The Year One by M.I. Finley (1968)

History tends to be the history of the winners, with the losers assigned the passive, largely unvoiced, faceless role of the people on whom the winners operated.
(‘Aspects of Antiquity’, page 189)

Notes on ‘The Year One’, a short essay included in Finley’s 1968 collection, ‘Aspects of Antiquity’.

Ancient calendars

People living through a momentous year (1066, 1789, 1939, 2000) usually know about it. The most obvious thing to say about the year 1 is nobody living through it knew about it at the time. The entire chronological framework of Western civilisation, whereby we divide years into before Christ (BC) or after Christ (in the year of the Lord, anno Domini, AD) hadn’t been invented.

Instead, all the different cultures of the ancient world kept their own calendars relating to their own cultural landmarks. The Greeks thought in terms of four year blocks or ‘Olympiads’ which began with the first Olympic Games in 776 BC, so year one was the first year of the 195th Olympiad.

The Romans had, for centuries, dated events by referring to the two consuls who were in office for that year, thus ‘in the consulship of Caius Caesar, son of Augustus, and Lucius Aemilius Paullus, son of Paullus.’

Only the learned wanted to look back deeper than a few decades and, for those purposes, Roman historians had worked out the year of the legendary foundation of Rome, and dated everything AUC standing for ‘ab urbe condita’ or ‘since the founding of the city (Rome)’. Many centuries later Christian historians aligned this legendary date to 753 years before the birth of Christ. So the year one was 754 AUC. This system was devised by the Christian historian Dionysius Exiguus, a Greek-speaking monk.

The evidence of the gospels

Of the four gospels only two give details of the birth of Jesus, Matthew and Luke

Matthew’s Gospel

Matthew’s gospel includes the story of ‘the massacre of the innocents’ (chapter 2, verses 16 to 18). Herod the Great, king of Judea, is said to have heard a prophecy that his kingdom will be overthrown by a child about to be born in Bethlehem, so he ordered the execution of all male children aged two and under in the vicinity of Bethlehem. The Catholic Church regards them as the first Christian martyrs, and their feast – Holy Innocents’ Day (or the Feast of the Holy Innocents) – is celebrated on 28 December. In this story, Joseph and Mary were warned by angels about the impending massacre and so made their way secretly to Egypt, ‘The Flight to Egypt’, a journey depicted in countless paintings.

Unfortunately for the veracity of this version, Herod the Great died in 4 BC. If Matthew is literally correct, Jesus must have been born in 4 BC at the latest.

Luke’s Gospel

Luke’s story is different. He says the Romans sent out a decree that everyone had to return to their home town in order to take part in a national census of the population of Judea so they could be taxed more efficiently.

Unfortunately, the only census decreed by the Romans that we know of occurred in either 6 or 7 AD.

In 6 AD the Romans deposed Herod’s son, Archelaus, themselves took over Judea, and installed a Roman governor with instructions to conduct a census. (The northern province of Galilee remained under the rule of the Herod family; Finley says this slight inconsistency between direct and indirect rule was common in provinces on the edge of the empire.)

The Roman Empire

Was an empire in the full sense. The ‘Roman people’ i.e. citizens of Rome and central and northern Italy, ruled all the other inhabitants of the empire as subjects. The empire outside Italy was divided into provinciae. In 1 AD the Roman empire covered about 1,250,000 square miles with a population of about 60 million (population figures are deeply contested). Censuses were taken in the provinces to maximise tax revenue, but at different times in different provinces, using different methods and definitions, so…

The tax collector, along with the soldier, was the most obvious and ubiquitous link between the provinces and Rome. (p.187)

The limits of Empire

In 9 AD a Romanised German warrior chief named Arminius lured three legions into an ambush in the Teutoburg Forest and annihilated them, seizing the precious standards. Traumatised by this terrible news, the emperor Augustus ordered the remaining two legions and all Roman citizens to withdraw back across the Rhine, a decision reinforced by his successor Tiberius, which crystallised into a fiat. The Romans never attempted to conquer and colonise Germany and the north European border settled for the next four centuries along the Rhine-Danube line.

The borders finalised as England in the north-west, the Atlantic in the west, the Atlas mountains, the Sahara and the cataracts of the Nile in Africa, Judea in what is now the Middle East, and Asia i.e. half of Anatolia up to the border with Armenia.

Imperial exploitation

The Romans had no shortage of writers and propagandists (Horace, Virgil and so on) praising Augustus’ rule and, by extension, Rome’s right to rule the entire world (Virgil). The Christian European empires 1700 years later (Spain, France, Britain, Holland) made lengthy attempts to justify their imperial conquests in terms of bringing civilisation etc to barbarian lands. The Romans used the same rhetoric but were much more honest about the sheer greed and looting involved in conquest. As Finley says in his essay about slavery, Julius Caesar set out for Gaul a penniless aristocrat from a down-at-heel family and he returned 8 years later a multi-millionaire and the most powerful man in Rome. That’s what 8 years of burning and looting did for him.

Once a province had been conquered and pacified there an infrastructure was imposed designed to extract wealth, consisting of extensive taxes(in goods and services and money) for the state, but great personal income skimmed off by high officials and members of the tax farming corporations.

Rome had no mission to civilise comparable to France’s great pretension to a mission civilisatrice. Some of her propagandists later developed this idea but the reality was that, so long as they paid their taxes, Rome left her subject peoples largely to themselves, only interfering if there was disorder, rebellion etc. Over a century of conquering and administering other peoples had shown that minimal interference paid off and…was cheap to run.

This was particularly true in the East, which had well-established cultures/civilisations long before the Romans arrived. Latin was the language of the new rulers but Greek remained the language of intellectuals and the ruling classes which sat directly below the Roman governor. Educated Romans learned Greeks but Greeks rarely bothered to learn Latin, a far simpler, cruder language.

Josephus

Finley makes a pit stop to spend a page profiling Joseph ben Matthias, member of a Jewish priestly family known to history as Josephus and for the epic history of the Jewish War, an account of the 4-year rebellion of Jews against Roman rule 66 to 70 AD which led up to the Romans storming Jerusalem and destroying the Great Temple built by Herod.

Josephus was a Pharisee, a member of the elite priestly caste who identified with law and order and the Romans, so the enemies in his book are the Zealots, who he calls rebels and bandits, religious visionaries who stirred up the people to revolt by playing on their grievances, their extreme poverty and promises of a new world.

Augustus

The essay then turns to consider Augustus’s achievement, namely bringing to an end 60 odd years of chaos as the Roman Republic proved incapable of managing its empire, or, more precisely, the scale of the wealth and power pouring into Rome exacerbate the toxic rivalries among great men which had previously been contained by its republican institutions, but now boiled over into repeated civil wars by over-mighty rulers. Until Octavian put a stop to it (helped by the fact that all the eminent men of his generation had been killed in the civil wars, committed suicide or been murdered in his ‘proscriptions’, leaving him the last significant military-political figure standing).

Augustus’s titles

In 27 BC Octavian was awarded the title ‘Augustus’ by the senate. But his other titles are significant. He wanted to be known as ‘princeps’ i.e. principle figure, partly because it avoided the dreaded term rex or king. And also kept the title Imperator, originally given to victorious generals, but now awarded him a) as recognition of victorious campaigns but b) as continual reminder of where his power lay – the complete loyalty of the army.

Around the time of Christ’s birth, in 2 AD Augustus was awarded a further title, ‘Father of the Nation’, which is not as cuddly as it sounds, given the draconian authority the father of a family had over all its other members, male or female.

Augustus tries to ensure heirs

In his magisterial biography of Augustus Adrian Goldsworthy goes out of his way to emphasise that through most of his rule Augustus appears to have not wanted to create a dynasty and been succeeded by one heir. On the contrary he tried to create a cohort of experienced young men who, Goldsworthy thinks, were meant to form a small cabinet, to rule collegiately.

The two problems with this was that they all tended to come from within his own close family, so royal, monarchical, imperial logic was hard to deny – but worse, that almost all his proteges died, leaving, the grumpy, surly, graceless Tiberius as the last most obvious figure standing.

But before all this had become clear Augustus spent time and energy grooming a succession of young male relatives for rule and in doing so rode roughshod over many of the conventions of the Republic he claimed to be defending. Thus in 4 BC the Senate was prevailed upon to decree that Augustus’s two grandsons (who he had adopted to make legally his sons) Gaius and Lucius, should be designated consuls at the tender age of 15 and then awarded the actual posts, for a year, when they turned 20. Each was titled ‘Princeps of the Youth’. In the Year One Gaius was indeed ‘elected’ consul (as everyone the Princeps recommended to the voters tended to be). But then the curse struck…Lucius died in 2 AD, Gaius in 4 AD.

Augustus’s propaganda machine

Augustus had statues of himself carved and erected in cities all over the empire. Instead of realistic depictions they show an idealised, tall virile commander of men. He ensured his face was on all coinage, so even the illiterate knew who he was. He encouraged his inclusion in the ceremonies of all the religions and cults practiced across the empire. Via his unofficial minister of the arts, Maecenas, he ‘encouraged’ praise by the leading poets of the day, poets like Virgil, Horace and Ovid whose words of sycophantic praise have survived down to our time, 2,000 years later.

Augustus’s campaign for moral regeneration

Alongside a major programme of rebuilding and renovating not only Rome but all the major cities in the Empire, Augustus tried to bring about a moral revival as well. He had roughly two concerns: one was that the ancient noble families of Rome had been severely depleted by the civil wars and so he passed successive legislation promoting marriage and punishing adult men who failed to marry or have children. He gave legal and financial incentives to families with three or more children – legislation collectively known as the Leges Iuliae.

Augustus wasn’t concerned about sexual morality as such but was concerned about its impact on the stability and fecundity of the ruling class which he wanted to grow and stabilise in order to secure Rome’s future. It’s in this context that he passed legislation severely punishing adultery. He wanted more sons of the aristocracy, and that they should marry and do their military and civic duty, instead of not marrying and frittering away their family fortunes on increasing displays of opulence.

Exiling the Julias

It was in this context that in 2 BC he exiled his only biological child, his daughter Julia the Elder (39 BC to 14 AD), who he married to an unwilling Tiberius, allegedly for flagrant adultery and sexual depravity. Several men who had allegedly been her partners were also exiled. In 8 AD he similarly exiled Julia the Elder’s daughter and so Augustus’s grand-daughter, Julia the Younger, again for adultery.

On each of these occasions the ostensible reason was breaching the emperor’s own code of morality, but he also spoke about Julia the Elder being involved in some kind of plot against his life. The details remain obscure but most modern historians think there was more to both affairs than meets the eye, and that in both cases the exiled women were in some way figureheads of attempts to overthrow Augustus’s rule. Hence historians speak of a ‘Julian’ party at his court.

Although the details continue to elude us, Finley draws the central point which is that as soon as you have courts you have courtly intrigue, you have palace plotting – in the later empire this kind of conspiracy became endemic but it is instructive to note that it appears to have arisen as soon as there was a court, in the close family of the very first emperor.

Ovid is exiled

This is the view of Peter Green who devotes most of the long 80-page introduction to his translation of Ovid’s Art of Love to a forensic analysis of events and accusations surrounding the 8 AD exiling of Julia the Younger, because the poet was caught up in the same event and, with little or no warning, exiled by Augustus to the furthest border of the Roman empire, to the miserable provincial town of Tomis on the Black Sea. Ovid wrote a large number of letters to former friends and officials begging to be allowed to return, and a series of poems elaborating on the wretchedness of his fate – but to no avail. Even when Augustus died, his successor, Tiberius, renewed his exile and Ovid died miserably, far from his beloved Rome.

Frustratingly, despite writing a huge amount about his exile, Ovid never anywhere specifies the nature of his error. He insists it was minor, that he never plotted against the emperor, or planned to use poison or a knife or anything like that. Green weighs all the evidence and thinks Ovid must have seen something or been present at meetings where such plots were discussed and failed to report them to the authorities. Because he wasn’t an active plotter, Ovid’s life was spared; but because he didn’t report whatever he saw, his lack of loyalty to the emperor – and to the entire peaceful regime which Augustus had spent a lifetime creating – was called into doubt. Hence exile.

The Augustan peace

It’s easy to criticise Augustus’s early career, his cut-throat manoeuvres, his participation in the proscriptions i.e. mass murder of anyone who stood in the way of the Second Triumvirate, his hugely unpopular land redistribution away from traditional farmer and to veterans of the military campaigns leading up to the decisive Battle of Philippi. But by these expedients he secured the end of the civil wars which had lasted as long as anyone could remember, brought military, civil and social peace, order and stability. He secured the longest period of continuous peace the Mediterranean world had ever known. In this atmosphere of peace and stability business flourished and people got rich.

