Complete Letters of Pliny the Younger translated by P.G. Walsh (2006)

Gaius Pliny sends greetings to his friend Septicius Clarus
“On numerous occasions you have urged me to assemble and to publish such letters as I had composed with some care. I have now assembled them without maintaining chronological sequence, for I was not compiling a history, but as each happened to come to hand.”
(Opening of the first letter in Pliny’s Collected Letters)

The letters of Cicero

The letters of Pliny the Younger (61 to around 113 AD) are as famous as those if Cicero (106 to 43 BC) but different. Cicero lived in extremely turbulent times and was right at the centre of events, a personal friend of Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great, Brutus and other key players in the political crises which led to the civil war of 49 BC. Plus he had a highly developed interest in rhetoric, poetry and philosophy, plus he had an exuberant gregarious showman personality, all of which makes his letters a joy to read 2,000 years later.

Pliny’s career

Pliny, by contrast, was a much more sober figure. His uncle (Pliny the Elder, 23 to 79 AD) was a confidante of the emperor Vespasian and a member of the imperial council. The nephew was a lifelong civil servant and administrator, moving smoothly up the ranks of the Roman administration: thus he progressed through the posts of quaestor, plebeian tribune and praetor during the reign of the emperor Domitian (ruled 81 to 96 AD) and then, under the long, peaceful rule of Trajan (98 to 117) his career really took off.

Pliny served as prefect to the military treasury then, after Domitian was assassinated in 96, prefect of the treasury of Saturn. Then, in 100, he was made suffect consul. It was on this occasion that he delivered a speech of thanks to Trajan in the senate and this speech has survived in its entirety; he called it the Panegyricus. In 103 Pliny was appointed to the college of augurs, all the more pleased because this was a position his hero, Cicero, had held. In 104, he was appointed curator of then Tiber (responsible for protecting against flooding etc). Finally, the peak of his career came with his appointment as governor of the province of Bithynia-Pontus in 109 (or 110), where he probably died in post a few years later (scholars think this because the letters abruptly cease in 113).

Pliny’s letters

Pliny’s letters are arranged into ten books. Books 1 to 9 contain 246 letters all from Pliny himself; book 10 contains 121 letters, some authored by himself, some by the emperor Trajan. All the letters were written between 97 and 112, during the principates of Nerva and Trajan.

The absolutely key fact to grasp is that, unlike Cicero’s letters, Pliny’s letters are not arranged in chronological order – instead, they have been carefully organised to display the breadth of Pliny’s interests and the wide range of recipients. In this respect the letters are a calculating form of autobiography.

(Autobiography as we understand it didn’t really appear in Latin until the Confessions of Saint Augustine in about 400 AD. Military and political figures had written commentaries on their careers and decisions – notably Caesar’s commentaries on the Gallic Wars – and Cicero had pioneered a way of making a collection of letters build up into a kind of mosaic autobiography, a self portrait from multiple angles. But no autobiography as such till the Christian saint.)

Thus Pliny’s letters are artfully grouped to show the author to best advantage, as advocate in the courts, politician in the senate, knowledgeable man of letters, as owner of numerous properties and estates, as devoted husband to his wife.

(In fact Pliny married three times: firstly, when he was about 18, to a stepdaughter of Veccius Proculus, who died at age 37; secondly to the daughter of Pompeia Celerina; and thirdly to Calpurnia. Of these three it’s Calpurnia who we have letters to, in which Pliny recorded their marriage, conveys is love for her, and his grief when she miscarried a baby.)

Topics and subjects

The editor and translator of the Oxford University Press paperback edition of the letters, Professor P.G. Walsh, groups the letters under the following headings:

Advocate

Pliny as advocate in the law courts (book 2, letter11; 2.14; 4.9; 5.20).

Politician

Pliny as politician, speaking in the senate, working with the emperor (8.14; 9.13 and book 10 throughout).

His wife

Pliny married three times but we have few references to the first two, whereas there are plenty of letters to the third, Calpurnia (4.19; 6.4; 7.5; sadness about her miscarriage 8.10).

The death or illness of friends

And the way illness prompts thoughts of suicide in some (1.12; 1.22)

Diatribes against enemies

Such as Marcus Aquilius Regulus, the noted informer under Domitian’s tyranny, ‘wealthy, leader of a faction’ (1.5; 2.20; 4.2): the cumulative effect of the letters on this topic is to remind you how utterly toxic, rivalrous and dangerous Roman political life could be; everyone prosecuted everyone else for all manner of complex political or financial reasons, and if you lost the case you were liable to exile at best, execution at worst.

Roman social life

Visits to the theatre (7.24), dinner parties, particularly promoting the high-minded atmosphere at his dinner parties compared with the vulgarity of other peoples’ (1.15; 2.6; 9.17).

Slaves

Pliny takes a liberal humanitarian view (5.6; 5.19; 8.1; 8.16; 8.19), in one letter explaining that he is keen to manumit or free as many of his educated slaves as possible in order to populate his native town (Comum, by Lake Como in north Italy) with good citizens. No question of freeing his uneducated workers, though.

Education

The Roman system of education echoed the three-part system of the Greeks:

  • primary school under a litterator till the age of 7
  • secondary school under a grammaticus until the age of 11
  • upon receipt of the toga of manhood at 14, a boy proceeded to the school of rhetoric where me would stay till 18, maybe longer. Children of the wealthy were often taught at home by tutors

Literary life

Attendance at other peoples’ readings (1.13; 6.17) and his own works which include the Panegyricus (3.18) and his poems (9.34). Pliny describes the works of half a dozen contemporary poets, describes public readings, corresponds with his friends Tacitus and Suetonius.

