guidebook, they’re brisk and practical. As in Book 2, his ideal is that man and woman climax together. He is aware of the fact that many women can’t climax (at least not through penetrative sex) and so suggests they pant and moan and pretend, ‘put on an act!’ something, as I understand it, hundreds of millions of women have done through the ages.

And with that it’s over and he, very weakly, ends with a straight repeat of the lines at the end of Book 2, telling his girl disciples, like the boys before them, to inscribe on their trophies of successful loves, ‘Ovid was my guide.’ It was funny the first time round. Here it’s indicative of Book 3’s very belated, tacked-on and ragbag structure. No wonder he tells himself frequently throughout the book to leave off digressing, to get back to the point, to pull his socks up.

I wonder if a powerful woman ordered him to add a Book 3. Livia, maybe?


Sexism

The Ars Amatoria isn’t a bit sexist, it is made of sexism. Has there ever been a more sexist book? The entire text is based on the assumption that women are prey, like wild animals, to be stalked and captured, that they have little or no will of their own, that their main characteristics are vanity about their looks and shopping, which is why the pickup artist should focus on relentless flattery and know how to gracefully handle endless demands for gifts.

As the Amores set out to capture and record every possible aspect of the love poem, as the Metamorphoses set out to record every single Greek myth which involved bodily change, so the Ars Amatoria is, in effect, an encyclopedia of sexist and misogynist attitudes.

I could list the ways Ovid dehumanises women, reducing them to game (as in big game, animals to be hunted), birds to be caught, wild animals to be stalked, fish to be hooked, or soil to be ploughed, wild land to be tamed, and so on.

At a less metaphorical level, he is straightforward insulting about women’s natures:

If you’re wise
Gull only girls, they’re no danger. In this one deception
It’s good faith that ought to make you blush.
They’re cheats, so cheat them: most are dumb and unscrupulous: let them
Fall into the traps they’ve set themselves.
(1.642 to 646)

If Augustus was driven to fury by Ovid’s calculated mockery of Rome’s religion, venerable founder, and sexual mores, what must the formidable Livia have made of this unrelenting abuse of women as a sex? Did she have any input into the decision to banish the scandalous poet?

I imagine modern women readers will struggle with such continual libel, objectification, undermining, insult, sexism and misogyny without being overcome with disgust. Towards the end of Book 1 Ovid sinks into the darkest hole of all when he repeats the lie of the ages, that when a woman says no she doesn’t mean it: all women, deep down, want to be overcome, by force if necessary.

It’s all right to use force – force of that sort goes down well with
The girls: what in fact they love to yield
They’d often rather have stolen. Rough seduction
Delights them, the audacity of near-rape
Is a compliment.
(1.673 to 677)

And goes on to mention two women from Greek mythology who were raped and then fell in love with their rapists. Wow. Needs no comment from me.

Just one comment about Green’s style. As I mentioned in my review of his translation of the Amores, Green uses an exaggeratedly demotic, Jack-the-Lad register, and this turns out to be really appropriate for this poem, which is a long hymn to Jack the Lads. I now understand that Green’s very demotic style – which I initially thought inappropriate for the Amores – turns out to be very appropriate for the Art of Love, bringing out the vulgarity and crudity of a lot of the thought, more so than a smoother, more ‘literary’ translation might have done.

Many women adore the elusive,
Hate over-eagerness. So, play hard to get,
Stop boredom developing. And don’t let your entreaties
Sound too confident of possession. Insinuate sex
Camouflaged as friendship
. I’ve seen ultra-stubborn creatures
Fooled by this gambit, the switch from companion to stud.
(1.717 to 722)

This is a vivid translation of often very repellent sentiments.

Anticipations of the Metamorphoses

Ovid is most known and read for his epic masterpiece, the Metamorphoses, a long poem in 15 books which chronicles the history of the world from its creation to the deification of Julius Caesar. What makes it distinctive is that it tells the story via a series of classic Greek myths or legends, in particular, stories about humans metamorphosing into plants and animals of which, when you come to study it, there turn out to be a surprising number.

I mention it here because, unexpectedly, and not really directly relevant, the Ars Amatoria contains fairly long passages which anticipate some of these stories. Thus there are extended accounts of:

Book 1

  • the legend of Pasiphaë, queen of Crete, and how she was impregnated by a bull, conceiving the half-man, half-bull monster, the Minotaur (1.289 to 327)
  • Bacchus coming to the rescue of Ariadne, abandoned on her desert island by Theseus (1.525 to 564)

Book 2

  • Daedalus devising his plan to escape imprisonment on Crete by creating wings for himself and his son Icarus, and flying to freedom (2.20 to 97)
  • the creation of the world and the universal drive to procreate among animals (2.467 to 489)
  • Vulcan trapping his wife in adultery with Mars (2.561 to 592)

Book 3

  • the legend of Cephalus and Procris (3.687 to 746)

Last word

Let others worship the past; I much prefer the present,
Am delighted to be alive today.
(3.121)

This is actually quite a striking departure from convention, because it was axiomatic for pretty much all writers and thinkers in the ancient world that the past contained a matchless Golden Age and the present was a sad, fallen age of degeneration and decline. In this handful of words Ovid rejects that entire tradition and hapless, sorry-for-itself way of thinking and strikes an exuberantly Nietzschean note: Rejoice! The present is all we have, so: Make the most of it.


Credit

The Erotic Poems of Ovid, translated by Peter Green, was published by Penguin Books in 1982. All references are to the 1982 paperback edition.

Related links

Roman reviews

Lustrum by Robert Harris (2009)

The senate was not the arena for brute force. The weapons here were words, and no one ever knew how to deploy words as well as Cicero. (p.184)

‘What are the only weapons I possess, Tiro?’ he asked me, and then he answered his own question. ‘These,’ he said, gesturing towards his books. ‘Words. Caesar and Pompey have their soldiers, Crassus his wealth, Clodius his bullies on the street. My only legions are my words. By language I rose and by language I shall survive.’ (p.402)

This is the middle novel in the Robert Harris’s ‘Cicero trilogy’. Harris is a highly successful writer of intelligent thrillers and in the Cicero trilogy he has applied the style and mentality of a modern thriller to the life of the Roman lawyer and statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 to 43 BC) with great success.

Cicero is an excellent historical figure to dramatise for at least two reasons.

1. We know more about Cicero than any other figure from the ancient world. a) He wrote a prodigious amount, not only his speeches as an advocate but books about oratory, philosophy, politics and morality, most of which have survived. when he writes about Cicero, Harris has an unprecedented amount of primary source material to refer to. b) The extraordinary survival of some 1,000 letters from and to him, many from the leading figures of the day such as Julius Caesar, Gnaeus Pompeius, Marcus Junius Brutus, Marcus Antonius, Gaius Octavius and others. Harris says as much in his Author’s Note, where he says he’s used, where possible, Cicero’s own words from letters or speeches (for example Cicero’s lament at feeling lonely after his brother and best friend both leave Rome, page 344, which is, I think, a direct quote from one of Cicero’s letters).

2. The second reason is that Cicero was right at the heart of the web of allegiances and alliances which made up the toxic politics of the last decades of the Roman Republic. He was consul at the time of the Cataline conspiracy, he was important enough to be invited to join the first triumvirate in 60; when Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49, Cicero was one of the half dozen figures in Rome whose opinion he really valued. In the aftermath of Caesar’s assassination Cicero advised the killers and, after they were defeated, he became a sort of mentor to Caesar’s heir, young Octavian and a bitter opponent of Mark Antony.

No other figure was as central to the high politics of the age or left such an extensive documentary record.

Tiro the narrator

As I thoroughly explained in my review of the first novel in the trilogy, Imperium, the novels are narrated by Cicero’s slave and private secretary Tiro, a real-life figure who Cicero devoted several letters to praising and thanking and who we know was responsible for editing and publishing Cicero’s letters after his death.

I had been his secretary for sixteen years by this time and there was no aspect of his life, public or private, with which I was not familiar. (p.13)

In other words, Tiro is the perfect person for a narrator, the amanuensis and secretary to Cicero, observer and analyst of his behaviour as Dr Watson is to Sherlock Holmes.

The premise of all three books is that Tiro is writing his memoirs long, long after the events he recounts, just a few years before the start of the Christian era and Tiro is a very old man of nearly 100. The three novels are represented as the memories of this old man, looking back at particularly high points in the life of his lord and master, as he himself witnessed and recorded them at the time.

Two parts

The first novel was in two parts. Part one, ‘Senator (79 to 70 BC)’, led up to Cicero’s career-making prosecution of a corrupt Roman governor, Gaius Verres. Part two, ‘Praetorian (68 to 64 BC)’ covered his campaign to be elected consul, which becomes entangled with a major plot by Julius Caesar and Marcus Licinius Crassus to stitch up control of the Roman state. Taken together it covers 15 years.

This book covers the next five years in Cicero’s life and career (which explains the title, the Latin word lustrum referring, among other things, to the religious sacrifice offered every five years by the state officials known as ‘censors’ and so, by extension, to a period of five years. This is clearly explained in  an epigraph to the book and is referenced in the text on page 392). Once again the novel is divided into two parts:

Part one – Consul

This covers the dramatic and fateful year of 63 BC and gives a compelling and thrilling description of the slow escalation of the crisis which developed into Lucius Sergius Catalina’s conspiracy to overthrow the Roman state. I’ve described the events in my review of Sallust’s Cataline War, but Harris brings it astonishingly, vividly, harrowingly to life, unforgettably conveying the astonishing, unbearable pressure Cicero came under, as the lead consul in Rome, of proving the existence of the conspiracy and then punishing the conspirators.

The climax of the Cataline conspiracy is the agonised decision to execute the five patrician senators who were foolish enough to be Cataline’s accomplices in the city and allow themselves to be caught (Cataline himself was hundreds of miles away, safely protected by the army raised by his colleague Manlius). It was an agonising decision because the executions were carried out without a formal trial, solely on the basis of a vote in the Senate, and this rash act would come back to haunt Cicero.

Part two – Pater Patriae

This covers the next four years, 62 to 58 BC, describing a number of key events which followed in the aftermath of the conspiracy. Beneath a blizzard of more overt incidents and challenges, the two underlying themes are the unstoppable rise of Caesar and his creation of the First Triumvirate (in 60 BC), and the concomitant rise of the slippery young demagogue Publius Claudius Pulcher, aided by his clever sexy sister, Clodia.

No words can convey the vividness with which Harris describes both the key players in late re[publican power politics, but also the gripping shifts in the endless political powerplay which Cicero finds himself trying to ride and survive.

The book contains many thrilling, nerve-biting scenes, but maybe the most shocking or heart-stopping is the moment when Caesar, doubly powerful in his roles of pontifex maximus and consul, forces the senator Lucius Lucullus to apologise for opposing him in the senate on his knees, commanding he do so like an outraged monarch, and the old general, realising he has no choice and creakily sinking to his knees to beg forgiveness of the dark-eyed force of nature which is Caesar, and the entire senate looking on in silent impotence (p.408).

