The Life of Mark Antony by Plutarch

This is one of the longest lives at 87 chapters, longer than Sertorius (27), Crassus (33), Cicero (49), Brutus (53), Caesar (69), Cato the Younger (73) or Pompey (80). Dates and other information in square brackets are not in Plutarch but content I’ve added in to make the account more accurate.

Plutarch’s life of Marcus Antonius

(1) Marcus Antonius [83 to 30] came from an undistinguished family. His grandfather was murdered during the purges of Marius in 87 BC. Plutarch tells an anecdote about how, when a friend came asking for money, all his father could give him was a bowl, and that when his wife discovered it was missing she threatened to torture all the slaves to find it until his father confessed to having given it away. (Torture all the slaves? So the references to torturing slaves to  establish something, as jokily referred to in the plays of Plautus and Terence, is based on common practice.)

(2) His mother was Julia, a third cousin of Julius Caesar. When his father died, his mother remarried Publius Cornelius Lentulus Sura, an eminent man of noble family who was always in debt due to his extravagance and so had got lured into the Catiline conspiracy. He was one of the conspirators caught in the capital about whom the famous debate in the senate was held (where Julius Caesar and Cato the Younger put opposing views, namely clemency versus execution, as described in detail in Sallust’s Catilinarian Conspiracy). As a result of Cato’s violent argument, Lentulus was summarily executed on the orders of Cicero, consul at the time. According to Plutarch, this explains Antony’s violent hatred of Cicero who he would, 20 years later, directly cause to be executed. Thus does the whirligig of time being in his revenges.

A promising youth, Antony fell under the influence of Gaius Scribonius Curio, who debauched him with wine and women till he was massively in debt and Curio’s father banned him from the house. Then he fell in with Publius Clodius Pulcher, the street demagogue and rabble rouser. He acquired so many enemies that he thought it wise to leave Italy for Greece, where he studied military tactics and oratory. Interestingly, Plutarch tells us that Antonius adopted:

the Asiatic style of oratory, which was at the height of its popularity in those days and bore a strong resemblance to his own life, which was swashbuckling and boastful, full of empty exultation and distorted ambition.

So by chapter 2 we know where Plutarch’s sympathies lie. With Brutus the liberator and Cato the principled, against Caesar the tyrant and Antony his swaggering lieutenant. OK. Good.

(3) Antony accompanies Grabinius to Syria as captain of his horse and distinguishes himself in a siege against Aristobulus at Jerusalem in 57 BC. He plays a leading role in the campaign to restore King Ptolemy XII Auletes to the throne of Egypt after he’d been dethroned by his people. For example, capturing the city of Pelusium. (Cato 35, Pompey 49) Something which, presumably, endeared him to Ptolemy’s daughter, Cleopatra, when he was to meet her 15 years later.

(4) “He had also a noble dignity of form; and a shapely beard, a broad forehead, and an aquiline nose were thought to show the virile qualities peculiar to the portraits and statues of Hercules.” He liked to play on his putative descent from Hercules. He dressed casually, was boastful and banterish, all this produced goodwill and reputation among the soldiers, helped by ‘his liberality, and his bestowal of favours upon friends and soldiers’.

(5) When the crisis between Caesar and Pompey came to a head, Curio, with money provided by Caesar, got Antony elected tribune of the plebs in 50 BC [following straight on from Curio’s own term]. During the crisis Antony played a key role at crucial moments. In January 49 he read out Caesar’s letter to the senate with his proposals for a compromise. It was he who suggested the further compromise that both Caesar and Pompey lay down their arms simultaneously, but this proposal was rejected by the consuls and Lucius Cornelius Lentulus (not the same Lentulus as the one involved in the conspiracy) expelled Antony from the Senate building by force and threats.

Which is why Antony changed into the clothes of a slave and headed to Caesar’s camp by the river Rubicon, there to brief him that all compromise was impossible. (Pompey 58, Caesar 30) It was the hounding of Antony in his capacity as tribune which made it possible for Caesar to dress up his motivation for invading Italy as being in part to restore the rights of the tribunes i.e. to dress up personal ambition in lofty rhetoric about rights and customs. [See the opening chapters of Caesar’s Civil War.]

(6) It was this which allowed Cicero to write, in his Philippics against Antony, that he was the prime cause of the civil war, which is, of course, silly, and Plutarch goes on to say so, and to explain that Caesar was not a man to do anything on a whim. No:

that which led [Caesar] to war against all mankind, as it had led Alexander before him, and Cyrus of old, was an insatiable love of power and a mad desire to be first and greatest.

Not a fan, then.

After Caesar crossed into Italy and drove Pompey across the Adriatic to Macedonia, he lacked the ships to follow and so turned around and headed to Spain to quell the Pompeian legions there, leaving Rome to Lepidus, who was praetor, and Italy and the troops to Antony, in his capacity as tribune of the people.

Antony curried favour with the troops by living with them and sharing their exercises and making generous gifts of money, but he was impatient with administering justice and gained a reputation for sleeping with other men’s wives. In other words, he did a lot of damage to Caesar’s cause.

(7) Nonetheless Caesar was right to put his faith in him as a general. Early in 48, having crushed Spain, Caesar has marched his army all the way back into Italy and rustled up the ships to transport them across the Adriatic. He was besieging Pompey’s army at Dyrrhachium in the Balkans with limited forces and sent word for Antony to send reinforcements. And Antony did a very good job by embarking 20,000 men and escaping the blockade of Brundisium being carried out by Lucius Scribonius Libo. He sailed them down the Macedonian coast in a storm but managed to find a safe port and so brought his forces safely to Caesar – the forces with which Caesar was to win the decisive Battle of Pharsalus later that summer.

(8) Antony distinguished himself at two engagements, where he stood and rallied fleeing troops, and Caesar gave him the decisive command of the left wing at the Battle of Pharsalus. [This is skipped over here because Plutarch describes it at length in his life of Pompey, chapters 68 to 73]. After Caesar won and had himself appointed dictator, he set off in pursuit of Pompey to Egypt, but made Antony his Master of Horse and sent him back to Rome. This post was second only to dictator and when the dictator was absent, as Caesar was, Antony was effectively in complete control.

(9) But while Caesar is away Antony shocked Rome with his loose living, his drunkenness, his heavy expenditures, his debauches with women, his spending the days in sleep or wandering about with an aching head, or attending the nuptial feasts of mimes and jesters. He has a falling out with Publius Cornelius Dolabella, who he thought had had an affair with his wife, so he drove the latter from his house. When Dolabella proposed a law for the abolition of debts and sought to enact it by force and seized the Roman Forum, Antony responded by unleashing his soldiers upon the assembled masses, killing hundreds. – The civil war had taught them nothing. Political street violence wouldn’t go away (at least not until the arrival of the ultimate strong man).

(10) When Caesar returned to Rome he disapproved of Antony’s actions, pardoned Dolabella and chose Lepidus rather than Antony to be his co-consul the next year. (Antony, in fact, was stripped of all official positions and received no appointments for the year 46 or 45 BC.)

Anthony took to wife Fulvia, the widow of both the demagogue Clodius and the hellraiser Curio, who was a tough woman and determined to reform him. Plutarch waspishly claims that Cleopatra owed her a debt because Fulvia house-trained Antony and made him ready to be ruled by a woman. [Before you get too impressed, remember this is the woman who delighted in seeing the severed head and hands of Cicero, executed in December 43 and sparked a full blown war with Octavian in 41.]

An anecdote: Antony goes to meet Caesar on  his return from Spain, but then news breaks that Caesar is dead. So Antony made his way back to Rome disguised as a slave (an echo or repeat of his flight from Rome at the start of 49) and in disguise gained admittance to his own house claiming to be a slave with a message. He hands it to Fulvia who tearfully begs for news about her beloved Antony, at which point he drops his disguise and embraces her.

(11) When Caesar returned from victory in Rome, from all the men who went to meet him it was Antony he honoured and had accompany him in his ‘car’ back to the capital. Plutarch continues the idea of rivalry with Dolabella, claiming Caesar wanted to hand over power to him but Antony vehemently opposed it. Plutarch repeats the story about Caesar being warned about Antony and Dolabella and replying that it wasn’t these fat men who worried him, it was the pale and thin ones, indicating Brutus and Cassius. [Told less convincingly than in the lives of Caesar (62) or Brutus (8).]

(12) A repeat of the story of how Antony was taking part in the annual festival of the Lupercalia and ran with a diadem to the rostra where Caesar was sitting, had his fellow athletes lift him up and place the diadem on Caesar’s head. Some applauded but when Caesar pushed it away the whole crowd applauded. This happened several times before Caesar stood in displeasure, pulled the toga from his throat and said anyone who wanted could strike him there and then. It’s an odd story, isn’t it, with a folk legend aptness but also a deep implausibility. And the related anecdote that unknown hands hung wreaths  on the heads of Caesar’s statues, which were then torn down by the tribunes. All this is told better in Caesar 61.

(13) The conspirators discuss inviting Antony to join. Trebonius shared a tent with Antony as they both accompanied Caesar back to Rome, hinted at the idea and Antony firmly refused. At which they switched round to considering killing Antony along with Caesar – a neat illustration of the way that, once you’ve crossed the line into deciding you need to kill people to get rid of the ‘tyrant’ and the ‘dictator’, it quickly becomes a list. In fact, Brutus is held up as the man of principle who insists that nobody else is harmed. Fearing Antony’s popularity and position, they nonetheless arrange for some of their number to engage Antony outside the senate hall so he is not present when the deed is done.

(14) In this account the actual assassination of Caesar takes up one short sentence. Fair enough; it is described in great and dramatic detail in the life of Caesar [chapters 63 to 69]. Anthony flees into hiding but when he realises the conspirators are harming no-one else but are holed up on the Capitol, he comes out of hiding, gives his son to them as a hostage guaranteeing safe passage, and then entertains the assassins to dinner. In the senate he proposes an act of amnesty and a distribution of provinces among Brutus and Cassius and their partisans.

In the immediate aftermath Antony was widely thought to have acted with immense wisdom to calm the risk of civil war.  But everything changed when he made the official funeral address over Caesar’s body.

At the close of his speech shook on high the garments of the dead, all bloody and tattered by the swords as they were, called those who had wrought such work villains and murderers, and inspired his hearers with such rage that they heaped together benches and tables and burned Caesar’s body in the forum, and then, snatching the blazing faggots from the pyre, ran to the houses of the assassins and assaulted them.

This one act split the city, terrified the assassins into fleeing and, in effect, restarted the civil war.

(15) The assassins fled Rome. Caesar’s wife gave Antony his fortune to dispense with and all his papers. Antony implemented Caesar’s wishes but went further, appointing magistrates who suited him, acting increasingly autocratically.

(16) Octavian It was at this point that 18-year-old Octavian arrived in Rome, a son of Caesar’s niece. When Octavian asked for the money Caesar had left him, in order to distribute the payment of 75 drachmas which Caesar had enjoined, Antony ridiculed the boy for being a mere stripling, and also blocked his attempt to become a tribune. But Octavian allied with Cicero and others of the anti-Caesar party and Antony began to fear him, so held a summit conference, gave into his demands, and was reconciled. Briefly. For then Antony learned Octavian was touring the country drumming up old soldiers and recruiting an army.

(17) Cicero was the most powerful man in Rome and got the senate to declare Antony a public enemy while he was out of the city conducting a siege. Plutarch says this drove Antony and his army out of Italy and over the Alps and they suffered hardships and starvation, but this brought out the best in him, as adversity always did, and the soldiers admired him for sharing their privations.

(18) When Antony’s army came close to camp near to Lepidus‘s the latter, who owed Antony many favours, surprised him by being reluctant to acknowledge him. He came to Lepidus’s campy dishevelled and unshaven and won the sympathy of the troops. Many of Lepidus’s soldiers implored him to usurp their commander and take over but Antony insisted Lepidus be treated with respect and when their armies united he did so. This inspired Munatius Plancus also to join him so that he crossed the Alps into Italy with 17 legions of infantry and 10,000 horse.

(19) Octavian had realised he couldn’t treat with Cicero because the latter was a man of principle, so realised he had to come to an accommodation with Antony. So Octavian, Antony and Lepidus met on an island where ‘they divided up the whole empire among themselves as though it were an ancestral inheritance’. The Second Triumvirate. They all wanted to get rid of political enemies but agreeing a list presented great difficulties. Octavian gave up Cicero to Antony, Antony gave up Lucius Caesar (Antony’s uncle) to Octavian, Lepidus gave up Paulus his brother. ‘Nothing, in my opinion, could be more savage or cruel than this exchange.’

(20) Plutarch has it that the soldiers demanded additional tokens of their alliance so Octavian married Clodia, a daughter of Antony’s wife Fulvia. As a result of these agreements, 300 men were proscribed and put to death, including Cicero. [Wikipedia has 2,000 Roman knights and one third of the senate.] Antony ordered his head and right hand be cut off, the one he had used to write his savage criticisms of Antony with, and nailed to the rostra in the forum [Cicero 48]. In the Gallic Wars Caesar remarked on the Gauls’ ‘barbaric’ practice of sticking the heads of defeated enemies on poles around their camps. How is this different? What could be more savage and barbarian?

(21) Antony emerges as the most powerful of the triumvirate but makes himself very unpopular for his dissolute living. And because he had bought up the house of Pompey [only recently and tragically dead] and the people were upset to see it closed against commanders, magistrates and ambassadors and filled instead with mimes, jugglers and drunken flatterers.

The triumvirate not only sold the properties of those they slew, but brought false charges against their wives and heirs in order to confiscate their belongings. They instituted new taxes, and plundered the  treasure deposited with the Vestal Virgins.

Then Octavian and Antony led their armies into Macedonia against Brutus and Cassius, leaving Rome in charge of Lepidus.

(22) This short chapter deals with the campaign of Octavian and Antony in Greece against Brutus and Cassius, describing but not mentioning by name the crucial two battles at Philippi in October 42, mainly to bring out how it was Antony who was victorious while Octavian was sick in his tent and his forces lost their part of the battle. [Brutus and Cassius’s campaigns in Greece, the long buildup to the battle, the battle and its aftermath are described in great detail in Plutarch’s life of Brutus, taking up the final third of the text, chapters 38 to 53, which is why he skimps it here.] In Plutarch’s account Cassius commits suicide after the first battle, Brutus after the second.

In the negotiations of the triumvirate it was Antony who insisted that Cicero was killed. In revenge Brutus ordered Hortensius to execute Antony’s own brother, Caius. In revenge, Antony had Hortensius executed on his family tomb. Thus the logic of civil wars.

(23) After the battle Octavian, still sick, returns to Rome, while Antony remains in Greece, raising money and enjoying himself, gaining a reputation as a philhellene, listening to learned debates, attending games, giving money to Athens.

(24) In 41 Antony left Lucius Censorinus in charge of Greece and he and his army crossed into Asia meaning the Eastern, Greek-speaking part of what is now Turkey. Here he was greeted as conqueror, lavished with gifts and women and lapsed into his former lifestyle of debauchery. His tax gatherers milked the territory till a brave local politician complained that they had already given Antony 200,000 talents, now he was demanding more. Which gave him pause.

For Antony was simple and slow, quick to forgive, lavish of gifts, but easily flattered and deceived by his subordinates.

(25) Enter Cleopatra who:

roused and drove to frenzy many of the passions that were still hidden and quiescent in him, and dissipated and destroyed whatever good and saving qualities still offered resistance.

Antony sends to her to attend him in Cilicia to explain her support for Cassius. Antony’s messenger, Dellius, on meeting her immediately realises his boss will be enslaved by such a lustrous woman, now at the peak of her beauty [born in 69 BC, in 41 she was 28].

(26) Cleopatra first meets Antony by sailing down the river Cydnus to his camp. This inspires the single most gorgeous description in Plutarch who says she sailed up:

the river Cydnus in a barge with gilded poop, its sails spread purple, its rowers urging it on with silver oars to the sound of the flute blended with pipes and lutes. She herself reclined beneath a canopy spangled with gold, adorned like Venus in a painting, while boys like Loves in paintings stood on either side and fanned her. Likewise also the fairest of her serving-maidens, attired like Nereïds and Graces, were stationed, some at the rudder-sweeps, and others at the reefing-ropes. Wondrous odours from countless incense-offerings diffused themselves along the river-banks.

Antony asked her to come meet him but Cleopatra refused and told him to come meet her. And he obeyed.

(27) A chapter on the character of Cleopatra, tactfully observing that she was no necessarily the most beautiful of women, but she had an ineffable charm and wove a magic every time she spoke.

(28) Instead of preparing for war against the Parthians, Antony sank into oriental sloth, went to Alexandria with Cleopatra and spent his time in feasting and drinking. Plutarch includes a very rare snippet of autobiography which hints at the personal sources of information for his biographies.

Philotas, the physician of Amphissa, used to tell my grandfather, Lamprias, that he was in Alexandria at the time, studying his profession, and that having got well acquainted with one of the royal cooks, he was easily persuaded by him (young man that he was) to take a view of the extravagant preparations for a royal supper. Accordingly, he was introduced into the kitchen, and when he saw all the other provisions in great abundance, and eight wild boars a-roasting, he expressed his amazement at what must be the number of guests. But the cook burst out laughing and said: “The guests are not many, only about twelve; but everything that is set before them must be at perfection, and this an instant of time reduces. For it might happen that Antony would ask for supper immediately, and after a little while, perhaps, would postpone it and call for a cup of wine, or engage in conversation with some one. Wherefore,” he said, “not one, but many suppers are arranged; for the precise time is hard to hit.” This tale, then, Philotas used to tell; and he said also that as time went on he became one of the medical attendants of Antony’s oldest son, whom he had of Fulvia, and that he usually supped with him at his house in company with the rest of his comrades, when the young man did not sup with his father. Accordingly, on one occasion, as a physician was making too bold and giving much annoyance to them as they supped, Philotas stopped his mouth with some such sophism as the: “To the patient who is somewhat feverish cold water must be given; but everyone who has a fever is somewhat feverish; therefore to everyone who has a fever cold water should be given.” The fellow was confounded and put to silence, whereat Antony’s son was delighted and said with a laugh: “All this I bestow upon thee, Philotas,” pointing to a table covered with a great many large beakers. Philotas acknowledged his good intentions, but was far from supposing that a boy so young had the power to give away so much. After a little while, however, one of the slaves brought the beakers to him in a sack, and bade him put his seal upon it. And when Philotas protested and was afraid to take them, “You miserable man,” said the fellow, “why hesitate? Don’t you know that the giver is the son of Antony, and that he has the right to bestow so many golden vessels? However, take my advice and exchange them all with us for money; since perchance the boy’s father might miss some of the vessels, which are of ancient workmanship and highly valued for their art.” Such details, then, my grandfather used to tell me, Philotas would recount at every opportunity.