He defends his poetry against the accusation of vulgarity, arguing that, if some of the subject matter is coarse and the language vulgar, this is to suit the genre, claiming like Catullus, Ovid and others, that his verse may be indecent but is no reflection of his upstanding life and morals (5.3).

Tacitus, Suetonius and Martial

The letters give the immodest impression that he is on friendly terms with all the major literary figures of the day. He is especially proud of his close friendship with Tacitus (born 56, 5 years before Pliny), to whom 11 letters are addressed. They worked together as prosecutors in the trial of Marius Priscus (2.11) and his description of the eruption of Vesuvius was written as a favour for Tacitus (see below). He sends his friend details of his involvement in another prosecution in the hope that Tacitus will include it in his Histories. Their relationship is one of ‘devoted pupil to master’.

By contrast his relationship with Suetonius (born 69 i.e. 8 years younger) is one of patron to protegé. Pliny helps the younger man secure posts in the administration (3.8) or buy property (1.24). The letters track Suetonius’s rising fame, as his early works of biography are published, till we find Pliny asking the younger man advice about technique for reading poetry in public recitations (9.34). Scholars think Pliny may have found Suetonius a job on his staff as governor of Pontus. And that Suetonius was close enough to the older man to have played a role in gathering his letters for publication.

Martial was about 20 years older than Pliny (born around 41 AD). He composed an obituary when he heard of Martial’s death (3.21). From this we learn that Pliny contributed to Martial’s travelling costs when the older man retired from Rome and went back to his home town in Spain in 97.

Speeches

Pliny considered himself an orator and spent his leisure time revising his speeches, of which he is inordinately proud, for publication, a process described in now fewer than 15 letters; in the centuries-old debate between the two main styles of rhetoric – the Attic style, compressed and factual, or the Asiatic style, more flowery – he comes down on the Asiatic side, defending it for greater richness of vocabulary and figures of speech (9.26).

Pliny’s style

Some of the letters comment on what the style of an ideal letter should be. In 7.98 he suggests to a young friend looking for advice about oratory that we look to letters ‘for language which is compressed and unadorned.’ In 1.16 he describes hearing someone else’s letters read out as being like listening to Plautus or Terence without the metre. Walsh summarises Pliny appeared to believe letters should be written in a plain but educated style. This, Walsh points out, is why Pliny’s letters make better material for teaching Latin than the more ornate and stylised speeches of Cicero or history of Livy (p.xxxii).

Pliny reveres Cicero

Walsh says Cicero was Pliny’s ‘idol’ (p.xxii). Pliny refers to Cicero’s integrity and also his, by this period, legendary eloquence. He was especially gratified to be appointed to the College of Augurs in 103 because this was a position Cicero had held some 170 years earlier.

Also, of course, in compiling a collection of his letters, Pliny must have had in mind the example of Cicero’s correspondence, published by his secretary soon after his death in the 43 BC, considering what did and did not work. As it happens Cicero’s 914 letters are the earliest surviving collection we have of the genre. Walsh makes the useful point that there can be considered three types of letter:

  • the verse letter, as developed by Horace in his Epistles and by Ovid, artfully in his Heroides, and then with pathetic pleading in his Black Sea letters
  • the philosophical letter, represented by the stodgy collection of Stoic teachings written by Seneca the Younger to his friend Lucilius
  • the genuine and general letter

But there’s another element which struck me, which is boastfulness. Cicero was famously and often ludicrously self-important. I base this on a reading of his legal speeches and letters, his endless reminders in these and his philosophical writings that he single-handedly saved the Roman state against the Catiline conspiracy, and the fact that he wrote a long poem about this feat which was ridiculed by his contemporaries and later readers.

Walsh appears to take Pliny at face value when he describes himself as modest (pxxii) but, personally, I found some of the letters rather boastful, where he talks about people stopping talking when he comes into a room or his acolytes and devotees. Pace Walsh I found him quite full of himself and his views and this, in a roundabout way, is indeed a tribute to his idol Cicero who was notoriously self-promoting and boastful.

Two standout topics

So his correspondence offers a variety of subject matter and insights into the lifestyle, responsibilities and opinions of a senior official of the first century Roman Empire, but never quite the acute intensity and excitement of Cicero’s letters. There are two standout moments in the correspondence:

1. Vesuvius

Pliny’s father died when he was young and he was adopted by his uncle, Pliny the Elder, who was the author, among other things, of a natural history. Young Pliny picked up an interest in the natural world from his uncle and this is demonstrated at various moments throughout the letters.

The most famous passage is his extended description of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius which buried the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum in August 79 AD and which Pliny witnessed at first hand. I was fascinated to learn that Pliny wrote this at the request of his friend Tacitus who included it in a now-lost part of the Histories. Letter 6.16 describes how his uncle, as commander of the fleet at Micenum had ordered a galley to go close to the shore so he could observe the huge ash cloud emerging from the volcano. Here he received urgent messages for help from friends at the threatened town of Stabiae so he took the galley into port, and went to see them. With remarkable foolishness, he dined and slept the night as the condition of the volcano deteriorated. He was woken in the middle of the night to discover the state of the sea was too disordered to set sail and it was here, on the beach, that Pliny the Elder and his party of friends, bombarded with falling pumice stones, all died of asphyxiation.