If the theatre was the characteristic secular building of the ancient Greeks, the amphitheatre was its Roman counterpart, and the long peace saw them built in cities all around the Central Sea.

Augustus worship

The result, especially in the East, was that people began to worship Augustus:

as Saviour, Benefactor and God Manifest (Epiphanes) just as they had deified a succession of Ptolemies, Seleucids and other rulers of the preceding centuries. (p.194)

In Rome he couldn’t be worshipped as a god while alive, only his spirit was said to be holy. But the east had no such hesitations and built temples to Augustus the god. This had nothing to do with love or respect but simple pragmatism. Most people were utterly powerless to influence events, least of all the slaves. It made simple sense to venerate and appease the mighty; that was the way of the world. Finley draws the major conclusion with huge implications for the growth of Christianity, that:

Religion became increasingly centred on salvation in the next world, whereas it had once been chiefly concerned with life in this one. (p.194)

Client kings and dependent rulers had a vested interest in encouraging the cult of Augustus as it underpinned their own authority, for most of the East was a patchwork of cults and religions which, for the most part, co-existed peacefully enough.

The Jewish Revolt

The Jews stood apart in their fierce insistence on monotheism. Jews had migrated and had communities all around the Mediterranean and in Rome (where Ovid recommends the synagogue as a good place to pick up women in The Art of Love). The Old Testament writings had been translated into Greek as far back as the third century BC as Jews in the diaspora lost touch with Hebrew.

Herod the Great, King of Judaea, had more in common with his Roman rulers than his Jewish subjects. When he introduced an amphitheatre and gladiator fights in the Roman style there were mutterings of discontent, but when he tried to impose official worship of Augustus the god there was an outcry and an assassination attempt.

The Jews’ dogged insistence on the uniqueness of their god puzzled the Romans (and their neighbours). Neither Augustus nor Tiberius took any steps against the Jews, but Roman officials in the provinces were less tolerant and insistence on conformity to Augustus worship or other religious practices led to repeated clashes. Many Jews were nervous of their masters’ lack of understanding and religious extremists – the Zealots so criticised by Josephus – played on these fears and encouraged proactive rebellion.

All these forces led to the outbreak of the First Jewish–Roman War (66 to 73 AD), sometimes called the Great Jewish Revolt or The Jewish War. It began in the twelfth year of the reign of Nero, with anti-taxation protests leading to attacks on Roman citizens by the Jews. The Roman governor, Gessius Florus, responded by plundering the Second Temple, claiming the money was for the Emperor, and the next day launching a raid on the city, arresting numerous senior Jewish figures. This prompted a wider, large-scale rebellion and the Roman military garrison of Judaea was quickly overrun by the rebels.

It took the Romans with all their might four full years to quell the rebellion, marked by the sack of Jerusalem, the destruction of Herod’s Temple and the displacement of its people around the Mediterranean, followed by three years of further mopping-up operations. Most other Roman provinces suffered from extortionate taxation, harsh military rule, severe punishment for anyone who breached the peace. What made the Jews different was the involvement of fierce religious belief which shaded into millenarian visions of a Final Battle and Second Coming of the Promised One. Egypt, Greece, Britain, Spain and other equally exploited provinces had nothing like this.

The rise of Christianity

Obviously nobody alive in the Year One had a clue that it would one day, centuries later, be singled out as the start of a new dispensation on human history. If you’re not a Christian, chances are you still use the Christian system of numbering years, if only for business purposes. If you are a Christian this year marked the start of a completely new epoch of world and human history, one in which Divine Grace entered the human realm and all people were offered the chance of salvation through faith in the risen Christ.

Finley dwells on the fairly well-known textual records of early Christianity, within his realm of Roman studies, for example the famous letters of Pliny the Elder to the emperor Trajan asking for advice on how to deal with the men and women being denounced to him as ‘Christians’.

Returning to borders, Finley points out that this same emperor Trajan conquered ‘Dacia’, roughly modern Transylvania, and embarked on a foolhardy campaign against the Parthians (graveyard of the ambitions of Crassus and Anthony to name but two) but Hadrian, who succeeded him, gave up the Parthian gains and settled the borders of the empire for good. Thus, give or take a few small provinces and the elimination of a few client-kingdoms, such as Judaea, the frontiers established by Augustus in the Year One were not far from being the final, definitive borders of the Empire.

Trade

One of the consistent surprises when reading about pre-modern history is the extent and complexity of pre-modern trade routes. It was one of the big messages of the British Museum’s great Vikings exhibition, showing just how far-flung Viking exploration and trade was. Whether considering the trading networks of ancient China or the early explorations of the Portuguese or the vast extent of the Mongol conquests, the message is always the same: pre-modern trading networks were always more wide-reaching than you would have thought.

Same here: Finley points out that the Romans bought silk from as far afield as China (via middlemen in Chinese Turkestan), and more directly with China and Ceylon. Indo-Roman trading stations existed as far away as Pondicherry. ‘There was a drain of Roman coins to India and further East’. Yet references to India were thin and misleading. In the works of the elegiac poets India is usually just linked as a name alongside Parthia to represent the furtherst ends of the earth.

Similarly, there was trans-Sahara trade, especially for ivory, but almost total ignorance of the African continent below the desert. (p.198)

In a way the northern border was more intriguing. After the catastrophe of the Teutoburg Forest (described in vivid detail by Goldsworthy in his biography of Augustus) Augustus withdrew all legions, merchants and settlers in Germany back south of the Rhine and the Rhine-Danube became de facto the northern border of the empire for the next four centuries.

Despite interacting with them extensively, despite making treaties with chieftains, trading with them, understanding something about their societies, in a sense the Romans never got to grips with the Germans. Finley explains part of this was because the Germans were illiterate so had no texts for the Romans to study; no history, art, no architecture.

Also, the Germans were made up of loose and constantly changing tribal confederations. The Parthians had an emperor, the Armenians a great king and so on: you knew who you were dealing with and what they had to offer and how to bargain. None of this worked with the Germans.

(He makes the interesting point that, in their relative ignorance, the Germans relied on ‘primitive agricultural techniques’ which rapidly exhausted what agricultural land they created by forest clearance, and this was a factor in their constant migrations. That and the periodic arrival of entire peoples from further east, which pushed the nearby Germans over the Rhine, often for safety.)

Lastly, he makes a quick point that despite trade with far-flung places outside the empire, most of the cultural and especially religious innovation came from within the empire.

The great matrix of religion innovation was within the empire, in its eastern regions: Egypt, Syria and Palestine, Asia Minor. And, of course, in the end the triumphant contribution from that area in this period was Christianity. (p.198)

East and West

He concludes with the Big Idea that the whole notion of Western Europe in a sense owes its existence to the Augustan settlement which secured Italy, Spain, France and Britain for Roman rule for centuries to come, bequeathing them a common culture, no matter how far it decayed during the Dark Ages.

The East, with far deeper cultural roots of its own, was not ‘Romanised’ to anything like the same extent, retaining a cultural independence which was expressed, first through the survival of the Byzantine Empire for another 1,000 years, and then through its conquest by another Eastern religion, Islam, tearing the Middle East and North Africa out of the Roman Christian family of nations, setting up a profound geographical and cultural divide which lasts to this day.


Credit

‘The Year One’ was included in a collection of essays by M.I. Finley titled ‘Aspects of Antiquity’, published by Penguin books in 1968. References are to the 1977 Penguin paperback edition.

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

The life of Julius Caesar by Suetonius (120 AD)

Suetonius

Not much is known about Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, generally referred to as Suetonius. He was born around 70 AD, probably in a town in modern-day Algeria. He may have taught literature for a while, he seems to have practiced the law. He is recorded as serving on the staff of Pliny the Younger when the latter was governor of Bithynia in north Turkey in 110 to 112 AD. Subsequently he served on the staff of emperors, being in charge of the emperor’s libraries under Trajan and then managing the emperor Hadrian’s correspondence. Pliny describes him as a quiet and studious man devoted to his writing. He wrote The Lives of Illustrious Men, 60 or so biographies of poets, grammarians, orators and historians, almost all of which has been lost (except for short lives of Terence, Virgil and Horace).

The Lives of the Caesars, by contrast, has survived almost in its entirety (it is thought that only some of the opening sections of the first life, Caesar, are missing). As it says on the tin, The Lives of the Caesars includes biographies of the first 12 Roman emperors, being:

  • Julius Caesar
  • Augustus (ruled 31 BC to 14 AD)
  • Tiberius (14 to 37 AD)
  • Gaius (Caligula) (37 to 41)
  • Claudius (41 to 54)
  • Nero (54 to 68)
  • Galba (68 to 69)
  • Otho (69)
  • Vitellius (69)
  • Vespasian (69 to 79)
  • Titus (79 to 81)
  • Domitian (81 to 96)

(It may be worth pointing out that Nero’s suicide in 68 led to a period of anarchy in which a succession of generals seized power. Three of them ruled for only a few months each –Galba from June 68 to January 69; Otho from January to April 69; and Vitellius from April to December 69 – before Vespasian seized power and stabilised the situation, ruling from 69 to 79. Which is why 69 came to be called The Year of Four Emperors.)

Suetonius realised that the genre of biography needed to strike out in a different direction from history, not least because of the overpowering example of Publius Cornelius Tacitus, whose Annals and Histories describe the reigns of the emperors Tiberius, Claudius, Nero and the Year of the Four Emperors. (Taken together, Suetonius and Tacitus are our only major sources for this critical, formative period in the history of the western world.

So Suetonius departed from the strictly chronological approach of the historians, and of his younger contemporary, the biographer Plutarch (46 to 120), and a chose a different method. Suetonius only briefly covers the facts of the lives before moving to more personal, non-political material about his subjects, classified and arranged according to subject matter. Although this sounds dry the result is the opposite; the inclusion of lots of juicy gossip and anecdotes, delivered with a deadpan, non-judgemental expression.

In his introduction to the Penguin edition, the renowned classicist Michael Grant (1914 to 2004) points out that Suetonius’s main contribution to the genre was that he moved away from the traditional eulogistic treatment of dead great men to take a more ‘astringent’ and ‘disenchanted’ view (lovely words).

Above all, he avoids the heavy moralising of earlier writers (Sallust with his heavy moralising and Plutarch with his negative opinion of Caesar, both spring to mind). Suetonius assembles evidence for and against his subjects – then leaves it for the reader to decide.

Penguin still publish the translation they commissioned in the 1950s from the famous novelist and poet Robert Graves, a writer who is just as charming and gossipy as Suetonius (see his wonderful memoir Goodbye To All That).

The Life of Caesar

Just as with Plutarch’s life of Julius Caesar, Suetonius’s life appears to be missing the first section, about the great man’s family and boyhood. Why? Did Augustus suppress them as he is said to have suppressed Caesar’s juvenile writings, in order to manipulate and burnish the legend of his adoptive father?

The Life consists of 89 short sections which fill 40 pages of the Penguin translation.

(1) Aged barely 18, Caesar married Cornelia, daughter of the consul Lucius Cornelius Cinna, of Gaius Marius’s party. The dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla demanded that Caesar ‘put her away’ i.e. divorce her, but Caesar obstinately refused and had to go into hiding from Sulla’s wrath. Eventually friends of his persuaded Sulla to relent, at which he spoke the much quoted words: “Have your way and take him but bear in mind that the man you are so eager to save will one day deal the death blow to the cause of the aristocracy, which you have joined with me in upholding. There are many Mariuses in this fellow Caesar.”

(2) He went to serve in Asia as aide-de-camp to the provincial governor Marcus Thermus. When sent to  raise a fleet in Bithynia he spent so much time with king Nicomedes that a rumour spread he was having a homosexual relationship with him. [A reputation for philandering was to follow Caesar cf his affair with Cleopatra.]

(3) He was serving another commander in Cilicia (southern Turkey) when the death of Sulla in 78 BC opened up the political scene and he hurried back to Rome, He was offered a place in the revolt of Marcus Lepidus but doubted the latter’s chances and turned it down.

(4) He brought a law suit against Cornelius Dolabella but it failed and to escape the resulting ill feeling he headed off to Rhodes to study under the noted orator Apollonius Molo. But en route he was captured by pirates and held to ransom. When his family and friends coughed up the required amount (50 talents = 12,000 gold pieces) Caesar promptly hired some ships and soldier, tracked down the pirates and had them all crucified. Then continued on to Rhodes to study.

(5) On Caesar’s return to Rome he helped the Assembly undo aspects of Sulla’s constitutional reforms, for example restoring the veto of the tribunes of the plebs.

(6) During his quaestorship in 69 BC he delivered eulogies to his aunt Julia [the one who had married the general and ruler of Rome Gaius Marius] and wife Cornelia, in which he lost no opportunity to remind everyone that his extended family or clan, the Julii, claimed descent from Aeneas and through him to the goddess Venus.