(29) Astonishingly, Antony liked to dress up as a slave and go round the streets of Alexandria, looking through people’s doors and mocking them. And Cleopatra accompanied him in these merry jaunts! She played at dice with him, drank with him, hunted with him, and watched him as he exercised himself in arms. The Alexandrians said that he used the tragic mask with the Romans, but the comic mask with them.

He was fishing once, and had bad luck, and was vexed at it because Cleopatra was there to see. He therefore ordered his fishermen to dive down and secretly fasten to his hook some fish that had been previously caught, and pulled up two or three of them. But the Egyptian saw through the trick, and pretending to admire her lover’s skill, told her friends about it, and invited them to be spectators of it the following day. So great numbers of them got into the fishing boats, and when Antony had let down his line, she ordered one of her own attendants to get the start of him by swimming onto his hook and fastening on it a salted Pontic herring. Antony thought he had caught something, and pulled it up, whereupon there was great laughter, as was natural, and Cleopatra said: “Imperator, hand over thy fishing-rod to the fishermen of Pharos and Canopus; thy sport is the hunting of cities, realms, and continents.”

(30) Eventually the real world intruded on these larks. His wife and brother had become enemies of Octavian and been forced to flee Italy. Meanwhile, Labienus, Caesar’s best lieutenant in Gaul, who had gone over to Pompey and then escaped East after Pharsalus, was leading a Parthian army into Asia. Antony set off to engage Labienus but received messages from Fulvia.

[Fulvia had become involved in a full-blown conflict with Octavian which is known as Fulvia’s civil war or the Perusine war, because it ended up with Octavian besieging the forces of Fulvia and Antony’s younger brother, Lucius Antonius, in the Italian town of Perusia, modern Perugia.]

Plutarch has Antony changing direction to meet her but she died en route to meet him. [Wikipedia, by contrast, says Octavian took Perusia but spared both Lucius Antonius and Fulvia, sending the latter into exile at Sicyone near Corinth where she promptly died of disease.] Either way, when Antony arrived in Rome, he was able to restore friendship with Octavian by blaming any dissension on his headstrong wife.

The triumvirs divided up the empire, making the Ionian sea a boundary, assigning the East to Antony and the West to Caesar and giving Africa to Lepidus. They then arranged either to be consuls themselves or arranged for their friends and allies to have senior offices. So the Republic was in effect dead.

(31) In order to cement their alliance, Antony married Octavian’s half sister, Octavia, who was recently widowed. The senate passed a law allowing her to marry in less than the legal requirement of 10 months mourning. It’s one among many examples of the way the laws and the senate operated on a micro level to adjust things for fellow members of the small Roman elite.

(32) Pompey’s son Sextus Pompeius inherited command of his big fleet. Antony and Octavian meet him at Misenum, where they make peace [August 39]. As he is entertaining them on his flagship, a senior officer of Sextus’s whispers in his ear that they could cut their ropes, set sail, execute them, and Sextus would become ruler of the Roman world. But Sextus chooses integrity and rejects the idea.

(33) Antony sends Antony sent Publius Ventidius Bassus on ahead into Asia to oppose the Parthians while he has himself made Pontifex Maximus, as Julius had been. The partnership between Octavian and Antony functioned but Antony consistently came off worse in all their deals, even when things were decided (improbably enough) by throwing dice or cockfights (!). A soothsayer tells Antony to avoid Octavian.

Antony leaves Rome for Greece taking Octavia who has borne him a daughter. In Athens he learns that Ventidius had conquered the Parthians in battle [of the Cilician Gates] and slain Labienus [39 BC]. Antony takes part in traditional Athenian games.

(34) A more detailed description of Publius Ventidius’s successes against the Parthians which go some way to redeeming the disastrous defeat of Crassus in 53 BC. in 40 BC the Parthians invaded Syria led by Pacorus, the son of King Orodes. Ventidius met Pacorus’ huge army [in the Battle of Cyrrhestica] where he inflicted an overwhelming defeat in which Pacorus was killed [38 BC].

Ventidius doesn’t pursue them into their own land as he is worried about Antony’s jealousy, and when Antony arrived with an army, he takes over Ventidius’s siege of Antiochus of Commagené in the city of Samosata, which in fact goes very badly, leaving Antony chagrined. He sends Ventidius back to Rome for a triumph.

Plutarch makes a general point that other generals flourished under Antony or that he was more successful in campaigns conducted by those under him, namely: Ventidius against the Parthians, Sossius in Syria, and Canidius who conquered , who was left by the Armenians.

(35) Tensions had been building between Octavian and Antony who sailed for Italy with 200 ships but sent his wife on ahead of him, and when Octavia met Octavian she pleaded with him not to make her a widow, and so the two imperators were reconciled again, for the time being…

So they ate and conferred in peace, then Octavian gave Antony two legions to pursue his wars in the East while Octavian set off to quell remaining Pompeians in Sicily. Antony left Octavia and his children with Octavian.

(36) But in Asia Antony fell back into his old infatuation with Cleopatra. In October 41 he called her to attend him in Cilicia and made her a gift of ‘Phoenicia, Coele Syria, Cyprus and a large part of Cilicia…and.. the balsam-producing part of Judaea and all that part of Arabia Nabataea which slopes toward the outer sea’. Antony set up or removed monarchs, punished nations and ruled like an eastern potentate. He acknowledged his children by Cleopatra, and granted her numerous honours. In 40 she bore him two children. All this scandalised conservative Roman opinion.

37 to 52: the Parthian War

(37) In 38 BC Phraates put his father Hyrodes, king of Parthia, to death, and many nobles fled Parthia. Antony assembles a vast army, including the forces of many vassal kings, against Phraates but Plutarch tells us he mismanaged everything in his haste to win quick victories so he could get back to Cleopatra.

(38) For example, in his haste he left behind a number of state of the art siege engines in Armenia in charge of Statianus and 10,000 men. But this meant that when he laid siege to Phraata, a large city, in which were the wives and children of the king of Media a) the siege dragged on needlessly, but b) Phraates attacked the waggon camp back in Armenia, massacred the soldiers, killed Statianus and destroyed the engines. A calamity.

(39) The Parthians then march up to the besieged city, Antony lifts the siege and marches off, pretending to flee, but then turns and engages the Parthians in perfect battle order. They see them off, attacked first by the cavalry then the infantry and follow the Parthian army for many miles, but are disheartened to see how few of them they’ve killed. Then the Medes in their own camp turn traitor and attack them.

(40) It is a long punitive campaign. Some Parthian soldiers ride alongside Romans and tell them they and their king Phraates respect them, but despise Antony for relying on fear and famine rather than fighting. Eventually Antony decides to break camp and retreat. He is too downhearted to address his men but gets Domitius Ahenobarbus to do it.

(41) A  man of the Mardian race offers to guide the Roman army back, emphasising that they should avoid the open plain and cleave to hilly country. Antony is not sure whether to trust him, till the Mardian offers to be put in chains as he guides them, so they agree. On the third day the Mardian notices a dyke has been cut to pour water across then Roman path and predicts an ambush, giving Antony enough time to prepare his legions and fight it off.

(42) Having cracked the strategy for fighting them off, Antony puts his army in the shape of a hollow square with slingers and cavalry on the outside and succeeds in fighting off the notorious Parthian cavalry for four days. But Antony makes the bad decision of letting Flavius Gallus lead an attack against the Parthians and, when he gets cut off, sending only small detachments to reinforce him which all get massacred. Eventually the entire Roman army wheels round to attack the Parthians, but it was a defeat.

(43) 3,000 dead and 5,000 wounded. Plutarch is typically sentimental, saying Antony went to visit the sick and they all with tears in their eyes assured him they were fine and would be happy so long as great Antony makes it to safety i.e. testament to his popularity.

(44) The Parthians camp near the Roman camp. Antony makes a speech berating those who have fled but asking for any punishment for transgressions to come down on his head so long as his army can be victorious.

(45) The Parthians continue to harry the retreating Romans. The Romans begin to starve and experiment with unknown vegetables. One of these is a herb which drives the eater mad, producing a mad obsession to turn over and move stones, and then death.

(46) Once again some individual Parthians fraternise with Roman soldiers and say their army, too, is exhausted and hungry. But a local named Mithridates came offering advice and showed one of Antony’s lieutenants hills in the distance and told him the entire Parthian host is waiting there to ambush them.

(47) Thus warned that the road through the deserts would leave them exposed, Antony holds a council of advisers and opts to take the path through the mountains, short of water though this would leave them. The Parthians attack their rear while the troops in the van fall on a river and start drinking but the water is salt and poisonous, causing stomach cramps.

(48) The Romans march on, assured by their guide that once they cross the next river the Parthians won’t pursues them. A garbled passage seems to imply that some of the Romans attacked and looted their own baggage train. There is such confusion that Antony calls one of the freedmen in his body-guard, Rhamnus, and tells him that, when he gives the order, he is to run Antony through then cut off his head. Weeping and lamentation from his entourage. But their guide swears the river is close and word comes that the disorder in the rearguard is caused by their own forces, and everyone cheers up.

(49) The Parthians continue to harass their rearguard, raining down arrows till they arrive at The River and cross it at which point the Parthians (supposedly) unstrung their bows and praised their bravery. Would be lovely to hear the Parthian version of all this. Finally they cross the river Araxes into the kingdom of Armenia and drop to the ground and kiss it. Although they promptly fall ill of dropsies and dysenteries.

(50) Antony undertakes a review and discovers 20,000 of his infantry and 4,000 cavalry have perished. (These numbers are always suspiciously round.) More than half from disease, which sounds the right kind of amount from modern accounts of the impact of disease and famine. Plutarch says Antony blamed their defeat on Artavasdes the Armenian who had led back from Media 16,000 horsemen who would have made all the difference in encounters with the mounted Parthian cavalry.

(51) They marched on to the coast at Sidon through snowstorms and lost another 8,000 men. Here Antony was beside himself with impatience to see Cleopatra.

(52) The king of the Medes falls out with the king of the Parthians and sends word to Antony that he is ready to join him on another campaign against the Parthians. This is music to Antony’s ears because it was precisely the  lack of Medean cavalry which he blamed for his previous failure.

(53) In 35 Octavian gave permission to his sister, Antony’s wife, to sail east with a fleet carrying extensive supplies. Antony wrote her telling her to stop at Athens, at which point she realised he wanted her out of the way while he consorted with Cleopatra. And Cleopatra realised her rival wanted to engage in battle. So Cleopatra loses weight and takes to simpering when Antony is there and pining when he’s not, and is backed up by a host of sycophants who tell Antony Octavia only married him as a matter of public policy. And so Antony puts off the war to go to Alexandria to see Cleopatra.

(54) Octavia returns to Rome where she continues to live in her absent husband’s house, raising their children, behaving nobly and honourably, and by doing so helping to highlight Antony’s disreputable behaviour. By contrast Antony dresses up in oriental royal costumes, holds an elaborate ceremony at which he distributes thrones and honours to Cleopatra, and her children, for all the world like an eastern king of kings.

(55) Octavian made sure to keep all these accusations before the senate and people, drip feeding scandal. Antony replies with his own accusations:

  1. Octavian seized Sicily from Pompey but never gave him a share of it
  2. Antony lent Octavian ships which he never gave back
  3. after ejecting their fellow triumvir Lepidus from office and degrading him, Octavian was keeping for himself the army, the territory, and the revenues which had been assigned to Lepidus
  4. Octavian had distributed almost all Italy in allotments, to his own soldiers, and had left nothing for the soldiers of Antony

Octavian replied:

  1. he had deposed Lepidus from office because he was abusing it
  2. he would share whatever he’d won in war with Antony whenever Antony should share Armenia with him
  3. Antony’s soldiers had no claim upon Italy, since they had Media and Persia

Playground squabbles.

(56) Antony gathers a huge naval force of 800 ships of which 200 are Cleopatra’s though he sends her back to Egypt. Cleopatra bribes his advisers to plead her case, that she needs to be by his side. So Antony relents and invites her to Samos where they party to the sound of theatre performances, music, banquets and processions. ‘How will the conquerors celebrate their victories if their preparations for the war are marked by festivals so costly?’

(57) Then on to Athens where there are more festivals and parties and Antony makes a great speech to Cleopatra, ostensibly on behalf of the city. Antony sends word to have Octavia ejected from his house and she leaves with all his children, to the great scandal of the people.

(58) It is 32 BC and Octavian is alarmed at Antony’s preparations for war. He is unpopular because he is enforcing high taxes, a quarter of income for citizens, and eighth for freedmen. If Antony had struck now he might have won the people, but he delayed. Then senior Antony officials who had been hounded out by Cleopatra maliciously told Octavian about Antony’s will. Octavian seized this from the Vestal Virgins and read it out to the senate. The most offensive provision was that he wanted to be buried in Egypt.

A man called Calvisius then made the following charges against Antony:

  1. he had bestowed upon Cleopatra the libraries from Pergamum, in which there were two hundred thousand volumes
  2. at a banquet where there were many guests he had stood up and rubbed her feet, in compliance with some agreement  they had made
  3. he consented to have the Ephesians in his presence salute Cleopatra as mistress
  4. many times, while seated on his tribunal and dispensing justice to tetrarchs and kings, he would receive love-billets from her in tablets of onyx or crystal, and read them
  5. and once when Furnius was speaking, the ablest orator in Rome, Cleopatra was carried through the forum on a litter, and Antony, when he saw her, sprang up from his tribunal and forsook the trial and, hanging on to Cleopatra’s litter, escorted her on her way

(59) Cleopatra’s suspicion or jealousy of Antony’s entourage, many of whom she forces to flee.

(60) When Octavian was quite ready a law was passed to wage war on Cleopatra and remove from Antony the power he had handed over to her i.e. reclaim it for the Roman authorities. Octavian claimed Antony had been drugged and bewitched and was under the thumb of Cleopatra’s officials.

Plutarch gives us the usual litany of ill omens he claims occur before every war or battle:

  • Pisaurum, a city colonized by Antony situated near the Adriatic, was swallowed by chasms in the earth
  • from one of the marble statues of Antony near Alba sweat oozed for many days, and though it was wiped away it did not cease
  • in Patrae while Antony was staying there, the Heracleium was destroyed by lightning
  • at Athens the Dionysus in the Battle of the Giants​ was dislodged by the winds and carried down into the theatre
  • the same tempest fell upon the colossal figures of Eumenes and Attalus at Athens, on which the name of Antony had been inscribed and prostrated them
  • the admiral’s ship of Cleopatra was called Antonius; some swallows made their nest under its stern but other swallows attacked these, drove them out and destroyed their nestlings

(61) So war begins between Octavian and Antony. Antony had 500 fighting ships, 100,000 infantry soldiers and 12,000 horsemen and the tribute of all the kings in the east.

(62) But so in thrall is Antony to Cleopatra that he decides to fight the battle at sea, even though they are struggling to fully man their ships. These are high-sided with as many as ten ranks of oars and heavy and slow to manoeuvre. Whereas Octavian’s ships are fully manned and in perfect array. He invites Antony to come and dock at Brundisium and Tarentum and that he’ll withdraw a day’s march to allow Antony to land and arrange his forces perfectly for battle.

Antony replies by challenging Octavian to single combat; then to re-enacting the battle of Pharsalus. But while Antony was lying at anchor off Actium, where now Nicopolis stands, Caesar got the start of him by crossing the Ionian sea and occupying a place in Epirus called Toruné.

(63) Octavian’s fleet engaged Antony’s but Antony boldly had his rowers released and sent up top to look like soldiers and his ships drawn up in battle array so that Octavian was put off and withdrew. Antony sealed off watersources to prevent Octavian’s fleet watering. Domitius defected from Antony to Octavian but Antony generously sent his baggage, servants and friends after him.

Some allied kings defected. Canidius advises Antony to send Cleopatra away and abandon the naval strategy, drawing Octavian onto land where Antony has the bigger force and better track record.

But Cleopatra’s insistence that they fight a naval battle prevailed, even though she was already making preparations to flee. Octavian approves a plan to kidnap Antony as he walked on the shore and it nearly succeeded, they captured the man in front of him but Antony managed to get away.

(64) Antony burns all but 60 of the Egyptian ships and packs these with 20,000 heavy-armed soldiers and 2,000 archers. An old infantry centurion complains to Antony that naval battles are all very well for  Egyptians and Phoenicians but Romans fare best on land.

(65) Four days of rough winds and high seas but on the fifth, 2 September 31 BC the Battle of Actium took place. Antony exhorts his men and tells the captains to keep the ships in the narrow mouth of the gulf. At first Antony’s ships refused to budge and Octavian thought they were anchored, but then the more impetuous left their line to attack him. Excellent! His ships were smaller and lighter and more nimble and able to surround Anthony’s.