Latter 6.20 reverts to the experience of Pliny himself. Just 17 years old and left at Misenum with his mother, overnight on 24-25 August they feel all the buildings shake and the lad guides his mother out of the town, accompanied by a stream of panic-stricken townspeople. When the thick black cloud descends he takes his mother to one side, so they don’t get trampled in the panic. When daylight comes they look about them at a landscape covered with ash as if by snow. At which point they trudge back into the town, to be greeted by blood-curdling prophecies of doom.

Absent from either letter is any description of the two towns famously devastated by the catastrophe, Pompeii and Herculaneum.

2. Christians

The famous exchange in a couple of letters where Pliny writes to his boss, the emperor Trajan, in his capacity as governor of Pontus, asking his advice what to do with the troublesome new sect of Christians which have begun to be noticeable in the province (Pliny’s enquiry is letter 10.96 and Trajan’s reply 10.97, introduction p.xxiii).

This raises the broader point that his correspondence with Trajan, which is gathered in the tenth and final book, is extremely illuminating for the directness and openness of their exchanges. Pliny writes to the emperor conveying his best wishes then briskly getting to the point of describing this or that problem; and we are sooo fortunate to have Trajan’s replies, which come back with equally brisk and practical advice. With regard to the Christians, this little exchange is ‘famous’ because it tends to be quoted or summarised in just about every account of early Christianity, which is a lot.

Walsh’s notes

The OUP World Classics edition strikes me as being outstanding. P.G. Walsh’s 26-page introduction is a model of clarity and thoughtful analysis. There’s a handy map of Bithynia and Pontus featuring all the places mentioned in book 10 when Pliny was governor there. There’s an up-to-date bibliography and a simple clear timeline of Pliny’s life.

But the glory of the book is its notes. The letters were arranged to offer a many-sided portrait of their author and the times he lived in. They are addressed to a very wide variety of friends, relatives, colleagues and so on and they make reference to all sorts of topics of contemporary interest, some of which are listed above. Walsh provides 80 pages of notes which give potted profiles of every one of the addresses and pick up and explicate every one of the numerous references, to people, places and events. Read slowly and carefully, Pliny’s letters and Walsh’s notes provide a fascinating overview of the man and his times.

Greek and French

Walsh explains that educated Romans frequently dropped Greek phrases or quotes from Greek classic literature (Homer or the playwrights) into their texts. It’s interesting that he chooses to replicate this by using French tags in his English translation (though obviously keeping and translating into English actual quotes from Homer et al). The interest being that French tags in English play a comparable role to Greek tags in Latin, namely to show off your education and intellectual credentials. To swank, meaning: ‘to display one’s wealth, knowledge, or achievements in a way that is intended to impress others.’


Credit

‘The Complete letters of Pliny the Younger’, translated and introduced by P.G. Walsh, was published by Oxford University Press in 2006. All references are to the OUP World Classics paperback edition.

Related links

Roman reviews

Augustus: From Revolutionary to Emperor by Adrian Goldsworthy (2014) – 1

Augustus was one of the most successful rulers of all time. He rescued Rome from the recurring collapse of its political institutions into civil war which dogged the years 100 to 30 BC, and established an entirely new form of government – what he called the ‘principate’ but which came to be called imperial rule – which went on to last for 250 years. Even after the empire collapsed in the West, its ghostly image lived in for a further thousand years in Byzantium.

Augustus ruled longer than any other Roman ruler, whether king, dictator or emperor. He nearly doubled the size of the empire. His reforms endured for centuries. It beggars belief that he entered the toxic jungle of Roman politics when he was just eighteen years old and proceeded to outwit and defeat all his opponents, defeating some in war, having some murdered, forcing others to commit to suicide, to emerge as the unchallenged ruler of the greatest empire Europe has ever seen.

Augustus’s name

First, the name. He was born Caius Octavius. On being adopted as Julius Caesar’s heir he took his legal father’s name, becoming Caius Julius Caesar. In the decade after Caesar’s assassination he slowly dropped the Caius, sometimes operating under the exact same name as the dead general, sometimes adding the title Imperator at the start of his name. Mark Antony commented that he was ‘a boy who owed everything to his name’ which was certainly true at the start. When Caesar was deified by the senate, Octavianus added ‘son of the divine Julius’ in some contexts. Finally, in 27, he was awarded the made-up title ‘Augustus’ by the senate.

In other words, maybe the most important thing about Augustus is his shape-shifting changes of identity. He played the Name Game as deftly as he played the terrifying power politics of the Republic. And when it ceased to be a republic and he established himself as the sole authority figure, he was again careful not to use the name king (heaven forbid) or even empire and emperor. Instead he used the semi-official term princeps meaning ‘first citizen’ to describe himself and principate to describe the kind of political system he proceeded to build around him.

Goldsworthy says he will use the name Julius Caesar to refer to him, but I think that’s pretty confusing. Although I take the point that only his enemies called him Octavianus, I will use the more usual tradition of calling him Octavian until he is awarded the title Augustus.

Goldsworthy says historians tend to divide history into neat periods, having the Republican era end with the assassination of Julius and starting the Augustan era with the defeat of Antony at Actium. This has the effect of underplaying the key period from 44 to 31 BC which Octavian spent mostly in Rome or Italy, consolidating his grip on power by establishing favourites, contacts and clients who he placed in positions of power at all levels.