The book rises to a climax as Clodius triumphs, being first adopted by a plebeian family, then winning the tribuneship, proposing a range of populist measures (a free grain dole for every family) before moving in on his old enemy, Cicero, by proposing a bill accusing him of murder in having the Cataline conspirators executed without a trial and enacting that:

It shall be a capital offence to offer fire and water to any person who has put Roman citizens to death without a trial. (p.417)

This innocent-sounding measure spells death for all around Cicero, his wife, his household and all his friends. The only way not to imperil all of them is to flee the city as quickly as possible and so that is how the second novel ends,

Power

Above all these books are about power, political and personal and Harris brilliantly and thrillingly conveys the world of the Rome’s senior aristocracy where every meeting, every dinner, every conversation is dominated by politics, not just chat about the powerful but every meeting between the social elite was politics: the jungle of social rivalry never stops and never ends.

‘From now on everything is to be written down.’
‘Yes, Senator.’
‘We’re heading into dangerous waters, Tiro. Every reef and current must be charted.’ (p.28)

Because every single reef and current conceals threat, power plays, the strategies and power plays of immensely rich and powerful people like Caesar (with his ‘divine recklessness), Crassus and Pompey, the populares or populists, on one side, and the leaders of the optimates or aristocratic party such as Quintus Lutatius Catulus, Quintus Hortensius (Cicero’s rival to the title best lawyer in Rome) and father of the senate, Vatia Isauricus.

In this way he cut through the posturing and sentiment to the nub of the issue which was, as it always is, power. (p.49)

Ancient and modern

One of the features of the first book was the way the narrator, Tiro, Cicero’s freed slave and secretary, not only loyally described all the events, meetings, conversations and so on which he witnessed, but also drops in comments and reflections – on people, places and situations. Above all Harris has him drop generalisations about the nature of power, especially political power, which are carefully phrased so that they can be applied to contemporary British politics as much as to ancient Roman politics. The result is a pleasant psychological shimmer, where the reader registers the comment’s appropriateness to the plot but also realises it can be applied to much more recent events.

  • Sura was a man of great ambition and boundless stupidity, two qualities which in politics often go together. (p.18)
  • It is one of the tricks of the successful politician to be able to hold many things in mind at once and to switch between them as the need arises, otherwise life would be insupportable. (p.31)
  • ‘Unfortunately,’ replied Cicero, ‘politics is neither as clean as a wrestling match, nor played according to fixed rules.’ (p.80)
  • The really successful politician detaches his private self from their insults and reverses of public life, so that it is almost as if they happen to someone else. (p.81)
  • ‘This is the business of politics – to surmount each challenge as it appears and be ready to deal with the next.’ (p.92)
  • ‘In politics one cannot always pick and choose one’s enemies, let alone one’s friends.’ (p. 114)
  • ‘There’s nothing more fatal during an election campaign than to appear unconfident.’ (p.124)
  • There are times in politics, as in life generally, when whatever one does is wrong. (p.137)
  • Once a leader starts to be laughed at as a matter of routine, he loses authority, and then he is finished. (p.147)
  • Politics has loyalties all of its own and they greatly supersede those to in-laws. (p.164)
  • There are no lasting victories in politics, there is only the remorseless grinding forward of events. If my work has a moral, this is it. (p.186)
  • ‘You sometimes have too many scruples for the dirty business of politics, Tiro. (p.280)
  • Sometimes in politics a great weakness can be turned into a strength. (p.293)
  • He had learned from Cicero the tricks of political campaigning: keep your speeches short, remember names, tell jokes, put on a show; above all, render an issue, however complex, into a story anyone can grasp. (p.294)
  • It was yet another lesson to me in politics – an occupation that, if it is to be pursued successfully, demands the most extraordinary reserves of self-discipline, a quality that the naive often mistake for hypocrisy. (p.337)
  • ‘In politics how things look is often more important than what they are.’ (p.341)
  • Up to that point Cicero had been treating the Spaniard with a kind of friendly disdain – as a joke figure: one of those self-important go-betweens who often crop up in politics. (p.353)
  • ‘We both know how politics is played. Sooner or later failure comes to us all.’ (p.431)

Like the descriptions mentioned below, these sententiae are superficially intelligent, insightful and compelling but many, on a moment’s reflection, melt like a snowball in sunshine. They are very like the truisms and bromides (‘a trite statement that is intended to soothe or placate’) which pad out opinion columns in newspapers and magazines, which you nod agreement to then can’t remember half an hour later. For example, saying it is in the nature of politics to deal with one thing another another, is not very different from how you have to cope with one thing after another in your work, in being a parent, or life in general.  It is in the nature of the thriller, as a genre, to present a heightened simulacrum of reality which grips and thrills your imagination at the time of reading, but which you can barely remember a few days later.

A checklist of references

Having read my Plutarch and Suetonius, as well as modern historians who reference other ancient sources, I’m familiar with attributes and anecdotes about many of the key players, not only Cicero, but Caesar, Crassus, Pompey and so on. It is entertaining to watch Harris slip them into his narrative at appropriate moments, like hearing a composer slip snippets of popular songs into a symphony. Thus:

A variation on the much-repeated story that Caesar burst into tears because by the age when Alexander the Great died, having conquered the known world, Caesar had achieved nothing (referenced on p.25, and then reprised but this time with Cicero being the one mournfully wishing he’d matched Alexander on p.145) (Plutarch’s Life of Caesar chapter 11, Suetonius’s Life of Caesar chapter 7.)

Caesar telling his mother he will return pontifex maximus or not at all (p.85) (Plutarch’s Caesar, chapter 7, Suetonius’s Caesar, chapter 13).

The most famous courtesan in Rome (Flora) saying she never left Pompey’s house without bite marks on her neck (p.336) (Plutarch’s Life of Pompey, chapter 2).

Actually there aren’t as many of these as there are in the first novel (or I missed some). Rather more obvious is Harris quoting directly from set piece speeches which were recorded and have survived from antiquity, namely Cicero’s ferocious attack on Catiline in the senate, and the debate about whether to execute the conspirators featuring diametrically opposed speeches from Caesar (advocating clemency and life imprisonment) and Cato (immediate death penalty) which, I think, are sourced from Sallust’s account.

When Caesar as consul drives his fellow consul to retreat to his house but continues to pass laws, Cicero is said to have quipped that the laws were being passed by the joint consulship of Julius and Caesar (p.369) (Suetonius’s Life of Cesar, chapter 20).

Realistic in two ways

The novel is vividly imagined and hugely pleasurable to read in at least three ways:

1. Sensual

The smell, the feel, the noise, the sight of Rome, its streets and people, the crowd cheering a procession, the packed and dusty Field of Mars on election day, the crowd of the white toga-wearing elite waiting outside the Senate house, the queue of clients outside every senator’s door, Cicero’s breath visible on a cold December morning, the chirping of cicadas on a hot Italian evening – the novel presents a steady stream of vividly imagined scenes which bring ancient Rome vibrantly alive (as they say).

The vivid Caesar’s pokey house in a rundown neighbourhood, or Cicero and Tiro’s visit to Lucullus’s stupendous luxury villa overlooking the Bay of Naples (p.107).

2. Socio-political

But more important is the detailed descriptions Harris gives of Roman processes and rituals, religious, social and political.

Now that Cicero is consul there are more scenes set specifically in the Senate and Harris makes this feel eerily like the House of Commons with a great central aisle separating two sets of stepped benches occupied by the opposing parties, the patricians and the populists.

  • the strange and spooky taking of the augury on the morning Cicero assumes his post as consul
  • the inauguration of the two new consults accompanied by prayers, the slaughter of a sacred bull, flags and trumpets (p.45)
  • the weird details of the Latin Festival held on the Alban Mount (p.57)
  • the dignified funeral procession for the old pontifex maximus, Metellus Pius (p.81)
  • the triumph of Lucullus (p.127)
  • the hot dusty crowd packing the Field of Mars to elect next year’s consuls and praetors (p.142)
  • the preparations for the Feast of the Great Goddess (p.211)

This vivid imagining of set pieces of the Roman constitution and procedures exceeds anything I’ve read in any other book. Harris really explains what went on at the ceremonies, how they looked and felt and smelled.

It is fascinating to read his account of the chief augur taking the auguries on the eve of his consulship and then the importance of auguries preceding all other state events, such as sessions of the Senate or elections on the Field of Mars.

It is fascinating to follow the precise sequence of rituals, prayers, the order of procession and so on involved in a classical Roman triumph up to and including the ritual strangling of the foreign kings and captives by the carnifex or public executioner (p.128).

It is illuminating to read the description of a Roman wedding, the wedding of Cicero’s beloved daughter Tullia, aged just 14, to Gaius Frugi of the Piso clan (p.146).

The ceremony of adoption, even it is the travesty conducted under coercion of Clodius being adopted as a plebeian so he could stand as a tribune (pages 386 to 387).

3. Drama

Then there are scenes which are just thrillingly dramatic:

The dramatic ambush of the conspirators on the Mulvian Bridge (pages 203 to 207).

The description of the trial of Publius Clodius Pulcher for blasphemy at which he scandalously bribes the jurors to acquit him despite his obvious guilt (pages 304 to 320).

The dramatic trial in which Cicero’s once-time pupil Marcus Caelius Rufus confidently crushes Cicero’s defence of his corrupt partner as consul, Caius Antonius Hybrida (pages 369 to 384).

The reassuring familiarity of thriller tropes

So far I haven’t conveyed how immensely enjoyable this book is. It is well written, packed with interesting facts about ancient Rome, steeped with insight and intelligence into the workings of power and influence.

Harris makes it live through a hundred vividly imagined details – his description of Caesar’s ancient, venerable but shabby house in the now rundown neighbourhood of the Subura; Caesar’s distinctively dry rasping voice (p.29); Cicero and Tiro’s atmospheric visit to the augurs who take them up onto the roof of their building to observe the prevailing winds and the flight of birds.

The narrative starts at the end of December, just as Cicero is about to commence his year as consul and Rome is experiencing unusual snowfall, so the whole city is white with snowdrifts, vividly described.

A feature of thrillers is the action is all in the events and their threatening, thrilling implications, rarely in the prose style. The prose generally has to be as plain and transparent as possible in order to clearly and quickly explain the facts and let the reader thrill to their accumulating threat and implications.

Therefore thrillers are not afraid of clichés. It’s like a painter painting pictures long after the era of painting has died, because there continues to be a market for painting long after all possible avenues and permutations of painting have been exhausted.

In the same way, despite a hundred years or more of experimentation designed to expand, subvert or blow up the novel as a literary form, the thriller genre continues to thrive, generating endless new novels telling similar stories and using time-honoured techniques and phraseology. Just because there is no longer a literary avant garde doesn’t mean books don’t continue to sell. In fact more novels are sold every year than ever before in human history, just as there are more TV shows and more movies than ever before. More of everything.