(66) There was little ramming because Antony’s ships were too slow and Octavian didn’t want to risk his. It was as if three or four of Octavian’s ships were laying siege to Antony’s monsters. The battle is in mid flow when Cleopatra’s 60 ships made sail and began to leave right through the battlefield. Abandoning all reason, betraying his soldiers and sailors and allies, as if bewitched, Antony leapt into a five-oared galley and made after her.

(67) He caught up with her and was taken aboard Cleopatra’s ship where he sat with his head in his hands after they’d docked at Taenarum. For three days he didn’t move until her women persuaded him to come ashore and be reconciled with her. The world lost for love.

Some of their friends arrive in heavy transport ships and tell them the fleet is destroyed but they still possess an awesome land force. So Antony wrote to Canidius ordering him to withdraw across Greece into Asia. And he hands over a big transport ship full of the rarest treasure to his friends, telling them to divide it up and make the best of their fortune.

(68) In fact his fleet held out for hours at Actium and was only overcome by a storm, while he abandoned nineteen legions of undefeated men-at‑arms and 12,000 horsemen. Madness. The greatest example in human history of a man who was pussywhipped, meaning: “Totally controlled, domineered, or emasculated by a woman.”

His men held out for seven days expecting Antony to return at any moment, but he didn’t and after their commander Canidius ran away in the night, they handed themselves over to Octavian. Octavian sails on to Greece where he redistributes the grain which Antony had stripped from them for his forces. And here again a second unusually direct bit of reminiscence by Plutarch:

My great-grandfather Nicarchus used to tell how all his fellow-citizens were compelled to carry on their shoulders a stipulated measure of wheat down to the sea at Anticyra, and how their pace was quickened by the whip; they had carried one load in this way, he said, the second was already measured out, and they were just about to set forth, when word was brought that Antony had been defeated, and this was the salvation of the city; for immediately the stewards and soldiers of Antony took to flight, and the citizens divided the grain among themselves.

(69) Antony reaches the coast of Libya, sends Cleopatra ahead to Alexandria, and takes to roaming around with just two companions. Plutarch says nothing about Antony’s state of mind but his actions betoken a ghost man, a man who has ruined his cause and his reputation and has nothing to live for. When the general commanding Antony’s forces in Libya defected to Octavian Antony tried to kill himself but is stopped by his friends.

Eventually he sails on to Alexandria where he discovers Cleopatra is engaged in a ridiculous scheme, namely to raise and drag her fleet along the course of the current Suez canal, from the Mediterranean into the Red Sea and thus go and colonise somewhere to escape conquest by Octavian. But the Arabs burned her boats and Antony convinced her he still had a land army so she desisted.

And now Antony forsook the city and the society of his friends, and built for himself a dwelling in the sea at Pharos, by throwing a mole out into the water. Here he lived an exile from men, and declared that he was contentedly imitating the life of Timon, since, indeed, his experiences had been like Timon’s; for he himself also had been wronged and treated with ingratitude by his friends, and therefore hated and distrusted all mankind.

(70) A digression on the life and notorious misanthropy of Timon of Athens, clearly a legendary figure by Antony’s time.

(71) Canidius arrives to tell him what finally happened at Actium and the news that all the kings and tetrarchs and whatnot of the Middle East are defecting to Octavian. All he has left is Egypt. At which Antony abandons his depression and goes back into Alexandria where he embarks on a new round of feasting and partying, holding coming of age feasts for his children. Antony and Cleopatra establish a new society which they call Partners in Death. Cleopatra starts collecting rare poisons and experimenting with them on prisoners. the painless ones are too slow but the quick ones are very painful. After lengthy experimentation she settles on the venom of the asp.

(72) They send a petition to Octavian, Cleopatra asking that she be allowed to keep her children, Antony that he may go and live as a private citizen in Athens.

(73) Octavian wrote to Cleopatra that he would treat her well if she would kill or expel Antony. Plutarch shares some typical gossip, telling us that the leader of Octavian’s embassy was one Thyrsus, ‘a man of no mean parts’ who had frequent converse with Cleopatra till it made Antony jealous and he had Thyrsus strung up and flogged then sent back to Octavian. After that Cleopatra went out of her way to suck back up to Antony, celebrating her own birthday very modestly but Antony’s birthday with great splendour. Octavian was called back to Rome by Agrippa.

(74) The war is suspended for winter, but next spring Octavian advanced on two fronts, coming down through Syria and advancing east across Libya. Octavian hears that Cleopatra has built an extravagant tomb into which she has collected all her treasure and sends reassuring messages to her, because he is scared she will kill herself, set light to it and thus deprive him of his loot.

When Octavian is at the outskirts of the city Antony sallies force and fought brilliantly, routing Octavian’s cavalry and driving him back to his camp. Plutarch tells a typically waspish anecdote.

Then, exalted by his victory, he went into the palace, kissed Cleopatra, all armed as he was, and presented to her the one of his soldiers who had fought most spiritedly. Cleopatra gave the man as a reward of valour a golden breastplate and a helmet. The man took them, of course — and in the night deserted to Caesar.

(75) Antony makes Octavian a second offer of single combat. Octavian of course refuses so Antony insists on leading his army into battle. At feast the night before the battle, he tells his friends he will be victorious or die trying, while they all cry.

That night, as usual with Plutarch there are omens. Just the one this time which is that over the city a great music and noise is heard as of a Dionysian festival, but it is heard to move from the city centre towards the gate facing Octavian’s camp and then disappear. It was, people said, the god he had devoted his life to, Dionysius, abandoning him.

(76) On 1 August 30 BC Antony watches his fleet set out to engage Octavian’s but, at the last minute, raise their oars in peace, surrender, and be accepted into Octavian’s fleet. Also his cavalry defects. He fights with his infantry but they are defeated. He withdraws into Alexandria ranting that he has been betrayed by Cleopatra. Scared, Cleopatra retired into her refuge, had the doors locked and barred and messengers sent to Antony telling her he was dead.

Antony goes into his chamber, laments that he has been found wanting in courage to a woman, and orders his man Eros to kill him. Instead Eros kills himself. You just can’t get the staff. So Antony tries to stab himself but makes a hash of it. When he recovers he orders the bystanders to finish him off but they all run away. Until the secretary Diomedes arrives with orders to take Antony to her tomb.

(77) A peculiar scene. Antony is carried to Cleopatra’s tomb but she refuses to unbar the doors to let him in, instead insisting that he is laid on a bier and that she and her serving women haul him up using a rope and pulley system, even though this is extremely difficult for her. When they’ve finally got him inside, Cleopatra rents her clothes and beats her breasts and there’s blood everywhere, but he tells her he’s had a good life and to look out for herself.

(78) Antony dies and his sword is taken by a servant who shows it to Octavian.

When Caesar heard these tidings, he retired within his tent and wept for a man who had been his relation by marriage, his colleague in office and command, and his partner in many undertakings and struggles.

Octavian calls in colleagues and reads out his correspondence with Antony, emphasising how reasonable he had been and how rude Antony’s replies. Then Octavian sends Proculeius to negotiate with Cleopatra, anxious that she will burn her treasure and wanting her to adorn his triumph through Rome.

(79) Proculeius wangles his way into the tomb. He goes back accompanied by Gallus and while Gallus is keeping Cleopatra in conversation by the door, Proculeius uses a ladder to get up to that window, the window they hauled Antony in through, and then down the stairs and to the door and takes Cleopatra by surprise. She tries to stab herself with a small knife but Proculeius is too fast, seizes it, shakes her down to ensure she has no other weapons, then sends her under guard to Octavian.

(80) Now Octavian finally arrives in Alexandria, proceeds to a tribunal erected in the gymnasium. The population prostrate themselves in terror but Octavian says he holds them blameless and won’t punish them. At this crucial moment Plutarch rather spoils the effect by saying Octavian does it at least in part to gratify his companion, Areius the philosopher.

(81) As for the children of Antony, Antyllus, his son by Fulvia, was betrayed by Theodorus his tutor and put to death. Theodorus stole the precious stone the boy wore about his neck but when this was discovered he  was crucified. Cleopatra’s children, together with their attendants, were kept under guard and had generous treatment.

Caesarion, who was said to be Cleopatra’s son by Julius Caesar, was sent by his mother, with much treasure, into India, by way of Ethiopia. There Rhodon, another tutor like Theodorus, persuaded him to go back, on the ground that Octavian invited him to take the kingdom. And Octavian had him executed, after his mother died. One way of regarding this is barbaric. But it should be out in the context of the mass proscriptions Octavian enforced in Rome. His rule was characterised by large scale executions.

(82) Octavian allowed Cleopatra to bury Antony with lavish rites. Then she began to starve herself. But Octavian threatened the lives of her children and thus forced her to eke out a miserable existence.

(83) An interview between Octavian and Cleopatra at which she tries to justify her course of action but Octavian refutes her interpretations at every step. When a servant reveals that she is hiding away her jewellery she crossly slaps him and insists to Octavian that she is storing up women’s ornaments in order to send to Octavia and Livia to beg them to intercede for her. And so Octavian went away confident that she wanted to live. But she fooled him.

(84) One of Octavian’s entourage tells Cleopatra that his army is setting off for Syria and will be taking her, so she obtains permission to pour libations at Antony’s tomb one last tie and Plutarch give her a long sentimental speech.

(85) Cleopatra has a bath and then dinner. A man from the country arrives carrying a basket. The suspicious guards tell him to open it and are amazed at the size of the figs it contains. He bids them have a taste if they like so they let him pass. After her meal Cleopatra sends Octavian a written message, then has herself locked in her chamber with her two serving women. When Caesar opens the tablet and reads the message asking for her body to be buried next to Antony’s he knows what has happened and sends messengers to go instantly to prevent her. But they find Cleopatra lying dead upon a golden couch, arrayed in royal state.

And of her two women, the one called Iras was dying at her feet, while Charmion, already tottering and heavy-handed, was trying to arrange the diadem which encircled the queen’s brow. Then somebody said in anger: “A fine deed, this, Charmion!” “It is indeed most fine,” she said, “and befitting the descendant of so many kings.” Not a word more did she speak, but fell there by the side of the couch.

(86) Plutarch reports the 4 or 5 different versions of how she was poisoned, whether she stirred up the asp to make it angry, dipped her hand in the basket or took the snake out and applied it to her arm or breast. In Octavian’s triumph an ‘image’ (does this mean a model or effigy) of Cleopatra was included with the snake hanging from her, though Plutarch doesn’t say where exactly on her body.

Octavian was cross but admired her lofty spirit and so let her be buried with full rites next to Antony. Statues of Antony throughout Alexandria were torn down but those of Cleopatra were allowed to remain standing after one of her friends, Archibius, gave Caesar two thousand talents. She was 39, Antony was 55, they had been an item for 15 years.

(87) As in many a Victorian novel, Plutarch ends his narrative by tying up all the loose threads and telling us what happened to all Antony’s children and their descendants. He had seven children by three wives and their marriages and second marriages and intermarriages make for a complicated diagram. One of the two daughters he had by Octavia:

Antonia, famous for her beauty and discretion, was married to Drusus, who was the son of Livia and the step-son of Octavian. From this marriage sprang Germanicus and Claudius, Germanicus dying young but Claudius coming to the throne in the chaos after Caligula was assassinated in 41 AD.

Before Germanicus died he fathered Julia Agrippina, who, at age 13, was married off to Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus. They had a son, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. 21 years later, with Ehenobarbus dead, Agrippina married the emperor Claudius. And Claudius, having adopted Agrippina’s son, gave him the name of Nero Germanicus. This was the Nero who came to the throne in 54 AD.

So Antony’s ‘blood’, if there is such a thing, ran on into the Julio-Claudian dynasty for several generations.

Learnings

Predestination

Plutarch is a fatalist. He believes everything is predestined to happen. Not very often, but at various key moments when central characters try to avert war or settle conflicts or lay high-minded plans, Plutarch is at hand to tell us that an implacable fate controls our ends.

It was destined that everything should come into Caesar’s hands. (55)

A maze of cross-references

The way that the lives refer to each other creates an evermore complex matrix of cross-references, which turn them into a complex meta-narrative, or a multi-stranded history.

Iraq, Iran and the West

At some point, reading about the inexorable opposition of the Parthian Empire to the Romans (i.e. ‘the West’) and learning that the Parthian Empire was roughly cognate with present-day Iraq and Iran – made me think of the never-ending conflict between those places and ‘the West’ in my day.

Modes of death of Plutarch’s eminent Romans

  • Marius (died a natural death aged 71)
  • Sulla (died a natural death aged 60)
  • Lucullus (died a natural death aged 61)
  • Crassus (died killed in battle aged 61)
  • Sertorius (assassinated aged 53)
  • Pompey (murdered aged 57)
  • Caesar (assassinated aged 55)
  • Cato the Younger (suicide aged 49)
  • Brutus (suicide aged 43)
  • Cicero (murdered aged 63)
  • Antony (suicide aged 53)

It’s the opposite of a scientific sample but you notice how the first three died of natural causes, although Marius and Sulla had been mass murderers; somehow there was the space for them to retire, as for lucky Lucullus. But from then onwards all the rest die violent deaths, and the third aspect of trend is the number of suicides. It feels like Rome no longer had room for many of its eminent men. They were no longer just killed in battle or assassinated but removed themselves from a world which no longer had room for the beliefs or values or causes they had supported. In a voodoo kind of way it’s as if the Republic liquidated itself.


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SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard (2015) 6. Social history

Having covered the rule of the pivotal figure in Roman history, the emperor Augustus, in chapter 9, and the rule of the 14 emperors who followed him in chapter 10, Beard has finished with her chronological account of the Roman empire and moves on to consider the social history of the period. Here are some highlights:

The Roman emperor had more wealth than anyone in human history, derived from huge landholdings right around the Mediterranean, including not only vast farms, but mines and ports and harbours which paid taxes and customs duties (p.435).

Property qualifications for office: to be eligible for the Senate one had to have a fortune of at least 1 million sestercii. To be a local councillor one needed a house with at least 1,500 roof tiles (p.436). The purpose of the well-organised censuses held in Rome was not to provide data for the provision of all kinds of social services, as in the modern world, but at least in part to assess the wealth of the property-owning classes in order to clarify who was, and was not, eligible to serve in various offices of local and central government.

Of Rome’s seven hills, the Palatine Hill had for some time been associated with the houses of the rich. During the imperial period it was steadily taken over by the emperors with their plans for grandiose palaces Lower down the scale, and in the provinces, the very rich vied to build themselves into history by commissioning extravagant buildings and entire developments in cities around the Mediterranean (p.436).

That said, Rome was not the city of grand boulevards lined with elegant buildings of the modern imagination. It was a warren of dirty alleys, occasionally opening onto squares, chief among them the Forum. There was no organised rubbish collection so the streets were full of rubbish and human waste. As a result disease was rife, even in the famous public baths. In 160 AD the entire empire was swept by an epidemic, possibly a form of smallpox, which caused a large death toll (p.439).

At its height the Roman Empire probably had a population of between 50 and 60 million. The rich, who lived in fine houses, took part in political and cultural life, and among whom all the writers we know about can be counted, numbered maybe 300,000 i.e. less than 1% (p.440).

The majority of the population were peasant farmers, smallholders struggling to make a living off the land for them and their families (p.442). In cities and towns we know there were large numbers of homeless or squatters, living wherever they could find a nook. Many Roman towns and cities must have looked like modern Third World shanty towns (p.444). One of the many paintings preserved in Pompeii shows a homeless man with a dog begging from a rich lady. Could be the West End of London, any day during my lifetime (p.444).

The Cura Annonae was the term used to describe the import and distribution of grain to the residents of  Rome. Inaugurated under the Republic, the number receiving the dole swelled to an unmanageable 300,000 before being set at 200,000 by Augustus (p.445). This combined with the spectacular public gladiator fights and other displays put on by the emperors lie behind the satirist Juvenal’s comment that the Roman population was only kept in line, obedient and compliant, by the provision of panem et circenses meaning ‘bread and circuses’ (p.440).

The seating capacity of even the enormous Colosseum was only 50,000, at the huge Circus Maximus it was a whopping 250,000 – for the population of Rome which, at its peak, reached about one million (p.462).

The well preserved ruins of Pompeii are a goldmine of social history. Among many other findings they demonstrate a surprisingly large number of bars and cooked food outlets, and that gambling at a wide variety of games was endemic (p.459).

Rome had no police force at all – if someone did you wrong, you had to apply to a law court for justice, take matters into your own hands, or the hands of friends and family, or let it go. In reality, the sophisticated world of Roman law and law courts and sophisticated lawyers, was the preserve of the rich (p.465). Another way of getting your own back was asking the gods for revenge. We know this because so many votive offerings have survived in which individuals call down curses on people who have wronged them. Or you could ask any number of fortune tellers and seers and so on to do the same (p.465).

There was only a small, basic fire service which helps explain why the Great Fire of Rome during Nero’s reign, in 64 AD, was so ruinous (p.463).

Summary

As with her discussion of the issues and problems surrounding the figure of the Roman emperor, so again in this chapter, once Beard is liberated from the constraints of chronology i.e. from history as a sequence of dates and events, once she is free to explore themes and ideas, then she is an entertaining and instructive guide.


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

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard (2015) 5. The emperors

The Roman Emperors

The last 200 pages of SPQR (pages 330 to 530) cover the first 250 years of the Roman Empire, from the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 AD to the reign of Caracalla (formally known as Marcus Aurelius Antoninus) who reigned from 198 to 217. Beard chooses the reign of Caracalla to end her book because he took the revolutionary step of granting the entire free population of the Roman Empire full Roman citizenship thus bringing to a kind of completion the process of assimilation and integration of foreign peoples which she has singled out as, from the start, one of the distinguishing feature of the Roman state (p.334).