Dr Adrian Goldsworthy

Goldsworthy was (born in Wales in 1969, educated at private school and Oxford) is a historian specialising in the Roman army and Roman history (although he has also written half a dozen historical novels set during the Napoleonic wars). According to his introduction to this book, it was while developing his interest in the Roman army into a blockbuster biography of Julius Caesar (2006) that he became aware of the glaring absence of a good, scholarly but accessible biography of the latter’s adoptive son and heir, Caius Octavianus, known to history as the emperor Augustus (63 BC to 14 AD), inventor of the Roman Empire. So he wrote it.

It’s a big book, 607 pages long, including a 100 pages of bibliography, notes, index, a glossary of terms, a list of key personages, and a series of intimidatingly complicated family trees of the key players. But beyond this, it is also an outstanding introduction to the rules and practices surrounding Roman power.

Augustus’s father

In the opening 50 pages in particular, as Goldsworthy describes the promising career of Augustus’s father (Caius Octavius, born 100 BC and steadily rising through the ranks of the cursus honorem and just about to stand for consul when he died of a sudden illness in 59) he interweaves masses of background information about the Roman constitution, customs and conventions, which make the book a useful introduction to all aspects of the Rome of the late Republic.

Background facts

I found his explanation of the precise way in which elections to the different magistracies were held particularly enlightening (the election of the praetors pages 41 to 43), but he also gives to-the-point explanations of:

  • Roman marriage (a Roman husband had only to utter the phrase ‘take your things for yourself’ – tuas res tibi habeto – to separate from his wife, p.163)
  • the meanings of the words optimates (the best men or aristocracy), populares (aristocrats pandering the populist agenda such as free food allowance, forgiveness of debts or land distribution), plebs (the majority of people, defined in contrast to the patricians, or ‘best’ or more noble families) (p.51)
  • the property qualifications needed to be a member of the equites or knightly class
  • the absence of any political parties and so the way Roman society was structured around bonds of obligation between patrons and clients

He explains exactly which officials were involved in Roman trials and how the court was physically laid out (p.43). (Cicero thought so highly of Caius Octavius’s conduct as praetor supervising trials that he wrote to his brother Quintus telling him to copy his example, p.44.) He explains how the role of provincial governor was notoriously regarded as a way to get rich quick by extorting taxes and bribes from Rome’s subjects (p.45).

Training boys He tells us how boys of aristocratic families from the age of five were encouraged to observe their fathers going about their business, receiving clients, attending the senate. Within a year or so they began physical exercise on the Campus Martius and learned to ride a horse, throw a javelin and fight with sword or shield.

Education There were about 20 schools in Rome, for those who could afford them, though the really rich would hire a grammaticus, a teacher of language and literature, to tutor their sons in reading and writing at home (p.55).

Background He gives very clear accounts of the events which formed the background to preceded Gaius’s career, namely the civil war between Marius and Sulla in the 80s, then the rise of the boy wonder general Pompey in the 70s, the rebellions of Lepidus and Sertorius, the disaffection which led up to the conspiracy of Catilina in 63 BC which was the same year Pompey returned from his military command against Mithridates in Asia and ostentatiously disbanded his army at Brundisium, thus demonstrating his democratic bona fides.

Unlike Mary Beard’s rambling history of Rome, which organises itself around a succession of irritating rhetorical questions, Goldsworthy just gets on and tells you interesting stuff, very interesting stuff, in plain no-nonsense prose, which is why I found this an addictive read.

More background facts

Women’s names Roman women kept their name throughout their lives and did not change it at marriage. Generally they only had one name, unlike aristocratic men who had three (the praenomen, nomen and cognomen, sometimes with a nickname added), hence Julia, Fulvia, Terentia, Tullia. They were generally given a female version of the clan name, hence Caius Julius Caesar’s sister was called Julia and Marcus Tullius Cicero’s daughter was named Tullia (p.23), Titus Pomponia’s daughter was called Pomponia (p.356) and so on.

If there were two daughters they were given the same name and the aftername major or minor, meaning in this context, older and junior. If many daughters, they were sometimes numbered: Julia 1, Julia 2, Julia 3 and so on. Thus Augustus’s mother, Atia, was so called because it was the gens or family name of her father, Marcus Atius Balbus. She probably had an older sister, who had the same name, and so was sometimes called Atia Secunda.

Marriage alliances Marriage was a tool of political alignment or social advantage, consolidating links between (generally powerful) families. Hence Pompey’s marriage to Caesar’s daughter, Julia, and Octavius marrying his sister, Octavia, off to Mark Antony (p.35).

Personal abuse was the common coin of political exchanges (p.33) in fact high political discourse and, by extension the courts, were characterised by astonishing levels of ‘violent and imaginative abuse’ (p.131).

Publicans There was a profession of men who undertook state contracts such as collecting taxes in subjugated provinces. These were called publicani, a term which is translated as publicans in the King James version of the New Testament.

Personality Having just read some courtroom speeches by Cicero, it is relevant to read that in the many elections held for official office throughout the Roman year, the electors rarely if ever voted for a clearly articulated political programme or policies, but far more on the basis of character (plus a hefty amount of bribery) – more or less as jurors at trials were subjected to much more argumentation about the defendant’s (and the prosecuting and defence attorney’s) characters, than about any actual facts or evidence (p.37).