He next married Pompeia but divorced her after the strange (and irritatingly ubiquitous) story about Publius Clodius Pulcher disguising himself as a woman to enter Caesar’s house during the women-only rites for the goddess Bona.

(7) As quaestor he was sent to help govern Spain, In Gades he was seen to sigh on seeing the statue of Alexander the Great, vexed that, at the same age as Alexander when he died, he had done nothing of note. [In Plutarch the same story is told except Caesar bursts into tears.] He had a dream of raping his mother which the soothsayers interpreted as meaning he was destined to conquer the Earth, ‘our Universal Mother’.

(8) He laid down his quaestorship and visited the citizens living beyond the river Po who complained that they weren’t granted full Roman citizenship and might have raised them in revolt had not the authorities brought in fresh legions. In other words, he was an impatient ambitious young man looking for a cause.

(9) He was elected aedile in 65 BC. Suetonius then reports that Caesar conspired with Rome’s richest man, Marcus Licinius Crassus, to overthrow the government, to storm the Senate, massacre as many senators as possible, have Crassus installed as dictator with Caesar his Master of Horse or deputy, and a couple of other conspirators as consuls. Apparently Crassus got cold feet and the plan fell through. Suetonius mentions another conspiracy, with Piso, to raise rebellion in Rome, the Po valley and Spain simultaneously. Suetonius knows these are scandalous accusations and so names three other historians as his authorities. None of this is mentioned in Plutarch.

(10) As aedile Caesar put on spectacular shows. In fact he assembled so many gladiators for public fights that his opponents thought he was going to use them for political violence and rushed through a law limiting the number of gladiators that anyone might keep in Rome.

(11) Ambition. Caesar tried to get control of Egypt by popular vote following the outcry after Pharaoh Ptolemy XII, officially a friend and ally of Rome, was overthrown – but the aristocratic party foiled his attempt. [All this is context for his involvement in Egypt and Cleopatra 20 years later.] In revenge he restored statues of the anti-aristocratic Marius throughout central Rome. He also prosecuted bounty hunters who had brought in the heads of those proscribed under Sulla.

(12) He presided over the trial of Gaius Rabirius.

(13) He won the position of pontifex maximus, getting deeply into debt in order to bribe the people. Suetonius repeats the oft-told story that, on the morning of his election, as he set off to the polls, he told his mother he would return as pontifex or not at all [generally taken to mean he would be in so much debt that if he didn’t win the post, he’d be forced to flee the city.]

(14) The Catiline conspiracy Caesar spoke against the death penalty for the conspirators and swayed most of the Senate till Marcus Porcius Cato (also known as Cato the Younger) stood up and spoke sternly in favour of the death penalty. [A full transcript of these dramatic speeches, albeit probably made up, is given in Sallust’s Cataline’s War.]

Suetonius goes beyond previous accounts in adding the dramatic detail that when Caesar persisted in his call for clemency, a troop of Roman knights threatened him and even drew their swords and made  threatening passes with them so that his friends had to rally round and shield him. Only then did he yield the point, withdraw, and for the rest of the year didn’t revisit the Senate House.

This sounds like an artistic touch, like a deliberate prefigurement of his assassination 20 years later.

(15) On the first day of his praetor­ship he called upon Quintus Catulus to render an account owing to the people touching the restoration of the Capitol, but abandoned it when the aristocratic party of senators, who had been accompanying the newly elected consuls to the Capitol, returned to the Senate building.

(16) He supported Caecilius Metellus, tribune of the commons, in bringing some bills of a highly seditious nature in spite of the veto of his colleagues. Even when the Senate ordered him to cease and desist, he persisted until they threatened him with violence at which point he dismissed his lictors, laid aside his robe of office, and slipped off to his house.

All these stories bespeak the rebellious obstinacy of the man and the turbulence which surrounded him.

(17) He then got into trouble by being named among the accomplices of Catiline by an informer called Lucius Vettius and in the senate by Quintus Curius. Caesar strongly refuted the claims, not least by pointing out how he had alerted Cicero, consul and lead magistrate in Rome, of the conspiracy and so was decisive in getting is quelled. He secured the conviction and imprisonment of both informers.

(18) After securing the governorship of Further Spain he left hastily before formally confirmed in post in order to avoid his, by now, numerous and clamouring creditors. He restored order in the province but returned hastily to Rome to claim a triumph. He also wanted to be consul for the following year and couldn’t do both. After agonising, he entered the city, thus losing the triumph, in order to contest the consulship.

(19) Caesar was elected consul but not with the partner he wanted, as the aristocracy lobbied hard and bribed heavily to ensure that one of their party, Marcus Bibulus, was elected as his partner consul. The optimates then offered him the most trivial and demeaning governorship possible, of ‘woods and pastures’, which in practice meant guarding the mountain-pastures and keeping the woods free from brigands.

Frustrated, Caesar worked behind the scenes to reconcile the most successful general in the land, Pompey, and the richest man, Crassus, to come to a behind the scenes arrangement to share power and secure each other’s aims. This came to be called the First Triumvirate.

(20) As consul Caesar immediately passed a law that the proceedings both of the senate and of the people should day by day be compiled and published. He also revived a by-gone custom, that during the months when he did not have the fasces an orderly should walk before him, while the lictors followed him. He brought forward an agrarian law too and when his partner consul opposed it, drove him from the Senate by force, terrorising him into remaining in his house for the rest of his term.

Caesar had in effect made himself sole ruler. A joke went round that official documents, instead of being signed by the two consuls i.e. “Done in the consul­ship of Bibulus and Caesar” were marked “Done in the consul­ship of Julius and Caesar”. Many a true word spoken in jest. Suetonius gives examples of Caesar’s peremptory behaviour:

  • he divided public land among twenty thousand citizens who had three or more children each
  • when the tax collectors asked for relief, he freed them from a third part of their obligation but warned them from bidding too recklessly for contracts in the future
  • he freely granted to anyone whatever they took it into their heads to ask
  • Cato, who tried to delay proceedings, was dragged from the House by a lictor at Caesar’s command and taken off to prison
  • when Lucius Lucullus was too outspoken in his opposition, he filled him with such fear of malicious prosecution that Lucullus actually fell on his knees before him
  • because Cicero, while pleading in a court case, deplored the times, Caesar transferred the orator’s enemy Publius Clodius that same day from the patricians to the plebeians, something Clodius had vainly been striving for for ages
  • he bribed an informer to declare that he had been encouraged by certain men to murder Pompey, and to name them in public; however, the informer bungled the task and to cover this attempt to incriminate the entire body of his political enemies, Caesar had the would be informant poisoned

(21) As previously discussed, marriage in ancient Rome was an important way of creating political alliances. Caesar now married Calpurnia, daughter of Lucius Piso, who was to succeed him in the consul­ship, and married his own daughter, Julia, to Gnaeus Pompeius, to cement their partnership.

(22) With these influential backers in place Caesar now lobbied to be awarded the governorship of Gaul, not the ‘woods and pastures’, figuring, like so many Roman governors, that it would a an excellent location in which a) to gain military glory b) fleece the natives and grow rich.

At first by the bill of Vatinius he received only Cisalpine Gaul with the addition of Illyricum but then the Senate, fearful that the people would lobby violently, decided to add Gallia Comata as well. Suetonius passes on a juicy anecdote that, later, among friends, he celebrated his success over his enemies and said he would use it to mount on their heads with a pun meaning a) clambering over their heads b) mounting their penises.

When someone insultingly remarked that that would be no easy matter for any woman, he replied in the same vein that Semiramis too had been queen in Syria and the Amazons in days of old had held sway over a great part of Asia.

(23) As soon as his consulship ended some praetors tried to bring legal proceedings against him for misconduct but Caesar managed to bribe his way out of this and thenceforward took pains to be on good terms with all succeeding magistrates, getting them to vow and even sign pledges not to prosecute him.

[This is how Roman politics worked. Academics explain the process of voting for candidates but not enough attention is paid to what appears to be the almost inevitable consequence of office which is someone will try and prosecute you. While canvassing for office candidates had to spend a fortune bribing the voters and, after leaving office, had to spend a fortune bribing succeeding officials not to prosecute them. Forget morality – it was just a crazily unstable system.]

(24) Suetonius has the motivation behind Caesar calling a meeting of the Triumvirate in Luca, in 56, being that Lucius Domitius, candidate for the consul­ship, was threatening to remove him from the generalship of the armies in Gaul. He called Pompey, Crassus and a third of the Senate to head this off and, in exchange for favours to his partners, had his command in Gaul extended by 5 years.

(25) Suetonius summarises Caesar’s 9 years in Gaul:

  • he reduced the entire area to a province and imposed an annual tribute of 40 million sestercii
  • he was the first to build a bridge over the Rhine and attack the Germans on their home turf
  • he invaded Britain, exacting money and hostages

In all this time he suffered only three setbacks:

  • in Britain, where his fleet narrowly escaped destruction in a violent storm
  • in Gaul, when one of his legions was routed at Gergovia
  • on the borders of Germany, when his lieutenants Titurius and Aurunculeius were ambushed and slain

[In fact, by Caesar’s own account, he suffered more close shaves than that.]

(25) After the murder of Clodius the Senate voted for just one consul to hold office and gave it to Pompey. This seems a little garbled. I thought Pompey was awarded sole consulship in light of the ongoing riots between the rival gangs of Clodius and Titus Annius Milo.

Caesar now began lobbying to be awarded the consulship at the moment he relinquished his command in Gaul in 50 BC. He began to campaign lavishly, he:

  • began to build a new forum with his spoils from Gaul
  • announced a massive feast in memory of his daughter
  • he announced massive gladiatorial games and paid for gladiators to be trained
  • he doubled the pay of the legions for all time
  • whenever grain was plenti­ful he distributed it to the people

Populism. When he had put all Pompey’s friends under obligation, as well as the greater part of the Senate, through loans made without interest or at a low rate, he lavished gifts on men of all other classes.

(28) How he curried favour with foreign princes, sending troops or money or hostages as appropriate. He paid for public works for the principle cities throughout the empire. [Plutarch doesn’t make mention of this global campaign. Is it a later inflation of the legend?]

Nonetheless, events moved towards their crisis. The consul Marcus Claudius Marcellus proposed that, since peace was finally established in Gaul, Caesar be relieved of his command but forbidden from standing as consul in that year’s elections. The precise opposite of what Caesar wanted.

(29) The following year Gaius Marcellus, who had succeeded his cousin Marcus as consul, tried the same thing but Caesar by a heavy bribe secured the support of the other consul, Aemilius Paulus, and of Gaius Curio, the most reckless of the tribunes. He proposed a compromise, that he give up eight legions and Transalpine Gaul but be allowed to keep two legions and Cisalpine Gaul until he was elected consul.

(30) At the crisis intensified, Caesar crossed the Alps to Cisalpine Gaul and halted at Ravenna. When the Senate passed a decree that Caesar should disband his army before a given date and the tribunes Mark Antony and Quintus Cassius exercised their privilege and vetoed it, not only did the Senate ignore the veto but hounded the tribunes out of town with the threat of violence.

Why did he cross the Rubicon? Pompey later said it was he couldn’t afford to complete all the great works he’d promised and so wanted a state of disruption. Others said he knew he would be prosecuted for breaking umpteen laws during his first consulship. Cato hugely exacerbated the problem by taking an oath swearing he would impeach Caesar the minute he lay down his command. The simplest reason is he knew he would be tried, found guilty of something and permanently exiled.

(31) The story of how he decided to cross the Rubicon and sent his troops ahead but himself spent all day very publicly around Ravenna and in the evening attended a party, to allay suspicions. Only at the end of the evening did he harness a carriage and race to meet his troops.

(32) As he and his troops hesitated a being of wondrous stature and beauty appeared, snatched a trumpet from one of the soldiers, strode across the river and sounded the war-note with mighty blast from the other side. If only all corporate decisions were made that way.

(33) He harangued the soldiers with tears and tore his tunic and waved his hand around. This latter gave rise to a misunderstanding for he wore his senator’s ring on his left hand and the soldiers who couldn’t hear him thought he was offering them each a fortune to fight for him.

(34) He overran Umbria, Picenum, and Etruria, took prisoner Lucius Domitius, who was holding the town of Corfinium, let him go free, then proceeded along the Adriatic to Brundisium, where Pompey and the consuls had taken refuge. He tried but failed to prevent them sailing in a fleet across to modern day Albania but had no ships of his own to follow, so marched on Rome, taking it. Here he dealt peacefully with his remaining enemies, before setting off for Spain in order to defeat Pompey’s strongest forces, under command of three of his lieutenants – Marcus Petreius, Lucius Afranius, and Marcus Varro – which he did with surprising speed.