Beard starts by describing in some detail the machinations following the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC, which led to the creation of the second triumvirate of Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony), Gaius Octavius (Octavian) and Marcus Lepidus (p.341). These three commanded armies which went after the armies led by the main assassins of Caesar, chief among them Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus. These two had fled Italy to the East where they amassed armies and were assigned provinces to govern by the Senate. This led in quick succession to:

42: the Battle of Philippi in Greece where Octavian and Antony defeated the Republicans under Brutus and Cassius (p.342). Both Brutus and Cassius committed suicide i.e. the assassins of Caesar were defeated and killed.

Over the next few years Octavian and Mark Antony remained in uneasy alliance, falling out then patching things up. In one attempt to cement their alliance, Anthony married Octavian’s sister, Octavia in 40.

36: Octavian stripped Lepidus of all power but the purely ceremonial role of Pontifex Maximus (supreme priest), leaving Mark Anthony, allied with Cleopatra of Egypt, as Octavian’s main enemy (p.346).

32: Antony divorced Octavian’s sister. Partly in revenge, Octavian got hold of Antony’s will and read it out in the Forum, claiming Antony intended to bequeath his fortune to the twin sons he had just had by Cleopatra, and wished to be buried in Alexandria i.e. he had ceased to be a Roman patriot.

31: Open war finally breaks out between Octavian and Antony. At the Battle of Actium Octavian defeats Mark Antony and Cleopatra, who flee to Egypt and commit suicide, leaving Octavian the most powerful man in the Roman world.

27: Octavian is given extraordinary powers and the invented title of ‘Augustus’ by the Roman Senate (p.340). Although many of its constitutional forms live on for centuries, the Republic is in effect dead, and historians date the start of the Roman Empire from either 31 or 27.

Beard makes the simple but powerful point that the Roman polity had been evolving towards power being wielded by one man for some time. Gaius Marius (157 to 86) who was given extraordinary powers to prosecute the Cimbrian and Jugurthine wars was maybe the first precursor. His subordinate and rival, Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138 to 78), who twice marched his legions into Rome itself, causing civil disturbance and ordering the massacre of his political enemies (in 88 and 82) is an even more glaring precursor.

And Beard goes on to say that, after he had been awarded extraordinary powers to prosecute Rome’s wars in the eastern Mediterranean, Gnaeus Pompeius, known as Pompey the Great (106 to 48), had a strong claim to be ‘the first emperor’. I imagine squabbling about who was the first emperor is a parlour game which can keep classicists entertained well into the early hours. For most of us non-experts, though, the empire started with the rise to complete power of Gaius Octavius, later known as Augustus by 31 BC.

The emperors

The emperors are often grouped into dynasties. Thus the first five emperors are referred to as the Julio-Claudian dynasty because they all belonged to one of two closely related families, the Julii Caesares and Claudii Nerones.

Julio-Claudian dynasty (31 BC to 68 AD)

  • Augustus (31 BC to 14 AD)
  • Tiberius (14 to 37)
  • Caligula (37 to 41)
  • Claudius (41 to 54)
  • Nero (54 to 68)

Year of 4 emperors

  • Galba (June 68 to January 69)
  • Otho (January to April 69)
  • Aulus Vitellius (July to December 69)
  • Vespasian (December 69 to 79) founded the Flavian dynasty

Flavian dynasty (69 to 98)

  • Vespasian
  • Titus (79 to 81)
  • Domitian (81 to 96)
  • Nerva (96 to 98)

Nerva–Antonine dynasty (96 to 192)

  • Trajan (98 to 117)
  • Hadrian (117 to 138)
  • Antoninus Pius (138 to 161)
  • Marcus Aurelius (161 to 180)
  • Lucius Verus (161 to 169) ruled alongside Aurelius
  • Commodus (177 to 192)

Year of the Five Emperors 193

Commodus was assassinated leading to a period of confusion when the title of emperor was contested by no fewer than five claimants, Publius Helvius Pertinax , Didius Julianus, Pescennius Niger, Clodius Albinus and Septimius Severus, the latter emerging as winner.

  • Septimius Severus (193 to 211)
  • Marcus Aurelius Antoninus known as Caracalla (198 to 217)

Augustus

The pivotal figure is Augustus who arrived in Rome soon after the assassination of Caesar, a fresh-faced youth of 18 who had been adopted as Caesar’s legal heir, went on to defeat all his adversaries, emerged as the most powerful men in Rome, and went on to rule for longer (30 BC to 14 AD) than any other Roman before or since, longer than any of the legendary kings, longer than any succeeding emperor.

Beard devotes a long chapter to Augustus (chapter 9, pages 337 to 385) listing his extraordinary achievements yet highlighting the paradox that, although we know more about his official deeds than almost any other figure, yet he remains an opaque and mysterious figure.

More statues of Augustus survive than any other emperor (250). He was very effective indeed at spreading his image and imperium right across the empire, using coins, statues, inscriptions, public games and extensive new architecture and town planning to spread a consistent ideology and image of imperial rule. To him is attributed the famous saying: ‘I found the city made of brick and left it built of marble’.

Augustus oversaw elections with such precision that the democratic process withered. He assigned the Senate new perks and privileges but stripped it of real political power. Rather than an independent source of power in the complex constitution of the republic, the Senate became more and more just one wing of the imperial administration. He was elected consul an unprecedented eleven times, but in one of many unprecedented moves held the power of consul at the same time as holding the full power of a tribune. He took over complete and lasting power of the army by personally appointing all legionary commanders and making himself governor of every single province which had a military presence (p.355). Under the republic ‘triumphs’ had been awarded to victorious generals. Augustus changed the rules so that in future they could only be assigned to emperors or male members of the imperial family.

Augustus added more territory to the Roman empire than any ruler before or after (p.364). He was rich by an order of magnitude more than any previous man in Rome and personally paid for unprecedentedly lavish gladiatorial games and shows. And he patronised three of the greatest Latin poets, Horace, Ovid and above all Vergil, who created everlasting works of literature which, implicitly or explicitly, sing the praises of his rule.

It is an extraordinary achievement that this one man created the template which all subsequent emperors copied for 400 years (p.384). And yet his character and his intentions remain a mystery, even though, towards the end of his life, he wrote a ten page, official autobiography, the Res Gestae (pages 360 to 368). This amounts to a long list of his achievements but manages to shed no light at all on his character. Not for nothing did the signet ring which he used to impress on the hot wax sealing official correspondence carry the image of the sphinx (p.358).

Individual emperors didn’t really matter

After dwelling on the pivotal figure of Augustus at length, Beard’s account then devotes just one chapter to the fourteen or so successors who take us through to the emperor Caracalla (pages 387 to 434).

And Beard has one big idea about the emperors which, like a lot of her idées fixes, she repeats half a dozen times (for example on pages 336, 397, 398, 404, 406, 412 and 426). This is that, despite their superficial differences and all the garish stories told about them, the emperors who followed Augustus were all basically the same. By this she means that they performed the same political function working within the same centralised administrative system.

Whatever their idiosyncracies, virtues, vices or backgrounds, whatever the different names we know them by, they were all better or worse reincarnations of Augustus, operating within the model of autocracy he established and dealing with the problems that he left unresolved. (p.385)

She gives us a vivid description of the assassination of the ‘mad’ emperor Caligula in January 41 AD as he walked through a corridor of his palace on the Palatine hill after watching a morning of games held in memory of Augustus. He was murdered by three members of his Praetorian guard, apparently motivated by a personal grudge rather than any grand political conspiracy. Chaos ensued. Other, loyal, members of his bodyguard ran through the palace killing anyone suspected of involvement in the ‘plot’; in the Senate politicians swapped fine speeches about the overthrow of a tyrant and the restoration of ancient liberties. But the reality was that other members of the Praetorian guard had found Caligula’s uncle, Claudius, hiding in the palace, dragged him out and acclaimed him emperor. All sorts of complicated negotiations followed, with Claudius paying the guards handsomely for their support and negotiating a deal with the Senate to recognise him. But, in the end, under all the gory details – one emperor was replaced by another and, in a sense, nothing had changed.

Beyond making it absolutely clear that the emperors had become a permanent fixture, the killing of Gaius had no significant impact on the long history of imperial rule at all. That was one thing the assassins of 41 AD had in common with the assassins of 44 BC, who killed one autocrat (Julius Caesar) only to end up with another (Augustus). For all the excitement generated by the murder of Gaius, the suspense, the uncertainty of the moment and the flirtation with Republicanism, as brief as it was unrealistic, the end result was another emperor on the throne who was not at all unlike the one he had replaced. (p.397)

And:

The emperors were more similar to one another than they were different, and it took only some superficial adjustments to turn one into another. Assassinations were minor interruptions to the grander narrative of imperial rule. (p.398)

Certainly, the system evolved – the imperial administration staff grew enormously between 14 and 212 AD (pages 408 to 411) – but the fundamental role the emperor played in the imperial system remained the same. The vast majority of the empire’s population wouldn’t have noticed the rule of one emperor from another, apart from the face on the coins and scraps of gossip, if they ever got to hear them.

Whatever the views of Suetonius and other ancient writers, the qualities and character of the individual emperors did not matter very much to most inhabitants of the empire, or to the essential structure of Roman history and its major developments. (p.404)

And:

Outside the narrow circle [of the court] and certainly outside the city of Rome…it can hardly have made much difference who was on the throne, or what their personal habits or intrigues were. And there is no sign at all that the character of the ruler affected the basic template of government at home or abroad in any significant way. If Gaius or Nero or Domitian really were as irresponsible, sadistic or mad as they were painted, it made little difference to how Roman politics and empire worked behind the headline anecdotes. Beneath the scandalous tales…there was a remarkably stable structure of rule and…a remarkably stable set of problems and tensions across the period. (p.406)

A more thematic account

Following the chapter of Augustus, in this final stretch of her book, Beard drops all pretence at providing a chronological account and comes fully into the open with what she had probably wanted to do all along, which is take a more thematic approach to her subject. Her addiction to asking clusters of rhetorical questions really comes into its own as she sets out to discuss, not the emperors themselves, their rule and achievements and military conquests etc, but to ask questions about the themes and issues, ‘the structures, problems and tensions’ (p.336) raised by the first 200 years of imperial rule, about ‘the problems and tensions that Augustus bequeathed’ (p.413) in what amounts to a series of essays.

If you are looking for a good chronological account of the emperors this is emphatically not the book for you. She has a little section considering the vices and scandalous stories, especially about the early emperors, peddled by later historians such as Suetonius and Tacitus (pages 398 to 403) – but only to dismiss them as tittle-tattle and tell us she aims to delve beneath the gossip to address the deeper structural questions about the way the empire was created and administered, how its evolution changed Romans’ identity and culture, and so on.

And you know what – her book is much the better for it. Once she’s stated she’s going to abandon chronology and proceed by examining themes and issues, she and the reader can both relax. Now she’s  explicitly said she’s not going to give a chronological account I’m not expecting one; instead I can enjoy her rambling, discursive discussions of various issues surrounding imperial rule, which are often genuinely interesting.

Problems with the imperial system

She focuses on three issues: arranging the succession, relations with the Senate, and problems defining the precise status of the emperor (p.414).

1. The succession

The main and obvious problem, which the Romans never really solved, was how to arrange the succession from one emperor to the next (p.420). In practice there was a range of mechanisms:

a) First born son

It’s a surprise to learn that, despite being such a patriarchal society, the Romans didn’t have a strong tradition of primogeniture i.e. that a father is always succeeded by his eldest son (p.415).

b) In the family

Certainly rulers liked to keep the succession within the family, hence the grouping of the emperors into a series of family dynasties. But lacking an insistence on the primacy of the eldest son, the exact relation of a succeeding heir was often fairly remote.

c) Adoption / assimilation (p.418)

A Roman aristocrat could — either during his life or in his will — adopt an heir if he lacked a natural son. The adopted son would replace his original family name with the name of his adopted family. The most famous example is Julius Caesar’s adoption of his great-nephew, Gaius Octavius who thereafter referred to himself as Gaius Julius Caesar (p.339).

Augustus, Caligula and Nero failed to father biological and legitimate sons. Tiberius’ own son, Drusus predeceased him. Only Claudius was outlived by his son, Britannicus, although he opted to promote his adopted son Nero as his successor to the throne.

Thus adoption became the most common tool that Julio-Claudian emperors use to promote their chosen heir to the front of the succession:

  • Augustus — himself an adopted son of his great-uncle, Julius Caesar — adopted his stepson Tiberius as his son and heir.
  • Tiberius, in turn, adopted his nephew Germanicus, the father of Caligula and brother of Claudius (Germanicus himself dying before he could inherit).
  • Caligula adopted his cousin Tiberius Gemellus (grandson of the Tiberius) shortly before executing him.
  • Claudius adopted his great-nephew and stepson Nero.
  • It was Nero’s failure to have either a natural or an adopted son of his own which brought the Julio-Claudian dynasty to an end.

d) Acclamation by army

Augustus had concentrated control of the army into his hands alone, but in the long term he failed to prevent the intervention of the army in politics. On a small scale, it was the Praetorian Guard who acclaimed Claudius emperor in 41 AD, but things got worse. After the death of Nero, in 68, four different military leaders laid claim to the throne in one confused 12 month period, each backed up by army units from different provinces (p.417).

e) Dumb luck – being in the right place at the right time

The classic example being Claudius happening to be in the imperial palace in the vital minutes after the murder of Caligula and so acclaimed by the Praetorian Guard, the most heavily armed group in the city, which gave him the authority to negotiate with the Senate, and so achieve the throne (p.416).

Interestingly, Beard reinterprets all the lurid stories about imperial wives poisoning their husbands, not as being motivated by a wish to get rid of them, as such; but to ensure the correct timing; to make sure they died when then chosen successor was on the spot and so best placed to claim the throne (p.416).

2. Relations with the Senate

Augustus gave the Senate more honours and extended its privileges, but sought to reduce its power. In a series of complicated constitutional adjustments he sought to convert the Senate from an independent body into an arm of the imperial administration.

A small number resisted imperial rule so vehemently that they managed to get executed or forced to commit suicide. Some left writings criticising various emperors, though the wise wrote as historians, safely criticising emperors from previous centuries or dynasties.

When they had opportunities to intervene at crisis points, after the assassination of Caligula in 41, after the death of Nero in 68, the Senate failed to act. Easier to moan and complain than to actually step up to the plate and assume power. Their failure in both instances proves how irrevocably the state had come under the rule of one man.

Over time the nature of the Senate (when generally numbered about 600 members) changed, with more and more members coming from provincial families. The values of the Republic receded into tales of the ‘good old days’ that no one alive could ever realistically think of reviving.

3. The emperor’s status

Was he a man or a god or something in between? Augustus was careful to pose as ‘the first among equals’, emphatically denying and censoring any reference to him as king or dictator, at most allowing the word princeps to describe his status.

As to divinity, Caesar was officially recognised as a god 2 years after his death, in 42 BC, so a precedent had been set. Augustus was recognised as a god after his death and so was Claudius after his (p.429).

Beard brings out several key points. Number one is that no-one venerated a living emperor as a god, that would have been considered a gross error. The emperors were only deified after their deaths, when their spirits were considered as having ascended into heaven.

But as the first century AD progressed the emperors were increasingly treated very like gods, especially in the superstitious east, with its confusing medley of divinities. Thus living emperors found themselves included in rituals to the gods and addressed in language which overlapped with divine language (p.431). In one town records survive which show that religious ceremonies were carried out to the gods and on behalf of the emperor. No matter how thin it became, a distinction was always made.

Summary

The two chapters, one about Augustus and one giving an overview of the emperors who followed him, are the best thing in the book, because they showcase Beard’s non-chronological, thematic approach to best advantage. There are dates and events, of course, but they are merely the springboards for Beard’s explorations of themes and issues, which include interesting references to a wide range of contemporary Roman writers’ opinions and gossip about the emperors, alongside thoughtful analysis of the structural problems and issues of imperial rule, listed above. These two chapters are interesting, informative and entertaining.


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

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard (2015) 2

As I explained in my review of the introduction to SPQR, Beard is a little too academic to be truly popular, yet not scholarly or intellectual enough to be truly challenging.

By ‘not scholarly’ I mean that although she certainly mentions the scholarly debates around key issues from the historiography of ancient Rome, she rarely goes into enough detail to make us really understand what’s at stake (unlike Richard Miles in his history of Carthage who can’t come across a scholarly debate without explaining it at length, accompanied by copious, and often very interesting, footnotes and extensive references).

By ‘not very  intellectual’ I mean her book contains discussions and debates about themes and issues from the period, but nothing truly thought provoking, nothing you wouldn’t expect to find in a book about ancient history (the early years are shrouded in legend, it was a very sexist culture, Roman society was very militaristic) – no surprises, no new slants or opinions, and certainly no overarching conceptual framework for her analysis. Instead, there are lots of interesting bits and bobs about archaeological finds or social history, gossip about well known figures, speculation about the early history, fairly predictable things about Caesar, the civil wars, the rise of Augustus. Ho hum.

What you very much do get a lot of is rhetorical questions. Beard is addicted to asking rhetorical questions, not one rhetorical question, but little clumps of two or three rhetorical questions which all come together like buses on a rainy day. But asking rhetorical questions doesn’t make her an intellectual, it makes her a standard teacher using a standard teaching technique.

How far is it useful to see Roman history in terms of imperial biographies or to divide the story of empire into emperor-sized (or dynasty-sized) chunks? How accurate are the standard images of these rulers that have come down to us? What exactly did the emperor’s character explain? How much difference, and to whom, did the qualities of the man on the throne make? (p.399)

Asking lots of high-sounding questions gives people the impression you’re brainy without you actually having to do any real thinking.

