Juvenal Satires

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

Potted biography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter Green’s introduction

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

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

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

Rentier ideology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Money

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

Patron and client

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

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

Business

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

Sex

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

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

Immigrants

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

Freedmen

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

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

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

Bad literature

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

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

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

Solutions?

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

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

Philosophy

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

An unstructured torrent of bile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Juvenal’s style

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

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

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

The 16 satires

Book 1

Satire 1: A justification for satire (171 lines)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, even among the dead Rome stands dishonoured.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is dinner worth every insult which you pay for it?

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

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

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

Book 2

Satire 6: Don’t marry (661 lines)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What good are family trees?

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

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

And:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Satire 12: A storm at sea (130 lines)

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

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

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

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

Book 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Satire 15: In praise of kindness (174 lines)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Common tropes

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

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

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

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

Thoughts

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

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

Summary

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

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

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

Useless natural history

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

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

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

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

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

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


Credit

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

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The Life of Domitian by Suetonius

A sub-edited version of the 1914 Loeb Classical Library translation of Suetonius’s Life of Domitian by J.C. Rolfe, with comments and clarifications.

Summary of Domitian’s life (from Wikipedia)

Domitianus (Domitian) lived from 51 to 96 AD and reigned as Roman emperor from 81 to 96. The son of Vespasian and the younger brother of Titus, his two predecessors on the throne, he was the third and final member of the Flavian dynasty. Domitian’s authoritarian style of ruling put him at odds with the senate, whose powers he drastically curtailed.

Domitian had an early moment of prominence in the Year of Four Emperors, 69 AD, aged just 18, after Vitellius was assassinated and before Vespasian arrived in Rome to take power, when he was acclaimed ‘Caesar’ and nominally ran the government. Once Vespasian arrived in Rome and was enthroned, though, Domitian reverted to playing a minor and largely ceremonial role during the reigns of his father and brother.

After Titus died on 13 September 81, Domitian was declared emperor by the Praetorian Guard. His 15-year reign was to be the longest since that of Tiberius. As emperor, Domitian:

  • strengthened the economy by revaluing the Roman coinage
  • expanded the border defences of the empire
  • initiated a massive building program to restore the damaged city of Rome

Significant wars were fought in Britain, where his general Agricola attempted to conquer Caledonia (Scotland), and in Dacia, where Domitian was unable to secure a decisive victory against King Decebalus.

Domitian’s government exhibited strong authoritarian characteristics. Religious, military, and cultural propaganda fostered a cult of personality. He nominated himself perpetual censor in an effort to control public and private morals.

As a result Domitian was popular with the people and the army but considered a tyrant by members of the senate. Domitian’s reign came to an end in 96 when he was assassinated by court officials. He was succeeded the same day by his advisor, Nerva.

After his death Domitian’s memory was condemned to oblivion by the Senate while senatorial and equestrian authors such as Tacitus, Pliny the Younger and Suetonius propagated the view of Domitian as a cruel and paranoid tyrant. The later part of his rule was regularly described as a ‘tyranny’. (In the Penguin translation of the Epigrams of Martial, Peter Howell says that in his day, 1964, Domitian had a reputation little short of Hitler’s for evil tyranny.)

Modern revisionists have characterised Domitian as a ruthless but efficient autocrat whose cultural, economic and political programs laid the foundation of the peaceful second century.

The Life of Domitian by Suetonius

(1) Domitian was born on the ninth day before the Kalends of November [24 October] of the year when his father was consul elect and was about to enter on the office in the following month [51 AD] in a street of the sixth region called ‘the Pomegranate’, in a house which he afterwards converted into a temple of the Flavian family.

Domitian is said to have passed the period of his boyhood and early youth in great poverty and infamy for it is said that he did not possess a single piece of plate.

It is a well-known fact that Claudius Pollio, a man of praetorian rank, against whom Nero’s poem ‘The One-eyed Man’ is directed, preserved a letter in Domitian’s handwriting and sometimes exhibited it, in which the future emperor promised him an assignation [i.e. sex]. And some people claim that Domitian was also debauched [i.e. abused] by Nerva, who succeeded him.

In the war with Vitellius Domitian took refuge in the Capitol with his paternal uncle, Sabinus, and a part of the forces under him. When Vitellius’s forces stormed the hill and the temple of Jupiter was set alight, Domitian hid during the night with the guardian of the shrine. In the morning, disguised in the tunic of a follower of Isis​ and mingling with the priests of that fickle superstition, he went across the Tiber with a single companion to the mother of one of his school-fellows. There he was so effectually concealed that, although he was closely followed he could not be found, in spite of a thorough search. [For more on this episode, see Tacitus’s Histories.]

It was only after the Flavian forces took Rome that Domitian ventured out. After being hailed as ‘Caesar’,​ he assumed the office of city praetor with consular powers, but only in name, turning over all the judicial business to his next colleague.

Domitian exercised all the tyranny of his high position​ (i.e. son of the emperor) so lawlessly that it was even then apparent what sort of a man he was going to be. For example, after making free with the wives of many men, he went so far as to marry Domitia Longina who was the wife of Aelius Lamia. And in a single day he assigned more than twenty positions in the city and in the provinces, which led Vespasian to say more than once that he was surprised that his son did not appoint the emperor’s successor along with the rest.

(2) Domitian began an expedition against Gaul and the Germanies which was uncalled for and from which his father’s friends dissuaded him, simply to make himself equal to his brother Titus in power and rank. For this he was reprimanded and, to give him a better realisation of his youth​ (aged 18) and position, he was made to live with his father. When they appeared in public Domitian followed the emperor’s chair and that of his brother in a litter. He also attended their triumph over Judaea riding on a white horse. Of his six consul­ships before he became emperor only one was a regular one,​ and he obtained that only because his brother gave place to him and recommended his appointment.

Domitian made a pretence of modesty and especially of an interest in poetry, an art which had previously been as unfamiliar to him as it was later despised and rejected, and he even gave readings in public.

Yet in spite of all this, when Vologaesus, king of the Parthians, had asked for auxiliaries against the Alani and for one of Vespasian’s sons as their leader, Domitian made every effort to have himself sent rather than Titus and, when the affair came to nothing, he tried by gifts and promises to induce other eastern kings to make the same request.

On the death of his father and his older brother, Titus, succeeding, Domitian hesitated for some time whether to offer a largess​ to the soldiers twice as large as the one his brother gave. He often said that he had been left a partner in the imperial power [i.e. alongside his brother] but that the will had been tampered with.​

And from that time on he never ceased to plot against his brother secretly and openly, until Titus was seized with a dangerous illness whereupon Domitian ordered that he be left for dead before he had actually drawn his last breath. And after Titus’s death Domitian bestowed no honour upon him, save that of deification, and he often attacked his memory in ambiguous phrases, both in his speeches and in his edicts.

(3) At the beginning of his reign Domitian used to spend hours in seclusion every day, doing nothing but catch flies and stab them with a keenly-sharpened stylus. Consequently, when someone once asked whether anyone was in there with Caesar, Vibius Crispus made the witty reply, ‘Not even a fly.’

He had his wife Domitia honoured with the title ‘Augusta’. He had had a son by her in his second consulship, whom he lost the second year after he became emperor. He divorced her because of her love for the actor, Paris, but could not bear the separation and soon took her back, alleging that the people demanded it. [It was for lampooning this actor, Paris, that the satirist Juvenal was, according to some biographies, exiled to Egypt.]

In his administration of the government Domitian for some time showed himself inconsistent, with about an equal number of virtues and vices, but eventually he turned the virtues into vices. For so far as one may guess, it was contrary to his natural disposition​ but he was made rapacious through need and cruel through fear.

(4) Domitian constantly gave grand costly entertainments, both in the amphitheatre​ and in the Circus, where in addition to the usual races between two-horse and four-horse chariots, he also exhibited two battles, one between forces of infantry and the other by horsemen, and he even gave a naval battle in the amphitheatre.

As well as these, he gave hunts of wild beasts, gladiatorial shows at night by the light of torches, and not only combats between men but between women as well. He was always present, too, at the games given by the quaestors, which he revived after they had been abandoned for some time, and invariably granted the people the privilege of calling for two pairs of gladiators from his own school, and brought them in last, in all the splendour of the court.

During the whole of every gladiatorial show there always stood at his feet a small boy clad in scarlet, with an abnormally small head, with whom he used to talk a great deal, and sometimes seriously. At any rate, he was overheard to ask him if he knew why he had decided at the last appointment day to make Mettius Rufus prefect of Egypt.

He often gave sea-fights almost with regular fleets, having dug a lake near the Tiber and surrounded it with seats. He continued to witness the contests even in heavy rains.

Domitian also celebrated the Secular games reckoning the time, not according to the year when Claudius had last given them, but by the previous calculation of Augustus. In the course of these, to make it possible to finish a hundred races on the day of contests in the Circus, he diminished the number of laps from seven to five.

Domitian also established a quinquennial contest in honour of Jupiter Capitolinus of a threefold character, comprising music, riding, and gymnastics, and with considerably more prizes than are awarded nowadays. For there were competitions in prose declamation​ both in Greek and in Latin, between lyre-players, between choruses of such players and in the lyre alone without singing. In the stadium there were races even between women.

Domitian presided at the competitions in half-boots, clad in a purple toga in the Greek fashion, and wearing upon his head a golden crown with figures of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva. By his side sat the priest of Jupiter and the college of the Flaviales (established for the worship of the deified Flavian emperors) similarly dressed, except that their crowns bore his image as well.

Domitian celebrated the Quinquatria​ every year in honour of Minerva at his Alban villa, and established for her a college of priests, from which men were chosen by lot to act as officers and give splendid shows of wild beasts and stage plays, besides holding contests in oratory and poetry.

Domitian made a present to the people of three hundred sesterces each on three occasions, and in the course of one of his shows in celebration of the feast of the Seven Hills gave a plenti­ful banquet, distributing large baskets of victuals to the senate and knights and smaller ones to the commons, and he himself was the first to begin to eat. On the following day he scattered gifts of all sorts of things​ to be scrambled for, and since the greater part of these fell where the people sat, he had five hundred tickets thrown into each section occupied by the senatorial and equestrian orders.

(5) Domitian restored many splendid buildings which had been destroyed by fire, among them the Capitolium, which had again been burned [rebuilt after having been burned down in 69, the Capitoline temple was again burned down in 80]. In all cases he gave the new buildings the inscription of his own name only, with no mention of the original builder.

He also built a new temple on the Capitoline hill in honour of Jupiter Custos and the forum which now bears the name of Nerva [who finished and dedicated it]. He had built a temple to the Flavian family, a stadium, an Odeum [or music hall] and a pool for sea-fights.​ From the stone used in this last the Circus Maximus was afterwards rebuilt, when both sides of it had been destroyed by fire.

(6) Domitian’s campaigns he undertook partly without provocation and partly of necessity. That against the Chatti was uncalled for, while the one against the Sarmatians was justified by the destruction of a legion with its commander. He made two against the Dacians, the first when Oppius Sabinus an ex-consul was defeated, and the second on the overthrow of Cornelius Fuscus, prefect of the Praetorian Guard, to whom he had entrusted the conduct of the war. After several battles of varying success he celebrated a double triumph over the Chatti and the Dacians.​ [Tacitus says that Domitian’s unjustified triumph over the Germans (and the Dacians) was a laughing-stock; Agricola, chapter 39.] His victories over the Sarmatians he commemorated merely by the offering of a laurel crown to Jupiter of the Capitol.

A civil war which was set on foot by Lucius Antonius, governor of Upper Germany, was put down in the emperor’s absence by a remarkable stroke of good fortune; for at the very hour of battle the Rhine suddenly thawed and prevented his barbarian allies from crossing over to Antonius. Domitian learned of this victory through omens before he actually had news of it, for on the very day when the decisive battle was fought a magnificent eagle enfolded his statue at Rome with its wings, uttering exultant shrieks. Soon afterwards the report of Antony’s death became so current that several went so far as to claim that they had seen his head brought to Rome.

(7) Domitian made many innovations in common customs. He abolished the distribution of food to the people​ and revived the custom of holding formal dinners.​ He added two factions of drivers in the Circus, with gold and purple as their colours, to the four former ones.​ He forbade the appearance of actors on the stage, but allowed the practice of their art in private houses. He prohibited the castration of males, and kept down the price of the eunuchs that remained in the hands of the slave dealers.

Once, upon the occasion of a plenti­ful wine crop attended with a scarcity of grain, thinking that the fields were neglected through too much attention to the vineyards, he made an edict forbidding anyone to plant more vines in Italy and ordering that the vineyards in the provinces be cut down, or that only half of them should be left standing; but he did not persist in carrying out the measure.​

Domitian opened some of the most important offices of the court​ [i.e. those that had formerly been restricted to the senatorial order] to freedmen and Roman knights.

He prohibited the uniting of two legions in one camp and the deposit of more than 1,000 sesterces by any one soldier at headquarters because it was clear that Lucius Antonius had been especially led to attempt a revolution by the amount of such deposits in the combined winter quarters of two legions.

He increased the pay of the soldiers one fourth, by the addition of three gold pieces each year [i.e. raised the amount from nine to twelve aurei: an aureus contained 100 sesterces.]

(8) Domitian administered justice scrupulously and conscientiously, frequently holding special sittings on the tribunal in the Forum. He rescinded such decisions of the Hundred Judges as were made from interested motives [i.e. to curry favour with the rich or powerful]. He often warned the arbiters​ not to grant claims for freedom made under false pretences. He degraded jurors who accepted bribes, together with all their associates.​

He also induced the tribunes of the commons to prosecute a corrupt aedile for extortion, and to ask the senate to appoint jurors in the case. He took such care to exercise restraint over the city officials and the governors of the provinces, that at no time were they more honest or just, whereas after his time we have seen many of them charged with all manner of offences.

In his role as censor he undertook the correction of public morals. He:

  • put an end to the licence at the theatres, where the general public occupied the seats reserved for the knights
  • did away with the prevailing publication of scurrilous lampoons in which distinguished men and women were attacked, and imposed ignominious penalties on their authors
  • expelled an ex-quaestor from the senate because he was given to acting and dancing
  • deprived notorious women of the use of litters, as well as of the right to receive inheritances and legacies
  • struck the name of a Roman knight from the list of jurors because he had taken back his wife after divorcing her and charging her with adultery
  • condemned several men of both orders, offenders against the Scantinian law
  • the incest of Vestal virgins, condoned even by his father and his brother, he punished severely in divers ways, at first by capital punishment and afterwards in the ancient fashion

For while Domitian allowed the sisters Oculata and Varronilla free choice of the manner of their death and banished their lovers, he later ordered that Cornelia, a chief-vestal who had been acquitted once but after a long interval again arraigned and found guilty, be buried alive and her lovers were beaten to death with rods in the Comitium – with the exception of an ex-praetor whom he allowed to go into exile, because he admitted his guilt while the case was still unsettled and the examination and torture of the witnesses had led to no result.

To protect the gods from being dishonoured with impunity by any sacrilege, Domitian caused a tomb which one of his freedmen had built for his son from stones intended for the temple of Jupiter of the Capitol to be destroyed by the soldiers and the bones and ashes contained in it thrown into the sea.

(9) In the earlier part of his reign Domitian so shrank from any form of bloodshed that while his father was still absent from the city, he planned to issue an edict that no oxen should be offered up, recalling the line of Virgil:

‘Ever yet an impious race did slay and feast upon bullocks.’

He was equally free from any suspicion of love of gain or of avarice, both in private life and for some time after becoming emperor. On the contrary, he often gave strong proofs not merely of integrity, but even of liberality.

He treated all his intimates most generously and there was nothing which he urged them more frequently, or with greater insistence, than that they should be niggardly in none of their acts. He would not accept inheritances left him by those who had children. He even annulled a legacy in the will of Rustus Caepio, who had provided that his heir should yearly pay a specified sum to each of the senators on his entrance into the House.​

He cancelled the suits against those who had been posted as debtors to the public treasury for more than five years and would not allow a renewal except within a year and on the condition that an accuser who did not win his suit should be punished with exile.

Scribes of the quaestors who carried on business, which had become usual although contrary to the Clodian law,​ he pardoned for past offences.

Parcels of land which were left unoccupied here and there after the assignment of lands to the veterans he granted to their former owners as by right of possession. He checked false accusations designed for the profit of the privy purse​ and inflicted severe penalties on offenders, and a saying of his was current, that an emperor who does not punish informers hounds them on.

(10) But Domitian did not continue this course of mercy or integrity, although he turned to cruelty somewhat more speedily than to avarice. He put to death a pupil of the pantomimic actor Paris, who was still a beardless boy and ill at the time, because in his skill and his appearance he seemed not unlike his master [who he had had executed for having an affair with his wife].

He executed Hermogenes of Tarsus because of some allusions in his History, besides crucifying even the slaves who had written it out.

A householder who said that a Thracian gladiator was a match for the murmillo, but not for the giver of the games,​ he caused to be dragged from his seat and thrown into the arena to dogs, with this placard: ‘A favourer of the Thracians who spoke impiously.’

Domitian put to death many senators, among them several ex-consuls, including Civica Cerealis, at the very time when he was proconsul in Asia; Salvidienus Orfitus; Acilius Glabrio while he was in exile — these on the ground of plotting revolution, the rest on any charge, however trivial.

He slew Aelius Lamia for joking remarks, which were reflections on him, it is true, but made long before and harmless. For when Domitian had taken away Lamia’s wife,​ the latter replied to someone who praised his voice: ‘I practise continence’, and when Titus urged him to marry again, he replied: ‘Are you too looking for a wife?’

He put to death:

  • Salvius Cocceianus because he had kept the birthday of the emperor Otho, his paternal uncle
  • Mettius Pompusianus because it was commonly reported that he had an imperial nativity and carried about a map of the world on parchment and speeches of the kings and generals from Titus Livius, besides giving two of his slaves the names of Mago and Hannibal
  • Sallustius Lucullus, governor of Britain, for allowing some lances of a new pattern to be named ‘Lucullean’ after his own name
  • Junius Rusticus because he had published eulogies of Paetus Thrasea and Helvidius Priscus and called them the most upright of men – and on the occasion of this charge he banished all the philosophers from the city and from Italy

He also executed the younger Helvidius, alleging that in a farce composed for the stage he had under the characters of Paris and Oenone censured Domitian’s divorce from his wife. He executed Flavius Sabinus, too, one of his cousins, because on the day of the consular elections the crier had inadvertently announced him to the people as emperor elect, instead of consul.

After his victory in the civil war Domitian became even more cruel and to discover any conspirators who were in hiding, tortured many of the opposite party by a new form of inquisition, inserting fire in their privates, and he cut off the hands of some of them.

Of the more conspicuous only two were pardoned, a tribune of senatorial rank and a centurion, who the more clearly to prove their freedom from guilt, showed that they were of shameless unchastity and could therefore have had no influence with the general or with the soldiers.

(11) Domitian’s savage cruelty was not only excessive, but also cunning and sudden. He invited one of his stewards to his bed-chamber the day before crucifying him, made him sit beside him on his couch, and dismissed him in a secure and gay frame of mind, even deigning to send him a share of his dinner.

When he was on the point of condemning the ex-consul Arrecinius Clemens, one of his intimates and tools, he treated him with as great favour as before, if not greater, and finally, as he was taking a drive with him, catching sight of his accuser he said: ‘Pray, shall we hear this base slave to‑morrow?’

To abuse men’s patience the more insolently, he never pronounced an unusually dreadful sentence without a preliminary declaration of clemency, so that there came to be no more certain indication of a cruel death than the leniency of his preamble.

Domitian had brought some men charged with treason into the senate and when he had introduced the matter by saying that he would find out that day how dear he was to the members, he had no difficulty in causing them to be condemned to suffer the ancient method of punishment.​ Then, appalled at the cruelty of the penalty, he interposed a veto, to lessen the odium, in these words (for it will be of interest to know his exact language): ‘Allow me, Fathers of the senate, to prevail on you by your love for me to grant a favour which I know I shall obtain with difficulty, namely that you allow the condemned men free choice of the manner of their death; for thus you will spare your own eyes and all men will know that I was present at the meeting of the senate.’

(12) Reduced to financial straits by the cost of his buildings and shows, as well as by the additions which he had made to the pay of the soldiers, Domitian tried to lighten the military expenses by diminishing the number of his troops. But perceiving that in this way he exposed himself to the attacks of the barbarians, and nevertheless had difficulty in easing his burdens, he had no hesitation in resorting to every sort of robbery. The property of the living and the dead was seized everywhere on any charge brought by any accuser. It was enough to allege any action or word derogatory to the majesty of the prince.

Estates of those in no way connected with him were confiscated if but one man came forward to declare that he had heard from the deceased during his lifetime that Caesar was his heir.

Besides other taxes, that on the Jews​ [Titus had imposed a tax of two drachmas per head on Jews for permission to practise their religion] was levied with the utmost rigour, and people were prosecuted who, without publicly acknowledging that faith, yet lived as Jews [a possible reference to Christians who the Romans didn’t distinguish from the Jews], as well as those who concealed their origin and did not pay the tribute levied upon their people.​

I recall being present in my youth when the person of a man ninety years old was examined before the procurator and a very crowded court, to see whether he was circumcised.

From his youth Domitian was far from being of an affable disposition, but was on the contrary presumptuous and unbridled both in act and in word. When his father’s concubine Caenis​ returned from Histria and offered to kiss him as usual, he held out his hand to her.

(13) When he became emperor, Domitian did not hesitate to boast in the senate that he had conferred their power on both his father and his brother, and that they had but returned him his own; nor on taking back his wife after their divorce, that he had ‘recalled her to his divine couch’ [meaning the couch which held the household gods].

Domitian delighted to hear the people in the amphitheatre shout on his feast day:​ ‘Good Fortune attend our Lord​ and Mistress.’

Even more, in the Capitoline competition,​ when all the people begged him with great unanimity to restore Palfurius Sura who had been banished some time before from the senate, and on that occasion received the prize for oratory, he deigned no reply, but merely had a crier bid them be silent.