Clients The importance to politicians of being accompanied at all times by a crowd of clients, who waited outside your front door from early morning, some of whom you admitted for audience, the rest following you as you emerged and made your way down to the forum and to the senate house. If eminent or notable men were in this attending crowd, all the better (p.39).

These ties of family, clan and class were not incidental but intrinsic to Roman society:

Men rose to high office through the support of new or inherited friendships and bonds of patronage, and by marriage alliances. (p.356)

The praetors Each year eight praetors were elected, seven of them to preside over the seven courts of quaestiones established by the dictator Sulla, the eighth to be praetor urbanus with wide-ranging legal powers.

Prosecuting Goldsworthy confirms D.H. Berry’s account in his introduction to Cicero’s defence speeches, that a) since there was no equivalent of the Crown or State legal cases could only be brought by individuals and b) prosecuting was seen as invidious, unless one was defending family pride or there was a really gross example of wrongdoing – and so accusers tended to be young men out to make a name for themselves with one or two eye-catching prosecutions, before settling into the more congenial and socially accepted role of defence counsel, exactly the career Cicero followed (p.43), a point repeated on page 281:

Prosecution was generally left to the young, and had long provided an opportunity for youthful aristocrats to catch the public eye at an early stage in their careers.

The rabble rouser Publius Clodius Pulcher’s support came largely from the collegia or guilds of tradesemen (p.57).

Aristocratic funerals were public events, designed to impress and remind everyone of a family’s antiquity and noble achievements for the state, commencing with a ceremony in the forum and then a procession to beyond the city walls where the cremation was carried out (p.65).

The toga is, on the face of it, a simple item of clothing: a roughly semicircular cloth, between 12 and 20 feet long, worn draped over the shoulders and around the body. It was usually woven from white wool, and was worn over a tunic. But there were at least half a dozen types or styles, several of which had important social meanings:

  • the toga virilis or ‘toga of manhood’, also known as toga alba or toga pura was a plain white toga, worn on formal occasions by adult male commoners, and by senators not holding a curule magistracy: it represented adult male citizenship and its attendant rights, freedoms and responsibilities
  • the toga praetexta, a white toga with a broad purple stripe on its border, worn over a tunic with two broad, vertical purple stripes, the formal costume for:
    • curule magistrates in their official functions
    • freeborn boys before they came of age
    • the strip indicated the wearer’s protection by law from sexual predation and immoral; a praetexta was thought effective against malignant magic, as were a boy’s bulla, and a girl’s lunula, amulets they wore round their necks
  • the toga candida or ‘bright toga’, from the Latin adjective candida, meaning pure white, a toga rubbed with chalk to a dazzling white and worn by candidates for election
  • the toga picta or ‘painted toga’, dyed solid purple, decorated with imagery in gold thread and worn over a similarly-decorated tunica palmata, this was worn by generals in their triumphs

Courtesans Goldsworthy explains something which had slightly puzzled me in the plays of Plautus and Terence, which is that, above and beyond the many brothels in Rome, there was a class of high-end courtesans ‘who needed to be wooed and cared for in expensive style’ (p.69). In England in 2022, I imagined that a client pays for a courtesan and then can have his way, but the comedies of Plautus and Terence depict courtesans as being every bit as independent and strong-willed as a mistress.

Senate hours The senate was not allowed to sit after dusk. As the sun set senators knew it was time to wind up a debate. This explains how Marcus Porcius Cato was able on numerous occasions to filibuster or talk non-stop, refusing to sit down, until dusk came and the session had to end, in order to prevent decisions being passed which he objected to (p.107).

Centurions Goldsworthy is at pains to bust various myths, for example the one that centurions were experienced old bloods raised from the ranks to become a kind of sergeant major figure. Wrong. They ‘were men of property and often came from the aristocracies of the country towns of Italy’ (p.123).

Piety (pietas in Latin), the honour owed to gods, country and especially parents, was a profound and very Roman duty. [Augustus] proclaimed his own pietas as he avenged his murdered father. (p.158)

Pietas was a virtue central to Rome’s sense of identity and the neglect of proper reverence due to the old gods of the Roman people was symptomatic of the moral decline of recent generations, so evident in the decades of discord and violence. (p.224)

Moral explanations of everything As I explained in reviews of Plutarch and Cicero’s speeches, lacking any of the numerous theories which we nowadays use to explain social change and development, all the Romans had was a very basic recourse to notions of morality:

Moral explanations for upheaval came most readily to the Roman mind, and so restoration must involve changes in behaviour, conduct and a reassertion of a good relationship with the gods who had guided Rome’s rise to greatness. (p.224)

Auguries In a sense, you can see the rich paraphernalia of auguries, soothsayers, oracles and so on as reflecting the same complete absence of rational theory. Completely lacking the modern infrastructure of statistics, data, social trends, as we use them to analyse and manage the economy, trade, population, illness and even military encounters, the ancients were thrown back on two extremely primitive vectors of explanation – the moral character of Great Men, and the moods or wishes of the capricious gods.

Animal sacrifice (p.331)

Decimation was the traditional punishment, though already antiquated by Octavius’s day, of punishing a mutinous or cowardly legion by having one man in ten beaten to death and the rest shamed by receiving barley – food traditionally given to slaves and animals – instead of wheat (p.177)

Spolia opima (‘rich spoils’) were the armour, arms, and other effects that an ancient Roman general stripped from the body of an opposing commander slain in single combat. The spolia opima were regarded as the most honourable of the several kinds of war trophies a commander could obtain, including enemy military standards and the peaks of warships.