Superficial

More important, for me anyway, is the way Beard mentions famous events only to skate over them. Although SPQR is a long book, it is frustratingly superficial. Early on in the narrative I found her account of both the Catiline Conspiracy (63 BC) and the legend of Romulus and Remus (750s BC?) patchy and disconnected. She’s interested in this or that bit of the story, tells a bit in order to illustrate problems with the established narrative or as a pretext to bring in recent archaeological findings – but she rarely gives you a good, simple, clear description of the complete event. I had to look up both the Catiline conspiracy and the story of Romulus and Remus on Wikipedia in order to get a proper, coherent account of both, and in order to fully understand the issues which Beard only patchily explains.

Later on she refers to Pyrrhus, the Greek general who invaded southern Italy, giving rise to what became called the Pyrrhic War (280 to 275 BC). Pyrrhus won several victories but at such a cost in lives and material that they gave rise to the expression ‘Pyrrhic victory’. But Beard says very little about who Pyrrhus was, why he attacked, about the progress of his military campaigns or describe any of the costly victories which gave rise to the saying. To learn more about Pyrrhus and his wars I had, again, to look him up on Wikipedia. Ditto Spartacus, ditto the Jugurtha, ditto the Roman constitution, ditto Scipio Africanus, and so on.

Beard’s account of Hannibal’s invasion of Italy which lasted 15 years and was the core of the Second Punic War (218 to 201 BC) is insultingly brief at barely 2 pages (pages 175 to 176). It almost made me want to throw this book away and reread Richard Miles’s fascinating, long, rich, detailed and subtle account of the same subject.

From the 300s through to the defeat of Carthage in 146 BC Rome was almost continuously at war. Beard mentions some of these wars, and occasionally specific names, such as Mithradates king of Pontus, float to the surface for half a page or so, but many are given the briefest mention, many aren’t mentioned at all, and for none of them, none whatsoever, do you get a proper account of the military campaign. There are no descriptions of battles anywhere in the book.

If you are looking for a military history of Rome, the most militaristic state in the ancient world which built its empire on phenomenal military success, this is not it. If you’re looking for a diplomatic history of Rome i.e. a description and analysis of the strategic thinking, alliances and manoeuvres behind the wars, how the geopolitical thinking of Rome’s rulers changed and evolved over time, this is definitely not it. Occasional reference is made to the Roman gods, but not much to their attributes or worship. If you’re looking for a book about Roman religion, this isn’t it. There are lots of passages describing recent archaeological discoveries and the light they shed on this or that aspect of early Rome – for example archaeologists’ discovery under the ancient Lapis Niger section of the Forum of a stone block on which a very ancient form of Latin seems to refer to a rex or king. The block is dated to about 570 BC and so would appear to be exciting confirmation that Rome did indeed have kings at exactly the period when tradition says Romulus founded a series of ancient kings. Interesting. But this, like other similar passages, pop up almost at random. If you’re looking for a thorough archaeological history of Rome, this is not it either.

Instead SPQR proceeds by examining issues and problems in Roman historiography, introduced by flurries of rhetorical questions (which all-too-often go unanswered). Overall the text proceeds in broadly chronological order, but Beard jumps around a bit, coming back to the same subjects 20 or 30 pages after you thought we were done with them. She is also very given to repetition – some favourite scenes recur three or four times (Claudius telling the Senate that Gaulish leaders should be allowed to become consuls or the fact that Trajan was from Spain and Septimius Severus from Africa, the notion that Spartacus’s rebellion must have included more than just gladiators to have lasted so long – each of these idées fixes is mentioned four or five times, as are many others).

The result is an often confusing mix of sudden bursts of straight history interspersed with nuggets of recent archaeology, occasional profiles of specific people (for some reason the Gracchi brothers Tiberius and Gaius get extensive treatment, pages 221 to 233) all embedded in a kind of academic tide which keeps rising to a surf of academic questions before setting off onto new issues and investigations. Rather than a chronological account, it’s more like a series of articles or mini essays, arranged in a roughly chronological order.

Social history, sort of

There’s a lot of soft social history, specifically in chapter eight ‘The Home Front’ (pages 297 to 336) about Roman attitudes and customs, traditional ideas and beliefs – though done in a very limp way. I’ve just read a sentence where she adds a parenthesis explaining that the poor in ancient Rome didn’t have as much money as the rich. Maybe this book is targeted at people who need to have it explained to them that the poor, on the whole, by and large, don’t have as much money as the rich.

The specific context is she’s explaining that women in ancient Rome, though subject to umpteen restrictions which we (pretty obviously) would find intolerable, in fact had more independence than women in ancient Greece or the Near East.

The contrast is particularly striking with classical Athens, where women from wealthy families were supposed to live secluded lives, out of the public eye, largely segregated from men and male social life (the poor, needless to say, did not have the cash or space to enforce any such divisions). (p.307)

I suppose this is a useful point to make, but maybe it could have been made in a subtler way, not the rather crude formulation that the poor didn’t have as much cash as the rich. It feels like she’s bolted on the parenthesis not because it says anything useful for the reader, but because Dame Mary wants us to know that she’s really desperately concerned about the poor. Again and again you read things which ought to be interesting but which, through her banal turn of phrase or clunky thinking, are turned to lead.

Feminism, sort of

We know that Beard is a feminist because she tells everyone she meets, mentions it in all her TV shows and media appearances, and in tweets and lectures, and has written a book about Women and Power.  She flourishes her feminist credentials early on with little sequence of huffy points about sexism in ancient Rome:

  • In the middle of the first century BCE, the senate was a body of some 600 members; they were all men who had previously been elected to political office (and I mean all menno woman ever held political office in ancient Rome). (p.32)
  • Catiline’s defeat was nonetheless a notable victory for Cicero; and his supporters dubbed him pater patriae, or ‘father of the fatherland’, one of the most splendid and satisfying titles you could have in a highly patriarchal society, such as Rome. (p.35)
  • The ‘people’ was a much larger and more amorphous body than the senate, made up, in political terms, of all male citizens; the women had no formal political rights. (p.36)
  • The writers of Roman literature were almost exclusively male; or, at least, very few works by women have come down to us…(p.37)

I mock them as ‘huffy not as a sexist jibe but a jokey description of the way they’re such obvious and superficial points to make. Because she doesn’t go any deeper into any of these ideas, these throwaway remarks just come over as cheap shots. Like the reference in brackets to the poor, they don’t seem designed to tell the reader anything useful about ancient Rome so much as to let the reader know that Dame Mary is a feminist, goddamit, and proud of it and nobody is going to shut her up and Down with the patriarchy and Sisters are doing it for themselves. As profound as a t-shirt slogan.

Having got this off her chest in the opening section, Beard’s feminism largely goes to sleep for the rest of the book. She reverts to telling us the long history of legendary, proto-historical, historical, republican and imperial Rome entirely from a male point of view.

Some feminist historians I’ve read reinterpret history entirely from a female point of view, subjecting the patriarchal structures of power to the intrinsic sexism of the syntax of the language to bracing, deeply thought-through, radical reinterpretations of history which make you stop and reconsider everything you know. There is absolutely none of that in Beard’s account. Beard’s much vaunted feminism feels like a few cherries blu tacked onto a narrative which could have been written by a man about men. Her ‘feminist’ account of women in ancient Rome is a big disappointment. Apart from the occasional moan that everything was run by men, SPQR could have been written fifty years ago.

Early on she points out the (fairly obvious) fact that two of the founding legends of ancient Rome involve rape, being the abduction of the Sabine women and the rape of Lucretia. Some other, less famous turning points in Roman history, wee also marked by accusations of sex crimes. Now there’s obviously something going on here, and I’m sure a half decent feminist theorist could take us deep into the psychological and cultural and political sub-texts and interpretations this is open to. But Beard doesn’t. It’s frustrating.

The only sustained consideration of women in ancient Rome comes when she pauses her (superficial) historical narrative for a chapter about everyday life in Rome at the time of Julius Caesar (Chapter Eight: The Home Front), which kicks off with fifteen or so pages about women (pages 303 to 318). But she manages to make even this sound dull and utterly predictable: Girls were often married off young, girls were forced to make marriages advantageous to their families (p.309). Once married:

The proper role of the woman was to be devoted to her husband, to produce the next generation, to be an adornment, to be a household manager and to contribute to the domestic economy by spinning and weaving. (p.304).

More or less the same as in ancient Persia or India or China or medieval anywhere, then. The only real surprise is the point mentioned above, that women in ancient Rome enjoyed relatively more freedom than in ancient Athens. They could, for example, freely attend mixed dinner parties, which would have been scandalous in Athens (p.307).

In fact the most interesting point in the passage about women in ancient Rome was the casualness of Roman marriage. There could be a big expensive ceremony if you were rich but there didn’t need to be and there was no sense of the Christian sacrament which the last 2,000 years have drummed into us. Instead, if a couple said they were married, they were, and if they said they were divorced, they were (p.303)

That’s interesting but you can see how it’s what you could call a ‘trivial pursuit fact’, quite interesting, but devoid of any theoretical (feminist) underpinning or detail. She gives no history of the evolution or development of Roman marriage. I bet there are entire scholarly books devoted to the subject which make fascinating reading but here there are just a few sentences, an ‘oh that’s interesting’ fact, and then onto the next thing. A bit later, writing about the high infant mortality in ancient Rome, she writes:

Simply to maintain the existing population, each woman on average would have needed to bear five or six children. In practice, that rises to something closer to nine when other factors, such as sterility and widowhood, are taken into account. It was hardly a recipe for widespread women’s liberation. (p.317)

I see what she’s getting at, but it just seems a really crass and wholly inadequate conclusion to the train of facts she’s been listing.

A lot of the text consists of pulling out facts like this at the expense of a continuous narrative – chapter eight includes a couple of pages describing how a wealthy man’s Roman house was more a vehicle for public display and business meetings than what we’d call a home:

On the atrium wall, a painted family tree was one standard feature, and the spoils a man had taken in battle, the ultimate mark of Roman achievement, might also be pinned up for admiration. (p.324)

This is kind of interesting in the way the rest of the book is, ho hum, kind of interesting, no big revelations. A bit of this, a bit of that, padded out with feminist tutting and hundreds of rhetorical questions.

[Plutarch’s Parallel Lives] were a concerted attempt to evaluate the great men (and they were all men) of Greece and Rome against each other…(p.501)

(There ought to be a term in rhetoric for the tag which so many feminist writers and columnists add to everything they wrote – ‘(and they were all men)’ – as if adding it to any sentence about almost any period of history anywhere in the world up till about 50 years ago, really comes as much surprise to anyone or changes anything. The ‘all men’ tag, maybe. To dress it smartly in Latin, the omnes homines tag.)

Is SPQR too full of rhetorical questions?

One irritating aspect of her approach is Beard’s fondness for writing little clumps of rhetorical questions of exactly the type which work well in a TV documentary or maybe a lecture hall but feel like padding in a written text:

How did Cicero and his contemporaries reconstruct the early years of the city? Why were their origins important to them? What does it mean to ask ‘where does Rome begin’? How much can we, or could they, really know of earliest Rome? (p.52)

But if there is no surviving literature from the founding period and we cannot rely on the legends, how can we access any information about the origins of Rome? Is there any way of throwing light on the early years of the little town by the Tiber that grew into a world empire? (p.79)

Is it possible to link our investigations into the earliest history of Rome with the stories that the Romans themselves told, or with their elaborate speculations on the city’s origins? Can we perhaps find a little more history in the myth? (p.86)

Did someone called Ancus Marcus once exist but not do any of the things attributed to him? Were those things the work of some person or persons other than Ancus but of unknown name? (p.95)

Whose liberty was at stake? How was it most effectively defended? How could conflicting versions of the liberty of the Roman citizen be reconciled? (p.129)

What kind of model of fatherhood was this? Who was most at fault? Did high principles need to come at such a terrible cost? (p.150)

Why and how did the Romans come to dominate so much of the Mediterranean in such a short time? What was distinctive about the Roman political system? (p.173)

How influential was the popular voice in Roman Republican politics? Who controlled Rome? How should we characterise this Roman political system? (p.189)

If this was the kind of thing that came from Rome’s ancestral home, what did that imply about what it meant to be Roman? (p.207)

Clumps of rhetorical questions like these crop up throughout the text, to be precise on pages 52, 62, 65, 70, 77, 79, 80, 86, 95, 99, 110, 115, 129, 131, 137, 146, 150, 151, 153, 166, 173, 180, 182, 188, 189, 205, 207, 212, 225, 226, 234, 241, 244, 251, 255, 256, 266, 277, 281, 291, 293, 299, 301, 312, 326, 330, 331, 332, 333, 336, 341, 346, 352, 354, 358, 377, 384, 389, 395, 399, 412, 414, 415, 426, 440, 480, 510, 517 and 520.

I suppose this is a standard teaching technique. I imagine a Cambridge Professor of Classics, whether in a classroom or lecture hall, often proceeds by putting rhetorical questions to her students and then setting out to answer them. Maybe it’s a common device in other factual books. But not quite to this extent, not so many clumps of so many questions. It begins to feel as if history exists mainly to provide professors of history with the opportunity of asking lots of rhetorical questions. After a while it gets pretty irritating, especially when the questions often aren’t even answered but left hanging in your mind…

What kind of act had he been playing all those years?… Where was the real Augustus? And who wrote these lines? These questions remain. (p.384)

Banal ‘ideas’

When she proudly presents us with so-called ‘ideas’ they are often disappointingly obvious and banal. I’ve mentioned above the point she makes that the poor don’t have as much money as the rich. Elsewhere she remarks that:

Civil war had its seedy side too. (p.300)

Or:

Hypocrisy is a common weapon of power. (p.358)

Well, yes, I kind of suspected as much. Here’s another Beardesque remark:

There is often a fuzzy boundary between myth and history (p.71)

It’s not untrue, it’s just limp. Quite a massive amount more could be made of this point by someone with brains and insight but not in this book. As it happens the same phrase recurs 400 pages later:

There was always a fuzzy zone where Roman control faded gradually into non-Roman territory (p.484)

And this echo made me realise that this, like other similar statements throughout the book, are not  really ‘ideas’ at all. They’re not the conclusions of a train of thought, they’re the axioms she starts out with – and my God, aren’t they boring?

  • Cultural identity is always a slippery notion…(p.205)
  • Elites everywhere tend to worry about places where the lower classes congregate… (p.456)

They’re not quite truisms but they are pretty obvious. I wish I’d noticed them earlier and made a collection because the ones I read in the final stretch of the book have the amusing tone of a schoolmistress lecturing rather dim children. It was like being back at infants school. For example, she tells us how early legends of Romulus claim he didn’t die but was covered by a cloud and disappeared:

crossing the boundary between human and divine in a way that Rome’s polytheistic religious system sometimes allowed (even if it seems faintly silly to us) (p.73)

I enjoyed that sensibly dismissive tone of voice – ‘seems faintly silly to us’. I imagine sentences like this being read in the voice of Joyce Grenfell, a no-nonsense, jolly hockeysticks, 1950s schoolteacher telling us how frightfully silly these old Romans could be! At other moments you can hear her telling the children to pay attention because she’s about to make a jolly important point which she wants us all to write down and remember:

It is a fallacy to imagine that only the poor write on walls. (p.470)

Yes, Miss.

Contrived comparisons

Beard has made ten or so TV documentaries and written the accompanying coffee table books and I can well imagine how she was encouraged at every step to insert ‘contemporary comparisons’ for events or aspects of life in ancient Rome in order to make them more ‘accessible’ and ‘relevant’ to the average viewer. Maybe this kind of thing does work for some people, but there are at least three risks with this approach:

1. Contemporary comparisons date

What are initially ‘contemporary’ comparisons quickly go out of date. Time moves on at a relentless pace (it’s odd having to point this out to a professor of a historical subject) so what were once surprising and illuminating comparisons between events in the ancient world and bang up-to-date contemporary events quickly lose their relevance. In my last review I mentioned her reference to the 1990s TV show Gladiators or the 2000 movie Gladiator which, far from shedding light on her subject, now themselves require a footnote to explain to younger readers what she’s on about. I think something similar applies to many of her other ‘cool’ and edgy comparisons (she uses the word ‘edgy’ at one point).

(Incidentally, if you wanted to learn anything about gladiators in ancient Rome, forget it, once again this isn’t the book for you. Spartacus is mentioned a couple of times in passing (pages 217 to 218 and 248 to 250) but always folded into a bigger, vaguer academic discussion of the class wars which racked Italy. Beard isn’t at all interested in gladiators’ lives or training or the battles fought during the uprising. Instead she uses it to explain the modern theory that Spartacus didn’t lead gladiators alone but rallied a lot of the rural poor and lower middle class to his cause. Gladiators fighting beasts to the death in the colosseum are mentioned half a dozen times but always in passing, in the context or urban planning or urban pastimes etc.)

Beard opens the narrative with a description of the Catiline conspiracy to overthrow the Roman state in the 60s BC. She tries to make this more relevant or accessible by mentioning ‘homeland security’ and ‘terrorism’ a lot.

Over the centuries the rights and wrongs of the conspiracy, the respective faults and virtues of Catiline and Cicero, and the conflicts between homeland security and civil liberties have been fiercely debated…(p.49)

But the US Homeland Security Act was passed in 2002 and, although terrorism will be with us forever, the distinctive atmosphere of paranoid fear of Islamic terrorism which was very widespread in the 2000s seems, to me, nowadays, to have virtually disappeared. Far more important for the era we live in now, in 2022, was the financial crash of 2008 which led governments around the Western world to implement a decade of ‘austerity’ policies which bore down hardest on the most vulnerable in society, leading to widespread resentment. It was arguably this resentment which found an outlet in the 2016 Brexit vote in the UK and the election of Donald Trump in the US, decisions which dominated British and American politics for the following 4 years. And then, of course, everything was superseded by the coronavirus pandemic.