With no less arrogance he began a circular letter in the name of his procurators, ‘Our Master and our God bids that this be done.’ And so the custom arose of henceforth addressing him in no other way even in writing or in conversation.

​He allowed no statues to be set up in his honour in the Capitol, except of gold and silver and of a fixed weight. He erected so many and such huge vaulted passage-ways and arches in the various regions of Rome, adorned with chariots and triumphal emblems, that on one of them someone wrote in Greek: ‘It is enough’ [the Greek word for enough sounds like the Roman word for arch].

Domitian held the consul­ship seventeen times, more often than any of his predecessors. Of these the seven middle ones were in successive years, but all of them he filled in name only, continuing none beyond the first of May and few after the Ides of January. Having assumed the surname Germanicus after his two triumphs, he renamed the months of September and October from his own names, calling them ‘Germanicus’ and ‘Domitianus’, because in the former he had come to the throne and was born in the latter.​

(14) In this way Domitian became an object of terror and hatred to all, but he was overthrown at last by a conspiracy of his friends and favourite freedmen, to which his wife was also privy.

He had long since had a premonition of the last year and day of his life, and even of the very hour and manner of his death. In his youth astrologers had predicted all this to him, and his father once even openly ridiculed him at dinner for refusing mushrooms, saying that he showed himself unaware of his destiny in not rather fearing the sword. Therefore he was at all times timorous and worried, and was disquieted beyond measure by even the slightest suspicions. It is thought that nothing had more effect in inducing him to ignore his proclamation about cutting down the vineyards​ than the circulation of notes containing the following lines:

‘Gnaw at my root, an you will; even then shall I have juice in plenty
To pour upon thee, O goat, when at the altar you stand.’​ [a quote from Ovid’s Fasti]

It was because of this same timorousness that although he was most eager for all such honours, he refused a new one which the senate had devised and offered to him, a decree that whenever he held the consul­ship Roman knights selected by lot should precede him among his lictors and attendants, clad in the trabea​ and bearing lances.

As the time when he anticipated danger drew near, becoming still more anxious every day, he lined the walls of the colonnades in which he used to walk with phengite stone, to be able to see in its brilliant surface the reflection of all that went on behind his back. And he did not give a hearing to any prisoners except in private and alone, even holding their chains in his hands. Further, to convince his household that one must not venture to kill a patron even on good grounds, he condemned Epaphroditus, his confidential secretary, to death, because it was believed that after Nero was abandoned​ Epaphroditus had actually held the dagger with which Nero stabbed himself.

(15) Finally Domitian put to death his own cousin Flavius Clemens, suddenly and on a very slight suspicion, almost before the end of his consul­ship. And yet Flavius was a man of most contemptible laziness and Domitian had openly named his sons, who were then very young, as his successors, changing their former names and calling the one Vespasian and the other Domitian. And it was by this deed in particular that he hastened his own destruction.

For eight successive months so many strokes of lightning occurred and were reported that at last he cried: ‘Well, let him now strike whom they will.’ The temple of Jupiter of the Capitol was struck and that of the Flavian family, as well as the Palace and the emperor’s own bedroom. The inscription on the base of a triumphal statue of his was torn off in a violent tempest and fell upon a neighbouring tomb.​ The tree which had been overthrown when Vespasian was still a private citizen but had sprung up anew suddenly fell down again. Fortune of Praeneste​ had throughout his whole reign, when he commended the new year to her protection, given him a favourable omen and always in the same words. Now at last she returned a most direful omen, not without the mention of bloodshed.

Domitian dreamed that Minerva, whom he worshipped with superstitious veneration, came forth from her shrine and declared that she could no longer protect him since she had been disarmed by Jupiter.

But there was nothing by which he was so much disturbed as a prediction of the astrologer Ascletarion and what befell him. When this man was accused before the emperor and did not deny that he had spoken of certain things which he had foreseen through his art, he was asked what his own end would be. When Ascletarion replied that he would shortly be rent by dogs, Domitian ordered him killed at once but, to prove the fallibility of his art, he ordered that Ascletarion’s funeral be attended to with the greatest care.​ While this was being done, it chanced that the pyre was overset by a sudden storm and that the dogs mangled the corpse, which was only partly consumed. An actor of farces called Latinus, who happened to pass by and see the incident, told it to Domitian at the dinner table, with the rest of the day’s gossip.

(16) The day before he was killed Domitian gave orders to have some apples which were offered to him kept until the following day, and added: ‘If only I am spared to eat them’. Then, turning to his companions, he declared that on the following day the moon would be stained with blood in Aquarius and that a deed would be done of which men would talk all over the world. At about midnight he was so terrified that he leaped from his bed. The next morning he conducted the trial of a soothsayer sent from Germany who, when consulted about the lightning strokes, had foretold a change of rulers and condemned him to death.

While he was vigorously scratching a festered wart on his forehead and had drawn blood, he said: ‘May this be all.’

Then he asked the time, and by pre-arrangement the sixth hour was announced to him, instead of the fifth, which he feared. Filled with joy at this, and believing all danger now past, he was hastening to the bath, when his chamberlain Parthenius changed his purpose by announcing that someone had called about a matter of great moment and would not be put off. Then he dismissed all his attendants and went to his bedroom, where he was slain.

(17) Concerning the nature of the plot and the manner of his death, this is about all that became known. As the conspirators were deliberating when and how to attack him, whether at the bath or at dinner, Stephanus, steward of his niece, Domitilla, and at the time under accusation for embezzlement, offered his aid and counsel.

To avoid suspicion, he wrapped up his left arm in woollen bandages for some days, pretending that he had injured it, and concealed in them a dagger. Then pretending to betray a conspiracy and for that reason being given an audience, he stabbed the emperor in the groin as he was reading a paper which the assassin handed him and stood in a state of amazement.

As the wounded prince attempted to resist, he was slain with seven wounds by Clodianus, a subaltern, Maximus, a freedman of Parthenius, Satur, decurion of the chamberlains, and a gladiator from the imperial school.

A boy who was engaged in his usual duty of attending to the Lares in the bedroom and so was a witness of the murder, gave this additional information. He was bidden by Domitian, immediately after he was dealt the first blow, to hand him the dagger hidden under his pillow and to call the servants. But he found nothing at the head of the bed save the hilt and in any case all the doors were closed.

Meanwhile the emperor grappled with Stephanus and bore him to the ground, where they struggled for a long time, Domitian trying now to wrest the dagger from his assailant’s hands and now to gouge out his eyes with his lacerated fingers.

Domitian was slain on the fourteenth day before the Kalends of October (18 September) in the forty-fifth year of his age and the fifteenth of his reign (96 AD).

His corpse was carried out on a common bier by those who bury the poor, and his nurse Phyllis cremated it at her suburban estate on the Via Latina. But his ashes she secretly carried to the temple of the Flavian family and mingled them with those of Julia, daughter of Titus, whom she had also reared.

(18) Domitian was tall of stature, with a modest expression and a high colour.​ His eyes were large, but his sight was somewhat dim. He was handsome and graceful too, especially when a young man, and in his whole body with the exception of his feet, the toes of which were somewhat cramped. In later life he had the further disfigurement of baldness, a protruding belly, and spindling legs, though the latter had become thin from a long illness.

Domitian was so conscious that the modesty of his expression was in his favour that he once made this boast in the senate: ‘So far, at any rate, you have approved my heart and my countenance.’

He was so sensitive about his baldness that he regarded it as a personal insult if anyone else was twitted with that defect in jest or in earnest.

(19) Domitian was incapable of exertion and seldom went about the city on foot, while on his campaigns and journeys he rarely rode on horseback but was regularly carried in a litter.

He took no interest in arms, but was particularly devoted to archery.​ There are many who have more than once seen him slay a hundred wild beasts of different kinds on his Alban estate, and purposely kill some of them with two successive shots in such a way that the arrows gave the effect of horns. Sometimes he would have a slave stand at a distance and hold out the palm of his right hand for a mark, with the fingers spread; then he directed his arrows with such accuracy that they passed harmlessly between the fingers.

(20) At the beginning of his rule Domitian neglected liberal studies although he provided for having the libraries, which were destroyed by fire, renewed at very great expense, seeking everywhere for copies of the lost works, and sending scribes to Alexandria to transcribe and correct them.

Yet he never took any pains to become acquainted with history or poetry or even to acquire an ordinarily good style.

He read nothing except the memoirs and transactions of Tiberius Caesar. For his letters, speeches and proclamations he relied on others’ talents.

Yet his conversation was not inelegant and some of his sayings were even noteworthy.

‘How I wish that I were as fine looking as Maecius thinks he is.’

He declared too that the head of a certain man, whose hair had changed colour in such a way that it was partly reddish and partly grey, was like ‘snow on which mead had been poured.’

(21) Domitian used to say that the lot of princes was most unhappy, since when they discovered a conspiracy, no one believed them unless they had been killed.​

Whenever he had leisure he amused himself with playing at dice, even on working days and in the morning hours. He went to the bath before the end of the forenoon and lunched to the point of satiety, so that at dinner he rarely took anything except a Matian apple​ and a moderate amount of wine from a jug. He gave numerous and generous banquets, but usually ended them early; in no case did he protract them beyond sunset, or follow them by a drinking bout. In fact, he did nothing until the hour for retiring except walk alone in a retired place.

(22) Domitian was excessively lustful. His constant sexual intercourse he called ‘bed-wrestling’ as if it were a kind of exercise.

It was reported that he depilated his concubines with his own hand and swam with common prostitutes.

After persistently refusing his niece, who was offered him in marriage when she was still a maid, because he was entangled in an intrigue with Domitia, he seduced her shortly afterwards when she became the wife of another, and that too during the lifetime of Titus.

Later, when she was bereft of father and husband, he loved her ardently and without disguise, and even became the cause of her death by compelling her to get rid of a child of his by abortion.

(23) The people received the news of his death with indifference but the soldiers were greatly grieved and at once attempted to call him the Deified Domitian. They insisted on the execution of his murderers.

The senators, on the contrary, were so overjoyed that they raced to fill the House where they did not refrain from attacking the dead emperor with the most insulting and stinging reproaches. They even had ladders brought and his shields​ and images torn down before their eyes and smashed on the ground. Finally they passed a decree that his inscriptions should everywhere be erased and all record of him obliterated.​

A few months before he was killed, a raven perched on the Capitolium and cried ‘All will be well,’ an omen which some interpreted as follows:

‘High on the gable Tarpeian​ a raven but lately alighting,
Could not say “It is well,” only declared “It will be.”‘

Domitian himself, it is said, dreamed that a golden hump grew out on his back, and he regarded this as an infallible sign that the condition of the empire would be happier and more prosperous after his time. And this was soon shown to be true through the uprightness and moderate rule of the emperors who succeeded him.


Related links

Suetonius’s Lives of the Twelve Caesars

Roman reviews

The Life of Vespasian by Suetonius

This is a sub-edited version of the 1914 Loeb Classical Library translation of Suetonius’s Life of Vespasian by J.C. Rolfe, with a few comments of my own.

Summary (from Wikipedia)

Vespasian (9 to 79 AD) reigned as Roman emperor from 69 to 79 AD. The fourth and last emperor who reigned in the Year of the Four Emperors, he founded the Flavian dynasty (consisting of himself and his sons Titus and Domitian) which ruled the Empire for 27 years (69 to 96). His fiscal reforms and consolidation of the empire created political stability, and he undertook a vast Roman building program.

Vespasian was the first emperor from an equestrian family and only rose late in his lifetime into the senatorial rank as the first member of his family to do so. Vespasian’s renown was based on his military success; he was legate of Legio II Augusta during the Roman invasion of Britain in 43 and pacified Judaea during the Jewish rebellion of 66 to 70.

In June 68, while Vespasian was besieging Jerusalem during the Jewish rebellion, Nero committed suicide and plunged Rome into a year of civil war known as the Year of the Four Emperors. After Galba and Otho perished in quick succession, Vitellius became emperor in April 69. The Roman legions of Roman Egypt and Judaea reacted by declaring Vespasian, their commander, emperor on 1 July 69.

In his bid for imperial power, Vespasian joined forces with Gaius Licinius Mucianus, the governor of Syria, and Marcus Antonius Primus, a general in Pannonia, leaving his son Titus to command the besieging forces at Jerusalem. Primus and Mucianus led the Flavian forces against Vitellius in Italy, while Vespasian took control of Egypt. On 24 October 69 Vitellius’ army was defeated at the second Battle of Bedriaticum. It took another 2 months for the Flavian army to march to Rome and take it by storm. During the sack Vitellius was murdered by Vespasian’s soldiers, on 20 December 69, and the following day Vespasian was declared emperor by the Senate.

Little information survives about the government during Vespasian’s ten-year rule. He:

  • brought the campaign in Judaea to a successful conclusion
  • reformed the financial system of Rome
  • initiated several ambitious construction projects, including the building of the Flavian Amphitheatre, better known today as the Roman Colosseum

Through his general, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, Vespasian increased imperial territory in Britain. Vespasian is often credited with restoring political stability to Rome following the chaotic reigns of his predecessors. After he died in 79, he was succeeded by his eldest son Titus, thus becoming the first Roman emperor to be succeeded by his natural son (all the emperors of the preceding Julio-Claudian dynasty had appointed their successors by adoption).

The Life of Vespasian by Suetonius

(1) The empire, which had been unsettled by the usurpation and violent death of four emperors (Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius) was at last taken in hand and given stability by the Flavian family. This house was obscure and without family portraits, yet it was one of which Rome had no reason to be ashamed (even though it is the general opinion that the penalty which Domitian paid for his avarice and cruelty was fully merited [he was to be assassinated in 96]).

Vespasian’s ancestor ,Titus Flavius Petro, a burgher of Reate and during the civil war a centurion or a volunteer veteran​ on Pompey’s side, fled from the field of Pharsalus and went home, where after at last obtaining pardon and an honourable discharge, he carried on the business of a collector of moneys. His son, surnamed Sabinus (although some say that he was an ex-centurion of the first grade; others that while still in command of a cohort he was retired because of ill-health) took no part in military life, but farmed the public tax of a fortieth​ in Asia. [A fortieth was a duty (portorium) of two and a half per cent on imports and exports.] And there existed for some time statues erected in his honour by the cities of Asia, inscribed ‘To an honest tax-gatherer’.

Later Petro carried on a banking business in the Helvetian country and there he died, survived by his wife, Vespasia Polla, and by two of her children, of whom the elder, Sabinus, rose to the rank of prefect of Rome, and the younger, Vespasian, was to become emperor.

Polla, who was born of an honourable family at Nursia, had for father Vespasius Pollio, thrice tribune of the soldiers and prefect of the camp [a position held by tried and skilful officers, especially centurions of the first grade​] while her brother became a senator with the rank of praetor.

There is, on the top of a mountain near the sixth milestone on the road from Nursia to Spoletium, a place called Vespasiae, where many monuments of the Vespasii are to be seen, giving strong proof of the renown and antiquity of the house.​

I ought to add the rumour that Petro’s father came from the region beyond the Po and was a contractor for the day-labourers who come regularly every year from Umbria to the Sabine district, to till the fields, but that he settled in the town of Reate and there married. Personally I have found no evidence for this, in spite of careful investigation.

(2) Vespasian was born in the Sabine country, in a small village beyond Reate, called Falacrina,​ on the evening of the fifteenth day before the Kalends of December [17 November] in the consulate of Quintus Sulpicius Camerinus and Gaius Poppaeus Sabinus, five years before the death of Augustus [9 AD].

He was brought up under the care of his paternal grandmother Tertulla on her estates at Cosa. Even after he became emperor he used to visit the home of his infancy, where the manor house was kept in its original condition and he was so devoted to his grandmother’s memory that on religious and festival days he always drank from a little silver cup that had belonged to her.

After assuming the toga of manhood Vespasian for a long time made no attempt to win the broad stripe of senator, though his brother had gained it, and only his mother could eventually persuade him to bid for it. She at length drove him to it, but by sarcasm rather than entreaties or parental authority, since she constantly taunted him with being his brother’s ‘footman’. [This refers to the anteambulo who was a client who walked before his patron on the street and compelled people to make way for him.]

Vespasian served in Thrace as tribune of the soldiers. As quaestor he was assigned by lot to the province of Crete and Cyrene. He stood as a candidate for the aedile­ship, attaining it only after one defeat and then barely winning sixth place. He then stood for the praetor­ship, and was among the foremost candidates.

In his praetor­ship, Vespasian lost no opportunity of winning the favour of Gaius [Caligula] who was at odds with the senate, by asking for special games to celebrate the emperor’s victory in Germany and recommended as an additional punishment of the conspirators against the emperor, that they be cast out unburied. He also thanked the emperor, before the senate, because he had deigned to honour him with an invitation to dinner.

(3) Vespasian took to wife Flavia Domitilla, formerly the mistress of Statilius Capella, a Roman knight of Sabrata in Africa, a woman originally only of Latin rank. [This was a limited citizen­ship, taking its name from the old Latin cities and varying in different cases and at different times.] Later Flavia was declared a freeborn citizen of Rome in a suit before judges, brought by her father Flavius Liberalis, a native of Ferentum and merely a quaestor’s clerk.

By Flavia Vespasian had three children – two sons who were destined to become emperor after him, Titus and Domitian – and a daughter, Domitilla. Vespasian outlived his wife and daughter; in fact lost them both before he became emperor. After the death of his wife he resumed his relations with Caenis, a freedwoman and amanuensis of Antonia, and formerly his mistress. After he became emperor he treated her almost as a lawful wife.

(4) In the reign of Claudius, Vespasian was sent in command of a legion to Germany, through the influence of Claudius’s freedman and secretary, Narcissus. From there he was transferred to Britain,​ where he fought thirty battles with the enemy.

In Britain he reduced to subjection two power­ful nations, more than twenty towns, and the island of Vectis [the Isle of Wight], partly under the leader­ship of Aulus Plautius, the consular governor, and partly under that of Claudius himself.

For this he received the triumphal regalia and, shortly afterwards, two priesthoods, besides the consulship, which he held for the last two months of the year. The rest of the time up to his proconsulate he spent in rest and retirement, through fear of Agrippina [Claudius’s fourth wife and mother of the emperor Nero], who still had a strong influence over her son and hated any friend of Narcissus, even after the latter’s death.

The administrative lottery then gave him Africa, which he governed with great justice and high honour, save that in a riot at Hadrumetum he was pelted with turnips. Unusually for a Roman governor he returned from the post none the richer, for his credit was so nearly gone that he mortgaged all his estates to his brother, and had to resort to trading in mules​ to keep up his position. [Suetonius’s text refers to him by the slang term mango, which was applied to a dealer in slaves, cattle, or wares which he tried to give an appearance of greater value than they actually possessed. The nickname implies that Vespasian’s trade was in mules.] As a result he became known as ‘the Muleteer.’

He is also said to have been found guilty of squeezing 200,000 sesterces out of a young man for whom he obtained the broad stripe against his father’s wish, and to have been severely rebuked in consequence.

When he accompanied Nero on his tour through Greece, Vespasian bitterly offended the emperor by either leaving the room while Nero was singing, or falling asleep if he remained. He was, as a result, banished, not only from intimacy with the emperor but even from his public receptions, so he withdrew to a little out‑of-the‑way town, until a province and an army were offered him while he was in hiding and in fear of his life.

There had spread over all the Orient an old belief that it was fated at that time for men coming from Judaea to rule the world. The people of Judaea wrongly applied this prophecy to themselves (although, as later became clear, it referred to the future emperor of Rome) and so they revolted and, after killing their governor, routed the consular ruler of Syria as well, when he came to the rescue, and took one of his eagles.

Since putting down this rebellion required a considerable army with a leader of no little enterprise, yet one to whom such great power could be entrusted without risk, Nero chose Vespasian for the task, both as a man of tried energy and one not to be suspected of ambition due to the obscurity of his family and name.

Vespasian added to the forces in Judaea two legions, with eight divisions of cavalry and ten cohorts.​ He took his elder son, Titus, as one of his lieutenants, and as soon as he reached his province he attracted the attention of the neighbouring provinces by the way he at once reformed the discipline of the army. He fought one or two battles with such daring that in the storming of a fortress he was wounded in the knee with a stone and received several arrows in his shield.

(5) While Otho and Vitellius were fighting for the throne in Italy, Vespasian began to cherish the hope of imperial power which he had long nurtured because of the following portents:

  • On the suburban estate of the Flavii an old oak tree, which was sacred to Mars, on each of the three occasions when Vespasia was delivered of a child, suddenly put forth a branch from its trunk – obvious indications of the destiny of each child. The first was slender and quickly withered, and so the girl that was born died within the year; the second branch was strong and long and portended great success; but the third was the image of a tree.
  • Their father Sabinus, so they say, being further encouraged by an inspection of sacrificial victims, announced to his mother that a grandson had been born to her that would one day be a Caesar. But she only laughed, marvelling that her son should already be in his dotage, while she was still of strong mind.
  • Later, when Vespasian was aedile, Gaius Caesar, incensed at his neglect of his duty of cleaning the streets, ordered that he be covered with mud, which the soldiers accordingly heaped into the bosom of his purple-bordered toga. This some interpreted as an omen that one day, in some civil commotion, his country, trampled under foot and forsaken, would come under his protection and, as it were, into his embrace.
  • Once when Vespasian was taking breakfast, a stray dog brought in a human hand from the cross-roads​ and dropped it under the table.​ [The human hand was a symbol of power, and the word manus is often used in the sense of potestas or power.]
  • Again, when he was dining, an ox that was ploughing shook off its yoke, burst into the dining-room and, after scattering the servants, fell at the feet of Vespasian as he reclined at table and bowed its neck as if suddenly tired out.
  • Also, a cypress tree on his grandfather’s farm was torn up by the roots without the agency of any violent storm, then thrown down and, on the following day, rose again greener and stronger than before.
  • Vespasian dreamed in Greece that the beginning of good fortune for himself and his family would come as soon as Nero had a tooth extracted and on the next day it came to pass that a physician walked into the hall​ and showed him a tooth which he had just then taken out.
  • When Vespasian consulted the oracle of the god of Carmel in Judaea, the lots were highly encouraging, promising that whatever he planned or wished, however great it might be, would come to pass. One of his high-born prisoners, Josephus by name, as he was being put in chains, confidently declared that he would soon be released by the same man, who would then become emperor.