There has to be an arresting opening sentence and event:

Two days before the inauguration of Marcus Tullius Cicero as consul of Rome, the body of a child was pulled from the river Tiber, close to the boat sheds of the republican war fleet. (opening sentence)

An evil antagonist:

‘Damn Caesar!’ said Cicero suddenly. ‘There’s nothing dishonourable about ambition. I’m ambitious myself. But his lust for power is not of this world. You look into those eyes of his, and it’s like staring into some dark sea at the height of a storm.’
(Lustrum, page 34)

The baddies confront each other in tense standoffs:

Catalina’s eyes glittered and his large hands contracted into fists. ‘My first ancestor was Sergestus, companion of Aeneas, the founder of our city – and you dare to tell me to leave?’ (p.169)

And the phenomenally charged confrontation right at the end between a miserable, defeated Cicero being hounded out of his beloved Rome and Julius Caesar, brisk in his shining armour, mustering his legions to set off for his command in Gaul. When Caesar offers Cicero the legateship with him which would ensure his safety from prosecution, Cicero realises he must turn it down:

‘Thank you for your consideration,’ replied Cicero, ‘but it would never work.’
‘Why not?’
‘Because…what is wicked about you Caesar – worse than Pompey, worse than Clodius, worse even than Catalina – is that you won’t rest until we are all obliged to go down on our knees to you.’ (p.439)

Sudden alarms:

I was woken by fists pounding on the front door. I sat up with a start. I could only have been asleep for a few moments. The distant hammering came again, followed by ferocious barking, shouts and running feet. (p.148)

And the hero realising a conspiracy is afoot:

Cicero grabbed my arm. ‘So the actual crime will be to help keep me alive? They won’t even give me a trial.’ (p.418)

All very, very well done and yet, somehow, utterly predictable. The cosy familiarity of thriller tropes extends down to the level of individual sentences and metaphors. These are good in their way, but utterly familiar and slip down like an iced drink by the swimming pool at a Mediterranean resort. Here is Tiro’s description of Rome in the depths of winter:

The smoke from the altar fires was curling above the temples. I could smell the saffron burning, and hear the lowing of the bulls awaiting sacrifice. As we neared the Arch of Scipio I looked back, and there was Rome – her hills and valleys, towers and temples, porticoes and houses all veiled white and sparkling with snow, like a bride in her gown awaiting her groom. (p.44)

‘Like a bride in her gown awaiting her groom’ – a metaphor which has been around as long as fiction, for centuries, predigested and processed by the reader with barely a flicker of recognition.

Portraits of Rome

Speaking of Rome, I slowly realised that Harris describes Rome so regularly, in different seasons and moods, that it is obviously part of a concerted strategy to make ‘Rome herself’ a character in the novel. This wasn’t so apparent in Imperium (or I just missed it) but seems to me a deliberate tactic in this novel. At the same time I think these descriptions demonstrate the reliance of this kind of thriller on cliché and stereotype. There are never any surprises; things always exactly fit the mood and needs of the narrative.

The strategy is apparent from the start, when Harris paints an opening picture of Rome as the capital of a great Mediterranean empire but nonetheless stricken with social and economic turmoil, resulting in a decadent febrile atmosphere – which, of course, suits the writer of a tense thriller down to the ground.

Such was the state of the city on the eve of Cicero’s consulship – a vortex of hunger, rumour and anxiety; of crippled veterans and bankrupt farmers begging at every corner; of roistering bands of drunken young men terrorising shopkeepers; of women from good families openly prostituting themselves outside the taverns; of sudden conflagrations, violent tempests, moonless nights and scavenging dogs; of fanatics, soothsayers, beggars, fights. (p.8)

Then, here is Tiro’s description of Rome in midsummer:

It was one of those endless hot summer days when the sun seems reluctant to sink, and I remember how still it was, the motes of dust motionless in the shafts of fading light. On such evenings, when the only sounds even in the city are the drone of insects and the soft trilling of the birds, Rome seems older than anywhere in the world; as old as the earth itself; entirely beyond time. (p.130)

‘One of those endless hot summer days’ – see what I mean be generic description: this sentence could come from any one of hundreds of thousands of popular novels. Here is Tiro’s description of Rome at the height of the Cataline panic:

By the time Cicero set off for the temple, tightly protected by lictors and bodyguards, an atmosphere of real dread hung over the city, as tangible as the grey November mist rising from the Tiber. The streets were deathly quiet. Nobody applauded or jeered; they simply hid indoors. In the shadows of their windows the citizenry gathered, white-faced and silent, to watch the consul pass. (p.182)

Here is Tiro’s description of Rome on the night Cicero finally confirms the Catiline conspiracy to the senate:

We stepped out from the library onto the narrow terrace. Down in the valley, the effect of the curfew was to make Rome seem as dark and fathomless as a lake. Only the Temple of Luna, lit up by torches on the slope of the Palatine, was distinctly visible. It seemed to hover, suspended in the night, like some white-hulled vessel descended from the stars to inspect us. (p.226)

Good, isn’t it? Efficient, effective and highly atmospheric but, for me, ultimately, soulless. Harris’s prose tastes of chrome. It feels a beautifully designed, expensive sports car, recently washed and gleaming in the sun. Perfect of its kind.

Terentia

We get to know all the characters well, from the public figures such as Caesar, Crassus, Hortensius, Catalina, Clodius, Cato, Lucullus, Metellus, through to members of Cicero’s household, his brother Quintus and above all his fearsome wife Terentia. Harris steadily builds up a portrait of Terentia as not conventionally attractive but radiating personality and determination and fierce in argument.

It was around this time that Terentia began to play an important role in Cicero’s consulship. People often wondered why Cicero was still married to her after fifteen years, for she was excessively pious and had little beauty and even less charm. But she had something rarer. She had character. She commanded respect, and increasingly as the years went on he sought her advice. She had no interest in philosophy or literature, no knowledge of history; not much learning of any sort, in fact.  However, unburdened by education or natural delicacy, she did possess a rare gift for seeing straight through to the heart of a thing, be it a problem or a person, and saying exactly what she thought. (p.98)

Cicero had married Terentia for her money and it was her money which funded his successful campaigns to  gain magistracies and so enter the senate. Harris rarely mentions her without adding to the impression of fearsome redoubtability:

  • Was Caesar hinting by this remark that he wanted to seduce Terentia? I doubt it. The most hostile tribe of Gaul would have been a less gruelling conquest. (p.24)
  • I must not forget Terentia, who carried a heavy iron candle-holder at all times, and who would probably have been more effective than any of us. (p.177)
  • Terentia had the coolest head present. (p.421)

This gives the impression of painting a character, the kind of thing which people like in their fictions – except that it is all very familiar, the politician’s wife as fearsome termagent, the protagonist’s wife the only person he’s truly afraid of. It feels like another fictional cliché. One of the descriptions of Terentia raising merry hell in Cicero’s household for some reason triggered a memory of Les Dawson dressed as a northern housewife, wearing a hairnet over her curlers and brandishing a rolling pin ready to pick a fight with her henpecked husband.

Tricks of oratory

Harris has Tiro from time to time share with us Cicero’s tips for delivering an effective speech. Presumably these are taken from Cicero’s writings about oratory.

  1. Cicero’s first law of rhetoric, a speech must always contain a surprise. (p.52)
  2. The bigger a crowd is, the more stupid it is.
  3. When addressing an immense multitude it is always good to invoke the supernatural and call on the gods. (p.73)

Finally

All the texts we have from republican Rome were written by the elite. Not aristocrats, necessarily, but nonetheless from the wealthy, slave-owning upper classes. (As a side issue it’s notable that two of the most memorable writers from the period did not belong to this class, but were men on the make, Cicero and Caesar, whose writings were motivated, in part, by the need to prove themselves and improve themselves and lift themselves up into the ruling class. The writings of both men are heavy with self-promotion. LinkedIn literature.)

In all these thousands of pages we never hear the voices of ‘ordinary’ people, meaning farm workers, labourers, shopkeepers, businessmen, merchants, tax collectors and the millions of ordinary people who populated the Roman Empire.

Which makes it all the more striking that the narrator of all three of these Cicero novels is a slave. Well educated, highly literate, shrewd and tactful, Tiro is an idealised narrator and it is only occasionally that he reminds us that he is not free. He is utterly reliant on his master for food, lodging and protection and must obey his orders at all times.

Tiro’s character is ‘dramatised’ a bit more in this novel than the previous one because Harris gives him a love interest, namely a slave girl in the household of the super-rich retired general, Lucullus. She is called Agathe and is assigned to Tiro to give him a bath and massage after his long journey to Lucullus’s palace to deliver a message (not in his own right, only because he is Cicero’s secretary) and proceeds, easily and casually, to have sex with him, as nubile young women often do in thrillers written by men, from James Bond downwards.

Tiro glimpses Agathe on a couple of other occasions (pages 307) and on the final occasion is saddened to see she is so worn out with slave life that all her softness and beauty has gone. She doesn’t even recognise him (p.424). But it’s not a major plot strand, in fact it’s very minor, but her presence serves to bring out what may be obvious but I’ll say anyway: the entire Cicero trilogy, consisting of over 1,200 pages, is a slave’s eye view of republican Rome.

I don’t want to belabour the point but it is a mark of the thriller’s lack of depth or seriousness, its determination to remain no more than an intelligent poolside read, that Tiro’s condition as a slave and dependent is from time to time mentioned but the state of slavehood, the central fact of the narrator’s life, is nowhere really explored.

Two or three times Tiro mentions he’d like to gain his freedom and set up on a nice little farm. Three quarters of the way through the book, Cicero’s brother, Quintus, about to set off for a governorship in Macedonia, promises Tiro his freedom when he returns (p.324).

And right at the very end, as Cicero is being forced into exile, he magnanimously gives Tiro his freedom and tells him to leave him, as being in his presence jeopardises his life. But Tiro promptly rejects the offer of freedom and pledges to remain Cicero’s slave, secretary and confidante, as the pair, along with a couple of other (unnamed) slaves, scuttle through the midnight streets to elude Clodius’s henchmen, bribe their way out of one of the city’s gates, and set off into exile.

This is a very moving scene to end the long narrative on and yet…To me what was striking was that… these are novels written by a slave in which the condition of slavery is never really broached or investigated or dramatised or experienced.

Tiro mentions that he’s a slave, as you might mention needing to buy a new car or get your roof fixed. It is referred to half a dozen times as a fact. But the condition of slavehood is never really adequately dramatised or investigated, the psychology of slavery not at all. Tiro remains to the end a timid version of the sensible, intelligent but perpetually impressed Dr Watson-style sidekick, in awe of his large-than-life master, observant, obedient and respectful.

This is an immensely enjoyable book, on multiple levels. But the absence of meditation on this subject is a reminder of the limited ambitions and rewards of the thriller as a genre.

Catullus

The poet Gaius Valerius Catullus was, during the period covered by the novel, madly in love with Clodia, sister of the disreputable Publius Clodius Pulcher who is a central figure in part two, and wife of Metellus Celer. Harris makes a sly reference to Catullus without mentioning him by name, designed to please the cognoscenti, having Celer tell Cicero, who’s come round on a social call, after Clodia is quite rude to him before walking off:

‘Well, there it is. I wish she talked to you as much as she does this damned poet who’s always trailing round after her…’ (p.340)

A reference to Catullus, for anyone who’s read a bit around the subject. Probably the book contains more sly amused references like that, not all of which I got.


Credit

Lustrum by Robert Harris was published by Hutchinson books in 2009. All references are to the 2010 Arrow paperback edition.