(35) Suetonius makes very light indeed of what happened next, describing Caesar’s assembly of a fleet, transport of his army across the Adriatic, the four month siege of Dyrrhachium, then following Pompey’s army into Thrace where he soundly defeated him at the battle of Pharsalum in one sentence. He followed the fleeing Pompey to Egypt where he arrived to discover he had been murdered by Egyptian officers who thought it would please him, and then became embroiled in an inconvenient war, bottled-up in the city of Alexandria. He was eventually triumphant over the army of the pharaoh who fled and was never heard of again, so that Caesar was able to leave Egypt in control of Ptolemy’s sister, Cleopatra.

Then he sums up the separate campaigns in Asia, Africa and Spain thus:

From Alexandria he crossed to Syria, and from there went to Pontus, spurred on by the news that Pharnaces, son of Mithridates the Great, had taken advantage of the situation to make war, and was already flushed with numerous successes; but Caesar vanquished him in a single battle within five days after his arrival and four hours after getting sight of him, often remarking on Pompey’s good luck in gaining his principal fame as a general by victories over such feeble foemen. Then he overcame Scipio and Juba, who were patching up the remnants of their party in Africa, and the sons of Pompey in Spain.

[Suetonius is a man in a hurry. All this is covered in vastly more detail in Caesar’s own account of the War in Alexandria, and whoever wrote the accounts of the campaigns in north Africa and Spain.]

(36) In all the civil wars Caesar suffered not a single disaster except through his lieutenant.

(37) Having ended the wars, he celebrated five triumphs, the first and most splendid was the Gallic triumph, the next the Alexandrian, then the Pontic, after that the African, and finally the Spanish, each differing from the rest in its equipment and display of spoils. He mounted the Capitol by torchlight with forty elephants bearing lamps on his right and his left. In his Pontic triumph he displayed among the show-pieces an inscription with just three words, “I came, I saw, I conquered,” not even bothering to describe the events of the war or the key battle (the battle of Zela, August 47 BC) but emphasising what he himself considered his outstanding quality which was amazing speed, of approach and attack.

(38) As examples of the astonishing liberality of these top leaders, Suetonius states that:

To each and every foot-soldier of his veteran legions he gave 24,000 sesterces by way of booty, over and above the 2,000 apiece which he had paid them at the beginning of the civil strife. He also assigned them lands but was careful not to dispossess any of the former owners. To every man of the people he gave 10 pecks of grain and the same number of pounds of oil plus the 300 sesterces he had promised at first, and 100 apiece because of the delay. He remitted a year’s rent in Rome to tenants who paid 2,000 sesterces or less and in Italy up to 500 sesterces. He added a banquet and a dole of meat, and after his Spanish victory two dinners for everyone.

[The reader is awed by the wealth of these super-rich people, but also at the kind of society in which this was a recognised convention or way of proceeding.]

(39) Having covered the war against Pompey and his heirs with laughable superficiality, Suetonius devotes twice as much space to describing the lavish games Caesar paid for. It is worth quoting at length because its impact derives from its scale.

1. He gave entertainments of diverse kinds: a combat of gladiators and also stage-plays in every ward all over the city, performed too by actors of all languages, as well as races in the circus, athletic contests, and a sham sea-fight. In the gladiatorial contest in the Forum Furius Leptinus, a man of praetorian stock, and Quintus Calpenus, a former senator and pleader at the bar, fought to a finish. A Pyrrhic dance was performed by the sons of the princes of Asia and Bithynia. 2. During the plays Decimus Laberius, a Roman knight, acted a farce of his own composition, and having been presented with five hundred thousand sesterces and a gold ring,​ passed from the stage through the orchestra and took his place in the fourteen rows.​ For the races the circus was lengthened at either end and a broad canal​ was dug all about it; then young men of the highest rank drove four-horse and two-horse chariots and rode pairs of horses, vaulting from one to the other. The game called Troy was performed by two troops, of younger and of older boys. 3. Combats with wild beasts were presented on five successive days, and last of all there was a battle between two opposing armies, in which five hundred foot-soldiers, twenty elephants, and thirty horsemen engaged on each side. To make room for this, the goals were taken down and in their place two camps were pitched over against each other. The athletic competitions lasted for three days in a temporary stadium built for the purpose in the region of the Campus Martius. 4. For the naval battle a pool was dug in the lesser Codeta and there was a contest of ships of two, three, and four banks of oars, belonging to the Tyrian and Egyptian fleets, manned by a large force of fighting men. Such a throng flocked to all these shows from every quarter, that many strangers had to lodge in tents pitched in streets or along the roads, and the press was often such that many were crushed to death, including two senators.

(40) Caesar reformed the calendar, adding a few days to make it last the 365 days of the solar year, with an extra day added every fourth year, such as we still do, 2,000 years later.

(41) He filled the vacancies in the senate, enrolled additional patricians, and increased the number of praetors, aediles, and quaestors, as well as of the minor officials. Half the officials were elected in the old way, half were directly appointed by him.

(42) Details of more of his reforms, including how long citizens were allowed to live overseas, who was allowed to travel. He made a partial attempt to sort out the problem of indebtedness which seems to have been one of Rome’s most enduring social problem. He dissolved all guilds, except those of ancient foundation. He increased the penalties for crimes.

(43) 1. He administered justice with the utmost conscientiousness and strictness. Those convicted of extortion he dismissed from the senatorial order. He imposed duties on foreign wares. He denied the use of litters and the wearing of scarlet robes or pearls to all except those of a designated position and age, and on set days. 2. He enforced the laws against extravagance, setting watchmen in the market to seize and bring to him dainties which were exposed for sale in violation of the law. Sometimes he sent his lictors and soldiers to take from a dining-room any articles which had escaped the vigilance of his watchmen, even if they had already been served to the guests.

(44) Caesar’s grand public schemes involved:

  • to build a temple of Mars bigger than any in existence
  • to build a theatre of vast size, sloping down from the Tarpeian rock
  • to reduce the civil code to fixed limits and the vast, prolix mass of statutes down to only the best and most essential
  • to open to the public the greatest possible libraries of Greek and Latin books
  • to drain the Pontine marshes
  • to build a highway from the Adriatic across the summit of the Apennines as far as the Tiber

Militarily, he planned to check the Dacians, who had poured into Pontus and Thrace then to make war on the Parthians by way of Lesser Armenia.

[Remember I mentioned that Suetonius departed from the basic chronological methodology of his predecessors by adding descriptions of his subjects’ characters by category? Well, sections 45 to about 77 of the Life of Caesar do just that, pausing the (often very superficial) account of Caesar’s life story to look at a range of his qualities or characteristics.]

Before I speak of Caesar’s death, it will not be amiss to describe briefly his personal appearance, his dress, his mode of life, and his character, as well as his conduct in civil and military life.

(45) “He is said to have been tall of stature with a fair complexion, shapely limbs, a somewhat full face, and keen black eyes. Sound of health, except that towards the end he was subject to sudden fainting fits and to nightmare as well. He was twice attacked by the falling sickness​ during his campaigns. 2. He was overnice in the care of his person, being not only carefully trimmed and shaved, but even having superfluous hair plucked out.”

[Hence his reputation, as a young man, of being a dandy.]

“His baldness was a disfigurement which troubled him greatly since he found that it was often the subject of the gibes of his detractors. Because of this he used to comb fhis thin hair forward from the crown of his head. Of all the honours voted him by the senate and people he welcomed none more gladly than the privilege of wearing a laurel wreath at all times since it covered his baldness.”

(46) He is said to have built a country house on his estate at Nemi at great cost but then torn it down because it did not suit him in every particular even though he was, at the time, poor and in debt. It was said that he carried tesselated and mosaic floors about with him on his campaigns [!].

(47) “He was an enthusiastic collector of gems, carvings, statues, and pictures by early artists. Also of slaves of exceptional figure and training at enormous prices, of which he himself was so ashamed that he forbade their entry in his accounts.”

(48) “He was so punctilious in the management of his household that he put his baker in irons for serving him with one kind of bread and his guests with another. He inflicted capital punishment on a favourite freedman for adultery with the wife of a Roman knight, although no complaint was made against him.”

(49) His early ‘friendship with King Nicomedes dogged the rest of his career, giving rise to no end of homophobic quips and insults.

(50) His affairs with women were described as numerous and extravagant. He seduced the wives of many senators and even Pompey’s wife Mucia. “But beyond all others Caesar loved Servilia, the mother of Marcus Brutus, for whom in his first consul­ship he bought a pearl costing six million sesterces.” Some people said that Servilia prostituted her own daughter Tertia to Caesar.

(51) That he behaved the same in Gaul is suggested by one of the many bawdy songs his soldiers sang about him in the Gallic triumph: “Men of Rome, keep close to your consorts, here’s a bald adulterer.”

(52) He had affairs with foreign queens, the most notable of course being Cleopatra. It is said that he would have followed her in a barge up the Nile to Ethiopia but his soldiers rebelled. He lavished her with presents and titles and she bore his son, Caesarion.

The extraordinary suggestion that Helvius Cinna, tribune of the commons, admitted to friends that he had a bill drawn which Caesar had ordered him to propose to the people in his absence, making it lawful for Caesar to marry what wives he wished, and as many as he wished, “for the purpose of begetting children.” [He sounds like an African dictator.]

That he had a bad reputation both for shameless vice and for adultery is suggested by the fact that the elder Curio in one of his speeches called him “every woman’s man and every man’s woman.” [Bisexual and shamelessly promiscuous.]

(53) He drank little, was never drunk, and cared little about food.

(54) In Gaul and Spain he shamelessly sacked towns which had surrendered in order to loot them. At first this was to pay off his monster debts but eventually he accumulated so much god “he didn’t know what to do with it”. In his first consul­ship he stole 3,000 pounds of gold from the Capitol, replacing it with the same weight of gilded bronze. He made alliances and thrones a matter of barter, for he extorted from Ptolemy alone nearly 6,000 talents. Later on he met the heavy expenses of the civil wars, his triumphs and entertainments by the most bare-faced pillage and sacrilegious looting of temples.

(55) Caesar equalled or surpassed both the greatest generals and the greatest orators in history. His prosecution of Dolabella placed him in the first rank of advocates and Cicero asked in his Brutus whether his readers knew of a better speaker than Caesar, of anyone who spoke so wittily with such a wide yet precise vocabulary.

(56) Caesar left memoirs of the Gallic war and the civil war with Pompey. The author of their continuations into a history of the Alexandrian, African, and Spanish Wars is unknown; some think it was Oppius, others Hirtius, who also supplied the final book of the Gallic War.

Cicero thought the accounts were “naked in their simplicity, straightforward yet graceful, stripped of all rhetorical adornment, as of a garment” and obviously written to supply material to others.

The orator, poet, playwright, literary critic, and historian Gaius Asinius Pollio thought they had been left incomplete and that Caesar intended to revise and polish them. Also that they were flawed because Caesar was biased in the description of his own accounts and too readily believed his subordinates’ accounts of their doings.

(57) He was highly skilled in arms and horseman­ship, and of incredible powers of endurance. He moved at incredible speed, sometimes covering 100 miles in a day, sometimes arriving at his destination before the messengers sent to warn of his coming.

(58) He was careful and cautious, about crossing to Britain, about crossing the Rhine, about crossing from Brundisium to Dyrrachium.

(59) No regard for religion ever turned him from any undertaking, or even delayed him.

(60) He joined battle, not only after planning his movements in advance but on a sudden opportunity, often immediately at the end of a march, and sometimes in the foulest weather, when one would least expect him to make a move.

(61) He rode a remarkable horse with feet that were almost human for its hoofs were cloven in such a way as to look like toes. This horse was foaled on his own place and the soothsayers foretold that its master would one day rule the world.

(62) When his army gave way, he often rallied it single-handed, planting himself in the way of the fleeing men and grabbing them one by one and turning them to face the enemy.

(63) He was famous for his presence of mind in a crisis.

(64) “At Alexandria, while assaulting a bridge, he was forced by a sudden sally of the enemy to take to a small skiff. When many others threw themselves into the same boat, he plunged into the sea, and after swimming for 200 paces, got away to the nearest ship, holding up his left hand all the way, so as not to wet some papers which he was carrying, and dragging his cloak after him with his teeth, to keep the enemy from getting it as a trophy.” [This seems to derive the War in Alexandria.]

(65) He valued his soldiers neither for their personal character nor for their fortune, but solely for their prowess, and he treated them with equal strictness and indulgence.

(66) When they were in a panic through reports about the enemy’s numbers, he used to rouse their courage not by denying or discounting the rumours, but by falsely exaggerating the true danger.