Omens were also reported from Rome:

  • Nero in his latter days was admonished in a dream to take the sacred chariot of Jupiter Optimus Maximus from its shrine to the house of Vespasian and from there to the Circus.
  • Not long after this, when Galba was on his way to the elections which gave him his second consul­ship, a statue of the Deified Julius of its own accord turned towards the East.
  • On the field of Bedriacum, before the battle began, two eagles fought in the sight of all and, when one was vanquished, a third came from the direction of the rising sun and drove off the victor.

(6) Yet Vespasian made no move (although his followers were quite ready and even urgent) until he was roused to it by the accidental support of men unknown to him and at a distance. Two thousand soldiers of the three legions that made up the army in Moesia had been sent to help Otho. When word came to them after they had begun their march that he had been defeated and had taken his own life, they none the less kept on as far as Aquileia, because they did not believe the report. There, taking advantage of the lawless state of the times, they indulged in every kind of pillage. Then, fearing that if they went back, they would have to give an account and suffer punishment, they took it into their heads to select and appoint an emperor, saying that they were just as good as the Spanish army which had appointed Galba, or the praetorian guard which had elected Otho, or the German army which had chosen Vitellius.

Accordingly the names of all the consular governors who were serving anywhere were taken up, and since objection was made to the rest for one reason or another, while some members of the third legion, which had been transferred from Syria to Moesia just before the death of Nero, highly commended Vespasian, they unanimously agreed on him and inscribed his name on all their banners.

When their action became known, Tiberius Alexander, prefect of Egypt, was the first to compel his legions to take the oath for Vespasian on the Kalends of July (1 July), the day which was afterwards celebrated as that of his accession. Then the army in Judaea swore allegiance to him personally on the fifth day before the Ides of July (11 July).

The enterprise was greatly forwarded by the circulation of a copy of a letter from the late emperor Otho to Vespasian (whether genuine or forged) urging him with the utmost earnestness to vengeance and expressing the hope that he would come to the aid of his country. It was further helped:

  1. by a rumour which spread abroad that Vitellius had planned, after his victory, to change the winter quarters of the legions and to transfer those in Germany to a safer and milder service in the Orient
  2. among the governors of provinces, by the support of Licinius Mucianus (governor of the neighbouring province of Syria) and, among the kings, by that of Vologaesus, the Parthian. The former (Mucianus), laying aside the jealousy which had created rivalry between them, promised Vespasian the support of the Syrian army; and the latter 40,000 bowmen

(7) Therefore Vespasian began another civil war by sending generals with troops to Italy while he crossed to Alexandria to take possession of the key to Egypt.​ Here he dismissed all his attendants and entered the temple of Serapis alone, to consult the auspices as to the duration of his power. And when after many propitiatory offerings to the god he at length turned about, it seemed to him that his freedman, Basilides​, offered him sacred boughs, garlands, and loaves as is the custom there and yet he knew very well a) that no one had let him in, b) that for some time he had been hardly able to walk by reason of rheumatism, and c) was far away. And immediately letters came with the news that Vitellius’s army had been defeated at Cremona and the Vitellius himself slain at Rome.

Vespasian as yet lacked prestige and a certain divinity, so to speak, since he was an unexpected and still new-made emperor; but these also were given him. A man of the people who was blind, and another who was lame, came to him together as he sat on the tribunal, begging for the help for their disorders which Serapis had promised in a dream; for the god declared that Vespasian would restore the eyes, if he would spit upon them, and give strength to the leg, if he would deign to touch it with his heel. Though Vespasian had hardly any faith that this could succeed and therefore shrank from even making the attempt, he was at last prevailed upon by his friends and tried both things in public before a large crowd – and they worked!

And, at this same time, by the direction of certain soothsayers, some vases of antique workman­ship were dug up in a consecrated spot at Tegea in Arcadia and on them was an image very like Vespasian.

(8) Returning to Rome under such auspices and attended by so great renown, after celebrating a triumph over the Jews, Vespasian added eight consul­ships to his former one. He also assumed the censor­ship and during the whole period of his rule he considered nothing more essential than first to strengthen the state, which was tottering and almost overthrown, and then to embellish it as well.

The soldiery, some emboldened by their victory and some resenting their humiliating defeat, had abandoned themselves to every form of licence and recklessness. The provinces, too, and the free cities, as well as some of the kingdoms, were in a state of internal dissension. Therefore Vespasian discharged many of the soldiers of Vitellius and punished many. But so far from showing any special indulgence to those who had shared in his victory, he was slow in paying them their lawful rewards.

To let slip no opportunity of improving military discipline, when a young man reeking with perfumes came to thank him for a commission which had been given him, Vespasian drew back his head in disgust, adding the stern reprimand: “I would rather you had smelt of garlic” and then revoked the appointment.

When the marines who march on foot by turns from Ostia and Puteoli to Rome asked that an allowance be made them for shoe money, not content with sending them away without a reply, he ordered that in future they should make the run barefooted, and they have done so ever since.

Vespasian made Roman provinces of Achaia, Lycia, Rhodes, Byzantium and Samos, taking away their freedom, and likewise of Trachian Cilicia and Commagene, which up to that time had been ruled by kings. He sent additional legions to Cappadocia because of the constant inroads of the barbarians, and gave it a consular governor in place of a Roman knight.

As Rome was unsightly from former fires and fallen buildings, Vespasian allowed anyone to take possession of vacant sites and build upon them, in case the owners failed to do so. He began the restoration of the Capitol in person [after the fire which broke out during the siege of his brother Sabinus – see Tacitus’s Histories for a detailed description of this event], was the first to lend a hand in clearing away the debris, and himself carried some of it off in a basket.

Vespasian undertook to restore the 3,000 bronze tablets which were destroyed with the temple, making a thorough search for copies. These included priceless and most ancient records of the empire, containing the decrees of the senate and the acts of the commons almost from the foundation of the city, regarding alliances, treaties and special privileges granted to individuals.

(9) Vespasian also undertook new works, the temple of Peace hard by the Forum and one to the Deified Claudius on the Caelian mount, which was begun by Agrippina but almost utterly destroyed by Nero. Also an amphitheatre in the heart of the city, a plan which he learned that Augustus had cherished. [This is the building we call the Colosseum, which was known as the Flavian amphitheatre until the Middle Ages.]

Vespasian reformed the two great orders [senators and knights], reduced by a series of murders and sullied by longstanding neglect, and added to their numbers, holding a review of the senate and the knights, expelling those who least deserved the honour and enrolling the most distinguished of the Italians and provincials.

Furthermore, to let it be known that the two orders differed from each other not so much in their privileges as in their rank, in the case of an altercation between a senator and a Roman knight, he rendered his decision: ‘Unseemly language should not be used towards senators, but to return their insults in kind is proper and lawful’ [i.e. a citizen could return the abuse of another citizen, regardless of their respective ranks].

(10) Lawsuit upon lawsuit had accumulated in all the courts to an excessive degree, since those of long standing were left unsettled through the interruption of court business​ during the civil wars and new ones had arisen through the disorder of the times. Vespasian therefore chose commissioners by lot to restore what had been seized in time of war, and to make special decisions in the court of the Hundred, reducing the cases to the smallest number, since it was clear that the lifetime of the litigants would not suffice for the regular proceedings.

(11) Licentiousness and extravagance had flourished without restraint so Vespasian induced the senate to vote that any woman who formed a connection with the slave of another person should herself be made a slave. Also that anyone who lent money to minors (meaning sons who were still under the control of their fathers, regardless of their age) should never have a legal right to enforce payment, that is to say, not even after the death of the fathers.

(12) In other matters Vespasian was unassuming and lenient from the very beginning of his reign until its end. He never tried to conceal his former lowly condition and often paraded it. Indeed, when certain men tried to trace the origin of the Flavian family to the founders of Reate and a companion of Hercules whose tomb still stands on the Via Salaria, he laughed at them for their pains.

So far was he from a desire for pomp and show that on the day of his triumph he did not hesitate to say: ‘It serves me right for being such a fool as to want a triumph in my old age, as if it were due to my ancestors or had ever been among my own ambitions.’

He did not even assume the tribunician power at once nor the title of Father of his Country until late.​ As for the custom of searching people who came to pay their morning calls to him, he gave that up before the civil war was over.

(13) Vespasian bore the frank language of his friends, the quips of pleaders, and the impudence of the philosophers with the greatest patience. Though Licinius Mucianus,​ a man of notorious unchastity, presumed upon his services to treat Vespasian with scant respect [claiming that, as leader of Vespasian’s army, he won Italy and Rome and, in effect, gave it to him], he never had the heart to criticize him except privately and then only to the extent of adding to a complaint made to a mutual friend, the words: ‘I at least am a man’ [implying that Mucianus was effeminate and unchaste].

When Salvius Liberalis ventured to say, while defending a rich client, ‘What is it to Caesar if Hipparchus had a hundred millions?’ he personally commended him. When the Cynic Demetrius met him abroad after being condemned to banishment, and without deigning to rise in his presence or to salute him, even snarled out some insult, Vespasian merely called him a dog.

(14) Vespasian was not inclined to remember or to avenge affronts or enmities, but made a brilliant match for the daughter of his enemy Vitellius, and even provided her with a dowry and a house-keeping outfit.

When he was in terror at being forbidden Nero’s court and asked what on earth he was to do or where he was to go, one of the ushers threw him out and told him to ‘go to Morbovia’ [a made-up name meaning ‘go to the devil’]. When the man later begged for forgiveness, Vespasian confined his resentment to words, and those of about the same number and purport.

Indeed, so far was he from being led by any suspicion or fear to cause anyone’s death that when his friends warned him that he must keep an eye on Mettius Pompusianus, since it was commonly believed that he had an imperial horoscope, he ignored them and made Mettius consul, guaranteeing that he would one day be mindful of the favour.

(15) It cannot be shown that any innocent person was punished save in Vespasian’s absence and without his knowledge, or at any rate against his will and by misleading him.

Although Helvidius Priscus was the only one who greeted him on his return from Syria by his private name of ‘Vespasian’ and, in his praetor­ship, left the emperor unhonoured and unmentioned in all his edicts, still Vespasian did not show anger until by the extravagance of his railing Helvidius had all but degraded him [meaning reduced him to the status of a common citizen].

But even in Helvidius’s case, though Vespasian did banish him and later order his death, he was most anxious for any means of saving him, and sent messengers to recall those who were to slay him; and he would have saved him, but for a false report that Helvidius had already been done to death. Certainly he never took pleasure in the death of anyone, but even wept and sighed over those who suffered merited punishment.

(16) The only thing for which Vespasian can be fairly censured was his love of money. For not content with reviving the taxes which had been repealed under Galba, he added new and heavy burdens, increasing the amount of tribute paid by the provinces, in some cases actually doubling it, and quite openly carrying on traffic which would be shameful even for a man in private life. He bought up certain commodities in order to distribute them at a profit.

Vespasian made no bones of selling offices to candidates and acquittals to men under prosecution, whether innocent or guilty. He is even believed to have deliberately advanced the most rapacious of his procurators to higher posts so that they might be the richer when he later condemned them. In fact, it was common talk that he used these men as ‘sponges’ because he ‘soaked’ them when they were dry and ‘squeezed’ them when they were wet.

Some say that Vespasian was naturally covetous and was taunted with it by an old herdsman of his who, on being forced to pay for the freedom for which he earnestly begged Vespasian when he became emperor, cried: ‘The fox changes his fur but not his nature.’

Others on the contrary believe that he was driven by necessity to raise money by spoliation and robbery because of the desperate state of the treasury and the privy purse. He testified to this at the very beginning of his reign by declaring that 40,000 millions were needed to set the state upright. This latter view seems the more probable, since he made the best use of his gains, ill-gotten though they were.

(17) He was most generous to all classes, making up the requisite estate​ for senators [this had been increased to 1,200,000 sesterces by Augustus] giving needy ex-consuls an annual stipend of 500,000 sesterces, restoring to a better condition many cities throughout the empire which had suffered from earthquakes or fires and, in particular, encouraging men of talent and the arts.

(18) Vespasian was the first to establish a regular salary of 100,000 sesterces for Latin and Greek teachers of rhetoric, paid from the privy purse. He presented eminent poets with princely largess and great rewards, and artists, too, such as the restorer of the Venus of Cos​ and of the Colossus.​

(19) At the plays with which he dedicated the new stage of the theatre of Marcellus, Vespasian revived the old musical entertainments. To Apelles, the tragic actor, he gave 400,000 sesterces; to Terpnus and Diodorus, the lyre-players, 200,000 each; to several, a hundred thousand; while those who received least were paid 40,000, and numerous golden crowns were awarded besides.

Vespasian gave constant dinner parties, too, usually formally​ and sumptuously, to help the marketmen. He gave gifts​ to women on the Kalends (first) of March [the Matronalia or feast of married women] as he did to the men on the Saturnalia.

Yet even so he could not be rid of his former bed reputation for covetousness. The Alexandrians persisted in calling him Cybiosactes,​ the surname of one of their kings who was scandalously stingy.

Even at his funeral, Favor, a leading actor of mimes, who wore his mask and, according to the usual custom, imitated the actions and words of the deceased during his lifetime, having asked procurators in a loud voice how much his funeral procession would cost, and hearing the reply ‘Ten million sesterces,’ cried out, ‘Give me a hundred thousand and fling me even into the Tiber.’

(20) Vespasian was well built,​ with strong, sturdy limbs, and the expression of one who was straining. Apropos of which a witty fellow, when Vespasian asked him to make a joke about him, replied, ‘I will, when you have finished relieving yourself.’

Vespasian enjoyed excellent health, though he did nothing to keep it up except to rub his throat and the other parts of his body a certain number of times in the tennis court, and to fast one day in every month.

(21) This was Vespasian’s manner of life. While emperor, he always rose very early, in fact before daylight. Then, after reading his letters and the reports of all the officials, he admitted his friends, and while he was receiving their greetings, he put on his own shoes and dressed himself. After despatching any business that came up, he took time for a drive and then for a nap, lying with one of his concubines, of whom he took several after the death of Caenis. After his siesta he went to the bath and the dining-room. It is said that this was the part of the day when he was most good-natured or indulgent, so that the members of his household eagerly watched for these opportunities of making requests.

(22) Not only at dinner but on all other occasions he was most affable, and turned off many matters with a jest. He was very ready with sharp sayings, albeit of a low and buffoonish kind, so that he didn’t refrain even from obscene expressions.​

Yet many of his remarks are still remembered which are full of wit, among them the following. When an ex-consul called Mestrius Florus called his attention to the fact that the proper pronunciation was plaustra (‘wagons’) rather than plostra, he greeted him next day as ‘Flaurus.’

When he was importuned by a woman, who said that she was dying for love for him, he took her to his bed and gave her 400,000 sesterces for her favours. Being asked by his steward how he wanted the sum entered in his accounts, he replied: ‘To a passion for Vespasian.’

(23) Vespasian also quoted Greek verses with great timeliness, saying of a man of tall stature and monstrous parts:

‘Striding along and waving a lance that casts a long shadow’ [Iliad 7.213.]

And of the freedman Cerylus, who was very rich, and to cheat the privy purse of its dues at his death had begun to give himself out as freeborn, changing his name to Laches:

‘O Laches, Laches,
When you are dead, you’ll change your name at once
To Cerylus again.’

But he particularly resorted to witticisms about his unseemly means of gain, seeking to diminish their odium by some jocose saying and to turn them into a jest.

Having put off one of his favourite attendants, who asked for a stewardship for a pretended brother, he summoned the candidate himself, and after compelling him to pay him as much money as he had agreed to give his advocate, appointed him to the position without delay. On his attendant’s taking up the matter again, he said: ‘Find yourself another brother; the man that you thought was yours is mine.’

On a journey, suspecting that his muleteer had got down to shoe the mules merely to make delay and give time for a man with a lawsuit to approach the emperor, he asked how much he was paid for shoeing the mules and insisted on a share of the money.

When Titus found fault with him for levying a tax on public conveniences, Vespasian held a piece of money from the first payment to his son’s nose, asking whether its odour was offensive to him. When Titus said, ‘No,’ he replied, ‘Yet it comes from urine.’

On the report of a deputation that a colossal statue of great cost had been voted him at public expense, he demanded to have it set up at once, and holding out his open hand, said that the base was ready.

He did not cease his jokes even when in apprehension of death and in extreme danger for when among other portents the Mausoleum​ opened on a sudden and a comet appeared in the heavens, he declared that the former applied to Junia Calvina of the family of Augustus, and the latter to the king of the Parthians, who wore his hair long. And as death drew near, he said: ‘Woe is me. I think I am turning into a god.’

(24) In his ninth consul­ship he had a slight illness in Campania and, returning at once to the city, he left for Cutiliae and the country about Reate, where he spent the summer every year. There, in addition to an increase in his illness, having contracted a bowel complaint by too free use of the cold waters, he nevertheless continued to perform his duties as emperor, even receiving embassies as he lay in bed.

Suddenly taken with such an attack of diarrhoea that he all but fainted, he said: ‘An emperor ought to die standing’, and, while he was struggling to get on his feet, he died in the arms of those who tried to help him. Vespasian died on the ninth day before the Kalends of July [23 June] at the age of sixty-nine years, seven months and seven days.​

(25) All agree that he had so much faith in his own horoscope and those of his family, that even after constant conspiracies were made against him he had the assurance to say to the senate that either his sons would succeed him or he would have no successor.

It is also said that he once dreamed that he saw a balance with its beam on a level placed in the middle of the vestibule of the palace, in one pan of which stood Claudius and Nero and in the other himself and his sons. And the dream came true, since both houses reigned for the same space of time and the same term of years.

[Suetonius’s Life of Vespasian should be read alongside Tacitus’s Histories, which give a detailed account of Mucianus’ and Primus’s military campaigns in north Italy which led to the overthrow of Vitellius as well as the siege of Sabinus on the Capitol.]


Related links

Suetonius’s Lives of the Twelve Caesars

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Histories by Tacitus

Biography

Publius Cornelius Tacitus, generally referred to simply as Tacitus, was a Roman statesman and historian. He lived from 56 to 120 AD. Like many Roman writers he had an eminent career in politics and public service. He started his career under the emperor Vespasian (ruled 69 to 79) and entered political life as a quaestor in 81 or 82 under Titus (ruled 79 to 81). He became praetor under Domitian (ruled 81 to 96) in 88 and then a quindecimvir, a member of the priestly college in charge of the Sibylline Books and the Secular Games.

Tacitus gained acclaim as a lawyer and as an orator, then served in the provinces from about 89 to about 93, either in command of a legion or in a civilian post. He became suffect consul (someone appointed to replace an elected consul who had vacated their office before the completion of their year-long term) in 97, during the short reign of Nerva (ruled 96 to 98).

It was about this point that he embarked on a career as a writer, producing two historical monographs – a biography of his father-in-law Julius Agricola which, because the latter had served as governor of Britain, contains much interesting information about the tribes and geography of ancient Britain; and the Germania, an ethnographic study of the tribes of Germany, both published in 98.

Tacitus returned to public life during the reign of the emperor Trajan (98 to 117). In 100 he and his friend, Pliny the Younger, prosecuted Marius Priscus (proconsul of Africa) for corruption. Priscus was found guilty and sent into exile. Pliny wrote in a letter a few days later that Tacitus had spoken ‘with all the majesty which characterises his usual style of oratory’.

Tacitus spent the next decade or so researching his two major works, the Histories and the Annals but in 112 to 113 was back in public service, recorded as holding the highest civilian governorship, of the Roman province of ‘Asia’ i.e. western Turkey. He probably died in the 120s, though the precise date is not known.

The point of recounting all this is to emphasise that Tacitus understood military and political power from the inside. He was a noted public speaker, lawyer and prosecutor, and held senior administrative posts. This profound understanding of all aspects of the Roman political system explains why Tacitus’s histories feel so authoritative and rich. He is speaking from deep experience of how Roman government worked, along with all the scheming, backstabbing and politicking which accompanied it.

The Histories

Together, the Histories and Annals were designed to give a continuous, year-by-year history of Rome under the rule of the first 12 emperors, from the death of Augustus to the death of Domitian i.e. from 14 to 96 AD, taking in the ten emperors in between (Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus, Domitian).

Tacitus composed the Annals second but they deal with the earlier period, Augustus to Nero (14 to 68). He composed the Histories first but they deal with the later period, Galba to Domitian (68 to 96).

Both books are missing large sections. The Annals is missing a big chunk in the middle, covering the last two years of Tiberius, the entire reign of Caligula (37 to 41) and the first six years of Claudius (41 to 47). Very frustrating.

But the Histories are even more mutilated. Originally 12 or 14 books in length, all that survive are the first four books and part of the fifth so that, instead of the 30 or so years from 68 to 96, all we have is just the first two years of his intended period, namely a brief summary of 68, all of 69 and some of 70.

The 1964 Penguin Classics paperback translation by British historian Kenneth Wellesley (1911 to 1995) is 260 pages long. That’s a lot of pages for just 2 years, so straightaway you know the Histories are going to cover the period in great detail.

If it’s a shame that we’ve lost most of the Histories and thus Tacitus’s accounts of Vespasian, Titus and Domitian, looking on the bright side, what we do have is a detailed account of a pivotal moment, the so-called Year of Four Emperors, 69 AD, when, following Nero’s suicide in June 68, four successive military leaders contested the imperial throne.

Nero was the last representative of the Julio-Claudian dynasty which had ruled Rome since 27 BC, but it was not only a dynasty that was overthrown; such was the chaos that it looked to contemporaries as if the unified, centralised structure of the Roman Empire itself might come to an end.