Caesar’s scruples By the time Octavius, Antony and Lepidus had raised armies to back them up, with Cassius and Brutus raising armies in the East and Sextus Pompeius in control of Sicily i.e. in the late 40s BC, the issue which triggered the civil war between Caesar and Pompey – whether Caesar was allowed to enter Italy with his army of Gaul – had vanished like dew, become completely irrelevant in a world where first Octavius, then Antony, not only marched legions on Rome, but put it under military occupation. All the pettifogging precision of the debates about Caesar’s rights and privileges were ancient history within less than a decade (p.178)

Antony’s drunkenness Many of the leading politicians were also authors, pre-eminently Caesar. Mark Antony published just the one book, De sua ebrietate (‘On his drunkenness’) a touchy defence admitting that he liked getting drunk buy denying accusations that he was ever under the influence while performing official or military duties. Sadly, like the autobiographies of Sulla and Augustus himself, it has not survived (p.185).

Aged 33 When he was 33, Julius Caesar encountered a statue of Alexander the Great in Spain, and according to Plutarch and Suetonius either burst into tears or heaved a heavy sigh and explained to his colleagues that by his age Alexander had conquered the known world whereas he, Caesar, had achieved nothing. By sharp contrast, Goldsworthy points out how, with the deaths of Brutus and Cassius, Anthony and Cleopatra, by 30 BC Octavius, himself now widely known as Caius Julius Caesar Octavianus, had done the same – making himself master of Rome and unrivalled ruler of the Mediterranean world (p.194). He commanded 60 legions, more than any Roman commander in history (p.204).

Special commands The wonderfully intricate and carefully balanced Roman constitution was a marvel of checks and balances, but it also led, increasingly in the late Republic, to blockage and inaction, as rival political leaders preferred to stymy each other’s initiatives regardless of the best interests of the Republic. Which is why the state found itself reverting increasingly to giving Special Commands to (particularly military) commanders, such as Pompey received to sort out the pirates, then sort out King Mithridates. And which, unconsciously, as it were, prepared both the senate and the people to the idea that rule by one man (Augustus) was more likely to get things done than the increasingly fractious rule of consuls, tribunes and the rest of it (p.235).

Augustus was able to make things happen. If he was not involved then the inertia which had characterised senatorial government for so many years seemed to return. (p.276)

Images In the long years of his rule Augustus worked hard to ensure that his image became more widespread around the Mediterranean than the images of any other individual, whether human or divine. It was on every coin, created in mints all round the empire, and depicted in thousands of statues he had erected in towns and cities everywhere. We have far more images of Augustus than any other figure from the ancient world (250 statues survive and countless coins).

He was everywhere, his name, image or symbols on monuments in the heart of Rome, in the towns of Italy and throughout the provinces. (p.305)

And yet he single-handedly overthrew the longstanding Roman tradition of very realistic sculpture which depicts figures such as Marius, Sulla, Caesar or Pompey with distinctive features, jowls and wrinkles, with pomaded quiffs or thin combovers or whatever – Augustus swept this all away and ensured the image of him was standardised around the empire, to depict an idealised image of the nations’ ruler, handsome, authoritative and tall, and above all in the prime of manhood, young and virile and decisive.

Statue of Augustus found in 1863 nine miles from Rome in the suburb of Prima Porta. Note the depiction on his breastplate of the return to Rome of the legionary standards seized by the Parthians in victories over Crassus and Antony, but returned to Augustus in 20 BC

Among the thousands of images of Augustus which survive none deviate from this strict model, there are no images of him as a middle-aged or old man (p.256). And yet we know from Suetonius how far removed from reality this image was: in real life Octavius was shorter than average, with bad teeth, and a skin so sensitive that far from strutting round in military armour he preferred to be carried about in a litter and wore a broad-brimmed floppy hat to protect himself from the sun (Goldsworthy p.300; Suetonius Augustus, 82).

Temper Augustus had a bad temper, something he learned to control in later life. One of his tutors, the Greek teacher of rhetoric Athenodorus, told him that every time he lost his temper, ‘recite the alphabet before you speak’ (p.202).

Goldsworthy’s military expertise

Goldsworthy began his career as a military historian of the Roman army. His first publications were:

  • The Roman Army at War 100 BC (1996)
  • Roman Warfare (2000)
  • The Punic Wars (2000)
  • Fields of Battle: Cannae (2001)
  • Caesar’s Civil War: 49 to 44 BC (2002)
  • The Complete Roman Army (2003)

His summaries of the hectic political events which led up to the assassination of Caesar (15 March 44 BC) and then the confused manouevrings of the various parties in the years that followed are always good and clear, and he also gives, as mentioned above, a continual feed of clear, useful background information about all aspects of the Roman state.

But with the outbreak of the wars which Octavius was directly involved in, from about page 100 onwards, the narrative gives more space and time to explaining the campaigns and battles and the military background than previously – the number of legions, their actual likely strengths, their supply lines and so on. Suddenly a good deal more military history is included.