(67) He did not take notice of all his soldiers’ offences or punish them by rule, but he kept a sharp look out for deserters and mutineers. This he chastised them most severely, shutting his eyes to other faults.

(68) His men were fantastically loyal to him and looked after each other. When captured they refused to go over to the other side. They fought fanatically.

(69) They did not mutiny once during the ten years of the Gallic war. In the civil wars they did so now and then, but quickly resumed their duty. Caesar discharged the entire ninth legion in disgrace before Placentia, though Pompey was still in the field, reinstating them unwillingly and only after many abject entreaties, while insisting on punishing the ringleaders.

(70) How he handled the Tenth Legion which clamoured to be released from duty and which he humiliated by calling them ‘citizens’, making them beg to be reinstated as citizens again.

(71) His rescue of Masintha, a youth of high birth, against king Hiempsa.

(72) His friends he treated with invariable kindness and consideration.

(73) He readily forgave his enemies including Gaius Memmius, Gaius Calvus and the poet Valerius Catullus.

(74) Even in revenge he was merciful. Suetonius claims that when Caesar tracked down the pirates who had held him captive and had them crucified, he ordered their throats cut first so they didn’t really suffer.

(75) He repeatedly spared the lives of enemies, promoted some to high offices, in battle refused to kill his prisoners when the opposition killed theirs, and so on.

(76) On the other hand, he was intolerably puffed up with pride and accept excessive honours, such as:

  • an uninterrupted consul­ship
  • the dictator­ship for life
  • the censor­ship of public morals
  • the forename Imperator
  • the surname of Father of his Country
  • a statue among those of the kings
  • and a raised couch in the orchestra

He allowed honours to be bestowed on him which were too great for mortal man:

  • a golden throne in the House and on the judgment seat
  • a chariot and litter carrying his image in the procession at the circus
  • temples, altars, and statues beside those of the gods
  • an additional college of the Luperci
  • and the calling of one of the months by his name

He ruled by personal whim appointing officials with total disregard for law and precedent.

(77) A selection of some of his ‘arrogant’ sayings such as that the ‘state’ was a name without a body and that Sulla made a mistake when he lay down his dictatorship.

(78) The event which caused most ill feeling was when the Senate approached him in a body with many highly honorary decrees and Caesar received them before the temple of Venus Genetrix without rising. Some think he was held back by Cornelius Balbus, others that he felt one of his epileptic fits coming on and didn’t dare rise, but the story is widely attested as a prime example of him arrogantly thinking himself above the state.

(79) Kingship The events and rumours which led people to think he seriously aimed at becoming king, the one thing anathema to all Romans:

  • at the Latin Festival someone placed on his statue a laurel wreath with a white fillet tied to it symbolising kingship. When two tribunes ordered that the ribbon be removed from the wreath and the man taken off to prison, Caesar rebuked and deposed them. He claimed this was because he had been robbed of the glory of refusing it but from that time on he could not rid himself of the odium of having aspired to the title of monarch
  • the famous quip, when asked if he wanted to be king, that “I am Caesar and no king”
  • at the feast of the Lupercalia, when Mark Antony several times attempted to place a crown on his head as he spoke from the rostra, he put it aside and at last sent it to the Capitol, to be offered to Jupiter Optimus Maximus
  • reports that he planned to move to Alexandria, taking with him the resources of the state and leaving Rome in the charge of deputies
  • the rumour that at the next meeting of the Senate Lucius Cotta would announce as the decision of the college of fifteen priests that, since it was written in the Sybilline Books that the Parthians could only be conquered only by a king, Caesar should be given that title

(80) Examples of the resentment of the people at Caesar’s adoption of absolute power [Suetonius doesn’t give us details of when he made himself dictator and the powers it gave him]. Thus:

  • when Caesar admitted foreigners into the Senate, a placard was posted telling no-one to point out the way to the Senate House “to a newly made senator”
  • rude verses were made up and sung accusing Caesar of promoting Gauls
  • Caesar appointed Quintus Maximus as consul in his place for three months, but when Quintus was entering the theatre, and his lictor called attention to his arrival in the usual manner, a general shout was raised: “He’s no consul!”
  • someone wrote on the base of Lucius Brutus’ statue, the man who drove the last kings from Rome: “Oh, that you were still alive”

Thus there was widespread popular feeling against Caesar and this encouraged different groups of conspirators to coalesce into one big conspiracy, which eventually totally 60 men. Various times and places were discussed until a meeting of the Senate was called for the Ideas (15) of March and the plan coalesced.

(81) Just as much as Plutarch, Suetonius takes bad omens seriously enough to record them in detail:

  • at Capua settlers in the new colony found in some old tombs a bronze tablet saying that when these bones were moved, a son of Ilium shall be slain at the hands of his kindred and avenged at heavy cost to Italy [son of Ilium because a) that was the Greek name for Troy b) Caesar’s family, the Julii, claimed descent from Aeneas, a prince of Troy]
  • the herds of horses which he had dedicated to the river Rubicon when he crossed it, and had let loose without a keeper, stubbornly refused to graze and wept copiously
  • when Caesar was offering sacrifice, the soothsayer Spurinna warned him to beware of danger, which would come not later than the Ides of March
  • on the day before the Ides of March a little bird called the king-bird flew into the Hall of Pompey with a sprig of laurel, pursued by others of various kinds from the grove hard by, which tore it to pieces in the hall
  • the night before his murder he dreamt now that he was flying above the clouds, now that he was clasping the hand of Jupiter
  • his wife Calpurnia dreamed that the pediment​ of their house fell, and that her husband was stabbed in her arms

Which is why he hesitated to go to the Senate House that morning but Decimus Brutus, who was in on the conspiracy, kept urging him not to let the Senate down, so eventually he left his house and set off. Several people handed him notes warning him of the conspiracy but he merely held onto them without reading.

Finally, it is said that he laughed at Spurinna and calling him a false prophet, because the Ides of March had come and he wasn’t harmed – but Spurinna replied that they had indeed come, but they had not gone.

(82) Description of the precise order of who stabbed him where. Compare and contrast with Plutarch. What always amazes me is that in a such a heavily militarised society where almost every adult male had served in the army, it took 23 stab wounds to kill him. Everyone fled the scene leaving the body and it was left to three slaves to place it on a litter and carry it home to his wife.

The conspirators had intended to drag his body to the Tiber, confiscate his property and revoke his decrees but they forebore through fear of Marcus Antonius the consul, and Lepidus, the master of horse. [Unlike Plutarch’s version where they ran out of the Senate House crying “Liberty! Freedom!”]

(83) Suetonius has Caesar’s will being opened and read at Mark Antony’s house: he allotted three quarters of his fortune to his sisters’ grandson, Gaius Octavius, and Lucius Pinarius and Quintus Pedius to share the remainder. At the end of the will he adopted Gaius Octavius into his family and gave him his name. To the people he left his gardens near the Tiber for their common use and three hundred sesterces to each man.

(84) Suetonius gives a very different account of Caesar’s funeral which omits Antony’s inflammatory reading of the will and displaying the bloody toga to the mob, which infuriated them. Suetonius gives s detailed description of the gilded shrine which was made after the model of the temple of Venus Genetrix, within which was a couch of ivory with coverlets of purple and gold, and at its head a pillar hung with the robe in which he was slain. And that Antony had the decree of the Senate read out by which Caesar was deified, to which he added very few words of his own [unlike Plutarch, where it is Antony’s sustained impassioned speech which rouses the crowd to vengeance.

While his friends debated where the pyre should be lit, in another supernatural moment;

on a sudden two beings​ with swords by their sides and brandishing a pair of darts set fire to it with blazing torches, and at once the throng of bystanders heaped upon it dry branches, the judgment seats with the benches, and whatever else could serve as an offering.

Angels, apparently.

(85) Inflamed with anger the mob ran to set fire to the houses of the conspirators Brutus and Cassius, but were repelled. They came across the harmless poet Helvius Cinna in the street and, mistaking him for the conspirator Cornelius Cinna, tore him to pieces and paraded his head on a spear. [Suetonius doesn’t mention it but it was this incident which persuaded the conspirators to flee Rome, thus handing the city over to their enemy, Mark Antony.]

The people set up in the Forum a solid column of Numidian marble almost twenty feet high and inscribed upon it, “To the Father of his Country.” At the foot of this for years afterwards they made sacrifice, made vows, and settled disputes by an oath in the name of Caesar.

(86) Some of his friends thought Caesar no longer wanted to live due to failing health. This would explain why, despite the mounting rumours and ominous portents, he dismissed the armed bodyguard of Spanish soldiers that formerly attended him and went to the Senate unprotected.

It is reported that he said that it wasn’t for his own sake that he should remain alive – he had long since had his fill of power and glory – it was because if he were killed, the commonwealth would have no peace but be plunged into strife under much worse conditions. Which is precisely what happened.

(87) Everyone agrees Caesar himself had a horror of a long lingering death and wanted one which was sudden and unexpected.

(88) Caesar was 56 when he died and was swiftly deified, not only by a formal decree, but also in the hearts of the common people. At the first of the games which his heir Augustus gave in honour of his apotheosis, a comet shone for seven days in a row.

It was voted that the hall in which he was murdered be walled up, that the Ides of March be called the Day of Parricide, and that a meeting of the Senate should never be called on that day.

(89) Hardly any of his assassins survived him for more than three years or died a natural death. They all perished in various ways — some by shipwreck, some in battle; some took their own lives with the self-same dagger with which they had stabbed Caesar.

Comparisons

In comparison with Plutarch, Suetonius really skimps on the details of both the political intrigue and the military campaigns. Instead you get the character profiling about his horse and haircut and so on in chapters 45 to 77. For the intense debate in the Senate about the Catiline conspirators, read Sallust. For Caesar’s achievements in Gaul read his own account, ditto the civil war with Pompey. Cicero’s letters give a vivid feel of what it felt like living under Caesar’s dictatorship i.e. stifled and numb.

Like Plutarch, like plenty of commentators at the time and ever since, Suetonius seems conflicted in his opinion about Caesar, supplying plenty of evidence that he was an extravagant and arbitrary dictator, but also lamenting the impiety of his murder.


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Plutarch’s life of Crassus

Marcus Licinius Crassus (115 to 53 BC)

Marcus Licinius Crassus was reputed to be the richest man in Rome due to astute property development and loan making. In 73 BC he was given command of the army charged with putting down the Spartacus rebellion. In 70 he served as consul. Well into middle age, he formed the triumvirate with Caesar and Pompey in 60 BC, an uneasy alliance which dominated the 50s. In 54 BC he was tempted to assume leadership of an army sent against the Parthian Empire way out East, where his army was defeated and he met a miserable death.

This is one of the shorter lives, at a mere 33 chapters because we in fact know remarkably little about Crassus and Plutarch, apparently, didn’t either. The account of the Spartacus campaign is far longer than really necessary and a good half of the text deals with his final doomed campaign in Parthia. Of the precise origin of Crassus’s business empire and the complex wheeler-dealing which surrounded the triumvirate, there is disappointingly little. Then again, his grim ending was what Crassus became most famous for and also provided a peg for an orgy of the kind of superstitious omens and finger-wagging moralising that the ancients loved so much. So maybe Plutarch knew his audience.

The life

(Chapter 1) Crassus’s father had been censor and was awarded a triumph for military sucess, giddy heights in Roman society. Yet Marcus was raised in a small house where the family ate meals together. Plutarch thinks this may account for his temperate and moderate behaviour in later life. When one of his older brothers died, Marcus married the widow.

(2) Contrasting with his moderation in all other respects was his greed. Starting with a modest legacy he worked it up into an outrageous fortune: during his consulship he sacrificed the tenth of his goods to Hercules but still had enough left over to feasted the people and then give every Roman enough cash to live on for three months! In 54 BC, before he set out on his ill-fated expedition to Parthia (modern-day Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan), Crassus made an inventory of his property and valued it at 7,100 talents. Compare this with the fine of 20,000 talents which Lucius Cornelius Sulla imposed on all the cities and towns of Asia combined and which they found impossible to pay off.

One of Crassus’s business strategies was to hear about fires in the city, rush to the blaze and make the owners of threatened or burning properties offers they couldn’t refuse. If they sold him their property he promptly deployed his private fire service to save it. ‘In this most of Rome came into his possession’!

Crassus had a number of sayings which have been preserved. He said that people who build houses have no need of enemies since they will ruin themselves by their own efforts. He is also supposed to have said that no-one should be thought rich who couldn’t support an entire army out of their own wealth – a handy definition.

Crassus owned silver mines and much land and the labourers to work it. He owned a huge number of slaves but took care to educate and manage them well.