The Cicero trilogy

Robert Harris reviews

Roman reviews

Imperium by Robert Harris (2006)

‘Politics is history on the wing! What other sphere of human activity calls forth all that is most noble in men’s souls, and all that is most base? Or has such excitement? Or more vividly exposes our strengths and weaknesses?’
(Cicero defending his fascination with politics to his secretary, Tiro, in Imperium, page 263)

What you notice first about this book are a) its length (480 pages) and b) the blank flatness of its style. Here’s how it opens:

My name is Tiro. For thirty-six years I was the confidential secretary of the Roman statesman Cicero. At first this was exciting, then astonishing, then arduous, and finally extremely dangerous. During those years I believe he spent more hours with me than with any other person, including his own family. I witnessed his private meetings and carried his secret messages. I took down his speeches, his letters and his literary works, even his poetry – such an outpouring of words that I had to invent what is commonly called shorthand to cope with the flow, a system still used to record the deliberations of the senate, and for which I was recently awarded a modest pension. (p.3)

Very clear, plain and factual, with a complete absence of literary effects or colour. Opening my review of Harris’s 2016 thriller Conclave to extract the list of my reviews of Harris’s other novels, I see this is exactly what I thought about that work, too, so I might as well quote myself:

A cliché can be defined as a thought or description which you’ve read or heard so many times before that it slips past the eye or ear with the minimum amount of disturbance, barely registering, like soothing background music in a hotel lift or lobby. It is designed not to detain you but speed you on your way to your business appointment.

This is true of a great deal if not most of Harris’s writing – it is smooth and effective without stirring any ripples. If you pause for thought, it is at what he is reporting – documentary explanations of the personalities and politics of 1st century BC Rome – but never the way he reports it. As befits a man who worked for decades in high level journalism, Harris’s English is unfailingly clear and lucid, a servant of the subject matter, never drawing attention to itself.

Harris isn’t an awful writer, he is a very good writer, but of a kind of clear and rational prose which is almost devoid of colour. This is very effective when conveying factual information (and his novels tend to be packed with factual information which needs to be written out as clearly as possible in order for the reader to understand what is at stake). But it leaves something be desired when it comes to character, setting or atmosphere.

Having read four histories of ancient Rome which all feature passages about Cicero, Sallust’s Catiline War in which he plays a starring role, Plutarch’s Life of Cicero and a selection of Cicero’s letters, I feel pretty familiar, if not slightly bored, by the actual content of the book i.e. the setting, characters and main events of Republican Rome from 79 to 64 BC (the exact dates are indicated on the title pages of the novels two parts).

For me, already over-familiar with the course of events, the interest was not in the narrative as such, but in the way Harris ‘brings the history alive’ by vividly imagining particular moments. These are hardly great literature but they have an uncanny knack of ringing true and, slowly, subtly, without you realising it, placing you right there, in the houses of the great, in the forum and senate house and numerous other locations of ancient Rome, watching the characters interact, the voters queue up on the dusty Field of Mars, the scrum of senators waiting outside the senate house, the night time stink coming from the public dumps just beyond the city walls, Cicero’s habit of tossing a leather ball from hand to hand as he thinks, or working a crowd of clients, pressing the flesh and greeting everyone by name.

The prose is as interesting as tap water, style-wise, but quite quickly the sheer intelligence Harris brings to his descriptions of ancient Roman power politics and the deftness with which he describes scenes and settings, really draw the reader into the narrative.

Ticking the boxes

Having just read Plutarch’s Life of Cicero and Cicero’s letters, I recognise well-known anecdotes or remarks popping up throughout the novel. It feels slightly, to someone familiar with the source texts, as if Harris made a list of key anecdotes about and descriptions of Cicero and then found places to insert them into his text. It has a slightly mechanical feel. Thus we get mention of:

  • Cicero’s habit of making witty jokes about people which mortally offended them, thus making unnecessary enemies (pages 62, 296, 325, 326, 347, 403)
  • how Marcus Licinius Crassus got rich by sending his people to wherever a fire had broken out in Rome and offering to buy their houses from the owners at rock bottom prices then, when they’d sold them, sending in his fire brigade to put out the fires and make a massive profit on the properties (pages 79 and 306)
  • Cicero’s touchiness about his lowly provincial origins (p.97)
  • the fact that the leading lawyer in Rome, Quintus Hortensius Hortalus, owned a statuette of the sphinx, the subject of one of Cicero’s wisecracks as reported in Plutarch’s life (pages 237 and 444; Plutarch’s Life of Cicero chapter 7)
  • the anecdote in Plutarch of pushy young Gnaeus Pompeius telling the dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla that more people worship the rising than the setting sun (p.218)
  • the much-told story of how Caesar was captured by pirates and, after he was eventually ransomed and released, returned with Roman soldiers, tracked down all his captors and supervised their crucifixions (p.287)
  • the anecdote in Plutarch of the raven flying over the forum when Pompey was acclaimed to the special command to eliminate the pirate threat, and which was killed by the roar of approval from the crowd, dropping stone dead out of the sky (p.324 and Plutarch’s Life of Pompey chapter 25)

There’s a steady stream of these little flash bulbs going off in the narrative, as one by one anecdotes from the sources are deftly inserted into the text and ticked off the list.

Politics

But the real subject of the novel is not Cicero’s life but politics.

Harris was famously close to the Blair family during Tony Blair’s years as leader of New Labour. Although not directly involved in politics he saw how power and personality played out at the highest levels, experience which underpins The Ghost, his 2007 novel about a fictional Labour Prime Minister and his wife, which is blatantly based on Tony and Cherie Blair. That novel was published just a year after this one and you can’t help thinking they were worked on simultaneously, insights into the nature of power allotted to one or other of the closely related texts as appropriate.

All this is relevant because political power is also the subject of Imperium. It’s a novel about power and Harris takes every opportunity to really imagine what the exercise of power would have looked and felt like in ancient Rome. Harris’s descriptions can perhaps be categorised into implicit and explicit descriptions.

1. By explicit all I mean is explicit comments on and about the nature of power. Tiro’s narrative is littered with apothegms and reflections on the exercise of power, which are phrased in such a way that they could apply to Westminster today or to any place where power is exercised:

  • Power brings a man many luxuries, but a clean pair of hands is seldom among them. (p.2)
  • ‘The first rule in politics, Tiro, never forget a face.’ (p.29)
  • ‘Sometimes if you find yourself stuck, in politics, the thing to do is start a fight – start a fight, even if you do not know how you are going to win it, because it is only when a fight is on, and everything is in motion, that you can hope to see your way through.’ (p.58)
  • As every fool knows, the quickest way to get to the top on politics is to get yourself close to the man at the top. (p.76)
  • Politics is a country idiot, capable of concentrating on only one thing at a time. (p.77)
  • There are certain politicians who can’t stand to be in the same room as one another, even if mutual self-interest dictates that they should try to get along…This is what the Stoics fail to grasp when they assert that reason rather than emotion should play the dominant part in human affairs. I am afraid the reverse is true, and always will be, even – perhaps especially – in the supposedly calculating world of politics. (p.84)
  • I have frequently observed this curious aspect of power: that it is often when one is physically closest to its source that one is least well informed as to what is actually going on. (p.90)
  • No one can really claim to know politics properly until he has stayed up all night, writing a speech for delivery the following day. (p.132)
  • There are few forces in politics harder to resist than a feeling that something is inevitable, for humans move as a flock and will always rush like sheep towards the safety of a winner. (p.188)
  • ‘The trouble with Lucius is he thinks politics is a fight for justice. Politics is a profession.’ (p.234)
  • The work gave Cicero his first real taste of what it is to have power – which is usually, when it comes down to it, a matter of choosing between equally unpalatable options – and fairly bitter he found it. (p.235)
  • Cicero knew that the way to a great man‘s confidence, curiously enough, is often to speak harshly back to him, thus conveying an appearance of disinterested candour. (p.271)
  • Is this not the dream of every proud and ambitious man? That rather than having to get down in the dust and fight for power, the people should come crawling to him, begging him to accept it as a gift? (p.292)
  • How important appearance is in politics. (p.296)
  • The journey to the top in politics often confines a man with some uncongenial fellow passengers and shows him strange scenery. (p.301)
  • You can scheme all you like in politics, the gesture seemed to say, but in the end it all comes down to luck. (p.333)
  • It is dangerous in politics to find oneself a great man’s whipping boy. (as Cicero began to find himself ‘owned’ by Pompey, p.340)
  • What a heap of ash most political careers amount to, when one really stops to consider them! (p.394)
  • ‘Cicero, you disappoint me. Since when has idiocy been a bar to advancement in politics?’ (p.398)
  • ‘The ability to listen to bores requires stamina, and such stamina is the essence of politics. It is from the bores that you really find things out.’ (p.405)
  • It is always said of elections, in my experience, that whichever one is in progress at the time is the most significant there has ever been. (p.469)

As mention of Tony Blair suggests, quite a few of these sayings about politics could be applied to the contemporary British political world which Harris had seen at first hand. The kind of generalised rules Tiro articulates are designed to be widely applied. Thus when he has Cicero say:

‘The most fatal error for any statesman is to allow his fellow countrymen, even for an instant, to suspect that he puts the interests of foreigners above those of his own people.’ (p.251)

it made me think of how Jeremy Corbyn was monstered in the Tory press for his associations with the IRA and Hamas i.e. was accused of being unpatriotic. When Tiro describes the hysterical fear triggered in Rome when pirates attacked and burned the port city of Ostia, and how Pompey and Caesar describe this as a new kind of threat, international, with no centralised power structure, which must be crushed – it was impossible not to hear echoes of the kind of rhetoric which filled thousands of articles and op-eds about al-Qaeda in the aftermath of 9/11 (p.268).

Tiro’s thoughts are designed to make the reader hover, equivocally, between the ostensible setting of Rome 70 BC and London 1990s or 2020s. If there’s any consistent ‘literary’ effect in the book, maybe it’s this.

2. What I mean by implicit is the way Harris brilliantly captures the dynamics of power as it plays out in personal confrontations, in dramatic scenes and situations cleverly constructed to demonstrate how power politics really works in practice; how cunning political operators handle themselves and manipulate others. Thus:

  • The meeting with Lollius Palicanus who represents Pompey’s interest and tries to persuade Cicero to join up to Pompey’s cause. (p.61)
  • The meeting with Crassus outside Rome after the latter had crushed the Spartacus rebellion and crucified 6,000 of the rebel gladiators along 350 miles of the Appian Way. That’s all very Hollywood, but the point of the scene is the way the two men, intellectually and psychologically, sound each other out, assess each other, sparring and disagreeing while on the surface remaining immaculately polite, all while Tiro looks on. (p.81)
  • The way Cicero is invited to Pompey’s first big levée in the city after returning from his successful campaigns in Spain, and then only cursorily greeted by Pompey in a lineup like the cast meeting a royal at a movie premiere. It is a memorable image of the relationship between true, exceptional power (Pompey) and a rather desperate aspirer (Cicero). (p.97)
  • The entire extended description of the trial of Gaius Verres amounts to Cicero creating power from his oratory and the wealth of evidence he has amassed, and then wielding it against Verres along with the lawyer he has bought (Hortensius) and the corrupt senators he has bribed until they are all swept away in mob anger at the governor (Verres’s) scandalous, criminal behaviour. (chapter 9, pages 203 to 238)
  • ‘There is as much skill in knowing how to handle a meeting of ten as in manipulating a gathering of hundreds.’ (p.290)
  • ‘He leaned in close and moistened his lips; there was something almost lecherous about the way Crassus talked of power.’ (p.309)

And then the climax of the plot, the sequence of events leading up to Cicero’s big meeting with the grandest of Rome’s aristocrats and the Faustian pact he enters into with them in order to get elected consul, is an elaborate, multi-levelled and quite thrilling dramatisation of power in action, dirty deals, betrayals, compromises and all.