Four emperors died violently:

  • Nero in June 68, suicide (1. 4)
  • Galba in January 69, murdered by soldiers (1.41)
  • Otho in April 69, suicide (2.49)
  • Vitellius in December 69, murdered by soldiers (3.85)

Synopsis

Nero overthrown

In summer 68 reports reached Nero that the governor of the province of Gallia Lugdunensis, Gaius Julius Vindex, had rebelled against him. In order to gain support Vindex declared he was rebelling in support of the governor of Hispania Tarraconensis, Servius Sulpicius Galba. The commander of the Germania Superior army, Lucius Verginius Rufus, remained loyal to Nero and led his army against Vindex and appears to have beaten him at the battle of Vesontio, where Vindex was killed. But in the meantime, momentum had shifted to Galba. Other army leaders swung behind him and the senate declared for him. Abandoned by the legions in Italy, Nero fled to a villa outside Rome and, hearing hostile troops approaching, committed suicide rather than be dragged back to Rome and executed.

Reign of Servius Sulpicius Galba (8 June 68 to 15 January 69)

So the senate declared for Galba and he undertook the long march from Spain to the capital, where he was acclaimed emperor in June 68. However, Galba was:

  • old – he was 70 when he came to power
  • ruled badly and inconsistently, swayed by a cabal of corrupt advisers
  • didn’t pay the army as generously as it was expecting, especially the all-important Praetorian Guard which, as a result, turned against him (1.4)c

More importantly, on 1 January 69, the same day that Galba took the office of consul alongside Titus Vinius, the legions of Upper Germany refused to swear loyalty to the new emperor. They toppled the statues of Galba and demanded that a new emperor be chosen. The following day, the soldiers of Lower Germany also refused to swear their loyalty and proclaimed the governor of their province, Aulus Vitellius, as emperor.

In a bid to secure his position, on 10 January Galba held a ceremony to adopt the 31-year-old Lucius Calpurnius Piso Licinianus as his successor but it didn’t work. Just 5 days later, on 15 January, Galba was murdered by the Praetorian Guard (1.41). His successor, Piso, fled to the Temple of Vesta, but was dragged out and killed (1.43). Their heads were cut off and paraded round on pikes.

Reign of Marcus Otho (15 January to 16 April 69)

Tacitus’s account describes in detail how his successor, Marcus Otho, based in Rome, organised the conspiracy to assassinate Galba. Otho had been close to the centre of power for over a decade. He had initially been a friend and courtier of the young Nero, but Nero had an affair with and eventually married his wife, Poppaea Sabina, so had had Otho was dispatched to be governor the remote province of Lusitania in 58.

According to Tacitus Otho ruled Lusitania moderately for a decade. In the turmoil of summer 68, Otho allied himself with Galba, who was governor of neighbouring, Hispania Tarraconensis, and he accompanied Galba on his march to Rome, not unreasonably expecting a reward for his support. He was, therefore, aggrieved when Galba overlooked him to adopt Piso.

However, all these personal motives were dwarfed when Otho, now appointed emperor, read Galba’s imperial correspondence and for the first time realised the scale of the revolt of the army in Germany. Vitellius was leading his legions on a march on Rome à la Galba. Otho made an effort to negotiate, offering Vitellius a share in ruling the empire. When this was rejected, he assembled a fleet to control the coast and led his legions north where they undertook savage attacks on the civilians in the region.

Tacitus gives a detailed account of the movements of the legions of the various armies, Vitellius’s under the ambitious Aulus Caecina Alienus, Otho’s under Suetonius Paulinus. Paulinus defeated Caecina at a battle near Cremona but Caecina was then joined by the other Vitellian army led by Fabius Valens for the key battle of the campaign which took place at Bedriacum on 14 April 69.

It was a disaster for Otho’s forces, with the historian Dio Cassius claiming that 40,000 Roman soldiers were killed on both sides. (Tacitus makes the interesting point that in a civil war there’s less point, in fact it’s illegal, to take prisoners and ransom to their families, as you can in war against foreigners. So you might as well just kill them.) The next day Otho’s forces surrendered and swore allegiance to Vitellius (2.45).

Otho had retained substantial forces at his main base at Brixellum, a few miles from the battlefield and they advised him to fight on but Otho, reluctant to be responsible for more Roman lives lost, chose to commit suicide. Otho was mocked during his life for his debauched lifestyle and flamboyant homosexuality. But his suicide struck the true Roman Stoic note and was remembered and praised. Tacitus treats Otho’s death nobly and gives him a stirring speech to his men (2.46 to 49):

It may be that others have held the principate longer, but I shall make sure that no one quits it more courageously.

(A note on the Roman cult of suicide: Tacitus claims that a number of troops committed suicide beside Otho’s funeral pyre, and at the other Othonian camps both high and low committed suicide in order ‘to share his glory.’)

Reign of Aulus Vitellius (19 April to 20 December 69)

With Otho dead, Vitellius continued his march on Rome, where he made a triumphal entry and was recognized as emperor by the Senate. Tacitus then enjoys himself hugely recounting the multiple instances of Vitellius’s disgraceful debauchery, spending fortunes on games and entertainments, listening to whoever flattered him most, letting the troops he’d brought to the capital run rampant and lose all discipline. Among the numerous executions and appointments, Vitellius failed to defuse the long-running rivalry between the two generals who had won his victory at Bedriacum, Caecina and Valens.

Indeed, as Tacitus repeatedly points out, it proved to be easier to claim the throne than to hold onto it. Vitellius’s claim was soon challenged by the legions stationed in the East (Judaea and Egypt) who proclaimed their commander, Titus Flavius Vespasian, emperor instead.

Vespasian had a formidable reputation as a military commander, having played a key role in Claudius’s invasion of Britain in 43, and he was involved in suppressing the Jewish rebellion (which had started in 66) when Nero committed suicide.

Leaving his son (and future emperor) Titus, in charge of the siege of the Jews in Jerusalem, Vespasian recruited the governor of Syria, Mucianus, and Marcus Antonius Primus, a general in Pannonia, to his cause, and sent them to march on Rome, the third such march by Roman legions in 12 months.

Vespasian himself was in Egypt securing its vital grain supply when his troops entered Italy from the north-east under Primus’s leadership. With his determination, personal courage and charisma, Primus emerges as the ‘hero’, as Wellesley puts it, of book 3 of the Histories. After a confused series of clashes and manoeuvres, Primus’s legions defeated Vitellius’s army at the second battle of Bedriacum on 24 October 69. They then stormed and sacked the nearby town of Cremona in scenes of chaos, rapine and then fire. Tacitus is ashamed of the utter destruction wrought by Roman troops on a venerable Roman city (3.33).

Meanwhile the two generals who had led Vitelius to the throne, Caecina and Valens, both abandoned him in different ways. Caecina led the first Vitellian forces north but betrayed them and his emperor by going over to the Vespasians. Valens was slow to leave Rome and when he learned of the defeat of the Vitellians at Bedriacum he abandoned his legions and took ship to Monaco, with a plan to enter Narbonensian Gaul and raise a general rebellion of the Gaulish and German tribes against Vespasian. As Tacitus comments, this would have been catastrophic if it had succeeded (3.41) but it didn’t. Valens’s ship was overtaken by a flotilla of fast Vespasian galleys. With his capture the wind went out of the Vitellian forces:

With the capture of Valens the whole Roman world rallied to the winning side. (3.44)

Tacitus emphasises that Vitellius still had ample forces around Rome and if he had crossed the Apennines to attack the exhausted Flavian troops before reinforcements had arrived, could quite possibly have won. But he hadn’t a clue about military matters and surrounded himself with flattering courtiers who refused admittance to the centurions and commanders who could have given him sound advice (3.56).

Tacitus describes the confused scenes in Rome when Vitellius came down from the palace dressed in black, made an impassioned speech to the people, but was prevented by them, the Praetorian Guard and the German auxiliaries, from abdicating as he wanted to. (3.67-68) If his wish had been carried out much bloodshed and destruction would have been avoided.

If Vitellius had found it as easy to convert his follower as to give way himself, the army of Vespasian would have entered the capital without bloodshed. (3.66)

But Vitellius’s supporters’ obstinacy meant that the Flavian forces had to fight their way into Rome, destroying property and spreading carnage as they went.

The extraordinary story of Sabinus and Domitian

Vespasian had an older brother, Titus Flavius Sabinus, who had had a successful public career. Throughout the year he had remained in Rome as successive rulers rose and fell. Staying with him was his nephew, Vespasian’s younger son, Domitian. Tacitus tell us that Vitellius was well aware of their presence but took no action against them so that his, Vitellius’s, extended family, living in various provinces, would also be unharmed.

But Sabinus wasn’t stupid and had reached out to the anti-Vitellian factions in the nobility and, when news came that Vitellius had abdicated, he mobilised these individuals and cohorts (‘the leading senators, a number of knights and representatives of the urban troops and of the watch’) and they declared for Vespasian as emperor. Then came the news that Vitellius had been forced to remain in power and the position of Sabinus’s little troupe became desperate. Scuffles between the opposing forces turned into fighting and Sabinus led his force up to the Capitoline Hill where they barricaded themselves in, where he was joined by his family and Domitian.

There followed an intense siege of the hill by the pro-Vitellian forces (3.71). Nobody knows whether it was the attackers or defenders who resorted to fire but somehow a fire started and spread to surrounding buildings, above all the venerable Temple to Jupiter the Best and Greatest. This ancient building, full of tributes and testimonials from centuries of Roman history and military achievement, was burned to the ground.

This was the most lamentable and appalling disaster in the whole history of the Roman commonwealth. (3.72)

Eventually the Vitellians stormed the hill, while panic-stricken Flavians fled or hid or disguised themselves. Sabinus was seized along with his lieutenant, Quintius Atticus, put in chains and dragged before the now-powerless emperor who spoke calmly to them but was unable to stop them being dragged off by the impassioned mob, which stabbed and hacked Sabinus to death, cut off his head and threw his body onto the Gemonian Steps. Thus the end of a great Roman patriot, one among thousands of victims of Vitellius’s inability to rein in his own followers.

The fate of his nephew, Vespasian’s son and the future emperor Domitian, is even more colourful. As the besiegers broke in, Domitian hid in the house of the caretaker of the temple. Helped by a freedman he put on ‘a linen mantle’ and pretended to be a priest in order to get through the lines and then hide at the house of one of the family dependants. Once Vespasian was in power, Domitian demolished the caretaker’s house and built a small temple to Jupiter the Preserver. When he himself became emperor, he had a bigger temple erected to Jupiter the Guardian, with a statue depicting himself ‘under the protecting arm of the god’ (3.74).

So Primus’s legions were forced to fight their way into Rome with much bloodshed and destruction and, seizing the forlorn emperor-in-name-only Vitellius, they dragged him to the same Gemonian Steps where Sabinus’s body had been thrown a few days earlier, and there hacked him to death, on 20 December 69.

Throughout book 3 Tacitus describes how the Flavian side, although generally victorious in battle, was guilty of disagreement and delay, especially how Primus waited for the arrival of Mucianus and his Syrian troops. Other leaders heard of Vitellius’s abdication and thought the war was over. Tacitus finds it hard to apportion blame, but the combined effect was delay which was ‘fatal’ and had ‘tragic’ consequences of ‘unrelieved disaster’ i.e. the siege of the Capitol, the burning of the temple, the execution of Sabinus, and the eventual storming of Rome. The advance guard attacked the city walls on the evening of 19 December 68.

Next day the Flavian armies forced entry to the city at various gates amid scenes of rape and massacre. Tacitus vividly describes how the fighting took place in front of the entire population which watched it like spectators applauding a mock battle in the arena (3.83). Next day Domitian came out of hiding and was awarded the title Caesar but real power rested with the head of the conquering army, Antonius Primus. Within a few days the governor of Syria, Municianus arrived, and power shifted to him as official representative of Vespasian. Tacitus shows how the day-to-day business of politics i.e. speechifying, backstabbing, conspiring, senators prosecuting each other, carried on unchanged.

Reign of Vespasian (July 69 to June 79)

Vespasian ruled for ten years, establishing the Flavian dynasty (which lasted 27 years) which consisted of himself, his eldest son Titus (79 to 81) and second son, Domitian (81 to 96), survivor of the escapades on the Capitoline Hill. In fact Vespasian was the first Roman emperor to be succeeded by his biological son; the succession of emperors in the Julio-Claudian dynasty had all been by adoption. Vespasian:

  • reformed Rome’s financial system of Rome
  • brought the campaign against the Jews to a successful conclusion with the sack of Jerusalem in 70 and the mass suicide of Jewish resisters at Masada in 74
  • initiated ambitious construction projects including commissioning the Flavian Amphitheatre, better known today as the Roman Colosseum

Civilis’ revolt

But Tacitus doesn’t get round to any of this in what we have of his account. Instead, book 4 of his narrative focuses on developments in Germany. Here, months before the Flavian forces had even triumphed in Italy, a Romanised Batavian prince named Gaius Julius Civilis led a rebellion of German and Gaulish tribes which, at one point, threatened the complete independence of Gaul from Rome.

Tacitus describes the complex sequence of events by which Civilis united the tribes and then their attacks on Roman strongholds (notably the long siege of the Roman camp of Vetera), along with the appalling mismanagement on the Roman side, punctuated by mutinies by dissident soldiers (4.12 to 37).

Back in Rome

Tacitus cuts back to Rome to describe the start of the new year (70 AD) and the nominal consulships of Vespasian and his son Titus. However, as both were still absent in the East, it was Vespasian’s 18-year-old Domitian who found himself titled ‘Caesar’ and officiating at the first meetings of the Senate. Tacitus lists the usual senate business of making speeches, arguing about who was guilty of what crimes and betrayals during the reigns of Nero, Galba, Otho and Vitellius, feuds and prosecutions.

Vespasian, still in Egypt supervising Rome’s corn supply, was told bad things about Domitian arrogating too much power to himself, which threatened to turn him against his son, but this is the peg for Titus to make a speech asking clemency for his brother, on the basis that emperor’s needed to keep family close and well as the only true support they had (4.52). Tacitus then describes the reconsecration of the great temple of Jupiter (4.53).

More Civilis’ revolt

The interlude in Rome over, Tacitus returns to Julius Civilis’s rebellion on the Rhine (4.55 to 80). This continues to be very complex, in terms of the continually changing alliance between the tribes and their leaders (Civilis, Classicus, Tutor), the multiple military encounters at different locations, and the fact that one Roman legion is persuaded to defect to the tribals.

Despite setbacks the Romans won a hard-fought battle when the German coalition (the Batavi, Ubii, Lingones, Bructeri and Tencteri) attacked the Roman camp at Augusta Treverorum (Trier). The Roman commander was Quintus Petillius Cerealis who rallied his troops to hold the narrow bridge over the Rhine before counter-attacking and destroying the German camp (4.77). But there were other German and Gaulish forces scattered around the Rhineland, not least in Cologne, so the war was far from over.

Book 4 ends with a few short passages describing Vespasian’s ongoing sojourn in Egypt and some anthropology about the origin of the popular god Serapis, but the war on the Rhine far from resolved.

Book 5

The Jews

The fifth book, of which only the first 26 chapters survive, opens by ignoring the situation in Germany and shifting the scene about 2,000 miles East to Jerusalem. The Jews had risen against Roman rule in 66 AD. Tacitus picks up the story at the start of 70 AD as Vespasian dispatches Titus to Judaea to undertake the siege of Jerusalem. This would fall amid general bloodshed in August of that year although Tacitus’s history breaks off before then.

First though Tacitus treats his readers to an extended history of the Jews, review of their religion and traditions which, as Wellesley puts it, is a ‘fascinating farrago of truth and lies’ (introduction, page 14). But Tacitus gets it right about the Jews’ seven-day week, their monotheism, their fierce attachment to discriminatory customs such as circumcision, eschewing pork, not ‘marrying out’ and so on.

All this leads up to a description of Titus, having pacified the rest of Judaea, arriving before the impressive walled city of Jerusalem which itself contains the citadel within a city of the Temple complex. The city is packed with refugees from the other Jewish cities Roman armies had reduced, and Titus sets about mounting a siege in the approved Roman fashion. (5.13)

Back to Civilis’ revolt

At this point the text leaves Titus to return to the war in Germany. Here there are many more battles and skirmishes between Civilis’s tribes and Romans, including a close escape when Cerealis’s camp is invaded. But the Romans survived and attacked the island in the Rhine estuary where the Batavians lived, devastating it.

As summer turned into autumn Cerealis kept up a flow of secret correspondence with the Germans offering them peace and a return to the status quo ante. The chiefs of the German tribes are coming to realise that they cannot defeat the Romans and have been led into a ruinous unwinnable war by Civilis. The narrative breaks off as Civilis calls Cerealis to a conference at either side of a ruined bridge at Nabalia and begins to justify his actions…

In other words we don’t get to see Titus conclude the siege of Jerusalem or Vespasian set sail for, let alone arrive at, Rome.

The Agricola

In 78 Vespasian appointed as governor of Britain Gnaeus Julius Agricola, who aggressively expanded Roman territory far into Scotland. In the same year the young historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus married Agricola’s daughter. Twenty years later, in an act of filial duty, Tacitus wrote a biography of Agricola which survives in its entirety and contains much invaluable information about the first century British, their tribes and customs. This book, the Agricola, was published around 98 AD. It was the first of his historical works.

Tacitus shares his editorial decisions

A very winning habit of Tacitus’s is to share with the reader the balance of the evidence in front of him and his opinions about it, particularly when it is questionable. He steps out of his narrative, as it were, and we get a strong sense of his personality, brisk, logical, hard-headed:

  • Though I feel that a wilful search for old wives’ tales and the use of fiction to divert the reader is quite inappropriate in a serious work of this type, I hesitate all the same to be sceptical about events widely believed and handed down. (2.50)
  • Historians of this war who wrote during the Flavian dynasty have flatteringly described the motives of these men as ‘concern for peace’ and ‘patriotism’. My own view is that in addition to a natural instability of character and the cheapening of loyalty which was a consequence of their betrayal of Galba, a jealous fear that rivals would outpace them in Vitellius’s affections induced them to ruin Vitellius himself. (2.101)
  • I find that some widely read historians vouch for the truth of the following story…(3.51)

Tacitus tells us (3.25) that for the detail of the fighting he follows the account of Lucius Vipstanus Messalla, a Roman of senatorial status, who was directly involved in the war, being temporary commander of the legion VII Claudia stationed in Moesia which entered the civil war on the Flavian side, and who wrote an account of the war once it was over. This history is now lost but young Tacitus befriended the older man and used it as one of the prime sources for this history.

Sententiae

Sententia is the Roman word for the kind of pithy general statement about human life, the universe etc that we call by the names proverbs, adages, aphorisms, maxims or apophthegms. The plural form is sententiae. 1) A sententia is a general reflection on life which can arise from the previous narrative, acting as a kind of summary, summarising events or someone’s character in a pithy generalisation. So after describing the differing views among the army and its commanders in the East, he summarises:

Thus there were good men and bad, but for a variety of reasons and with equal enthusiasm all of them wanted war. (2.7)

2) A bit more squarely in the definition is this example where Tacitus describes the feverish rumours in Rome as Vitellius marched against Otho and then explains it by using a generalisation that his elite, crowd-despising, aristocratic audience would heartily endorse:

The cheers and cries of the crowd followed the usual pattern of flattery in being overdone and insincere…The passion for self-abasement operated as it does among domestic slaves, for each individual was prompted by selfishness and the decencies of public life now meant nothing. (1.89)

Hear hear, old chap. In fact the emptiness of public acclamation and the crassly craven behaviour of all mobs is a recurring theme and you can hear in Tacitus’s voice the scorn of a republican lamenting the hollow mob rule which the imperial form of government encouraged:

  • This was merely the accepted tradition whereby any emperor, no matter who he was, was acclaimed with extravagant applause and empty demonstration. (1.32)
  • [The defeated Othonian army turn on their leaders, blaming everyone except themselves.] This, of course, is typical of the mob. (2.44)
  • [On the entry of the despicable Vitellius into Rome] The lower classes are irresponsible and unable to discriminate between counterfeit and true. Adept in offering the usual flattery, they shouted and yelled their approval. (2.90)
  • In moments of fear the voice of wisdom and the gossip of the mob are listened to with equal alacrity. (3.58)

3) Or a sententia can be included in a flow of argument as a kind of proof. An author may cite a sententia summarising a common opinion or experience, with a view to winning the reader over to his point of view or recruiting the reader to his framework, his analysis:

  • Suspicion and hatred must always be the reaction of rulers towards the man talked of as the next in succession. (p.35)
  • Man’s character is such that he will always prefer to believe in mysteries. (1.22)
  • The ordinary man always goes from one emotional extreme to the other. (2.29)
  • Men are more inclined to repay injury than kindness. (4.3)
  • As good men derive their effectiveness from their virtues, so those who are really evil, derive theirs from their vices. (3.77)

This type assert a view of human nature or society which he uses as evidence to bolster his interpretation.

4) Or Tacitus may sometimes be consciously creating new generalisations to express his point of view. This was part of the new, briefer, more pithy style expected of Silver Age authors. (In Latin literature the Golden Age is said to have lasted from 70 BC to 18 AD, especially the long reign of Augustus, 27 BC to 14 AD; while the Silver Age is said to be the period from about 18 to 133 AD.)

Cicero write long, flowing, declamatory prose. Tacitus also writes long sentences, but more packed with information than concern for writerly balance. And they are frequently punctuated by shorter, pithy reflections and summaries. With sententia:

  • No one has ever made good use of power evilly gained. (1.30)
  • As is so often the case with brazen falsehoods, certain individuals asserted that they had been present when the deed was done and had witnessed it. (p.40)
  • Once killing starts it is difficult to draw the line. (1.39)
  • Discipline, however inflexible in peace-time, is relaxed in civil conflicts, where agents are ready to discourage disloyalty on either side, and treachery goes unpunished. (1.51)
  • There are always courtiers who keep an eye open for an emperor’s displeasure. (2.38)
  • Revolution and strife put tremendous power into the hands of evil men, whereas peace and quiet call for good lives [or ‘the practice of virtue]. (4.1)

Tacitus frequently made me smile with his droll comments on human nature. On several occasions emperors tried to smother bad news about defeats in the field, but banning rumour only ’caused it to multiply’. (3.54) That Homo sapiens, eh? Those mobs, those crowds, those foolish fickle humans.