Several things emerge from this: for a start size mattered:

In the civil wars of these years there was great emphasis on mass, on simply fielding more legions than the opposition. There was also a well-entrenched Roman belief that throwing numbers and resources at a problem ought to being success. (p.165)

A commander’s prestige relied more on the number of his legions than the precise total of soldiers under his command, so there was a tendency to raise lots of units, which in turn had the added advantage of giving plenty of opportunities to promote loyal followers to the senior ranks. (p.125)

Another key and surprising fact which emerges is that the Roman armies weren’t that good. Good enough to defeat chaotic barbarians, maybe, but just because they were Romans didn’t guarantee quality. Goldsworthy goes out of his way to highlight that Mark Antony was very much not the great military leader later historians mistake him for, having had quite limited experience of command. Several examples: none of the four main commanders at the Battle(s) of Philippi (3 and 23 October 42 BC), Mark Antony, Octavius, Cassius or Brutus, had anything like the experience of Pompey or Caesar. Moreover they had, as explained above, all devoted a lot of energy to raising large armies without making sure that they were particularly well trained; in fact new recruits were by definition the opposite; easily spooked and ready to run.

This was a war fought by large and clumsy armies, where none of the senior officers had any experience of warfare on so grand a scale. On each side the armies remained to a great degree separate, loyal only to the leader who paid them. They formed up beside each other, but they were not integrated into a single command. (p.138)

This all explains why Philippi was such a confusing mess:

Cumbersome and essentially amateur armies given poor leadership, or none at all, turned the First Battle of Philippi into a draw. (p.141)

This is very important information but it’s the kind of thing which is often skipped over in political histories which concentrate solely on the political machinations between rivals. And yet Roman history is pre-eminently military; it was a highly militarised society in which the entire aristocracy was trained and motivated to achieve glorious victories in war.

The greatest service to the Republic was to defeat a foreign enemy. (p.173)

That quite a few of these military leaders were actually incompetent is something which is glossed over in other accounts but foregrounded in Goldsworthy’s.

This explains, for example, the wretched destruction of Marcus Licinius Crassus’s badly led and undisciplined army in Parthia in 53 BC; and also sheds light on Antony’s almost-as-disastrous defeat in the same territory in 36 BC (this is a summary from Wikipedia):

As Antony marched his huge army of 80,000 soldiers into Parthian territory the Parthians simply withdrew. In order to move faster, Antony left his logistics train in the care of two legions (approximately 10,000 soldiers), which was attacked and completely destroyed by the Parthian army before Antony could rescue them. Antony pressed his army forward and set siege to the provincial capital but failed to take it and by mid-October had to withdraw. The retreat was mercilessly harried by the Parthians. According to Plutarch, eighteen battles were fought between the retreating Romans and the Parthians during the month-long march back to Armenia, with approximately 20,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry dying during the retreat alone.

And so, from page 100 or thereabouts, Goldsworthy with his military historian hat on gives us descriptions of various campaigns which aren’t disproportionately long but longer than a political historian without his specialist military knowledge would have given:

  • Antony’s siege of the senatorial army in Mutina, pages 115 to 120
  • the build-up to the decisive Battle of Philippi, from page 134
  • the campaign against Sextus Pompeius in Sicily, pages 165 to 168
  • Octavius’s campaign in Illyria, pages 174 to 178
  • Antony’s big military disaster in Parthia, pages 172 to 173
  • Antony’s defeat at the Battle of Actium, pages 188 to 192

Goldsworthy makes another interesting point which is that, ideally, the Romans didn’t negotiate:

For the Romans, true peace was the product of victory, ideally so complete that the same enemy would never need to be fought again…Conflicts ended with absolute victory, the Romans dictating the terms, and not in compromise or concessions. (p.197)

This helps to explain the way that, in Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul, he was continually looking for excuses to crush new enemies: the slightest provocation or incursion was all he needed to justify punitive invasions and crushing conquest (p.226) which his critics in Rome (notable Cato the Younger) thought unwarranted and illegal.

Peace was celebrated but it was a Roman peace, following on from military victory…[a] peace of unchallenged Roman dominance. (p.359)

On the one hand this unremitting drive for total victory explains the sense of an unstoppable military machine which peoples all round the Mediterranean experienced. But on the downside, it explains the bitterness and the brutality of their civil wars, for they brought the same drive for total victory to their wars among themselves (p.197).

They don’t swamp the book at all, but Goldsworthy gives more detail about the state and nature of the armies and combatants in these and many other confrontations than a purely political historian would give, and, as always with Goldsworthy, it is presented in a clear, factual way and is very interesting.

Octavius’s escapades

Goldsworthy sheds a shrewd sidelight on the various narratives of this time which have come down to us. In a lot of the official narratives put out by Octavius’s side during this early, battle-strewn part of his life, mention was made of the future emperor’s lucky escapes, when he was nearly hit by a javelin, or escaped from some fire with only singed hair, or was only slightly hurt when a siege drawbridge he was leading troops across collapsed.

Goldsworthy makes the shrewd point that in his great-uncle and adopted father’s copious accounts of his wars in Gaul, Caesar rarely makes an appearance in the fighting (though once or twice he does seize a standard or shield and charge to the front, rallying his troops). In Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic Wars the events – Caesar’s relentless steamroller sequence of victories –are allowed to speak for themselves and are all the more impressive for it.

By complete contrast, many of the battles and campaigns Octavius was personally involved in were far more mixed or problematic or failures in outcome – and so the narrative genre is completely different, and is concerned with how Fortune Smiled on our gallant hero as he pulled off a series of close shaves and narrow escapes. This focus on Our Lucky Hero also conveniently concealed the fact that, when he did win, Octavius almost always owed his victory to talented subordinates (above all the tremendously competent and reliable Marcus Vipsania Agrippa). No Caesar he, and he early realised it but learned to turn it – like everything else – to his advantage. (p.169)

Cleopatra

Goldsworthy’s half a dozen myth-busters include quite a big one about queen Cleopatra. Contrary to Egyptian nationalists, Cleopatra was Greek, came from a Greek family, had a Greek name and spoke Greek. There is, according to Goldsworthy, no evidence that she was very interested in the traditional Egyptian gods, but instead cleaved to the Hellenistic gods which held sway around most of the Mediterranean.