Imperium

Hence the title of the book. The plot centres on Cicero as described by his loyal freedman and secretary Tiro, but its real subject is power, how to win it, use it and keep it, as the narrator Tiro himself explains on page 2 with its hokey reference to the opening of Virgil’s epic poem, the Aeneid. ‘Arms and the man I sing’, wrote Virgil. Harris writes:

It is of power and the man that I shall sing. By power I mean official, political power – what we know in Latin as imperium – the power of life and death, as vested by the state in an individual.

I looked up the Wikipedia definition:

In ancient Rome, imperium was a form of authority held by a citizen to control a military or governmental entity. It is distinct from auctoritas and potestas, different and generally inferior types of power in the Roman Republic and Empire. One’s imperium could be over a specific military unit, or it could be over a province or territory…In a general sense, imperium was the scope of someone’s power, and could include anything, such as public office, commerce, political influence, or wealth.

Tiro writes that:

Whenever I picture the word imperium it is always Pompey who comes to mind. (p.326)

But the same is true of half a dozen of the other characters who each exemplify really dizzying, intimidating top-level power in action – the terrifying Crassus, slippery Caesar, suave Publius Clodius Pulcher or half-mad Catiline. The whole novel is heady with the aroma of power and the endless threat and risk from the machinations of super-powerful men. Harris doesn’t need much literary styling because the subject matter itself is so psychologically powerful.

The plot

The text is divided into two parts:

Part one – Senator (79 to 70 BC)

This introduces the narrator, Marcus Tullius Tiro, freed slave and secretary to up-and-coming lawyer and aspiring politician Marcus Tullius Cicero. Tiro tells us he is writing his memoirs as he approaches the ripe old age of 100, long after Cicero and everyone else he will describe is dead. (Since Tiro tells us he was aged 34 in the year Cicero won the Verres case (p.230), which was in 70 BC, then 65 years later, the date must be 5 BC, well after the Roman Republic disintegrated and was replaced by the sole rule of Augustus, who established the template for the emperors who followed.)

Part one quickly jumps over Cicero’s early career, describing his sojourn in Athens where he learned oratory from the best teachers available, his election to the senate, and then the one-year governorship he served in Sicily, followed by his return to Rome and election as aedile.

But the majority of part one is devoted to Cicero’s involvement in the prosecution of the Roman governor of Sicily, Gaius Verres, for outrageous corruption and extortion, showing how it all began when a Sicilian whose business had been ruined by Verres arrives on Cicero’s doorstep, and following the subsequent twists and turns as Cicero and Tiro get drawn into his ‘case’, eventually travelling to Sicily to assemble evidence, and how the case itself gets tangled up in the bitter rivalry between Rome’s two strong men, the great general Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus and the menacing plutocrat Marcus Licinius Crassus.

Part one ends with Cicero overcoming all the vested interests facing him and triumphantly winning the Verres case. Along the way we have been introduced to key politicians and leading figures in Cicero’s personal life, his fearsome wife, Terentia, and beloved daughter, Tullia, his support network of brother Quintus Tullius Cicero and cousin Lucius. And enjoyed Harris’s well-researched descriptions of various aspects of life in ancient Rome, from the squalid apartment blocks known as insulae to the richest mansions, the festivals and triumphs, with special emphasis on the forms and rituals surrounding elections to public posts and ill-tempered debates in the senate.

Part two – Praetorian (68 to 64 BC)

The first part had a really strong central subject in the Verres case. Part two is a bit more diffuse. It starts by giving an insider’s view of the machinations surrounding the senate’s decision to appoint Pompey to a special command to deal with the threat from pirates, against the opposition of the aristocratic party, most of the senate and, most menacing of all, Crassus.

Then the narrative settles onto Cicero’s attempts to be elected one of Rome’s 8 praetors and, once he achieves that position, his manouevring for the ultimate prize, election as consul. Many obstacles present themselves but none as big as the enmity of the half-mad Lucius Sergius Catilina.

The novel develops into a genuinely nerve-wracking thriller as Tiro is smuggled into a secret meeting of Caesar, Crassus, Catiline and others who have developed a master plan to take over the running of the state and then make huge sums by selling off state land and taking over Egypt. Cicero then attends a late-night private meeting of Rome’s senior aristocrats, informs them about this plot and persuades them, reluctantly, that the only way to foil it is to give Cicero their vote in the consular elections, and it is this election which forms the climax of the second part.

Harris has this great knack of generating genuine excitement in a narrative – not anything to do with his style, but with the intelligent laying on of facts and his vivid depiction of the psychology of power politics. The result is that the novel builds to a real climax in the form of a thriller-style conspiracy which Cicero cleverly turns against the conspirators by revealing it to the aristocrats in exchange for their support.

And then…Cicero has won! Achieved his lifetime’s ambition. He is a consul, one of the two most powerful men in Rome for a year. And the book ends with a little family celebration on the roof of his house underneath the stars, where his entourage learn the details of the deal he made with the aristocrats and the compromises he will have to make during his time in power. Politics is nothing if not the art of compromise, dirty deals in smoke-filled rooms.

Imperium is the first in a trilogy of novels about Cicero’s career so the reader can be confident that the consequences of this deal will be described in the second book of the trilogy, Lustrum. Anyone who knows about Cicero, knows that it was during his year as consul that the Cataline conspiracy erupted, one of the most dangerous and florid events in late Republican Rome. Wow, what a feast of political intrigue for Harris the political novelist get his teeth into!

The multi-layered connectivity of Roman politics

From a factual point of view, one thing comes over very strongly in this novel which is often missing from the history books and this is the tremendous importance of family, clan, tribe and social connections among Rome’s elite in creating the very complex political ‘system’ or just situation, seething with competition and rivalry.

Elections in ancient Rome were a complicated business:

  • The Centuriate Assembly elected the highest offices of consul, praetor, and censor. This assembly divided all adult male citizens into 193 centuries organised into tiers by rank and property, with the equites or knights at the top and the unarmed and unpropertied at the bottom. Which century voted first was decided by lot and the winning century was called the centuria praerogativa (p.471)
  • Quaestors and curule aediles were elected by the Tribal Assembly, while tribunes and plebeian aediles were elected by the Plebeian Council. The electorates for both these assemblies were divided into 35 tribes or geographical units of voters. Harris names and gives pen portraits of the important tribes in his description of the election of Cicero as aedile (pages 198 to 200).

A really important point to grasp is that all votes were not equal. The votes of the wealthy and upper classes counted for a lot more than the votes of the average citizen. In the Centuriate Assembly the oldest established tribes voted first and their votes counted for more.

As well as tribes, the city was divided into wards. Each of these had community meeting halls and community (or gang) leaders, who could turn their members out if you needed a crowd, to jeer at a trial or cheer a triumph or jostle senators on their way into the senate house.

The novel gives a vivid description of the ‘voting syndicates’ based on local wards, which had organisers and which could be bought at a price (the precise, elaborate and well established method of bribing these syndicates is described in detail on pages 406 to 408).

The reader is made aware of the way these tribes and wards fed into political situations and calculations.

But sitting above this complicated electoral system was the intricate web of family connections which dictated or rather, made up Roman politics. It had arguably two aspects.

1. Like any aristocracy, the Romans had very ancient, super-well-established families which could trace their origins right back to the legendary times when the monarchy was overthrown (about 500 BC). Their authority was bolstered by their family’s track records in holding office and this was made visible because the atriums of the worthiest families contained wax busts of the ancestors who had held public office, in particular the consulship. These busts could be removed from the home and paraded by the proud descendant at festivals or political events.

The Togatus Barberini, a marble sculpture from first-century Rome depicting an unknown Roman of noble birth holding effigies of his ancestors in either hand

Let’s take a detour into structural linguistics for a moment:

Synchrony and diachrony are two complementary viewpoints in linguistic analysis. A synchronic approach considers a language at a moment in time without taking its history into account. A diachronic approach considers the development and evolution of a language through history.

The Roman upper classes can be considered in both a synchronic and diachronic perspective. I’ve just outlined the diachronic perspective, namely the history of each family and its eminent members. But the ruling class must also be seen synchronically in terms of its alliances in the present.

2. Thus someone like Cicero, trying to play the political game, had to be aware not only of the histories of all the most eminent families, but also of the super-complicated mesh of marriage alliances, of uncles, aunts, first and second cousins which connected families and factions at the highest level.

In addition to the complex interlinking of powerful families by marriage went the uniquely Roman custom of adopting someone from a different family into yours, but not in our modern sense of adopting a baby or toddler. It meant adopting a full-grown adult from one family into another. To take two famous cases, Publius Clodius Pulcher came from a very distinguished and ancient family but in a demonstration of aristocratic eccentricity, in the 50s had himself adopted by an obscure plebeian family so that he could be elected tribune of the plebs. More famously, Octavian was adopted by Julius Caesar as his heir, a legal position he used to maximum advantage when he arrived in Rome after Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC.

Laid on top of this was political alliances which came in at least two flavours: First, as a rule, the aristocracy stuck together and thought of themselves as the optimates or best people (hero figure Sulla, contemporary leader Quintus Lutatius Catulus). Anyone who opposed them was liable to be tarred as populares i.e. upstart representatives of the ever-unruly ordinary people of Rome, unpredictable, cowardly, ignoble (hero figure Marius, contemporary star Caesar).

But of course, the unrelenting competition for power of the ambitious often cut across class divides. Thus the psychopathic Cataline (‘A jagged streak of violent madness ran through Catalina like lightning across his brain’, p.351) who ended up trying to lead an abortive rebellion came from one of the oldest patrician families in Rome, gens Sergia. In his frustrated furious ambition to seize power he ended up allying himself with the working classes and political outcasts of all kinds.

His younger contemporary, Clodius, also came from one of Rome’s oldest and noblest patrician families, the Claudia gens. But, again, lust for power and a certain aristocratic perversity, led him to get adopted by an obscure plebeian so that he could be elected tribune of the plebs, which is why he changed his middle name from the aristocratic ‘Claudius’ to the more plebeian ‘Clodius’.

In addition to all this was the complicated system of clients and patrons. Rich and influential Romans acquired clients who they had done or would do favours for in return for their political or financial support, and so whose patron they would be. Powerful individuals such as Crassus, Caesar or Pompey were continually working behind the scenes to acquire and cultivate networks of hundreds of clients. Nothing came for nothing. All the deals which businessmen, lawyers, politicians and military commanders were doing all the time created new alliances, new networks of clientilism and patronage.

So as you read about figures in Republican Rome, you have to be aware that they operated in a society where people were individuals but also came enmeshed in a tribe, a clan, a family, with both a particular family history and the complexity of recent familial alliances (through marriage or adoption), as well as their position in the simmering conflict between optimates and populares, as well as their calculated commitments to this or that powerful patron.

Taken together these elements or strands created the fantastically complex matrix of history, family, class, financial, legal and political obligations which Tiro at one point (in a rare departure from Harris’s use of the plainest of plain English) describes as the ‘webwork’ of Roman society.

It’s into this webwork of 1st century BC Rome that the book swiftly plunges the reader, and a great deal of the pleasure of reading it derives from getting used to this multi-levelled game of allegiance and obligation which Cicero (and everyone else) finds themselves playing all their adult lives. With the whole thing acutely observed by the clever but non-participating eye-witness, Tiro.