Pithy

Sometimes Tacitus is just wonderfully brief and punchy.

  • A war of boundless havoc seemed imminent. (3.15)
  • Venutius inherited the throne, and we the fighting. (3.45)
  • [Of Vitellius] Emperor no longer, he was merely the cause of the fighting. (3.70)

Conclusions

1. Instability of the emperor

Tacitus draws the major conclusion from all these events right at the beginning: the revolt of Gaius Julius Vindex and then Galba revealed the secret of the principate which had been concealed throughout the Julio-Claudian dynasty, which was that: it was possible for an emperor to be chosen from outside Rome (1.4). More specifically, it set the pattern for centuries to come, of new emperors being acclaimed by provincial armies then marching on Rome to establish their claim.

For some periods of time ‘dynasties’ endured which ordered the succession through biological or adopted relatives. But throughout 400 year history of the Roman Empire from this year onwards, simmering beneath the appearance of stability, was the threat of the violent rise of a provincial leader to overthrow the central imperial power.

2. Instability of the army

The second conclusion, closely related to the first, is that the troops were motivated not by ideology or loyalty but, above all, by the promise of loot. Time after time in the 280 pages of this narrative, commanders, governors and emperors are threatened by their own men, surrounded, mobbed, shouted at, with the soldiers’ goal almost always being the same: loot. Vitellius was unable to control the praetorian guard or German auxiliaries in Rome, and then Antonius Primus was unable to stop the sack and fire and massacre of the triumphant army as it ransacked every house looking for valuables or women to rape.

As the narrative proceeds Tacitus gives evermore examples of the terrible discipline into which all the legions and cohorts, on all sides, seemed to fall.

The troops clamoured for immediate action and threatening their officers had by now become a habit. (4.34)

3. Permanent war

Stepping back a bit, I might be missing the wood for the trees because I suppose the biggest take home from this long text is that Rome was a military empire engaged in almost constant warfare. All of Rome’s politicians and statesmen were expected to take command of armies engaged in real warfare at the drop of a hat (even Cato in North Africa, even Cicero during his year in Asia). It was a militaristic culture in which the activity of war dominated all aspects of politics and culture to an extent I don’t think we moderns can really understand.

Reading experience and translations

Once you bed down into it, Tacitus’s account is gripping. He is, after all, reporting a very dramatic series of events:

The story upon which I embark is one full of incident, marked by bitter fighting, rent by treason and even in peace, sinister. (1.2)

The course of events allows him to stage melodramatic scenes and give stirring speeches to key characters at decisive moments. But he is a master of narrative. Possibly because the subject matter itself is gripping and fast-moving, but I found the Histories a much more enjoyable read than the more diffuse and sometimes repetitive Annals (all those informers, all those treason trials, all those forced suicides – even Tacitus himself admitted to getting bored with his own narrative).

Take the couple of chapters describing the abortive rising of Sabinus and the other pro-Flavians when they thought Vitellius had abdicated, which leads into the siege of the Capitoline Hill, the fire destroying the Temple of Jupiter, Sabinus arrest and lynching and the daredevil escape of young Domitian. This is a wonderfully dramatic and exciting story and Tacitus tells it clearly and vividly.

Some of the narrative’s power must be down to Wellesley’s translation which enlivens the bare Latin with colloquial English phrases (‘old wives’ tales’, ‘run for the hills’, ‘discipline went to pieces’ 4.1, ‘he was the last man to make trouble’, 4.38, ‘Marcellus looking daggers, Crispus all smiles’ 4.43) which really bring the narrative to life, giving it a more popular, colourful vibe than I suspect a literal translation would.

Also, it appears that at least some of the pithiness which I so enjoy derives from Wellesley. Here’s Anthony Kline’s translation of the first phrase of book 3 chapter 79. I assume Kline gives a literal translation of the Latin which explains why it is rather flat and factual.

Antonius reached Saxa Rubra (nine miles north of Rome) by the Flaminian Way late at night but now too late to bring relief.

And here’s Wellesley’s version:

The night was far advanced before Antonius, marching to the rescue down the Flaminian Way, reached Saxa Rubra. It was too late. (3.79)

You can see that Wellesley has altered it in several ways, two of which stand out. 1) ‘The night was far advanced’ sounds like a boy’s own adventure trope, on a par with ‘It was a dark and stormy night…’ It introduces a dash of Victorian adventure story flavour. 2) Where Kline has the flat ‘but now too late to bring relief’ Wellesley makes this phrase into a separate, clipped sentence, creating the taut, laconic style of a thriller. He does this throughout the text, sprinkling tough punchy little sentences which convey an enjoyable sense of narrative threat and suspense:

The explosion was not long in coming. (4.32)

In other words, Wellesley’s translation (as far as I can tell) tends to turn Tacitus into a gripping adventure story and ripping yarn, which is part of what makes his version such a compelling read. Along with Rolfe Humphries’ Englishing of Lucretius and Peter Green’s versions of Ovid, it’s one of the most enjoyable translations I’ve read.


Credit

The Histories of Tacitus, translated by Kenneth Wellesley, was published by Penguin Books in 1964. All quotes are from the 1986 revised paperback edition.

Related links

Roman reviews

The Dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire 1867-1918 by John W. Mason (1985)

This is another very short book, one of the popular Seminar Studies in History series. These all follow the same layout: 100 or so pages of text divided up into brisk, logical chapters, followed by a short Assessment section, and then a small selection of original source documents from the period.  It’s a very useful format for school or college students to give you a quick, punchy overview of a historical issue.

This one opens by summarising the central challenge faced by the Austro-Hungarian Empire as it entered the twentieth century: how to take forward a fragmented, multi-cultural empire based on traditional dynastic and semi-feudal personal ties into the age of nationalism and democracy where every individual was, in theory at least, a citizen, equal before the law.

On page one Mason locates four key failures of late imperial governance:

  1. the failure to solve the Czech-German conflict in the 1880s and 1890s
  2. the failure to develop a genuine parliamentary government in the late 1890s
  3. failure to solve the Austro-Hungarian conflict in the early 1900s
  4. failure to solve the South Slav conflict in the decade before World War One

PART ONE The background

1. The Hapsburg Monarchy in European History

The Hapsburg monarchy lasted 640 years from 1278 to 1918. It was a dynastic creation, never attached to a specific country. In 1867 (following Hungary’s defeat to Prussia in the war of 1866) the state was organised into the so-called Dual Monarchy, with the Hapsburg ruler titled the Emperor of Austria and the King of Hungary. This gave Hungary more autonomy and respect than it had previously had.

The name ‘Hapsburg’ derives from Habichtsburg meaning ‘Castle of the Hawks’, located in what is now the Swiss canton of Aargau. During the eleventh century the knights from this castle extended their power to build up a position of growing influence in south Germany.

Meanwhile, the eastern March – the Oster Reich – of Charlemagne’s massive empire was granted to the Babenberg family in the tenth century and they held it for the next 300 years.

In 1273 the electors of the Holy Roman Empire elected Rudolf of Hapsburg to the office of Holy Roman Emperor. In the 14th century the Hapsburgs acquired Carinthia, Carniola, Tyrol, Istria and Trieste to their domain. In the 15th another Hapsburg was elected emperor and from 1438 till the Holy Roman Empire was dissolved by Napoleon in 1806 the Crown remained almost continuously in their house.

When King Louis II of Bohemia and Hungary died without issue in 1526, both his crowns passed to the Hapsburgs. This marked a turning point because up till then all Hapsburg land had been German-speaking. Now the Hapsburg administration had to take account of various non-German nations with their own independent histories.

This leads to a Big Historical Idea: just as the countries of the West were beginning to develop the idea of the nation state, central Europe was going down a different path, towards a multi-national empire.

Even more decisive was the role the Hapsburgs played in defending Europe from the Turks. Twice, in 1529 and 1683, the Turks laid siege to Vienna, a very under-reported and under-appreciated part of European history.

The Turkish threat had effectively been repulsed by the start of the 18th century and the Hapsburgs embarked on their new role in Europe which was to act as a counterweight to ambitious France, starting with the War of Spanish Succession (1702-14).

The long rule of the Empress Maria Theresa (1740-80) saw her undertake reform and centralisation of the administration. But her power in central Europe was challenged by Hohenzollern Prussia under Frederick the Great (1740-86). During this period, Poland was partitioned and Austria was given from it the southern province of Galicia, which she retained right up till the end of the Great War.

The French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars (1789-1815) unleashed the ideas of nationalism and democracy across Europe, both of which struck at the heart of the multi-ethnic and hierarchical structure of the Empire.

Under Maria Theresa and her son Joseph II, Austria had arguably been part of the continent-wide movement of reform associated with the Enlightenment, take for example their legislation to remove many of the restrictions placed on the Jewish population.

But the twin forces of nationalism and democracy were such a threat to a multinational polity that from this point onwards the Hapsburgs and the empire they led, became a reactionary force, embodied in the machinations of their legendary Foreign Minister, Klemens von Metternich (foreign minister from 1809 to 1848).

In 1848 revolutions took place all across Europe, with no fewer than five in capitals controlled by the dynasty – in Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Croatia and in northern Italy (territory which the Hapsburgs had seized after the defeat of Napoleon). Hapsburg forces put down the revolutions in four of the locations, but it required the intervention of the Russian army to defeat the revolutionary Hungarian forces. The Magyars never forgot this bitter defeat.

In the Crimean War (1853-6) Austria kept neutral from both sides (Britain & France versus Russia) which weakened her role in Europe. In 1859 France supported the desire for independence of Piedmont, the north Italian state ruled by the Hapsburgs since the defeat of Napoleon, and hammered the Austrians at the Battles of Magenta and Solferino. In response the Hapsburgs introduced some administrative reforms, but in 1866 lost another war, this time against Prussia under Bismarck, decided at the Battle of Sadowa.

Seriously weakened, and now definitely deprived of all influence in a Germany unified under Prussian rule, the Emperor’s politicians were compelled to bolster the Empire’s authority be devising a new agreement with the large Kingdom of Hungary to the East.

2. The Austro-Hungarian Compromise

Hence the Compromise or Ausgleich of 1867 which recognised the sovereign equality of two states, Austria and Hungary, bringing them under the rule of one man, Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary. The dual monarchy wasn’t the same as a federation, constitutionally it was unique. But it bolstered the Hapsburgs a) territory b) manpower. Crucially it provided a bulwark against the Slavs in the Balkans, quelling pan-Slavic sentiment.

The drawback of the Compromise was that it was essentially a personal agreement between the Emperor Franz Josef and the Magyar ruling class. Even liberal and progressive German-speaking Austrians felt left out, and that’s before you consider the numerous other nationalities contained within the empire.

PART TWO Domestic affairs

3. The Nationality Questions

The Treaty of Versailles entrenched the idea of national self-determination preached by American President Woodrow Wilson, and resulted in the break-up of the empire into a host of new nation states based on ethnicity. Viewed from this angle, it looks as though the Austro-Hungarian Empire was foredoomed to collapse. But all the histories I’ve read there was no such inevitability. This one wants to scotch two assumptions –

  1. that all the nationalities thought they’d be better off outside the empire (many realised they wouldn’t)
  2. that all the nationalities were ‘at war’ with imperial authorities; many weren’t, they were in much sharper conflict with each other

In the West the state and the nation were closely aligned; but in the East you can see how they are in fact distinct ideas. The state is an administrative unit and in Central and Eastern Europe was based on ancient rights and privileges of rulers, often going back to medieval origins.

From the mid-nineteenth century these traditional ideas were challenged by a concept of ‘nation’ based on ethnicity, culture and language. Otto Bauer the Austrian Marxist made a famous categorisation of the peoples of the empire into ‘historic’ nations, those which had an aristocracy and bourgeoisie and an independent national history;

  • Germans
  • Magyars
  • Poles
  • Italians
  • Croats

and those who don’t:

  • Czechs
  • Serbs
  • Slovaks
  • Slovenes
  • Ruthenians
  • Romanians

Most modern commentators include the Czechs in the list of ‘historic’ nations.

The Germans

In the western half of the empire the Germans made up 10 million or 35% of the population of 28 million. Nonetheless the administration was thoroughly German in character. The official language of the empire was German. The great majority of the civil servants were German, 78% of the officers in the army were German. The cultural life of Vienna, the capitalist class and the press were overwhelmingly German. Three political parties dominated from 1880 onwards, which adopted the three logical policies:

  1. The Pan-Germans looked beyond Austria to a nationalist union of all German peoples under Bismarcks Prussia
  2. The Christian Socialist Party under Karl Lueger aimed to unite all the nationalities under the dynasty
  3. The left-wing Social Democrats aimed to unite the working class of all the nationalities, thus dissolving the nationalities problem

The Czechs

Third largest ethnic group (after the Germans and Hungarians) with 6.5 million or 12% of the population. In Bohemia roughly two fifths of the people were German, three fifths Czech.The Czechs were the only one of the minorities which lived entirely within the borders of the empire, and some they were bitterly disappointed by the Compromise of 1867, which they thought should have recognised their identity and importance. Czech nationalists thought the deal left them at the mercy of German Austrians in the West and Hungarians in the East.

From the 1880s the struggle between Czech and German expressed itself in the issue of the official language taught in schools and used in the bureaucracy. The Czech population increased dramatically: Prague was an overwhelmingly German city in 1850 but 90% Czech by 1910. Germans found it harder to dismiss the Czechs as peasants Slavs, as Bohemia rapidly industrialised and became the economic powerhouse of the empire.

The Poles

The Poles were the fourth largest group, in 1910 4.9 million or 17.8% of the western part of the empire, most of them living in Galicia. Galicia was a) a province of Poland which had been obliterated from the map when it was divided between Russia, Prussia and Austria in the 18th century b) at the north-east fringe of the empire, beyond the Carpathian mountain range.

The Austrians needed the support of the Poles to make up a majority in the parliament in Vienna, and so made so many concessions to the Polish Conservative Party in Galicia that it enjoyed almost complete autonomy, with Polish recognised as the official  language, Polish universities and so on.

The Ruthenians

Only three fifths of the population of Galicia was Polish; the other two-fifths were Ruthenians. The Ruthenians belonged to the same ethnic group as the Ukrainians but were distinguished by adherence to the Latin/Greek Uniat church. The Ruthenians were the most socially backward group in the empire and very much under the thumb of the politically advanced Poles, responding by setting up a peasants’ party.

Conservative ‘Old Ruthenians’ gave way to ‘Young Ruthenians’ in the 1880s, who sought union with the 30 million Ukrainians living to their East. The more concessions the central government made to the Poles, the more it alienated the Ruthenians. After 1900 Ruthenians and Poles clashed over electoral or educational issues, sometimes violently.

The Slovenes

1.25 million or 4.4 per cent of the population of the Austrian half of the empire, the Slovenes were scattered over half a dozen Crownlands, and lacked even a written literature in their own land. Even mild efforts at nationalism, such as setting up a Slovene-speaking school, were fiercely opposed by the German majorities in their regions.

The Italians

770,000, the smallest national group in the empire, with Italian-speaking areas in the Tyrol and along the Adriatic coast, which had quite different concerns. In the Tyrol the Italians fought against the dominance of the Germans. Along the Adriatic they were a privileged minority among a Slav majority.

In May 1915 Italy betrayed its treaty promises to Germany and Austria-Hungary and joined the Allies because Britain and France promised Italy possession of the Tyrol and the Adriatic Littoral (and money).

The Magyars

10 million Magyars formed 48% of the population of Hungary. The Magyars dominated the country, owning, for example 97% of joint stock companies. It was dominated by ‘Magyarisation’ meaning fierce determination of the magyar ruling class to impose uniformity of language across the territory. If minorities like Romanians or Slovenes agreed to teach their children Hungarian and support Magyar rule, they could become citizens; otherwise they were subject to fierce discrimination. The Magyars didn’t want to exterminate the minorities, but assimilate them into oblivion.

Budapest was three quarters German in 1848 and three quarters German in 1910. Mason tells us that all attempts to reform the Dual Monarchy ultimately foundered on Hungary’s refusal to abandon its unbending policy of Magyarisation.

The Romanians

The largest non-Magyar group in Hungary, about 3 million, their aspirations were ignored in the 1867 Compromise, and the Hungarians’ intransigent policy of Magyarisation drove more and more to think about joining the independent Kingdom of Romania, just across the border from Hungarian Transylvania, and the forming of a National Party in 1881, which slowly poisoned Austria’s relations with Romania.

The Slovaks

The Slovaks were the weakest and least privileged group in the Hapsburg Monarchy, 9% of the population, a peasant people who had lived under Magyar domination for a thousand years. The 1867 Compromise made the Czechs and Croats second class citizens but condemned the Slovaks to cultural eradication. From the 1890s they started co-operating with the Czechs and slowly the idea of a combined Czech and Slovak nation evolved.

The Croats

9% of the population of Hungary. They had a national history and a strong aristocracy and considered themselves in direct touch with the Hapsburg monarchy. By an 1868 compromise Croatia received autonomy within the Hungarian state, but the head of the Croat state was imposed by the Hungarian government and the rule of Count Khuen-Héderváry was so repressive that Croatia became the seat of a movement to unite all the empire’s South Slavs.

The Serbs

About 2 million Serbs lived in the empire, divided between Dalmatia, Hungary, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. They didn’t have an independent national history until 1878 when the Congress of Berlin created a small state of Serbia independent of the Ottoman Empire, from which point every perceived injustice against the Serbs prompted calls for a pan-Slave movement, and/or for a Greater Serbia. The biggest incident on the road to collapse was the Austrian annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908, the majority of whose population were Serbs.

The Jews

The Jews made up about 5% of the population in both Austria and Hungary. From 1850 Jews moved in large numbers into Lower Austria, overwhelmingly from poor rural Galicia (Poland), a large number of them migrating to Vienna, where they came to dominate cultural activity out of proportion to their numbers.

The Jews became so prominent in the Hungarian capital that some called it Judapest. The Jewish journalist Karl Kraus joked that ‘the Jews control the press, they control the stock market, and now [with the advent of Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis] they control the unconscious’.

The success of Jews in business and the stock market and banking created an association between ‘Jew’ and ‘capitalist’ which complicated class conflict and led to an easy demonisation of the Jews as responsible for much of the exploitation, low wages and fat profits of capitalism.

4. The economy

The Hapsburg Empire was behind Germany, France and Britain in industrialisation. It didn’t have large stocks of coal, it had no large ports, parts of it (like Galicia) were split off from the empire by high mountains; the great Hungarian Plain was designed for agriculture not industry.

It was a predominantly agricultural economy: in 1910 agriculture made up 50% of the Austrian economy, two-thirds of the Hungarian. Most of the trade was between Hapsburg regions and nations; the 1867 Compromise established a free trade area throughout the empire.  Only a small percentage of GDP came from exports.

In Hungary serfdom was only abolished in 1848. For most of the period, Hungary was characterised by Magyar landlords, sometimes with very extensive holdings, lording it over illiterate peasants of the various nationalities. That’s one reason why nationalist grievances became mixed up in economic ones. Only in the decade before the war did Hungary begin to industrialise.

Industrialisation was funded by banks which remained firmly in German and Hungarian hands. The industrial heartland of the empire was the Czech Crownlands (Bohemia and Moravia) which developed a strong textiles industry and then iron and steel, metallurgy and engineering. This became another source of tension between Czechs and Germans, because many of the industries remained in the hands of German managers, backed by German hands.

(Remember the passage in Ernst Pawel’s biography describing the end of the Great War, the declaration of independence, and the way the new Czech government immediately a) renamed all its businesses and industries in Czech and b) undertook a wholesale replacement of all German bureaucrats and business men with Czech replacements.)

The late 1860s saw a mounting fever of speculation which led to a stock market crash in 1873 and a prolonged depression afterwards. This led to low growth, and poverty among the urban proletariat and among rural peasants, which led to the rise of nationalist and populist parties.

5. The politics of Dualism

The Austrian (i.e. German-speaking) Liberal Party ruled after the 1867 Compromise. But that compromise had alienated the Czechs whose MPs didn’t even attend the parliament. But it was the massive financial crash of 1873 which ruined the Liberal Party, associated as it was with business and the banks.

In 1871 there was an attempt by the conservative aristocrat Count Hohenwart to reform the monarchy and turn it into a federation, who drafted some ‘Fundamental Articles’ which were intended to give the Czechs parity with the Hungarians, but this was fiercely opposed by the Hungarian prime minister, Count Andrássy. The Czechs never trusted the dynasty after that, and boycotted the Vienna parliament.

In 1879 Franz Joseph asked his boyhood friend Count Taaffe to form a new government and Taaffe went on to govern till 1893, passing a series of reforms which echoed those of Bismarck in Germany, such as extending the franchise, workers health and accident insurance, limiting the working day to 11 hours etc.

But when he tried to tackle the German-Czech issue by breaking up Czech provinces into smaller units based along ethnic lines, his plans were scuppered by the Poles, the Clericals and the Feudals, and the German Liberals and he was forced to resign. Over the next twenty years three parties emerged:

The Social Democrats

This left-wing party emerged from the trade union movement in 1889 and its soft Marxist outlook focused on economic and social reform cut across ethnic lines and so was a force for keeping the empire together. At the Brünner Conference of 1899 they called for the transformation of the empire into a democratic federation of nationalities.

The Christian Socials

Founded in 1890 by the phenomenally popular Karl Lueger who became mayor of Vienna 1897-1910, based around a devout Catholicism which linked democratic concern for ‘the small man’, responsible social reform, anti-semitism and loyalty to the dynasty. Turning artisans and small shopkeepers into a strong anti-socialist, anti-capitalist, pro-Hapsburg bloc.