(3) Crassus’s house was open to all. He gave good dinner parties, not showy, His guests were often ordinary people, not the elite. He lent money without interest, which sounds nice, but demanded it be repaid back at exactly the allotted time. Crassus studied the art of public speaking and was always prepared. Sometimes he was ready to speak when Pompey, Caesar or Cicero were reluctant. He had an open approachable manner and would talk to anyone freely. In this way he cultivated great popularity.

(4) When Lucius Cornelius Cinna and Gaius Marius seized power in 87 BC it quickly became obvious they weren’t seeking what was best for the state but to exterminate their enemies. Among these were Crassus’s father and brother who were both murdered in the Marian purges. Young Marcus fled to Spain with some servants. He found shelter in a cave which Plutarch describes at length, making it sound like a boy’s adventure. A friend living locally, Vibius, tasked a slave with taking Crassus meals every day and leaving them a little distance from the cave.

(5) After a while it occurred to Vibius that young Marcus might want more than just food and so he sent his two prettiest slave women to keep him company.

(6) Marius died soon after regaining power in 87 BC and Rome was ruled for three years by Cinna. When Crassus heard that Cinna was dead (84 BC) he headed back to Italy to join Sulla in his march on Rome. Crassus became jealous of Sulla’s open partiality for young Pompey. This was because the latter had more military experience and also because Sulla disliked Crassus’s obvious greed.

(7) Deciding he couldn’t compete with Pompey, Crassus opted to focus on politics. He ingratiated himself with everyone, had a hand in all business affairs, made himself open and available and friendly and helpful to large numbers of people. It was said that Pompey was most powerful when he was out of Rome on campaign whereas back in Rome he was in Crassus’s shade, because he was aloof and selfish. Pompey was powerful because he had so many contacts, friends and money; but he was inconsistent in his alliances, shifting and switching to whatever suited him.

(8) Description of the Spartacus rebellion. How the gladiators escaped from the training school of Lentulus Batiatus at Capua. 78 gladiators escaped, came across a wagon carrying weapons, raided it and elected three leaders.

(9) How the gladiators defeated the praetor Marcus Claudius Glabur by escaping from a hill top using vine ropes then attacking the Romans from the rear. Local shepherds and peasants joined them. Subsequent victories against Publius Varinus, Lucius Furius and Lucius Cossinius. Spartacus tries to persuade his men to march north and cross the Alps but many prefer ravaging and looting Italy. The Senate sent both that year’s consuls against them, and Gellius massacred a group of Germans, but then Spartacus’s main force defeated the other consul, Lentulus, and went on to destroy the arms of Cassius, the governor of Cisalpine Gaul.

(10) It was at this point that Crassus was appointed to supreme command of the war. I am puzzled by this as we had established that Crassus forebore the military and had chosen to concentrate on civilian power. Crassus deputed Mummius to tail Spartacus but on no account to engage. Instead Mummius seized an opportunity to attack and was repelled and beaten by the insurgents, the legions turning tail and running. When they had reported back to Crassus he had 500 of the first to run away and had them decimated: every tenth man was chosen by lot and publicly humiliated and executed.

Spartacus marched to the Straits and made a deal with Cilician pirates to carry them to Sicily, where they hoped to revive the recently quelled slave rising, but the pirates took their money and abandoned them. Then they turned for the heel of Italy where Crassus had his men erect a ditch and wall forty miles long.

(11) Crassus fell upon a contingent resting by a lake in Lucania but Spartacus came to their rescue. Then there was a battle near a hill where Crassus massacred 12,500 of the rebels. Spartacus retired to the mountains of Petelia, trailed by Roman forces. Then he turned and engaged them, routing them and nearly killing the quaestor.

But this made the rebels over-confident and they turned to confront Crassus’s main army as it was making camp for the night. This developed into a full battle in which the rebels were comprehensively defeated.

Pompey was approaching with a second army and this engaged the stragglers from Spartacus’s force and wiped them out. To Crassus’s immense chagrin Pompey was awarded a magnificent triumph for his victory in Spain against Sertorius while Crassus was given the much more modest ‘ovation’ for a war which all the nobles thought had been dishonourable from start to finish.

(12) Crassus and Pompey were made consuls for the next year but publicly disagreed about everything. However, at one of their last appearances before the people a man leapt onstage and claimed that Jupiter had appeared to him in a dream and told him the consuls mustn’t part without being friends. Characteristically it was Crassus who made the first move and seized Pompey by the hand and praised him.

(13) In 63 Crassus was elected censor but made none of the reforms expected of the post. His colleague in the post strongly objected to Crassus’s policy that Egypt should be annexed by Rome and so the two men resigned their posts.

At the time of the Cataline conspiracy in 63 BC Crassus was accused of being party to the plot, not least by Cicero. This resulted in Crassus’s enmity towards the latter, until his own son, Publius, a devoted follower of the orator, persuaded him to forgive and forget.

(14) In 60 BC Caesar returned from service in Spain and was lobbying to be elected consul for the following year. He persuaded Crassus and Pompey that their enmity was weakening both and letting the party of Cicero and Cato triumph. He proposed they form an alliance, telling each man they’d be stronger together. In reality the person who benefited most was Caesar who was not only elected consult but awarded command in Gaul.

In the spring of 56 arguments threatened to break the triumvirate but Caesar called Pompey, Crassus and a good number of senators to a conference at Luca in north Italy where agreement was reached and the triumvirate reconfirmed. Caesar’s rule in Gaul was extended and the other two were allotted provinces and armies.

(15) On their return to the capital many opponents, led by Cato, interpreted the deal as establishing a tyranny based on armies not on elected office. Cato persuaded Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus to stand for the consulship but this led to growing violence at the hustings, with Pompey’s supporters attacking Ahenobarbus’s entourage, killing some of them, and then attacking the assembly, manhandling Cato out of the forum and so on.

(16) So all their opponents were intimidated into staying at home and Crassus and Pompey were elected consuls. They drew lots for their spheres of influence and Crassus won the East. He was thrilled as he openly boasted of superseding Lucullus and Pompey’s achievements against the enemy kings, Mithridates and Tigranes, and was desperate to take on the Parthian Empire. Critics tried to talk him out of it and then block his path as he departed Rome.

(17) Crassus sailed with a large army to Galatia and overland to the Euphrates, crossing into Parthian territory. When he discovered old King Deiotarus founding a new city, he joked that he was late in life to do such a thing, but the king joked back that Crassus was pretty long in the tooth to be taking on a massive military mission. He was 60 but looked older.

Another bad omen came. Most of the cities of Mesopotamia went over to him when they saw his army. But at one, Zenodotia, ruled by Apollonius the tyrant, a hundred of his soldiers were slain so Crassus let his forces seize and plunder it and sold its inhabitants into slavery. For this his soldiers hailed him ‘Imperator’ but this wasn’t any kind of military triumph, it was massacring civilians, and the fact Crassus let his soldiers call him Imperator, and was pleased by it, was a worrying indication of his lack of experience or of seriousness, of what Plutarch’s calls ‘a paltry spirit’.

Worse, instead of reaching out to Babylon and Seleucia for alliance against Parthia, he spent all his time in the cities which had come over to him in Syria in mercenary not military activity. Thus instead of reviewing his troops and setting up athletic contests for them, he spent his time counting the money and weighing the treasure he’d acquired. He demanded soldiers and supplies from ‘districts and dynasts’ only to change his mind if they paid him off, thus losing their respect.

As they were leaving the temple of Venus, Crassus’s son (who accompanied him on the campaign) stumbled and fell at the gate, and then his father fell over him.

(18) Men come to the camp from the occupied cities and bring eye witness accounts of the strong armour and warlike temper of the Parthians. Word spreads among the troops who become demoralised. Many, including Caius Cassius Longinus, advise calling a halt and reconsidering the entire campaign. The seers keep seeing bad omens.

(19) Artabazes the king of Armenia arrived to ally with Crassus, bringing 6,000 horsemen and promising an additional 10,000 mail-clad horsemen and 30,000 footmen. He advised Crassus to approach Parthia from Armenia, which is hilly so the cavalry, which were Parthia’s sole military strength, would be disadvantaged. But Crassus preferred to march across flat Mesopotamia. Then Plutarch gives an impressive list of bad omens:

  • as the army crossed the Euphrates at Zeugma it was daunted by peals of thunder and flashes of lightning; a strong wind destroyed the raft Crassus was crossing on
  • the place he intended to camp was hit by two thunderbolts
  • one of the general’s horses violently dragged its groom down to the river and disappeared beneath the waves
  • the first eagle which was raised aloft, faced about of its own accord
  • when the rations were distributed after the crossing of the river, lentils and salt came first, which are traditional Roman signs of mourning
  • while addressing his men Crassus made a bad slip, telling them he would destroy the bridge over the river so that none of could return, when he meant there would be no going back – instead of inspiring it demoralised his men
  • when he was making the customary sacrifice of purification for the army, and the seer placed the viscera in his hands, Crassus clumsily let them fall to the ground, at which all the bystanders were appalled

It’s impossible to tell whether any of this actually happened or whether, as in Cicero’s definition of inventio as explained in the introduction to Sallust, this is the kind of thing which ought to have happened. In other words, these incidents which read to us like fairy stories and folk tales and tend to undermine Plutarch’s veracity, to the ancient mind did just the opposite, piling up all kinds of appropriate details and omens which made the events more plausible.

(20) Crassus advanced with seven legions of men-at‑arms, nearly 4,000 horsemen and about as many light-armed troops. Scouts reported the land was empty of men but they’d seen the tracks of horsemen who had approached the army but wheeled about and left. Cassius advised caution and recuperating the men in one of the garrison cities while he found out more about the enemy.

You can see how the cumulative effect of the bad omens and the persistent advice Crassus receives, from both Romans and allies, creates a very ominous and dramatic tension in the narrative.

(21) Now aan Osroene chieftain named Ariamnes arrived in the Roman camp who set about deceiving Crassus. He had helped Pompey in his campaigns and now tried to persuade Crassus to abandon the river and venture into the flat plain (best fighting ground for the Parthian cavalry). And encourages him to do it soon before the king’s forces are united.

This was all a lie for the king was at that moment ravaging Armenia for its offers of friendship to Crassus, while he sent Surena forward to make trial of the enemy in battle and to distract them. There follows a brief and preposterously inflated description of Surena, presumably to big him up into a worthy opponent of Crassus. ‘He used to travel on private business with a baggage train of a thousand camels, and was followed by two hundred wagons for his concubine’. 200 wagons for his concubines!

(22) Thus Plutarch claims it was Ariamnes who persuaded Crassus to abandon the river and led him out into a plain which was flat at first but then turned into undulating sand, no trees, no water. Messengers came from Artavasdes II, king of Armenia, saying a) he is being attacked by Hyrodes the Parthian b) for Crassus to come and join him in a united war or c) to make sure he stuck near mountains and hills where the feared cavalry couldn’t operate. [The name Hyrodes is nowadays given as Orodes and he was the second Parthian king of that name, Orodes II.]

Cassius has given up trying to warn Crassus, who was angry with him, and reserved his scorn for the joking joshing Arab who led the army into the wilderness.

(23) In keeping with the steady ratcheting up of tension, Plutarch says that on the fateful day of the disastrous battle, Crassus by mistake didn’t dress in a purple robe but in a black one (which seems wildly unlikely) and that the standard-bearers had great difficulty raising their standards, which seemed to be embedded in the earth. Scouts return to announce that the enemy is coming up in great numbers.

Crassus assembles his men in one long line but then changes his mind and makes them form squares, accompanied by a cavalry squad. The army came to a stream but instead of letting them rest and refresh, Crassus insisted on making them continue on a forced march. They come upon Surena’s advance guard who appear to be surprisingly small, until the war drums of the main force behind them boomed out, disheartening the Romans.

(24) Plutarch describes the battle in detail. The Parthians initially planned to charge until they saw the solidity of the Roman squares. Then they sent cavalry to surround the squares. When light troops ran out to skirmish with them, everyone saw how effective the Parthian arrows were at penetrating armour and the army first started to be scared. Then the Parthians started to fire into the densely packed squares of Romans.

(25) At first Crassus thought they would run out of arrows till he realised they had a camel train carrying bags of extra arrows. He lost heart. He ordered his son on the left wing to attack. Publius Crassus led his wing in pursuit of the Parthians who broke and ran, but only to lure them into an ambush where they were surrounded by Parthian horsemen circling round them and stirring up dust.

Publius roused his cavalry to charge again but their spears could do little against the Parthian breastplates of hide and steel whereas the long Parthian pikes did great damage. Publius’s Gauls put up a good fight, crawling under the Parthian horses to stab them and perishing when horse and rider fell on them. They seized Publius who had been injured and took him to a sandy hill to make a last stand but they were surrounded and annihilated by arrows.