Family connections

Publius Clodius Pulcher’s biography demonstrates the complex interlinking at the top of Roman society. His elder brothers were Appius Claudius Pulcher, consul in 54 BC, and Gaius Claudius Pulcher, praetor in 56 BC and subsequently governor of Asia. His sisters included Claudia, the wife of Quintus Marcius Rex, Claudia Quadrantaria, the wife of Celer, and Claudia Quinta, the wife of the fantastically successful general Lucius Licinius Lucullus.

Through his family, Clodius was closely connected with a number of prominent Roman politicians. His brother-in-law, Lucullus, was consul in 74 BC, while brother-in-law Celer was consul in 60, and the latter’s brother, Quintus Caecilius Metellus Nepos, in 57. Mucia Tertia, a half-sister to the Caecilii, was the wife of Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, and later Marcus Aemilius Scaurus, praetor in 56 BC. A half-brother, Publius Mucius Scaevola, was a pontifex, while his brother Quintus was an augur, and tribune of the plebs in 54.

So anyone who tangled with Clodius had to be aware that he was also going to provoke some or all of his extended network of family members and spouses, who each had their own positions of power, ambitions and networks of clients to consider. Matrices and intricate webworks of alliance, patronage and position, in every direction…

Aspects of ancient Rome

  • The hubbub as senators gathered in the senaculum before entering the chamber for a debate.
  • Sumptuous description of Pompey’s grand triumph. (p.115)
  • The look, feel and smell of rundown apartment blocks.
  • The stench of decay coming from the public dump outside the Esquiline Gate. (p.193)
  • Detailed description of the melée on the Field of Mars on election day. (pages 196 to 200)

Harris has Tiro describe Catullus as ‘that cruellest of poets’ (p.307).

Cicero describes Tiro as his second brother (p.428).

Lowering

Right at the end of the book I realised what it is I find so depressing about Harris’s books. Not a word in any of his political books hints for a moment that politics is about making a fairer, juster, safer world, could be about plans for building a better society, helping the vulnerable, righting historic wrongs, supporting hard-working families, planning carefully for the future etc. In Harris’s discourse none of this exists.

‘The trouble with Lucius is he thinks politics is a fight for justice. Politics is a profession.’ (p.234)

Like the outstanding political journalist he was, Harris sees politics is just another career, like medicine or the law. Tiro (like the narrator of Harris’s novel of contemporary politics, Ghost) never mentions policy or political programmes, what is best for Rome and its people, but thinks only in terms of individual politicians, their scams and strategems, and the special buzz you get from being in the room with the big beasts as they are making seismic decisions.

It’s depressing because in this world of professional politicians and their journalistic hangers-on nothing ever changes and nothing ever will. A succession of charismatic crooks, desperate wannabes, blustering liars, and bullying blowhards will create coalitions of supporters enough to scrabble their way to the leadership of their parties, then do anything, say anything, make any promise and cook up any impractical policy, in order to ensure good headlines in tomorrow’s papers and cling onto power for another day.

I found that Cicero was fond of repeating certain phrases and these I learned to reduce to a line or even a few dots – thus proving what most people already know, that politicians essentially say the same thing over and over again. (p.14)

Harris’s journalistic cynicism may be intelligent and witty, and the speed of the narrative as it builds up to the big conspiracy at the end is certainly thrilling. But to any thinking reader it is also pretty dispiriting.

If you’re right in the thick of the political vortex it is no doubt tremendously exciting, and this novel powerfully projects Harris’s first-hand knowledge of the nail-biting psychology of power 2,000 years back onto the dramatic political career of Cicero. Countless memoirs testify to how thrilling it can be to be right in the thick of the political world, talking to the leaders of nations as they wage the daily struggle to stay in power, please the people and shaft their rivals. But you only have to walk out of the room, down the corridor and out into the fresh air to suddenly find the hype and hysteria surrounding most politics pathetic and squalid.

And if you’re a citizen of the country unlucky enough to be ruled by these bloviating blunderers, then there is no excitement at all, but depressed resignation at the spectacle of the unending bickering and mismanagement of idiots.

The visceral thrill of the political manoeuvrings which Harris describes so well make it easy to lose sight of the basic fact that the personal rivalries described in Imperium destabilised the late Roman Republic for decades, eventually leading to nearly 20 years of civil war and social upheaval, deaths, destruction, starvation, ruin.

Politics in our own time has given us Brexit, the mismanagement of the Covid crisis, widespread corruption, now a pointless war in Ukraine and a global food crisis. The stupidity of human mismanagement, which some people dignify with the term ‘politics’, never ends.


The Cicero trilogy

Robert Harris reviews

Cicero reviews

Roman reviews

Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic by Tom Holland (2003) – 1

High speed and racy

As the corny ‘triumph and tragedy’ subtitle suggests, Holland isn’t aiming at originality or depth. He is aiming at writing a gripping, gung-ho, boys’ own adventure narrative history of the Roman Republic, and he does it very well indeed. Rubicon won a history prize, was shortlisted for several others, and opens with no fewer than five pages of laudatory reviews from a host of famous historians and authors (Ian McEwan, A.N. Wilson, Beryl Bainbridge Joanna Trollope), many of whom chose it as their book of the year. It was even described as ‘gripping’ by Boris Johnson, than which there can be no higher praise.

Despite all this puffery, for the first 40 or so pages I was quietly horrified at the casual speed with which Holland skips through Rome’s prehistory and early history:

In a memorable manoeuvre on page 6, we are in the 360s BC in one sentence and then, two sentences later, in the 260s BC. A century flashes past in the blink of an eye.

Rome’s epic conflict with Carthage, the three Punic wars which lasted off and on from 264 and 146 BC, are dispensed with in just two pages (7 and 8) with the third and final Punic war and the destruction of Carthage knocked off on just one page (page 34). By page 10 it is already the 140s BC and Rome has conquered Macedon (the most important kingdom in Greece), Sicily and a good deal of Spain i.e Holland has skipped over400 years of history in a few pages.

The Achaean War, which marked the final ascendency of Rome over Greece and climaxed in the brutal destruction of Greece’s most prosperous city, Corinth, in 146 BC (the same year Carthage was razed to the ground) is dealt with thus:

Meanwhile, just in case anyone was missing the lesson, a Roman army spent the same spring of 146 rubbing it into the noses of the Greeks. That winter a ragbag of cities in southern Greece had presumed to disturb the balance of power that Rome had established in the area. In a war that was over almost before it had begun, a Greek army was swatted like a bothersome wasp, and the ancient city of Corinth reduced to a heap of smoking rubble. (p.35)

As you can see, instead of detail or analysis the reader gets a cheerfully brisk, slangy summary, which sounds like a stagey narrator of a novel, mixing a kind of tabloid journalism with dated schoolboy slang (‘rubbing their noses in it’). ‘A Greek army was swatted like a bothersome wasp.’ How would you characterise that sentence? Prep school patois? Anyway, the book is like this from start to finish, written in a deliberately irreverent, casual, prep school slang and hyper-vivid vernacular. No wonder Boris liked it so much.

I thought Mary Beard’s history of Rome often skipped through military and political events without fully explaining them, but Beard feels like the Encyclopedia Britannica compared with Holland’s speed of light race through Rome’s early history.

The last century of the Republic

Things begin to make sense around page 40 when you begin to realise that Holland is very much not writing a complete history of the entire Roman Republic (509 to 31 BC). Indeed, Holland has skipped through the 650 or so years between Rome’s (legendary) founding in 753 down to the 90s BC in little more than 40 pages. (An approach confirmed by the timeline at the end of the book: this is seven pages long and whereas the first page covers the 620 years from 753 to 133 BC, the remaining six pages settle down and cover 123 BC to 14 AD in granular detail. There’s the strategy of the book, right there.)

No, it’s not at all a history of the Roman Republic – it’s a racy account of the Republic’s final century from, say, the murder of Tiberius Gracchus in 133 down to Octavian’s victory over Mark Anthony in 31 BC.

Why? Because:

  1. the last 100 years of the Roman republic is the period we have by far the best documentation for
  2. during which we know most about the characters of political leaders, because they and their supporters or enemies left copious writings, histories, speeches and letters
  3. and it’s also by far the most dramatic period, when then republican system began to break down, leading to a series of dictators and civil wars

The last twenty years of the Republic are the best documented in Roman history… (p.xxv)

Holland’s account deliberately skips the legendary founding (753), the era of kings (753 to 509), the expulsion of Tarquin the Proud (509) and the long evolution of Rome’s complex political and military administration (500s to 140s), in order to get to the juicy stories, melodramatic events and larger-than-life characters of its ill-fated last century.

Thriller style

Holland or his publishers realised there was a gap in the market for a history of Rome written as page-turning thriller. It really is written in a kind of prep school variety of lurid airport novel prose. As well as processing the content, it was entertaining to try and categorise some of the effects involved:

Ending paragraphs with a sentence. Then completing it in the next paragraph, for dramatic effect

  • No wonder that Sulla loathed him. / Loathed him and dreamed of winning the same greatness that Marius had won. (p.65)
  • Free Gaul prepared itself for war. / As did Caesar. (p.245)
  • Whatever happened the Republic would endure. / Or so everyone assumed. (p.257)
  • It was Caesar who had taught the Gauls what it meant to be a nation. Now that achievement threatened to destroy him. / Or so it seemed. (p.278)

Melodrama

  • Devastation shadowed the Mediterranean. (p.34)
  • The legions moved in for the kill. (p.34)
  • It was a moment pregnant with menace. (p.73)
  • The resulting goldrush was soon a stampede. (p.42)
  • Long-held grudges, never entirely extinguished, flared back into flames. Warfare returned to the Samnite hills. (p.50)
  • Various tribunes began to strip Lucullus of his provinces one by one, snapping at him like wolves on the trail of a wounded beast. (p.165)
  • The news spread like wildfire. (p.256)
  • Senators on the make, their nostrils filled with the scent of power, scrabbled for advancement. (p.260)
  • But still the whisperings would not be silenced. They could be heard throughout the feverish, troubled capital. (p.289)
  • As the Republic tottered, so the tremors could be felt throughout the world. (p.313)

Bombastic descriptions

  • Throughout the monarchies of the East, assorted royal poodles would jump whenever the Romans snapped their fingers… (p.37)
  • The arteries of empire were hardening with gold, and the more they hardened, so the more Rome squeezed out. (p.42)
  • The cities groaned under punitive exactions; the social fabric was nearing collapse; along the frontier, petty princelings snarled and snapped. Over the wounds of the ruined province [Asia in the 80s BC] Roman flies buzzed eagerly. (p.155)
  • The longing of the Romans for glory, which burned brightly within them and lit their city and indeed their entire empire with its flame, also cast flickering and treacherous shadows. (p.206)
  • The scent of [Pompey’s] failure hung like carrion-perfume over Rome. In the Senate scavengers whined and snarled with excitement. (p.256)

Pop psychology

  • Sulpicius was not a man lacking in principle. Causes mattered to him, even to the point of destruction. (p.67)
  • Pompey always had a nose for where the richest opportunities might lie. (p.91)
  • As ever with [Sulla], opportunism was the obverse of an icy conviction. (p.101)
  • Little could happen in Rome of which Crassus was not immediately aware, sensitive as he was to every tremor, every fluttering of every fly caught in his web. (p.140)
  • Pompey could fuss with territories as though they were counters on a gaming board, rearranging them as he pleased, handing out crowns, abolishing thrones, the still-boyish master of the fates of millions. (p.179)
  • As the two rival armies sparred nervously with each other, jabbing here, feinting there, [Anthony] was always in the thick of the action, dashing, tireless, the most glamorous and discussed man on either side. (p.319)
  • The female of the Ptolemaic species had always been deadlier than the male. (p.328)

And the sometimes obsessive iteration of stock phrases

  • The Venetian fleets, taken by surprise, were wiped out. (p.273)
  • The invaders were summarily wiped out. (p.273)
  • The garrison of one legionary camp was ambushed and wiped out. (p.277)
  • The senators in Pompey’s train, impatient for action, wanted Caesar and his army wiped out. (p.320)

Above all Holland’s really obsessive reiteration of his central idea, repeated literally hundreds of times, that all Roman aristocrats were bred and trained and lived for ‘glory’ – a word which appears on every other page.