The Pan-Germans

The extreme anti-semitic Pan-German Party founded by Georg von Schönerer. Starting as a liberal he grew disenchanted and wanted a) to separate out the German-speaking areas from their Slav populations and b) unite with the Reich. In 1884 he led a battle to nationalise the Nordbahm railway which had been financed by the Rothschilds. He failed, but gained wide support for presenting the plan as a battle of the Jews versus the people. Although small in numbers, the Pan-Germans spread vicious racist ideas and their supporters were prone to violence.

The end of parliamentary governance

The next government of Alfred III, Prince of Windisch-Grätz, was brought down after two years because it agreed to allow a German secondary school in southern Styria to have parallel lessons in Slovene at which point the German National Party rejected it, voted against it, and brought down the government.

The next government was led by a Pole, Count Kasimir Felix Badeni. In 1897 he tried to settle the perpetual conflict between Czechs and Germans by moving a law that said that from 1901 no official should be employed in Bohemia or Moravia who wasn’t fluent in German and Czech. Since most Czechs spoke German, this was no problem for them, but hardly any Germans spoke Czech and there was uproar in parliament, with all kinds of tactics used to stall the passage of the bill, riots broke out on the streets of Vienna and then Prague. Franz Joseph was forced to accept Badeni’s resignation, and the Vienna parliament never had the same prestige or power again.

It couldn’t function properly and legislation was from 1897 passed only by emergency decree via Article 14 of the constitution. Government was no longer carried out by politicians and ministers but by civil servants. The Germans and the Czechs continued to obstruct parliament

Several more ministries tried and failed to solve the nationalities problem, while the emperor accepted advice that extending the franchise to the working class might help create a mood of social solidarity. So a bill was passed in 1907 giving the vote to all men over 24. But it was irrelevant. By this stage parliament didn’t govern the empire, bureaucrats did. Extending the franchise brought in a new wave of socialist parties, which combined with the nationality parties, to make governing impossible. During the parliament of 1911 no fewer than 30 parties blocked the passage of all constructive measures in parliament.

6. Vienna – Cultural centre of the Empire

Traditional liberal culture was based on the premise of rational man existing within as stable, civic social order. By the 1890s this society was beginning to disintegrate…

The political crisis in late nineteenth-century Austria-Hungary was caused by the bankruptcy of liberalism. The result was the sudden growth of a number of anti-liberal mass movements. In the cultural sphere the consequence of the breakdown of liberalism were no less dramatic…

Mason distinguishes three phases or artistic eras in this period:

1. The 1870s

In the 1870s students formed the Pernerstorfer Circle, seeking an alternative to liberalism, which they rejected and found inspiration in early Nietzsche, his writings about the imagination and the Dionysian spirit, leading to veneration of the music dramas of Wagner. The most famous member was the composer Gustav Mahler.

2. The 1890s – Young Vienna

Aestheticism and impressionism, focus on the fleeting moment, in-depth analysis of subjective psychology. A moment’s reflection shows how this is a rejection of rational citizens living in a stable social order, and instead prioritises the non-stop swirl of sense impressions. The leading writers of the Young Vienna literary movement were Hugo von Hofmannstahl and Arthur Schnitzler, with his frank depictions of the sex lives and moral hypocrisy of the Viennese bourgeoisie.

3. After 1900 – Kraus, Loos and Schoenberg

The Jewish journalist Karl Kraus published a fortnightly magazine, Die Fackel, in which he flayed all political parties and most of the writers of the day. He carried out a one-man crusade against loose writing, sentimentality and pomposity. Mason doesn’t mention something Ernst Pawl emphasises in his biography of Kafka, which is that plenty of Kraus’s journalism railed against the Jewish influence on German prose, criticising its importation of Yiddishisms and other impurities. It was this attitude which led Pawl to diagnose Kraus as a leading example of the ‘Jewish self-hatred’ of the period.

Adolf Loos was a radical architect who despised any ornament whatsoever. He designed a starkly modernist house which was built in 1910 opposite the imperial palace and was a harsh modernist critique of the wedding cake baroque style of the empire.

Arnold Schoenberg thought Western music had reached the end of the road, and devised an entirely new way of composing music based on giving each note in the scale an equal value i.e. leaving behind traditional notions of a home key or key tones, i.e. 500 years of tradition that a piece of music is composed in a certain key and will develop through a fairly predictable set of chords and other keys closely related to it. Schoenberg demolished all that. In his system all notes are equal and their deployment is based on mathematical principles. Hence his theory came to be known as ‘atonality’ or the ‘twelve tone’ system.

And looming behind these three was one of the most influential minds of the 20th century, Sigmund Freud, the conservative and urbane Jew who did more than almost anyone else to undermine the idea of the rational, citizen or the rational human being. In Freud’s theory most of the activity of the human mind is unconscious and consists of a seething mass of primitive drives and urges. For the early period, from his first formulation of psychoanalysis in 1895 through to the outbreak of the First World War, Freud concentrated on the sexual nature of many or most of these urges, and the psychic mechanisms by which human beings try to repress or control them (via psychological techniques such as displacement or repression).

But the experience of the Great War made Freud change his theory in recognition of the vast role he now thought was played by violence and a Death Drive, which matched and sometimes overcame the sex urge.

Whatever the changing details, Freud’s theory can be seen as just the most radical and drastic attack on the notion of the sensible, rational citizen which were widespread in this time, and at this place.

Leading not only Mason but countless other critics and commentators to speculate that there was something about the complexity of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and something about the thoroughness with which it collapsed, which led to the creation of so many anti-liberal and radical ideologies.

All the art exhibitions I’ve ever been to tend to praise and adulate 1900s Vienna as a breeding ground of amazing experiments in the arts and sciences. Many of them praise the artistic radicalism of a Loos or Schoenberg or Egon Schiele as a slap in the face to boring old bourgeois morality and aesthetics.

Not so many dwell on the really big picture which is that all these artistic innovations were the result of a massive collapse of the idea of a liberal society inhabited by rational citizens and that, in the political sphere, this collapse gave rise to new types of political movement, anti-liberal movements of the extreme left and extreme right, to the Communism and Fascism which were to tear Europe apart, lead to tens of millions of deaths and murder and torture, and the partition of Europe for most of the twentieth century.

PART THREE Foreign affairs

7. The Dual Alliance

In international affairs the thirty-six years between the Congress of Berlin in 1878 and the start of the Great War in 1914 were dominated by the Balkan Problem or the South Slav Question.

In the 1600s the Muslim Ottoman Empire had extended its reach right up to the walls of Vienna. The Ottomans were held off and pushed back so the border between Christendom and Islam hovered around south Hungary and Bulgaria. But the Balkans contained many ethnic groups and nationalities. Slowly, during the 19th century, Ottoman rule decayed causing two things to happen:

  1. individual ethnic groups or nations tried to assert their independence from the Ottoman Empire
  2. each time they did so tension flared up between Russia, who saw herself as protector of all the Slavs in the Balkans, and Austria-Hungary, who feared that the creation of a gaggle of independent states in the Balkans under Russian control would inflame her own minorities and undermine the empire

The Congress of Berlin was held in 1878 to try and adjudicate between the conflicting claims of Russia and Austria-Hungary, and the host of little countries who wanted independence from the Ottomans.

This section details the long history of the complex diplomatic policies adopted by successive foreign ministers of the empire, which all had more or less the same goal – to preserve the integrity and security of the empire – but changed in the light of changing events, such as the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78, and so on through to the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, the Young Turk revolution of 1908 which led to the Bosnian Crisis of the same year, and the Balkan Wars of 1912-13.

What’s striking or piquant is that the three autocracies – Prussia, Austria-Hungary and Russia – had a really profound interest in maintaining their semi-feudal reactionary regimes, and this was highlighted by the fact that they periodically signed variations on a Three Emperors Alliance (1881) – but that they kept allowing this fundamental interest to be decoyed by the festering sore of countless little conflicts and eruptions in the Balkans.

So that by 1907 Germany came to see its interests as tied to a strong Austria-Hungary which would prevent Russian expansion southwards; while Russia came to see itself as faced by a Germanic bloc and so sought alliance with France to counterweight the German threat. And so Europe was divided into two armed camps, an impression cemented when Italy joined a pact with Germany and Austria-Hungary, despite historic antagonism to Austria, with whom she had had to fight wars to regain territory in the north.

8. The Drift to war

One way of thinking about the First World War was that the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir apparent to the crown, was without doubt a scandalous event but that it gave the Austro-Hungarian Empire a golden opportunity to smack down cocky little Serbia and thus re-establish the empire’s authority in the Balkans, which had been steadily slipping for a generation as a) more Balkan states became independent or b) fell under the influence of Russia.

After all, the empire had intervened in 1908 to annex Bosnia-Herzegovina with a view to creating a South Slav bloc of nations under her protection. Seen from her angle, this was one more step of the same type. Although, admittedly, a risky one. Her annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908 led to a six-month-long diplomatic crisis which nearly sparked a European war, and there had been further, limited, Balkan Wars in 1912 and 1913. Most people thought this was more of the same.

So Austria issued a fierce ultimatum which was impossible to fulfil and prepared for a quick brutal suppression of Serbia. But she hadn’t anticipated that Russia would mobilise in favour of what was, after all, a small nation, with the result that the German military weighed in giving Austria-Hungary a promise of unconditional support; and when both of them saw Russia proceeding with its war mobilisation, the Germans mechanically and unthinkingly adopted the dusty old plan which had been perfected decades earlier, a plan to knock France out of any coming conflict with a quick surgical strike, just as they had back in 1870, before turning to the East to deal with a Russia they were sure was enfeebled after its humiliating defeat against Japan in 1905.

But the quick surgical strike against France failed because a) the French were supported by just enough of a British Expeditionary Force to stall the German advance and b) the Russians mobilised, attacked and advanced into East Prussia quicker than the Germans anticipated so that c) the German Chief of Staff Moltke made one of the most fateful decisions of the 20th century and decided to transfer some infantry corps from the Belgian wing of the German attack across Germany to staunch the Russian advance. Thus contributing to the German sweep across northern France coming to a grinding halt, to the failure of the Schlieffen Plan, and to four years of grinding stalemate.

All the parties to the war miscalculated, but it was arguably the Germans – with their bright idea of a quick strike to knock France out of the war – who did most to amplify it from yet another in a long line of Balkan Wars to an international conflagration.

What comes over from this section is the hopeless inability of historians to come to a clear decision. Some historians, apparently, think Austria-Hungary’s foreign policy in the decade leading up to war was aggressive; others think it was impeccably defensive.

There is no doubt that the emperor was devoted to peace. Franz Joseph ruled the empire from 1848, when he was 18, to 1916, when he was 86, and if there was one thing he’d learned it was that whenever Austria went to war, she lost. And he was proved right.

9. War Guilt and the South Slav Question

On one level the problem was simple: about twice as many Slavs lived inside the empire (7.3 million) as outside (3.3 million). In the age of nationalism it was unlikely that the ultimate unification of these Slavs could be prevented. The question was: would this unification take place within the empire’s border i.e. at Serbia’s expense; or outside the empire’s borders, under Serbian leadership a) at the cost of the empire losing land (including most of its coastline in Dalmatia) and Slav population to Serbia b) the new Serbian state itself coming under the strong influence of Russia.

Mason discusses how this threat could possibly have been averted if the empire had made any sort of overtures to the Serbs, had courted the South Slavs. All Serbia wanted was better terms of trade and access to the sea. Refusal to countenance even this much resulted from the Austria-Hungarian Monarchy’s internal tensions, above all from the entrenched but anxious rule of the Germans and Magyars, nearly but not quite majorities in their own domains. Their inflexibility brought those domains crashing down around their ears.

10. World War One and the Collapse of the Empire

The book goes on to emphasise that, just because the empire collapsed suddenly at the end of the Great War, doesn’t mean it was doomed to. In fact for most of the four year war onlookers expected it to last, and spent their time speculating about the territorial gains or losses it would have made, but not that it would disappear.

He gives a military account of the war which emphasises the simple fact that the much-vaunted Austro-Hungarian army was simply not up to the task its politicians had set it. Chief of the General Staff Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf intended at the outbreak to take out Serbia with a lightning strike, then move his corps north to Galicia to face the Russians who it was expected would mobilise slowly. But the Austro-Hungarians were repelled by ‘plucky Serbia’ and Conrad moved his forces north too slowly to prevent disastrous defeats to the Russians, who seized Galicia and Bukovina before Christmas.

In the first few months the empire lost 750,000 fighting men and a high percentage of their best officers. It’s a miracle they were able to carry on which they did, but at the cost of taking injections of better trained, better-armed German troops (remember the proud, tall, well dressed, well-fed Reich German soldiers lording it over their starving Austrian allies in the final chapters of The Good Soldier Svejk) and coming more or less under German military command.

Amazingly, in spring the following year, 1915, combined Austrian-Germany forces drove the Russians out of Galicia and seized most of Poland, defeated the numerically stronger Italian army along the Isonzo River. By 1916 the Alliance powers controlled a substantial slice of foreign territory (Poland, Russia, parts of the Balkans) and seemed to be sitting pretty.

The Austrian Social Democrat Otto Bauer wrote a book about the collapse of the empire, The Austrian Revolution, in 1925 which argued that the empire defined itself by its opposition to Tsarist Russia and dependency on Hohenzollern Germany. Certainly when the Bolsheviks seized power in St Petersburg and sued for peace, half the reason for fighting – and even be scared of the Slav menace – disappeared at a stroke.

Internal collapse

As we’ve seen, the Austrian parliament ceased to function properly before 1910 and government was run by civil servants and made by decree (the background to the novels of Franz Kafka with their infinitely complex and incomprehensible bureaucracies). Parliament was suspended from March 1914 to May 1917 because the ruling classes feared it would simply become a forum for criticism of the Crown. In 1916 the prime minister Count Stürgkh was assassinated. On November 1916 the Emperor Franz Joseph died and the crown passed to his great-nephew Archduke Charles, aged 29. The change in leadership gave an opportunity for the central powers to approach the Entente with suggestions for peace in December 1916, which, however, foundered on Germany’s refusal to cede territory back to France.

When Charles was crowned in Hungary he missed the opportunity to force the Hungarian prime minister to consider reforms, to extend the franchise, to give more rights to the non-Magyar minorities, and generally to compromise. On one level, the failure to effect any reform at all in the basic structure of the Dual Monarchy, led to its collapse.

But the most important event was the overthrow of the Romanov dynasty. If the Romanovs, why not the Hapsburgs? When Charles allowed parliament to sit again in summer 1917 initially the calls weren’t for dissolution, but for reform which gave the nationalities autonomy and rights. But during the summer Czech radicals published a manifesto calling for an independent Czech-Slovak state.

The winter of 1917-18 was harsh with widespread food shortages. There were widespread strikes. In the spring Czech prisoners of war began returning from Russian camps bearing revolutionary ideas. But the Hapsburgs were not overthrown. Mason suggests this is because what in Russia were clear, class-based animosities and movements, in Austria-Hungary were diverted into nationalist channels.

Even when America joined the war in April 1917, the Allies still didn’t call for the overthrow of the empire but its reform to give the nationalities more say. According to Mason what finally changed the Allies mind was the German offensive in Spring 1918. It became clear Austria-Hungary wouldn’t or couldn’t detach itself from Germany, and so the Allies now threw themselves behind plans to undermine the empire from within i.e. supporting Czech, Polish and Slav politicians in their calls for the abolition of the monarchy. In the summer they supported the Czechs. In September 1918 they recognised a Czech-Slovak state. Unlike the other minorities the Czechs existed entirely inside the empire, to recognising their independent state was effectively recognising the dismemberment of the empire.

The failure of the German spring offensive in the West, and the Austrian summer offensive against Italy spelled the end. In September Bulgaria sued for peace. In October Austria and Germany asked President Wilson to intervene. At the end of October the Czechs and Yugoslavs proclaimed their independence, followed by the Magyars and the Poles. On 11 November 1918 Emperor Charles abdicated. The Hapsburg Monarchy ceased to exist.

PART FOUR Assessments

Mason recaps some of the arguments about the fate of the Austro-Hungarian Empire which, by now, I feel I have heard hundreds of times. For example, that right up to the end most commentators did not expect the empire to collapse but for the strongest minorities, such as the Czechs, to successfully argue for parity with the Magyars, for more rights and privileges. Karl Marx thought the nations without history needed to be tutored and guided by the more advanced ones i.e. the Germans.

One school sees the collapse as due to the internal contradictions i.e failure to address the nationality question i.e. failure for any serious politician at the top, even Franz Ferdinand, even Charles, to do anything to palliate the nationalities demands which would have meant diluting the stranglehold of the German-Magyar ruling elites. The elites never accepted the nationalities question as a fundamental issue, but always as a problem which could be temporarily dealt with by clever tactics.

A completely opposite view holds that it was the First World War and the First World War alone which led to the collapse of the empire. Supporting this view is the fact that even radical critics and keen slavophiles like the Englishmen Seton-Watson and Wickham Steed as late as 1913 thought the empire was growing, and simply needed to be converted into a federal arrangement of more autonomous states, maybe like Switzerland.

PART FIVE Documents

Nineteen documents kicking off with hardcore economic tables showing, for example, populations of the various nationalities, index of Austrian industrial production, Austria’s share of world trade, steel production, harvest yields.

More interesting to the average reader are:

  • Mark Twain’s eye witness account of the army marching into parliament to suspend the sitting discussing  the 1897 legislation to make Czech equal with German in Bohemia and Moravia, which spilled out into riots in Vienna and Prague
  • Leon Trotsky’s impressions of the Austrian socialist leaders i.e they are smug and self satisfied and the extreme opposite of revolutionary
  • an extract from the memoir of George Clare who was a Jew raised in Vienna and gives a vivid sense of the frailty of Jewish identity, the assimiliated Jews’ shame about his caftaned, ringleted Yiddish cousin but also his sneaking envy for their authenticity – this is exactly the sentiment expressed by Kafka in his reflections on the Jews
  • the impact of Vienna on the young Adolf Hitler, who lived in Vienna from 1908 to 1913 and a) hugely respected the anti-semitic mayor Karl Lueger and b) loathed the multi-ethnic culture and especially the ubiquity of Jews
  • memoirs of the Jewish socialist leader Julius Braunthal, who emphasises the peculiarly powerful fermenting role played by Jews in all aspects of Austrian life, society and culture
  • a society hostess describing the meeting in 1902 between Rodin and Gustav Klimt

And then excerpts from more official documents, being a letter from the leader of the 1848 revolution, the key articles from the Dual Alliance of 1879, prime minister Aehrenthal’s proposed solution to the South Slav problem, census figures about Slavs inside the empire, a report on relations between Serbia and Austria-Hungary,


Related links

Other blog posts about the First World War

Art & music

Books

A Hunger Artist and other stories by Franz Kafka

A Hunger Artist is a collection of four short stories by Franz Kafka published in Germany in 1924, the last collection that Kafka himself prepared for publication. Kafka corrected the proofs during his final illness but the book was only published several months after his death. The first English translations of the stories, by Willa and Edwin Muir, were published in 1948, in the larger collection titled The Penal Colony.

They are all relatively short stories (compared to the 60 or so pages of The Metamorphosis). They are all odd, peculiar, non-naturalistic stories, having the feel of dreams or fables. They all seem to point to a truth or meaning beyond themselves, just out of reach. And it’s noticeable that three of the four have a circus setting, or involve animals, as did some of the stories in A Country Doctor.

First Sorrow (3 pages)

An account of a trapeze artist, married to and obsessed by his trade. It is typical of Kafka that the man lives in his trapeze, that food has to be hoisted up to him in special containers, merely retiring to one side when other performers perform, that he loves the height, the sense of freedom, specially when the windows round the top are opened.

But he hates travelling of any kind, in the city will only submit to being taken anywhere if it’s in the manager’s sports car, and from city to city, when travelling by train, has such sensitive nerves that he and the manager take a whole compartment to themselves and the trapeze artist sleeps in the luggage rack.

On one train journey the trapeze artist surprises the manager by asking for two trapezes to be set up for him to use. The manager, who clearly pampers the trapeze artist, immediately agrees. Nevertheless the trapeze artist is sad, and for the first time the manager sees worry lines and tears trickling down his face as he sleeps.

So that’s what the title, First Sorrow, turns out to mean. It is an elusive, elliptical story.

A Little Woman (8 pages)

This is very reminiscent of the fabric and feel of Kafka’s longer fiction, The Castle in particular, in the way it consists of a long, convoluted and tortuous meditation on a relationship between the narrator and one other character.

It simply starts off by describing a thin woman known to the narrator, and then explains that, for some unknown reason, she is permanently vexed and irritated by him, and from there passes into ever-more complex over-thinking of why that might be, and what it might mean, and the many possible reasons for her vexation, and whether it’s a performance solely for public consumption, and so on and so on and so on.

It is all done in Kafka’s characteristic block paragraphs which I find challenging to read.

Perhaps she hopes that once public attention is fixed on me a general public rancour against me will rise up and use all its great powers to condemn me definitively much more effectively and quickly than her relatively feeble private rancour could do; she would then retire into the background, draw a breath of relief, and turn her back on me. Well, if that is what her hopes are really set on, she is deluding herself. Public opinion will not take over her role; public opinion would never find me so infinitely objectionable, even under its most powerful magnifying glass. I am not so altogether useless a creature as she thinks; I don’t want to boast and especially not in this connection; but if I am not conspicuous for specially useful qualities, I am certainly not conspicuous for the lack of them; only to her, only to her almost bleached eyes, do I appear so, she won’t be able to convince anyone else. So in this respect I can feel quite reassured, can I? No, not at all; for if it becomes generally known that my behavior is making her positively ill, which some observers, those who most industriously bring me information about her, for instance, are not far from perceiving, or at least look as if they perceived it, and the world should put questions to me, why am I tormenting the poor little woman with my incorrigibility, and do I mean to drive her to her death, and when am I going to show some sense and have enough decent human feeling to stop such goings-on — if the world were to ask me that, it would be difficult to find an answer. Should I admit frankly that I don’t much believe in these symptoms of illness, and thus produce the unfavourable impression of being a man who blames others to avoid being blamed himself, and in such an ungallant manner? And how could I say quite openly that even if I did believe that she were really ill, I should not feel the slightest sympathy for her, since she is a complete stranger to me and any connection between us is her own invention and entirely one-sided. I don’t say that people wouldn’t believe me; they wouldn’t be interested enough to get so far as belief; they would simply note the answer I gave concerning such a frail, sick woman, and that would be little in my favour. Any answer I made would inevitably come up against the world’s incapacity to keep down the suspicion that there must be a love affair behind such a case as this, although it is as clear as daylight that such a relationship does not exist, and that if it did it would come from my side rather than hers, since I should be really capable of admiring the little woman for the decisive quickness of her judgment and her persistent vitality in leaping to conclusions, if these very qualities were not always turned as weapons against me.