Obviously Brexit, Trump and Covid are not mentioned in a book published in 2015. But that means that the book itself, and what were once bang up-to-date ‘modern’ comparisons, are already starting to have a faded, dated quality. Time marches on and comparisons which might have seemed useful in connecting ancient history to contemporary events inevitably age and date, become irrelevant and, eventually, themselves become obscure historical references which need explaining. I smiled when I read the following:

The [Catiline] ‘conspiracy’ will always be a prime example of the classic interpretative dilemma: were there really ‘reds under the bed’ or was the crisis, partly at least, a conservative invention? (p.48)

‘Reds under the bed’? See what I mean by dated? Apparently this phrase originated in the United States as far back as 1924 although it only became common parlance during the McCarthyite witch-hunts of the late 1940s. It’s a phrase Beard might have picked up when she was young in the 1970s, certainly before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but this ‘contemporary’ reference, included in a bid to make the story more ‘accessible’, nowadays itself requires explaining to anyone under the age of 30.

Something similar happens when, later in the book, she tries to make the writings of the emperor Marcus Aurelius seem more relevant and contemporary by excitedly pointing out that one of his big fans is Bill Clinton (p.399). When I ask my kids who Bill Clinton is they look at me with blank faces; after all, his second term as US president ended in 2001.

Same again when she casually refers to the (often bloody) transition from rule by one emperor to the next one as ‘regime change’ (pages 403 and 414), a phrase which, I believe, was popularised at the time of the Iraq War and overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, almost twenty years ago.

In Beard’s mind these might be useful comparisons which make the text more ‘accessible’, but all they do for the reader in 2022 is reveal how dated and ageing her entire frame of references is, here and throughout the text, in multiple ways.

2. Patronising

Carefully inserting comparisons to ‘contemporary’ events or culture in order to try and make ancient history more understandable, relatable and relevant runs the risk of sounding patronising and Beard sometimes does sound condescending. She frequently addresses the reader as if we’ve never read any history or know anything about the ancient world (or life in general: carefully explaining that poor people don’t have as much money as rich people, or that not everyone who writes graffiti on walls is poor).

I won’t go so far as to call her attitude ‘insulting’ but you can see why the general attitude betrayed in casual comparisons, asides and parentheses put me off. By contrast, Richard Miles in his book about ancient Carthage, Carthage Must Be Destroyed, treats his readers like adults, in fact more than adults because he takes you right into the heart of scholarly debates about the events he’s describing, giving extensive notes and making countless references to scholarly articles on the subject, which all make quite a lot of demands on the average reader.

But I’d rather read something which asks me to strain my faculties, which requires me to master the detail of conflicting scholarly interpretations of historical facts, I’d rather feel that I’m being stretched than, as with Beard, be subject to a succession of rhetorical questions, staged discussions, dated comparisons all larded with rather obvious truisms and banal comments.

3. Strained

In my first review I mentioned special pleading. What I was trying to express is the way Beard never knowingly neglects an opportunity to throw in a reference to modern life or use a modern phrase (homeland security, domestic abuse, people trafficking) to try and link whatever bit of ancient Rome she’s describing to modern headlines and issues. I’ve described how these comparisons can be both dated and patronising, but they can also come over as strained and contrived, missing the point of modern example and confusing our understanding of the ancient event.

So when Cicero turns up at a poll with an armed guard and wearing a military breastplate under his toga, this breach of etiquette was:

rather as if a modern politician were to enter the legislature in a business suit with a machine gun slung over his shoulder’ (p.29).

For some reason the phrase ‘machine gun’ made me think of Tintin in 1930s Chicago and cartoon gangsters. Maybe it’s a useful comparison, but there’s also something cartoonish and childish about it and – my real beef – nifty comparisons like this often mask the way Beard doesn’t explain things properly. Although she spends quite a few pages on it, and compares it to modern concerns about terrorism and ‘homeland security’ and ‘regime change’, Beard never really properly, clearly explains what the Catiline Conspiracy actually was. I had to look it up on Wikipedia to get a full sense of it. Too often she’s more interested in rhetorical questions and cartoon comparisons and then in rushing off to discuss the issues this or that event raises, than in actually, clearly, lucidly explaining the thing she’s meant to be telling us.

In 63 BC the Senate issued a law allowing Cicero to do whatever was necessary to secure the state (which meant rounding up and executing the Catiline conspirators). But in case we didn’t understand what this means, Beard explains that this was:

roughly the ancient equivalent of a modern ’emergency powers’ or ‘prevention of terrorism’ act (p.30)

Maybe this helps some readers but, like so much of what she writes, a detailed understanding of the thing itself, the event in the ancient world, its precedents and meanings, are sacrificed for a flashy modern comparison.

Trivial pursuit facts

Obviously Beard is hugely knowledgeable about her chosen subject, I’m not denying that for a minute. And so the book does contain a wealth of information, if you can bite your tongue and ignore the patronising tone, the banal generalisations and the limp ‘ideas’. Some examples from the first half of the book include:

– The first century BC is the best documented period of human history before Renaissance Florence, in the sense that we have a wealth of documents written by leading players giving us insights into their lives and thoughts (p.22).

– The towering figure is Cicero, not in terms of military achievement (in this warlike society he was not a warrior, he was a lawyer and orator) or political achievement (he took the losing side in the civil war between Caesar and Pompey and met a wretched fate) but because so many of his writings have survived. It is possible to get to know him better than anyone else in the whole of the ancient world (pages 26 and 299). This explains why Cicero crops up throughout the book, since he wrote so copiously and so widely about earlier Roman history, customs, religion and so on. It explains why the chapter about social life and the Roman house depends heavily on Cicero – because we have lots of detail about his buying and selling of properties, loans and rents, even down the details of him buying statues and furniture to decorate them.

Julius Caesar had a healthy appetite because he followed a course of emetics, a popular form of detoxification among rich Romans which involved regular vomiting (p.302).

The traditional colour for brides in ancient Rome was yellow (p.303).

Some random Latin words

The Romans referred to themselves as gens togata meaning ‘the people who wear the toga’ (p.32).

The English word ‘candidate’ derives from the Latin candidatus, which means whitened and refers to the specially whitened togas that Romans wore during election campaigns (p.32) (compare our use of the English word candid which comes from the same root).

The Latin word for female wolf, lupa, was also a slang term for prostitute. So could it be that the old tale about Romulus and Remus being suckled by a she-wolf actually referred to a female sex worker? (Nice suggestion. Probably not.)

The English word palace derives from the early 13th century French word palais, from the Medieval Latin palacium (source of the Spanish palacio, Italian palazzo) which all stem from the Latin palatium, which derives from from Mons Palatinus, ‘the Palatine Hill’, one of the seven hills of ancient Rome, where Augustus Caesar’s house stood (the original ‘palace’) and was later the site of the splendid residence built by Nero (pages 59 and 418).

Lots of political bodies in countries round the world are called senates, copying the Roman word and idea. The word Senate derives from the Latin senex meaning old man. The original idea, developed in the 3rd century BC, was that everyone who had held a public office (as consul, magistrate, quaestor and so on) at the end of their term went to sit in the Senate where they could use their experience of public life to judge new laws or directives issuing from the Assemblies or consuls.

Crime and punishment

Custodial sentences were not the penalties of choice in the ancient world. Fines, exile and death made up the usual repertoire of Roman punishment (p.35).

Later writers thought the rot set in with the defeat of Carthage 146 BC

In the 40s BC Gaius Sallustius Crispus, known as Sallust, wrote an essay about the Cataline conspiracy in which he claimed the conspiracy was symptomatic of Rome’s moral decline. He claimed the moral fibre of Roman culture had been destroyed by the city’s success and by the wealth, greed and lust for power that followed its successful crushing of all its rivals. Specifically, he mentions the final destruction of its old rival Carthage in 146 BC and the emergence of Rome as the paramount power in the Mediterranean as the moment when the rot started to set in (page 38 and 516).

Slavery (pages 328 to 333)

All slaves are enemies – Roman proverb

In the mid first-century BC there were between 1.5 and 2 million slaves in Italy, about a fifth of the population. There was a huge variety of slaves, of functions and origins. Slaves could be enemy soldiers or populations captured in war, the children of established slaves, or even abandoned babies rescued from the municipal rubbish dump. Some slaves wore rags and were worked to death in silver mines, some wore fine clothes and acted as secretaries to rich Romans like Cicero. In wealthy households the line between an educated, well treated slave and other staff was often paper thin. The Latin word familia referred to the entire household, including both the non-free and free members (p.330).

  • servus – Latin for slave
  • libertus – Latin for freed slave

Beard refers to slavery for half a page on page 68 and then devotes five pages in chapter eight. The facts she relates are interesting enough – it’s interesting to be told about the great variety of types and statuses of slave in ancient Rome, how some were considered members of the family, how easy it was to free them (although the authorities introduced a tax which had to be paid when you did so).

How the Roman policy of freeing slaves (manumission to use the English word derived from the Latin term) who could then go on to acquire full civic rights was unique in the ancient world.

That in Ancient Rome, a slave was freed in a ceremony in which a praetor touched the slave with a rod called a vindicta and pronounced him or her to be free. The slave’s head was shaved and a special kind of hat, the pileus or liberty cap, was placed on it. Both the vindicta and the cap were considered symbols of Libertas, the goddess representing liberty.

It’s interesting to think that the sheer rate at which Romans freed slaves who originally came from faraway places as defeated soldiers or captives, over the long term contributed to Rome becoming one of the most ethnically diverse places in the ancient world (p.330)

That the Greek island of Delos was one of the great commercial hubs of its day which was inextricably linked with it also being a centre of the Mediterranean slave trade.

But five and a half pages are hardly enough to cover such an engrained, scandalous and essential part of Roman history and culture. Like so much else in the book, the facts she gives are interesting enough but, ultimately, all a bit…well…meh.


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

Nero: the man behind the myth @ the British Museum

Surprisingly, given his notoriety, this is the first major exhibition in the UK devoted to the Roman Emperor Nero or, to give him his full name, Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus.

Marble bust of Nero. Italy (around AD 55) Photo by Francesco Piras © MiC Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Cagliari

Nero, some basic facts

Nero’s predecessors

Nero was the fifth Roman emperor, his predecessors having been:

  • Augustus, who overthrew the Roman Republic, established the principate and reigned 27 BC to 14 AD
  • Tiberius (14 to 37 AD)
  • Caligula, star of the 1979 porn movie starring Malcolm McDowell (37 to 41)
  • Claudius, star of the famous TV series based on the novels by Robert Graves (41 to 54)

Last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty

Nero, born in 37 AD, reigned from 54 to 68, 14 years, from the ages of just 16 to 30, so he was very young. He was the last male descendant of Rome’s first emperor Augustus (his great-great grandson and so his death marked the end of what came to be called the Julio-Claudian dynasty. It was later claimed that during his reign he had his own mother killed, Agrippina, who had schemed to help her son to the succession, then did away with his first wife and allegedly his second wife.

The Great Fire of Rome

The Great Fire of Rome occurred during Nero’s reign, in AD 64. For 9 days the flames rampaged through Rome utterly destroying 3 of its 14 districts. Later accounts claim Nero watched it from the vantage point of his palace, singing to the accompaniment of his lyre. Some later sources claim that Nero deliberately started it in order to flatten Rome so he could rebuild it more magnificently, not least by constructing his enormous Golden Palace.

Wars and rebellions

During his reign Nero had to deal with:

  • a major uprising by British tribes led by Queen Boudica which seriously threatened Roman rule in this distant colony (60 to 61 AD)
  • ongoing war against the mighty Parthian Empire on Rome’s eastern border
  • then, in 66, a major insurrection of the Jewish population in Palestine which was to drag on for four years until the Romans finally suppressed it in 70 AD, razing much of the Jewish capital, Jerusalem, including the temple of Solomon, and dispersing its Jewish population, a key event in the rise of Christianity

The Pisonian conspiracy There had been simmering discontent with various aspects of Nero’s rule among Rome’s traditionalist, aristocratic families, and a number of low-level conspiracies to overthrow him. The most serious came in 65, centred on Gaius Calpurnius Piso who aimed to have Nero assassinated and replace him. The conspiracy involved at least 40 individuals, all of whom were executed, forced to commit suicide or sent into exile.

The Galba revolt and suicide In 68 Gaius Julius Vindex, the governor of Gallia Lugdunensis, rebelled against Nero’s tax policies. Lucius Verginius Rufus, the governor of Germania Superior, was ordered to put down Vindex’s rebellion. In an attempt to gain support from outside his own province, Vindex called upon Servius Sulpicius Galba, the governor of Hispania Tarraconensis, to join the rebellion and to declare himself emperor in opposition to Nero. This set in train a series of events which led to Galba leading his forces on Rome.

Abruptly the Senate, who had always been resentful of his populist and unorthodox policies, abandoned Nero, declaring him a public enemy, and the leader of his own bodyguard went over to Galba.

Nero fled to a villa outside the city and, when he was told soldiers from the Senate were coming to arrest him and drag him to the Forum where he would likely be beaten to death, he ordered a loyal servant to kill him. It was 9 June 68.

Civil war

Far from securing a peaceful transition of power, the removal of Nero led to a series of short-lived civil wars or military battles for supremacy among a succession of provincial generals in what came to be known as the ‘Year of Four Emperors’, being:

  • Galba, governor of western Spain, murdered in January 69
  • Otho, governor of northern Spain who supported Galba, but then overthrew him, before committing suicide in April 69
  • Vitellius, governor of Germania Inferior, who overthrew Otho and ruled for 9 months till he was executed December 69
  • Vespasian, general of the armies in the East, who marched on Rome, overthrew Vitellius and founded the Flavian dynasty, which ruled from 69 to 79 AD

Once order had been restored by Vespasian, the Roman Senate excised Nero’s memory from official records, his images were defaced or destroyed in a ritual process known as damnatio memoriae, and his name was vilified in order to to legitimise the new ruling dynasty which emerged from the chaos, the Flavian dynasty.

Bust of Agrippina the Younger, younger sister of the emperor Caligula, niece and fourth wife of the emperor Claudius, and the mother of emperor Nero who, it was said, had her murdered in 59 AD.

The fabrication of Nero’s negative reputation

Nero has been for nearly two thousand years vilified as a monster who murdered his own mother, had Christians set alight to illuminate the games, who fiddled while Rome burnt and possibly started the great conflagration himself, who indulged his absurd fantasy that he was a great artist, and wasted a fortune on his overblown Golden Palace.

Nowadays, we live in a great era of revisionism and Nero’s is one among many reputations which are coming in for a major reconsideration. And, in the spirit of the times, this major exhibition sets out to overturn the traditional image of Nero the monster.

The curators’ contention is that Nero’s bad reputation image was a political and literary fabrication, invented generations later, in order to legitimise the overthrow of the Augustan dynasty and validate the authority of its successors, the Flavian dynasty (69 to 96 AD) and the Nerva–Antonine dynasty which followed (96 to 192).

In the words of the exhibition curator, Thorsten Opper: ‘The Nero of our common imagination is an entirely artificial figure, carefully crafted 2,000 years ago.’

Certainly the Roman historians who are our main sources for the lives of the emperors were writing a long time afterwards. Tacitus (56 to 120) wrote his histories between about 100 and 110 AD, 40 to 50 years after the events he depicts.

The other main authority is the Lives of the Emperors written by the historian Suetonius (lived 70 to 122), a gripping read, even after all these years, because of the juicy and scandalous gossip it contains about the first twelve emperors of Rome but, like Tacitus, several generations removed from the events he describes.

A century later Cassius Dio (155 to 235) wrote a vast 80-volume history of Rome from its legendary origins to his own time, which includes a summary of the reign of Nero. It is one of only three sources we have for the rebellion of the British warrior-queen Boudicca against Roman occupation in 60 to 61 AD.

The exhibition implies that all three of these main sources are not what we would nowadays think of as attempts at historical veracity, but narratives created much later in order to bolster the authority of the later dynasties by discrediting their predecessors. Seen in this way, Tacitus and Suetonius tell us as much about the conflicts among the elite of their own times as of Nero’s.

The curators make a series of claims to back up this theory, but they can all be subsumed under what is maybe the basic premise of the exhibition which is that: A whole host of new (and newish) archaeological discoveries shed more light than ever before on the attitudes and lives and opinions of people living in 50s and 60s Rome and, taken together, these undercut the idea that Nero was perceived in his own time as a vicious tyrant. If anything, these new discoveries tend to prove the reverse: that Nero was extremely popular during his life and long afterwards, among the common people of Rome and, particularly in the East of the Empire.

Evidence for a positive interpretation of Nero

So the curators set up a dichotomy which runs through the exhibition, between the written texts of later ‘historians’ which (they claim) are seriously compromised and biased, written to please sponsors in the tiny Senatorial elite – and the archaeological evidence which, in numerous ways, suggests the opposite: that demonstrates that many Romans liked and even worshipped Nero, during his lifetime and even after his death.