Two Greeks tried to persuade Publius to abandon his troops and come with them to a nearby Greek city but he bade them leave, remaining with his troops. Then he turned his side to his shield bearer and told him to stab him to death. Other nobles also committed suicide. The redoubt was massacred and the victorious Parthians cut off Publius’s head.

(26) Meanwhile Crassus initially thought his son’s charge was successful and the main army weakened as some left to deal with it. But then he received messages begging for help. Conflicted, Crassus ordered the whole army to advance. But the enemy rallied and strengthened, started beating their damn war drums and then rode up with Publius’s head on a pike to taunt him. The army is daunted but this is Crassus’s finest hour, and Plutarch has him delivering a stirring speech invoking Rome’s glorious history of victory whatever the cost.

(27) The slaughter continued until night fell and the Parthians backed away and made camp. Crassus lies on the ground in black despair so his lieutenants decide to retreat, rouse the army and back west despite the lamentations of the wounded they leave to die in the desert. An advance guard under Ignatius reached Carrhae at midnight and told the garrison commander, Coponius, to send out reinforcements to help the stricken army, and so the survivors are all brought within the walls of Carrhae.

(28) At daybreak the Parthians slaughtered all the wounded lying about the plain to the number of 4,000, then surrounded and massacred four cohorts who had got separated from the main body of the Roman army.

Surena isn’t sure whether Crassus is in Carrhae or whether his army has fled further west so he sends attendants up to the wall calling for Crassus or Cassius. Crassus comes to the city walls and the ambassadors propose Crassus accept an honourable truce, sign a peace treaty and leave Mesopotamia. They invite him to a conference with Surena. Crassus agrees.

(29) But having confirmed that Crassus was in the city, Surena changed his tune and surrounded it, with men deputed to mock the Romans and telling them to send Crassus and Cassius out in chains.

Morale collapses and his lieutenants suggest Crassus flee the city abandoning his army. But his closest Greek adviser, Andromachus, is a double agent and reports this to Surena. And when this escape party sets out that night in secret from the city Andromachus treacherously leads them a zigzag route through marshes. Cassius left with 500 cavalry by a different route and made it to Syria. Octavius led 5,000 to a hill country named Sinnaca.

[Only now does it become clear that when Plutarch said Crassus left Carrhae, he meant with a significant armed force (four cohorts of men-at‑arms, a few horsemen all told, and five lictors). Add in Octavius’s forces and you can see that a lot of the army got away. This suggests that Surena wasn’t mounting a very effective siege and throws into doubt the whole story about the Roman army taking refuge in the city.]

Anyway, up come the Parthians and surround Crassus’s force on a hill but Octavius fights his way through to join him.

(30) Surena realised that, with night coming on, the Romans were likely to escape into the hills. So he changed his approach and a) released prisoners who had overheard staged conversations between Surena and lieutenants saying it was time for peace, which softened Crassus up for when b) Surena and lieutenants made their way up the hill under truce, symbolically unstrung his bow and held out his hand, offering peace.

Crassus hesitates to accept but the army rebelled, clashed their shields and insist they will fight no longer. So much against his better judgement Crassus is more or less forced to go down the hill to meet with Surena.

(31) Octavius insists on joining him with his entourage. Then Plutarch gives a detailed description of the scuffle which leads to the fray in which Crassus is killed. Crassus had walked down on foot while Surena had advanced on horseback. He said it ill befitted his opponent to be on foot and offered a fine horse with gold-studded bridle. Surena’s lifted Crassus onto it then ran alongside slapping it to make it ride faster. But Octavius and a tribune seized the bridle to slow it down and keep Crassus in their protection. A scuffled developed and blows were exchanged. Octavius drew his sword and killed one of the grooms but was himself killed. Crassus was killed by a Parthian named Pomaxathres.

Rumour has it that the Parthians cut off Crassus’s head and right hand. Some of the Roman embassy made it back to the hilltop redoubt. That night they tried to sneak away but very few made it out of the desert alive. Most were hunted down and cut to pieces. ‘In the whole campaign, twenty thousand are said to have been killed, and ten thousand to have been taken alive’ – as usual with ancient accounts, these are suspiciously round figures.

(32) Surena sent the head and hand of Crassus to King Hyrodes in Armenia. Then he organised a mock triumph in the city of Seleucia, with a Roman noble forced to wear a dress being set on a horse backwards and mockingly saluted as ‘Crassus’, with lictors on camels and troupes of actors and musicians mocking the fallen Romans.

Plutarch makes a big deal out of the fact that the Parthians discovered in Crassus’s baggage train a copy of the ‘Milesiaca’ by Aristides, a collection of love stories. These are read out and mocked as inappropriate to take on a military campaign, but Plutarch acidly points out that this was rich coming from a leader (Surena) who himself led wagon-loads of concubines and whose train trailed off in the rear into dances, cymbals, lutes, and nocturnal revels with women. Plutarch quotes Aesop’s fable of the two wallets. He is more interested in literary allusions than history per se.

(33) Meanwhile, in faraway Armenia, King Hyrodes was at last reconciled with king Artavasdes II and agreed to receive the latter’s sister as wife for his son Pacorus. Both kings were (supposedly) well educated in Greek literature and when the head of Crassus arrived at the palace, as part of the wedding feast a performance of Euripides’ Bacchae was underway. The messenger threw Crassus’s head on the stage and the lead actor picked it up and addressed it with Euripides’ lines.

Then the man who had actually killed Crassus, Pomaxathres, stepped forward and claimed the head. King Hyrodes was delighted and gave both men rewards. Plutarch moralises: thus was the tragedy of Crassus, as is traditional, followed by farce.

[The later historian, Cassius Dio, claimed that the Parthians poured molten gold into Crassus’s mouth in symbolic mockery of his thirst for wealth. Thus grotesque gossip and macabre stories accrue around famous men.]

The text contains one last afterthought, presumably designed to ram home the perfidious treachery of the wicked orientals: soon afterwards Hyrodes became jealous of Surena’s fine reputation and had him put to death. Then Hyrodes lost his son Pacorus, defeated in battle by the Romans,​ and became ill, so that another of his sons, Phraates, had his father strangled.

All lives end in death, but this short life feels particularly grim and depressing.

Plutarch’s summary

For Plutarch, Crassus’s fate was:

to the multitude an illustration of the ways of fortune, but to the wise an example of foolish ambition, which would not let him rest satisfied to be first and greatest among many myriads of men, but made him think, because he was judged inferior to two men only, that he lacked everything. (27)

I.e. he was driven to his death because of rivalry with his two partners in the triumvirate, Pompey and Caesar.

Superstitions and omens

It is said that when he was first brought to Rome to be sold, a serpent was seen coiled about his face as he slept, and his wife, who was of the same tribe as Spartacus, a prophetess, and subject to visitations of the Dionysiac frenzy, declared it the sign of a great and formidable power which would attend him to a fortunate issue. (8)

When Crassus is marching out of Rome for the East his way is blocked by a critic, Ateius:

Ateius ran on ahead to the city gate, placed there a blazing brazier, and when Crassus came up, cast incense and libations upon it, and invoked curses which were dreadful and terrifying in themselves, and were reinforced by sundry strange and dreadful gods whom he summoned and called by name. The Romans say that these mysterious and ancient curses have such power that no one involved in them ever escapes, and misfortune falls also upon the one who utters them, wherefore they are not employed at random nor by many. And accordingly at this time they found fault with Ateius because it was for the city’s sake that he was angered at Crassus, and yet he had involved the city in curses which awakened much superstitious terror.

There follows a steadily increasing crescendo of bad omens as Crassus’s army advanced into the badlands. Surely these are classic examples of Cicero’s inventio. This is what ought to have happened for the gods are just and send us omens and prophecies and so every fraught event must be accompanied by heavenly signs. Precisely what makes this aspect of these ancient texts ludicrous to us, made them plausible and convincing to most of their readers.


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SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard (2015) – 1

SPQR is a long book – including the notes and index, it totals a chunky 606 pages. I picked it up at the British Museum’s Nero exhibition, my mind fired up by a couple of hours looking at exhibits illustrating all aspects of ancient Roman life in the first century AD.

Mary Beard’s ubiquity

By the bottom of page one I was disappointed. Dame Mary Beard DBE FSA FBA FRSL is a tiresomely ubiquitous presence across all media:

  • she has a regular column in the Times Literary Supplement, ‘A Don’s Life’, columns which have been gathered into not one but two books
  • she has fronted seven TV documentary series – Pompeii: Life and Death in a Roman Town (BBC 2), Meet the Romans with Mary Beard (BBC 2), Caligula with Mary Beard (BBC 2), Pompeii: New Secrets Revealed with Mary Beard (BBC 1), Mary Beard’s Ultimate Rome: Empire Without Limit (BBC 2), Julius Caesar Revealed (BBC 1), she wrote and presented two of the nine episodes in Civilisations (BBC 2) and she hosts a new BBC arts programme Lockdown Culture
  • she regularly appears on Question Time and other BBC panel shows
  • she is very ‘vocal’ on her twitter account and has been ‘controversial’ enough to trigger a number of twitterstorms
  • she’s written nineteen books and countless articles and reviews

To churn out this huge volume of content requires compromises in style and content, especially when making TV documentaries which have to be lucid and simple enough to appeal to everyone. Listing her enormous output is relevant because it helps to explain why this book is so disappointingly mediocre. What I mean is, SPQR is a readable jog through all the key events and people of ancient Rome – and God knows, there are thousands of them. But it contains few if any ideas worth the name and is written in a jolly, chatty, empty magazine style.

Compare and contrast with Richard Miles’s book about Carthage which combines scholarly scrupulousness with teasingly subtle interpretations of ancient history, propounding interesting and unusual ideas about the cultural struggle waged between Rome and Carthage. Well, there’s nothing like that here.

On the back cover there’s a positive review from the Daily Mail:

‘If they’d had Mary Beard on their side back then, the Romans would still have an empire!’

and this jolly knockabout attitude accurately captures the tone of the book. Beard is the Daily Mail‘s idea of an intellectual i.e. she’s at Cambridge, she knows about a fairly obscure subject, and she can speak a foreign language. She must be brainy!

And she’s outspoken, too. She’s what TV producers call ‘good value’. She can be relied on to start a twitterstorm by being outspokenly ‘controversial’ on statues or black lives matter or #metoo or any of the usual hot topics. Indeed Beard first came to public notice when she wrote in the London Review of Books in the wake of the 9/11 attacks that America ‘had it coming’, an off the cuff remark which prompted a storm of abuse. More recently she sparked ‘controversy’ through with her apparent defence of Oxfam workers practising sexual exploitation in Haiti, and so on.

Like so many other people on social media, Beard mistakes being provocative for actually having anything interesting to say; in which respect she is like thousands of other provocateurs and shock jocks and arguers on social media, all of whom think they are ‘martyrs to the truth’ and ‘saying the unsayable’ and ‘refusing to be silenced’, exactly the kind of rhetoric used by Tommy Robinson or Nigel Farage. She is the Piers Morgan of academia.

Mary Beard’s reasons to study ancient Rome

The superficiality of her thinking becomes horribly clear on page one of SPQR where Beard gives us her reasons why ancient Rome is still relevant to the present day, why it is important for us all to know more about the history of ancient Rome.

As a lifelong specialist in Classics you’d hope these would be pretty thoughtful and persuasive, right? Here are her reasons, with my comments:

1. Rome still helps to define the way we understand our world, and think about ourselves.

No it doesn’t. I imagine you could study economics and international politics, biology and geography, climate science and sociology and psychology without ever needing to refer to ancient Rome. Marx, Darwin and Freud go a long way to defining how we understand the world. Cicero a lot less so.

2. After 2,000 years, Rome continues to underpin Western culture and politics.

No, it doesn’t. Brexit, Boris Johnson’s current problems, Trump’s popularity, modern music, art and design; all these can be perfectly well understood without any knowledge whatsoever of Roman history.

3. The assassination of Julius Caesar… has provided the template… for the killing of tyrants ever since.

Has it?

4. The layout of the Roman imperial territory underlies the political geography of modern Europe and beyond.

Well, yes and no. Italy and France and Spain are undoubtedly similar to the Roman territories of the same name and many cities in western Europe have Roman origins – but everywhere north of the Rhine or Danube was untouched by the Romans, so the borders and cities of modern-day Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Czech republic, Slovak republic, Hungary, Serbia, Romania and Croatia have bugger-all to do with ancient Rome. It’s a tendentious fib to say ‘modern Europe’ owes its political geography to Rome.

5. The main reason London is the capital of the United Kingdom is that the Romans made it the capital of their province of Britannia.