It amounts to a brief specimen of the kind of endlessly self-questioning, over-ratiocination which makes the novels so very long and, often, such hard going, a fine example of the way Kafka can spin an inordinate amount of verbiage out of the simplest relationship.

In a sense this short excerpt demonstrates the technique by which Kafka assembles the longer texts to create the structure of the novels: the technique being to line up a series of encounters with officials from the Court, and then subject each one to a mind-bogglingly over-elaborated, hyper-sensitive, and rather menacing over-thinking of every possible nuance and conceivable double, triple and quadruple interpretation of all possible permutations of thinking and worrying about it.

Until you end up with entire paragraphs which appear to be saying something but which are, on closer examination, almost empty, as the narrator himself at one point acknowledges.

And on closer reflection it appears that the developments which the affair seems to have undergone in the course of time are not developments in the affair itself, but only in my attitude to it, insofar as that has become more composed on the one hand, more manly, penetrating nearer the heart of the matter, while on the other hand, under the influence of the continued nervous strain which I cannot overcome, however slight, it has increased in irritability.

A Hunger Artist (11 pages)

As I’ve noted in my reviews of the novels, a key element of the Kafka style is entropy, meaning that everything, large and small, literal or symbolic, falls away, declines, decays and dies.

The protagonists of The Trial and The Castle and The Metamorphosis die in the end, the Officer of In The Penal Colony dies, the man waiting at the door of the Law dies. And thus it is that, following the general pattern, the Hunger Artist as well wastes away and dies.

And, just like in The Trial or the Penal Colony or the Door of the Law, his last words contain a message pregnant with meaning and poignancy.

The text is told by a narrator looking back wistfully at an earlier time, a tone which immediately reminds us of The Great Wall of China. Back in those days, back in the good old days, fasting was an art which was widely appreciated and the Hunger Artist was the leader in his field. He was paraded around in a barred cage, wearing a black swimsuit, his ribs sticking out, setting up in a new town or city every forty days, and charging admission to admiring crowds who came to point and ooh and mock or admire his heroic efforts to survive on no food for forty days.

Why forty days? Well, on an interpretative level this is obviously a number fraught with religious meaning, since Jesus went into the wilderness to fast for forty days and nights, and this story itself was possibly invented to mirror the forty days and nights of the Biblical flood told in the book of Genesis.

But in the story it is simply because the artist’s commercially minded manager has discovered that forty days is about as long as you can milk an audience in any given own or city before they start to get bored and he has to move on.

The middle part of the text describes the Hunger Artist’s unhappiness and disgust at the way people don’t believe he’s really fasting, the way the guards set to watch over him don’t really believe him, and so on.

But then the narrator describes how a great change comes over society, fashions change, pastimes change, and people lost interest in fasting as a spectator sport. The manager tries a last whistle-stop tour of cities to rouse audiences, but people just weren’t interested any more. Should the Hunger Artist take up a new profession? He’s too old to learn new tricks. And anyway, it is his life’s work.

So he signs up to join a circus, although he finds his cage being set up in the narrow walkways the crowds walk along to get to the far more exciting animal cages. He has become a back number. People hurry past his cage or stop to mock.

Strictly speaking, he was only an impediment on the way to the menagerie.

Children ask their parents what it means and what he does. But the parents struggle to explain:

You try explaining fasting to someone! Unless a person feels it he can never be made to understand it.

His keeper initially marks a record of the days fasted on a wooden plaque stuck on the bars of his cage, but eventually forgets to do this, then forgets about the artist altogether. See what I mean by entropy.

One day a new supervisor demands to know the purpose of this empty cage and no-one can remember what it’s for. Mixed in with the straw is a stick. When they poke it the stick it talks. It is the Hunger Artist. The rough proley nature of the workers is well conveyed in the J.A. Underwood translation, as the workers listen to the Hunger Artist’s last confession. He only fasted, he explains in a weak whisper, because he never found anything he wanted to eat.

And with this poignant confession he expires, the circus labourers clear out his cage and instal a virile young panther in it which draws the crowds with its awesome power.

The Hunger Artist feels like a fable or parable or allegory of awesome importance, with Biblical resonances and some deep meaning for all of us. But what is that meaning exactly, is it historical or psychological or political or sociological… Kafka has left a century of critics and commentators to discuss.

Coming with a deep interest in history I note that the final years of the Great War saw widespread starvation in Germany and Austro-Hungary due to the Allied blockade on all shipping which prevented the importation of foodstuffs. And one of the Axis powers’ grievances was that the blockade continued for seven months after the armistice of November 1918, up until the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919.

Thus real hunger, the actual starvation of men women and children was a spectacle Kafka and all Germans would have been bitterly familiar with.

Then again, those who prefer biographical explanations will point to the fact Kafka himself throughout his adult life subjected himself to an increasingly strict diet, which began with vegetarianism and became progressively more strict and self denying until he in fact died of untreatable laryngeal tuberculosis, which closed up his throat until he could neither eat nor drink and literally starved to death.

But you don’t need to know either of these background facts to respond to the power of the story. It is the way the subject has been turned into not just fiction, but into a story with the roundedness and finish and fairy tale perfection of a fable or allegory or parable, which counts.

Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk (19 pages)

The narrator writes like a person drafting a long critical essay examining a contemporary artist from a variety of sociological angles, except that, as the story progresses, the reader realises that the narrator is a mouse and that he is talking about the ‘famous’ mouse singer Josephine.

I’ve repeatedly mentioned the way things in Kafka’s stories decline and fall away, and the way this even happens within individual sentences, in the way a sentence sets off to make a statement and finds itself contradicting its opening, qualifying and balancing and introducing doubts and numerous clauses which successively weaken the opening until it is often abolished and erased.

Even Kafka’s sentences display a death wish.

That pattern is very visible in this, Kafka’s final story. The narrator opens by telling us that Josephine is the mouse people’s greatest and most popular singer and makes a few supporting statements about how important she is to her people.

But this breezy opening is then subjected to eighteen pages of criticism and undermining. It comes out that her ‘singing’ might in fact not be strictly speaking ‘singing’ after all. In fact it might very much be like the sound every other mouse makes, which is a common or garden squeak. In fact Josephine’s squeaking might, in fact, even be weaker and less impressive than the average mouse’s. If this is so, what on earth gives her the extraordinary power and influence she holds over mousekind?

And it is to the investigation of this apparent mystery, with long, multi-claused sentences, hedging his own conclusions, balancing interpretations and weighing possible theories, that the narrator turns to ponder with all the weighty orotundity of a learned German professor.

How to explain that at some public concerts, other mice have gotten excited and let out squeaks, and those squeaks were every bit as good as Josephine’s if not better? Is her popularity something to do with the history and struggle of her people, his people?

A thought which gives rise to a long series of reflections on the life of mice, how they are born into struggle, into a life of anxiety, small and weak and surrounded by enemies, by ‘the enemy’.

It was impossible, for me at any rate, not to think about Kafka’s Jewishness and wonder to what extent these repeated and heartfelt descriptions of a scattered, weak race oppressed by stronger neighbours, is a not very coded reference to his Jewish peers.

Our life is very uneasy, every day brings surprises, apprehensions, hopes, and terrors, so that it would be impossible for a single individual to bear it all did he not always have by day and night the support of his fellows; but even so it often becomes very difficult…

This mass of our people who are almost always on the run and scurrying hither and thither for reasons that are often not very clear…

Laughter for its own sake is never far away from us; in spite of all the misery of our lives quiet laughter is always, so to speak, at our elbows…

One might think that our people are not fitted to exercise such paternal duties, but in reality they discharge them, at least in this case, admirably; no single individual could do what in this respect the people as a whole are capable of doing. To be sure, the difference in strength between the people and the individual is so enormous that it is enough for the nursling to be drawn into the warmth of their nearness and he is sufficiently protected.

But for all the occasions that the reader can impose onto sentences like these a meaning to do with the Jewish community of Prague or Berlin or Central Europe, there are plenty of other sections which are patently just descriptions of mice, with their impatience, tendency to gossip and to squeak at the slightest provocation.

In other words, the narrative sometimes approaches what you could call a real-world interpretation but then veers away, into fiction, subsumed into the vividness of the allegory or fable.

Whenever we get bad news – and on many days bad news comes thick and fast at once, lies and half-truths included – she rises up at once, whereas usually she sits listlessly on the ground, she rises up and stretches her neck and tries to see over the heads of her flock like a shepherd before a thunderstorm…

The more you read on, the more you realise the text is as much or more an analysis of The Mouse Folk as of Josephine herself, and hence its sub-title. And, while you read on, the figure of Josephine becomes less and less of a singer and more and more of a unifying symbol of hope for an embattled people.

Josephine’s thin piping amidst grave decisions is almost like our people’s precarious existence amidst the tumult of a hostile world.

But by half-way through you have come to realise that the story is more like a parable about art and the artist and the artist or storyteller’s ability to give comfort and solace to his ‘people’ no matter how inadequate and ordinary his voice.

It is more the symbolism and the staging of the artist’s performances and what they mean for his or her listeners or readers which matters, it is the psychological unifying and healing it offers, than the actual ‘quality’.

Squeaking is our people’s daily speech, only many a one squeaks his whole life long and does not know it, where here [in Josephine’s performances] squeaking is set free from the fetters of daily life and it sets us free too for a little while…

And where he writes squeaking, he means speaking, and in fact means writing.


Related links

These are links to modern translations of the stories available online.

Related reviews

Dates are dates of composition.

The Plantagenets (2) by Dan Jones (2012)

Part two of my summary of Dan Jones’s rip-roaring, boys-own-adventure, 600-page-long account of the history of the Plantagenet kings and queens (1154-1400).

Episodes

It becomes clearer in the second half of the book that each of the book’s short chapters (average length 9 pages) begins with a dramatic moment or colourful scene which grabs our attention. And then Jones goes back a bit to explain how it came about, what led up to it and what it meant.

This helps explain why the book feels so popular and gripping, because, on one level, it supplies a steady sequence of 85 (there are 85 chapters) dramatic, exciting or colourful moments. This became particularly obvious in a sequence of chapters about the early reign of Edward III:

When Parliament met in March 1337, a hum of excitement and agitation settled over Westminster… (New Earls, New Enemies)

On 26 January 1340, Edward III entered the Flemish city of Ghent, with his entire household accompanying him, including his heavily pregnant queen, who was carrying the couple’s sixth child in ten years… (The Hundred Years War Begins)

As dusk approached on the evening of 24 June 1340, six months after he had declared himself king of the best part of western Europe, Edward stood aboard his flagship, the cog Thomas… and watched the sea offshore from Sluys, in Flanders, churn with the blood of tens of thousands of Frenchmen… (Edward at Sea)

Violent seas threw the king’s boat about for three days as it stuttered from the coast of Flanders to the mouth of the Thames. It was the very end of November 1340, and with winter approaching it was more dangerous than usual to venture a Channel crossing… (The Crisis of 1341)

In the heat of July 1346 the English army marched through a broken, hell-bright landscape of coastal Normandy. All around them fields were lit up in ghastly orange by marauding bands of arsonists… (Dominance)

The English summer of 1348 was wet, but in defiance of the weather the country fairly blazed with glory. The king had returned to England in October the previous month in triumph… (The Death of a Princess)

You get the idea. The way the chapters don’t have numbers but snappy or sensational titles also helps give you the impression that what you’re reading is less like a traditional history and more like a poolside thriller.

Henry III and Prince Edward

We left our heroes in the last days of the weak and malleable king, Henry III – years which saw the rise of his tough, warrior son, Prince Edward (b.1239).

Prince Edward led the Royalist army at the Battle of Lewes on 14 May 1264, the first set piece battle on English soil in a century. The rebels won, capturing the King, Lord Edward, and Richard of Cornwall, Henry’s brother and the titular King of Germany. This led to the Great Parliament of 1265 (also known as Montfort’s Parliament). For the first time representatives were invited from all the counties and selected boroughs of England. Voting rights were discussed. All this was the seeds of modern democracy, more accurately part of the ongoing detailed process whereby successive Plantagenet kings found themselves forced to consult, first with the barons and nobles and then, by the reign of Richard II (1377-99) with the ‘commons’, the knights and justices of the shires.

But Prince Edward managed to escape from captivity and rallied royalist nobles as well as Welsh rebels and this led to a pitched battle with de Montfort’s forces at Evesham, which was a decisive royalist victory. Jones describes how a 12-man hit squad was commissioned to roam the battlefield, ignoring everything, with the sole task of finding and killing de Montfort. They succeeded. His body was mutilated, his testicles, hands and feet cut off. To later generations he became a sort of patron saint of representative government. Today De Montfort University in Leicester is named after him.

Henry III was once again titular king but he was a broken, dithering old man. The real power in the land was his forceful and energetic son, Edward (named after Henry’s icon, Edward the Confessor) who turned out to be a very different character from the saintly Saxon.

Edward I (1272-1307) ‘a great and terrible king’

Edward’s career divides into roughly four parts:

1. Growth to maturity under his father Henry (1239-1272). This involved him in the complex problems caused by his father’s weakness and the malign influence of his mother’s foreign relations, the de Lusignan family, all of which climaxed in the Barons Wars, in which rebels against royal authority were led by Simon de Montfort. These forces won the battle of Lewes in 1264 and de Montfort was for a few years effectively ruler of England, but were then comprehensively crushed and de Montfort killed at the Battle of Evesham in 1265. The civil war dragged on for a few more years, with individual rebels being picked off or offered concessions and peace.

2. Crusade (1270-74). Edward mulcted the country to raise the money to go on the Ninth Crusade and, unlike his immediate forebears, actually managed to leave, but the crusade proved to be a fiasco in several ways. For a start the leader, French King Louis IX of France allowed himself to be persuaded by his brother, Charles of Anjou, who had made himself King of Sicily, to sail not to Palestine but to attack his enemies in the coast of Tunisia, who were harrying Sicily. By the time Edward arrived Louis had signed a peace with the emir leaving Edward and his army with nothing to do. Undeterred they sailed for the Holy Land.

Here the situation was poor. Jerusalem had fallen 50 years earlier leaving Acre the centre of the diminished Crusader state and this was menaced by the overwhelming force of Baibars, leader of the Mamluks. After a few feeble sorties Edward had to stand by while Hugh III king of Jerusalem made a treaty with the Mamluks, who were themselves menaced by the encroaching Mongols in the north. The only notable event of Edward’s crusade is when an assassin was allowed into his private chambers and stabbed him. Edward managed to kill the attacker but was seriously wounded and took months to recover.

With the signing of the peace treaty there was little more to do, so he reluctantly packed up and headed back to England. En route he learned that his father had died but instead of rushing back took nearly a year to return, attending to business in his province of Gascony, then having an audience with the French king at which he renewed his vows of fealty i.e. that he held Gascony as a servant of the French King.

Wales Edward is famous for his wars of conquest in Wales and Scotland. Wales came first. It was ruled by Llywelyn ap Gruffudd who had benefited from the Barons Wars and slowly intimidated his way to rule over more and more of the other Welsh princes from his base in the northern province of Gwynned. Eventually, Llywelyn’s aggressive policies triggered a response from Edward who invaded with an overwhelming force in a carefully calculated campaign. In less than a year he had forced Llywelyn ap Gruffudd to retreat. Edward built enormous castles to act as permanent English powerbases as he and his army progressed through north Wales. After Llywelyn sued for peace he was made to perform fealty to Edward, hand over hostages, pay fines, and then travel to Westminster to perform submission, again.

In 1284 Edward issued the Statute of Rhuddlan that annexed Wales and made it a province of England. The title Prince of Wales was handed to Edward’s eldest son, Prince Edward (later Edward II) – a tradition that continues to this day.

Scotland Edward was so relentless in his attacks against the Scots that after his death he became known as ‘Scottorum malleus’ – the Hammer of the Scots. In 1287 Alexander III, King of Scots, died suddenly after falling from his horse. The succession crisis that followed presented Edward with a golden opportunity to expand on his conquest of Wales. In the absence of an obvious heir, the Scottish crown looked set to pass to Alexander’s infant grand-daughter, Margaret, the daughter of the King of Norway, hence the folk name she acquired, the ‘Maid of Norway’. But all elaborate plans centring on her collapsed when she died en route to Scotland.

With rival claimants vying for the crown Edward was invited by the senior nobles of Scotland to judge the claims and make the choice. This was a golden opportunity and Edward exploited it insisting that he be recognised as feudal overlord of the Scots before a new Scots king be appointed. The two strongest claimants were Robert Bruce and John Balliol. After much machination Balliol was appointed king, but on the understanding that he did so as vassal to Edward.

Edward rode Scotland hard, demanding high taxes and soldiers for his wars in Wales and Gascony. In 1295 the Scots signed a mutual aid treaty with France, an alliance which was to last centuries and come to be known as ‘the Auld Alliance’.

Edward launched a brutal attack, taking Berwick, which the Scots had occupied, slaughtering the inhabitants before pushing on into Scotland and decisively defeating the Scots at the Battle of Dunbar 1296. Balliol was captured, stripped of his ceremonial trappings, and sent to prison in England, while Edward’s army returned south laden with loot including the legendary stone of Scone, also known as the Stone of Destiny, which was placed under the throne in Westminster Abbey.

However the Scots, like the Welsh, refused to accept defeat, and rebellions broke out in the highlands and lowlands, the latter led by William Wallace who managed to defeat the army Edward sent against him at the Battle of Stirling Bridge 11 September 1297. At which point Edward marched north with another army and defeated Wallace at the Battle of Falkirk. Wallace was later captured and sent south to London where he was brutally tortured and executed.

However Robert Bruce, who lost the contest for the crown in 1295, won support among the Scots nobles and had himself crowned King of Scotland in 1306. As he hadn’t asked permission of Edward, the English king once again marched north, defeated the Scots in a series of battles and forced Robert to flee. However, the Bruce refused to admit defeat, gathered his forces, and made renewed attacks on isolated English garrisons in 1307. Not even the capture and execution of key Bruce supporters (including members of Bruce’s own family) could reverse the tide.

Yet again Edward marched north but on 7 July 1307, within sight of Scotland in sight, the 68-year-old king died at Burgh-on-Sands. The campaign for the conquest of Scotland passed on to his son, Edward II who was, to the Scots’ relief, and shadow of his brutal and implacable father. In 1314 Bruce was to rout a larger English force at Bannockburn. Recognition of Scotland’s sovereignty came at the start of the reign of Edward’s grandson, Edward III, in 1328.

The Jews Usury i.e. lending money out at interest, was banned to Christians, but kings and merchants needed funds so money-lending tended to be a specialist activity of England’s small Jewish community of maybe 2,000. This activity and their status as outsiders to the laws of the land made them vulnerable to victimisation. In 1275 Edward issued the Statute of Jewry that imposed severe taxation on the Jewish population of England. The Statute proved both lucrative and popular, so Edward extended the policy and in 1290 expelled the entire Jewish community from England – minus their money and property. The money raised went directly into his expensive campaigns in Scotland and Wales.

Edward II (1307-27)

The revelation for me was how unpopular Edward II was even before he became king. Edward I fathered no fewer than 14 children but with the deaths of most of the older ones, young prince Edward of Carnarfon emerged as the heir and favourite. But even by the time he was a teenager he was already proving a disappointment. There are records of numerous violent arguments between father and son, not least as Edward fell under the hypnotic spell of the charismatic Piers Gaveston.

It is difficult to establish at a distance of eight hundred years just what their relationship really amounted to but Jones points out that the accusations of homosexuality which later gathered round the relationship only really appear in the chronicles after Edward’s death in 1327. From Edward’s recorded words and writings during his reign, it seems that he regarded Gaveston more as a beloved adopted brother, who he blindly hero worshipped. Gaveston joined Edward’s household in 1300 and was tried and executed in 1312 and during this time caused havoc. He was dilettantish and rapacious, greedy for titles.

Gaveston stage-managed Edward II’s coronation, shocking the assembled nobility of England by rudely sidelining Edward’s queen, Isabella, daughter of the powerful King Philip IV of France. His behaviour alienated numerous groups and noble families who first protested and forced the king to send him into exile, then, when Gaveston returned, and then rose against the king. Edward II’s reign comes to its first climax with the seizure and execution of Gaveston by a kangaroo court led by the Earl of Lancaster, in 1312. The polarisation of the aristocracy led to several years of confrontation between the armed camps and it was during this period that the Scots won their great victory at the Battle of Bannockburn in June 1314.

The sense of ill omen about Edward’s reign was compounded by the Great Famine of 1315-17. For three years in a row there was unusual amounts of rainfall in the spring and summer which ruined crops. There was widespread famine and reports of cannibalism. It is thought that population had been rising since the time of the Norman Conquest but now it came to a dead halt and declined. The famine undermined belief in the church and the efficacy of prayer, and also in the secular authorities who proved hopeless at alleviating starvation.

But having eliminated Gaveston did not change Edward II’s dependence and he switched his allegiance to the Despenser family, in particular Hugh Despenser the Younger with whom he became close friends. The same problems arose again, which is that the king gave disproportionate amounts of land and favours and honours to the Despensers and their extended family, perpetuating the party opposed to Edward.