The evidence they bring is highly varied in style and weight:

  • They show how melodramatic speeches put into the mouth of Agrippina by the ‘historians’ Tacitus and Dio Cassius, as Nero supposedly stabbed her to death, are in fact copies of speeches from a play written soon after Nero’s death, Octavia, which itself adapted the entire scene from Seneca’s Oedipus, itself, of course, dependent on ancient Greek originals. In other words, Tacitus and Suetonius’s accounts are less to do with what we think of as ‘objective history’ and much more to do with tapping into well-established literary stereotypes and tropes, not least for producing high drama with its requirement for tearful victims and callous, cold-hearted villains.
  • Nero had nothing to do with starting the Great Fire of Rome nor singing during it, as he was absent in Antium at the time. On the contrary there is evidence that he made great efforts to shelter refugees from the flames and then organised the rebuilding of the city afterwards.
  • Talking of building, Nero inaugurated building schemes throughout Rome including the building of a new larger central market and also the rebuilding and expansion of the port of Ostia, popular with the people and merchants.
  • Nero certainly performed onstage but there is evidence that this was a popular move. He created a claque of followers, the Augustiani, who clapped and cheered his performances. Spinning his association with the theatre as a populist tactic reminded me of King Charles II, who was also criticised by the elite for his debauched lifestyle but was wildly popular with the general public. Was Nero the Charles II of his day?
  • Nero expanded the chariot races and other games held in the Circus, also very popular.
  • There are several exhibits focusing on Nero’s haircut. He initiated a new style of having his hair brushed forward and a little curled at the front. We know this from statues and know that other nobles followed him. He set a fashion. ‘I’ll have a Nero, please, Mario.’
  • Down at the more plebeian end of the scale, the exhibition displays some pro-Nero graffiti found on a wall and which the curators have blown up large and displayed on an exhibition wall. There’s also a caricature of Nero from the wall of a shop on the Palatine Hill, which the curators have entertainingly animated, so we can watch it slowly being drawn on a screen.
  • On a more elevated geopolitical plane, Nero continued to be popular in the East after his death. We know this because a succession of impersonators arose who used his name and reputation to gather followings and lead forces before, inevitably, being crushed by the army but still, why would anyone set themselves up as followers, devotees or reincarnations of the man unless he retained a high degree of popularity?

The Senate

The Roman Senate consisted of some 600 men from Rome’s oldest and most prestigious families. They saw themselves as guardians of traditions and values. The first room or space in the exhibition is devoted to an impressive raised platform maybe 50 feet long on which stand a series of lifesize statues or busts of the first Emperors (Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius) and some of the key female figures (Livia, Agrippina), behind them on the wall an enormous family tree of the Julian Dynasty.

Gallery of statues of emperors from the Julio-Claudian Dynasty (photo by the author)

As usual I found it challenging to follow the precise details of who married who, adopted who, murdered who and so on. But I was struck by a thread that ran through the labels for all of the figures and this was mention of the Senate and how each of the emperors sooner or later incurred the criticism of the oligarchy, the small number of hugely rich and influential senators who regarded themselves as keepers of Rome’s traditional values, many of whom thought they had as much right to the principate (as Augustus called his position) as the madman Caligula or the stammering wretch Claudius.

As you carry on reading the wall labels this undercurrent of Senatorial resentment keeps recurring. Nero’s appearances on the stage may have been popular with the plebs, but the aristocrats severely disapproved. Lowered the tone. Conduct unbecoming.

Agrippina, Nero’s mother, certainly seems to have been the powerful schemer historians depict and so – she brought down on herself the vituperative criticism of the Senate, which strongly disapproved of powerful women. The legend that Nero had his own mother murdered reflects badly on both of them, and so was a perfect propaganda slur.

The people may have approved of the new building works in Rome, but the Senate disliked the higher taxes required to fund them, and so on.

Slowly but consistently, the curators are making the point that there was always opposition to the very idea of a prince, a princeps, a supposed ‘first among equals’, to the very idea of what people eventually came to call the ’emperor’, right from the time of Augustus.

Augustus’s homicidal rule (he had some 5,000 men from Rome’s leading parties executed in order to enforce his power) was only grudgingly accepted because the ruling class was exhausted after two generations of fratricidal civil war.

But the upper class sniping and criticism never stopped and highly educated, highly ambitious men never stopped gossiping and scheming against the First Family, and paying lawyers, orators and ‘historians’ to undermine and defame them at every opportunity. This then, should be understood as the background to the parti pris accounts of Tacitus, Suetonius and Dio Cassius.

The point being that it wasn’t just Nero. The exhibition slowly, subtly builds up a picture of a political system which was seething with resentments and power struggles at every level. The reputation Nero acquired for being a monster was just the latest in a succession of insults and abuse which had been hurled at Tiberius and the supposedly perverted goings-on at his villa on Capri, at the outright insanity of Caligula, at the doddery ineffectiveness of Claudius, and so on. The very idea of an ’emperor’ was deeply resented.

The more you look into it, the more you realise that all opinions in such a society were party pris, biased, sponsored by and supporting particular factions in the never-ending struggle for supreme power.

It prompts the thought that maybe being Roman Emperor was simply an impossible job. Maybe it was impossible to try and balance all the forces and please everyone in such a strife-ridden society, trying to suppress the slaves on the estates as much as the rebellions which kept breaking out throughout the occupied territories, all the time watching your back for the unceasing threat of a coup or assassination closer to home. Maybe it’s this simple fact which explains why so many of them started out welcomed and hailed by writers and people, yet ended their reigns in paranoia and violence.

Wider context

And this brings me to the most important thing I want to say about this exhibition, which is this: the pre-publicity and the posters and the website and the title of the exhibition itself all promote this idea that the exhibition addresses this one big question: was Nero the monster posterity has made him out to be? (And answers, pretty solidly, No, he wasn’t).

But in fact, the exhibition is much bigger and more ambitious and more wide-ranging than that. It feels like it sheds light on an enormous range of subjects going far beyond the personality or role of one man. By the end you feel like you’ve been given a panoramic overview of an entire society, analysed at multiple levels, from high politics and military strategy, through colonial rule, the role of women, of slaves, theatre and the arts, architecture and town planning, right down to day to day implements such as lamps and mirrors and coins and jewelry.

It feels like a wonderfully informative and dazzling total immersion in every aspect of first century Roman culture.

Exhibits

The exhibition fills the Museum’s largest gallery, the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery. I’ve been to some shows, such as the Rodin one, where the gallery is fully lit and sparkles with Scandinavian clarity. For this exhibition the overhead lights are turned off and the different spaces are separated by dark wood panelling and gauze hangings to create a dark and brooding atmosphere. In this setting are displayed over 200 objects, large and small, which appear out of the gloom, beautifully mounted and lit.

The very first exhibit has been carefully chosen to set the tone. It is a bust of Nero which, we are told, started life as the likeness of a different emperor but was extensively remodelled in the 1660s. In what way? To make the image blunter, heavier, more sensual and crude. Why? Because the sculptor was following the by-then established myth of the sensual, murderous tyrant. It is symbolic of the way the curators think Nero’s image was systematically besmirched after his death.

Bust of Nero, marble with later alterations (AD 59 to 98) Roma, Musei Capitolini. Photo by the author

The exhibition includes numerous objects from the Museum’s own collection, alongside rare loans from Europe, and ranges from humble graffiti to grand sculpture, precious manuscripts, objects destroyed in the fire of Rome, priceless jewellery and slave chains from Wales.

The new archaeological finds include:

  • treasures hidden during the destruction of Colchester in AD 60 to 61 during Boudica’s Iceni rebellion
  • burned artifacts from the Fire of Rome in AD 64
  • evidence from the destruction of Pompeii which suggest a new understanding of Nero’s reign

Statues

Statues of Nero were erected throughout the empire, yet very few survive due to the official suppression of his image. A star piece in the exhibition is a bronze head of Nero, long-mistaken as Claudius, which was found in the River Alde in Suffolk in 1907. The head was part of a statue that probably stood in Camulodunum (Colchester) before being torn down during the Boudica-led rebellion.

Head from a copper statue of the emperor Nero. Found in England © The Trustees of the British Museum

Roman Britain

The so-called Fenwick Hoard was discovered in 2014 beneath the floor of a shop on Colchester High Street. The treasure was buried for safekeeping by settlers fleeing for their lives during Boudica’s attack. Among the items are Roman republican and imperial coins, military armlets and fashionable jewelry similar to finds from Pompeii and Herculaneum.

The Fenwick Hoard, England (AD 60 to 61) © Colchester Museums

It’s impressive but it is dwarfed by two other exhibits in the same section. First there’s a map of Roman Britain which shows where the important mines were. Just like the conquistadors who conquered Central America in the 16th century, the conquering Romans came looking for resources of all kinds to exploit and these included mines which were worked with slave labour. The exhibition includes some massive lead ingots shaped and marked with stamps indicating they date from Nero’s reign, and invites us to consider the back-breaking slave labour which went into their production.

But the most striking exhibit is a big slave chain of the type used to shackle native Britons, as they were bought, sold, transported around the country to work the land and the mines. People forget that Roman society was first and foremost a slave economy. People really forget that Britain was famous in the first century for the quality of its slaves who were widely exported throughout the empire.

Iron slave chain from Llyn Cerrig Bach, Anglesey, Wales (100 BC to AD 78)

Later on we are told a spine-chilling story concerning slaves. In 61 a distinguished senator was murdered by one of his household staff. Despite protests from the populace, Nero backed the senate’s decision to uphold an existing law which stipulated that, if one slave committed a capital crime, all the enslaved members of the owner’s household must be executed, to act as a deterrent.

Brutality was all around, at every moment, in a strictly controlled, rigidly hierarchical society subjected to multiple types of power and enforcement.

Nero the performer

Famously, Nero was the first Roman emperor to act on stage and compete in public games as a charioteer. The exhibition includes some vivid depictions of these chariot races including oil lamps show a racing quadriga (four-horse chariot), a victorious racehorse and a triumphant charioteer, as well as mass-produced architectural panels showing details of the races, like this one in which a quadriga is approaching the turning posts at the end of the course. (Next to it the exhibition actually includes three life-sized replicas of these turning tall conical posts.)

Terracotta relief showing a chariot-race, Italy (AD 40–70) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Obviously, ancient Rome was also famous for its gladiator contests and the exhibition includes a selection of scary-looking gladiatorial weapons from Pompeii on loan from the Louvre. Nero set up his own gladiatorial school, the Iudus Neronianus. A famous gladiator of the day, Spiculus, later became the loyal commander of his bodyguards.

Bronze gladiator’s helmet, Pompeii (1st century AD) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Sometimes rivalries connected to the games got out of hand. In AD 59, a violent riot erupted during a gladiatorial contest in Pompeii’s amphitheatre between opposing supporters from Pompeii and nearby Nuceria. The show includes a photo of a wall painting giving an aerial view of the event, showing the amphitheatre and people fighting in the arena and in the stands, as well as in the streets outside. Nero handed the investigation to the Senate, which issued Pompeii with a 10-year ban on holding gladiatorial games. Football hooliganism is nothing new.

Compare and contrast those bloody scenes with the rather less blood-thirsty spectacle of the ancient theatre. The show includes some large frescoes from Pompeii depicting actors and theatrical masks lend by Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. Mind you, Roman tragedy could be a bloodthirsty affair, as the tragedies written by Nero’s tutor, the philosopher Seneca, amply demonstrate.

Fresco of a seated actor dressed as a king and female figure with a small painting of a mask, Italy (AD 30 to 40) With permission of the Ministero della Cultura ̶ Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli.

Aged 21, Nero first took to the stage as part of private games, but a few years later he performed publicly in Naples and then in Rome itself. This event was described in elite sources as unprecedented and scandalous, but contemporary evidence shows that Nero was hardly the first young man of good family to take part in public performances.

No doubt Nero thought of himself as a great artist – and the curators emphasise that he put a lot of time and energy into learning the play the cithara, or lyre, to professional standard – but his performances may also a political motivation, reaching out to the crowd, the plebs, the common people, showing he was one of them and enjoyed popular entertainment; part of his ongoing attempts to create and maintain a popular power base to balance the ever-present threat from the disapproving aristocracy. Again I think of Charles II, never really confident of his throne…

Nero created a group of supporters, the Augustiani which comprised knights and commoners alike, young men who accompanied Nero’s performances with rhythmic clapping and chants, steering the reactions of the audience. Not content to leave it at that, the curators have actually created a one-minute long aural recreation of these roisterers cheering and chanting in Latin, which plays from speakers directly above the theatre frescos.

In one of the show’s smaller pleasures, there’s a six-inch-high ivory carving of a Roman actor in the middle of a tragic performance. His pose and gestures are theatrical, you can see his face behind the stylised mask they all wore, but what was news to me was that the actors wore raised platform shoes called cothurni. He looks like a member of a Glam Rock band (admittedly, wearing a toga).

Relics of the Great Fire of Rome

One of the defining moments of Nero’s reign was the Great Fire of Rome in AD 64, which burned for nine days and laid waste to large parts of the city. Excavations in recent years have revealed the true extent of the ferocity and impact of the fire. As you might expect the exhibition includes a bit of peppy son-et-lumiere, with flickering red flames licking around a map of the city blocks affected with sound affects of a Big Fire. The prime exhibit is a big iron window grating, discovered near the Circus Maximus, which was twisted and warped by the fire’s intense heat.

As mentioned, Nero was for centuries blamed for the fire and not doing enough to quench it. Nowadays, opinion is that Nero a) was not even in Rome when it occurred b) took prompt steps to both rehouse those made homeless, but to rebuild Rome bigger and better.

The Domus Aurea

The exhibition devotes an entire section to the centrepiece of Nero’s building a new palace called Domus Aurea or Golden House. It shows us photographs of the surviving rooms, corridors and halls and displays fragments of the luxury frescoes and wall decorations which adorned it.

Fresco fragments from the Domus Aurea, Italy (AD 64 to 68) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The elaborate designs and the use of precious materials such as exotic marbles, cinnabar and gold speak to the height of imperial luxury. Another display case shows a selection of silver cutlery, plates and mirrors, all top luxury items. It’s all housed in a distinct setting which is, unlike the rest of the exhibition, bright and well lit, to subliminally give us the impression that we have entered the villa itself. Clever.

Conclusion

The curators argue that the conclusion to be drawn from this wide survey of the archaeological evidence is that Nero was not the merciless, matricidal maniac of legend; that the physical evidence gathered here suggests, on the contrary, that Nero was widely admired among ordinary Romans due to his popular policies, his funding of and participation in extravagant games, his grand building projects, even his popular haircut, and that he remained popular, notably in the East of the Empire, long after his death.

In this version, the Domus Aurea was vast but large parts of it were open to the public. The great fire certainly happened but far from fiddling, Nero organised the rescue and rehousing of much of the population.

So the infamous legend which went down to posterity is the product of authors representing the view of the later Roman ruling classes and Senatorial factions who triumphed in the civil war which immediately followed his death.

Do I buy this new revisionist version? Difficult to say, maybe impossible for anyone who isn’t a real scholar of the times, and even the historians themselves (as so often) seem to disagree.

What I think is clear is that by the end of this huge and sumptuous exhibition, the narrow question ‘Nero: Man or Monster’ has been superseded by the awesomely wide-ranging and thought-provoking variety of artefacts on show, which inform you about all aspects of a society which was so completely, almost incomprehensibly, unlike our own. This is a really great exhibition.

Marble portrait of Nero, Italy (AD 64–68). Photo by Renate Kühling. Courtesy of State Collections of Antiquities and Glyptothek, Munich

This portrait dates to the last years of Nero’s reign. It was probably created to mark his 10-year anniversary as emperor. Nero’s forehead is framed by a row of curls and his hair is worn long, intended to convey a sense of vigour, refinement and god-like beauty. Contemporary poetry likened Nero to Apollo and Mars. His elaborate hairstyle set a new trend that remained fashionable for decades.

BC and AD

I thought that some time ago we all adopted the terms BCE and CE denoting ‘Before the Common Era’ and the ‘Common Era’ to replaced BC and AD, which were seen as too Christian, Eurocentric and uninclusive. So I was surprised to see BC and AD used universally throughout the exhibition.

BP and the BM

Odd that the British Museum which hurries, like all other museums and galleries, to keep up to date with woke imperatives about diversity and inclusion, which in its wall labels and official pronouncements is hyper-sensitive to issues of race and gender, is tone deaf to the greatest single issue of our times, climate change, and so continues to allow exhibitions to be sponsored by the multinational, fossil fuel-promoting corporation BP.

Ironic that an exhibition about the emperor who fiddled while Rome burned is supported by a corporation which is helping the planet to burn.


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

Under Cover: A Secret History Of Cross-Dressers @ the Photographers’ Gallery

The Photographer’s Gallery is a tall, narrow building on a corner of Ramillies Street (numbers 16-18, to be precise) just behind Oxford Street, a hundred yards east of Oxford Circus. It’s an enjoyable maze, with exhibition spaces on the 5th, 4th and 3rd floors, a café on the ground floor and a shop of photography books and film cameras in the basement.

Under Cover: A Secret History Of Cross-Dressers

I came to see the large exhibition of rare vintage photos of men and women cross-dressing, entitled Under Cover.

The exhibition is drawn from the personal archives of French film-maker and photograph collector Sébastien Lifshitz. For over 20 years he’s been building up an extensive collection of amateur photographs from Europe and the US documenting the surprisingly widespread practice of adult cross-dressing. The very earliest photos are from the 1860s and the collection goes on through to the 1960s.

Man in makeup wearing a ring. Photograph from a photo booth, with highlights of color. United States, circa 1920.© Sébastien Lifshitz Collection courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

Man in makeup wearing a ring. Photograph from a photo booth, with highlights of color. United States, circa 1920.© Sébastien Lifshitz Collection courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

The photos are all ‘found’ – meaning none were commissioned or taken by Lifshitz, but are largely anonymous photos of unnamed and unknown figures which he has picked up at flea markets, garage sales, junk shops and on Ebay, among other non-specialist sources. As the exhibition introduction puts it:

These photographs of men and women posing for the camera, using the clothes and gestures traditionally assigned to the ‘opposite sex’ offer a moving and candid view into the hidden worlds of countless individuals and groups who chose to ‘defy gender conventions.’

Lifshitz’s initial impulse was simply to document the act of cross-dressing, limiting his aim to accumulating photographs which showed men dressing as women and vice versa.

But as the collection grew, he began to detect different themes among the images, themes which began to suggest more interesting ways of categorising and explaining cross-dressing culture.

A group of 12 cross-dressing women in America, 1912

A group of twelve cross-dressing women in America, 1912

The historical prevalence of cross-dressing

I’m not all that surprised that lots of men have enjoyed dressing up as women because I was raised on the TV sitcoms It Ain’t Half Hot, MumThe Dick Emery Show and the Kenny Everett Show in which men routinely dressed up as women, albeit for comedic purposes.