Second, she was in essence no different from the numerous other kings, rulers and tetrarchs scattered around the Eastern Mediterranean, generally struggling with family feuds and civil wars at home, who tried to curry favour with whichever Roman ruler was uppermost. Cleopatra’s main achievement was to prostitute herself out to not one but two of them, having affairs with and children by Julius Caesar (a son who she named Caesarion but Caesar never showed interest in) and then with Mark Antony (twins who she named Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene II, in 40 BC, and a third, Ptolemy Philadelphus, in 36 BC).

When Mark Anthony committed suicide on the approach of Octavius’s army to the capital, Alexandria, the 29-year-old survivor prepared herself for another seduction and impregnation:

She had always been a loyal ally of Rome, and would no doubt exploit her subjects just as enthusiastically for his benefit as she had for Julius Caesar and Antony. (p.192)

Goldsworthy argues that Cleopatra’s prominence in history is at least in part due to Octavius’s propaganda. It is factually correct that she had a long affair with Antony which lasted to the end of his life, and the children, and that the departure of her ships from the naval engagement off Actium prompted Antony to withdraw and thus lose the battle – but at the same time it suited Octavius very well indeed to exaggerate what to a patriotic Roman audience were all the negative aspects of the situation: that Antony was in thrall to a woman; that he had deserted his noble, long-suffering Roman wife, Octavia; that he let his administrative and military decisions be swayed by a female – all anathema to Roman values (p.192).

Change in narrative tone

Somewhere after page 200 (maybe with the start of Part Four on page 217) the narrative undergoes another subtle change in feel or vibe. The subject matter becomes more…pedestrian. It took me a while to realise why this was but Goldsworthy himself explains it on page 281:

The historian Dio lamented that it was harder to recount events after Augustus’ victory in the Civil War than it was before, since so many key decisions were taken in private and unrecorded, while much that was in the public domain was merely an empty ceremony.

That’s what it is. In the dozen or so accounts I’ve read of the troubled century from 133 to 27 BC there were always multiple players and combatants, vying for political power, either within the bounds of the constitution or spilling over into conflict, all having to stand for election, make speeches in the senate or addressing the popular assemblies or writing accounts of their doings or speeches – historians are able to give often very detailed accounts of political manoeuvrings and positionings because there are so many players involved and many of them left records or we have good accounts from contemporary or near contemporary historians.

Then Augustus wins total victory and it all goes quiet. By the time he has won he is the last man standing: Pompey, Caesar, Cicero, Cato, Cassius, Brutus, Antony, one by one all the great men of the previous generation were killed or killed themselves, leaving Octavius the sole figure on the stage.

He was very careful not to have himself declared dictator, as the ill-fated Caesar did, but to work through the channels of the Republican constitution, to continue to have elections of consuls and tribunes carried out, it was just that he arranged for himself to be elected ten years in a row and arranged who was to be his partner consul. There continued to be a senate, larger than ever in terms of numbers, all holding debates and speaking in the time-honoured way except that none of their debates carried any weight and many of the recorded speeches are eulogies to the princeps as he had himself called, a steady roll call of titles and awards which a grateful nation kept giving him.

Previously we had Pompey and Caesar and the senate all squabbling like ferrets in a sack and historians can calculate what each player’s motives were, and interpret each one’s moves, declarations and so on. And then… a great smothering blanket settles over Roman political life because only one man made the decisions. We have a record of the decisions but why he made them, what his thinking was, remains a matter of speculation.

Which is why all biographies of Augustus circle round to the same conclusion: that he was a mystery, an enigma, unknowable, in a way that Caesar and Pompey and Crassus and Cicero feel highly knowable. He wrote an autobiography but that has vanished. All we have is the Res Gestae Divi Augusti, a monumental inscription composed 35 paragraphs, grouped into four sections – political career, public benefactions, military accomplishments and a political statement – which manage to smother the turbulence and problems of what turned out to be the longest rule by any Roman emperor (45 years) into a series of bland, corporate achievements. It sounds like this:

Wars, both civil and foreign, I undertook throughout the world, on sea and land, and when victorious I spared all citizens who sued for pardon.

And:

I pacified the Alps, from the area closest to the Adriatic Sea all the way to the Tuscan Sea, without waging an unjust war against any tribe. (quoted p.334)

We have this and the biographies of later historians, namely Suetonius (69 to 120 AD), which capture snippets of gossip and factoids, but the rest…is a record of decisions by one of the colossi of history whose ‘true character’, despite hundreds of thousands of analyses, remains a mystery.

Pronunciation

The Latin pronunciation is:

  • praetor – pry-tor
  • quaestor – kwy-stor
  • Julius Kye-zer
  • Kikero

But if, in English, we say Julius Sea-zer, then it follows that all Latin words with ‘ae’ should be pronounced ‘e’ – hence preetor, queestor and so on.


Credit

Augustus: From Revolutionary to Emperor by Adrian Goldsworthy was published in 2014 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. All references are to the 2015 paperback edition.

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