In 1321, once again led by the Earl of Lancaster, the rebellious barons seized the Despensers’ lands and forced the king to exile them. Edward led a short military campaign, capturing and executing Lancaster and restoring Despensers grip on power. The cabal set about executing their enemies and confiscating their estates, particularly of the Mortimer family who had become one of the leading opponents and now fled to France.

The French king took advantage of the turmoil in England to make attacks on Plantagenet territory in France, particularly Aquitaine. Lacking the money or support from his nobles to launch any kind of military campaign, in 1325 Edward sent his queen, Isabella, to negotiate a peace treaty but by now she had had quite enough of a king who did nothing but snub her and load his favourites with wealth and honour. Isabella not only refused to return but quickly fell into league with the exiled noble Roger Mortimer and scandalised opinion by taking him as her lover.

In 1326 they landed with a small army in East Anglia and, as they marched across the country, more and more local nobles rallied to the cause. As his regime collapsed around him, Edward was forced to flee to Wales where he was captured in November. The king was forced to relinquish his crown in January 1327 in favour of his 14-year-old son, Edward III, and he died in Berkeley Castle on 21 September, probably murdered on the orders of the new regime.

Edward III (1327-77)

In Jones’s account Edward’s reign falls into roughly three periods. For the first three years, as a boy, he was under the guardianship of his mother Isabella and her lover Roger Mortimer, who proved every bit as rapacious as the former king had been. As soon as he was old enough, in 1330 Edward launched a coup against them. Isabella was exiled to a provincial castle but Mortimer was formally tried for arrogating royal power, found guilty and hanged at Tyburn.

Part two of his life is the central period from 1330 to 1360, during which Edward emerged as possibly the greatest of all the Plantaganet kings. He:

  1. conducted successful campaigns to restore or establish English control of Wales, Scotland and key territories in mainland France, namely Aquitaine
  2. fathered a huge brood of children (ten), with three or four of the sons growing up to become powerful and successful soldiers, political figures and leaders in their own right, namely Edward the Black Prince b.1330
  3. realising the English aristocracy had been depleted by deaths in battle and also what had been in effect the civil war of Edward II’s reign, Edward cannily set about creating new earls and awarding them land around the kingdom, along with a new order of ‘dukes’, this creating a special bond between himself and the nobles of England
  4. Edward was fascinated by the legend of King Arthur and spent a fortune commissioning a room to hold a Round Table at Windsor, as well as instituting the noble Order of the Garter, as another way of binding together the English aristocracy

Edward was determined to seize back the territories in continental France which had been held by Henry II at the peak of the Plantagenet Empire. Over the next thirty years he launched a series of campaigns which led to the two ‘famous’ victories over French armies, at Crecy on 26 August 1346 and Poitiers on 19 September 1356. The latter battle was so decisive the English captured the French King John II and took him, and numerous other nobles, back to England to be ransomed.

Jones explains how Edward set about carefully allotting each of his adult sons a territory within his ’empire’ to manage, with the Black Prince being awarded Aquitaine, the duchy belonging to his great grandfather Richard the Lionheart. However, the Prince’s rule was troubled by three factors. He chose to get dragged into the affairs of Spain, taking the side of Don Pedro of Castile against his half-brother Henry of Trastámara. The Prince defeated Henry only to discover that Pedro was completely broke and couldn’t pay anything towards the huge loans the Prince had taken out to pay his mercenaries. This led directly to the second bad decision which was that the Prince was forced to impose onerous taxes on the nobles and people of Aquitaine, managing to alienate all of them. When the king of France came probing around the border of Aquitaine, towns opened their gates to him without a fight.

The third piece of bad luck was that during the campaign against Henry of Trastámara, the Prince picked up a recurrent fever, maybe malaria, which undermined the physical energy which had made him such a legend at Crecy and Poitiers. Increasingly enfeebled – having to be carried around in a sedan chair – he reacted savagely to his mounting problems. After the town of Limoges capitulated to the French king without a struggle, but was then retaken by English forces, the Prince ordered an indiscriminate slaughter of the civilian population in 1370. The Black Prince returned to England in 1371 and the next year resigned the principality of Aquitaine and Gascony. He lingered on, increasingly infirm, for five more years and died in 1376, the year before his father.

As the 1360s progressed, King Edward himself grew more infirm. Many of the close knit circle of contemporaries passed away. In 1364 King John II of France passed away and was succeeded by the vigorous and aggressive Charles V. Edward sent his son John of Gaunt with an army against Charles but the campaign was a failure. With the Treaty of Bruges in 1375, the once-great English possessions in France were reduced to the coastal towns of Calais, Bordeaux, and Bayonne.

Edward’s beloved wife Philippa of Hainault died in 1369. Grief-stricken, Edward took comfort in a long-running affair with a mistress, Alice Perrers. Discontent at home led to the convocation of the so-called Good Parliament in 1376, which was the longest parliament up to that time. As so often it was called to raise taxes for the crown, but was an opportunity for critics to vent their grievances and in particular gave voice to the so-called commons more than any previous meeting.

But the real power in the land at the end of Edward’s reign was his son John of Gaunt.

The Black Death

Plague came to England in 1348, arriving at Weymouth in Dorset, from Gascony in June 1348. By autumn, the plague had reached London, and by summer 1349 it covered the entire country, before dying down by December. The best current estimate is that, depending on region, between 40 and 60 percent of the population perished. Not so well known is that the plague returned in 1361–62 this time causing the death of around 20 percent of the population.

Leaving aside the horror and the despair the surprising thing, in Jones’s account at any rate, is how little impact this astonishing holocaust had on the economic, political, military or social structures of the day. The best known is that is resulted in a shortage of labour which lasted generations and, in effect, led to the end of feudal servitude.

Because he is interested in political history and, more precisely, in the stories of the kings conceived as Hollywood blockbusters, the plague makes remarkably little difference to Jones’s narrative. In 1356 England and France are back at war as if nothing had happened.

Richard II (1377-1399)

Richard was the second ill-fated king of the 14th century, destined, like Edward II, to be overthrown and, oddly, after nearly the same length of reign, 20 years for Edward II, 22 years for Richard II.

Richard was the son of Edward III’s oldest surviving son, Edward the Black Prince and so heir to the throne even though his father died before his grandfather. Having been born in 1367 he was only ten when he came to the throne and Jones gives a vivid description of his coronation and the surrounding festivities which – he speculates – deeply marked the boy, convincing him of his divine right to rule.

The common people, and the nobles, all hoped the arrival of a new young king would mark a turnaround from the sombre final years of Edward III’s reign. They also crowned him in a hurry because many feared that the mature and forceful John of Gaunt was himself scheming to seize the throne.

Early on he was controlled by a series of Regency Councils dominated by his uncles, John of Gaunt and Thomas of Woodstock, though their influence was contested. The ruling classes imposed a series of three poll taxes to raise money for continuing the war with France, and this was one of the spurs which led to a sudden outbreak of violence among serfs in Essex and Kent which quickly escalated into the Peasants’ Revolt. The revolt was a really serious violent revolution. The rebels took London, burning and looting, seized the Tower of London and murdered many leading notables including the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was also Lord Chancellor, and the king’s Lord High Treasurer, Robert Hales.

Richard played an astonishingly central role in quelling the revolt, personally intervening to meet the rebel leaders and organise an ambush whereby the main leader Wat Tyler was pulled from his horse and stabbed. When the mob surged forward Richard rode among them and shouted ‘I am your leader, follow me’, and they did follow him away from the scene of the murder and Richard’s militia was then able to disperse them.

Richard married Anne of Bohemia, daughter of Charles IV, the Holy Roman Emperor, on 20 January 1382, the empire being seen as potential allies against France in the ongoing Hundred Years’ War, but the marriage was unpopular, the alliance didn’t lead to a single military victory, and the marriage was childless. Anne died from plague in 1394, greatly mourned by her husband.

Richard’s reign was marked by two political crises, in 1386-88 and the final one in 1397-9.

First crisis 1386-88

Favourites Very like Edward II, Richard appointed a handful of devoted favourites who he lavished with honours and lands and positions. The fact that they came from merchant families without true aristocratic forebears, created great resentment among the rest of the nobility. There were Michael de la Pole, created chancellor in 1383 and Earl of Suffolk two years later. Worse was Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford, who Richard raised to the new title of Duke of Ireland in 1386. Their relationship was so close that later chroniclers speculated it was homosexual.

Failure in France and Scotland An expedition to France to protect English possessions was a failure. Richard decided to lead an expedition against Scotland but this also was a miserable failure as the Scots evaded a set-piece battle. Rumblings against the king was led by the Duke of Gloucester and Richard Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel.

The Wonderful Parliament (November 1386) Parliament was called in November 1386 and the unpopular chancellor, Michael de la Pole, asked for an unprecedented level for taxation to cover these military expeditions. The parliament blamed Richard for the military failures and said it couldn’t consider the issue till de la Pole was removed. The king dismissed their threat but was in the end forced to sack de la Pole. Parliament appointed a ‘continual council’ to supervise the king’s rule, a direct and humiliating attack on Richard’s royal prerogative.

As soon as the parliament had closed, Richard denounced all its actions and in the new year went on a prolonged tour of the country to drum up support and appointed de Vere Justice of Chester to build up a powerbase in Cheshire. Here he put great pressure on seven senior judges to annul the decisions of Parliament and denounce its leaders as traitors.

Radcot bridge 19 December 1387 On his return to London, the king was confronted by the Duke of Gloucester, Arundel and Thomas de Beauchamp, 12th Earl of Warwick, who brought an appeal of treason against de la Pole, de Vere, Tresilian, and two other loyalists, the mayor of London, Nicholas Brembre, and Alexander Neville, the Archbishop of York. Richard played for time and ordered de la Pole to bring loyalist forces from Chester.

Jones opens the relevant chapter with a wonderfully atmospheric account of the loyalist forces advancing under cover of fog towards the Thames but being confronted at Radcot Bridge by overwhelming rebel forces and being forced to swim his horse out into the Thames and escape downstream, ultimately fleeing to France.

The Merciless Parliament (February to June 1388) Parallel to his efforts to raise loyalist forces and seize back London, Richard had been involved in lengthy negotiations with the king of France whereby he would relinquish all England’s territory in France except for Aquitaine, for which he would proclaim himself the French king’s vassal. Rumours of these negotiations leaked out and led to fears that Richard might be prepared to countenance a French invasion of England, so long as he was returned to the throne.

Richard’s original opponents were now joined by John of Gaunt’s son Henry Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby, and Thomas de Mowbray, Earl of Nottingham and the group became known as the Lords Appellant because, with de Vere out of the way, they now made legal demands (or appeals) designed to dismantle the apparatus of Richard’s rule. Having dispersed the loyalist army at Radcot, the rebels now marched back to London where they found the king barricaded in the Tower of London which, however, they entered and confronted the king in person with accusations of treason. Apparently the Lords debated executing the king there and then – it came that close, executing their liege king to whom they were all related and who they were negotiating with – but decided against it and called another parliament.

The parliament convened in February 1388 and became known as the Merciless Parliament because the Lords revealed Richard’s treacherous plans with France, won over the Houses of Lords and the Commons and pushed ahead with legal actions to have almost all of Richard’s advisers convicted of treason. Two key figures in the administration, Brembre and Tresilian, were condemned and executed, while de Vere and de la Pole – who had both fled the country – were tried for treason and sentenced to death, then the Appellants went on to arraign, try and execute most of the rest of Richard’s inner circle.

It reads like something from the Terror of the French Revolution. Not only the leading nobles but retainers, clerks, chaplains, and secretaries to Richard were summarily condemned and executed. The seven judges who had been terrorised into denouncing the Lords Appellent, the year before in Chester, were all arrested, tried and executed. Richard’s chamber knights were tried and executed. Richard’s intermediaries who had been negotiating with France, were discovered and executed. No wonder it ended up being called the Merciless Parliament.

Restoration Amazingly, given that their power had been so absolute and the terror so thorough and Richard’s humiliation so complete, Richard returned to personal rule in 1389 and ruled more or less successfully for the next eight years. He was helped by the fact that, once the Lords Appellant had liquidated so many of their enemies, as a group they fell apart, reverting to their individual interests. One of the things which united them had been opposition to Richard’s peace policy with France but when they requested another round of taxation to further their war policy, Parliament baulked and the tide of opinion turned against them.

France and Ireland Richard therefore spent the next few years trying to finalise a peace treaty with France. Meanwhile the Anglo-Irish lords were begging for help against the insurgent Irish and in the autumn of 1394, Richard left for Ireland, where he remained until May 1395. His army of more than 8,000 men was the largest force brought to the island during the late Middle Age, the invasion was a success, and a number of Irish chieftains submitted to English overlordship.

Second crisis 1397-99

The last few years of Richard’s rule are referred to as the ‘tyranny’. The king had Gloucester, Arundel and Warwick arrested in July 1397. After years or reasonably peaceful rule, and bolstered by success in Ireland, Richard felt strong enough to safely retaliate against these three men for their role in events of 1386–88 and eliminate them as threats to his power. Arundel’s brother Thomas Arundel, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was exiled for life. Richard then set about persecuting his enemies around the regions of England. All the allies of the former Lords Apellant were arrested, tried and released only on payment of enormous fines.

The policy was made possible by the support of old John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and a suite of powerful magnates who Richard awarded with new titles and lands including the former Appellants Henry Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby, who was made Duke of Hereford, and Thomas de Mowbray, Earl of Nottingham, who was created Duke of Norfolk, John and Thomas Holland, the king’s half-brother and nephew, who were promoted from earls of Huntingdon and Kent to dukes of Exeter and Surrey respectively, the King’s cousin Edward, Earl of Rutland, who received Gloucester’s French title of Duke of Aumale, Gaunt’s son John Beaufort, Earl of Somerset, who was made Marquess of Somerset and Marquess of Dorset and so on.

The Shrewsbury parliament In 1398 Richard summoned a packed Parliament to Shrewsbury – known as the Parliament of Shrewsbury – which declared all the acts of the Merciless Parliament to be null and void, and announced that no restraint could legally be put on the king. It delegated all parliamentary power to a committee of twelve lords and six commoners chosen from the king’s friends, making Richard an absolute ruler unbound by the necessity of gathering a Parliament again.

The house of Lancaster John of Gaunt, son of Edward III, brother of Richard’s father the Black Prince, and so Richard’s uncle, had cast a long shadow over Richard’s reign. In the 1390s he had gone to Spain to pursue claims, through his wife, Constance of Castile, to the titles of King of Castile and León, but had returned in 1397. Next to the king he was the largest, richest landowner in the country and had a virile, aggressive son, Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford.

Bolingbroke versus Mowbray In December 1397 a bitter quarrel broke out at the core of the courtly circle when Bolingbroke accused Thomas Mowbray of saying that, as former Lords Appellant, they were next in line for royal retribution. Mowbray denied the claim and it was decided the quarrel should be settled the old fashioned way through a joust. Jones vividly paints the scene as the setting for a mounted joust was assembled and the two warriors arrived on horseback in full knightly array.

Bolingbroke exiled However, just as they were gearing themselves to ride at each other Richard intervened and cancelled the joust, deciding that Mowbray should be exiled for life, Bolingbroke for ten years. Aristocratic and public opinion was dismayed, John of Gaunt complained but was by now very ill. When Gaunt died in February 1399 Bolingbroke should have succeeded to his father’s vast lands and wealth. However, Richard extended his exile to life and proceeded to sequester the Lancaster estate, parcelling it out to loyal followers.

Bolingbroke’s return Amazingly, Richard chose this moment to lead an army back to Ireland in May 1399. Bolingbroke saw his opportunity and landed with a small force at Ravenspur in Yorkshire at the end of June 1399. What follows reads almost as a fairy story as men of all ranks rallied to Bolingbroke’s flag, because they thought he had been treated badly, because they were sick of the king’s erratic and tyrannical behaviour, because they thought it was time for a change.

Also Richard had taken most of his household knights and the loyal members of his nobility with him to Ireland so there was no-one to organise opposition. Bolingbroke met with the powerful Henry Percy, 1st Earl of Northumberland, and persuaded him that he didn’t seek the crown, merely the rightful return of his patrimony and Percy decided to support him.

By the time Richard returned from Ireland, landing in Wales on 24 July, it was all over. Bolingbroke had conquered England without a battle. He was astounded to realise that all the leading men of the realm had gone over to Bolingbroke without a struggle. On 19 August Richard II surrendered to Henry at Flint Castle, promising to abdicate if his life were spared. Richard was taken back to London and  imprisoned in the Tower of London on 1 September.

Deposing Richard Henry had by now realised he could become the next king, but exactly how to manage it presented problems. Henry wasn’t even the next in line to the throne: the most direct heir was Edmund Mortimer, 5th Earl of March, great-grandson of Edward III’s second surviving son, Lionel. Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt, had been Edward’s third son to survive to adulthood. The problem was solved by emphasising Henry’s descent in a direct male line, whereas March’s descent was through his grandmother, Philippa.

Psychodrama These final chapters of Jones’s history overshadow all the preceding adventures because what happened to Richard is so weird that the modern reader can’t help envisioning it as a play or movie. Henry and Richard were related. They had a common history having, for example, both survived the Peasants revolt back in 1381, and the rights and wrongs of the king’s policies vis-a-vis the House of Lancaster were both intimately personal and of national political importance. And then, how did Henry square the age’s religious-ideological belief in the divinity of the king, with the reality of leading a broken, tearful young man (Richard was just 32) to the Tower and locking him up while powerful barons decided just how to get rid of him and whether or not to execute him.

Parliament decides In the end, tellingly, Henry worked through parliament. The Archbishop of Canterbury read out to an assembly of lords and commons at Westminster Hall on Tuesday 30 September that Richard willingly renounced his crown.  A few days later parliament met to discuss Richard’s fate and the Bishop of St Asaph read thirty-three articles of deposition that were unanimously accepted by lords and commons. On 1 October 1399, Richard II was formally deposed and on 13 October, the feast day of Edward the Confessor, Henry Bolingbroke was crowned king.

Starved to death Richard was imprisoned but, as you would expect, his continued existence proved the focal point of various plots to release and restore him to the throne. Bolingbroke realise he had to be liquidated and – although no definitive account survives – it is thought he was starved to death in Pontefract castle and was dead by Valentine’s day 1400. In order to dispel rumours that he was still alive, Henry had Richard’s emaciated body carried on open display from Pontefract and put on show in the old St Paul’s Cathedral on 17 February before burial in King’s Langley Priory on 6 March.

The Plantagenet Legacy

Jones has a ten-page epilogue where he trots through the legacies of the Plantagenet kings who reigned from 1154 to 1400, in the arts, economy, culture, in military terms especially vis-a-vis the endless wars with France, and in terms of the steady growth of parliamentary democracy. These are fine but a bit throwaway, analysis not being his thing, dramatic scenes, conflict, battles and the endless scheming of medieval politics being his strong point.

What came over to me from this 600-page book was the extraordinary violence of it all. Almost none of the 250 or so years in the book are not marked by conflict at home or abroad or both. England, like just about every ‘nation’ in Europe, seems to be involved in more or less non-stop conflict. War was a way of life for kings and princes, wars of conquest to expand their empires, or to maintain them, or to retrieve lost land, make up the dominant theme of this book.

And the extreme fragility of the political realm. This is a vast subject, covered by thousands of historians but it all tends to remind me of Karl Popper’s great insight into the nature of ‘democracy’. Popper said democracy is not about voting for this or that politician or political party on the basis of their manifesto (well, it is, a bit) – far more importantly, democracy exists so we can throw out politicians we are fed up with. It is mechanism to prevent tyranny by regularly getting rid of rulers.

That seems to me the nub of so many of the issues described in this big gripping book. The nobles couldn’t get rid of the king and the king couldn’t get rid of the nobles – at least not without commencing the machinations, the arraignments for treason and beheadings etc which tended to kick off cycles of violence which soon escalated out of control.

Now we have mechanisms to vote for our equivalent of local ‘nobles’ – MPs – and for our ruler – the Prime Minister – on a fairly regular basis, and all parties concerned can appeal to this validation or mandate for their behaviour which, if it is queried seriously enough, will prompt another election.

God knows modern ‘democratic’ societies still experience extremes of social tension and conflict – having lived through Mrs Thatcher’s premiership and its polarising Miners Strike and then the Poll Tax riots – but there are mechanisms for just about managing them by changing rulers and ruling parties: it was the widespread unpopularity of the poll tax which led to the overthrow of Mrs Thatcher and the election of her anodyne successor John Major.

So all this just makes me imagine what it must have been like living in a world where this kind of peaceful changeover of ruler, and of ruling class (which, in a sense, modern MPs are) is impossible. Both the king and his barons find themselves trapped for all eternity with each other. Their conflicts have nowhere to go. The king cannot resign after a military failure. The barons cannot quit public life in disgust, as modern politicians can.

Both were trapped in their positions, forced by notions of nobility and duty to act out roles which time and again led to armed conflict, to the collapse of dialogue and civil wars. One of the surprising aspects of Jones’s book is the number of occasions on which the nobility took up arms against their kings, not just overthrowing Edward II and Richard II, but taking up arms against King John and, repeatedly against Henry III, and even against tough King Edward I.

Jones’s book is a gripping, hugely readable account of this big chunk of English history, but it also prompts all kinds of thoughts about the nature of power and politics, about the nature of what is possible in politics has changed and evolved, which shed light on the political struggles which are going on right now.

The Wilton Diptych

The Wilton Diptych is thought to have been a portable altarpiece made for the private devotion of King Richard II by an artist now unknown. On the left Richard is kneeling in the foreground and being presented by three saints to the Virgin and Child and a company of eleven angels on the right. Nearest to Richard is his patron saint John the Baptist, to the left are Saint Edward the Confessor and Saint Edmund, earlier English kings who had come, by Richard’s time, to be venerated as saints.

The Wilton Diptych, artist unknown, so-called because it was discovered in Wilton House

This wonderful work can be seen FOR FREE in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery in London.


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