Drag queen Danny La Rue was all over the telly in my boyhood. He was awarded an OBE. Later on came the popular success of Lily Savage and the ongoing career of her creator, Paul O’Grady, who was awarded an MBE in 2008. Somewhere in between was Julian Clary who dresses fairly modestly now but was on TV throughout the 1980s wearing in the most outrageous outfits.

As a teenager I read biographies of Oscar Wilde and his gay circle which included cross-dressers. Also accounts of the ‘decadent’ Paris of the Second Empire or the ‘decadent’ Germany of the Weimar Republic, where men dressed as woman, wore lipstick and so on, and women wore men’s clothes, smoked cigarettes. And so on and so on.

In fact it’s a strange thing about the present generation of art curators that they sometimes give the impression of thinking that they’ve invented ‘deviant’ sex – homosexuality, bisexuality and all manner of other sexual practices – as if all these things are somehow new or can ‘only now’ be brought to public attention. This ‘now it can be told’ tone was also apparent in the recent exhibitions of Queer Art at Tate Britain and Outsider Art (featuring plenty of transvestites and transsexuals) at the Barbican.

As if there aren’t records of this kind of thing happening among the ancient Greeks or among the Romans, as if we don’t have records of it in Hindu and Moghul societies, as if Shakespeare’s comedies aren’t packed with cross-dressing gender ambivalence, or as if playing with gender roles hasn’t even been recorded among tribal societies. My point is that there is good evidence for so-called ‘deviant’ sexuality having been a permanent feature of the human race for as long as we have records.

  • From Sappho to Sand: Historical Perspective on Crossdressing and Cross Gender (1981) This paper reviews the history of cross-dressing, commencing with the Great Mother Cult through the Greco-Roman period and Judeo-Christian times, followed by the Renaissance period up to the 19th century to illustrate that cross-gender behaviour and cross-dressing are not new phenomena but have been present since the beginning of recorded history.

What, I suppose, is new about this treasure trove of material which Sébastien Lifshitz has collected is not the fact of extensive cross-dressing – it is that it has been so extensively documented in photographs.

The photographs provide a treasure trove of incontrovertible visual evidence, as opposed to all previous accounts which are based on the more slender and unreliable evidence of written records, anecdote, autobiography etc.

What photography does that written journalism or history or ethnography can’t is to say Here we are: we were real people, we had lives like you, we were short and tall and fat and thin and had freckles and spots and imperfections, we were flesh and blood like you and this is what we liked to do. You can’t deny or block or repress us. We were here and this world is our world, too.

Themes and chapters

The most interesting thing about the exhibition is not the news that for hundreds of years men have liked dressing up as women and women dressing up as men. That in itself is boring. What I found fascinating was the themes or areas into which Lifshitz divides his material.

There are about a dozen of them, each introduced by a lengthy wall label and they are as well-ordered and thoughtful as the chapters of a book.  They include ‘the New Woman’, cross-dressing in prison camps, cross-dressing in cabarets and vaudeville, the phenomenon of ‘drag queens’, cross-dressing in turn-of-the-century in American universities, in circus and travelling shows, and many more.

Cross-dressing prisoners of war

It’s the specificity of many of these sub-sets which grabs the attention. Thus anyone who didn’t realise there is a great deal of homosexual activity in any army is naive, but a wall of photos here demonstrate the existence of cross-dressing cabarets in prisoner of war camps during both the First and Second World Wars, surely a very specialised category of activity and image. It is extraordinary that prisoners were allowed to take photos of each other dressed up, and that so many of these images have survived.

French prisoners of war in the German camp Königsbrück circa 1915 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

French prisoners of war in the German prisoner of war camp Königsbrück circa 1915 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

Not a job for a woman

A section deals with the backlash against the ‘New Woman’, a term coined to describe a new vogue for independent and assertive (generally upper-class) women in the 1890s.

The usual type of panic-stricken cultural conservative predicted that if women started taking up masculine habits and activities they would soon stop menstruating, become infertile and Western civilisation would grind to a halt. You can read this kind of thing in any number of histories of feminism.

Lifshitz has found various photos which are designed as a satire on this fashion. They show women posing in the costumes of traditionally ‘male’ roles (the army etc) and are designed to show how ridiculous it is for women to do the work of men – but done in a comically stylish way which suggests the photographer was taking the mickey out of the conservative critics as much as the women. The sequence is titled ‘Women of the Future’.

Women of the Future © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Women of the Future © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

It’s a tiny window on the past and its popular prejudices, but also shows photographers and their audience quite capable of joking about the subject, about traditional gender roles and their ‘subversion’.

Cross-dressing weddings

Apparently, cross dressing was fairly common on women-only university campuses in America in the last decades of the nineteenth century. There were clubs in which women could openly wear mannish dress. What I’d never heard of before is that there was a fashion for carrying out wedding ceremonies with an all-female cast, many of whom – well, at least the groom – were dressed as men.

Mock wedding, United States, circa 1900 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Mock wedding, United States, circa 1900 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Were these a preparation for ‘adult’ life and marriage, or an odd fashion, or a satire on heterosexual norms?

The more of these sub-sets or sub-types of cross-dressing which Lifshitz presents, the more you realise that this apparently simple topic in fact covers or brings together a surprisingly diverse range of activities, attitudes and motives.

The nineteenth century growth of bourgeois conformity

Just to step back and remind ourselves of a little social history. The mid- and later-19th century saw a hardening of gender roles and stereotypes, and a concomitant a loss of psychological and sexual flexibility.

The flamboyant costumes which men commonly wore in the 16th, 17th and 18th century and which had endured into the Regency society which young princess Victoria grew up in – all those silks, ribbons, ruffs and bows – were steadily dropped as the century progressed in favour of increasingly plain, black, stiff and constricting clothes for men, and absurdly big, complex skirts with baffles and corsets, for women.

One of the complaints against Tory Party leader and Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli was that he dressed, oiled his hair and perfumed himself like the fashionable dandy which he’d been in the 1830s, long into the 1870s when such looks and behaviour had become frowned upon.

It is only in this particular historical context, in the setting of an increasingly ‘bourgeois’ concern for strict conformity to repressive social appearances, that all manner of previous types of ‘dressing up’ increasingly came to be seen as unfashionable, then undesirable, and then began to be perceived as a threat to social norms and conventions.

Why did all this happen? The conventional explanation is that the industrial revolution made life harder, more embattled and more intense for everyone, and that this was reflected in increasingly repressive cultural and social norms.

In the 18th century there had been the landowner who occasionally came up to Town and saw a small circle of bankers or courtiers, but mostly lived in reasonable agreement with the labourers who worked his land.

All this changed and kept on changing relentlessly throughout the 19th century as the new system of factories and industrialisation swept across the country. This turned rural labourers into an embittered and impoverished urban proletariat living in hastily thrown up terraced hovels, who periodically threatened to march on London or overthrow the entire political order.

In parallel was created a new class of arriviste factory owners who took advantage of their new-found wealth to try to and compete with the land-owning aristocracy in terms of lifestyle and attitude, but nervously aware of the fragility of their wealth and status.

All the classes of Britain felt more threatened and insecure. Britain had more wealth than ever before, but for many (many businessmen, factory owners and the bankers who served them) their wealth was more precarious that the wealth generated from land – as demonstrated by successive economic depressions and banking crashes through the later 19th century. These periodic economic depressions led to the steady sequence of violent socialist revolutions on continental Europe (for example, in France in 1848 and 1870) which put the fear of God into the English bourgeoisie.

In this socio-economic context, culture was permeated by a permanent anxiety, a dread that the existing state of affairs could easily collapse, from any number of causes. (I haven’t mentioned the dark cloud of anxiety created by the writings of Thomas Malthus who speculated that, if unchecked, the poorest of the poor would breed like rabbits and swamp society in illiterate thugs – yet another source for the widespread conviction that the uncontrollable sex instinct must be bridled, restricted and channelled into only the most strict, state-endorsed practices.)

And so the upper sections of society policed their own behaviour with ever-increasing anxiety that any lapse from the impeccably high standards of behaviour they set themselves might be it, the crack, the first tremor of the great social apocalypse they all feared.

The stress and anxiety about sexual deviation which had built up throughout the century into a permanent neurosis helps to explain the viciousness of the gaol sentence given to Oscar Wilde for homosexual behaviour (two years hard labour) since the judge and his class felt that an example must be made to terrify all other homosexuals into abandoning a practice which, according to their history books, had accompanied the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

Imperial dressing up

Speaking of empires, it might be illuminating to take a detour to the big exhibition about the British Empire and Artists which Tate Britain held a few years ago.

This had a section about imperialists dressing up. It made the point that throughout the 18th century and the first half of the nineteenth century, British men, in particular, had a fancy for ‘going native’ and dressing up in the costumes of their colonial subjects. Take, for example, this image of Captain Colin Mackenzie of the Madras Army, wearing traditional Afghan Dress, by the painter James Sant (1842).

Captain Colin Mackenzie of the Madras Army, lately a hostage in Caubool, in his Afghan Dress (1842) by James Sant

Captain Colin Mackenzie of the Madras Army, lately a hostage in Caubool, in his Afghan Dress (1842) by James Sant (Tate Britain)

But the Indian Mutiny (or the First War of Independence as Indian historians call it) of 1857 changed all this. It introduced a new note of bitterness between ruler and ruled. After the British Government took over direct rule of India from the East India Company it enforced far more strict divisions between ‘natives’ and their colonial masters, divisions which, within a generation, had hardened into unbreakable taboos.

My point is that it wasn’t only in the realm of ‘sexuality’ that people (generally well-off, well-educated people) who had once felt free to dress up as natives or women or generally amuse themselves in fancy costumes, felt themselves, in the second half of the nineteenth century, increasingly constricted in all aspects of their behaviour. It became wise to keep quiet about their little hobby or fetish.

The strictness of the taboo reflected the profundity of the anxiety – the anxiety widespread among the ruling, law-making and judging classes that one millimetre of flexibility around these issues of ‘correct’ behaviour would open cracks and fissures, which would quickly see all the ‘civilised’ values of society snap and unravel, the natives throw off their imperial masters, the great mass of impoverished proles rise up and overthrow their frock-coated masters – just as the barbarians had overthrown Rome once it abandoned the high moral principles of the republic and declined into the Tiberius-Caligula-Nero decadence of the empire.

Dressing up, wearing lipstick – isn’t that precisely what the Emperor Nero had done!

More cross-dressing

Back to the exhibition, which continues to entertain and provoke by demonstrating the wide variety of meanings cross dressing can have.

Transvestite entertainers

Take the enormous subject of cross-dressing entertainers. The wall label usefully distinguishes between men dressing as women to entertain and the far more flamboyant tradition of burlesque, which is characterised not just by women dressing as men, but by the outrageous exaggeration of ‘female’ qualities of grandstanding, elaborate dress, vamped-up make-up and so on.

The exhibition has several sets of photos of entertainers from way back at the start of the 20th century, showing how simple, naive and innocent an activity men dressing as women can seem.

Five performers on a platform. Albumen print, Hungary, circa 1900 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Five performers on a platform. Albumen print, Hungary, circa 1900 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

It describes the different forms these entertainments took in different countries, from vaudeville, burlesque and music hall at the turn of the century, on to nightclubs and revue bars between the wars.

But the sweet innocence of the turn-of-the-century is a world away, in style, glamour and bombast, from the really outrageously flamboyant cross-dressing entertainers of the 1950s onwards, a hugely popular form of entertainment in post-War Germany and France, which in England was named ‘drag’ – hence ‘drag queens’ – which continued in English popular entertainment down to my day.

Straight or gay?

Not all these men need have been gay. Many cross-dressers have been happily heterosexual but just enjoyed dressing up as women. There is, quite obviously and supported by the evidence here, a spectrum of cross-dressing behaviours and motivations, from essentially straight men who just liked slipping into a comfortable floral dress and putting on a bit of lippy – all the way to the experience of transgender men who feel from puberty or even earlier that they are inhabiting a body of the wrong gender, and so have gone to various lengths to try and transition to the other gender.

Transgender

On this theme of tansgender – the story of Marie-Pierre Pruvot (born Jean-Pierre Pruvot, 11 November 1935) takes up a couple of walls but is well worth it.

Born a male in Algeria, Marie-Pierre became a French transsexual woman who performed under the stage name ‘Bambi’. Bambi was famous enough by 1959 to be the subject of a TV documentary. When her performing days were over she studied for a degree from the Sorbonne and became a teacher of literature in 1974.

There are several walls full of photos of her here because Lifshitz made an award-winning documentary about her in 2013. There’s no doubting that in her prime she was gorgeous, in that glamorous late 50s, early 60s way.

Bambi (Marie-Pierre Pruvot) in the early 1960s

Bambi (Marie-Pierre Pruvot) in the early 1960s

Bambi undertook her own gender reassignment in an amateur way, buying over the counter hormones, until she had enough money to arrange an operation and help from medical professionals. There are several photos of her nude showing well-formed ‘female’ breasts. She didn’t just want to dress as a woman; she wanted to become a woman.

My point is that the transgender experience of wanting to become another sex is completely different:

  • from the heterosexual who likes dressing up as the opposite sex, for a while, as a hobby or fetish
  • from the homosexual who is likewise happy in his or her own skin, but as part of their character or as occasional role-playing likes dressing mannishly or femininely
  • from the homosexual who makes a living as a flamboyant drag queen

The Washington cross-dressers

Off to one side is a room which exhibits what seem to be the photos taken and shared among a network of rather boring, homely men who lived in 1950s Washington D.C., and who liked to dress up as rather boring, homely women and meet up at each other’s houses for parties – as recorded in a trove of photos Lifshitz has come into possession of and puts on display here.

Nothing loud or garish about it. The opposite. Rather humdrum. ‘Hello Mr Peters’, ‘Hello Mr Philips’ – except that the men passing the time of the day are wearing tasteful 1950s dresses with matching handbags.

Washington cross-dressers © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Washington cross-dressers © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

This sequence immediately reminded me of the section at the Barbican exhibition about the Casa Susanna, a retreat in the Catskill Mountains of New York state, created solely for cross-dressing men.

The more you look, the more you see.

Women dressing as men

As to women dressing as men, some were famous lesbians who made a point of their mannish attire – I can think of a number of Weimar portraits of such aggressively masculine women who cultivated a louche bohemian image.

Portrait of the journalist Sylvia von Harden by Otto Dix (1926)

Portrait of the journalist Sylvia von Harden by Otto Dix (1926)

But for everyone one of these ‘notorious’ literary or artistic figures, there must have been thousands of essentially ‘straight’ women at American campuses who enjoyed dressing up as men (apparently). And then millions and millions of women who were in no way homosexual but just rebelled against wearing the ridiculously encumbering outfits society had assigned to their gender at the turn of the twentieth century, and so – without ceasing to be heterosexual women – just wore more practical, less ‘feminine’ clothes.

What I’m struggling to say is that, the more you look at these photos and the more you study Lifshitz’s fascinating wall labels which draw distinctions and categories and types and flavours of cross-dressing, the more you realise that this apparently ‘simple’ activity has in fact been carried out by a staggeringly wide variety of people, over a long period of time, and for all kinds of reasons, from trivial game-playing to profound identity crisis, from student high jinks to being the basis for a prime-time television career.

The photos

The long section on Bambi is a bit of a spoiler, really, because not many of the other people on display here are quite as drop-dead gorgeous as her.

In this respect the photos serve as a reminder (like most other collections of historic photos) of the way in which sitters for photographs (and the photographers themselves) have become steadily more savvy, more stylish, more self-aware, from the embarrassing lumpishness of 1900 –

Burlesque comedian Crun-Crun in Avignon, France, 1900, courtesy of Sebastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

Burlesque comedian Crun-Crun in Avignon, France, 1900, courtesy of Sebastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

to the knowing, rebel fagginess of the 1960s.

Man dressed as a woman, Mannheim, Germany, c.1960, courtesy of Sebastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

Man dressed as a woman, Mannheim, Germany, c.1960, courtesy of Sebastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

This latter photograph could have been taken today, a reminder that the world changed out of all recognition in the 60 years from 1900 to 1960, from the Boer War to the Beatles, whereas in the sixty years since then most aspects of culture – sex and drugs and rock and roll, package holidays, blockbuster movies and the ‘rebel’ look – have remained surprisingly static.

Interview with Sébastien Lifshitz

P.S. Size isn’t everything

Contrary to the impression given by the reproductions above, all of the images are quite small, certainly none of them are poster-size or painting size. The biggest ones are postcard-size being themselves old prints made from photographic film in the old-fashioned way.

Some are even smaller than that – there are whole walls of images no more than a few inches wide: for example, the iconic image of the man wearing lipstick at the top of this review is in reality only a few inches across and you have to lean right in to see it properly.

Installation view of Under Cover at the Photographers' Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Under Cover at the Photographers’ Gallery (photo by the author)

Somehow this makes the images seem all the more rare and precious. Not commercially-made images capable of being blown up and sensationalised, but hundreds of small, often intimate, snapshots of secret lives, secret pleasures, secret wishes and secret fantasies, preserved in this fragile format to come back and haunt our brasher, more loudmouth age.

P.S. Floof yourself

A room to one side of the exhibition contains a big fabric blob covered in felt stick-on glasses, beards, moustaches and so on. To quote the instructions:

“Soof the Floof is a genderless, gelatinous, hairy little blob. This installation invites visitors to question ideas of gender, how wear gender, how we can subvert, deconstruct and reimagine gender. Soof the Floof is large felt Floof with felt props you can mix and match and playfully challenge ideas of gender.”

The room was empty. Shame. I’d have liked to watch some gender subversion in action.

Instructions on how to floof yourself

Instructions on how to floof yourself


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