Well a) after the Romans left in 410 London, like all other British cities, fell into disrepair. The reason London slowly rose again as a trading centre during the early Middle Ages has more to do with the fact that it is the logical place to build a major city in England, being close to the continent and at the lowest fordable point of a major river which reaches into the heart of the country and is thus a vital transport hub; b) London is capital of the United Kingdom because of political developments vis-a-vis Wales, Scotland and Ireland which took place a thousand years after the Romans left.

6. Rome has bequeathed us the ideas of liberty and citizenship.

This is true, up to a point, although these ideas were developed and debated in ancient Greece well before the Romans came along, and have undergone 1,500 years of evolution and development since.

7. Rome has loaned us catchphrases such as ‘fearing Greeks bearing gifts’.

It was when I read this sentence that I began to doubt Mary Beard’s grasp on reality. Is she claiming that ‘fearing Greeks bearing gifts’ is by any stretch of the imagination a ‘catchphrase’ which anyone in Britain would recognise, who hadn’t had a classical education?

She’s closer to the mark when she goes on to mention a couple of other catchphrases like ‘fiddling while Rome burns’ or ‘bread and circuses’, which I imagine a large number of people would recognise if they read them in a magazine or newspaper.

But lots of people have given us comparable quotes and catchphrases, from Shakespeare to the Fonz. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations includes over 20,000 quotations. Citing just three quotations as the basis for persuading people to study an entirely new subject is far from persuasive. If the number of quotations which a subject has produced is taken as a good reason for studying it, then Shakespeare would be a hugely better relevant subject for everyone to study, to understand where the hundreds of quotations which float around the language deriving from him come from (Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo? To be or not to be? Is this a dagger I see before me? All that glitters is not gold. The be-all and end-all. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.)

And then came Beard’s showstopper claim:

8. Gladiators are as big box office now as they ever were.

Is Mary Beard seriously claiming that ‘Ancient Rome is important’ (the first sentence in the book) because ‘Gladiators are as big box office now as they ever were’? Let’s ponder this sentence and this argument for a moment.

Can Beard possibly be saying that actual gladiators, trained professional warriors who fight each other or wild beasts to the death in front of huge live audiences, ‘are as big box office now as they ever were’? I wish she was. I’d definitely pay to see that. But of course she isn’t she must be referring to the entertainment industry. I’m guessing it’s a throwaway reference to any one of three possible items: the television show Gladiators, which started broadcasting in 1992, some of whose expressions became jokey catchphrases (‘Contender ready! Gladiator ready!!’); to the 2000 movie Gladiator, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Russell Crowe, that was very successful and won five Oscars; and possibly to the 2010 American TV series Spartacus. Two TV shows and a movie about gladiators in 30 years. Hardly a deluge, is it?

Beard’s argument appears to be that, because a successful game show, movie and TV series have been made on the subject of ‘gladiators’ that is a sufficient reason for everyone to drop everything and study ancient Rome.

a) That’s obviously a rubbish argument on its own terms, but b) it ignores the wider context of modern media, of the entertainment industry, namely that there is a huge, an enormous output of product by film and TV companies, all the time, on every subject under the sun. If your argument is that, because a subject has been chosen as the topic of immensely popular movies or TV shows this proves that we must study that subject, then we should all be studying the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The reality of modern media is that it chews up and spits out any subject which it thinks will make money. In the last twenty years I have been dazed by the enormous explosion in the number of science fiction movies and TV shows, about alien invasions and artificial intelligence and robots and androids, which have hit our screens. Does this mean we should all study artificial intelligence and robotics? No. These are just entertainment products which we may or may not choose to watch.

Placed in the broadest context of western cultural products, then, gladiators, or even the overall subject of ancient Rome, pale into insignificance. Ancient Rome is just one of half a dozen hackneyed historical settings which TV and film producers return to from time to time to see if there’s some more profit to be squeezed from them, up there with Arthur of the Britons, Henry VIII and the Tudors, Regency-era dramas like Bridgerton, Dickens adaptations, the Wild West, not to mention the perennial subject of the two world wars which never go out of fashion.

If you base your case for studying an academic subject on its TV and movie ratings (‘Gladiators are as big box office now as they ever were’) then it follows that a) subjects with higher ratings are even more necessary to study (the Edwardian society of Downton Abbey, say) and b) low ratings for the subject you’re promoting undermine your argument. My son told me about an HBO series titled simply ‘Rome’ which only ran for two series (2005 to 2007) before it was pulled due to huge expense and disappointing ratings. Maybe ancient Rome isn’t as popular a subject as a professor of Classics likes to think.

Summary

Anyway, the eight sentences I’ve listed above constitute the list of the reasons given by ‘Britain’s leading Classicist’ for studying ancient Rome.

Not very persuasive, are they? Every one of these instances sounds plausible enough at a first glance, if you read it quickly, skimming over it as you skim over a magazine on a plane flight or listen to the script of a big budget documentary about Pompeii you’re half paying attention to.

But stop and ponder any of the eight arguments for more than a moment and they disintegrate in your hands. They are all either factually incorrect or laughably superficial, and they strongly indicate the fluent but facile nature of the mind which selected and wrote them.

Missing obvious arguments

In passing, it’s odd that Beard misses several obvious arguments from her list.

Because I’m interested in language, I’d say a good reason for studying Classics is because Latin forms the basis of a lot of contemporary English words. If you grasp a relatively small number of principles about Latin (such as the prefixes e- for ‘out of’ and in- for ‘into’ and ab- for ‘from’) it can help you recognise and understand a surprising number of English words.

Easily as important as Rome’s impact on political geography is the obvious fact that three major European languages are descended from it, namely Italian, French and Spanish. That’s a really massive lasting impact and people often say that studying Latin helps you learn Italian, French or Spanish.

In fact, having studied Latin, French and Spanish I don’t think it’s true. The main benefit of studying Latin is that it forces you to get clear in your head the logical structure of (western) language, understanding the declension of nouns and the conjugation of verbs, the arrangement of adjectives and adverbs – in other words, it gives you a kind of mental map of the basic logic of western languages, a mental structure which then helps you understand the structure of other languages, including English.

My son studied Latin at school and remembers his teacher trying to persuade his class that Latin was a ‘cool’ subject by telling them that the Chelsea footballer Frank Lampard had studied it. Beard’s efforts t opersuade us all to take ancient Rome more seriously are on about the same level.

But maybe I’m missing the point because Beard is talking about history and I’m talking about languages.

Once we got chatting about it, my son went on to suggest that arguably the most obvious legacy of ancient Rome is its architecture. All over the western world monumental buildings fronted by columns and porticos, sporting arches and architraves, reference and repeat the Architecture of Power which Rome perfected and exported around the Mediterranean and which architects copy to this day.

But again maybe I’m missing the point talking about architecture when Beard is determined to focus very narrowly on the history, on the events and personalities of ancient Rome.

Then again, having discussed it with my son made me realise that how narrow that focus is. If we agree that the biggest legacy of Rome was its political geography, the founding of important towns and cities in western Europe, its ancestry of widely spoken languages, and its hugely influential style of architecture, then this places the actual history of events, long and colourful though they may have been, in a relatively minor role – in terms of direct enduring influence on our lives, now.

Feminists can be boring old farts, too

Just because she makes a point of not wearing make-up and makes a big deal on the radio, on TV, in the TLS, in countless reviews and in all her books about being a ‘feminist’ doesn’t make Mary Beard any less of a privileged, out of touch, Oxbridge academic than hundreds of fusty old men before her. She attended a girls private school, then the all-women Newnham college Cambridge, and went onto a long and successful academic career at Cambridge, rising to become Professor of Classics.

This is all relevant to a book review because I am trying to convey the powerful impression the book gives of someone who is fantastically pleased with themselves and how jolly ‘radical’ and ‘subversive’ and ‘outspoken’ they are and yet:

a) who is apparently blind to the fact that they are exactly the kind of out-of-touch, white privileged media figure they themselves have expended such effort in books and articles criticising and lambasting

More importantly:

b) who mistakes sometimes dated references to popular culture or trivial ‘provocations’ about gender or race on twitter, for thought, for real thought, for real deep thinking which sheds new light on a subject and changes readers’ minds and understanding. As the Richard Miles’ book on Carthage regularly does; as this book never does.

Facebubble

A Facebubble is what is created among groups of friends or colleagues on Facebook who all befriend each other, share the same kinds of values, are interested in the same kind of subjects and choose the same kinds of items from their newsfeeds. Over time, Facebook’s algorithms serve them what they want to read, suggesting links to articles and documentaries which reinforce what they already know and like. After a while people become trapped in self-confirming facebubbles.

It is a form of confirmation bias, where we only register or remember facts or ideas which confirm our existing opinions (or prejudices).

Again and again Beard’s book confirms your sense that, despite her rhetoric about making the subject more accessible and open, she is in fact addressing a relatively small cohort of readers who are already interested in the history of the ancient world. The oddity is how she again and again gives the impression of thinking that these already knowledgeable readers are somehow representative of the broader UK population.

Of course this is true of more or less any factual book which addresses a specific audience for a specialised subject – it assumes a tone of general interest. What makes Beard’s book irritating is the references to the notion that ‘we’ are ‘all’ still fascinated by ancient Rome, that ‘everyone’ ‘needs’ to be engaged with the subject. That ancient Rome ‘demands’ our attention. Those are the words she uses.

But no, ancient Rome does not ‘demand’ our attention and no ‘we’ are not ‘all’ fascinated by ancient Rome. My Chinese postman, the three Albanians who put up my new fence, the Irish labourers who took away the wreckage of the old fence, the Asian woman on the checkout at Tesco, the Jamaican guy who blows leaves out the road for the council, the Turkish family who run the delicatessen round the corner – are they ‘all’ fascinated by ancient Rome? Does it ‘demand’ their attention? It feels as if she’s writing for a white, middle class, university educated Radio 4-listening public and badly mistaking them for representing the big, complex, very diverse population of modern Britain.

On page two she tells us how:

SPQR takes its title from another famous catchphrase, Senatus PopulusQue Romanus (p.16)

Is this a famous catchphrase, though? Roughly how many people know what SPQR stands for? What percentage of the population do you think could translate Senatus PopulusQue Romanus? Maybe people with degrees in the humanities, particularly in the arts and literature, probably ought to. And anybody who’s been to Rome as a tourist might have noticed the letters SPQR appearing on letter boxes and manhole covers. I know what it stands for and what the Latin means because I happen to study Latin at my state school and went on to do a history-based degree, which is precisely why I bought and am reading this book. But I have the self awareness to know that I represent a fairly small, self-selectingly bookish percentage of the total population.

Myth busting

On page 3 of the introduction, Beard says her book will set out to smash some of the ‘myths’ which ‘she, like many’ grew up with’ (p.17). These are:

  1. that the Romans started out with a plan for world domination
  2. that in acquiring their empire the Romans trampled over peace-loving peoples
  3. that Rome was the thuggish younger sibling of classical Greece

Are these myths which you grew up with? Is it very important that ‘we’, the British people, have these ‘dangerous’ myths corrected? No, not really. They are only remotely important in the mind of someone who specialises in the subject.

All this rhetoric of ‘need’ and ‘must’ and ‘demand’ builds up an impression of special pleading, defined as when someone ‘tries to persuade you of something by only telling you the facts that support their case’. Beard is a Professor of Classics. Her job is to teach students Classics. She has taken it upon herself to make Classics more ‘accessible’ to a wider public, which may well be admirable. She tries to persuade us that everybody ought to know more about the history of ancient Rome.

But the arguments she uses to do so are weak and unconvincing.

I am not attacking Beard or her subject. I am critiquing the poor quality of her arguments.

First impressions

All these arguments and my responses to them occurred in the first few pages of the book. I hope you can see why, before the end of the 5-page introduction to SPQR, I realised that this was not going to be a scholarly book, and was not going to show much intellectual depth. It is a long, thorough and competent Sunday supplement-level account of its subject, stuffed with interesting facts, with some novel spins on things I thought I knew about (for example, the latest thinking about the legend of Romulus and Remus).

But it is disappointingly magaziney, features article-y, lacking in real depth. Instead of really unsettling and disrupting your ideas, of opening new vistas of understanding, as Richard Miles’s book does, Beard’s ideas of ‘controversy’ are on a disappointing twitter level – telling us that ancient Rome was a very sexist society, that its political debates about freedom versus security are very like our own, that there’s a lot we still don’t understand about its origins, that the archaeology is still much debated.

These are all ideas you could have predicted before you opened the book. That’s what I mean by comparing it to a very long magazine article which is packed with the latest knowledge and hundreds of dates and historical personages, but doesn’t really change your opinion about anything.

Very disappointing.


Credit

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard was published in 2015 by Profile Books. All references are to the 2016 paperback edition.

Roman reviews

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