It is Roman history rewritten by Lee Child. Or maybe by the scriptwriters of Dallas, with an occasional dash of Barbara Cartland or Jilly Cooper or writers who glory in posh, stereotyped and simplified characterisation.

A tiny epitome of this is Holland’s frequent use of the word ‘whore’. In the olden days we described these as ‘prostitutes’ and I remember the good work of the English Collective of Prostitutes back in the 70s and 80s in trying to change the law to protect its members. In our value-neutral, woke times we nowadays refer to them as ‘sex workers’. Holland’s insistence on using the word ‘whore’ is a small symptom of his determination not to write some fuddy-duddy, academic tome but a rollicking Texas barnstormer of an airport novel, where men are men and women are either high society hostesses or whores, goddamit!

  • The necropolises that stretched towards the coast and the south, along the Appian Way, were notorious for muggers and cut-price whores. (p.14)
  • [Naples] ancient streets had recently begun to fill with tourists, all of them keen to taste the Greek lifestyle – whether by debating philosophy, complaining to doctors, or falling in love with a witty, well-read whore. (p.48)
  • Throughout his life Sulla deployed his charm as a weapon, on politicians and soldiers as much as on whores. (p.70)
  • Sulla, who had spent his own twenties running after whores… (p.103)
  • It would have been as insulting for Cato to be labelled a demagogue as for a matron to be confused with a whore. (p.233)

Key players

But precisely because he does focus entirely on the action-packed 1st century BC, and dwells on the lurid and blood thirsty and over-the top personalities of the key players, you do certainly emerge (slightly punch drunk) with a much more vivid sense of the characters of the successive strong men who plunged the Republic into civil wars and internecine bloodshed.

In Holland’s account the swing year is 89 BC, a year of two wars. In Italy the widespread revolt of the Italian allies and confederates against Rome, demanding equal rights and freedoms under the law, had amounted to a cruel civil war, with ethnically identical Italian people massacring each other the length and breadth of the peninsula.

But the so-called Social War coincided with the revolt of King Mithradates of Pontus in Anatolia, which hugely raised the stakes. For a ruling class constantly athirst for glory, the prospect of victory in the Social War overlapped with the potentially huge riches to be won by whoever was chosen to go and reconquer the East.

Gaius Marius makes his first appearance on page 56 as the 60-year-old leader of the Roman army sent against the Italian rebels during the Social War, 91 to 87 BC. Marius was fabulously rich and successful, having held the consulship a record six times (p.65).

Gaius Pompeius ‘Strabo’ (p.58) ‘treacherous and brutal’ (p.117) very unpopular in Rome but led successful campaign against the Italians and so was a necessary ally for Sulla.

Lucius Cornelius Sulla (p.62) took over command in the Social War from Marius, leading a huge army of 13 legions which besieged and massacred the Italian rebels.

It’s with this cast that series one of Rubicon – having scooted through the previous 500 years of Roman history in the blink of an eye – really gets under way. For as Sulla brought the Social War to an end he fell into rivalry with his old commanding officer, Marius, about who would lead the army to Asia to defeat Mithradates. Sulla was elected war leader, but Marius politicked against him.

Sulla’s first march on Rome Briefly, Sulla was still campaigning against the Italians when he received the news that command of the army about to be sent to the East to fight Mithradates, and which he had lobbied hard to be given, had been rescinded and given to his arch rival, Marius. Not only that, but the staff officer who brought the message was to replace him in his command against the Italians. When Sulla announced this to his assembled troops and introduced the staff officer his men promptly stoned the messenger to death and clamoured for Sulla to lead them on a march on Rome. No Roman had done this before. Armies were meant to be in the trust of a consul, until he was replaced and handed over command.

The model of insurrection Sulla marked the advent of a completely new type of conflict, war, leadership and politics. The later civil war between Caesar and Pompey and then between Caesar’s assassins and the second triumvirate, followed the model of military insurrection, seizure of the capital and paying off of personal scores established by Sulla. There are two eras in the history of the Republic – Before Sulla’s march on Rome in 88 BC, and Afterwards (p.71).

Sulla’s coup Sulla busted laws and conventions by a) leading his legions on Rome b) crossing the holy boundary, the pomerium, within which no Roman was meant to bear arms (p.72) c) actually sacking the city, commanding his troops to retaliate with fire arrows against civilians chucking roof tiles down on them. And once he had established martial law and set his soldiers at all key points d) he set about executing his opponents. Lists were published and opponents hacked down in public buildings or the streets.

Sulla’s arch enemy Marius fled south and then across the sea to Africa, where he planned a comeback and revenge.

Lucius Cornelius Cinna was one of the two consuls elected in 88 BC after Sulla had taken Rome. Cinna publicly criticised Sulla but then was forced to make a pledge, along with his fellow consul Octavius, not to remove any of Sulla’s legislation (p.70).

Having massacred his opponents or driven them into exile, Sulla finally sailed with his army for the East to deal with Mithradates’ rebellion. Cinna, one of the two consuls he left behind, promptly reneged on his promise not to tamper with Sulla’s laws but was forced out of Rome by his fellow consul Octavius who stayed loyal to his absent master. Once Sulla was out of Italy, Marius returned, joined forces with Cinna, and they marched on Rome and seized power. Cinna’s fellow consul, Octavius, was hacked down in his consul’s chair and his head brought to Cinna who displayed it from the public Rostrum. These were not the ways of the old Republic.

Having returned to Rome, Marius arranged to hold an unprecedented seventh consulship but was an old man, exhausted after a life of fighting, took to debauchery and was dead in a few weeks. And so Cinna now emerged as the regime’s new ‘strongman’ (p.117). He arranged, contrary to all the rules, to hold the consulship for three years in a row, precisely the kind of sustained grip on power which the constitution was supposed to prevent.

In other words, all restraint had been lost and Roman politics had descended to warlordism and gang warfare. Political life had been ‘brutalised’ says Holland, in a phrase which reminds me of the immediate post-war years in the Weimar Republic. Once that element of street violence has entered the political domain it is very hard to remove it because you’ve shown people who are prepared to use it, that it works.

When, after three years of campaigning against Mithradates and rebellious Greek cities, Sulla wound up his affairs in Greece and gave notice of returning with his legions to Italy, Cinna tried to rouse Rome’s home legions to resist him, but the troops mutinied and, in confused circumstances, Cinna was killed. So both Marius and Cinna were dead.

On Sulla’s second march on Rome he was joined by the glamorous and fabulously successful young general Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, who was to become known as Pompey the Great (p.90).

Also to his side came the scion of one of Rome’s most noble families, Marcus Licinius Crassus (p.89). Crassus’s father had opposed Marius and been murdered, as had his brother, and his entire family estates confiscated.

Marius had died but had been replaced by his confident and able son, who had rallied the anti-Sulla forces. In other words Rome’s ruling class was by the late 80s BC completely polarised between the group Holland calls ‘the Marians’ and Sulla and his supporters. The conflict between the two parties got mixed up with a final rebellion by the Samnites in the mountains east of Rome who took advantage of the confusion to launch an attack on Rome itself. Sulla hastened his march and, with crucial help from Crassus’s wing of the army, defeated the Samnites at the Battle of the Colline Gate, before marching into Rome for a second time, posing as its saviour and its undoubted ruler (p.92).

About 6,000 Samnite fighters had been taken prisoner or turned themselves in. Sulla ordered them penned up in the Field of Mars an then systematically slaughtered. Then he set about executing all his political opponents, first and foremost every member of the Marian party (p.99). An entire section of Rome’s political class was annihilated. Bounty hunters were paid to track down abscondees, who brought back their severed heads for Sulla to inspect before releasing the fee.

Huge estates were confiscated or passed into the hands of leading figures in Sulla’s party, most notoriously his vital left-hand man at the Colline Gate, Crassus. Sulla himself became the richest man in Roman history (p.101).

Sulla’s conservative revolution

Throughout his course of actions Sulla was convinced he was reforming the Republic and returning it to its purity. Holland describes how he set about trying to purify and rationalise the constitution. He did this by redefining the cursus honorum. He change the numbers of the main posts of office which aspiring politicians had to progress through (aedile, quaestor, praetor, consul, censor), set age limits under which they could not be held, defined the number of years gap between holding them. Since one of the political attacks on him had come from a tribune he passed a law declaring that anyone could still be elected tribune, but that anyone who had held the tribunate was ineligible for any further office In this and numerous other adjustments to the rules, he tried to ensure that the kind of bitter conflict which had led to his own rise, could never take place again.

In 81, with no warning, Sulla resigned his posts and abdicated his authority. He served as a conventional consul for one more year and then abandoned public life altogether. So feared was he, and so thoroughly had he extirpated his enemies, that he felt safe to abandon power, a move which puzzled later generations and historians to this day. He returned to the hard living of his youth, holding huge parties, frequenting the demi-monde, before dying, possibly of liver failure, in 78 BC (p.111). At which point the baton was passed on to a new, younger generation, two leading luminaries of which were Pompey and an ambitious young man named Julius Caesar.

Competition and glory

‘The clash of wits, the fight for pre-eminence, the toiling day and night without break to reach the summit of wealth and power…’ (Lucretius)

One massive point which comes over again and again is that Roman society was based on unbridled and unrelenting competition, especially for the ‘glory’ associated with victory in war.

  • It seemed self evident to them that the entire course of their history had been an evolution away from slavery, towards a freedom based on the dynamics of perpetual competition. (p.24)
  • Competitive elections were crucial to the self image as well as the functioning of the Republic. (p.25)
  • A system that encouraged a gnawing hunger for prestige in its citizens, that seethed with their vaunting rivalries, that generated a dynamism so aggressive that it overwhelmed all who came near it. (p.30)
  • …a state where ruthless competition was regarded as the basis of all civic virtue. (p.34)
  • the Roman desire to be the best (p.34)
  • Traditional Roman morality…fostered competition as the essence of life. (p.62)
  • In Rome a man was reckoned nothing to be nothing without the fame that accrued from glorious deeds. (p.64)
  • …a society where prestige was the principle measure of a man’s worth. (p.76)
  • Competition for honours had always been the lifeblood of the Republic (p.
  • …the Roman appetite for competition and glory. (p.109)
  • Hardness was a Roman ideal. The steel required to hunt out glory or endure disaster was the defining characteristic of a citizen. (p.111)
  • Child rearing, like virtually every other aspect of life in the Republic, reflected the inveterate Roman love of competition. (p.115)
  • Because he had simultaneously neutralised the tribunate and doubled the size of the Senate, [Sulla’s] legacy was one of increased competition. (p.123)
  • As they had always done, established families dominated the competition. (p.123)

Competition for military glory and the prestige of holding high office was drummed into every upper class boy from the youngest age. This culture of unrelenting competition served Rome well for centuries, transmitted to its army which never gave up, accepting defeat after defeat but always coming back with more men and arms and, ultimately, conquering all enemies.

However, Holland repeatedly makes the obvious point which arises from the Sulla era which is that, in the bitter rivalry which developed between Marius and his successful general Sulla, somehow this all-consuming competitiveness which had once been such a positive motivating force, turned rotten, spilled over from politicking into military coup, seizure of the capital itself, bloodbaths of enemies, and so on.

And once all these taboos had been broken, once all restraint had been lost, the same pattern was to recur again and again during the Republic’s last half century.

The Roman constitution

Holland regularly stops his headlong narrative to give explanations of various aspects of Roman political and social culture and the Roman constitution. Obviously, Mary Beard refers to this from time to time in her chronicle of Rome but, as is her way, often only explaining an isolated aspect of it in order to illustrate a broader point, more often than not leaving the reader frustrated. Holland is much more straightforward. He stops the narrative and explains stuff. I found this surprisingly useful.

And the way he does this – intermittently – is probably wise because the whole point of the Roman constitution (we learn) was that it was a chaotic, rickety inheritance of roles and positions and posts and elections, which had accumulated over the centuries, which the Romans themselves didn’t fully understand and outsiders found baffling i.e. you couldn’t really sit down and write one definitive description, it’s best approached from different angles and perspectives. And it changed over time. And during the period Holland describes, new laws were continually adjusting and tinkering with it.

  • The Republic was as full of discrepancies and contradictions as the fabric of the city, a muddle of accretions patched together over many centuries…the Republic was structured by rules as complex and fluid as they were inviolable. To master them was a lifetime’s work…The constitution was a hall of mirrors… (pages 24 to 25)
  • It was the nature of the Republic to thrive on complexity (p.94)
  • Then constitution, subtle and finely modulated as it was, had evolved to restrain any violent change. (p.99)
  • The Republic had many different traditions, confused and confusing and defying codification. (p.137)

Central to the system was the hierarchy of posts the politically ambitious could seek, the cursus honorum (course of offices), mentioned above, the one which Sulla comprehensively reformed.

The cursus honorum

Military service Anyone seeking political office was expected to have seen military service. The aspiring politician would serve in the Roman cavalry (the equites) or in the staff of a general who was a relative or a friend of the family. Military promotions or honours would improve his political prospects. A successful military career might culminate in the office of military tribune to which 24 men were elected by the Tribal Assembly each year.

Consuls Having ejected kings, the Romans took steps to ensure power was never again vested in one individual who ruled for a lifetime by vesting the most senior power in the state as residing in two consuls who were elected to serve for just one year (p.2). The minimum age was 42. Years in Rome’s history were identified not by a number but by the names of the two consuls elected for a particular year. Consuls were responsible for the city’s political agenda, commanded large-scale armies and controlled important provinces. They were accompanied everywhere by a bodyguard of twelve lictors who bore on their shoulders the bundle of strapped rods called fasces, symbol of their power (p.64). Candidates for the consulship had to put their names forward by the start of July (p.224). Every consul, once he had finished his year in post, was given a governorship aboard (p.225).

Aedile Aediles were responsible for maintenance of public buildings and regulation of public festivals.

Quaestor A quaestor served for a year as assistant to a more senior magistrate (p.101). Twenty quaestors served in the financial administration at Rome or as second-in-command to a governor in the provinces. They could also serve as the paymaster for a legion. Some of the quaestors were tasked with supervision of public games (p.198).

Praetor Junior in rank only to the consuls, a praetor was charged with administering the city’s laws, convening and presiding over sessions of the Senate (p.104). During the republic, six or eight praetors were elected each year to serve judicial functions throughout Rome and other governmental responsibilities. In the absence of the consuls, a praetor would be given command of the garrison in Rome or in Italy. Also, a praetor could exercise the functions of the consuls throughout Rome, but their main function was that of a judge. They would preside over trials involving criminal acts, grant court orders and validate ‘illegal’ acts as acts of administering justice.

A praetor was escorted by six lictors. After a term as praetor, the magistrate would serve as a provincial governor with the title of propraetor, commanding the province’s legions, and possessing ultimate authority within his province(s).

Two of the praetors were more prestigious than the others. The Praetor Peregrinus was the chief judge in trials involving one or more foreigners. The Praetor Urbanus was the chief judicial office in Rome with the power to overturn any verdict by any other courts, and serve as judge in cases involving criminal charges against provincial governors.

Tribune The tribunes has right of veto over bills they disliked and power to convene public assemblies to pass bills of their own. The post was considered sacrosanct and so tribunes were not allowed to leave Rome during their tenure (p.27).

The Senate A body of about 300 older men, elected to the Senate because they had held one of the other ‘magistracies’. The Senate didn’t actually make any laws but debated legal and political matters and issued decrees which had no binding force but the magistrates did well to take into account (p.37). During Sulla’s reign of terror he executed or drove into exile so many senators that the number fell to 100 but during the period of his reforming rule, he packed it with new blood, expanding its number to 600, and demolished the old Curia building and had a grand new Senate House built.

Censor The censorship was the single most powerful and influential position or magistracy, responsible for overseeing the census, held every five years to produce a detailed assessment of every household, its wealth and income and number of slaves and dependents, on which the elaborate hierarchies of Rome were based (p.96).

N.B. This series of posts is only one part in the jigsaw of the constitution. I haven’t mentioned the priesthoods, for example the priest of Jupiter, the father god of Rome, a post Julius Caesar held while still a boy. Or the pontifex maximus, the most prestigious post in the entire state, which a man held for life and came with a mansion on the Via Sacra, in the Forum, in the heart of Rome (p.199).

Nor any of the assemblies with their various rules for elections, the importance of ‘tribes’, tribunes or tribunals, or the densely structured economic and social hierarchies which applied to every citizen and determined their rights and votes and place in the grand scheme.

As Holland’s narrative proceeds, the scale of the bribery involved in each subsequent set of elections grows and grows in scale (e.g. p.225).

Other learnings

Rome was a squalid maze

Surprisingly, ancient Rome was a shambles of narrow dirty alleys and wiggly roads packed with people, horses and carts. Since the consuls only ruled for a year there was no long-term town planning which meant the city became a byword for narrow roads and alleys, temples, houses and tenement blocks called insulae looming over alleys full of mud and excrement (pages 15 to 18).

Clutter was the essence of the Republic. It spread everywhere that Sulla cared to look. It could be seen in the very appearance of Rome itself. (p.106)

Cicero has a famous quote on the state of Rome, when criticising the senator and moralist Cato the Younger (born 95 BC) which Holland translates as:

‘He addresses the Senate as if he were living in Plato’s Republic rather than Romulus’s shit-hole.’ (quoted on page 196)

[The more restrained H. H. Scullard translates this as Cicero complaining that ‘Cato talked as if he were in the republic of Cato, not in the sink of Romulus’, From the Gracchi to Nero: A History of Rome from 138 BC to AD 68 by H. H. Scullard, page 117. L.P. Wilkinson in his translation of Cicero’s letters gives it as: ‘He talks as if he were living in Plato’s Republic rather than Romulus’s dunghill‘, page 39.]

As well as pausing his narrative to describe various aspects of the culture or constitution of Rome, Holland also stop periodically to give a page or two on the history and social and political function of various famous locations around the city. These are always interesting and the vivid thriller style which sometimes seems out of place in his political history works very well to bring these Roman places and the milling noisy crowds who filled them to life.

The Circus Maximus (pages 20, 122)

Right at the start of his account Holland explains how the legendary Romulus was said to have built his camp on what was to be named the Palatine Hill while Remus built his on the Aventine Hill a few hundred yards south. The triumph of Romulus marked the Palatine as the seat of Rome’s richest, later the hill of the emperors, while the Aventine became associated with the poor. It was to the Aventine that the disgruntled plebs went during the series of secessios – in effect, general strikes – when they were campaigning for equal civil rights.

The shallow valley between the two hills had been the site of games and then chariot races from time immemorial. It was the first and largest stadium in ancient Rome, measuring 2,037 feet in length and 387 feet in width and could accommodate over 150,000 spectators. As such it was one of the two big spaces in the city where citizens could meet and mingle and enjoy a sense of civic community. It was where politicians in power, magistrates or victorious generals could receive the cheers or boos of huge crowds (p.20). Games were organised by the class of magistrate called the aediles.

On page 122 Holland gives a brief but vivid description of the chariot races held in the circus. Although the building was huge the track itself was quite narrow with only width for four chariots and the turn at the end of each lap required the charioteer to steer close to the huge metal poles which defined the turn, the metae, without actually touching them with his chariot’s wheels, which would almost send chariot and him ricocheting to certain death.

The Forum (p.85)

Along with the Circus Maximus, the Forum was one of the two open spaces in the city where citizens could mingle freely. Originally a marsh, it was drained to provide a meeting place for squabbling tribes from the hills and so could be said to be the place where Romans learned to sort out their differences through political means. Like the rest of the city it was a jumble of discordant monuments. (p.85)

The Field of Mars (p.93)

Holland gives an excellent description of the Campus Martius and its central role in the republic’s political processes. It was originally, in this plain outside the city walls that citizens were taken and administered the oath which turned them into soldiers. Here they were ranked by wealth and status. At the top were those who could afford their own horse and so were named the equites. Below the equestrian class were five further classes ranked by wealth until you reached the lowest class, people who couldn’t even afford a slingshot and were named the proletarii.

Worth stopping a moment to consider this word: in the census the poorest citizens were defined as those who had little or no property except for their children. The Latin term for these was proles or ‘offspring’. So while the richest citizens could offer horses and arms, the poorest could only offer their proles as future Roman citizens available to colonise conquered territories – and so this class was called the proletarius (producer of offspring), singular, or proletarii in the plural.

Anyway, Holland explains how the Field of Mars evolved into the location of elections for the many magistrate positions or assemblies. The key building was the Ovile or ‘sheepfold’, an enclosure with gates and barriers, where citizens lined up to vote, richest at the front, poorest at the back. Exemplifying the Roman love of complexity, the precise order or procedure for voting was different in the case of each election or magistracy, with strict rules and protocols to be observed.

Holland gives a vivid description of the scene at a typical election, the hoisting of a flag, the blowing of trumpets, the enormous queues of shuffling citizens, the dust raised in the hot air, the tension for election days creating ‘one of the greatest excitements of Roman civic life’ (p.95). Then appearance of the candidates in their specially whitened togas (as Mary Beard tells us the word ‘candidate’ derives from the Roman for white, candidus, referring to these specially whitened togas). The milling crowd, the jeers and chatter and then, when the winning candidates were announced, cheers from their supporters and they were escorted off from the Ovile to the Capitol Hill to take up office.

In passages like these, Holland’s strategy of eschewing scholarly detail in favour of vivid description and atmosphere works very well indeed.

The Rubicon

The River Rubicon which Julius Caesar so grandly crossed with the Army of Gaul, thus decisively plunging the Republic into civil war, thus giving us a phrase we have used for centuries to indicate taking an irrevocable decision…this river was in fact so small and insignificant that nobody in later centuries, and even today, knows where it actually is.


Credit

Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic by Tom Holland was published in 2003 by Little, Brown. All references are to the 2004 Abacus paperback.

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